Today is Easter Sunday, and on this day we rightly remember and joyfully celebrate our Lord’s victory over death. Someone has said that the only two certainties are death and taxes; but today we are reminded that there is something even more sure than death for those who belong to Jesus – namely, resurrection and deliverance from sin and all its consequences. This is not because we conquer death, but because Christ conquered it for us. On the cross “he drank damnation dry,” and by the resurrection he has opened the way again to the Tree of Life, from which we have been barred since the sin of Adam.
It is important for us to emphasize the fact, however, that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead does not mean that we are put back in the Garden of Eden. It does not mean that we are given a second chance. It does not mean that we are put in the position where we can now save ourselves. No, resurrection from the dead is the triumph of Christ over sin and all – not just some – of its consequences. To be united to Christ is to share in his triumph over sin, and that means the enjoyment of salvation in the broadest sense. Yes, it is true that those who are united to Christ by faith do not yet enjoy glorification in resurrected bodies free from sin, but every aspect of salvation from beginning to end was purchased by Christ for those who belong to him by grace and it shall be infallibly bestowed upon them. There is nothing left for us to do in terms of meriting salvation. It has already been done for us by our Lord. To merit salvation we need complete forgiveness and perfect righteousness, neither of which we can accomplish, but which have both been purchased on the cross and are bestowed freely and fully to all who believe in God’s Son.
What this means is that the life of a Christian is not about living a life which will make me worthy of God’s favor. This is because if you belong to Christ you already have God’s favor, and there is nothing you can do that will increase or diminish his love for you. Of course, we can do things that will diminish our enjoyment of God’s fellowship or bring upon us the severe discipline of God. But the true believer does not need to gain God’s love or favor, for he or she already has it. As the apostle will say later on, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:31-34). What more can you do for him than he has already done for you?
This also means that we can never pay God back for what he has done for us. Salvation is not like a house that God bought for us and now you have to pay him back for it. You can’t and you shouldn’t. For one thing, nothing I can do is even commensurate with the gifts of grace. Nothing I give to God could ever even come near to approximating the value of redemption and salvation from sin. My gifts to God are like half-baked cow chips compared to the pure gold of God’s salvation. My righteousness is filthy rags compared to the robes of righteousness with which I am clothed through Christ.
Moreover, whatever good thing I give back to God came from God first. “What do you have that you did not first receive,” Paul asks the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7). The answer, of course, is nothing. Listen to what King David says in response to the generosity of the Israelites in giving toward the building of God’s temple: “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chron. 29:14). You can’t pay off a debt by giving something that already belongs to the one to whom you are indebted. Neither is it possible for us to “pay God off” by doing good deeds, for our good deeds are themselves gifts of the grace of God (cf. Eph. 2:10).
It might come as a surprise, then, for us to hear Paul’s response to the truths of the previous verses: “So then, brothers, we are debtors” (Rom. 8:12). Now it is true that this is probably Paul’s response to all of chapter 8, and indeed of the argument of the entire epistle up to this point. Given the magnitude of God’s blessing, Paul steps back and acknowledges that we are forever in God’s debt. However, given what the apostle goes on to say, “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” – and the implication is that we are debtors to the Spirit – it is likely that Paul is referring to the immediately preceding verses, especially Rom. 8:1-11.
But this ties this text to Easter because in the previous two verses, the apostle is celebrating our hope in future resurrection which is itself rooted in the resurrection of Christ. The Spirit comes in because the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and as such will resurrect in life all who belong to him. So we could frame this verse as the appropriate response to Easter and the remembrance that our Lord was raised from the dead. How should we respond? By acknowledging, and feeling the reality of this truth upon our hearts, that we are debtors to God.
But how does this square with what we’ve been saying? If salvation is by grace from first to last, this seems to be antithetical to seeing ourselves as debtors. What is Paul saying here? How does this work in the life of the Christian? It is this idea that I want to explore this morning with you: how the resurrection of Christ makes you and I debtors to God, what this means, and what this looks like in the life of faith.
What does it mean to be a debtor to God?
First of all, we can safely say that it does not mean that we are meant to feel pressured to pay God back for what he has done for us and therefore in some sense merit salvation. For that is impossible, for the reasons already given. In particular, it does not mean that I am meant to do something for God out of my own resources. It doesn’t mean that since God has given grace to me out of the treasures of his infinite goodness, now I’m going to give God something which he didn’t have before. We simply can’t do that. Everything we give to God comes from him first. Any acceptable service can only be done using resources which we get from God in the first place: “whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:11). We are only “stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10).
To understand what this means, let’s consider another passage here in Romans where this word appears: “I am debtor both to Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise” (Rom. 1:14, KJV). Now Paul does not mean by this that he was trying to pay the Greeks and Barbarians back for something they had done for him (they hadn’t, after all, done anything for Paul!). Rather, what Paul is saying is that he is under obligation (that is how the ESV translates the word) to the Greeks and barbarians. The source of this obligation is the grace and commission of God to Paul: “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom. 1:5). In other words, it was the grace of God that made Paul a debtor to the nations. Now the object of obligation is different in the two passages: in Rom. 1:14, it is the nations; in Rom. 8:12, it is God. However, the point I want to make here is that the former passage demonstrates that being a debtor to someone doesn’t mean you are trying to pay them back for something they have given you; rather, it means being under an obligation towards that person or persons in some way.
So when Paul says that we are debtors to God on account of what he has done for us, and especially in light of what Christ has done for us on the cross and what he is doing and will do in us through the Spirit, he is saying that the saving acts of God for us and in us bring us under an obligation to God. It doesn’t mean we are trying to pay him back.
When Paul said that he was a debtor to the nations, what he was saying was that it was right and fitting for him to bring the gospel to them. But more than that, he was saying that it would have been entirely wrong and wicked for him not to do so. And I think it also indicates the weight with which he felt this obligation. In the Bible, we are warned to get rid of debts quickly, and not to let them ride. In the same way, Paul is anxious to pay this debt, to fulfill this obligation: “so, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Rom. 1:15). The obligation on Paul created a readiness in Paul. In the same way, understanding our obligation to God ought to bring with it a readiness, a willingness, to fulfill it.
So we can summarize the meaning of this phrase, “debtors to God,” in this way: to be a debtor to God means that I feel under an obligation to God, and that I feel the weight of the obligation in such a way that it creates in my heart a readiness and a willingness to fulfill it. Now I don’t want you to miss the meaning of the word “weight” there. I don’t mean “burden.” A burden does not create the kind of readiness that we are talking about here; in fact, it does precisely the opposite. Rather, this readiness is a delight in the fulfillment of that obligation upon us.
One more thing as we are considering the meaning of this phrase. The fact that we are debtors to God means that we have been given something from God. Grace, not legalism, is behind this reality. Just as grace created the obligation that Paul had toward the nations, even so grace creates the obligation that we have toward God. Nothing in this verse is meant to distract us from the grace of God. Rather, it is meant to remind us of it and to incite us to new obedience through it.
What is the obligation that we have toward God?
So we have described this debt, not in terms of repaying a gift, but in terms of an obligation which has its source in God’s gift of grace and love to us in Christ. But we have not described what that obligation is. Let’s do so now.
Paul writes, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (12). Paul states our obligation negatively in verse 12, and then positively in verse 13. Given what God has done for us, it makes certain things fitting and proper, and it makes other things totally unfitting and improper. One of those things which is unfitting is for the Christian to live according to the flesh. Given that Christ has freed us from the law of sin and death so that we might be able to fulfill the righteousness of the law and live according to the mind of the Spirit, it just doesn’t make sense to live according to the mind of the flesh.
Imagine a man being dragged by an alligator into a lake, who was then rescued by the timely intervention of a game warden. Imagine that man refusing to acknowledge the benefit gained from the intervention of the game warden. But more than that, imagine him wanting to later find that alligator and pet it and feed it. We would say that this person was probably out of their minds. But this is very similar to what we are doing when we, who claim to be redeemed from a life of opposition toward God want to go back and feed that very mindset. It’s crazy. We are not debtors to the flesh to live after the flesh.
Paul goes on to say, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die” (13). Again, remember that “flesh” here isn’t referring to our physical bodies. Rather, it is the Biblical way of referring to the mind, heart, and will set in opposition to God. That is why Paul can talk about “the mind of the flesh” (8:6). Flesh can only bring death, spiritual and eternal. To give to the flesh, to sow to the flesh, is to sow death: “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8). “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).
We, who have been rescued from death by the death and resurrection of our Savior, have no obligation to the flesh at all.
I think this is very similar to what Paul has argued in chapter 6. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:1-2) Dying to sin means that we no longer live in the realm determined by sin. It therefore doesn’t make any sense to live in it. Even so, we who have been saved from life in the flesh no longer have any obligation to it. It makes no sense to live for something from which we have been saved, especially when all it can do is bring death.
But there is a positive side to our obligation. We are not only not debtors to the flesh, but we are debtors to God. What is this obligation? Paul puts it like this: “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (13). In other words, our obligation to God is fulfilled by putting to death the sin in our lives. Again, I want to point out that this cannot be done apart from the work of the Spirit, for it is “by the Spirit” that we “put to death the deeds of the body.” So again, it’s not about paying the Spirit back. You can’t pay the Spirit back if you can only fulfill your debt through the Spirit! It would be like asking your creditor for a loan to pay back your loan. That’s ridiculous on the face of it, so let’s forever put aside such a notion from our minds. Rather, this means that, given what God has done for us and in us, it is only right and proper for us to walk in step with the Spirit in killing sin.
The right response to the victory of Christ over sin is not to say, “Whew! Now I don’t have to worry about the pornography” – or the addiction, or the anger, or the bitterness, or the greed in your life. The right response is to be so overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, and to see the beauty of what you have been saved to and the ugliness of what you have been saved from, that you cannot help but want to mortify the sin that is in your life. You feel the obligation to kill sin and you act upon it.
Put to death the deeds of the body! This does not mean only the acts that other people can see. It also means the hidden sinful thoughts and passions that no one else can see. It means being willing to say to God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23-24). And then to do something about it.
Nor should we miss what is at stake here: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die” (13). That doesn’t mean physical death, it means eternal death. Not that the saints are any the less secure. But what it means is that those who refuse to kill the sin in their lives, who feel no obligation to do so, were never saved in the first place. Such people will die: their souls will be tragically and everlastingly lost. To be saved is to feel the indebtedness and to act upon it in killing sin.
Now what does it mean to put sin to death through the Spirit? It doesn’t mean waiting around for a feeling that the Spirit is doing something in you. Obedience ought to be prompt and immediate. Rather, what it means is that as we fight the sin in our lives, we do so in reliance upon God and his grace. That means that we are putting ourselves in the way of the means of grace: Scripture, prayer, and fellowship with the people of God. It means believing the promises of God’s word. And it means that, when it’s all said and done, giving credit to where credit is due (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10).
How does the resurrection reinforce this obligation?
As we’ve already noted, the observation that we are debtors comes immediately after the apostle had finished working out the implication of being in the Spirit, the implication being that through Christ’s resurrection we too will one day be resurrected to life everlasting. This though so struck Paul that he could not help but feel his indebtedness to God for the immeasurable gift of grace in Christ. It should strike us in the same way. So what are some ways that the resurrection of our Lord should reinforce this sense of obligation to God, and in particular the obligation to kill sin through the Spirit?
1. It ought to motivate us to do this by pointing us back to cross so that we see the ugliness and undesirableness of sin. You cannot of course separate the resurrection from the cross. So when we cast our minds back to the empty tomb, we see the cross casting its shadow across it. And we are reminded that in order to gain the victory over death, the spotless Son of God had to endure it – not for himself, but for his elect, for those who belong to him. Before his victory came his humiliation. And he did so because of sin – your sin, my sin. The thought ought to make us abhor that which is evil (Rom. 12:9). How could we be so flippant in our attitude toward sin, when it cost the very life of God’s own Son?
2. It ought to motivate us and make us ready to obey by pointing us to the empty tomb, and the victory over sin that was gained in the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. We won’t feel the obligation to kill sin and live for holiness, at least not for very long, if we think it is all up to us. Sin is relentless. We are surrounded by it. Our culture reeks of it. In our own hearts, we continue to be plagued by it. Like the devil, it goes away for a time but then comes back. It’s a battle. Fatigue is real. Weariness is real. It is in those times that we need to remember that ultimately the victory is not up to us; and in fact the victory has already been won by our Captain. The resurrection proves it. In God’s good time sin and death will be done with. In the meantime, he gives us needed grace (1 Cor. 10:13). He supports us, just as he did David in all his battles. I love the way David describes God’s help: “I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. . . . He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the LORD was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me. . . You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great. You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip” (Ps. 18:1-3, 16-19, 35-36).
All of this is because Christ rose from the dead for us. It is his victory over sin that guarantees our victory over sin (Rom. 8:34).
3. It ought to motivate us by pointing us to the hope of a future, glorious resurrection of the saints. When we kill sin, we are anticipating the world to come in which there will be no more sin and death. The resurrection of Christ reminds us that there is more to reality than this present world which is painted all over by sin and death. It reminds us that to live for this age is futile while to live for the age to come makes what we do now with our lives incredibly meaningful and vibrant. It is therefore in light of the resurrection that exhortations like this comes: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:56-58).