New Year… New Message?
In the constant struggle of churches to stay fresh and relevant in their marketing endeavors, I’ve noticed an increasing move away from the central theme of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the various church marketing programs for Easter. After all, “we can’t just do the same thing as last year can we?” So we look for a “new take,” a slightly different perspective on the “old, old story.”
But the current themes are more like New Year’s inspirational messages than the resurrection story. One church advertised “living in an ‘Easter state of mind,'” focused on escaping your past defeats and heartaches. Another church advertised, “the same Spirit that raised Christ form the dead now lives in you!” This was then interpreted to mean that the Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead, now lives in you as a source of power; power over your past “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.”
But is this all the Easter story has to offer? An escape from my own failures and “defeats” of the past? Is the promise of the Holy Spirit inside of me simply a means of having “power” over my own personal struggles and problems?
In an age when sin is redefined as “hurts, habits, and hangups”; When, from our point of view, we’re more often a victim rather than an offender; When our ultimate problem is simply a lack of “power” to overcome our own life-problems… What does it mean that God’s Spirit now lives in us? What does it matter that this is the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead? Maybe we should put that idea within its biblical context to find out.
The Whole Truth
… The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you…
Romans 8:11a (ESV)
As with any portion of Scripture, the best way to interpret (and therefore apply) any verse or passage is to look at it within its original context. What was the author’s argument? What was he trying to say in the larger section surrounding this phrase or sentence?
In this case, this short phrase comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In what many believe is the magnum opus of Paul’s writings, the Epistle to the Romans is a gargantuan of systematic and biblical theology. No other writing in the New Testament contains such a systematized, detailed theology of salvation from beginning to end.
This phrase concerning the Spirit living in us comes as we’re nearing the end of Paul’s writing on the doctrine of salvation. To this point, we’ve walked through the absolute depravity and sinfulness of man (1-2), the beauty of justification by faith (3-5), and the roots of human depravity in Adam (5-6).
Chapter 7 is intended to be an explanation of the Law and how it relates to salvation. Many in Paul’s day missed the point of the Gospel and insisted that salvation must be attained through good works, religious observances, and other human achievements (see Colossians 1-2 and Galatians 1-5). Paul’s point in chapter 7, leading into chapter 8, is that the Law can save no one because it serves only to mortify (kill) any and all confidence in our flesh. We don’t mean “flesh” in the sense of sinful or wicked activity. Paul means it here as a reference to attempting to please God by works of the flesh… by fleshly, outward obedience to the Law. Paul is clear, the Law came so that every human might be proven sinful in God’s sight (3:19; 5:13; 7:6). It can never save; It can only condemn. But this is its noble, holy purpose: To condemn men in their sin so that they will flee to the Gospel of Christ.
Enter the Spirit
The Law, through its demands and ordinances, demands absolute obedience and perfection of our flesh, our material lives. In other words, if we are to be perfect, righteous, and holy in and of ourselves, we must be absolutely pure and sinless. Just like the man who asked Jesus, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?”; If we are to ask, “How good do I have to be to get into Heaven?”, the answer is (as Jesus told that man) “keep the commandments”… ALL of them… PERFECTLY (Matthew 19:16).
Paul’s point through the rest of Romans 7 is simply to show how hopeless and useless such a view of salvation is. If we place our faith and trust in our own obedience to the Law, we’ll end up losing all hope and we will inevitably fall into the same despair that Paul speaks of in verses 15-23 when he laments:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Romans 7:15-23 (ESV)
Paul, revealing the anguish of sinful humanity trying to appease God through good works, cries out:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Romans 8:24 (ESV)
It is within the context of this hopelessness that the new life in the Spirit offers so much hope and power.
God Did It!
Our flesh could never do it. Our flesh could never bring us salvation. Obeying the Law outwardly as a means of salvation could never bring us to God; It only serves to drive us further away from God because it will either harden us in our self-righteousness (thinking we are perfect) or it will drive us to despair and hopelessness as we realize that we can never be perfect.
But what we could never do in our flesh, by obeying the Law perfectly, God has done through his Son Jesus (Romans 8:3)!
By sending his Son, Jesus in the “likeness of sinful flesh,” God was able to condemn sin in the flesh. That is, though Christ was absolutely sinless and perfect as a perfect-flesh-man, he was treated as a Law-breaker and a sinner in his flesh so that he could provide atonement for our Law-breaking sinfulness.
Paul then begins to juxtapose those who walk by the Spirit with those who walk according to the flesh. Again, Paul is not using “flesh” here as a synonym for outright sin and wickedness. Paul is using “flesh” as a synonym for those who try to earn their salvation by outward obedience to the Law. In fact, Paul says this is a dead end. Such a view of salvation is absolute futility (uselessness) because our sinful flesh is hostile to God and cannot even begin to submit to him (Romans 8:6,7). In our flesh, we cannot ever hope to please God (v.8).
But if we are in Christ by faith (see Romans 3-5), we do not live according to the flesh. We are not trying to earn our standing before God by our good works and observance of God’s Law. We have come to the realization that we are indeed fallen and absolutely deserving of God’s just condemnation (Romans 3:23; 6:23a). It is only by realizing our utter helplessness to do anything about our sinful condition that we are brought face to face with the good news of the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ (3:9-26).
But even this realization did not come from our own fleshly power or reasoning. We didn’t just suddenly figure this out and run to Christ out of simple common sense. No, this realization was a supernatural miracle brought about by the power of God’s Spirit alone. In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus that a man must be “born again,” “born from above,” to see the Kingdom of Heaven. Justly confused at such a saying, Nicodemus questions how one can be born again. He wrongly assumes that Jesus is somehow speaking of a second physical birth (that’s the FLESH thinking!), but Jesus corrects his misunderstanding and tells him that this new birth must be brought about by the Holy Spirit who moves and works wherever and however he pleases (see John 3:1-15).
This is exactly why Paul now rejoices in the power and life brought about by the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:9-11. Our hope, our boasting, our life is not in our flesh! The flesh can never obey enough to please God perfectly! Our only source of hope, life, and salvation must be in the grace and power of God as he sovereignly acts by the power of his Holy Spirit.
Paul says, even though your flesh has been put to death by the Law; Even though you could never hope to be good enough to please God in and of yourself; Christ himself is in you by his Holy Spirit giving you new life and righteousness.
Your obedience? No, Christ’s obedience!
Your sinless life? No, Christ’s sinless life!
Your atoning death? No, Christ’s death!
Your glorious resurrection? No, Christ’s resurrection!
Your righteousness? No, Christ’s righteousness!
As God works in you by his Holy Spirit to raise you from spiritual death to spiritual life, giving you a new birth, you turn away from your sin and your vain attempts at pleasing God by your works and you run to Jesus Christ to whom you are now united by the working and power of that same Holy Spirit. All that belongs to Jesus is now counted as yours; hope, life, righteousness, perfection, completion, eternal life, every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3).
This is all by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
NOW… Romans 8:11 in its full, glorious context.
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.
Romans 8:11 (ESV)
So it’s not simply a statement: “The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead now dwells in you”; But is a condition of purpose. Notice the “IF.” There are real ramifications and consequences of the presence of this Spirit being within you.
This is the Spirit who gave you new birth in Christ
This is the Spirit who opened your eyes to the Gospel and enabled you to respond in faith.
This is the Spirit who has now given you new life through faith in Christ
And this is the Spirit who will bring that work to completion by raising you from the dead.
This is why Paul then points us to the hope of the resurrection:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
Romans 8:18-19 (ESV)
For Paul, this is the logical conclusion of true salvation. Without this hope, any theology of salvation would be incomplete:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Romans 8:29-30 (ESV)
It’s all fine and good to use this verse as a personal slogan of victory and power. But if we remove it from the context of God’s great work of salvation, we’ve actually slipped into a form of heresy by denying the ultimate purpose of God in conquering death by the resurrection of our bodies.
Of course I believe that the Gospel gives us the Spirit’s power to obey and love God. Of course I believe that the Gospel puts us on new road where victory over past sins and hurts is now possible. The Spirit, through the Gospel, has power to end addictions, mend relationships, bring forgiveness, and give hope to the most hopeless.
BUT, if we detach the promise of the Spirit from the theology of salvation to which Paul so closely ties him; And if we fail to see past a simple earthly application of these verses: We have reduced the resurrection-Gospel to a message of mere earthly, temporary hope “in this life,” and are “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Romans 8:11 is surely a declaration of power. But it’s ultimately a declaration of utter dependence.
The victory over sin, death, and Hell belongs solely to Jesus Christ. It is by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that we are untied to that victory by God’s grace through faith in the finished work of the Savior. It is that same wonderful Holy Spirit who seals us for the day of redemption and guarantees our eternity with Jesus (Ephesians 1:13-14).
I can do nothing.
Christ has done everything.
I am his… I will be his by the powerful working of his Spirit.