Paul has described the Christian life first in the negative. In vv. 5-8 he described the life of the flesh or the life animated by fallen human nature. Such a life is dominated by the mastery of sin, whether polite sin or its more crude manifestation. The new life in Christ is not like that life and now he turns to a more positive exposition of that life.
v.9 This new life in Christ is a life in which the person is now mastered not by sin but by the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Spirit is the essential element of this life because only he can create it and preserve it. Or, as A.B Simpson once put it, “The Holy Spirit is the only one who can kill us and keep us dead.” But notice the intimate connection between the Spirit and the Lord Jesus Christ in the life of the Christian man or woman. Only if you have the Spirit do you belong to Christ, because the Spirit is the one who brings men and women, boys and girls, into living relation with Christ.
v.11 These two verses reproduce in a Pauline way the Lord’s statement at the grave of Lazarus that he is the resurrection and the life and that the one who believes in Jesus will live even though he dies. We are, so far as this life is concerned, mortal and that mortality is on account of sin. But because Christ has conquered sin on our behalf, we have before us the prospect of a new and eternal life after death, human life in its fullness, body and soul; and the pulse of that eternal life is already beating within us.
v.14 It is inconceivable that a child of God would not live forever. Here again Paul writes very much as he does elsewhere and especially in Galatians 5:16-26. So certain is it that the Holy Spirit will produce the fruit of righteousness in those who are being saved that the point can be made a basis for a solemn appeal: “if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live…” “Put to death!” In Galatians 5:24 Paul put it in a different way: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature, its passions and desires.” Christ crucified them for us, now we can crucify them.
v.16 As in chapter 6 Paul contrasts the two lives, the life of the flesh and the life of the Spirit, as the contrast between bondage and freedom, between fear and confidence, between the life of slaves and the life of sons. John Wesley’s conversion came, he said, when “he exchanged the faith of a servant for the faith of a son.” [In Bruce, 167] By the way ladies, the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scripture are paying you a great compliment when they refer to you as sons. In the ancient and classical world only sons ever inherited. That is why adoption was important. Generally speaking you had to have a son in order to have an heir. You had to have a son in order to pass your property on to the next generation of your family. Sons in that world mattered a great deal more than daughters and the NT solved the problem by simply calling everybody a son, males and females in the kingdom of God alike. The ESV translates the “Spirit of sonship” more accurately as “the Spirit of adoption.” We are not naturally God’s children. We have been adopted into his family.
It is interesting to observe, by the way – a wonderful demonstration of the humanity alongside the deity of the Word of God – that Paul, like any preacher or theologian, was a creature of habit and developed characteristic ways of putting things. For example, vv. 15-17 are very like Galatians 4:6-7. There too we read of receiving the Holy Spirit, of his leading us to call God, Abba, Father, and of becoming not simply God’s children but his heirs. I suspect people who heard Paul preach more than once got used to his unique way of putting things and his way of stringing thoughts together.
v.17 This is Janus material as was the opening verses of chapter 8. It looks back to the argument that Paul has just made; it looks forward to the next paragraph which is all about the freedom and suffering and the eventual glory of the children of God.
There is a sense in which this paragraph is very typical of the Apostle Paul’s expositions of the Christian life such as you find them in many of his letters. Every statement is a thesis in itself. Each statement is thick or dense in its account of biblical truth. One could discuss each of these sentences – in Paul’s Greek there are eight sentences in vv. 9-17 – at length as an entree into a large area of biblical truth. No wonder Lloyd-Jones, in his famous Friday night expositions of Romans, managed to preach 29 sermons on these nine verses!
This account of the Christian life is also typically Pauline in its Trinitarian character. You may remember that the works of God in Christian theology are divided between the opera Dei ad intra, the inward or internal works of God, and the opera Dei ad extra, the outward or external works of God. The inward works of God include the relations between the persons of the Godhead, the loving communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The outward works of God include all his activities by which he creates and sustains all things, by which he orders the progress of history, by which he judges the world, and by which he saves his people from their sins. Everywhere in his letters when Paul explains the Christian life it is always made clear that the work of our salvation proceeds from the inner communion of the life of the Triune God and involves each of the divine persons in his own particular calling and role. We have Father, Son, and Spirit here, each with his own place and role in our lives; each giving himself to us and for us in different ways, and in doing what they do for us they are first and foremost serving and honoring one another. It is a remarkable thought that our salvation, our eternal blessing is the overflow of the loving communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We become the children of the Father and we become the brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus Christ on account of the sacrifice he made for us, by which sacrifice we receive the Holy Spirit and are changed by his work within us. There is clarity here, but it is a clarity that lies on the surface of the greatest conceivable mystery, the mystery of the three in one God!
And there is another typically Pauline feature in this description of the Christian life. I am speaking of the relationship and the interaction between the indicative and the imperative, between what Christ and the Holy Spirit have done and will do, on the one hand, and what we must do because of that, on the other. We’ve seen this before several times in Romans. In chapter 6, you remember, we read first that in Christ we died to sin and so were freed from it. But a few verses later we read that we are, therefore, to count ourselves dead to sin and not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies. Well, in the same way, we read here in chapter 8 that, because we have the Spirit of God within us, we are not controlled any longer by the flesh or sinful nature. But that, as we read in verse 12, means that we have an obligation to live according to the will and direction of the Spirit. What Christ has made us by the Spirit we must now strive to be in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.
What we read here is simply another version of what Paul told the Philippians:
“…work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.”
Or what he said to the Colossians:
“Since then we have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature…”
Or, what he said to the Galatians:
“Live by the Spirit” because you are “led by the Spirit…”
Paul has already explained why Christians must exert themselves in the practice of the Christian life. While the old man has been killed by Christ, he is not yet dead. The fatal blow has been struck, the end is inevitable, the sinful nature is growing weak, but it is not yet dead. It is like that old movie with Edmund O’Brien, “DOA:” he knows he has been murdered but he spend the entire length of the film trying to find out who did him in. He is dead, but he hasn’t yet stopped breathing. Well, so with the old man, the old nature, the sinful nature. The fatal blow has been struck, the end is inevitable, it can’t be prevented, the sinful nature is growing weaker by the day, but it is not yet dead. It still has power in our lives, even if it no longer has authority. Paul has admitted this in the most striking way in chapter 7, verses 14-25. He still struggles with his sin. So Christ’s victory over sin, his deliverance of a Christian from sins mastery, does not mean that believers have nothing to do. The fact that the Holy Spirit is at work in us to form Christlikeness within us, does not mean that we do not have to work. Quite the contrary, it means that we can work effectively. The Christian is never passive in the Bible. God gave us a mind and the Holy Spirit activates our mind and teaches it to think rightly. God gave us a heart and the Holy Spirit activates our feelings and desires to express themselves according to God’s will. And God gave us a will and the Holy Spirit activates that will to choose what is pleasing to Him.
James Denny puts Paul’s thought here in a beautiful way:
"Ideally, we must understand, this crucifixion of the flesh is involved in Christ’s crucifixion; really, it is effected by it. Whoever sees into the secret of Calvary…is conscious that the doom of sin is in it; to take it as real, and to stand in any real relation to it [i.e. to Calvary], is death to the flesh with its passions and desires."
Or, in other words, the practice of the Christian life, the living it out, inevitably rises out of the atonement of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and any person’s receiving the Lord Jesus Christ cannot help but lead to the transformation of his life because the death of sin is in his cross that we embrace by faith.
Or think of it this way, more humorously. G.K. Chesterton once remarked to an American friend that if a rhinoceros were to enter the restaurant in which they were dining there would be no denying that the animal would have great power there. “But,” said Chesterton, “I should be the first to rise and assure [the rhinoceros] that he had no authority whatsoever.” Well so with sin in the Christian life. It has power; it has no authority.
So Paul can say that the old man is dead, but nevertheless can and does often command us to kill him. It can be complicated to explain this either theologically or practically, but every Christian knows that, however difficult in some ways, Paul spoke the truth both when he described the decisive, definitive breach with sin and the old way of life that takes place when a person becomes a Christian and when he described the continuing struggle with sin according to the new and God given life and the need to forsake the old that marks the daily life of every Christian.
And, again typical of Paul, he summons us to an extravagant measure of determination to finish the old man off. Tertullian warned in his day that “many scrape their sins, rather than destroy them.” We know that we have been guilty of that times without number. We have not set out with might and main to put our sins to death, to destroy them. We have only scraped them. We have shushed the old man, but we have not tripped him and kicked him while he was down. That is, by the way, the correct way to speak of the matter. Paul uses the term “old man” to describe the sinful nature. Think of the old men you know, the very old men, who have to get along with a cane or a walker. They totter. They move slowly. We have a great deal more strength than they. That is the idea. In Christ we are not decrepit and weak and slow of foot or tottering and ready to fall. We have been made new by the Holy Spirit. Our new nature is young and powerful. So our calling is to trip the old tottering man, push him down, and then kick him and not let up until he is no longer moving. It is a vicious kind of metaphor, is it not? But it communicates the reality Paul is attempting to convey: a weak old man and we new men are to put him to death.
And, in the same way, we are to summon the new man the Holy Spirit has created within us to stand up and be counted. Too often we find we have not summoned up the new man and put him to work. Perhaps there have been times, many times, when we have been determined and when we have done precisely what Paul says here and elsewhere we ought to do. We have put to death the misdeeds of the body. Perhaps some of us who are getting older can remember times when we were much more faithfully and eagerly and expectantly doing just that. But, perhaps more often recently, we have been like the man in that old, silent comedy short, "in which the escaped lion takes the place of the shaggy dog beside the armchair and the comic affectionately runs his fingers through his mane several times before realizing that, as we say, he has a problem." [Packer, God’s Words, 182] In our distraction we treat our sins as friends instead of the killers that they are and we need to destroy.
So there is the Christian life and the way of the Christian life in a nutshell. The indicative – what Christ has accomplished for us on the cross and given us by the Holy Spirit – becomes the imperative. So practice this new life, work it out, don’t let anything stop you. What is the first thing in doing battle with your sins, then? Is it summoning up your strength once more; is it trying to talk yourself into resistance once more? No! It is remembering the cross and your union with Christ and the death that sin died in you when it died in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is remembering how he has made you a new creation in Christ and that you have the Holy Spirit within you; that the old things have passed away because of what he has done in you. It is remembering that all he is asking you to do when he asks you to be holy and pure and to live a life of love is to be what he has already made you to be, to practice what you already are. It is remembering that the Holy Spirit is in you and with you as the gift of your Redeemer to you. That is the foundation and the beginning of living the Christian life.
But there is an additional way of speaking that Paul adds to his exposition here that has created a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. He says that in doing so, in working out our salvation, in striving to become what Christ has made us to be, we will be led by the Holy Spirit and will be sustained by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
But what do these phrases – “led by the Holy Spirit” and “the Spirit himself testifies” – what do they mean? Many Christians have supposed that Paul is talking about some special form of guidance, some direction supplied by the Spirit to the believer’s heart, some mystical communication of the divine will. They talk of being "led by the Spirit" to do this or that. Others have thought that Paul means that the Christian life is to be lived in a spirit of passivity, awaiting the promptings of the Holy Spirit, letting him, as it were, live through us, we getting out of his way, evacuating our own mind and will and expecting the Holy Spirit to replace it with his own. In some forms of thinking about the Christian life this has led to the ridiculous. You remember the story about the Christian woman who went about one day with one shoe on and one shoe off because the Spirit had led her that morning to put on the first shoe but she had received no leading as the second shoe. But, clearly, that is not what Paul means? Read the passage again. He obviously has a very activist view of the Christian life. He is speaking of living a holy life, of putting our sins to death. He is activating us, he is not teaching us to be passive.
Indeed, here in verse 14 “being led by the Spirit” is simply another way of saying "being a Christian." Paul says that “you who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." And there too the subject is a holy, obedient life. Read the passage again:
"Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God."
We might ask why Paul describes the Christian life in this way: "being led by the Spirit," when surely it is the same thing as living by the grace of God, or living by faith in the Son of God. In fact, you could easily substitute “grace” or “faith” or “Christ” in the phrase "walk by the Holy Spirit." Walk by faith, or walk by grace, or walk by Christ. Indeed, the Bible often does use those other ways of speaking. They mean the same thing. The Spirit is God himself, the Third Person, present and working his will in your life. He is a guide surely, but he is much more than that. He creates the new life, he preserves us in it, he becomes the controlling influence in our lives. But he accomplishes his work in us by creating in us the motive, the longing, the determination, the power to kill our sins and to practice the commandments of God. “Work out your salvation…because it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
And similarly with the Holy Spirit’s witness to our spirits. What is that? Well Paul has left the phrase undefined. He gives us only a contextual definition. We have to gather what that phrase means by everything else he is saying in this particular context. That has created untold controversy, to be sure, as people have talked about the witness of the Holy Spirit and meant by it different things, but it has also allowed us to understand many true things by that phrase. Is the witness of the Holy Spirit, for example, the faint whisper heard in the soul telling us that we are the children of God? Well, it can be that, to be sure; faint or loud.
Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining, he grants the soul again
A season of clear shining to cheer it after rain.
There are a thousand ways in which the Holy Spirit speaks to the souls of his people. In chapter 5 we read of the love of God being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We know what it is to feel God’s love and whenever we do that should be for us the demonstration that the Holy Spirit is at work in us and has given us a gift. We know what it is to feel the conviction of our faith: that Christ is God, the savior of sinners, our savior, our Master and King. Sometimes, not always alas, but sometimes those convictions come over us like a flood. That is the Holy Spirit and his witness in us.
I was reading the other day the autobiography of an Englishman, a devout Christian and an authority on Christian books. He tells of a time when he was school teacher in Wales and travelled from home to job on a motorcycle. One day he had ridden to a nearby town and was riding his motorcycle home along an empty road. He never knew what happened but obviously somehow he lost control of the machine and crashed. He woke up in the farmhouse of a Welsh couple. What made the incident so important to him was that it led him to some fuller measure of the assurance of his salvation and it did so in this way. He distinctly remembered afterward that in a state of semi-consciousness as he was waking up, the first words he spoke to the farmer and his wife were that he believed with all his heart that “by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” He thought, “That truth obviously is firmly fixed in my sub-conscious mind and obviously is very important to me if it was the first thing I thought to say when I woke up in a strange place, feeling weak and battered from a fall.” Surely that was the witness of the Holy Spirit to a believer’s spirit.
But, much more, the witness of the Holy Spirit, in this context, is everything by which the Holy Spirit exercises his control over our lives, produces in us and preserves in us loyalty to the Lord Jesus, confidence in his saving power and submission to his will, and by which we take to be a real thing our place in the family of God, trust in the love and favor of our heavenly Father. Some of that “witness” we feel or experience in our emotions, some of it in our will, some of it in the way we think. But it is, altogether, the correspondence the Holy Spirit produces between our lives – our inner life and our behavior – and the profile of a Christian as we are given that profile in the Word of God.
There is so much of this, of course, that we barely understand. How does the Holy Spirit work in a heart and life? We do not know. How does the Spirit produce faith and repentance and love and obedience in a man or a woman? We do not know. How does he intrude thoughts upon our minds? We do not know. We cannot describe or explain the ways and methods of God. We can know and see the work of the Holy Spirit only through the results he produces in us: from our confidence in the Gospel, to our love for God and Christ, to our determination to live worthy of the grace that we have received. Paul says and the entire Bible teaches that all of this is the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in us and so when we see this in ourselves we are to give glory to the Holy Spirit for having put it there.
Think of it this way. You know that you are alive. If you were asked to prove that you were alive, you could think of any number of demonstrations. You can move, you can speak, and you can think; you breathe: things only living people can do. Or you could prove the point more scientifically. You could use a stethoscope to prove that your heart was still beating or, better still, take an angiogram and see the blood moving through your veins. You could measure brain waves and the like. You know you are alive because life demonstrates itself in all manner of ways.
Well, in the same way, you know you are spiritually alive because that new life also demonstrates itself. Down deep within you the Holy Spirit is animating your new life and bringing it more and more into expression and that in all manner of different ways: in your motives, in your desires, in your mental convictions, in your feelings and emotions, and in the commitments of your will and your way of daily life.
If we view our Christian life from the point of view of our activity, as Paul does in vv. 12 and 13, we could speak of it as a matter of our putting our sins to death and living according to the new life we have been given. But, as Paul is careful to say, a deeper view of this new life understands it to be the creating and the continued working of the Holy Spirit, of God himself. So, with perfect accuracy, we can speak of the Christian life as our working out our own sanctification or we can speak of it as the leading of the Holy Spirit. But we must remember, we must never forget that it is both things; that our work, our effort to put our sins to death and to bear fruit to God is possible only because of the Holy Spirit at work within us. We work because he works. Every human being, every boy or girl, orders his or her behavior in some way. Every human being tries to be good to some degree. The astonishing and the breathtaking uniqueness of your situation as a Christian which distinguishes you so profoundly, dramatically and ultimately from unbelievers is that you have God, himself, with you and in you to accomplish that work and to bring to pass his will in your life.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote at the top of his music manuscripts the letters “J.J.” They stood for the Latin words Jesu Juva: Jesus help. He was confessing his need for the Lord’s help to write to the glory of God. At the bottom of those same manuscripts Bach wrote the letters “S.D.G”: Soli Deo Gloria; to God alone the glory. Whatever he may have done that was worth anything, he was confessing, was the result of God’s work in and through him by the Holy Spirit. Also, very interesting about the work of Bach as a composer – and he was, of course, one of the world’s greatest composers; a man still today with very few rivals – he never stopped working on his pieces, making corrections and improvements to even long established works. With these changes every new performance, in Bach’s view, offered a still better version of the work.
Well, so it is with the Christian life. Change the metaphor from bearing fruit or killing sin. What are Christians about? We are striving to make of their lives a concerto or a symphony God will be pleased to hear. And understanding how this can be done and how alone it can be done, we write “J.J.” at the top of every day and “S.D.G.” at the bottom. The composition is by no means finished. There is always still work to be done. And there is no better way for us to seek that improvement than by always believing in the Holy Spirit working within us and in his power and in his desire for the holiness and happiness of our lives and then by always working in the confidence and conviction of that belief.
The words roll off the tongue. We hardly think of it most of the time. But God, himself, is inside of us to work and to will what pleases him.