I received a message from a dear friend the other day expressing to me a problem that I have found to be all too common among Christians. So many seem to wrestle with a kind of debilitating fear. Fear that they are not doing enough to please the Lord. Fear that they may not be eternally saved because of this. It hasn’t been that long ago I heard from another friend that his wife has this same issue. Through the years of my ministry I heard it repeatedly from different people in different places. What is the reason for this? Is this how the Lord wants us to live?
At his urging I am sharing what I told my friend …
Dear_______, I want to try and address your concerns. Fear is a problem that concerns many people. It is good that you realize this is a problem. If you didn’t admit it there would be no possibility for growth toward overcoming it. But as I have seen in you over the time we have known each other a tremendous growth, I am confident you will grow toward overcoming your problem of fear also. The first step required is that we recognize that we have a problem. When we admit that then we can move on toward a solution. I want to focus on some things that I hope will help you personally and since you are studying the Roman letter may help you in that study also.
When I read your message the first scripture that came to my mind was Romans 7. In this chapter Paul is explaining how one who has become a child of God is no longer a slave. In chapter 6 he had shown that being risen with Christ we are no longer slaves to sin. Then in ch. 7 he talks about how we are not in bondage to law – which he compares to marriage. He points out that through Christ we have become dead to the law (legal obligation) so that we might be married (joined) to Christ (personal relationship). Then in the latter part of ch. 7 he shows that while the law is good, if we still try to live under it and be justified by it we only end up making ourselves miserable because we CANNOT live up to the demands of any law. If we fail to keep even one aspect of the law we are condemned. And so his anguished cry … “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).
What is the resolution? It is not more law. It is not to try harder. It is not to be threatened with a hotter place in hell. Our only hope is for God to set us free from the necessity of perfect law keeping. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” vs. 25. … that is, God through Christ sets us free from the anguish brought on by the knowledge that we constantly fail to live up to the demands of law.
But, according to the apostle, there is still a problem. The latter part of vs. 25 says … “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Here is a soul in conflict. He wants with his mind to do the will of God but always finds that he falls short of that good intention. So now what is the answer? If we keep reading in the 8th chapter we find the answer.
First he points out “what” the answer is and “where” it is found. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (8:1-2). In Christ there is no condemnation. In Christ is where freedom is found. Apart from Christ there is no pardon from sin – no deliverance from the guilt and the anguish and hopelessness guilt brings. In Christ we are set free from the “law of sin and death.” That law says that if you sin you die.
But just telling someone they are free does not always bring them a consciousness of freedom. After the American Civil War which set the African slaves free, many of those freed people chose to stay with their masters instead of seeking to make a life on their own. They didn’t know how to live as free men. They did not have the resources to live as free men. We are sometimes like that, not having a sense of the freedom Christ brings to us and fearing the freedom we really do have in him. We still have anguish and fear that we will do something wrong and be eternally lost as a result. We still want to cling to a false sense of security that we think law-keeping will bring. That is, I think, what Paul meant by his statement “with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” It was not that he was still sinning so much as he was still serving the law of sin and death – still by his own strength trying to save himself from the sin that always was showing up in his life.
This is a problem that seems to be ingrained in the human psyche. We know we are not what we ought to be – that we have messed up – so if we can just be good enough to make up for all our badness surely everything will be all right and we will be right with God. God will like us again if we just make ourselves nice enough. But where we inevitably find ourselves is on the endless treadmill of human effort because we are going to keep messing up.
Paul points to the one thing that will bring us into the fullness of the freedom of the children of God. He shows that by Christ’s death we have been set free, not just from the guilt of sin, but in order that we might live and walk “according to the Spirit.” v. 4. The one in this passage who is walking according to the flesh is not the one who has never known Christ and who is yet living in sin, but the one who is trying to meet the demands of the law by his own fleshly (human) strength. The only way we can ever achieve right standing before God is to quit trying to live up to the demands of the law by ourselves and realize there is help that is abundantly available to us in the person and presence of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s language here is difficult for us to understand, especially since so many of us have been taught that the Spirit is only active through the written word – the Bible. But if we will listen to the words of the apostle we will have to admit to the personal presence and influence of the Spirit who works – certainly in conjunction with the written word – but also in a powerful way that cannot be only through the word.
Rom. 8:9-10 “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Remember that the apostle is discussing the futility of trying to measure up to the demands of the law by the strength of human effort. As long as we are trying to live that way we are still dead in slavery to sin and have only eternal death to look forward to. There is no spiritual life without the life the Spirit gives.
But notice in the next verses what the Spirit does when he dwells in us and is the controlling influence in our lives. Vss. 12-14.
“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.”
By the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the flesh. This is not sins such as immorality or irreverence. The deeds of the flesh here are the human efforts to achieve standing before God on the basis of law. On the other hand, if we by the influence and guidance of the Spirit quit trying to save ourselves by perfect law keeping we will live. Paul then assures us that the Spirit will not lead us astray – he will lead us into the realization and assurance that we are sons of God. He will lead us into greater faith in Christ and what he has done for us. By the Spirit we can cry out “Father! Father!”
Rom. 8:15 “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!’”
A loving father does not condemn and punish his child for not being perfect. He loves him and corrects him. He picks him up him when he falls down. He forgives when he makes a mistake. As children we respond to the love of our father by loving him and trying our best to please him. But when we don’t live up to the father’s expectation we may be disappointed in ourselves, but we know our father still loves us and will not put us out of the family. We know a loving Father will not he punish us mercilessly. This is the spirit of sons of which Paul speaks in this chapter.
We need not fear to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit when we realize how he works. He does not put himself forward. The Holy Spirit has been called the “shy member” of the Godhead. His work is to point men to Christ, not himself. In the case of what we have been discussing here, he leads us into the realization of what it means to be sons of God so that we might be heirs of God and “joint heirs” with Christ.
So, relax, my friend. Put your trust in the finished work of Christ which he accomplished on the cross. That is what grace allows us to do. It is not that we should not be concerned about the danger of temptation nor be penitent when we have made a mistake. It means that with our trust in him who is the perfect sacrifice for our sins we are not required to be perfect in keeping law as the “law of sin and death” requires.
If we live in fear we are not living as sons!
1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”