Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
The song goes, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” My first pastorate was in Tucson, AZ, and my first day of work was June 1. It started really hot, and for three months it only got hotter. I loved it. But when December came, it never really began to look a lot like Christmas. I didn’t love that. No leaves on the ground, no need for flannel and parkas, no way to cut down your own Christmas tree. Everything that grows in Tucson has needles, but not pine needles. I missed having the signs that told me Christmas was coming.
I don’t know whether you love the Christmas season or not. A pastor named Eric Schumacher recently wrote, “My parents divorced when I was 12. I haven’t had a holiday gathering with both my parents and all my brothers present for 31 years. I probably never will again. It is still incredibly painful every year. And I think I’ll mourn that until the day I die.” For some of us, celebrating Christmas is hard because of hard past memories or hard present realities; for others celebrating Christmas is wonderful because of wonderful past memories and wonderful present realities. For most of us, it’s some of both.
My hope during the Advent season here at church is not different than my hope at any other time during the year: to point us to the wonder of the good news of Jesus Christ. We printed a flyer with our Christmas service times on them. I don’t want you to hang it on your fridge. Please give it to a friend, coworker, family member, or neighbor so they can hang it on their fridge. I’ll be preaching the week before Christmas and Christmas Eve, and I’d love to see our church point people to Jesus who don’t often give him much attention.
Please turn with me in your Bible’s to the letter we call Romans. It’s in the New Testament, which is the part of the Bible written after Jesus came to earth. It’s a letter written to a church in the city of Rome, a church full of people trying to do what we’re trying to do: make sense of the good news of Jesus for our everyday lives.
We’ll be in chapter 8 right where Pastor Ben left off last week. Follow along with me as I read Romans 8:12–17, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
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. 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!” 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.
Pastor Ben and I have said to each other that if you’re a preacher who is going to preach through the letter of Romans, you need to be over fifty years old. That’s only sort of a joke. The theology and complexity of thought are too rich for otherwise. One of my pastor heroes calls Romans 8 the greatest chapter in the greatest letter in the greatest book ever written. In my opinion, that might not be an overstatement. I did add it up, however. Pastor Ben and I and Davis Younts (who is preaching next week) are not over fifty, but between the three of us, we have 106 years, so we thought this might qualify us to attempt to summit Romans 8.
Christians commonly call the season leading up to Christmas, Advent. The word advent means coming or arrival. The advent season allows for focused attention backward on the first advent of Jesus as the man born to die and attention forward to his second advent as the king come to reign. We celebrate Christmas between these two advents, the advent of the man born to die and the king come to reign. But during Advent, while all the faithful come to sing about being “joyful and triumphant” as we adore our savior, sometimes our understanding of Christmas being “joyful and triumphant” can seem merely sentimental and nostalgic—good food and family and friends and presents.
There’s that classic scene in the cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas when the narrator says, “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
I believe Romans 8 offers more than a little bit more. In Romans 8, God calls the faithful to come to adore the deeper joy and the more gritty triumph of Jesus, which is the joy and triumph that will sustain the children of God in a world long in sin and error and pining until the second advent of Jesus. “[I]n all these things,” Paul writes near the end of the chapter, “we are more than conquerors through [Jesus] who loved us” (8:37). The “these things” that we are more than triumphant over include, Paul writes, tribulation and famine, distress and danger (v. 35), which means we have more joy and triumph than can be bought from a store.
As Pastor Ben opened the series last week with the first eleven verses, he held high the gospel of free, undeserved grace Christians receive in the gospel. The opening verse in the chapter and the great theme in his sermon came from v. 1, which reads,
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
This means that everyone who is “in Christ” has no condemnation from God, not that we don’t deserve condemnation because of our sin but that we have no condemnation because God sent Jesus into the world to take our condemnation for us.
Some of you know that I went through the ordination process this fall. It involved a lengthy oral exam and the writing of a dense theological paper. One of the questions you’re required to answer in the paper asks, “What does it mean that you are in ‘union with Christ?’” This is the theme highlighted in verse one of Romans 8. For those “in Christ,” there is now no condemnation. So what does it mean to be “in Christ”? I wrote in my ordination paper,
Nearly one hundred times in the New Testament we read of believers being in Christ (e.g., 2 Cor 5:17; 1 Pet 5:14). Even more occurrences surface when we include variations of the phrase. In fact, sometimes the biblical authors even speak of Christ being in believers, not just believers being in Christ (Jn 15:4; Col 1:27). Union in Christ covers a range of aspects related to a believer’s salvation.
Simply put, to be in union with Christ is to have your life (now and into eternity) bound together with Christ in such a way that you receive all the saving benefits of the gospel (Col 3:3–4). To put it even more simply, union with Christ is like placing everything good about the gospel into a sack, labeling the sack “in Christ,” and handing it to a believer.
Last week Pastor Ben’s sermon took that sack of blessings, turned it upside down upon our heads, and shook for thirty-five minutes the glories of the gospel into our laps.
But the question hung out there, “What now?” If God has taken away all of our condemnation and corruption through Jesus because we are “in Christ,” do we have anything to do? Our passage this morning answers the question of “What now?” Because of the gospel reality that we are in union with Jesus and thus have no condemnation, in the power of the Spirit of God, Christians now begin to put our sin to death.
1. Put the flesh to death (by the power of the Spirit), vv. 12–14
Look with me at it in the words of our passage.
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. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
Paul begins with, “so then.” In light of all the treasures of heaven promised to us in the gospel, what are we to do? Answer: We are to put our sin to death in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul proclaims that because Jesus has freed us from the prison of sin, we need to not stay in prison any longer. Jesus threw open the prison door, so walk out of prison. Don’t say in bondage. That’s what Paul is saying. And he uses violent language to do so. “For if you live according to the flesh,” he writes in v. 13, “you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” That’s violent language.
A pastor in the seventeenth century named John Owen wrote a book called The Mortification of Sin. I re-read it last year. The famous line in the book says, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”
Jesus spoke often about this type of violence against our own sin, the war of the Christian life, the “be killing sin” part of Christianity. I’ll give one example from the gospel of Matthew. Jesus uses deliberate overstatement to make his point.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.(Matthew 5:27–32)
Notice that the point of Jesus’s words in Matthew 5 and the words of Paul in Romans 8, do not command us to go on a “sin diet,” like we just sin less and then have some “cheat meals” here and there. God commands us to starve sin, not diet from sin. Christians don’t seek to limit our sin; we do whatever we have to do to eliminate our sin.
And the word “our” in “our sin” is key. Christian, be far more concerned about your greed than the greed of corporate America. Be far more concerned about the sex viewed on your smartphone than the sex filmed in Hollywood. Be far more concerned about the health of your marriage than the cheapening of marriage by our government. God’s view of sin is that of something dangerous, something that robs us of joy and God of his glory. We don’t have this view; sin is something we laugh at and coddle.
There a lot of young people at our church. I love that. I’m not old enough yet to be your father, I could be your older brother. By some accounts and depending on what chart you look at, I’m the oldest millennial, so I don’t like it when people pick on millennials, pick on us. So please hear this as a loving encouragement from a brother who cares: as much as we talk about authenticity, transparency, and brokenness, let us also show one another how much we hate our sin by the war we make against our sin.
When Paul uses the word flesh here doesn’t mean skin and meat and bones but that part of your nature that opposes God. The flesh is at war with God (v. 7). And in the power of the Spirit, we are to slay our sin. Don’t miss that connection with the Spirit. Romans 8 teaches that the Spirit of God in the life of the believer does more than one thing, more than simply telling you that God loves you. Yes, the Spirit of God works in Christians to remind us of all the good we have in the gospel—forgiven, reconciled, adopted. But the Spirit also points out the sinful places in your life that need to die. This isn’t about having a minimum level of holiness before God will love you. Look, I will always love my children. But for us to sit at the dinner table and fellowship with joy, my children can’t be cursing when they think I’m not listening.
The way Satan points out your sin and the way the Spirit of God points out your sin is different. I heard a preacher put it like this once. The condemnation of Satan is ambiguous and broad and hopeless. The conviction brought by the Spirit, however, is focused, narrow, and hopeful. Satan tells you that you’re a loser. That’s ambiguous, broad, and hopeless. If you take your finger and put it in your shoulder and press on it with increasing pressure, that’s like the work of the Spirit, that’s how the conviction of God works. “Do you feel that?” the Spirit asks us. “This particular thing needs to go. Let me help you” he says.
So, in last week’s sermon, Ben told us all the good things we have in the gospel when we are “in Christ.” And this week, we see that being in Christ leads us to run from sin. Let me illustrate last week’s passage and this week’s passage. Let’s just say, you lived in an apartment. A lousy, evil landlord runs the apartment complex, but at first you didn’t know he was evil because he promised you a great place to live. But when it came time to move in, things change. Your rent doubles. Your heat stops working. Your bathroom plumbing breaks. Your electricity cuts in and out. Rats scurry around at night.
So you say, “Mr. Landlord, you promised this, and you promised that, and now it’s different. I want you to fix it.” He says, “Tough.” And every month he proceeds to pound on your door demanding his rent. Oppressing. You can’t leave. You’re a captive.
And then one day, a new owner buys the apartment complex, and he himself becomes the landlord, and he throws the lousy, evil landlord off the property and begins to fix the plumbing and evict the rats and restore everything to its proper place. Thankfulness wells up inside you. However, after the initial euphoria is gone, the old landlord, keeps coming around. He keeps walking with his clipboard around the apartment complex. And he keeps pounding on your door every month. “Pay up. Your rent is due,” he says. “You’re mine. You’re a debtor to me.” Do you know what you say?
You say, “No, Mr. Evil Landlord. I have a new landlord who is kind and wise and powerful and loving and just as he has thrown you off before, so he will do again every time I come to him to ask for his help because he is the great liberator. Security, show this impostor the door.”
That’s last week’s sermon. This week, we’re pressed with the questions of why we would vandalize the newly renovated property, why we are not content with the apartment he gave us, why we get so angry with the other tenants, who, by the way, are all also recipients of his grace.
Church, what in your life needs to die? If that sounds hard to you, it should. But don’t miss the promise. Look again at vv. 13–14.
. . . if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
As you kill your sin, you don’t earn sonship, you display it.
In passing before we go to the next point. Let me mention something about the word “sons” in the phrase “sons of God.” Later in the passage, which I’ll read in a moment, Paul uses the more general “children of God” not just “sons of God.” Those more critical to the Bible might take this to be evidence of patriarchal influence on the Bible. It’s actually the exact opposite.
In the first century, only a son would inherit the full and biggest blessing from the father. So, if Paul had spoken of “daughters of God,” many would have gone, “Well, that’s great, but daughters don’t get it all.” This is why Paul says “sons of God”; it’s not to slight what it means to be a “daughter of God” but to say that if you are a “child of God”—whether a son or daughter—you get the full inheritance of the father. Paul speaks of sons of God to celebrate the beautiful reality of adoption into God’s family, namely, that as a daughter of God, you have equal standing in the father’s house. All the children are sons, even when they are daughters.
2. Live as sons (in the assurance of the Spirit), vv. 15–17
Look with me again at the rest of the verses in our passage.
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!” 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.
That word of Abba denotes tenderness and intimacy. I don’t think pastors have been wrong equating Abba with our name Daddy. One pastor said, “I don’t feel respected if my children call me Dr. Ortlund. I feel put off.” In the same way, my children don’t call me Reverend Vrbicek. They call me Daddy.
In the gospels we read of Jesus one time speaking to his Father as “Abba Father.” Do you know the context? Let me read it to you.
32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:32–36)
The word Abba was squeezed out of Jesus during his greatest moments of suffering. Think about that. When our savior suffered, that’s when he cries, “Daddy!” That context should inform what we read here in Romans.
In contemporary, western Christianity we often have the assumption that we know our sonship best when we feel the most blessed. That’s not what this passage says, though. I’ll put it like this. We often assume as we stand in some alpine meadow with the sun shining and our bellies full and our bodies strong, we confidently cry out, “I am a child of God.” We’re joyful and triumphant.
But this cry of Abba Father is more like the helpless cry of a scared child in the dark who, rather than trying to find his own way out of the pain and rather than giving up in utter despair, instinctively shouts out “Daddy! Daddy! Are you there?”
That instinctive cry for Dad is not actually according to this passage an instinct but the work of the Spirit within the child of God. This is the deeper joy and gritty triumph of Romans 8.
When I first received my driver’s license in high school I was a pretty bad driver. I admit it. The number of my accidents reached the double digits. Most were at low speed and in parking lots, but one was not. It was an early Saturday morning in the spring. The roads were wet, and before you exit the highway you round a huge curve. The tires on my minivan slipped, the van fishtailed and scraped the guardrail. I stopped in the grass and got out. The headlight on the passenger side dangled like a detached eyeball. It was like someone took a knife in the side of the van and slashed.
I got back in, drove to the exit, and the other two minutes it took to get to the high school parking lot. I parked as far away as I could so no one would see. I was on the way to a track meet and had to catch the bus. In the locker room I called home to tell my father. We didn’t have cell phones. I remember staring at the red brick wall wondering what he would say. “Dad, I messed up,” and told him what happened. His first words were not, “You stupid son. How many times have we told you?” Instead, he said, “Are you okay?”
You can’t manipulate your impulses; they just sort of get squeezed out. When I whispered Daddy, love and care and concern squeezed out. He told me to get on the bus and we’d deal with it later. So I did. On the way out of the school campus, the bus full of my teammates drove by my minivan, and everyone laughed at me. But I knew my father loved me.
After Jesus was resurrected, he had numerous conversations with his disciples. In Luke 24, we read of Jesus speaking about how suffering comes before glory.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead . . . (Luke 24:44–46)
For Jesus, the truest Son of God, suffering came before glory. This is what Paul says of us too.
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.
If children, then heirs, Paul says. I don’t know what suffering you’re experiencing. I don’t know if you’re in high school, and everyone is laughing at you. I don’t know if slaying your sin is more difficult than you ever could have imagined. I don’t know if your parents divorced when you were twelve, and you’ve never had a Christmas as a complete family since. But I do know, that if you are a child, you are an heir. His inheritance becomes your inheritance. And if you are a child with a full inheritance coming, you can call God, Abba Father whenever you need him.
 Twitter, December 6, 2019, https://twitter.com/emschumacher/status/1202957942493986818.
 Ray Ortlund, “God’s Grace Is Better Than We Think” from Romans 8:12–16,” March 30, 2019, https://www.immanuelnashville.com/resources/multimedia/details?id=1630183.