So, What’s Different?
Scripture: Romans 8:1–4
The title of my message this morning is, “So, What’s Different?” Think back with me to the point or time in your life when you put your faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Just for the sake of uniformity, let’s imagine it happened on Sunday night. Now, imagine waking up Monday morning and asking yourself the question: So, what’s different? What has changed? Most specifically, how have you changed? How are you different? What is the fundamental difference between you as a follower of Christ, and the person you were before you became a follower of Christ? I want you to hold onto that question, but push it to the back burner of your mind for a moment.
After a long detour in Romans 6 and 7, Paul is once again picking up the main thread of his message as he expounds the gospel of “a righteousness from God which is …by faith from first to last.” As we enter into Romans 8, I want to reintroduce and define a couple theological terms which will form an essential part of our vocabulary as we move forward. They are the words “justification” and “sanctification”. They are both big words with big meanings and profound implications. But to simplify them and draw the contrast between them as clearly as possible, we can define them this way. Justification means “declared righteous.” Sanctification means “made righteous.”
Justification is a legal declaration, whereby the high court of heaven declares our standing and legal status as “righteous.” It is a once for all act of God which he performs when we place our faith in Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. God reckons our faith as righteousness and declares us “not guilty” before his court.
Sanctification, however, is a process whereby we are “made righteous”, not legally, but in actual fact. Our actual behavior begins to change; our thoughts, attitudes, words and actions are transformed as we are molded increasingly into the men and women, boys and girls that God desires us to be.
In Romans 1-5, Paul has spoken almost exclusively about our justification; how we can be declared righteous before God by faith. In Romans 8, Paul is moving into a discussion of our sanctification; how we become righteous. In the opening paragraph of the chapter, he is making a careful transition from the one to the other. And it is important to see how and when he makes this transition. There is a lot packed into this opening paragraph. In fact, I started out to cover all 11 verses in this message, but on Wednesday afternoon, I realized I wasn’t going to make it. In fact, we’re only going to make it through the first 4 verses with a quick glance ahead into the rest of the paragraph.
This is not only a packed section, but it is also a rather difficult passage of Scripture, so I am going to ask you to listen carefully. I had a teacher named Mrs. Reed in 7th grade who was always admonishing us to “put your thinking caps on.” I am going to ask you to do that this morning.
We actually began our study of this passage by looking at Romans 8:1 in the message last week. That glorious statement: Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We know that this is a summary and conclusion from what has gone before. “Therefore”… Paul is drawing conclusions and implications. And this is a glorious summary of the first five chapters. “No condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Paul is here stating clearly the reality of our justification. We have been declared righteous before God’s court. There is no condemnation, no charge which can be made against us. We are righteous in God’s eyes.
This takes us on to the second verse. By the way, I have chosen to read this morning from the New American Standard Bible because it is the most literal of the translations, and therefore lets us see Paul’s original terminology the most clearly. Let’s look at verse 2: For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
I don’t mind admitting to you that this is a very challenging verse to interpret. Great evangelical preachers and scholars take different viewpoints. The first question that we must answer is whether Paul is here continuing to speak about our justification or is he introducing the topic of our sanctification? The answer to that question hinges on how we interpret the “the law of sin and death.” Is this a reference to the law of God; the law of Moses, the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, the Law with a capital “L”? Or can we translate the word “law” more loosely, as dominion and tyranny? Let’s try out the second one. If we take it this way, we would be saying that this verse is speaking about our sanctification and the presence and power of sin in our lives. We might paraphrase the verse this way: “Because the Spirit of Christ now rules in your life, you have been set free from the rule or dominion of sin and death.”
Let me say that I believe that paraphrase to be a true statement and even good theology. However, I do not think it is an accurate reproduction of what Paul is actually saying in this particular verse. First of all, it is a stretch to translate the word “law” in this way. Secondly, the tense of the verb describes an event that took place at a point in time, once for all. If this is describing our sanctification and the power of sin in our lives, what is the point in time in which we were “set free” from the power of sin? Finally, this interpretation does not seem to fit in the flow of Paul’s logic at this point.
So, let’s come back to the first option; that this is another statement about our justification and that the law referred to is indeed the law of God as encoded in the Old Testament. Would Paul refer to God’s law as “the law of sin and death”? I think he would in light of some of the things he said about the law in chapter 7; that the law stirs sin up and that sin takes advantage of the law to deceive us and kill us. At the end of the day, if we try to attain right standing with God by keeping the law, we end up condemned before God. We end up dead. But we have been set free from that law. We have been set free from trying to please God and earn our salvation by keeping the law. When were we set free from the law?
That is the question that Paul goes on to address in verse 3: For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,
This verse particularly is the reason I have chosen to use the New American Standard Bible, since it has kept the more literal translation of “the flesh” throughout, rather than interpreting it as the “sinful nature” the way the NIV does. Here we see that the law is clearly referring to the Old Testament law, which is in keeping with my interpretation of verse 2. When were we set free from the old law of sin and death? Before we answer “when”, let’s first consider some more important questions: who and how? The who is clear. There is one clear subject to this whole sentence; the only noun in the nominative case. It is God. God did it. God is the subject, the acting agent, the only power great enough to set us free. Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. What the law could not do… Why not? Because it was weak through the flesh. That is a good summary of Romans 7 and the description of Paul trying to keep the law. He couldn’t do it! He was a slave to sin. He could not keep the law. There was nothing wrong with the law. The problem was in Paul. The problem is in us. Do you remember Paul’s words in Romans 7:14? In the NIV it reads: We know that the law is spiritual but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. The New American Standard Bible translates that verse: For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of flesh… It is the same word that is used here in verse 3: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh…” The problem is in you and in me. In the flesh, in our natural, unregenerate state, we cannot keep the law. The law is not the problem. But because of the weakness of our fleshly state, nor is it the solution. But what the law could not do, God did.
That is the who. Now, what about the how? How did he do it? That’s what the rest of the verse tells us: by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.
We are swimming in deep theological waters here, so keep your thinking caps on! God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. The wording is very precise here. It was God’s own unique Son. We shall find a little later in Romans 8 that all believers are called “sons of God.” But this identifies Jesus as the unique Son, his own Son. He sent him in the likeness of sinful flesh. Jesus became the God-man. God in human flesh. It does not say that he was in “the likeness of flesh”. That would mean he was not fully human, but only appeared human, and as such he would not be one of us and could not have been a suitable mediator or sacrifice. On the other hand, if he had been exactly like us, he would have been a sinner. In which case, he would also not have been eligible to serve as a sacrifice for us. But God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Jesus was human or “flesh” in every sense except that he was without sin. The purpose of his coming is also clear. God sent him as “an offering for sin.” As the sinless Son of God come in human flesh, he was the perfect and only suitable offering for sin.
By sending his own Son as an offering for sin, God accomplished something very significant. It is found in the concluding phrase of the verse and it is the primary, driving verb of the whole sentence. He condemned sin in the flesh.
Once again, we are required to keep our thinking caps on. What does this phrase mean? He condemned sin in the flesh.
When you and I speak of condemning sin, it is usually the equivalent of identifying sinful behavior and saying it is bad. For example we might condemn lying and cruelty and immorality. Such behavior is bad. Such actions are wicked. We condemn sin, and in the process we condemn the people who practice such behaviors. But that cannot be what Paul is saying here. Because, after all, that is the one thing that the law does very well; it condemns sin as sin and pronounces it evil. Yet this is something that the verse tells us the law could not do. It was something only God could do.
To understand what Paul is saying here, we must expand our understanding of the word “condemn”. Think of it as the response of the court to a guilty person. As such, it includes the determination of guilt, the declaration of guilt, the setting of the sentence and the carrying out of the sentence. All are included within and under the authority of the court and all are necessary in the maintaining of justice. When God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. He determined the guilt of all of Adam’s race, he declared us guilty, he set the sentence of death, and he carried out the sentence. He finished the matter then and there.
Paul says it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…And then God carried out the sentence of death on the cross. Isaiah 53:6 says it this way: We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. And when all our iniquity was laid on him, God carried out the sentence. Christ died, the godly for the ungodly. 1 Peter 3:18 says it this way: For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. On the cross, Christ died for sins once for all. The sentence was carried out. Sin in the flesh was determined, declared and punished once for all time. God condemned sin in the flesh.
He did this, according to verse 4: in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us. I love this verse. And the key to understanding it is to recognize that it is not talking about our sanctification; not yet. Paul is still talking about our justification. How are the righteous requirements of the law met in you and in me? Not by our own righteous deeds, but by the fact that our sins were laid on Christ, the perfect sacrifice, and he paid the penalty for our sins. The righteous requirements of the law were fulfilled by the death of Christ for us. Our sins were laid on Christ, but not only that, but according to the rest of 2 Corinthians 5:21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. If we are in Christ, Christ’s righteousness has now been laid on or attributed to us. The righteous requirements of the law have been fully met in us.
We are back to where we began in verse 1: Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Why not? Because the righteous requirements of the law have been fully met for us and in us. And because the requirements of the law have been fulfilled, we have been set free from the law. We have been set free from ever again needing to earn God’s approval by our efforts to keep God’s law because Christ kept the law for us.
It is my conclusion that verses 1-4 are all about justification; the once for all act of God when he declared us righteous before his court because Christ fulfilled all the requirements of the law for us. But while verses 1-4 are all about justification, they also provide a key hinge and introduction to Paul’s next great topic; the topic of sanctification. He does so by introducing the key agent, the active power who is able to take us and mold us into the people God wants us to be. Who is that key agent? He is the Holy Spirit. He is introduced in verse 2 in that phrase, “the law of the Spirit of life.” I think the translations rightly capitalize the word “Spirit” in this verse. But what does Paul mean by the “law of the Spirit of life”? I think the easiest way to explain this is to link this verse with what Paul said in Romans 7:6: But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. We were under the old way of the written code, the Law of God written on tablets of stone, on scrolls and on paper. We have been released from that law. But we have not been released to run riot into sin, but to serve in a new way, under a new law and a new authority. This new way is the way of the Spirit, the law of the Spirit of life which he writes on our hearts. It is a new way because we are now empowered by the indwelling, life-giving Spirit of God.
This is where Paul concludes verse 4. He identifies the recipients of the grace of God which he has been describing in the first 4 verses as us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. The Spirit of God is the key agent in producing sanctification and holy living in us. We will be discovering more about him in the rest of chapter 8, but let me just point out a few things very quickly. He is identified in several ways in these verses. First, he is simply called “the Spirit”. Then in verse 9 he is called the Spirit of God. Then in the second half of that verse he is called “the Spirit of Christ.” And finally in verse 10 he is simply referred to as “Christ.” In each of these references he is described as dwelling in the believer. In fact, in verse 9, Paul is so bold as to say, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”
In the introduction to my message, I asked the question: So what’s different? If you believed in and trusted in Christ and were saved on a Sunday night, what would be different on Monday morning? I would now like to propose two answers to that question. The first one is that you are in Christ. All the glorious truths of justification that we have been talking about are yours because you have been baptized or placed into Christ Jesus and there is no condemnation. When you think of the doctrine of justification, think of that phrase: “I am in Christ.”
But that is not all that is different. There is another glorious reality, another dramatic, life-changing difference. Christ is in you. This is glorious, liberating doctrine and life-changing reality. When you trusted in Christ, not only were you placed into Christ, but Christ, in the person of his Spirit, came to live in you. You became one of those who no longer walks in the realm of the flesh as a descendant of Adam. You became one of those who walks under the authority and influence of the life-giving, life-changing Spirit of God. It is a fundamental difference. You cannot and will not ever be the same again. When you think of the doctrine of sanctification, think of the phrase: “Christ is in me.”
Neither doctrine is true without the other. Neither reality is complete without the other. Without justification, there can be no true sanctification. And where there is true justification, sanctification will follow, because one of the realities of our justification is that the Spirit of Christ takes up residence in the one who has been justified. If the Spirit of Christ is not in you, you are not in Christ. If you are in Christ, Spirit of Christ is in you. This is Gospel reality; saving, life-changing, glorious reality. As Paul announced in Romans 1:17: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes… It all begins with faith; believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Describe your thoughts, feelings, and experience in the days and weeks immediately after you trusted in Christ as Savior. (Note: If you accepted Christ when you were very young, you may have difficulty doing this. That’s OK! Also, this question may raise the question in your mind as to whether you have actually taken this step. Feel free to share this with your group as well and discuss it with them.)
- In this message, Pastor Cam defines justification as “declared righteous” and sanctification as “made righteous.” Discuss the distinction between these two words and concepts. What happens when we fail to understand the distinction? Which one comes first? What happens when we confuse the order in our understanding?
- In the message, Pastor Cam summarized the wonderful truths of justification in the phrase “I am in Christ” and the truths of our sanctification in the phrase, “Christ is in me.” Do you find this distinction helpful? Why or why not? What are some things that are true of us since we are “in Christ”? (Note: you may need to do some reviewing of earlier chapters of Romans to answer this.) What are the implications of the reality that “Christ (his Spirit) is in me?” (Note: Galatians 2:20 may be a helpful parallel verse to consider.)