Whom do you serve? Paul tells us that our identity as spiritual people means that “we are debtors” (Rom. 8:1–12). We were once slaves of our own sinful selves and Satan, but now we have been freed from them—to serve another. Who is this other?
Just being a creature means that we are indebted to God as our Creator (9:20–23). As Christians, who are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), we would naturally expect Paul to say here that we are indebted to God as our Father. After all, He sent His Son for us (Rom. 8:3). Or, we would expect him to say that we are indebted to the Son, Jesus Christ, who was condemned for us on the cross (v. 4). Yet Paul speaks of another indebtedness in Romans 8:12. When he says, “We are debtors, not to the flesh,” Paul points out that we are debtors particularly to the Holy Spirit.
What does this mean? We are to live as servants of the Spirit by turning from self, that is, “the flesh.” Paul has already told us that we are in the Spirit and not in the flesh. That’s the principle of our existence. In practice, though, we actually need to turn from the flesh, which, again, means our sinful nature that we inherited from Adam and that still clings to us like a “body of death” (7:24). Because this body of death still clings to us, we not only need to hear constantly what we are in Christ, but we also need to hear constantly exhortation to live in reality what we are theologically. We need to live here in this life in a way that reflects what God has made us in the life to come. By His grace He saved us, and by His grace He “train[s] us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
How? Paul reminds us of our life when we were outside of Christ. That life was characterized by our sinful natures being so powerful that we did not obey the law of God; indeed, we could not (8:7). Paul is telling us that by birth, we are in bondage to selfishness; by new birth, we are freed to be selfless. By nature we are able to serve only ourselves; by redemption we are enabled to serve God and our neighbors. This means our morality and philosophy is not based on Atlas Shrugged, which promotes the view that man’s highest responsibility is to his own happiness. Serving ourselves as our highest end is unchristian, unspiritual, and ungodly. Instead, when Paul says that “we are debtors not to the flesh” he is telling us that we are to turn away constantly from this way of thinking and living. Think about what you were before you came to Christ. Do you want to return to that life of bondage to self?
As Spirit-filled new creations, we are to die to serving ourselves, and instead serve the Spirit. In the memorable words of John Owen, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Or, as Thomas Manton said, “If you enter not into a war with sin, you enter into a war with God.” Whom do you serve? Self or the Spirit? As Spirit-filled new creations, we freely say, “I serve the Spirit.”