Sometimes being familiar with something makes you miss the magnitude of it. We have that temptation around this time of year when we consider that God the Son took on flesh for us and for our salvation. To think that we could hear that reality without being overwhelmed in awe is hard to imagine if we really think about what that means. But familiarity with something has a way of numbing us, doesn’t it?
One biblical text that is quite familiar for me is Romans 12:1-2. I memorized it as a kid, growing up with the King James Version of the Scriptures, so I was using the word “beseech” without having any idea that it meant to appeal or urge. But recently I forced myself to think about this text as if I were seeing it for the first time. And the truth that this text unfolds is astounding.
Paul tells us to present ourselves as a sacrifice to God, only he doesn’t mean by offering ourselves as a sacrifice to be killed but to offer our lives to God as a living sacrifice. It’s as if we’re saying, “Here is all of me. I’m yours to use at your own discretion.” And then he charges us not to be conformed to this world but transformed. That is a lofty task, isn’t it? We not only do not go along with the ways and thoughts of the world but are transformed to live, act, and think differently. So, how in the world would we do this monumental charge that Paul lays out for us? He answers, “by the renewal of your mind.”
In other words, Christians are to adjust our way of thinking about everything in accordance with what God says. We approve of what God says is good. We disapprove of what God says is evil. We think of ourselves in line with who God says we are, and we reject lies about who the enemy says we are. And we could go on, couldn’t we? But the interesting aspect of this command is just how much weight Paul places on renewing our minds. It is the very means by which we’re not conformed to this world but are transformed so that we come in line with the will of God.
Now, I mention that point, looking for chapters ahead, because I feel like if the Roman believer who heard that exhortation from Paul in 12:1-2 and said, “Wait, why are you bringing up the need to renew our minds?” Paul would have answered, “I’m merely summarizing what I’ve been telling you in the first part of this letter. The reason I was making painstaking, detailed, theological arguments in paragraph after paragraph is not just so that you would have more information but because these truths are key to living a transformed life. So, one of the ways that we fight the fight of faith (as Paul charged Timothy to do in 1 Tim. 6:12) is by renewing our minds to the truths that God has revealed to us.”
And there are two key truths that I want us to see, understand, and renew our minds in accordance with this morning that are foundational for the believer walking in obedience before the Lord. But before getting to those truths, it’s worth setting the context a little bit for us. Back in Romans 7:5-6 Paul made two contrasting statements that I believe form somewhat of a thesis that he started unpacking in 7:7 and continues to unpack in our text this morning (8:1-13). He first stated in 7:5, “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” And there are two questions that this statement provoked, namely, “Is the law sin?” and “Did the good law then bring death to us?”
So, Paul answers those two questions in vv. 7-12 and vv. 13-25. And this is why I said in these verses that I believed that Paul was using himself (speaking in first person) as a paradigm for what happens when an unbeliever encounters the law. And one of the key things the law does is reveal the desperate situation in which an unbeliever finds himself. It is revealed, as Paul notes, that he is enslaved to sin (v. 14), unable to obey God’s commands (v. 18), and “captive to the law of sin” (v. 23) so that he is hopelessly condemned before the law. That’s the state of the unbeliever, which Paul unpacks in chapter 7, climaxing in the hopeless and wretched state of being captive to the law of sin and the sentence of death.
But that’s not all that Paul had mentioned in that early part of chapter 7. Right after noting his a negative thesis in 7:5 that he expounded in 7:7-25, he had also stated in 7:6, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” And what Paul then does, starting in chapter 8, is to expound that glorious thesis that we are no longer captive to the law of sin (that he had noted in 7:23) but have been freed to serve in the new way of the Spirit. And, as I’ve noted, he supports this with two key truths that I want us to see this morning.
Basically what Paul is going to show us as believers, in contrast to what we’ve just seen to be true of unbelievers in 7:13-25, is that,
We are now able to obey the Lord’s commands in a way we simply could not previously do.
So, let me show you that our ability to obey God’s commands is Paul’s focus here, and then I’ll show you the two truths that enable this.
In verses 1-3, Paul describes the work of Christ, which builds to Paul writing, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that . . .” (vv. 3-4a). In other words, Paul is going to tell us what he’s going to focus on in this text, and he speaks about God sending his Son in order that something might happen. But what is that something? Paul writes, “In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (v. 4).
This is Paul’s focus in this text. Christ came so that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” But what does that mean? Well, it could mean that Christ came and perfectly obeyed the law’s demand for perfect obedience so that Christ’s righteousness could be credited to us. That would make sense. Jesus obeyed where we couldn’t obey, and now his obedience counts for us so that the righteous requirement of the law is met on our behalf.
However, as theologically true as that is, I don’t think that’s what Paul means here. And the reason why I don’t think Paul means Christ obeying on our behalf by saying “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” is because every other time Paul speaks of the law being fulfilled, he speaks of believers’ works of love and obedience. In other words, he speaks of the law being fulfilled by believers walking in love and obedience to commands.
Consider the following:
Romans 13:8 – “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Romans 13:10 – “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Galatians 5:13-14 – “For you were called to freedom, brother. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Galatians 6:2 – “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
In each case, Paul speaks of the law being fulfilled, and in each case, he is speaking about the loving obedience of believers.
Additionally, Paul writes about the righteous requirement of the law being fulfilled “in us.” He could have used a word that means “for us” or “on behalf of us,” but he didn’t. He speaks of the righteous requirement of the law being fulfilled in us.”
Therefore, I think that Paul is saying that the OT law, which can be summed up as commanding people to love God and love neighbor, was driving at a life that it couldn’t produce. And the reason it couldn’t produce lives of loving obedience to God and love for neighbor is because the law couldn’t change our sinful hearts. It could hold up a picture of what love looks like, but it couldn’t change us. Thus, Paul notes that the law was “weakened by the flesh,” meaning it couldn’t bring about the promise of life it held out because it was unable to change our sinful nature, and so it just left us sinful and condemned. But God has done two things that now enable us to live lives that are characteristic of what the law was picturing. We can now be the kind of people that the law held up before us with its commands.
Well, we might ask, what has happened so that we’re now able to obey in the way we couldn’t before and thus see the righteous requirement of the law fulfilled in our very lives? And the answer, as I’ve noted, is two things. First:
Christ has dealt with the condemnation that stood over us because of our sin
This is where Paul begins our text. He writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). That is glorious news. If you and I are trusting by faith in the crucified and risen Lord for our salvation, then we can rest in the fact that there is no condemnation hanging over us. We are free from it. And the Lord wants us to know that and walk in that.
But specifically in our text, Paul wants to show us why. He continues, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (v. 2). Now, I’m going to focus on the work on the Spirit here in a second, but notice that we’ve been set free from the law of sin and death. How? Paul continues, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (v. 3), and then he’ll note that this was “in order that” we might walk in a way that fulfills the righteous requirement of the law.
So, what does all of this mean? Here’s what it means. Well, remember how Paul described the unbeliever when he encounters the law? No matter how much he can look at the law and acknowledge that it is good, he still doesn’t do it. If he wants to do what is right, evil lies close at hand. And because the law can’t do anything to change one’s heart, this is a continued pattern and state in which the unbeliever finds himself. Again, Paul describes it as being “captive to the law of sin” in 7:23.
The law makes you aware of sin, arouses sinful responses within you, condemns you for those sinful responses, says you’re sentenced to death, death tightens its grip on you, and so it repeats itself, again and again and again.1 And something has to break us out of that, getting us out from being “under law” (6:14). And it can’t be the law because the law simply diagnoses and condemns.
So, Paul tells us that God has done what the law couldn’t do, and he did it by sending his Son. The reason he says “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is to remind us that though he took on a human nature, just like ours, there was a difference. It was like ours, but different, and the difference is that he was sinless and had no sinful nature. Moreover, when the text says “by sending his own Son . . . for sin, I think that’s best translated as “for a sin offering” simply because this phrase almost always means “for a sin offering,” and it stands to reason it means that here.2
Therefore, Paul is telling us that Christ did for us what the law couldn’t do when he came for a sin offering and “condemned sin in the flesh” (v. 3). That means that when Jesus died on the cross, the main point wasn’t so that we might understand that he went through a gruesome death, though he did. The point was to understand that he was bearing divine condemnation in our place, as our representative and substitute, on our behalf.
If you take the imagery used throughout the Scriptures of God’s wrath as a cup of wine, we can say that Jesus drank down everything in that cup that should have been ours so that there is now no condemnation left over for us. He took it for us.
And by doing so, he freed us from the “law of sin and death” (v. 2). He freed us from divine condemnation. So, instead of the law holding up a standard, pointing out that we haven’t met it, and condemning us to death, we can say, “We haven’t met it, but Jesus did, and he paid my penalty.” Thus, we’re no longer captive to the law of sin and death.
And what Paul is saying is that this was the first key step in walking in obedience. We had to get out of our enslavement to sin, freed from death’s dominion over us, and transferred from being under the law to being under grace. And, brothers and sisters, that has happened for us in the work of Christ for us. “He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (vv. 3-4).
But that’s only half of what Paul wants us to see in this text. The other truth that Paul wants us to see is that,
The Holy Spirit now indwells us and empowers us to obey our Lord
We see this in verses 5-11. But when we read these verses we need to be careful because I think there can be a tendency to read these verses the wrong way. Right after Paul describes those in Christ as those “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (v. 4), we probably are anticipating a lot of exhortations. “Therefore,” we might imagine Paul saying, “get in gear and start walking according to the Spirit.” But that’s not what we find in verses 5-11. There is a subtle exhortation to this end that we find in verses 12-13. In verses 5-11, however, Paul is intent not on exhorting us as much as reminding us of who we are in Christ.
In other words, before exhorting us to do anything, Paul finds it crucial that we understand who we are in Christ and what has happened to us when we were united with Christ by faith. He’ll give all kinds of exhortations in this book, but at this point, he wants us to see and understand why it is that we don’t have to wallow in sin but can walk in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ.
And what he wants us to know is that the Holy Spirit has come to indwell, shape us, and transform us so that we’re not who we once were. So, as he begins writing in verse 5, he contrasts who we were before faith with who we are now. He writes in verse 5, “For those who live [best translation is something like “those who are” or “those who are being” – in other words this is more about who we are than what we do] according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”
Paul is saying that we once lived our lives “in the flesh,” and when we did so, the direction of our lives, our wills, were set on the things of the flesh.3 He’ll note in verse 6 that we were dead and sentenced to death prior to faith. And when we were in that unbelieving state, he shows us in verses 7-8, we were hostile toward God, unwilling to submit to his commands, and unable to please God. Again, this is because our hearts desired sin, being enslaved and held captive, to the law of sin and death. That’s who we once were and that’s why we responded to God’s commands with sin and received condemnation.
But, Paul wants us to see that that isn’t who we are now. He writes in verse 9, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
In other words, if I can state positively the point Paul is making negatively, all Christians have the Holy Spirit indwelling them. If you don’t have the Spirit, you’re not a Christian. The indwelling of the Spirit isn’t something that happens long after you believe; it happens immediately. God the Spirit comes to indwells and shape and transform the wills and hearts of believers.
Therefore, take the description that Paul gives of those in the Spirit in verses 5-8. Our minds (or wills) are directed toward the things of the Spirit (v. 5). We are driven toward life and peace (v. 6). And instead of being hostile toward God, we want to submit to his commands and live in a pleasing way before him (i.e. the converse of those in vv. 7-8).
Now, yes, the fact that the Spirit of God dwells in us, bringing us life doesn’t mean that our bodies are slowly being changed into resurrected, glorified bodies. No. Our bodies will still bear the curse and corruption of sin in this life, but one day they’ll be raised. This is Paul’s point in verses 10-11, as he writes, “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
But Paul wants us to see that we’re not only delighting in what one day will be—at the resurrection. We can delight and rejoice in the present blessing of the fact that the Spirit of God indwells us.
And here’s the payoff: because we’ve been freed from captivity to sin and death by Jesus bearing condemnation in his flesh for us and because we’ve been given the Holy Spirit to indwell us, shaping our wills to love God, want to obey God’s commands, and live in a way that is pleasing and honoring to God, then there is no reason why you have to continually wallow in sin as if you’re helpless and hopeless. In other words, if you can think of some sin that seems to continually trip you up, and there’s a voice saying, “You’ll never be able to walk away from this. You’ll always fail in this area. You’re powerless to overcome this,” just know that that voice is not the Lord. He’s saying, “Jesus died and the Spirit indwells you so that you might walk according to the righteousness requirement of the law, walking in loving obedience before God.” This is why Paul stresses in verse 12, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh.” You don’t have to do that anymore.”
But he also ends with a reminder that this is a serious issue, and this will be my last point:
These are eternal matters
In the last verse of our section, Paul writes, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (v. 13). In other words, though the Lord has done everything necessary to bring about obedience in our lives, we’re still responsible creatures. We need to walk in accord with the desires of the Spirit, repent whenever we walk in accord with the flesh, and understand that pursuing the desires of the flesh simply isn’t an option the Lord holds out to us. It leads to death.
So, this morning, let’s renew our minds to who we are in Christ, remembering what Christ has done, submitting to the Spirit’s desires within us, and walking in accord with the glorious Spirit of God. Amen.
1) David Garland writes in his 2 Corinthians commentary (BEC), “The law brings awareness of sinfulness . . . provokes impulses to sin, which then become deliberate transgressions, with the result that death tightens its stranglehold” (p. 746).
2) N. T. Wright has shown that this phrase should be translated “for a sin offering” in forty-four of its fifty-four occurrences in the Septuagint, for example. See The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 220-25.
3) Tom Schreiner helpfully notes that “the mind” in vv. 6-7 signifies “the direction of the will in human beings.” This is from his forthcoming commentary that he graciously shared with me pre-publication.