The Practical Outworking
Let us now look at how God’s remedy for sin works out in practice, as explained by those who first experienced its effect in their lives – the early apostles.
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As previously discussed, humans have an animal body with the same kind of natural needs and instincts as others. But we are distinguished by our capacity to know God, to reason, predict and make moral choices. This means that we were designed to be capable of acting in ways that override our natural programming. But, without the presence of God in our lives, our capacity for moral choice is crippled, in several ways:
- Our ability to foresee the consequences of our choices is very limited.
- We have no absolute standard of right and wrong.
- We lack the motivation and power to do right.
- We are born into a world corrupted by evil and are conditioned by it even before we have the maturity to form moral judgements of our own.
The result is that we are unable to properly manage our naturally self-centred animal nature. This animal nature is commonly referred to as ‘the flesh’ or ‘fleshly’ nature. And this out-of-control condition, which has affected everyone from Adam and Eve onwards, is what is generally referred to by theologians as ‘Original Sin.’ Some argue that this makes it impossible for people to choose any course of action that is morally pleasing to God: but all Christians agree that this fundamental corruption of our nature makes it impossible for us to consistently live in a way that satisfies God’s standards.
But even apart from our own personal weakness, there is a spiritual corrupting influence – ‘Sin’ with a capital ‘S’ – resulting from the activity of Satan himself; who continually seeks to exploit our fleshly weaknesses and keep us away from God. The result is that, as soon as we become capable of making conscious moral choices, we find ourselves making wrong ones!
As it is written, “There is no one righteous; no, not one. There is no one who understands. There is no one who seeks after God. They have all turned aside. They have together become unprofitable. There is no one who does good, no, not, so much as one.” (Rom 3:10-12, cf. Ps 14:1-3 & Ps 53:1-3)
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. (Rom 3:23)
In Romans, chapter 7, the apostle Paul describes his own personal experience of starting out with the desire to serve God, only to find himself becoming a slave to sin.
For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were through the law, worked in our members to bring forth fruit to death. … For I wouldn’t have known coveting, unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, finding occasion through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of coveting. For apart from the law, sin is dead. I was alive apart from the law once1, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. The commandment, which was for life, this I found to be for death; for sin, finding occasion through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. (Rom 7:5,7-11)
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin. I don’t understand what I am doing. For I don’t do what I desire: rather, I do what I hate. But if I am doing what I don’t desire, I am acknowledging that the law is good. So, at this point, it is no longer ‘I’ that am doing it, but sin which is resident within me. (Rom 7:14-17)
For, according to the inward man, I delight in God’s law: but I see a different law in my other parts, fighting against the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my other parts. I am so burdened down! Who will rescue me out of the body of such a death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! So then with the mind, I myself serve the law of God: but with the flesh, the law of sin. (Rom 7:22-25)
Some say that this passage describes the everyday experience of Christians, as well as non-Christians. Certainly, many Christians can identify with Paul’s experience as it applies to that period of their lives prior to, and in some cases shortly after, their conversion. Some would also identify it with times when they have struggled with particularly persistent bad habits. But if this represents a picture of the Christian life as God intended it, it sounds a pretty miserable sort of existence. It leaves us constantly feeling condemned by, and longing for freedom from, a persistent burden of sin that keeps pushing us into deeds of which both we and God disapprove.
But if we look at the verses that immediately follow on from here, we see that this is definitely not how Paul thinks our lives are meant to be.
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did. Sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4)
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace; because the mind of the flesh is hostile towards God; for it is not subject to God’s law, neither indeed can it be. Those who are in the flesh can’t please God. (Rom 8:5-8)
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his. If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom 8:9-11)
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if you live after the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God. (Rom 8:12-14)
Paul tells us that ‘those who are in Christ Jesus’ can live a life without condemnation. The key is to ‘walk according to’ (Rom 8:1) and be ‘led by’ (Rom 8:14) ‘the Spirit’. Those who do this are described both as being ‘in the Spirit’ and indwelt by Him (Rom 8:8) and as having our minds set on ‘the things of the Spirit’ (Rom 8:5).
The Spirit is variously described in this passage as the ‘Spirit of life’ (Rom 8:2), ‘Spirit of God’ (Rom 8:9), ‘Spirit of Christ’ (Rom 8:9) and ‘Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead’ (Rom 8:11). These characteristics identify him as the Holy Spirit; the third great manifestation of the character and nature of the one true and indivisible God. For further explanation see The Triune God.
The product of a life lived in such a relationship with the Holy Spirit is that, instead of being dominated by sin and failure, our lives will be characterised by a clear conscience, peace and right behaviour.
- What does Paul mean?
By saying, ‘I was alive without the law once,’ Paul implies that he did have a relationship with God up until the time when he first knowingly broke God’s law. This is consistent with Jesus’ own teaching on the status of children (see Mt 18:1-6,10). Note also that Paul has earlier explained that for non-Jews, their own moral conscience functions in a similar manner to the Jewish law (Rom 2:12-16).