Life in the Spirit: Walking According to the Spirit

Sermon by David Strain on May 10

Romans 8:3-4

Well if you would now take a Bible in hand and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8. We’ve been beginning to work our way through this important chapter in Paul’s letter, Romans chapter 8. Two weeks ago we noticed that verse 1 provides the sudden, perhaps even surprising verdict of God, over the guilty who trust in Christ. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Christ we are justified in the courtroom of heaven, even though we are, in ourselves, sinners and guilty. 

And last time we saw how Paul adds to that point in verse 2. Not only are we not condemned, not only are we justified, but we are also liberated from sin’s enslaving power and dominion. We are being sanctified. We have been set free from the rule or the governing principle, Paul calls it “the law of sin and death,” by the rule and the governance of the life giving Holy Spirit. As we put it last time, everyone that God acquits in the heavenly courtroom, He sets free. Whoever has heard the divine verdict, “no condemnation,” can also say with Wesley, “My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.” Sin may yet remain like a defeated enemy fighting a hopeless guerilla war in our hearts, but sin’s dominion, it’s rule, it’s power is now forever broken as we trust in Jesus Christ. That was last time. 

This week, we turn our attention to verses 3 and 4 which are really a continuation of Paul’s argument about our transformed lives, about how we are being sanctified. He wants us to understand how it is that God has done and is doing that great work – the grounds and basis for our sanctification. And if you look at verses 3 and 4 with me for a moment you’ll notice immediately that Paul structures his teaching here around the doctrine of the blessed Trinity. You see that in verses 3 to 4? Notice the ministry of each of the three persons of the Godhead at work for our salvation. God the Father sends His Son and condemns sin in the flesh. The Son comes in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. And finally, as we walk according to the Spirit, the righteous requirements of the law are met in us. Each person of the triune God is involved in saving and sanctifying us, which I think is a wonderful way to discuss and reflect upon our salvation. It is, it’s beautiful. It tells us how profoundly invested God is in the welfare of our souls. And so our plan this morning is simply to follow Paul’s trinitarian structure thinking about each of the persons and their work, the work of each of the persons of the Trinity in our lives in turn. 

Before we do that, we need to read the passage, and before we do that, let’s pause and ask for God to help us. Let’s pray.

O Lord, send us then the Holy Spirit, the One who is the life giver and the sanctifier, to take up His Word and wield it with power in our hearts for Your honor and glory, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Romans chapter 8 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. 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 the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

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

One of the things I’ve noticed several of you posting on Facebook as a pastime during this season of lockdown is incredibly ornate, complicated looking jigsaw puzzles. I’ve seen the pictures of the finished puzzles and they look amazing. They must have taken you hours to complete, and I’m not sure I have the patience for it, to be honest! Of course the really difficult ones do not come with a picture to work from. Have you seen those? You’re just left to try to fit the pieces together and to discern the emerging image without any reference point. That, I think, would drive me nuts, quite frankly! The whole thing is always made so much easier when there’s a picture of the finished image on the box toward which you are working. 

The Work of the Father 

Beginning in verse 3, Paul highlights for us the work of God the Father in our salvation. But this is not like one of those really difficult jigsaw puzzles, you know. Paul does not leave us to piece together a composite picture of God’s intention for us without any sense of his final design. In fact, if you look at the beginning of verse 4, you get to see the picture on the box, as it were. Here is the end point, the goal, the final design toward which all the other pieces contribute. Look at verse 4. God does everything “in order that” – so here’s His final design; His purpose. It’s all “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be met in us.” That is God’s goal. That’s the finished picture on the box. That is what He is working toward in our lives. He is working to make you and to make me holy. Which means, of course, that holiness, obedience to the law of God, is not an additional extra bolted onto the Christian life. It’s not an aspiration, you know – nice if you can manage it, but not really essential. Holiness is not some rarified attainment for the unusual and the outstanding people. Holiness is the agenda of God in the life of every single believer. 

But what has God done to secure the fulfillment of that grand design in our lives? Well, notice first in verse 3 how God’s work is set in direct contrast to the work of the law. Do you see that in verse 3? “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” The law there is God’s moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments. This law cannot accomplish holiness in us. It can tell us what holiness is, it can show us what obedience ought to look like, but Paul says the law is weakened by the flesh. The flesh there is Paul’s shorthand for the reality of human fallenness. It’s the pervasive bondage of sin enslaving us in every faculty of our humanity rendering us by nature wholly averse to God and His commandments. And Paul is saying the law aims at holiness. The law tells us what holiness is, what godliness requires, but the law is undermined in its promotion of holiness at every stroke by the spiritual inability of our sinful hearts to live God’s way. We are by nature opposed to the rule of God and the law of God and the will of God, and so the law cannot fulfill its design. But what the law could not do, Paul says, God did.

Ebenezer Erskine was an 18th century Scottish preacher that God used mightily in Scotland to bring revival. He was a correspondent of Jonathan Edwards, a colleague of George Whitefield, and he wrote a series of what he called “Gospel Sonnets” – poems that reflect on the glories of the Gospel. And they were immensely popular in his day. In one of them, there’s a stanza that I think echoes Paul’s argument about the law and the work of God in the Gospel quite well. He said this. “To run and work, the law commands, yet gives me neither feet nor hands, but better news the Gospel brings; it bids me fly and gives me wings.” The law of God alone can neither justify us nor sanctify us. It gives us neither feet nor hands. It is the signpost at the side of the road pointing to the destination, but that’s all it is. There’s no power in the sign itself to help us travel the road or reach the destination. For that, we need to look elsewhere. What the law could not do, weakened by the flesh. God did.

And how did He do it? Well, look at verse 3 again. He did it, Paul says, by sending His own Son. Let’s banish from our thinking once and for all, shall we, any hint of the idea that Jesus came to persuade an unwilling God to save sinners. Let’s dismiss every suggestion that the Father had to be cajoled, pushed and manipulated by Christ into loving and forgiving us. The Father sent the Son. It was the Father’s initiative and the Father’s design to send His Son for you. He has loved you from eternity, and in love He sent His Son for you. 

And Paul seems to feel some of the wonder of that, the enormity of that when he says the Father sent not just “the Son,” not even “His Son,” but he says, “His own Son.” It’s perhaps an echo of Genesis 22:2 where God, you remember the story, of God telling Abraham to take “his son, his only son, the son whom you love” – that’s the language. “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love and offer him in sacrifice on the mountain.” What has the Father done to set you free from the law of sin and death? What has the Father done that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in you? What has He done to make you holy? He has sent His own Son, His only Son, the Son whom He loves. And unlike in Abraham’s case, whose son was spared by a substitute, a ram caught in a thicket to replace Isaac, the Father gave His Son to be our substitute. Here is testimony, wonderful testimony, to the love of God. Isn’t it? There was no sparing of His own Son, but the Father sent Him even to the cross for you. “How deep the Father’s love for us. How vast beyond all measure. That He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure.” God did what the law could not do by sending His own Son.

The Work of the Son 

And then Paul says what the law could not do, He did, secondly, by “condemning sin in the flesh.” Do you see that expression at the end of verse 3? “He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us.” Now to understand what that means we need to move on from the work of the Father to consider the work of the Son in the second place. The Son was sent, verse 3 tells us, “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” That is a shocking statement. Isn’t it? The divine Son, second person of the blessed Trinity, the infinite, eternal and unchangeable God, by whom all things were made, without whom was not anything made that has been made, He was sent forth from eternity by the Father into the world. And notice the language – He was sent forth “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” That’s a very carefully worded phrase. Omit one word here or one word there and we land up in dreadful error. Jesus, notice, did not come “in sinful flesh.” If that’s what Paul had said, then the divine person of the Son would have been a guilty sinner, which is unthinkable. Neither did Jesus come “in the likeness of flesh.” If that’s what Paul had said, then the divine person of the Son would only have appeared to be human and never therefore been able to act as one of us on our behalf in our place. But he says, very carefully, he came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” – fully human yet without sin, without the capacity for sin, without any inner inclination to sin. He came holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners. He came as one who knew no sin. He came, indeed, to be tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. 

And this holy One, this sinless human being, Paul says, came – notice this expression – “for sin.” So here is the target at which the Father was taking aim when He sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. He came, Paul says, “for sin.” That is, to deal with sin. The problem is sin and Christ has come to address it. Actually, the expression “for sin” here, translated as “for sin,” is the phrase originally used in the ancient Greek version of Leviticus in particular for the sin offering. That’s how the same phrase is translated in Hebrews 10:6 and 10:8 and again in Hebrews 13:11. And if you are using a New International Version at home, that’s precisely how the translators translate the phrase here in Romans 8:3 as well. “God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh for a sin offering.” 

So what has God done to deal with sin in my life and in your life? He sent His own Son who took into union with Himself human nature, and in our nature offered Himself as a sin offering, a sacrifice of atonement to God on our behalf. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There, Paul says, at Golgotha, God condemned sin in the flesh. That’s an important expression. There at the cross, the judgment of God, the curse of condemnation fell on sin when it fell on His only Son. Isaiah 53:10, “Surely it was the will of the Lord to crush Him. He has put Him to grief. His soul makes an offering for guilt.”

Matthew Henry, I think, helpfully explains what it means that the Father condemned sin in the flesh in the condemnation of His Son at Calvary. He says this. “For all that are Christ’s both the damning and the domineering power of sin is broken and taken out of the way. He that is condemned can neither accuse nor rule. His testimony is null and his authority is null. Sin is condemned, you see, and as a condemned enemy, sin’s power is forever broken.” That’s what happened at the cross. The Father condemned sin in the flesh of His Son. The totalitarian regime of sin was overthrown. In the condemnation of Christ, sin was condemned and condemned it was stripped of its power and authority in the lives of all who believe in Jesus. Sin remains in us now like a prisoner on death row awaiting final execution. He may be eloquent and persuasive to anyone who listens to him through the prison bars. He may make great claims for himself and sound enticing even, but he is no longer free. He is a condemned enemy, robbed of his power. The cross, you see, is about more than payment for sin’s penalty. It is about that, but it is about more, so that we may not be condemned before God. It is also about the removal of sin’s pollution that we might be holy before God. The Son died, verse 4, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us.

The Work of the Holy Spirit 

And that brings us, neatly enough, to the work of the Holy Spirit. How shall the righteous requirements of the law be fulfilled in us? It happens, Paul says – look at this now in verse 4 – “as we walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” You remember that earlier in verse 3 Paul said that the law could not make us holy because it was weakened through the flesh. And now here in verse 4 he says, “Actually what the law requires can be fulfilled in us after all.” The holiness that the law requires is not impossible now for those who are in Christ. Not perfectly to be sure, but really and progressively. 

And the key to it, he says, is walking according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Sometimes Christians even can still try to keep the law according to the flesh. It is a bare and formal obedience. It is superficial and it is self-reliant. It focuses on external religious performance and it confuses growing in holiness at winning at life. It sees holiness as a way of keeping score. “I had a quiet time today – check. Therefore, today I’m holier than yesterday when I didn’t have a quiet time. I haven’t missed church in two months. I can score that off my checklist, therefore I am holier now than I was two months ago.” It’s superficial. It looks at external duties as a way to count beans, to tick boxes, to keep score. That’s not real holiness at all. External duties like prayer and reading the Bible and coming to church are vital aides, instruments, means for our growth in holiness to be sure, but simply performing them to tick off a box is not the same thing as holiness from the heart. That’s walking according to the flesh, not according to the Spirit.

Ray Ortlund put it like this. He said, “Give me three square meals a day, eight hours of sleep a night, and I can be good for perhaps as much as five minutes at a time. But it is the goodness of the flesh, and it only conceals my real sinfulness within.” That’s what walking according to the flesh looks like. It’s formal. It’s superficial. It’s self-reliant. It’s focused on external performance alone and it leaves the heart untouched. 

But Paul says instead of fleshly self-reliance it if the office of the Holy Spirit to enable you, Christian, to walk in newness of life and fulfillment of the righteous requirements of the law more and more, day by day. For myself, I find it to be so helpful that Paul describes the Christian life as a walk. Do you see that language in verse 4? “We walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” A walk, after all, highlights process, a journey, a trajectory, an arc from point A to point B. Earlier we said the law is a signpost at the side of the road, that like all roadside signs has power neither to make us travel the road nor to reach the destination. It merely points the way. But you see, when you become a Christian, God puts the Spirit of Christ within you and now the Spirit of Christ powers the engine of your life. Ezekiel 36:27, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to talk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules.” You see, now you have the power to travel the road of holiness, of growing holiness, to which the law points you. And by the Spirit’s help, you will reach your destination. You will.

Now step back for a moment. Can you see the radical commitment of the triune God to your holiness, believer in Jesus? The Father does, in and for you, what the law cannot by sending His Son. The Son comes in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering. And the Father condemns sin in the flesh by pouring out His wrath on His Son in our place. All of this He did in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us. And that is the special ministry of the Holy Spirit. By His grace and power and not according to the flesh, we can walk now in new obedience. God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit each have been in pursuit of sin’s eradication and of the emerging image of Jesus Christ in your heart, in your life, in your character. All three persons of the blessed Trinity have been at work to make you holy. 

A Mighty Rebuke 

Well, so what? Let me mention three quick implications from all of that and then we’re done. First, here is a mighty rebuke to any professing Christian who is casual and indifferent to sin. After all, God is not indifferent to your sin. Is He? The cross was the price of your sanctification. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of holiness, inhabits your heart if you’re a Christian to make you like Christ. And will you just shrug and say, “I guess that’s just what I’m like. I can’t help it.” Be warned. Be warned. There is no justification without sanctification. Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord. Repent of your laziness and your moral indifference. Repent of your lackadaisical approach to the Christian life. It’s time, in light of the teaching of our text, to get judgment day serious about walking in holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit. How can you look at the nails that were driven into the hands and feet of your Savior where God condemned sin in the flesh of His Son and still welcome sin, still toy with it and indulge it in your heart any longer? There’s a rebuke here. Isn’t there?

A Warm Encouragement 

Then secondly, there’s a warm encouragement for any Christian who despairs of making progress in their fight with sin. You long to be godly but you feel so defeated sometimes. To be sure, some of us have signed a truce with sin. We’ve given up. We’re just playing at the Christian life now. It’s all just for show. What a terrible tragedy that is and what danger people like that have exposed themselves to before God. But most of us are still in the fight. We have no intention of signing a truce with sin. But we do get pretty discouraged sometimes. Honestly we feel we lose more battles than we win against pride and lust and greed and anger and a host of other festering sins in our own hearts and lives. We wonder if progress is ever going to be possible. We feel like we’ve taken two steps forward and three steps back on our journey of Christian obedience. 

Well if that’s you, listen. God is not about to back away from you and say, “Well, you know, I tried. I really tried to make this one holy, but she’s a hopeless case. I gave it My best shot, but he’ll never amount to much in My kingdom.” He will never say that of you! Not at all! Lift up your head and take in what God has done and is doing according to verses 3 and 4. Look how serious He is about your holiness. The Father sends His Son to the cross for your holiness. The Son Himself makes Himself a sin offering for your holiness. The Spirit inhabits your heart for your holiness. God has fully invested Himself in your holiness and He’s not about to give up on that investment. “He that began a good work in you will carry it on till completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” He will, so press on.

A Warm Invitation 

And then finally, there is a warm invitation here to a new life for anyone who knows they need to make a change. Maybe you’ve tried turning over any number of new leaves. You’ve made promises. You’ve tried new routines. And still your conscience condemns you because you know you are stuck in sin. You are guilty before God, you are enslaved to patterns of thinking and living that you just can’t overthrow. The Christian Gospel offers more than just forgiveness for the guilt of sin. It offers supernatural power to change.

When I was a college student I worked as a doorman in a restaurant for a summer in Glasgow just to earn some money. And I tried to witness to the staff in the restaurant when opportunity arose. And on one occasion I remember talking to one of the waitresses and I could tell the Gospel was striking a nerve. And she seemed quite shaken by it. And then she asked very quietly, “Okay, so what are the rules?” “What do you mean?” “What do I need to give up to be a Christian?” She really had not yet grasped the wonder of grace. Had she? You see, when you trust in Jesus to save you, the new life that erupts into your heart begins a renovation project within you. Your loves change, your desires begin to change, your appetites begin to change, and your question stops being, “What do I have to give up in order to be a Christian?” and you start to say, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small! Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all!”

I’m not going to tell you that you can’t make changes here and there that will improve your life. Sure, you can, but I am saying that all such changes are ultimately superficial until God has broken into your heart by the Holy Spirit, uniting you to Christ, forgiving your sin and beginning the great renovation project of sanctification within you. There is an invitation here to you to stop your fleshly self-reliance and run with your sin and your guilt to Jesus where there is no condemnation for you if you would take Him, and where there is the beginning of a lifelong transformation so that one day you will be just like Him in holiness, reflecting His own character to the glory and praise of God.

Shall we pray together?

Our Father, we praise You that You loved us and sent Your only Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. There, at the cross, you condemned sin in the condemnation of Your Son, breaking sin’s power forever so that we might be holy; we might be like Jesus. Thank You, Lord Jesus, blessed Son, that You took into union with Your own divine nature, human nature. You came in the likeness of sinful flesh and made Yourself a sin offering for us. And O, Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of life, how we praise You that though we often grieve You, yet with patience You continue to work in us to sanctify us. Strengthen us as we seek to be obedient. Encourage our hearts as we stay in the fight for likeness to Christ. And we pray now for any watching or listening today, enslaved still by sin, knowing they need a Rescuer. Draw them, O God, draw them now to Christ. Bring them to the end of themselves and bring them to the Savior and then begin that extraordinary renovation project within them, breaking the power of sin and conforming them to the likeness of Christ. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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