I used to think I needed a personal trainer, someone who'd get me to the gym and make sure I exercised regularly, someone who would put me through my paces and track my progress. "If I just had a personal trainer," I thought, "I'd be a different man."
Then, someone gave me a personal trainer every week for two or three months. Steve, my personal trainer, was terrific. He got me on an exercise regimen, and I actually liked it. I looked forward to seeing Steve every week. He had a chart for all these different exercises I did, and I liked the challenge of watching the numbers improve. Knowing I was going to see Steve every week motivated me to get to the gym in between the times I met with him.
But then, there was no more Steve; the gift ran out. You know how things work—pretty soon I wasn't going to the gym anymore. I kept the exercise chart for quite a while, and I'd look at it. I couldn't remember what the exercise names meant after a while. I thought of that again the other day. My neighbor, Tracy, is a personal trainer. For her, spending three to four hours in a gym is glorious. I told her I'd just finished a long walk. "Didn't it feel GREAT?" she asked. "Ah, well, it was nice," I said, "but my feet really hurt." I hate to admit it, but I suspect that the only way I'd be steady with exercising is if there were a personal trainer in me or if I had the nature of a personal trainer, like Steve or Tracy. Do you ever feel that way about your spiritual life?
(Read Romans 8:1-3)
Christ is the one who frees us from condemnation
We've been studying some of the wonderful facets of the diamond-like gospel of Jesus Christ. A couple of weeks ago, when we studied Romans three, we rejoiced at the good news that we are made just in God's eyes by Christ. The teaching begun there leads all the way to Romans 8:1-4. Sometimes we hear people say, "Look, I don't condemn you," meaning, "Who am I to judge?" Here, the point is that God has every reason to condemn us. He doesn't just look the other way. He's not just being big about it. He sent Jesus to die for our sins. That's why there's no condemnation. Jesus was condemned for us, and when he died, he condemned the sin that was killing us.
So when we put our faith in Christ, we are no longer condemned by sin, and we are no longer condemned to sin. Before Jesus, we couldn't not sin. You'd think that knowing what our good and loving God wants us to do, or not to do, would be welcome news like "Love one another." Why is that so impossibly hard? It is difficult because of our sinful nature. Romans 8:7 says, "The mind governed by the flesh [our sinful nature] is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so." It is wonderful that Jesus forgives our sin and that "there is now no condemnation for" us, but another great privilege of our salvation is that we are no longer governed by that self-absorbed, disobedient nature.
Up to this point in Romans, Paul has only mentioned the Holy Spirit a couple of times, but now this chapter speaks of the Holy Spirit 18 times. One of the diamond facets of God's good news in Jesus is that when we are saved from our sin, the Holy Spirit enters into our lives to transform our thinking. The Christian life is life in step with the Holy Spirit.
(Read Romans 8:5-7)
The Holy Spirit gives us a new mindset
To do right, God doesn't tell us to buckle down and "just do it." This is an issue of the mind, of our thinking. It doesn't start with willpower, which is wonderful news to the willpower-challenged!
The elders were talking about our own efforts to be involved as lighthouses. One of the guys said, "I have to admit, when I get home from spending all day with people, I'm tired. I don't feel like talking to my neighbors. Plus, my neighbors hate us. We don't know why, but they just won't even talk to us." What should he do? He doesn't know. We didn't know, but the Holy Spirit knows. Maybe the elder shouldn't do anything. Maybe God's going to open a door. Our friend can get in synch with the thinking of God himself until his steps become clear.
To enable us to obey God out of love, the Holy Spirit gives us the capacity to think the way he does. As Paul puts it, "We have the mind of Christ!"
When I was a child, my mom, whose name is Grace, would say to me, "Lee Wayne, you'd better mind me." I suppose that phrase came from the idea that I'd better put my mind to the priorities on her mind. Our sinful nature constantly says, "Mind me!" But now the Holy Spirit within us—the voice of God's grace—says, "Mind me. I'm your Lord now."
We saw in Romans 8:6-7 that life oriented to our sinful nature is lethal, and verse 6 says, "The mind of sinful man is death." It is like having the brain and heart of the Grim Reaper.
What a wonderful alternative the Holy Spirit gives to us! He offers us a meeting of the minds—his and ours. When we confer—when we talk to him and seek his way of thinking—he enables us to think righteously, and then we do what is good and right, and we do it with a godly love. Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, "be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will."
Do you have to be a mystic to set your mind on what the Spirit desires? Do you have to get on a mysterious holy wavelength? Not really. You need to quietly pray and think your way through life. You could say, "Lord, that really ticked me off. Now what do I do?" Then listen. "Lord, I'm not sure how to handle my daughter's defiance. What do you think?" you might ask. Then listen. "Lord, I hurt so badly I don't know what to think or do," you may confess, "Please help me and keep me from sin." Then listen and trust. The Spirit will talk to you through the Bible, through other Christians' counsel and example, and through memories of what you know. Your instincts will be reshaped by the Holy Spirit so that you'll think righteously, and when you think righteously you'll act righteously.
I know during this sermon, some of you have been thinking of an illustration because you're Trekkies, fans of Star Trek. I'm not a Trekkie, but I do my research, and I learned about Dr. Spock's extraordinary capacity to mind meld. He could put his fingertips on a person's head in just the right way, concentrate, and murmur something like "my mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts."
As imaginative as that is, God's way is so much more wonderful. God himself, by his Holy Spirit, enters into our hearts and minds, and we are in a loving relationship with him. Out of our fellowship with him, our meeting of the minds, out of prayer and reading the Bible, through fellowship with other believers, and simply by being thoughtful, our minds are transformed away from all that deadened us to thinking and obedience that produces God's own life and peace.
'The mind governed by the spirit is life and peace'
(Read Romans 8:6)
We saw the alternatives to a mind governed by the Spirit; the alternatives are: death, hostility against God, and inability to submit to God. Think of what those things do to your mind and heart. They are death to you. They are turmoil. There is this huge lie that says sin is satisfying, that greed is good, that sex outside of marriage is fun and normal, that everyone lies now and then, and that evil is entertaining and you have to take care of yourself. How's that working for you? What does that do to a soul created in the image of God and a mind created by God for nobility and love? Disobeying God kills us inwardly and physically. It unsettles us, confuses, and darkens; it creates a moral stupidity; people quite simply disintegrate—they come apart at their spiritual seams.
When our relationship with God, through the Holy Spirit, enables us to adopt the mindset of the Spirit as we deal with life, this verse promises "life and peace." You see, Christ's life in us, by his Holy Spirit, rejuvenates us and brings us, even in terrible circumstances, to a quiet place of peace with God and his love for us.
In my old Bible, I have that verse underlined in black ink and a date next to it: 9/25/83. I remember that as a time of great despair over my sin, a time when I felt fully the weight of Paul's cry, "O wretched man that I am!" I remember coming upon that verse and reading it over and over until I believed it, focused my mind again on the Holy Spirit, and found that life and peace. That's how it works, again and again, as Christ's "life and peace" work deeper and deeper into our lives.
The Holy Spirit 'will give life to your mortal bodies'
(Read Romans 8:11)
Even while God is renewing our minds, our bodies are dying. The Holy Spirit living within us was also the force that raised Christ on Easter morning, so when our bodies die, that same mighty Spirit will flex his muscles and breathe his breath and our mortal bodies will come forth from the graves, clothed with immortality. George Herbert says: "Death used to be an executioner, but the gospel has made him just a gardener."
What will make our bodies so glorious is not that we will become superheroes with X-ray vision, superhuman strength, or the ability to leap tall buildings. Those things may be true, I don't know, but they pale in significance to the fact that our bodies will be free from sin and sickness, that these are bodies fit for eternal life. Our minds will be unhindered by the lies and lunacies of this world, our hands will only serve the Lord, our eyes will be worthy of holy sight, our ears will be able to bear the hymns of heaven, our tongues will speak only blessing, and our hearts will be clean enough, big enough, and loving enough to embrace the glory of God. Not only does the Holy Spirit bring our minds to life in the Lord, but he will also resurrect our bodies.
On one hand, we no longer face condemnation for our sin, but on the other hand, we do have an obligation, a debt.
We are no longer indebted to death but to the Spirit's life
(Read Romans 8:12-13)
Do not live like a debtor to sin. Your sinful nature is like a loan shark inside of you. There's a part of you that is a goon, threatening to break your kneecaps if you don't pay up—if you don't do what he wants you to do. "Look," he says, "we've got a deal here, and if I say, 'Sin,' you have to sin. I own you." Do you know that voice? A temptation arises that has always owned you before, and that goon inside says, "Just like we always do it. I own you." But that's a lie. The Message says it this way, "We don't owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent!"
Do you see what will happen to you if you never surrender to the Spirit and always knuckle under to that old nature? "If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die." So what is the alternative?
On the other hand, the Lord comes to us daily and says, "Your sins were killing you, and I've forgiven them all—past, present, and future. What's more I've given you myself—my own Spirit—to live in you, to share your feelings and thoughts, to reshape your desires to mirror mine, and to help you think like Jesus. In return, your debt to me is, 'By the Spirit, [to] put to death the misdeeds of the body.'"
Part of the Christian's life is killing the sinful practices that spring up within; it's like spiritual Whack-a-Mole. John Stott says that "means a ruthless rejection of all practices we know to be wrong; a daily repentance, turning from all known sins of habit, practice, association, or thought."
Do you take sin that seriously in your life? It is an obligation, but it is also a wonderful gift of your salvation. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, you do not need to live under the vicious debt of sin and death any longer.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.