A while back, I preached on verse 1 of this Romans 8 series:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
And I said:
That’s because if you’re trusting in Jesus, then in God’s eyes, the condemnation you deserve for all your wrongdoing past and future…has fallen on him at the cross – and so will never fall on you. That means he accepts you – and will continue to, until he finally welcomes you into heaven.
And I also said:
His acceptance doesn’t go up and down: we’re no less accepted on our worst days, and no more accepted on our best.
And someone said to me afterwards, very crossly, ‘I can’t believe what you’ve just preached.’ So I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Well, you’ve just told us it doesn’t matter how we live.’ So I said, ‘No, I told you that our acceptance with God doesn’t depend on how we live.’ And he said, ‘But it amounts to the same – because if you say that, people will just go out and sin.’ So I said, ‘Why will they?’ And he said, ‘Because if you know you’re accepted anyway, you’ll just go and do whatever you want.’ So I said, ‘But you need to realise that when you know someone has died for you, to get you accepted, it changes what you want.’ And that change is what last week’s passage was about. And Paul picks up the same theme in this week’s. So let’s pray before we go on:
Thank you that you are able not only to forgive and accept us forever, but also to change what we want. Help us to understand how you do this, and how we need to respond. In Jesus’ name, Amen
So let’s turn to Romans 8, as this week Paul tells us to ‘Live your new life’. So far, we’ve seen the two huge, new things about a person when they come to faith in Jesus: 1. Through Jesus’ work for them on the cross they are forgiven and accepted forever. 2. Through the Spirit’s work in them they now want to live for Jesus. That’s their new mindset – which we saw in Romans 8.5:
…those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit [i.e, on pleasing Jesus]
Now people sometimes say, ‘God’s Spirit is like the power supply we need to be plugged into if we’re to live for Jesus, like a hoover needs plugging in.’ But it’s a bad illustration because it’s impersonal. Whereas the fundamental thing God’s Spirit does is to help us see what Jesus did for us on the cross, and so come back into relationship with him. So talking about that in chapter 5, Paul says (Romans 5.5):
...God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit
So you may remember a time before you came to faith, when you knew about the Christian message, but just didn’t get why they kept going on about the cross. And then God by his Spirit worked in your heart to help you see that Jesus was there for you, out of love for you and that completely changes what you want. So before, you wanted life without Jesus. But now you want to live for Jesus – in response to what he’s done for you. That’s how the Spirit works. Through the gospel of the cross, he changes what we want and gives us new desires. And here’s my first point of two for this morning. Paul says:
1. Live out your new, Spirit-given desires (Romans 8.12-14)
Look at Romans 8.12:
So then, brothers [and sisters] we are debtors…
Indebted to Jesus. I wonder when you last said that kind of thing. I think of a friend who’s recently had a life-saving operation. And she’s repeatedly said she’s indebted to the medical team. But this is bigger even than that. Because this is where the doctor gave his life for us. So this is indebtedness that doesn’t just feel grateful, but wants to live gratefully for him in response. Verse 12 again:
So then, brothers [and sisters], we are debtors, [but] not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.
And as we heard last week, ‘the flesh’ is Biblespeak for the whole realm of fallen humanity. As someone has said, ‘If you knock the ‘h’ off ‘flesh’ and then read backwards, you get the main idea - self. So ‘the flesh’ is the whole realm where people each think the universe revolves around them, and God doesn’t enter their minds. And if we’re trusting in Jesus, that’s the realm we were in. That’s the realm from which we still have all sorts of residual sinful habits and weaknesses. That’s the realm we’re surrounded by and tempted by. But we owe it nothing. Because all it offers is spiritual death. Romans 8.13:
For if you live according to the flesh you will die
Have a look at this first picture. The crown at the top stands for God and the Lord Jesus. But it’s crossed out because that stickperson is living according to the flesh – doing what he wants as if God wasn’t there. But as we saw last week, that’s a trajectory to death and judgement. And the sobering thing is that people can be on that trajectory and yet think they’re Christians, call themselves Christians, and even end up in church leadership. So for example, you may have heard of this new Church of England resource called Living in Love and Faith. And it’s basically designed to get people to agree that you can be a Christian and still live various sexual lifestyles other than heterosexual marriage. Whereas Paul and the other Bible writers would say those who are living like that in a settled, unrepented way are giving evidence of being on that trajectory in my first picture.
By contrast, second half of Romans 8.13:
…but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
So here’s my second picture where our stickperson has now come to faith in Jesus. Let’s call her she. So she started out on the bottom arrow, like all of us by nature. And then she heard the gospel – that Jesus died for her on the cross to forgive her back into relationship with him. And as she heard that, and the Spirit helped her to see that, it completely changed what she wanted. So now she’s on that top arrow, going in a completely new direction. So before, she didn’t give Jesus a thought. And now her whole aim is to live for him. And it would be great to say she’s now sinless and does that perfectly. But that’s not true. And never will be this side of heaven.
So for the rest of her life, she’ll have to say what John Newton, the converted slave trader who wrote Amazing Grace, said:
I am not what I should be, I am not what I want to be, and I am not what I one day shall be in glory. But by the grace of God, I am not what I once was.
I wonder if you can say that? In which case, it’s evidence that you’re also on that top arrow, on that trajectory in a relationship with Jesus that will last forever. And the second half of Romans 8.13 shows that Paul didn’t think anyone on that trajectory is sinless or above temptation. Because he says:
…if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live [i.e, you’ll be giving evidence that you’re on that top arrow]
So he knows that even on that top arrow, we still have the capacity for all sorts of sinful deeds of the body. We still have all sorts of residual sinful habits and weaknesses. And he says: put those things to death. That’s what our attitude to sin needs to be. Brutal and uncompromising. And he says put them to death ‘by the Spirit’. But there is no magic formula of how to ‘plug in’ to the Spirit’s power in moments of temptation. It means we resist sin by living out our new, Spirit-given desires intentionally, and by developing habits to help with that.
So, for example, there is no magic formula to plug into the Spirit’s power so that the temptation of pornography just evaporates in the moment. Instead, the Spirit works by giving us new desires for purity, for an unclouded relationship with God, for faithfulness to our spouse, for honouring sexuality and people as we should. And we then have to live out those desires intentionally – which I’d say has got to involve internet accountability software with the help of some godly friends, and cutting off other avenues of temptation, and learning to work against the loneliness or boredom or whatever it is that makes us prone to it. And so on.
So that’s the first thing Paul says here: Live out your new, Spirit-given desires. And as we do, albeit imperfectly, we’ll be reassured that our relationship with God is real, that we are on that top arrow. That’s Romans 8.14:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
Now in some Christian circles people use that word ‘led’ to talk about God’s guidance. For example, ‘I felt led to phone so-and-so, and sure enough they needed help’. That’s the guidance of an inner prompting. Or for example, ‘God led me to study in Newcastle.’ That’s the guidance of God’s sovereignty over their decision to apply and the uni’s decision to have them. But that’s not what Romans 8.14 is about. It is not about guidance. It’s just a different way of putting what Paul’s been saying. We’re ‘led by the Spirit’ when we live out the new desires he gives us. And Paul says:
…all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
In other words, it gives evidence that our relationship with God is real – that we are his children. And that links to the other thing today’s passage says, which is:
2. Be assured of your security as children of God (Romans 8.15-17)
Look on to Romans 8.15-17:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Now you may wonder why this translation doesn’t say ‘children’ rather than ‘sons’ throughout – to be more inclusive. But in Paul’s day, it was sons who were the heirs. And since he wanted a picture of a secure relationship with God where we inherit glory in the end, he used the picture of an adopted son. So if you’re a woman, you need to read yourself into that picture of a son, just like in Ephesians 5, men have to read themselves into the picture of the church being the bride of Christ. So, Romans 8.15 again, Paul says:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…
Because he knew that ‘slavery and fear’ summed up his readers’ pre-Christian experience. So most were Gentiles converted from worshipping Roman gods – where you always had that fear of, ‘Have I done enough to keep the gods on my side?’ – been to the temple enough, made enough offerings, and so on. And those familiar with Buddhism or Hinduism or ancestor worship will know all about that.
But some were Jews, converted from living under the Old Testament law, which constantly reminded them that they hadn’t kept it fully, and never could. And no-one I’ve talked to from the two religions of law – Judaism and Islam, has had any assurance that God accepted them. So ‘slavery and fear’ is how Paul sums up non-Christian religion. The slavery of trying to do enough, and the fear that you haven’t. So Romans 8.15 again:
For you [who’ve come to faith in Jesus] did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
Which is saying that as the Spirit brings us to faith in Jesus through the gospel, we experience something uniquely different from all other beliefs and religions around – and it’s the experience of being adopted sons. And amazingly, it means we can approach God with the same kind of assurance and access as Jesus the actual Son of God. That’s the point of the bit that says by whom we cry, Abba! Father! Because that was how Jesus addressed his Father in prayer – ‘Abba’, which was the Aramaic word little children would call their Daddys.
Now occasionally in the Old Testament, God is called the father of Israel. But no-one had ever addressed him like Jesus. Because needless to say, the Son of God’s access to his Father and one-ness with his Father, is unique. And yet Romans 8.15 reminds us that we’re invited to share his access. And when we do – when we pray, we often find ourselves thinking, ‘God shouldn’t be listening to me. Not after what I’ve done, or done again. Not knowing what I’m really like.’ And Paul says that’s when the Spirit wants to help us pray anyway, and wants to reassure us that even as the grotty, sinful, ongoing failures we are, we really do have access to God as a Father who loves us despite what we are. And he does that through the gospel. The Spirit always works through the gospel. Which is why I said at the start: the fundamental thing he does is to help us see what Jesus did for us on the cross.To see that the actual Son took our rightful place as condemned sinners, so that we might share his rightful place as adopted sons.
Last year, I took the funeral of my parents’ old next door neighbour Brian. I grew up with his three children, two of whom were adopted. And they each gave me something to read in the funeral address. And one said this:
What I will miss most about my Dad is him just being there, because he has always been the solid constant in my life, there to talk to, there for me. So thank you Dad for all you’ve done for me, and, along with Mum, I will always feel lucky that all those years ago, you adopted me.
So that’s the other thing Paul says to us here: Be assured of your security as children of God. And that goes hand in hand with the first thing – Live out your new Spirit-given desires, because we’ll never do that without failure this side of heaven – we’ll still sin to our dying day. Which is why we need to let the Spirit assure us that we really are secure in God’s love as adopted children. And the Spirit would say, ‘If you want me to do that for you, then keep your eyes on the cross.’