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How would you answer if I were to ask, “Who are you?” No doubt you’d say things about where you’re from, what you enjoy, and what you do for a living. As we look to Romans 8, Paul states our identity up front: we’re “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1–2). As we saw in the previous article, that means we’re justified and no longer condemned. Our assurance is a Christ-centered reality. In addition, Paul mentions the Holy Spirit nineteen times in verses 1–27. In other words, because we’re in Christ we’re also in the Spirit. In this second article, I’d like to exposit and apply verses 5–17 as Paul proclaims assurance as a Spirit-produced reality.

Contrasting Identities (Rom. 8:5–8)

A Different Kind of People. The ESV refers to “those who live according to the flesh” and “those who live according to the Spirit.” The Greek word translated “live” (ontes), however, is better translated as “are”: He actually says “those who are according to the flesh” versus “those who are according to the Spirit.” To be “according to the flesh” is to be born dead in sin, under condemnation, and in bondage to sin and death. To be “according to the Spirit” is to be born again, alive in the Spirit, not under condemnation, and liberated from sin and death. John Owen said, “The difference between these two states is great . . . the distance in a manner infinite, because an eternity in blessedness or misery doth depend upon it.” There are those whose lifestyle is a living out of their reality of being “according to the flesh.” Then there are those whose lifestyle is a living out of their being “according to the Spirit”—that is, the Holy Spirit. What’s the big difference? The Spirit.

A Different Kind of Power. A while back, my second son and I read a book about classic cars, which also described how engines work. Engines used to be steam powered. Water was boiled, the steam turned a crank, and that turned wheels. But cars were slow. Eventually the internal combustion engine was developed. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the internal combustion engine clearly made it possible for us to have faster cars. Vehicles before and after had engines, but they used different things to power them.

Similarly, Paul says there are two different empowerments when it comes to human beings. Some are empowered by “the flesh,” others by “the Spirit.” To be empowered by the flesh means living according to our own selfish desires, not God’s. Augustine described our sinful state as being incurvatus in se, curved in on itself. This is our natural state apart from grace. Yet Christians, Paul says, are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Of course, sometimes we may not feel like we have that power. We might say: “But I’m selfish. I’m easily tempted. I give in to the works of the flesh.” However, the difference on this side of glory between those who are empowered by the Spirit and those who are empowered by the flesh isn’t that the former are sinless. The difference is that those who are empowered by the Spirit struggle with being led by self or the Spirit whereas those empowered by the flesh never struggle against being led by the self but instead follow the self. Those who are led by the Spirit struggle against the flesh even though sometimes they follow the flesh. In the main, the desire and direction of their hearts are to please God rather than self.

A Different Kind of Passion. The contrast is those who “set their minds on the things of the flesh” versus those who “set their minds the things of the Spirit.” Mind doesn’t mean what’s going on mentally. Paul is speaking of the center of who we are in total: mind, will, and affections. Before Jesus took over my life, my burning passion was to play in the NBA. This led to my teenage years’ being spent in playing basketball every moment I could: dribbling a basketball as I walked to school, shooting a ball up at the ceiling as I lay on the floor at night, playing every moment I could. Paul says: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. . . . Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1–2, emphasis added).

A Different Kind of Purpose. The purpose of our passions is to be taken up with “the things of the Spirit”: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). The things of the Holy Spirit are those things that lead to our holiness. One purpose of our being justified is that we’ll be sanctified as well. Sometimes, however, we confess: “I don’t feel very spiritual. My life doesn’t look very holy.” Yet while we may not feel particularly enlivened by the Spirit now, the Word says that we are. Have you seen those dermatology photographs that show not what you can already see in the mirror but what your skin really looks like? There’s the “you” that you can see, and then there’s the “you” that you can’t see. What can’t be seen yet is nonetheless real, so we must embrace our hidden identity by faith.

Yet while we may not feel particularly enlivened by the Spirit now, the Word says that we are.

This contrast is illustrated in Romans 8:6–8, which explains why life in the flesh is so terrible. The end of the life that “set[s]the mind on the flesh is death.” In contrast, the end of the life that “set[s] the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). The terrible reality outside of Christ is a life of hostility: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Rom. 8:7). That word “hostile” is used by Paul to illustrate ethnic and racial hatred between Jews and gentiles, between whom there was a “dividing wall of hostility(Eph. 2:14, 16, emphasis added). That’s just a faint reflection of our hostility to God Himself. The terrible reality outside of Christ is a life of inability: the mind of the flesh “does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” The unbeliever is unable to love God above all else and others more than self. Worse yet, the fleshly mind “cannot” be obedient to God’s law. Humanity outside of Jesus is totally unable in the mind, will, body, and affections to perfectly obey God’s laws as He requires. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” (Jer. 13:23). Paul summarizes the unbeliever’s inability to please God: “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).

The Spirit of Assurance (Rom. 8:9–11)

We’re in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). In verse 9, Paul says we’re not under condemnation and that we’ll never experience separation because we’re in the Spirit. John Calvin said Paul wrote these words “that they may conclude for certain that they belonged to the number of those for whom Christ removed the curse of the law.” Having described life apart from Jesus Christ using the third person (“mind,” “it,” and “those”), he transitions to the second person plural: you all. By using the adversative “however,” Paul states a stark contrast: those in the flesh versus those in the Spirit are as different as darkness and light. Fleshly people are hostile to God, are unsubmissive to His law, can’t submit to His law, and can’t please Him. You are spiritual people, reconciled to God, submissive to His law, willing to submit to it, and pleasing to Him. If you’re having a hard time seeing that in your life, think of the Christian life as a good hymn. There are many stanzas with differing moods, expressing ups and downs, joys and sorrows. After each stanza, we return to the refrain. No matter if you’re feeling high or low, no matter if you’re experiencing close communion with God or have that communion temporarily severed by your sins, you always come back to the refrain of Jesus Christ.

I hear the Savior say,

“Thy strength indeed is small.

Child of weakness, watch and pray,

Find in Me thine all in all.”

Jesus paid it all,

All to Him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow.

The Spirit Is in Us (Rom. 8:9). The Spirit is also in us. The Spirit’s presence is the difference between being “in the flesh” or “in the Spirit.” “You . . . are . . . in the Spirit if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” “If in fact” (Greek eiper) is rhetorical; it’s not meant to be hypothetical. The meaning is “since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (see Rom. 3:30) because Paul has already said, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5, emphasis added) and “the Spirit of life has set you free” (Rom. 8:2, emphasis added). The Spirit is the sine qua non of being a Christian; without Him, we have no assurance of being in Christ. It’s not baptism, your intellectual grasp of doctrine, your profound profession of faith, your parents’ faith, or church membership—apart from the Spirit, these mean nothing.

Why? Not only are “you . . . in the Spirit” but also “the Spirit of God dwells in you” (emphasis added). Dwelling is the language of intimacy. As God, He “dwells” everywhere essentially, but He “dwells” in us intimately as a family dwells together in a house: He is in us as He is nowhere else. God once dwelt in the tabernacle and temple; now He dwells “in you.” Dwelling is the language of constancy. If you’re a believer, the Spirit doesn’t merely come “upon” or “alongside” as He did in ancient times; He will “be with you forever” (John 14:16). He’s not merely a temporary houseguest; He’s a resident. Dwelling is the language of community. Paul calls Him “the Spirit, the Spirit of God,” and “the Spirit of Christ.” The Spirit’s dwelling in us assures that we’ve been brought into communion and fellowship with Father, Son, and Spirit.

He Is Lord and Giver of Life (Rom. 8:10–11). In verse 9, Paul speaks of the Spirit simply as “the Spirit,” distinct from “Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1–2) as well as God the Father (Rom. 8:3). Yet He performs the works of the one God: He is “the Spirit of life” who liberates us from “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2) and raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 8:11).

If you’re a believer, the Spirit doesn’t merely come “upon” or “alongside” as He did in ancient times; He will “be with you forever.”

As Lord and giver of life, He gives new life in the body now because He “dwells in [us]” (Rom. 8:9). Since the Spirit dwells in us, “although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:10). Up to this point, Paul spoke of “the flesh.” Now he speaks of our material bodies. They’re “dead because of sin”: “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Rom. 5:12). From conception, the principle of death is a part of our existence. From the moment we take our first breaths outside the womb, the clock begins to tick on our lives. Although that’s true of our bodies, Paul says “the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:10). He’s been contrasting flesh and the Holy Spirit. Because he shifts to speaking of the “body,” when he says “spirit” he’s making a contrast between our bodies and our spirits, our outer and our inner selves, so to speak. (See Rom. 8:10, NASB, NASB1995: “Though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.”) Our bodies are dying due to sin, but our spirits have been made alive “because of righteousness” as the cause of new life. Paul sums this up in Romans 5:18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Our bodies are mortal because of Adam; our spirits are alive because of Jesus. Our spirits are alive because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us but also because of the righteousness imparted to us through the indwelling Spirit.

As Lord and giver of life, He will give us new life of the body at the return of Christ. He is at work in us now and will complete that work when He raises us on the last day. Note the parallelism between God raising Jesus from the dead and our being raised up: “If [since] 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.” How? “Through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). There’s something true of us now: the Spirit dwells in you. And there will be something true then: He’ll resurrect you.

Servants of the Spirit (Rom. 8:12–13)

“So then,” because of our identity as Spirit-filled people, “we are debtors not to the flesh” (Rom. 8:12). “Not to the flesh” means “to the Spirit.” We expect Paul to say we’re indebted to God the Father, who sent His Son for us (Rom. 8:3). We expect him to say we’re indebted to the Son, who was condemned for us (Rom. 8:4). But he says we’re especially debtors to the Holy Spirit not only by virtue of our creation but even more so by virtue of His making us a new creation.

By Turning from Self. Our indebtedness is not to the flesh” (Rom. 8:12) because we’re in the Spirit. In practice, though, we actually need to turn from the flesh and live out in reality what we are theologically. By birth we’re in bondage to selfishness; by new birth we’re freed to be selfless. By nature since the fall, we’re only able to serve ourselves; by redemption, we’re enabled to serve God and neighbor. This is why the morality and philosophy of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is un-Christian, unspiritual, and ungodly. It promotes the view that man’s highest morality and responsibility are his own happiness. “We are debtors not to the flesh” or to our own happiness. We need to live in this life in a way that reflects what God has made us to be in the life to come, because life outside of Christ under the power of our sin leads us down a path that only ends in one place: death (Rom. 8:6). Paul isn’t saying this of the world—we already know that about them—he’s saying this to us in the visible church. “For if you”—as a member of the church in Rome or a member of this church—“live according to the flesh you will die” (Rom. 8:13; see Rom. 8:6). In the memorable words of John Owen, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Thomas Manton said, “If you enter not into a war with sin, you enter into a war with God.” We dare not return to the sins of our lives before Christ. If we do and persist in impenitence, we’ll begin the slow slide away from Christ back into the world until we apostatize and die as a result.

By Mortifying Sin. Not only are we to turn from our sinfulness, but we’re to face our sins head-on and mortify them. The Christian life isn’t simply renouncing or fleeing the world; if so, we’d never get away from our sins. “But if by the Spirit you put to death”—or as the KJV says, “mortify”—“the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Note again the strong contrast: You were once under the powerful obligation of the flesh to serve it; how much more so now are you under obligation to serve the Spirit?

What Are We to Mortify? “The deeds of the body.” Paul is not saying anything about our bodies’ being inherently bad. He’s speaking in a rhetorical way of the part for the whole. It’s not just the sins we commit in our bodies but also everything that leads up to our sinning in our bodies. The eyes manifest the heart: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). The words manifest the heart: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). The deeds manifest the heart: “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:18–20). Mortification isn’t merely changing what we look at, how we speak, and what we do. It includes that, but mortification is first of all an inner change. Thomas Manton once said, “We must so oppose sin, that in some sort we may kill it or extinguish it, not only scratch the face of it, but seek to root it out; at least that must be our aim.” In ancient warfare, armies wouldn’t use only archers against their enemies on the wall or only catapults against the walls’ they’d also use tunneling experts to dig deep under walls to bring them down. Then they would fight hand to hand. In the same way, we need to fight the sin in our hearts to collapse the sins of the body. We must fight sin at its root.

Sanctification isn’t our work alone; it’s the Spirit’s work in and through us.

Why Must we Mortify? If we mortify our sins, we’ll “live” (Rom. 8:13). Sanctification produces in us a vibrant spirituality in this life and leads us to its fulness in eternity. When we pursue holiness in this life, we enjoy a foretaste of what we are preparing ourselves for: the presence of God. What is that place like? It’s the place “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). Manton said, “Heaven would be a burden to a carnal heart, that hath no delight in communion with God, or the company of the saints, or a holy life.” Mortification leads to vivification. I didn’t say mortification causes vivification. Mortification leads to vivification. Our sanctification isn’t the cause of our glorification; it’s the means through which we enjoy and experience glorification.

How Do We Mortify? We mortify sin not by the force of our wills or the strength of our resolve but “by the Spirit.” This means in total reliance upon and only through the means that He has appointed. When we’re tempted, we need to be conscious of our need of the Spirit’s help. When we feel anger or jealousy rising up in us, we need to pray for Him to strengthen us. When we’re feeling helpless and also when we’re feeling strong, we need to use His means of the Word read and preached; we need to partake of the sacraments; we need to pray privately and on the Lord’s Day.

Led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14–16)

Led in Holiness. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). “For” (or “because”) signifies the reason that as debtors to the Spirit we’re to mortify our sins. The Spirit enlightens our minds from former darkness to the things of the Spirit (Rom. 8:5). He enlivens us to walk according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4, 5). He enables us to submit to and obey God’s law outwardly and inwardly. He empowers us to rely on the Spirit to mortify sin (Rom. 8:13). Sanctification isn’t our work alone; it’s the Spirit’s work in and through us. His work causes our minds, wills, and affections to freely, willingly, and spontaneously to follow His leading.

Led with Assurance. Note the connection between this leading of the Spirit and our knowing that we are sons of God: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Not “may become,” “can become,” or “possibly become” for those really sold out for Jesus. “All who are led . . . are sons of God.” Why? “For [or “because”] you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” It’s clear by the parallelism that both instances of spirit here should have an uppercase S. Paul says that we didn’t receive the Spirit to enslave us once again as we “fall back into servile fear,” but we received the Spirit to free us from bondage and to make us sons of God. But now “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” We have “received” Him and transitioned from being in “slavery” to being “sons.” We’ve “received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” The past tense of our reception of the Spirit leads to the present ongoing tense of our cry to our heavenly Father. Roman adoption practice was an intentional naming of an illegitimate person or an outsider to receive all one’s inheritance. It could even be done after one’s death. Julius Caesar named his nephew Octavian his heir, leading him to become Caesar Augustus and ushering in the pax Romana. Adoption means God takes those who are “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) into His family. Because we’ve “received the Spirit of adoption,” it is by Him that we cry out with tremendous personal assurance: “Abba, Father!” This is an assured prayer that we have peace with God, have been made acceptable to Him, belong to His family, and love Him as Father. “Abba” is the Aramaic word the Jews used and “Patēr” (translated here as “Father”) is the Greek word the international Roman Empire used. Paul uses these to show there’s no difference between Jew and Greek when they come together in Christ as one family.

Led with Witness. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). There’s a double witness here. In verse 15, our own soul witnesses that we’re sons and daughters of God: “by whom we cry.” Verse 16 adds the Holy Spirit’s witness: “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit.” We’re not left to ourselves to figure out if we’re God’s children. The Spirit testifies by our spirits when we cry out, “Father!” (Rom. 8:15) and testifies to our spirits that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). “What if my spirit’s testimony feels false?” We don’t experience His witness by extrabiblical revelations or experiences; instead, we experience His witness by faith in God’s promises. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and He was sent to cause us to remember and believe what Jesus said and how God’s promises are fulfilled by Him. His ministry is like that of a flashlight; it points not to itself but out to an object in the darkness. The Spirit points us to Christ in the darkness of our sinful minds.

Conclusion

Christians can be confident. As we’ve seen in Romans 8, our assurance is not really ours; it’s the work of Jesus Christ and His Spirit within us. When we come with our sins to Jesus, He accepts us by applying His work to our lives. He forgives our sins and grants us His righteousness. This means we’re no longer under condemnation. In addition, He gives us the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, witnessing to us His word of assurance, “You are mine!”

 
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on assurance. Previous post.

No Condemnation: Assurance as a Christ-Centered Reality

No Separation: Assurance as a Future-Looking Reality