Preached by Ben Bechtel
I once heard one of my personal favorite theologians say something about art that has always stuck with me. Bad art, he says, is always one dimensional: it is either too brutal, only touching on the evils and horrors of this world, or it is too sentimental, only touching on the goodness and joy of this world. Good art is always a blend of both, acknowledging the real presence of evil in the world while also acknowledging the hope that things can and will be better. We who are Christians recognize this to be even more true, given that God’s good world has been corrupted by sin, but that Jesus has come to redeem God’s world.
If this is the definition of good art, then Romans chapter 8 is a masterpiece. It speaks simultaneously of the curse that human sin has placed this world under while also speaking in some of the most elevated language in the Bible about the ultimate hope for the Christian. This chapter begins with “no condemnation” by God and ends with “no separation” from God. In this majestic chapter, the Spirit of God wants our souls to be deeply comforted and assured of all that is ours in Christ Jesus.
And if there is a time of the year in which we need to be assured of God’s love it is Christmas because so often this is a season which leaves us feeling unstable. It is a time when you remember and grieve a loved one’s death acutely. It is a time when you want to spend time loving your spouse and children, but pornography continues to knock at the door. It is a time when you feel the deep ache of desiring a spouse but not having someone with whom to share the season. It is a time when you cave into the materialistic demands of Christmas and feel like failed parents, either by getting your children everything and asking yourself deep down, “do we really need this,” or by not being able to give your children what they want. This season, the season when we are supposed to sing of good tidings of great cheer, often leaves us crushed and singing the blues. Yet, this Christmas, God wants to lift us from this place by his gospel so that we may truly be joyful and triumphant as we sing in that classic hymn every Christmas. Let’s read Romans 8:1-11:
There 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. 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.
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.
1. Death in the Old Domain
This passage teaches us that where we are determines who we are. The domain we inhabit dictates our destiny. On a smaller scale, we all see this to be true in our lives. Where we grow up determines so much about who we are and what we will become in our lives. Even though I can look at scrapple on a plate and objectively say that it looks disgusting, I’ll eat it ten out of ten times if it is put in front of me. This passage presents us with two domains in which all people live, the flesh, which produces death, and the Spirit, who produces life. Naturally, we all live in the flesh.
When Paul talks about the flesh he isn’t talking about our bodies. He is not creating some type of dualism where our flesh, the flesh of our bodies or the physical stuff of earth is inferior to the spiritual stuff. Rather, the flesh is an environment that is characterized by slavery, sin, weakness, anxiety, failure, not measuring up, and death. This environment was epitomized by the time in the Bible called the old covenant when God’s law good law produced death in sinful people because of their enslavement in the flesh. Living in the environment of the flesh is like being dropped in the middle of a one hundred square mile field of quicksand. Every attempt to get out by our own efforts only gets us deeper entrenched in the mud. The flesh is us as humans left to ourselves in our own natural habitat, and it’s not pretty.
Verses 5-8 give us a very realistic picture of human nature as it is in the flesh. Notice first, in verses 5-6, that the domain of the flesh produces a given mindset in us. Those who are in the flesh and living according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh. This term “mindset” here isn’t so much just talking about our brains but the seat of our desires. You could translate the word “mindset” as the word “disposition.” It is talking about what we are drawn to because of who we are and where we are. This makes sense to any of us who know the differences between dogs and cats. Dogs, because they are dogs, set their minds on dog things. For my dogs it’s food, human love, and their frisbee, always. Cats, because they are cats, set their minds on cat things, like thinking they are better than everyone else and rubbing their claws on stuff. My point is, their nature determines their desires.
And this is tragic for us. If you look at verse 6 again you will see that the mindset of the flesh is death. It is characterized by death and leads to death. In the flesh, the sinful actions you are disposed to will ultimately condemn you. This is because, as verse 7 tells us, part of that disposition, that mindset of the flesh is war with God. Life in the flesh is always a wartime environment of disobedience to God’s commands and that war will only end in condemnation. Then, the real sucker punch comes at the end of verse 7 and into verse 8:
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.
Not only is it a fact that those in the flesh do not please God, not only are they disposed to not please God, but it is not possible for those in the flesh to please God. Ultimately, our natural selves as human beings do not, and cannot, please God, resulting in our condemnation and death.
Let that sink in. All our attempts to prove to God of our inherent goodness are like trying to claw our way out of quicksand. All our efforts to just try a little harder next time are like trying to breath clean air in a coal mine. There is a religious way the flesh manifests itself too. We show up to church, we read our Bible and pray, we do some good for others and we do it all to get God and other people in our debt. In the flesh our experience of life is death. Sure, we may look at some people and think they have it easier: they don’t have any financial difficulties and are able to give their kids whatever they want for Christmas. If you stop and ask them though, they, just like you, experience life as death. Material stuff can’t get down that deep. Without a miracle and left to ourselves we are doomed. We need a complete renovation, a complete overhaul both inside and out, of both our environment and our heart.
Do you think this is true of you? Do you think this is an honest assessment of your state, of your situation in life and before God? Do you see yourself as this desperate? If not, you’re not ready for the Christian message of good news because the only prerequisite for receiving this good news is acknowledging that left to yourself you are a hopeless idiot.
2. Life in the New Domain
This is precisely where God delights to step in. Once we see that we are utterly desperate, that’s when God delights to show up and pluck us up out of the mud (v. 9):
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.
This is the miracle we need! God breaks into our domain and brings us life and peace by his Spirit in Christ. He takes us from a nuclear fallout zone and plants us in the lush garden of his Spirit. By his Spirit God miraculously breaks into our stuck, dead end lives of death in the flesh and he transfers us into the realm of the Spirit. Another way we can describe this realm is being “in Christ.” God takes us sinners out of our hopeless situations and gives us the best he has to offer, himself! And not only that, but being encapsulated in Christ means that every blessing that is Christ’s is now yours. This is too good to be true and yet it is. Let’s look together at two of these blessings now yours in Christ.
a. No Condemnation
Read verse 1 with me again:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
I could just pray and walk off the stage right now and you’d have enough to live on! Those who in the flesh are condemned by God now have declared over us no condemnation. And when does this declaration happen? Not five years from now, not when we get to heaven, not when we finally get our acts together. It happens now! There is a difference in reducing a prisoner’s sentence or putting someone on parole or probation and declaring that someone has a free and instantaneous acquittal. God gives us an instantaneous acquittal! We don’t have to be on probation. God doesn’t give us a trial run to see how this will go. He plants you in Christ by his Spirit and in that moment he declares that right now and for eternity there is no more condemnation for you from his divine throne room! Eternal life is yours now.
Now, how does God do this? How does he declare us to have no condemnation? Look at verses 3-4 with me:
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…
The law could not save us. The old covenant law could not save the people of Israel. And so, God sent his own Son in human form in order to remedy this problem. God entered into our domain without himself becoming polluted by it in order to redeem us out of it. This is the hope of Christmas! In the fullness of time, as Paul says in Galatians 4, the Son of God became a man and subjected himself to this rebellious world order for our sakes.
Although Christmas tends to be a time of sentimental realities and Hallmark movies, look at the brutality and grittiness of Christmas here in these verses. Jesus came on a mission of war and self-sacrifice. Jesus came for the purpose of giving up his own life for his people. Jesus was born to die. The incarnation is not just all about baby Jesus lying in a manger. Our sin is real, and it has real effects both in this world and for our eternal standing before God. Someone has to pay the consequences for our sin. In order for us to cry out in the joy of no condemnation Jesus had to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46). The gospel doesn’t downplay the horror of our offenses. The cross displays the true beauty of brutality and hope together and only in this can we have hope.
What this means for us, is that today, right now, no matter what other people, the devil, or yourself might say to you, you cannot be touched because God has declared you justified, forgiven, and free. No one can condemn you when this is your reality. You have the peace and acceptance of almighty God! When Satan accuses you of being nothing more than a dirty perverted porn addict or doing something that is utterly unforgiveable, or when you condemn yourself of being a lousy parent or of being a waste of space, you tell Satan and yourself this Christmas that because Jesus entered the flesh your sin was condemned in the flesh and there is nothing left to condemn you! Can you imagine if we lived like this were true for thirty minutes a day how different our lives would be? These are words for your entire life!
b. No Corruption
We’re not even done yet. There’s no such thing as overhyping Romans 8. Not only do we receive in Christ no condemnation for our sins, but we are actually changed so that we can be freed from sin internally to live a life pleasing to God. Your transfer from the realm of the flesh to the realm of the Spirit transforms you. The Spirit of God goes down deep into you and makes his residence there and begins a lifelong remodeling project. He changes our desires from the ground up so that we no longer have to live like cats being disposed towards cat things, we can live like dogs being disposed to the glories of dog life. Yes, I did just put cats in the realm of the flesh. Our heart’s deepest desire changes when God transfers our address such that what you really want as a Christian is God’s law. You go from war against God to following after God.
In the Spirit, your entire experience of life changes. Because the Spirit of life dwells in you, you now begin to experience real, everlasting life in God. You no longer have to be crippled by people pleasing, focusing on yourself, feeling constant anxiety about not doing enough, slavishly returning to your sinful habits and the shame that accompanies them. No, in the Spirit your life experience is one of peace with God, love for God and neighbor, and fellowship with God by walking with him in obedience. That type of life in the Spirit is like breathing crisp mountain air for the first time.
And the best part is, you really can now in the Spirit please God. Like a father graciously bears with his growing child as the child is fumbling around trying to learn what is right and wrong so God bears with his children. Yes, God does look at us and see the righteousness of Jesus and that is the only ground of our eternal standing before God. All our good works are filthy rags. Yet, as we obey him, as we stumble along the pathway of obedience in reliance on his Spirit, God looks at us and smiles.
But wait, there is more. Read verses 10-11 with me as we close:
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.
Does anyone hear that line in verse 10 about the body being dead because of sin and just want to give a hearty amen? We all see this, don’t we? Sin has not just corrupted our desires internally but our bodies externally. Yet, there is hope for this too in the Spirit. If you have the Spirit of God dwelling in you now, your resurrection is a done deal. It’s guaranteed. That’s why Paul calls the Spirit in Ephesians 1:14 “the guarantee of our inheritance.” If you have the Spirit, your resurrection right now is as good as done. It only gets better from here.
This is all because Jesus became incarnate. If God had not become a man, in a human flesh and blood body in the domain of the flesh we would have no hope for our bodies. But because of Christmas, despite the struggles so many of you are facing against sin’s ravaging effects on the human body, you will be raised again. And when you are raised you will not only get a new body, but you will get to see Jesus, the true reward of your salvation: Jesus, the most brutalized and yet most glorified person, the true beauty our hearts are all longing for.
 I have heard N.T. Wright say this on multiple occasions but I cannot recall where.
 John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1995), 217.