The first time you ever met Him was the biggest day of your life. Get ready for the next ten thousand encounters.
The Trouble with WWJD
Celebrity impersonation is an industry all its own, with look-alikes ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Bono, and Michael Jackson to Robert DeNiro. Some of these can fool even the most discerning eye. And yet added up together, they might not possess enough talent to fill an eye dropper. Most of these doubles can’t sing, act, or do stage comedy. They simply look the part.
I mention this because Christ-likeness can easily be misunderstood as celebrity impersonation. Early in the nineties, Christians cranked out the WWJD movement. The acronym, “What-Would-Jesus-Do?” was meant to be an interior self-check that you could use if you found yourself in a compromising situation or considering a particular deed. By asking “What would Jesus Do?” you could determine if you were about to appropriately represent Jesus. At least that was the upside.
The downside was that the image of Jesus could be perceived as a matter of mere imitation—acting, looking or sounding like the real thing without necessarily owning any of the reality attached to it.
Christ-likeness is neither a shell, nor an acting role. The Spirit truly works to reproduce the life and experience of Christ in your life.
We’ll see this as we go down deep into Romans 8—deep like when Ballard found the Titanic sitting on the ocean floor—and we’ll discover three significant ways the Spirit repeatedly brings Christ into our life.
No Cross, No Life; Know Cross, Know Life
First He does it by bringing us the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Paul warns us against thinking we owe anything to our flesh. Though Christ is not there, we often land in that old life, with the rationale that since we’ve been good and followed Jesus for a whole week or been in church for a month straight, it wouldn’t hurt to visit the flesh for a few minutes.
We’ve avoided that one sin for a while, and it might be a treat to taste it again. A little variety could do the soul good. Besides, I owe myself a break, we all but tell ourselves.
And yet the Scripture says such forays result in death. We won’t get the refreshment we thought we would. Death as it is used in this verse does not mean hell, nor does it mean physical demise. It is a negative internal condition, a subjective state similar to a gray, cold day in the soul.
The death that emanates from fleshly living is a promised result as ironclad as when God told Adam and Eve in the garden, “The day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17).
And they surely did.
Although Adam neither dropped dead on the spot, nor did he perish in hell, the day he ate of the forbidden fruit, he died within. The evidence was immediate. In a state of estrangement, he hid from God, being full of fear and dread. More symptoms emerged later when he began blaming, avoiding, and redirecting.
Over the years people have often approached me, confessing spiritual quandaries and distance from God. The first question I usually ask is “Have you been living in your flesh?” There might be other reasons, but I always go to the simplest one first. Seventy-five percent of the time people admit they have “let themselves go” in certain areas. Death then, is not a spiritual condition that strikes for unknown reasons, but a simple, stated consequence.
Now consider Paul’s alternative—that “you will live.” The way it is used in this verse, life is neither the equivalent of heaven, nor of physical pulse. Like its antonym, death, life is also an inward condition, but related to spiritual vitality. How does one live? Paul says, “By our putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit.”
Of all the things in the universe, only the cross of Christ has proven effective in dealing with sins. This same cross (not the literal wood of a crucifix, but the power of Christ’s death) is available to us today through the Spirit. This is why we must bring the Spirit to bear in putting to death our sinful deeds. The Spirit contains true killing power. He transmits to us the selfsame cross of Calvary.
If we confront our sinful deeds with the Spirit, and kill them, there is again an ironclad promise—we will live. This is certain and true, for we know that after the cross of Jesus, there is the empty tomb of resurrection. The believer who has passed through the cross cannot fail to resurrect in new life. That is how the Spirit interweaves our life with the experience of Christ again and again.
All Christian revival has this process at its core. When we see revival, it often looks like so much zeal and enthusiasm. However where true revival has occurred, underneath the accelerated emotion, works, and activity, are breakthroughs where believers have put to death particular fleshly things with the Spirit, and found a fresh vein of spiritual life.
Ferociously Stubborn Little Things
Consider baptism. It seems a small thing for someone to get into a tub of water, but moderns often must have significant breakthroughs before they can make such a public demonstration of faith. The private things that hold people back are incredibly trivial, but their power can be nothing short of amazing.
For instance, mere vanity. Baptism will cause you to get your hair wet. Baptismal clothes are ugly, worse than bowling shoes. A large number of people will watch you coming up from the water thinking you look like a cat that just escaped from a swimming pool. Conclusion: It is better to disobey Jesus than look like a dork.
Thankfully, many bring the Spirit to bear upon such concerns of the flesh, and it is astonishing how much life they will get from simple dealings.
We wish the Apostle Paul would lay out in specific steps how we’re supposed to put to death the deeds of the body with the Spirit. We want techniques we can use while at the mall or while helping the kids with their homework.
We don’t get them. It’s probably better that way. Human beings have a certain propensity to take such advice, get some initial help from it, and then utterly wrench it dry.
The truth is, the Spirit can come through any number of avenues—the Spirit through the word, the Spirit through fellowship in the church, the Spirit through prayer, the Spirit through praise, through song, or through repentance.
Though we participate in the process of putting sinful deeds to death, it is the Spirit who ultimately provides the power that accomplishes it, and subsequently reproduces the experience of Christ within us.
Led by the Spirit, but Not for the Sake of Making Perfect Decisions
Tightly connected to the foregoing point, the Spirit not only brings the cross to us, but He leads us to the cross.
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
When we see the phrase “led by the Spirit,” we immediately think of the Spirit leading us to a certain spouse, or a particular vocation. We have to remember though, that verse 14 comes immediately after verse 13, where we put to death our sinful deeds by the Spirit. The Spirit’s killing power is connected to the Spirit’s leading. He leads us to the cross, the killing zone where our sinful actions get terminated.
The more this happens, the more something about your identity becomes established—that you are indeed a son of God. Every believer is subsumed under the label of sons, including females, because at the cross we participate in one of the chief experiences of the unique Son (not for eternal redemption obviously, but for daily experience).
And though we can certainly act with the conviction that the Spirit has led us in many aspects of life, His chief desire is not to help us make a perfect decision, but to strengthen our identity as sons at the cross.
With all this talk of the cross, a chilling dread may well arise of losing something important, or being inconvenienced. This fear has had a paralyzing effect on many a Christian. Paul reminds us we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. The Spirit we have received as sons enables us to cry out to God, “Abba, Father!”
Even when the Spirit leads us into the midst of intense personal suffering, we can at the same time find ourselves in the midst of the greatest personal intimacy with God that we have ever felt.
In Mark 14, Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, on the very cusp of the cross. It was the most difficult period of His life up until that point. He prayed that the hour would pass from Him if it were possible. Verse 36 tells us He was also saying, “Abba, Father.”
Though the Spirit had led Him into that terrible pressure cooker, the worst in fact, that anyone has ever endured, He had also been led into a remarkable intimacy with the Father so dire and real that it has awed and edified us some 2,000 years.
We should be glad Jesus didn’t say, “Okay, I’ve been led enough. I’ve followed the Spirit into the thick of ministry for years, and had many adventures. I’ll just ride on my previous accomplishments.” He wasn’t living on cruise control.
The Fallacy and Laziness of Thinking You’ve Already Arrived
I love cruise control, especially when I travel to Louisiana. The stretch between Nashville and Memphis, and between Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi are dreadfully boring. They are so flat and straight I can almost prop the steering wheel between my knees, take a nap, wake up, and find everything in order. I click on the cruise because I don’t anticipate anything happening.
Christians everywhere find the cruise control life a serious temptation. That is when we stop expecting (or wanting) anything more of the Spirit’s work in our lives. Many of us, by the Spirit, have racked up an impressive list of early victories.
The Spirit led us to deal with out laziness, and so we began to gather with Christians weekly for worship. The Spirit led us to deal with our stinginess, and so we began tithing regularly to participate in the financial need of local ministry. The Spirit led us to deal with our self-centeredness, and we became willing to serve on a regular basis.
And yet having won these victories, we can then feel there’s nothing left to learn. We come, we give, we serve. If we simply rinse and repeat for the rest of our lives, it is good enough. We expect nothing further. This is a tragedy, because the Spirit wishes to lead us to the cross more, and to make us more living than we already are.
Consider Jesus, the most spiritual man of all. His most critical experience of the cross lay at the end of His life, as He wrestled with the horror of dying for our sins. Surely if we are forty, fifty, sixty, or above, we will only cheat ourselves by thinking we have “paid our dues” and that our experience is sufficient. Even at our most advanced age, the Spirit does not retire from leading us.
What the Spirit Says Constantly
In yet another tightly related point, the Spirit assures us in our suffering.
16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Painful storms often make us prone to feel we’ve been put out on the curb and that we no longer have a heavenly Father. But the Spirit bears witness with our spirit, that is, tells the truth at our deepest intuitive level, steadily saying we are children of God.
This witness is incredibly important, because during the times our turbulent emotions are busy churning out confusion, at more profound depths the Spirit calmly and patiently continues to say, Child.
In doing so, He makes clear not only our present standing, but the future implications attached to it—that since we are children, we are heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ. All that God is and has, plus all that His Son rules and administrates, all of His unsearchable riches and the vastness of His glory, stands as our inheritance. We have far more than a suffering sentimental present; we have a brilliant, victorious future.
Still, it does not slide into our laps. This future of untold blessing and eschatological power only comes, “Provided we suffer with Him.”
During this present age, discomfort, pain, and sorrow must be the way of things. Biblical righteousness will be mocked, the church derided, Christ dismissed, the faith hated. If we make any of these things somehow central to our life, which we are called to do, trouble is a guarantee. It is our normal lot “that we may be glorified with Him.”
And if we choose not to suffer with Him, to take His cross, to lay down our lives for the needs of His people—what then? Paul does not develop the thought here. Obviously it would be inglorious for a child of God to select such a path.
But these verses don’t function as a warning, like 1 Cor. 3:15 or 2 Cor. 5:10. The apostle chooses to leave negative possibilities undeveloped, and instead expounds upon the theme of certain glory emerging from the difficult trail of following Christ. It is a Spirit-inspired assurance we constantly need.
When We Wish We Could be Like Our Fleshly Neighbors
Powerful, strategic families habitually groom their children for powerful, strategic futures. Occasionally the kids in question lose heart. Junior is upset because he has to go to bed by 9:30, while his buddy Butch, stays up to 12:30 a.m. Junior must rise at 6:00 to study Latin, take riding lessons, and practice fencing. Butch gets to sleep until 10:30 and then play video games all day. Junior must eat Pheasant Under Glass for lunch. Butch gets to have sweet tarts.
At times Junior can’t stand the unfairness of it all. He wants to give up and simply embrace the laissez fare lifestyle. That’s when his father takes him aside and says, “I know about Butch and how he seems to get all the breaks. But you are my child. One day you will be a king. All that I have will be yours.”
This drama plays out in the Christian experience when we feel ground down and decide that whatever we’re going through isn’t worth it. This is the last straw, and you can’t take anymore. Then you calm down in a day or two, and gravitate back to the more profound part of your being—your spirit—where the Holy Spirit is saying Child, heir. You decide that maybe you can keep going after all.
This must be the way of it.
But only for a while.