Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2)
The word “law” is used in two different senses in the surrounding passages. It can refer to a rule or command, or a system of rules and commands. Paul uses the word with this meaning when he writes, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (7:14). Then, the word can also refer to a regularity of operation, a vital principle, or a controlling force. As Paul says, “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (7:21).
There is an evil force at work in every non-Christian. Even if the non-Christian is not possessed by a demon, he might as well be. This dark power drives him to unbelief and rebellion, to speak all sorts of damnable blasphemies and to espouse all kinds of absurd scientific and religious theories. Thus the non-Christian becomes the personification of sin and stupidity. If you want to see sin do its work, look at the non-Christian. If you want to see what stupidity does when it has lips and arms and legs, watch anyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ. This evil force runs his life – it is his life – and he cannot overcome it or escape from it. And because the non-Christian is so sinful and stupid, he does not want to escape it. This power has reduced man into a mere brute. If nothing is done for him, he will remain sinful and stupid all his life, and even as he burns in hell in the life to come.
Now “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (v. 7-8). The non-Christian cannot obey God, and even though he lacks the ability to obey, this failure to obey is still counted as sin. Therefore, human ability and freedom have nothing to do with whether a transgression has occurred, they have nothing to do with whether the transgression results in condemnation, and they have nothing to do with whether this condemnation accords with justice. For the same reason, the fact that theologians consider it important to argue for the existence of human freedom in some sense, and for the compatibility of this freedom with divine sovereignty, shows that they have already disowned the biblical doctrine even as they pretend to defend it.
There is another power. It is the power of the Spirit, which comes to a man and assumes control as God causes him to have faith in Jesus Christ and transforms him into a Christian. This is the power of life. This is the power of righteousness. This is the power of intelligence. This is the power of holiness and resurrection. It is not a power that we take hold of, but it is a power that takes hold of us, because God has decided to show kindness toward us and by this law of the Spirit of life he delivers us from the law of sin and death. Therefore, although Christians find themselves in some of the same circles and societies as the non-Christians, the followers of Jesus Christ live on a superior plane. Poison, death, and evil are at work in the non-Christians, killing their bodies and rotting their minds. But at work in the Christians are faith, joy, blessing, and reverence. As Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, ESV).
The two different forces produce two different kinds of people. These two kinds of people are distinguished by their mentalities, their desires, and their preoccupations: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (v. 5). Two different kinds of fruit result from this. As Paul writes to the Galatians, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like….But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:19-23).
Non-Christians are “controlled by the sinful nature.” But to the Christians, Paul says, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” So one who is a Christian also has the Spirit, and one who has the Spirit is also controlled by the Spirit. If one is controlled by the sinful nature, then he does not have the Spirit, and he is a non-Christian.
These insights – that the Christian has the Spirit living in him, and that the Spirit rules over him to set his mind on the things of the Spirit – provide the Christian practical help as he strives to grow in strength and holiness. Whereas the non-Christian is ruled by sin and cannot submit to God, the Christian is ruled by the Spirit and he does submit to God. He is not only able to do this, but he knows how to do it. Paul tells the Galatians: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Galatians 5:16).
In other words, the Christian can remain free from sin and grow in righteousness by being what has now become natural to him, by living in accordance with the dominant power that rules his thoughts and passions. This does not mean that all temptations have vanished and that he will never stumble again. Although Jesus Christ has fully accomplished redemption for his people, its application follows a divine plan and is not yet complete. The same Spirit who has made his dwelling in the Christian and who has started to rule over him and to transform him will also complete the change at the resurrection of the dead.
So although it seems that a struggle remains, it is not like the tension between an ignorant zeal for the law and the inherent rebellion of the sinful nature. No, the Christian’s desire for righteousness is good, sincere, and empowered by the Spirit of God. His energies are not exhausted in trying to extricate himself from the clutches of sin, but the Spirit gives wings to his true desire for truth and holiness as he pursues these things with wild abandon. And as he does so, he will “not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” It is now possible to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8:13).
The Bible teaches this pattern in a number of places. Paul counsels the Ephesians to “put off the old self” and to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 5:22-23). Hebrews 12 admonishes us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (v. 1), and to run the race marked out for us, not only to escape from evil, but to run with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (v. 2).
Paul applies this to practical items as he writes, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:28-29). The strategy to overcome sin is mainly positive, not negative. That is, a Christian should not only stop stealing, but he should work to supply for himself and to share with others. The Christian who used his words for evil should not only stop doing it, but he should now use his words to build up faith and hope in others.
If you are a Christian, then the power of the Holy Spirit is in you, driving you to desire and to perform the works of Jesus Christ. You might still struggle, and you might still stumble, but now Jesus Christ has drastically transformed the battle, and it is one that he has already won for you. Actively pursue the good things, and you will find that you enjoy doing them. This is the new you, and by developing in that direction, you will be living in the Spirit, and putting to death the deeds of the flesh. This is what is called being “led by the Spirit of God” (Romans 8:14), as Jesus Christ fills us with his power and ushers us into a glorious life of purpose, truth, and holiness.