But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Romans 8:9
It’s easy to forget sometimes that the Christian life is about more than forgiveness of sin. Don’t get me wrong! Forgiveness is hugely important. But it’s not the end of the story; it’s only the beginning. One of the ways that scripture describes the ongoing process of Christian discipleship is with the language of living in the Spirit. But what is life in the Spirit? How is this new life nurtured and developed? What is it’s goal?
Romans 8 is one of the chief places that the Apostle Paul develops the theme of life in the Spirit, and he does so in contrast to life in the flesh. When Paul uses these terms flesh and Spirit, he is referring to opposing powers or principles of control. The Spirit is God’s own Holy Spirit who indwells believers and empowers them to live transformed lives that honor and please God. The flesh is the opposite controlling power that is antagonistic to the work of God’s Spirit. In developing these concepts Paul invites his reader to ask: Am I controlled by the flesh or the Spirit? He also wants his readers to begin reflecting on what it looks like to live under the influence and control of the Holy Spirit as they seek to live in ways that are honoring to God.
Life in the Spirit begins with the life of the mind.
Paul makes just this point when he says, “For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6). Being transformed into the likeness of Christ begins with the life of the mind, which means that as believers we need to be intentional about the way we order our habits of thinking. There are innumerable voices out there vying for a piece of our thought life. From radio to TV, billboards to social networking, someone wants us to think about their show, their product, their idea, or their agenda. The question for us is whether our thoughts will be shaped by those voices or by the Spirit of God.
But how do we develop habits of mind that are shaped by the Spirit? The Church has often pointed to the means of grace as concrete and specific tools used by God to transform our thinking and our living. Regular study of scripture alone and with a group, prayer, corporate worship, and sharing in the sacramental life of the Church are only a few ways that we can develop a disciplined thought life. Memorizing scripture is enormously important as well. My grandfather has made a habit of memorizing several chapters of scripture at a time (and sometimes even whole books!). It’s not hard to guess what occupies his thinking most of the time. Life in the Spirit begins with the life of the mind. Who is shaping our thinking?
Life in the Spirit is life free from sin.
The struggle against sin is sometimes so profound that it’s almost impossible to believe that God’s Spirit intends us to live lives that are pleasing to God, lives free from sin. But no matter how tough it may be to believe, Paul makes just this point by implication in Romans 8:7-9. He claims that the mind of the flesh is hostile to God. It is not willing submit to God; indeed, it is not able to submit to God. Then Paul says something staggering: “You are not in the flesh.” Here’s the logic: those that are in the flesh are unable to please God. You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. Therefore, you are able to please God. If Paul is right that those in whom the Spirit dwells are able to please God, then he must mean that those who have the Spirit are able to successfully resist temptation to sin, because sin is not pleasing to God.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for Christians to sin. I am saying that life in bondage to sin is not God’s design for the normal Christian life. Life in the Spirit means that the Spirit empowers people to obey God, to honor God, to resist those things that bring feelings of guilt and condemnation. It turns out that the good news is better than we could of imagined. Not only is the penalty of our sin forgiven, but the power of our sin is destroyed. Life in the Spirit means life free from sin.
Life in the Spirit is holiness now and resurrection later.
Many times when we talk about life in the Spirit and the holiness that is the fruit of life in the Spirit, we forget that this life is driving forward towards a goal, and that goal is nothing less than resurrection from the dead. We catch a glimpse of this in Romans 8:11 where Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” For Paul, God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Thus, if the Spirit of God dwell in us believers, then we have the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead along with Christ. The presence of the Spirit in the present produces the transformed life of Christlikeness and holiness; the presence of the Spirit also guarantees the future resurrection of the body when Christ returns. This is important because death is a consequence of sin, and until death is defeated and its effects reversed, the consequence remains. Life in the Spirit means the full overthrow of all the effects of sin. Bondage to sin is broken in the present; the death that is the result of sin is reversed in the future. And that is good news.
So, life in the Spirit begins with the transformation of our thinking and works its way out into every aspect of our living as we await the day when death will be fully and finally overthrown and our bodies raised from the dead. Christian discipleship is about much more than forgiveness. The question is: Are we living in the Spirit?