Summary: If we wonder whether we’re truly followers of Christ then this is one way God helps us: are our minds set on the things of God, is our failure to obey, something we struggle with, do we relate to God as our father, rather than someone distant and remote?
I keep coming across people who are struggling with whether their faith is real. People whose Christian experience is something like what Paul describes at the end of Romans 7. They struggle to believe that they could be truly God’s children when their life is so full of sin. If you’re one of those people then I hope today’s passage may be of some help to you. You see, we come today to the culmination of Paul’s explanation of the basis of the Christian faith. He’s just finished describing the dilemma he finds himself in as a Christian who tries and tries to keep God’s law but who finds himself failing time and time again. And his conclusion is that the only hope he has is if God does something to help him overcome his own weakness. By himself he can’t meet his own standards let alone those of God in heaven. And so he cries out from the heart, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" And the answer comes from what he’s already explained; from the gospel. It’s Jesus Christ who will rescue him, indeed who has rescued him, and all those who call on his name. And so he goes on in chapter eight to explain how this all works.
As I said, there are still people around who see themselves as failures because of their apparent lack of godliness, their apparent lack of spirituality. They feel that there’s nothing they can do to match up to the standard they understand a Christian needing to meet. They look at others, they compare themselves to their Christian friends and they think there must be something wrong, something that they’re missing. If you’re one of those people who think like that at times, then you need to pay special attention to this passage.
You see the conclusion that comes from all that we’ve discovered so far in this letter to the Romans is this: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Not "there is not much condemnation." No, "There is now no condemnation." Those people, you see, who compare themselves with others, who ask whether they’re good enough for God, are asking the wrong question. The question can never be, "Am I good enough." The moment we ask that question we’re sunk. Of course we’re not good enough! The greatest saint who ever lived wasn’t good enough. So what hope do I have?
No, the question we need to ask is "Am I in Christ Jesus?" "Am I one of his followers?" "Do I have his Holy Spirit within me?" That’s the important question because if I’m in Christ Jesus, then, we’re told, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and of death. The results of that inevitable tendency to disobey that we talked about last time are removed by God’s Spirit coming to dwell within us, purifying us, making us acceptable to God.
Here’s how it works. V3: "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."
God, in all his wisdom, saw what was needed to make us acceptable to himself. He knew that we could never meet his standards by our own efforts. What was needed was a human being who was without sin and who would obey God in every way. But more than that. What we needed was someone, one of us, to take the penalty for sin on himself, by dying a human death on our behalf; to satisfy the just requirements of the law and thus silence its demands forever. And then we needed that person’s life to be given to us.
Well, that’s exactly what’s happened with Jesus Christ coming to live and die as a human being, and then, having ascended to heaven, giving us his Holy Spirit to dwell within us. So that, now, we no longer walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
Well, that’s all very well. It’s nice theory if you can get your head around it, but how does it work in practice? How do we know whether we’re in Christ? How do we know whether we have God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us? How do we know whether we’re walking no longer by the flesh, but according to the Spirit?
Well, can I say at the outset, that there are all sorts of people around who’ll want to give you a definitive answer on this. They’ll point to the gifts of the Spirit; they’ll ask you whether you’re experiencing renewal in your life; some will ask whether you can speak in tongues; others will ask whether your life is exhibiting the sort of holiness that you might expect in someone who was filled with God’s Spirit. But the danger in all of those sorts of approaches is that our natural tendency is to revert to legalism, to performance based assessment, to judgement, based on feelings of success or failure in obeying! In other words we simply turn back to law. Oh, we mightn’t compare ourselves on the basis of obedience to the law. But we do compare ourselves. We do the exact thing we’re trying to get away from. We look at others who seem to be "filled with the Spirit" and we make comparisons. Do we pray as much or as long as them? Are we as joyful as them? Are we as demonstrative in our expression of our faith in God as them? Are we as excited by our faith as much as them? And inevitably we fail to match up. We come to the same conclusion that we came to when we were thinking about our obedience to the law. We’re not good enough.