Living the Christian Life in Romans
For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if through the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you shall live - Romans 8:13.
This verse has troubled me: how do I put to death the deeds of the body through the Spirit and how does it relate to Romans chapters 6 and 7?
What I saw for the first time (I think I am rather slow) is the distinction that Paul makes between sin, the law and the flesh. In Romans 6 Paul is speaking about being dead to sin (v2), reckoning ourselves dead to sin (v11), and not allowing sin to reign in our bodies (vv. 12-14 etc). In Romans 7, Paul shows us that we are dead to the law by the body of Christ (v4) that we might be married to Christ who was raised from the dead. In Romans 8, Paul shows us that it is our flesh that makes the law powerless to help us and that living in the flesh leads to sin because sin resides in the flesh (v3).
Dead to Sin
One of the key problems we must grapple with as Christians is how to live godly lives. We all understand that we are positionally dead to sin when we become Christians and are baptised into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). At that moment, as we see from Romans 6, we are dead to sin but the challenge for us is to stop sinning. Paul is uncompromising that being dead to sin we must no longer live in sin which implies that Christians have the ability and inclination to sin. His answer in chapter 6 is to tell us to reckon ourselves dead to sin and to yield ourselves to God.
Free From the Law
However, we can only yield ourselves to God if we are no longer under the condemnation of the law because the law condemns all sin, the wages of which is death (Romans 6:23). Paul explains in chapter 7 that we are now dead to the law by the body of Christ (v4) that we might serve another because Christ has fufilled the law for us. There is a vivid illustration of this in Colossians 2:13-15:-
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, has He made alive together with Him, having forgiven all your trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having disarmed principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
On the cross, the Lord Jesus blotted out all our sins which the law condemned in us: although the law said we should die, each of us who deserves death but trusted in Christ has been freed from the condemnation of the law. I wonder if you know the chorus from the hymn, “I’m happy, glad and free” by Seth and Bettie Sykes:
God has blotted them out,
God has blotted them out,
My sins like a cloud hung over me,
He blotted them out when He set me free.
God has blotted them out,
God has blotted them out.
The link between the law and sin is important to understand if we are also to understand Paul’s reasoning in chapter 7. The purpose of the moral law was to shine a spotlight on sin. We can see how this principle works in our domestic law in the UK in relation to homosexuality. Up until 1967 it was a criminal offence for a male to engage in sexual intercourse with another male of whatever age in private but in 1967 it was legalised for men over the age of 21. Therefore there is now no law to say that homosexual acts in private are wrong for those over 21 and therefore no offence is committed by men who engaged in such acts. Just as Governments need laws to warn people the limits of their behaviour and the consequences of breaking those laws, so God’s law performs the same function on human conduct by revealing what is sin: both the corrupt heart that comes from a sinful nature and the resulting acts of sin. God’s law also proclaims the penalty, which is spiritual death, leading to the second death – see Revelation 20:14-15.
Paul’s argument in Romans 7 shows that it is not the law that is the problem but sin. This is summed up in verse 7:
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. No, I had not known sin, except through the law: for I would not have known covetousness, except the law had said, You shall not covet.
Paul goes on to show how the law is holy but that I am sold under sin (v14). This is the condition of every man and as a result he is unable to obey the law. Now in verse 15, Paul describes the conundrum that many have experienced, both as Christians and as non-Christians:
For what I am doing: I do not understand. For what I would do, I do not; but what I hate, that I do.
Before I was a Christian this was certainly my experience, wasn’t it yours? How I wish it was never my experience as a Christian. Some Christians have concluded that this is the experience of the Christian, too, and that we will never know victory over our old nature. One of the reasons for taking this view is found in verse 22: “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man”. This, people say, cannot refer to anyone except a Christian. We must remember that Paul was a zealous Jew who strove to keep the Law and therefore if anyone would have delighted over it as a non-Christian, it would have been him.
The Key to Pleasing God in this Life
I believe chapter 8 provides the answer because it shows us that the problem with the law was that, while it is perfect, it is powerless to help a human being who is still governed by his fallen nature or his flesh. Verse 3 puts it succinctly:
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.
The power to live for any human being comes from the flesh and so is destined to lead to sin. But now, as a Christian all has changed because God has given us His Spirit! This is quite wonderful! Not only are we free from the sins of the past but we are not destined to live according to sinful practices in the future. Verse 9 reassures us that every Christian has been given the Spirit of Christ otherwise we could not be Christians. Therefore every Christian is able to please G d and what wonderful fruit this produces because “to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (v6). In Colossians 3:15 Paul exhorts us to “let the peace of God rule in our hearts”. Peace comes from having clear consciences before the Lord and by walking in His Will.
Once we become Christians we are led by God’s Spirit (v14). Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10 that we are saved for good works that God has already prepared for us and so the leading of the Spirit will be to do those good works. God’s Spirit will therefore lead us to live holy lives and do the works He has prepared for us. So when I am not sure which course to take in life, one way of arriving at the right decision is to take that course that leads to peace in my heart. I can remember one occasion when this advice was given o me over a particularly important decision. It was not the way my flesh wanted to go but it was the direction of peace in my heart. Let us not make decisions that lead to inward turmoil!
In verse 13 we see how the flesh is overcome by the Spirit to enable us to live a victorious and overcoming Christian life: “but if you through the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body, you shall live”. We put to death the deeds of the body through the Spirit. Living life according to our natural understanding is a disaster! How do we avoid this trap? I believe Romans 12:1-2 provides the answer:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Dying to self is the key to living for Christ! The Lord Himself told us that we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Him. We need therefore to make up our minds to follow the Lord Jesus. Note Romans 8:5:
For they that live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh; but they that live according to the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
Our minds need to be fixed on the things of Christ. Isn’t it wonderful to know that we are no longer debtors to the flesh Romans 8:12)? In other words we no longer owe the old nature anything. We are not bound to follow the old pattern of thoughts but are free for our minds to be transformed by the Spirit of Christ! Let us fill ourselves with the Word of God and allow His Word to shape all we do. Let us also remove the objects of temptation from us (cutting them off as so graphically described by the Lord in Mark 9:43-50). This way we will be led by the Spirit into those good works prepared for each of us.
About the author
Mark Mullins is a practising barrister at the Bar of England and Wales. He is also an elder at Stroud Green Christian Assembly (a traditional Pentecostal church started out of a Smith Wigglesworth crusade in the 1920s). The Assembly has had links with CWM since CWM was formed (www.sgca-online.org).