We’re supposed to have more than certain past glory days. God intends our present to be wonderfully active, forward-moving, and inward before outward.
Lesson from a Black Powder Pistol
One Christmas I gave my dad a black powder pistol. As with all nineteenth century firearms, you have to manually bring together the components to make these fire—the gun powder, primer, wadding, and the big lead ball you’ll use as the projectile.
Although my dad and brother and I were sportsmen, we weren’t necessarily black powder aficionados. We made do anyway. My dad put the whole thing together, loaded it up with powder, and took it out to the field to shoot.
He pulled the hammer back and went to squeeze the trigger, but didn’t realize that there wasn’t enough powder in the gun. The pistol was undercharged. It went off, but the ball lodged about halfway down the barrel.
That ball was the devil to get out. They tried driving a screw into it and pulling it, and tried breaking it into pieces so it could fall out. Nothing worked. Finally my dad took it to a gunsmith.
That guy probably didn’t know much about black powder weapons either, but like a true man, assumed he did. He took the pistol into his tool room, packed it full of powder, and blew the ball out. In the process he also blasted a hole in his ceiling.
That scenario describes a common Christian dilemma. We meet Jesus for the first time, and experience true conversion. There’s a flash and a bang, but we don’t travel very far before we’re stuck, lodged in the barrel, just like that ball.
This can happen to us for a lot of reasons. One of them is our overboard emphasis on externals in the Christian life—social issues, works, activities, and even ministry. Amidst the noise of Christian culture, little attention ends up being paid to what happens in a believer.
Years back, Francis Chan wrote a book called Forgotten God that spoke of the church’s relative neglect of the Holy Spirit. He was onto something.
Christians have often understood the Spirit as an agent for signs and wonders and miracles, but even these things have become external and sensational, distracting believers from important internal realizations. Comparatively minor concentration has been placed on the Spirit in terms of the power that drives us forward into authentic Christian living.
Without the Spirit, Forget It
The Holy Spirit is key to all spiritual experience, all the further work of God in a believer, and all the victory we could ever possibly have. In fact, we obtain the most information about the Spirit’s internal operation from Romans chapter 8, considered the victory chapter, if not of the whole Bible, then certainly of Romans itself. A patchwork of commentators said that in the first verse there’s no condemnation, in the last there’s no separation, and in the middle, there’s no defeat.”1
This strategic, supercharged chapter will demonstrate three significant aspects of the Spirit in us within the first eleven verses.
Exit the Cycle of Despair
First, the Spirit frees.
1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
The entry thought to chapter 8 contains the good news of “no condemnation.” Though we might quickly interpret this to mean release from the judicial punishment of hell, the context here is slightly different.
Certainly back in Romans chapter 3 we found God’s righteousness satisfied with the death of Christ, and in chapter 5 we are told that we will be saved by Him from the wrath of God. But here in this passage, condemnation is something felt. We’ve just departed chapter 7, where a well-meaning person tried to do the right thing, and tried hard not to do the wrong thing, only to fail miserably, and get crushed by their own guilt.
But now there is no more condemnation. Why? Paul does not immediately say it is because Jesus died for us, but that “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” The Spirit set you free. And He set you free from the cycle of effort, failure, and condemnation where you were stuck.
The misery of Romans 7 was one that came from being inspired by the law of God to do the right thing, but this noble determination always stirred your sin nature to overwhelm and bring you down into defeat and slavery. It was so regular and predictable that Paul called it “the law of sin and death.”
Used in this way, the word law (not to be confused with Mosaic law), refers to an operating principle, that, all things being equal, does the same thing every time, and gets the same result. Sin always moves to enslave.
But the Spirit also operates according to a law, or, an operating principle. For where sin habitually imprisons, the Spirit always habitually frees. He enters a believer, and finds wherever that believer is enslaved to sin. Anything that looks like a chain or a shackle or prison bars, He bends, He breaks, and He shatters. This freeing tendency is intrinsic to Him. It is a case not just of Spirit versus sin, but the law of the Spirit versus the law of sin—a greater more powerful law disabling a lesser one.
How to Free a Stuck Projectile
Going back to the illustration of the black powder pistol, how would we free that stuck ball? It had fallen victim to the law of friction—metal on metal, and so we know it wasn’t going anywhere. But the gunsmith loaded more gun powder into it to harness the power of a greater law—one related to ignition and pressure—and blew the ball free.
Getting unstuck is not a matter of greater will power, or radical religious gimmickry. It comes from the freeing life intrinsic to the Spirit. Freedom is the first great reason in chapter 8 for not neglecting Him.
Moses Didn’t Go Out with the Trash
The Spirit fulfills the Law of God in us. This thought is closely related to His freeing power, because He ultimately frees us from trying to fulfill the law with our own failing strength.
3 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, 4 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. 5 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 set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
We have already seen what human beings did with the law of Moses in Romans 7, and so now it is time to see what “God has done.” He accomplished not only what we could not do, but “What the law…could not do.” Ideally, the law of God was supposed to help us become obedient, good, holy, righteous people. But it didn’t and it couldn’t, because of the weakness of our flesh in keeping it.
God therefore sent His sinless Son, and condemned our sin in Him as He hung on the cross. This cleaned up the mess we had made. But the cross was to pave the way for something even further: “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.”
God never discarded His law. He always intended from the day he gave it, to see it so utterly kept that it would be fulfilled—that is, kept beyond mere letter all the way to the reality behind it.
Jesus rocked the world with these thoughts. He told the ancients, “You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.” His listeners probably nodded, filled with righteous pride because they had never fallen into such sin.
Then Jesus continued, saying, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28). He pinpointed not only the deed, but the lustful precursor to it—hidden lust. He had penetrated further than the letter into the very spirit of the law, into the deepest intent of its giver, God. At this point, His listeners must have gone slack-jawed.
He also told them, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…(Mt. 5:21-22). In saying this, He nailed the hate that brews long before any actual killing starts.
No doubt the Mosaic Law had been heavy, but Jesus had made it more than impossible.
And it is true that no mortal, fleshly man can attain to such a standard. The Law is “fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” What flesh cannot do, the Spirit can. What flesh finds phenomenal, outrageous, and unreasonable, the Spirit finds normal. He and He alone fulfills the Law of God in a believer. Mark this: the Law is not fulfilled by us, but in us, as we walk according to the Spirit. He is the sole enabling agent.
The Day I Crushed “The Three Hundred”
In the years directly preceding my faith in Christ, music had become the ruling factor in my life. My world was one long quest to acquire bigger and better stereo components. I also spent all of my time and money growing a king-sized record collection composed of classic heavy metal and alternative indie bands.
Worst of all, I began to integrate the moral bearings and lyrical messages of some of these wild musicians into my own attitude. Music ruled.
But then I came to faith in Christ, experienced true conversion, and like all Christians, I received the Holy Spirit. During that first month of post salvation, my feelings began to change toward “The Three Hundred” (which is what I call my record collection that numbered about three hundred albums).
One day I carted them out and smashed them all with a tire iron.
I didn’t do this based on any membership in a church that preached against rock and roll. Neither did I hear this from a preacher on television, nor did any mentor surrounding me encourage or even hint at such a thing. In fact, when I asked a Christian mentor to loan me a tire iron, he asked, “What are you going to do?”
Why did I feel moved to such apparently radical behavior? The very first of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). For many years I would have correctly understood this to mean, “Don’t worship Thor.” I figured I had that one covered. But after salvation, the Spirit worked to fulfill that law in me. In fact, I was worshipping another god—one that demanded all my time, energy, money, passion, and devotion. So I took the “Three Hundred” out with a tire iron and ended the relationship.
Some of my friends gave me grief, saying, “Couldn’t you have at least sold them?” But I never seriously considered it, not even for a moment. Interestingly enough, there is also a law given in Deuteronomy chapter 12 (that at the time, I didn’t know existed) which governs the disposal of idols. It specifies smashing and burning them.
None of this had anything to do with rock and roll being “the devil’s music,” etc. I had acted against idolatry, not musical forms, which meant even if my collection had been composed of Willie Nelson hits, show tunes, or Beethoven, they all would have similarly ended up in pieces.
This is the common experience of every believer. The Spirit within actively fulfills the Law of God. Expect that He will do so in hundreds of different ways in our various lives, ranging from loving God to loving neighbors, and everything in between.
All of this happens as we walk according to the Spirit, but this walk is not so spiritual that it is without practical implications. In verses 5-8, Paul mentions a number of times the idea of “mindset,”which involves setting one’s mind on the Spirit versus on the flesh.
If we live according to the Spirit, we mind the things of the Spirit. This becomes a cycle—living by the Spirit issues in setting one’s mind on the Spirit and setting one’s mind on the Spirit issues in living by the Spirit.
Your mind is a steering wheel. Wherever you set it becomes your experience—if on the Spirit, it becomes life and peace. If on the flesh it becomes death. We need to beware what we meditate upon, for that will quickly become our experience.
Does this mean we should only think about the subject of God all the time? How can this be reasonable at work, where the phone rings and the boss requires focus on projects?
No doubt we will often have an inward orientation to spiritual truth and will find ourselves dwelling on the glories of the gospel, but “the things of the Spirit” may just as easily involve doing what we’re supposed to do, when we’re supposed to do it. Surprisingly, “things of the Spirit” may include doing that homework assignment or making the deadline for an office project or helping the kids to pray before they go to sleep. We can thus walk according to the Spirit by setting our minds on righteous responsibilities, as well as upon literal theological interests.
A Dead Cocoon? No Problem
The Spirit also gives life, that is, spiritual vitality. In verses 5-8, we were exposed in passing to the thought of “life and peace” occuring when the mind is set on the Spirit. Paul now moves squarely into describing this dynamic.
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
These verses don’t address us as people who are fleshly and who must somehow attain to the Spirit. We are “not in the flesh but in the Spirit” on the one condition that the Spirit of God dwells in us.
The Spirit is essential equipment for everyone, including the beginner. He is so central to our standing that “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
We find such a bold claim problematic. How could we be in the Spirit when we are often so painfully aware of the sinful impulses that still surround us, supplied courtesy of our deadened bodies? Paul assures us though, that in the midst of this dead cocoon, “the Spirit is life.”
And before we start thinking this life might be snuffed out, that the tiny fleck of gold in us might be smothered by our mummified bodies, we are promised the contrary. This same Spirit who was involved in the resurrection of Christ “will also give life to your mortal bodies.”
Life will swallow death, the opposite of what we witness in this decaying mortal creation. The “life” present around us is a dwindling energy that always falls victim to brute, uncaring entropy. But life in the Spirit, being divine and uncreated, resurrects. It passes through death unscathed, and then engulfs it.
The Spirit brings life into a believer, then creates a condition of life and peace for the mind, and finally transmits life to the most fragile, dead part of our being—our physical body. The whole process will culminate in resurrection on the last day.
And all of it comes about “through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
Where’s the Taste?
Years back, we worked with a young man who had been raised in a Christian home, but had never caught the gospel—it had never become his. He felt the faith was no more than a collection of teachings and behavior.
When he engaged believers about his concern, they tried to help him—sigh—by teaching him and telling him to behave. He saw the Christian life as not having any sugar or salt or spices of any kind, but as a tasteless, amorphous unreality.
When we realized this, we stopped arguing with him and switched gears, beginning instead to tell him about the present inward Christian life—in other words, things under the direct purview of the Holy Spirit. He was intrigued. Later, he believed in Christ and became a joyful, passionate Christian.
We can’t afford to miss out on this reality, and yet it is a very distinct danger for many of us. While we participate in Christian pop culture, dabble in church, and cultivate appearances, our default experience might become little more than bland religious convention. Don’t let this happen.
The stunning life of Romans 8 is going on in you. Be there for it.
¹Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 299.