Life in the Spirit: The Law of the Spirit of Life

Sermon by David Strain on May 3

Romans 8:1-2

Now if you would take your Bibles in hand once again and turn back with me to the book of Romans. We began with the end of Romans 11, but today we’re going to continue our series in Romans chapter 8. We began last Lord’s Day morning, you may remember, in Romans 8 verse 1. “There is therefore now no condemnation.” Today, we come to verse 2. And we said last time that verse 1 is a courtroom metaphor. The guilty, we, are not condemned in the heavenly courtroom; not condemned not because we are righteous in ourselves, but only because we are united to Jesus Christ. We are in Christ Jesus, and His righteousness is reckoned to our account. We said last time you’re either in Adam, condemned, or you’re in Christ, justified. 

Today, as we turn to the second verse of Romans chapter 8 the metaphor changes. We’re no longer thinking about a judicial sentence pronounced over us. Now, we’re thinking about freedom from the bondage and the shackles of cruel slavery and that changes the entire trajectory of our lives. Verse 2 says we have been “set free from the law of sin and death.” So verse 1 is about justification. Verse 2 is about sanctification. Verse 1 is about God’s gracious verdict with regard to our legal standing before Him. But verse 2 is about God’s gracious work within us with regard to the way we live before Him. Verse 1 happens in the courtroom of heaven. Verse 2 happens, as it were, in the slave market of our own hearts. Verse 1 is about removing sin’s damnable pollution. Verse 2 is about destroying sin’s debasing power.

And we’re going to think about verse 2 very simply today under two headings. First, verse 2 proposes for us alternative masters. There are two laws, Paul says; two governing principles for our lives and they are set in direct opposition to one another. There’s the law of the Spirit of life and the law of sin and death. Two masters. Then secondly, verse 2 offers us assuring evidence. Two alternate masters and assuring evidence. And here we need to delve into the relationship between verse 1 and verse 2. What is the logic that connects them? How does verse 2 follow from verse 1? If we could trace that out, it will be profoundly assuring to our often weak faith. So alternative masters; assuring evidence. Before we examine those two points, let’s pause and pray once again and ask for God to help us and then we’ll read the Scriptures and dive into their teaching together. Let’s pray.

O Lord, help us to see Christ and in His light to see ourselves. Help us to come to Christ and to flee ourselves. To that end, give to us anew the ministry of the Holy Spirit of Christ who inspired the words now before us. For we ask it in Christ’s name, amen.

Romans chapter 8 beginning at verse 1. This is the Word of God:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.

I read a story the other day about ninety-six people in Texas who were indicted last year on federal marriage fraud charges. What was going on was, in an effort to secure green cards for immigrants, this criminal gang had actually created more than 150 sham marriages over the last six years and they had been caught and exposed and a string of indictments were brought against them. You see, the problem is of course, you can’t have a legal marriage merely for the sake of securing certain benefits like permanent residency in the United States without also having the living relationship that goes along with it. Both of them must go together. 

Part of what makes Romans 8:1-2 so helpful is the way that it holds together the legal and the lived realities of the Christian life. And it insists that what God has joined we may never separate. You can’t have, you see, the legal status “no condemnation” before God – that’s verse 1 – without also having the lived experience of being “set free from the law of sin” by the Holy Spirit – that’s verse 2. Sometimes, a bit like attempting spiritual fraud, we hear people saying that, “Oh yes, they’re right with God,” and “Sure, they believe in Jesus,” and “Of course all is well with their souls.” But a moment’s scrutiny quickly demonstrates that whatever God says on the subject they really could not care less how they live day by day. 

Well these two verses of the beginning of the eighth chapter of Romans simply will not allow us that option. Right standing before God and right living under God always go together. Always. What we need to see as we study Romans 8:2 together today, what I’m persuaded Paul intends for us to see and to get as we study verse 2, is just how wonderfully comforting that fact ought to be to our Christian hearts. Well let’s look at it together – Romans chapter 8 verse 2. 

Alternative Masters 

And the first thing I want us to notice is the way Paul proposes to us alternative masters. Verse 2 proposes alternative masters. Do you see that in the text? There is the law of the Spirit of life on the one hand, and there is the law of sin and death. Now, there’s a great deal of debate about which law Paul has in mind here. Does he mean the law of Moses in both cases? Does he mean the Gospel when he speaks about the law of the Spirit of life and the Mosaic law only when he speaks about the law of sin and death? Both of these, and as you might imagine, an array of a whole host of alternatives, have been proposed by the scholars on this passage. On balance, however, I think that by “the law” here, Paul actually means two ruling principles, two controlling authorities, two regulating powers that are absolutely diametrically opposed to one another. That seems to be, I think, the most straight-forward way to understand the text, especially given the various uses for the words “the law” in the wider context in Romans 7, especially in verses 21 through 25. 

Would you back up there with me just for a moment and look again at Romans 7:21-25 and trace out how Paul uses the word “the law.” In verse 21, he says he finds there to be “a law at work” in his own life. Whatever this law is, notice, it is a law he discovers by investigation. He scrutinizes his heart and he finds a law. He deduces that a principle is at work within him. That’s clearly what he means in verse 21 by “a law.” He means a principle; a general rule, operational in his life. In contrast to that in verse 22 when he does want to speak about God’s holy, moral law revealed in Scripture, summarized in the Ten Commandments, he calls it very clearly “the law of God,” to distinguish it from all the other uses of the law in the passage. He says he delights in God’s law in his inner being. This is the law of his mind, verse 23. He serves this law with his mind, verse 25. This is the law his mind consents to, his heart longs to obey. 

But then over against God’s moral law there is, in the members of his body he says, another law waging war against the law of his mind. It makes him captive to the law of sin. The law of sin can’t be the moral law, the Ten Commandments, written in Scripture. After all, back in verse 7 of this chapter he said “the law is not sin,” and in verse 12 he said “the law is holy.” So the law of sin, whatever it is here in verse 25, can’t be the law of God – the law written in Scripture. And here again, then, is the rule, the principle, the authority of sin working in his heart. And so in Romans 7:21-25, really in every instance except when he speaks directly about God’s moral law, the word “law” means principle or rule or governing pattern. We sometimes talk a bit like that when we talk about the laws of nature. We don’t mean some written code; we mean this general principle. And that, I think, is how he is using the word in our text in Romans 8:2 when he talks about “the law of the Spirit of life and the law of sin and death.” He means two principles, two regulating powers, two controlling authorities either of the Spirit of life or of sin and death. And Paul says those who are in Christ Jesus have been set free, liberated, emancipated by the Spirit of life from the dominion and the mastery of the principle of sin and death. 

So these two principles, do you see, are set in absolute antithesis to one another. They’re opposites – the principle and regulating authority of sin that leads to death and the principle, the regulating authority of the Holy Spirit that gives life. When sin rules, the outcome is death. When the Holy Spirit breaks in and gives life, He sets you free from sin’s mastery forever. And this really is so important to understand. When the Spirit of life – or maybe better we should phrase it, “the life giving Spirit,” the Holy Spirit does His work in your heart and you’re born again and you come to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, the regime of sin is overthrown. The total mastery of sin is broken. Paul isn’t saying here that sin ceases to exist in the heart of a Christian when you come to Christ. He doesn’t mean that people who have been born again by the life-giving Spirit are sinless, suddenly. But he does mean, very simply, that you used to live as a complete slave to sin and now you are free indeed.

When Japan was defeated at the end of the Second World War, most of the Japanese troops surrendered. They surrendered voluntarily. In the Philippine island of Lubang, the Allies dropped pamphlets telling the Japanese soldiers, “The war is over!” And most surrendered. But one Japanese intelligence officer in Lubang by the name of Hiroo Onoda, he just thought these pamphlets were pure propaganda and he refused to believe it and so he retreated into the jungle and he fought a guerilla war on his own – get this – for 29 more years after the end of the Second World War! In 1974, an explorer came across him in the jungles and trying to persuade him the war was over, Onoda said, “I will not quit fighting unless there is an order that relieves me of the duty!” So they did a search. They found his own actual wartime commander, his former Japanese commander, and they flew him to the island of Lubang and with a bullhorn he yelled into the jungle that the war was over and he ordered him to surrender and Onoda did just that. Japanese control of the island of Lubang had long since been overthrown, but Onoda fought on for almost three more decades a guerilla war. 

That is the reality of our situation when we come to Christ, when we become Christians. The occupying enemy power of sin is overthrown, once and for all; defeated. But the dying remnants of the enemy remain and they fight a guerilla war in our hearts nevertheless. And now think about what that means. The implications of that are enormous. On the one hand, we should be incredibly encouraged. Shouldn’t we? Sin, it’s already lost the war in our hearts! It’s beaten! Isn’t that good news? In Christ Jesus, the rule of the Spirit of life has overthrown sin’s mastery forever in your heart. You are not a slave to your passions and desires anymore, child of God. Do not listen to the lies of the evil one in your heart that tell you otherwise. You are free. The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus. Sin no longer rules you. Change, therefore, is possible. You can become like Christ. You can say “No” to sin because sin no longer rules. Praise the Lord!

But then on the other hand, we should remember, soberly, that the defeated remnants of sin fight on, conducting a guerilla war in our hearts, and they can yet do much harm as you no doubt have discovered in your own experience. And so for all the comfort, the profound comfort and hope there is in knowing that the Spirit has set us free, we ought never to become complacent or apathetic but remain vigilant against the enemy. So Paul – do you see it? Paul is proposing two alternative masters here. Either you continue to live under the bootheel of the tyranny of sin, under the regime of sin, or you could be set free from sin’s dominion by the life-giving Holy Spirit. And just like back in verse 1 where the legal verdict of no condemnation is pronounced only over those who are in Christ Jesus, the same is true here with regard to our lived liberty from sin’s mastery. The overthrow of the occupying enemy forces of sin in the human heart takes place only when we are in Christ Jesus. “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

Now this really is key. This is a vital difference. It’s the difference between moralism and authentic Christianity. Moralism actually can effect change in our lives, can’t it, by the careful application of technique and discipline. Moralism is particularly skilled in the use of guilt to manipulate behavior modification. But all that moralism can really do in the end is deal with some surface level sin while actually driving our deepest festering besetting sins deeper and deeper into our hearts. 

So, for example, the moralist manages to stop swearing and then congratulations himself on how superior he is to the foul-mouthed people all around him. He’s swapped a surface sin for a still more deadly, deeper sin of pride in his heart. The moralist prides himself on never missing church, but he doesn’t notice that he has sacrificed his family on the altar of business and personal ambition. He’s used his faithfulness in church as a way to placate his conscience and is oblivious to the harm he has done by the idolatry of work. The moralist demands that her children must always perform “just so” in public, but deceived by the public persona she herself has so carefully crafted, she doesn’t notice how she withholds affection from her children unless they meet her exacting standards in sport or academics or social behavior. You see, the moralist says, “What matters most is how others see me” – so what’s happening on the surface. But Jesus says, “Why are you so concerned, so preoccupied with washing the outside of the cup, when the inside is still so very filthy? Why are you so concerned with the surface when the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart?”

But you see, if you are in Christ Jesus it doesn’t have to be that way. The life-giving Spirit has broken in and He has begun a transformation in you that is more than superficial. It is systemic in every faculty of your life. It is, as the Westminster Confession puts it, “throughout in the whole person, yet imperfect in this life.” The Spirit has begun to kill sin, to weed it out. He has begun to strengthen your hatred of it, to empower your resistance to it – slowly, painfully, often, but really and truly He’s begun to help you live for God. That is all the difference in the world, you see, between self-reliant, moralistic mere behavior modification and true sanctification. Isn’t there? The first has simply exchanged surface sin, superficial sin, for deeper, even more deadly self-righteousness. But the latter, true sanctification, is animated and governed by the power of the life-giving Spirit who has united you to Jesus Christ. And in Jesus Christ, everything changes. 

So which are you? Are you a mere moralist or are you in Christ Jesus? Has the Spirit of life come to rule in your hearts, having overthrown the tyranny of sin once and for all? Under whose mastery do you live today? Under the mastery of the Spirit of life or the mastery of sin and death? Romans 8:2 proposes alternative masters. 

Assuring Evidence

And the next thing Paul intends for us to get from Romans 8:2 is assuring evidence. Assuring evidence. As a pastor I see this a lot in others. Frankly, as a person I feel this a lot in myself. When I am struggling with doubt or fear or anxiety, you can tell me the truth about Jesus. You can speak peace and hope and encouragement to my heart. You can remind me of the precious promises of God. You can look me in the eye and with earnest appeals tell me, “David Strain, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” And I’ll nod and thank you and say, “Amen.” And yet deep down, still, I’ll struggle to believe it. Still, my doubts will assail me. Still, I’ll wonder if all of that really applies in my case. Romans 7:24 I relate to just fine – “Wretched man that I am, who can save me?” I even get Romans 7:25 without any trouble – “I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” But “no condemnation”? There are times where I don’t dare believe it. I wonder if you can relate to that?

Well if you can, Paul provides us with some help here. And it comes in the little connecting word “for” at the beginning of verse 2. Do you see it there at verse 2? “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus for” – right in the middle of verse 2 I should say – “for the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death.” The little word “gar” in Greek meaning “for” or “because” is telling us there that Paul is supplying the grounds for the assertion he’s just made in verse 1. 

Now this is so important. Please hear this. There are two ways to understand the logic of Paul’s argument at this point. Two ways to understand the “for” that connects verse 1 and verse 2. One would be to see the “for” at the beginning of verse 2 as causal. So Paul would be saying there’s no condemnation for us “for” – that is, on the basis of the fact that – the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in this way. No condemnation is declared by God in my case on the basis of the fact that I have been spiritually liberated. That’s one approach and it is a disastrous position to adopt, as I hope to show you in just a minute. The other approach would be to see the “for” at the beginning of verse 2 not as causal but as evidential. That is to say, there is no condemnation for us “for” – that is, here is the supporting evidence for the fact that there’s no condemnation; here’s how you know there’s no condemnation – “for the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus.”

We use “for” and “because” like that all the time in everyday speech. Don’t we? That high school senior must be really clever because she got a full ride scholarship to a prestigious university. We’re not saying, we don’t mean the full ride scholarship is the cause of her cleverness. It’s not causal; it’s evidential. Here’s the supporting evidence for my assertion. She’s really clever. She has a full ride scholarship. And that’s how Paul is reasoning here. He’s not saying that God justifies us, proclaims a verdict of “no condemnation” over us on the basis of our freedom from sin’s mastery. He doesn’t look at us and see that sin is not in control, that righteousness reigns in our hearts, and then therefore concluding that we finally made the grade pronounces his verdict. That’s not it at all. That would be contrary to the entire argument of Romans up till that point. Wouldn’t it?

Let me just give you one verse from Paul’s argument earlier in the book, Romans 3:21, by way of example. Paul says, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Christ, in Jesus Christ, for all who believe. For there is no distinction. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified.” how? “By his grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forth as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” So faith alone in the propitiating blood, the justice-satisfying, wrath-quenching blood of Christ – that’s what secures justification; not something we do or are. Not something in us at all, but the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf; that’s what settles the question of our standing before God. We saw that last week. That, I think, is crystal clear in the book of Romans. 

So it can’t be what Paul means here when he says that the ground of no condemnation is our liberation from sin. What he means instead is that our liberation from sin is the evidence to us, to our hearts, that we are not condemned. So look, when you struggle to believe Romans 8:1 as I often do, where do you turn for help to settle your fears? One important place to look – it’s not the only place, and Romans 8 has other places to look as we’ll see in coming weeks – one important place to look is to the presence of the ruling principle of the Spirit of life who makes you want to be like Jesus. He makes you want to be holy. He makes you hate your sin and love your Savior. Paul is saying, “I’m not condemned and I know God has really said that about me, not because I deserve the verdict but because” – listen to this now – “God never leaves those He acquits to languish in prison.” He never leaves those He acquits in prison. He sets them free, always. He never leaves those He justifies alone. He breaks in and begins to sanctify them. I find assurance in my right standing before God from the evidence of the Spirit’s present working in my heart.

Do you get that? God never leaves those He acquits in prison. He always sets them free. If in the courtroom of His righteousness He has said, “No condemnation” over you, the prison doors of your incarceration to sin are immediately flung wide. You are now free to live for Him, enabled and upheld by the Holy Spirit. Sure you’ll struggle with sin. There are guerilla fighters lurking in your heart waiting to do what they can to bring you down, but the promise of God is that sin’s dominion is overthrown and now He’s at work in you, by His Spirit, to will and to work for His good pleasure. And that work in your life everywhere bears eloquent testimony to you of your justification, of God’s verdict. 

Listen to me now. False modesty isn’t godly. Wallowing in self-pity is not godly. Refusing to recognize real progress that the Spirit of Christ has made in your heart and life, that’s no humility. I’ll tell you this. It does dishonor Christ who died to make you holy and it grieves the Holy Spirit who has come to dwell within you to set you free. Too often we swing from one polar extreme to another, from arrogance and self-reliance to despair and self-loathing and back again. But in Christ, the Spirit of life has set you free from sin’s mastery so we need to learn to evaluate our hearts humbly and honestly and see there in the light of the holy Scriptures the wonderful things God has wrought by His mighty power in our lives and then to say, “O Lord, Your hand has done it and it is marvelous in my eyes and to Your name be all the praise and all the glory for it!” 

There are alternative masters here, aren’t there. Under which regime are you living today? Under the law of sin and death or under the liberating law of the Spirit of life? Authentic Christianity is defined only by the latter, never by the former. The former is soul destroying moralism. Flee it to Jesus Christ. Alternative masters. And there’s assuring evidence on offer here. We need to learn to trace the Spirit’s work in our lives, learn to count the ways He’s showered His blessings on you. Remember those strongholds and bastions of sin and hardness of heart that have now been overthrown in your life. Count the victories, however small, and give thanks, for they proclaim to you that before God you are counted righteous in Christ Jesus, not condemned. And so the prison doors have been flung wide and you’ve begun to live a new life of spiritual freedom to the glory of God. God never leaves those He acquits to languish in prison and slavery to sin. The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus. Praise the Lord!

Let’s pray together.

God our Father, how we adore You for Your love and Your mercy, for Your grace towards us in Your Son. Thank You for the Holy Spirit who dwells within us bearing testimony with our spirits that we are children of God, showing us where sin once held complete sway, now we are free to live for Your glory. Deliver us, O Lord, from false modesty, from empty, pretended humility that refuses to acknowledge change. Instead, help us to see what You are doing, have done, will yet do, and rejoice in the assuring comfort it gives to our hearts as we give all praise and glory to You. We pray for any still living under the tyranny of sin’s mastery. O God, today, through the Lord Jesus Christ, by the liberating Spirit, give them life and set them free. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.

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