The Work of the Spirit in the Children of God
Scripture: Romans 8:12–8:17
Many people have developed traditions to begin every new year. For the past few years, one of mine has been reading Pilgrim’s Progress written by John Bunyan in 1678. It is the most famous Christian book behind the Bible, and the 2nd most sold novel of all times (after Don Quixote, before LOTR). In it, Christian (AKA Pilgrim) is a believer who leaves the City of Destruction and heads toward the Celestial City. His journey is punctuated by many encounters and various experiences, some encouraging, others disparaging. His story is one of burden being lifted off and removal of condemnation; a story of new life, of facing doubts, fighting sin, seeking deliverance, finding assurance despite suffering, and finally arriving to eternal glory. On the way he tastes more of the truth of God which gives him renewed hope and great joy that energize him to pursue the light of the glory of God.
Similar to his experience, we have tasted in Romans 8:1-11 glorious truths which have been great reasons for wonderful joy during this Advent and Christmas season. Because of the incarnation, the perfect life, the atoning death and the glorious resurrection of Jesus, there is not now nor will there ever be any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; we have been set free; we have been made alive; we have been given the Spirit of God who now dwells in us. We have been ushered from the domain of death and flesh to the domain of life and Spirit. Our passage today brings to light further tangible assurances and applications on this new reality: the mortification of sin; the leading of the Holy Spirit; the inception of our adoption; and the promise of future glory. The focus of today’s verses seems to be primarily on the Spirit of God, not necessarily his person, but rather his work that enables us to apply our lives to the teaching that came before. He is the Spirit of life and sanctification, the Spirit of adoption, and the Spirit of assurance. We will see together how our new identity in Christ relates to these works of the Spirit, in both position and application.
The Spirit of Life and Sanctification (12-13)
The first 11 verses of this chapter speak gloriously of our righteous position in Christ, ending with the great Trinitarian truth that the Spirit of God who is also the Spirit of Christ now dwells in us and gives us life. We now come to a transition point in v.12-13 where one might ask: So what?! Paul’s answer is: So then! Because of verses 1-11, we are free from condemnation and our debt to sin, and at the same time we are debtors. No one may want to talk about debt at any point, let alone at the beginning of a new year. But the basis of our passage today is the reality of the freedom we have been given in Christ. In him we are simultaneously sinners AND justified. In the words of Martin Luther: we are simul iustus et peccator. We are free AND we have a debt. Our debt is no longer to the flesh to serve it. If we look closely at Paul’s words here and read into his rhetorical style, it appears he interrupts his argument in v.12 and we can almost hear him say: so then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors to the Spirit to live according to the Spirit. God’s work of redemption is immeasurably more gracious than we can ever think or imagine, or ever think to repay, that we not only have a debt – an obligation – to proclaim the gospel as mentioned in Romans 1:14, but we also have an obligation to live by the Spirit and not to fall back to the things of the flesh. In this debt we aim not to repay him – as if we ever could – but rather freely obey him and live for him.
We read elsewhere in Philippians 2:12-13 that we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. There is a mystery here that might be difficult for our minds to grasp, but we have a responsibility in our new life of faith, the life in the Spirit. There is no salvation except by the grace of God; at the same time, we are responsible to do that which shows that we have truly been made righteous. God’s sovereignty in our salvation does not eliminate our human responsibility. In fact, it rather accentuates it. For if we were to continue in the works of the flesh, we would be denying that we ever experienced salvation. There is a contingency here in v.13, in the form of “if… then…”. If we live by the Spirit, we will put to death the deeds of the flesh. For we are now enabled – nay empowered, commissioned – even more: predestined to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to do the works our Lord has prepared for us beforehand (Eph 2:10), since before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), which works include the killing of sin and putting to death the deeds of the body. Because God in Christ has condemned sin in the flesh (8:3) and in doing so he killed sin and rescinded its dominion, we who are now dead to sin and alive in Christ can put to death the deeds of the body. We too are enabled to condemn sin in our flesh and to kill sin. Before this righteousness, we were unable not to sin. We were enslaved to a terrible master. But now we have gained the ability not to sin and so we are able to kill sin through the new life in the Spirit. God gives life to our mortal bodies so that we become capable of putting to death the deeds of the body as we take seriously our responsibility of killing sin. This is not by our own will or power but by that of him who works in us – by the Spirit. The work of the Spirit in sanctifying us and our work of killing sin – also known as mortification of sin – are interconnected. In fact, mortification of sin is integral to the sanctification of the Spirit (Moo; p468; lines 28-29).
Brother and sisters: The flesh is dead, but the body is still alive and not yet glorified. The senses are sanctified but not yet fully holy. Let us not be weary of fighting sin. Let us not domesticate it. John Owen famously said: kill sin or it will be killing you. Too many people say they struggle with sin, but they are not beaten, bruised or bloodied from fighting it. They merely fall back into it and then ask forgiveness or say they struggle with it. Believers: there is a warning in this passage: such conduct is not compatible with a life in the Spirit, but a life in the flesh. And this kind of living leads to death, while we are called to a kind of dying and putting to death that leads to life. If we look back at ch.6, (v.6-7) we know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. (v.11-13) So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. Believers: our obligation to sin is broken. We are free from its tyranny. We have been transformed. No one can make us sin except by our own choice. But the Spirit of life who dwells in us is also the Spirit of sanctification that will convict us to kill sin and do works of righteousness. This is the assurance we have as we move to the next work of the Spirit.
The Spirit of Adoption (v.14-15)
This same Spirit of life is the Spirit of our adoption. His leading of us is an affirmation that we are children of God. I love the notion of God leading his people. We can see the Spirit of God leading Abraham to the land of Canaan, Joseph and the patriarchs to and in Egypt, the people of Israel to the promised land, the workers in building the tabernacle and the temple, then again leading he people back to the land from another exile in Babylon. We can see him lead prophets, priests and kings. Then we see the Spirit lead Jesus to the wilderness to be tempted and leading him to the cross to be glorified. And now we have the promise that this same Spirit who indwells us also leads us. We should think of this not as a victorious army leads captives or as a conqueror leads spoils of war, but as a loving shepherd leads his sheep, as a loving father leads his son to walk right, as a loving mother leads her daughter to excel in a task. Even more, the Spirit is not leading from outside, but inwardly works in our wishes, desires, hopes and inclinations, changing not only what we do, but what we desire to do. Again from Philippians 2:13: it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
In summary, to live by the Spirit means to be led by the Spirit, and to be led by the Spirit is to live by the Spirit. Both clauses mean sonship, adoption. There are only 2 options because there are only 2 spirits. The first, from which we have been freed, is the spirit of slavery, of fear, of alienation, of flesh, of death. It has no light, no promise, no future. The second, to which we have been inducted into freedom, is the Spirit of freedom, of love, of adoption, of life, of God. He is full of light, of great promises, of future glory and eternal life.
Once again from ch.6, because our old self was crucified with him, we are no longer enslaved to sin (v.7). Sin has no more dominion over us. Its shackles of fear are broken because we died with Christ and now we also live with him. This life translates into current adoption, into sonship now in this age. We will not become children of God in the distant future: we already are! How glorious is this! The moment of our salvation is miraculously glorious with all its aspects: the inception of our adoption takes place at the same time of our new birth as our dead spirit is made alive by the receiving of the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of life, the Spirit of adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, whereby we become united with him according to the purpose of his will (Eph 4:5). In our union with Christ, the spirit now living in us is in unison with the Spirit of God, both of whom affirming that there is not now, nor will there ever be, any condemnation for us who have become sons and daughters through Christ. Just as the Son calls the Father Abba (Mark 14:36), now as adopted children we too can call him Abba. Our adoption by God ushers in our union with Christ.
We might wonder: what does the word Abba mean? It is the Aramaic version of the word Father. Jesus uses the word to indicate intimacy with the Father. It signifies that we can come to him with confidence; in him we find compassion; with him we sense his nearness. At the same time, as Father he provides and protects us who both emanate from him and revere him. What this should mean to us is that we can approach him with confidence, with awe, with joy, with hope, with expectation, with anticipation. Let us not be suspicious of him or of his word. Let us not be afraid to approach him. Unredeemed sinners have the full right to be afraid of God, for he is a consuming fire and has a day of vengeance against sin. They are not his children. He might be a fatherly figure to the world he governs, or a figure of authority to unbelievers, but he is only Abba Father to the children he has redeemed and adopted. Such children have no more reason to fall back into fear, but the full right to approach him with confidence for he is good. In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy Pevensie asks about the lion Aslan: is he safe? The answer comes: safe?! He is a lion. But he is a good lion! And so is our God! He is the Almighty Lion of Judah! But he is a good God. He is our Abba, our Father! His Spirit lives in us and gives us this confirmation that we are his beloved children.
The Spirit of Assurance (v.16-17)
This Spirit of life who gives us life, sanctifies us, initiates our adoption and leads us is also the Spirit of assurance. The word spirit (pneuma) is mentioned 22 times in ch. 8, 20 of which reference the Holy Spirit in one way or another, and the other 2 reference our spirit (personal count; also Moo; p.468; line 6). This is more than any other chapter in the Bible. Yet the focus is not as much on who the Spirit is but what the Spirit does, with the foremost of his works in this passage being assurance in the life of the believer: assurance of salvation, of redemption, of adoption and very importantly of glorification. The good news does not end at our salvation but looks toward the eternal city. The promise of the Holy Spirit to the believers is so important that Jesus said it is to our advantage that he go away, for otherwise we would not receive the Helper, the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). Oh I wish – and many do – that we were there at the time of Jesus, or that Jesus was living among us in flesh now. But guess what: we have an even greater promise in that the Holy Spirit of God – who is the same Spirit of Christ - is living in us! He convicts, leads, and affirms our salvation and adoption, working in us sanctification and glorification. Our spirit that has now been made alive in him receives assurance through our regeneration. We could look at this concept in v.16 as 2 distinct witnesses along the lines of what the Law required in a judicial matter, but we should also see the glorious new reality that our spirit which was dead in sin and is now alive in Christ has the same mind of the Spirit of God who indwells us. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, new vessels of righteousness. If, as vessels, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, there can be no other spirit that fills the same vessel. If a container is filled with a substance, no other substance can fill it. So the Spirit of God bears witness to our sonship with our spirit because his Spirit is what inhabits us and what gives us life. We are indwelt by the Spirit of God. There is no more a spirit of death, of fear, of slavery in the children of God. That is the extent of the assurance he provides us.
We are children of God. Christ is not ashamed to call us brothers. Galatians 4:1-7 speaks of the coming of Christ in the fullness of time to redeem those who were under the law into adoption by which we can cry with hope and joy: “Abba! Father!” and through which we find that we are sons and thus heirs. It is his joy to give us his kingdom as inheritance. With him we will inherit the whole universe (8:32). This includes this earth and the lands that people fight over. We all love God’s gifts but let’s look carefully at v.17 where we see that we – children of God – are co-heirs with Christ – OF GOD! Believers: the glorious truth is that we are heirs of God himself and not only of his gifts! He has promised us to abolish all our enemies: no sin, no pain, no suffering, no sickness, no decaying, no death; he also promised us great things: unspeakable joy, eternal glory, unquenchable light, pleasures forevermore, seats at his right hand, great feast of wonderful foods, inheriting all things. Yet oh that our songs and prayers would be like Asaph’s in Psalm 73:25-26: Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever! Don’t ever let the gifts or promises distract you from himself. Don’t let the river distract you from its source. Let God himself be your great reward, your biggest hope, the yearning of your soul. Let your soul say that he is your portion forever (Lamentations 3:24).
But it seems there is a catch, a condition, a stipulation. Our inheritance is contingent upon our suffering. More specifically, our future glorification seems not to happen without some sort of temporal endurance. Basically: no suffering, no glory. We will address suffering more broadly in the sermon on the next passage. But for the time being, suffice it to say that in our union with Christ, we not only identify with him in his glory, but also in his sufferings. 1 Peter 4:13 says: we rejoice insofar as we share Christ’s sufferings that we may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. This suffering is not only a matter of persecution. We have been told in 2 Timothy 3:12 that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. And physical suffering ails both believers and unbelievers alike. But this passage tells us that Christians have the added suffering of the ongoing struggle against sin. Unfortunately, the word “struggle” is used by many to indicate a sin that we may have domesticated. We hear people talk of struggling with alcohol, or struggling with pornography, or struggling with gluttony etc… But oftentimes we do not mean that we have fought such sin tooth and nail and have come out bruised and exhausted yet victorious. Rather there is a general sense that what is being done is wrong, but we still do it anyway and then ask the Lord for forgiveness. We have found a way to turn off that filter; we put ourselves yet again in a position of compromise; we did not fight with prayer nor plead with the Lord in the watches of the night. We have not honored Christ the Lord as holy in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15a). No one can or will suffer like the man Jesus who endured when he was tempted like us in every way, yet without sin, and he endured until the death of the Cross, killing sin itself – literally! That is why he is seated in glory at the right of the Majesty on high. So if we suffer for a while like him, how much more will we also be perfectly glorified with him?! Christ in us is the hope of glory! We wait on this hope. And one day we will see it and live in its reality.
Brothers and sisters: the story of every believer is somewhat the story of Pilgrim who leaves the City of Destruction and progresses toward the Celestial City. On the way, he encounters many people. Some are believers, mentors and encouragers. Others are unregenerate who try to deter him. He finds plenty of opportunities to sin or turn back. He feels the urge to obey those who recall upon him some authority from the past. But he resists and fights and sometimes finds himself bruised, exhausted and strongly opposed. Yet despite hardships and struggles, through many trials and fights with sin, he finally reaches the Celestial City and enters the eternal glory.
Our story is like Pilgrim’s. Our obligation to sin has been broken. And we are on our way to the city of God. But until we come into eternal glory, there is still a certain connection with the flesh. After all, our body is not dead, nor is it yet fully sanctified. There is some sort of tension felt between the already of the life to come and the not yet of this present age. It is like running into an old teacher or hearing the voice of a superior officer from a previous career: you might sense some odd urge to obey or revert to your previous self as if you were still under their authority. But your obligation to them has been annulled. And so is your obligation to sin. Let us like Pilgrim fight against sin tooth and nail knowing that even if we emerge bruised or wounded, victory and glory in the eternal city are guaranteed. For we have been united with Christ in his death, we are certainly united with him in killing sin and in the resurrection.
On our way to Jerusalem, let us be real about the assurance we have. Most believers, like Pilgrim, have at one point asked questions, struggled with doubts, or faced skepticism. And many, if they haven’t yet, will do so one day. It benefits no one to shelter ourselves or our children from what could face us, lest once faced with tests, we might falter in our assurance. Maybe this is the reason many of our young people leave the faith when they go to college, being ill-equipped to face tests of faith. Assurance is not the process of preserving faith by sheltering it from attacks. Assurance is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives leading us to uphold and defend the faith in the middle of attacks of sin, doubts or persecution.
Along the way to glorification, some believers seem to have developed an aversion to emotional experiences of the works of the Spirit. While on the other extreme, some have become driven to continually pursue such feelings, for example through regularly felt emotional experiences that seek to confirm the assurance. Believers: I think we should pursue delight in the Lord and all experiences he grants us. But whether our emotions feel the assurances of the Spirit in us is not as important as the reality that he grants us; and sometimes we have to align our emotions and thoughts with this reality. For the Spirit of God who leads us is the same Spirit who lives in each one of us believers, and grants the same assurance to all, and affirms the same union with Christ.
As we begin a new year together as a body, let us strive together to put to death the deeds of the flesh. Let’s work on mortifying sin and sanctifying one another. Let us also think more broadly of what could threaten to stumble us into fear or slavery, such as doubts, or questions, or tempting thoughts. Just like we are called to bring sin to the light and kill it, I believe we are being called to bring these matters to light and to deal with them definitively. If we do not deal with infections or tumors definitively, we will not experience long-term benefit. I am always amazed at patients who delay much needed and recommended tests out of concern of needing to deal with the potential bad results. Likewise in our spiritual life, just as there is no benefit from ignoring sin, there is no lasting benefit from ignoring doubts or questions. We know of too many people who did that or were told to do that only to go on and forgo the faith and deconstruct it altogether. Honest Christians should be willing to admit that a faith that is not tested is a faith that loses the opportunity to be strengthened. Therefore, if we have doubts or questions, let us bring them up to one another and not be afraid of asking, seeking counsel, or even deconstructing some of the habits or thoughts that may have wrongfully entrenched in our minds. In an age where stories of deconversion and deconstruction of faith are plenty, it is much better to deconstruct doubts and questions by finding true answers toward life rather than deconstructing the whole faith toward death. For the Spirit of life and sanctification is our Helper in our times of need. He will engage our minds with the truth, convict us to forgo sin, affirm our adoption, and lead us to endure whatsoever comes our away until the day we reach the Celestial City. There the glory of God dwells forever; there Christ’s prayer (John 17:24) will be fulfilled that we shall be with him, we shall see his glory, and we will be glorified with him, rejoicing throughout all eternity.