As mentioned in the last post of this series, Willard argues for the necessity of ascetic practices based on the difficulty of bringing our fleshly natures under control as described in Romans 7 —
(Rom 7:5-10 ESV) 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
Notice, first, Paul’s emphasis is on the change brought about by Jesus: “we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” In other words, through the indwelling, God lives in us, through the Spirit, so that we are no longer relying entirely on ourselves. God helps us obey.
Verses 7 – 10 explain v. 5. As Paul had discussed in more detail back in chapter 5, God does not condemn men for violating laws they do not know. And so, when the Law of Moses revealed that it’s a sin to covet, the Israelites became accountable for their covetousness. Ironically, the Law didn’t so much prevent sin as make the Israelites more accountable for sin!
(Rom 7:18-24 ESV) 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Paul then points out the difficulty that we all face. Even if we desperately want to do right, sometimes our fleshly nature takes over and we fail. The result is frustration and a cry to God for relief!
(Rom 8:1-2 ESV) 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.
“The law of sin and death” is not merely the Law of Moses. It’s the reality that we cannot obey perfectly even when we desperately want to. The cure is “the law of the Spirit of life,” which means there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Pause and savor those words. If you are a Christian — at all — you are not condemned. Why not? Because you are no longer accountable for obedience in the same sense that those outside of Christ are. Why not?
Well, the answer takes us back to an earlier passage —
(Rom 2:28-29 ESV) 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
We’ve been moved from a “letter” of the Law rule to a “matter of the heart” rule. The standards have changed, because our hearts have been circumcised by the Spirit.
This is a reference to —
(Deu 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
— which is a prophecy of how God will deal with his people after the Israelites rebel. And this passage reflects a change from —
(Deu 10:12-16 ESV) 12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
Romans 7 describes the stubbornness of heart that affects us all. Our hearts refuse to submit to God as they should, and therefore we fail to circumcise our own hearts. We don’t love God “with all your heart and with all your soul.”
And so, in Deuteronomy 30:6, God promises to solve the Romans 7/Deuteronomy 10:16 problem by changing our hearts for us. Paul says in Romans 2:28-29 that God himself circumcises our hearts “by the Spirit.” God does it!
Does this mean we stop sinning? No. But it does mean that we are becoming more Christlike.
(Rom 8:3-4 ESV) 3 For 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 for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Because we have the Spirit, we walk “according to the Spirit” so that the requirements of the Law are fulfilled (filled up) in us. This is both imputation (we are treated as righteousness even though we’re really not) and sanctification (the Spirit will over time transform us).
(Rom 8:5-8 ESV) 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Our minds are renewed and transformed (as Paul will discuss in chapter 12) so that we set our minds “on the Spirit” — which produces peace and life. But the uncircumcised heart — the heart without the Spirit — cannot submit to God’s law. Therefore, while we don’t obey perfectly, we do become obedient. We really are penitent. We really do try.
(Rom 8:13-14 ESV) 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.
Notice that v. 13 anticipates that the Spirit’s work won’t be instant. It takes time to “put to death the deeds of the body.” Repentance continues long past baptism. We repent as long as we live, not to receive forgiveness but because we’ve been forgiven. Our penitence makes us sorrowful for our sins and encourages us to do better next time. And this is enough.
The author of Hebrews explains it succinctly —
(Heb 10:14 ESV) 4 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
We are declared perfect because we are being made holy. We aren’t holy yet, but we’re growing and God sees the finished product, not the product in process.
Willard is greatly distressed by the fact that Christians, on the whole, aren’t all that Christian. Me, too. But the solution isn’t found in asceticism. It’s found in the Spirit and in the church and in grace.
This is far different from seeking God through self-denial. Rather, God already is in you, if you’re a Christian. The question is not how to solve the problem. God has already solved the problem. But how can we be less sinful and more Christ-like? We desperately want to do better because we so love God.
Ahh … you see, the Spirit is already at work in us, changing our hearts. That’s why we read books on discipline and such like: because we so love God we want to do better. And the wanting is the key.
We’ve not found the total solution — yet — but any solution that skips Romans 8 is no solution at all. Rather, it’s legalism. And if we ever get far from the Spirit and grace, we’re likely teaching humanism and self-reliance and not Christianity.
Next up: Romans 12.