(Based on a lecture given for a university in Southeast Asia)

The conversation that Romans 8 offers us is spiritual life, which some might know as ‘walking in the Spirit,” or being debtors to God. Paul will show us both the foundation of living by the Spirit and the content of Spirit-filled living.

Debtors to God | Romans 8:1-13

Free for a reason

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2

Being the biblical logician Paul is, he begins this discussion with the foundation of spiritual life – our covenantal identity with Christ. There is no condemnation for us because Christ was condemned. The Greek word for “condemnation” is legal, the language of courts. Wrapped up in it is both a guilty verdict and punishment. The interesting thing is that this legal declaration is the reason for our ability to be free from slavery to sin.

I want to highlight the last part of the passage. The law of the Spirit and the law of sin and death are two separate things. The law of the Spirit is nothing other than God’s Law. The law of sin and death is the consequence of rebellion against God’s Law. Many want to make the Law of the Spirit something new and separate from the Law of God, and make the Law of God, at least as far as the Old Testament goes, the law of sin and death.

However, this makes little sense at all. The reason we are redeemed, made righteous, and given a new heart to obey God, is because Jesus obeyed God’s Law. If God’s Law is the law of sin and death, and Jesus obeyed it, how could we be freed from it? Jesus would also be a servant of sin and death.

The best way to understand these two laws in connection with the life and work of Christ is: Jesus obeyed the law of the Spirit, His Father’s revealed Law so that when we are identified with Jesus by faith, we can receive His righteous record. Jesus takes our service record to sin and death in our place because He didn’t do it Himself. If He served sin and death by obeying God, He couldn’t have taken our sin and death because He was guilty. One theologian helpfully distinguished the two laws this way:

Paul…believes that the expressed word of God is His law and expresses God’s justice or righteousness. When we break God’s covenant law, it is sin and death to us; the law of sin works in us, because our rebellion against God leads us into the pursuit of death (Prov. 8:36). In Christ, however, the law is in harmony with and expressive of the Holy Spirit of life, and it gives us covenant blessings.

RJ Rushdoony, Romans and Galatians, pp 125.

The freedom from condemnation also changes the nature of our servitude. Before being joined to Christ by faith, we fell under the jurisdiction of sin and death. Whether intentional or not, our hands’ work received its power and direction from our master (Satan) and his prerogatives (sin & death). The reality of our slavery is that of the Old Adam, who gave up slavery to God and righteousness and subjected him and us to Satan’s tyranny through breaking God’s Law in the Garden.

In Christ, our servitude, or slavery, is restored to its place under God and His Law, of whom the Holy Spirit is the teacher promised by Jesus in John 16. At this point is where the conversation moves from the foundation of walking in the Spirit (God’s grace and Christ’s representative work of redemption) to the content of walking in the Spirit.

Making strong what was week

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, 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.

Romans 8:3-4

Let’s break down this passage. First, the work of salvation is Trinitarian. We’ve seen Christ condemned, the Spirit’s law granting freedom, and now we see that the Father sends His Son to accomplish the work. Our salvation isn’t just the work of Jesus. It’s the strategy and execution of the Trinity on our behalf. As Christians, we should give equal praise, worship, and attention to the Father and Spirit for Their redeeming us. To focus on Jesus solely as the worker of our redemption makes us functionally anti-trinitarian.

Second, the point here isn’t salvation. Paul says the goal of God’s sending Jesus is to condemn the power of sin in us through the condemnation of Christ. For what purpose? Our salvation? Nope. God condemns our sin, which kept us from keeping the Law so that we could keep the Law. Again, the point isn’t that Jesus is righteous in our place. Rather, His work destroys the power of sin over us so that we can follow God’s Law.

Third, connected to the previous point, the condemnation of our sin by Christ frees us to serve God. Instead of being ruled by sin and death, unable to keep God’s law because of the weakness of our flesh, we live out Spirit-empowered obedience to God according to His Word. The point of obedience isn’t compliance but service to the One we love because He first loved us. God’s Word provides us a pattern for loving God heart-to-hand, and the Holy Spirit helps us keep to that pattern.

Fourth, this weakness, or impotence, of the flesh is in our fallen nature, not the law. Sanday and Headlam, in their commentary on Romans, write,

The Law points the way to what is right, but frail humanity is tempted and falls, and so the Law’s good counsels come to nothing.

Sanday and Headlam, quoted in Rushdoony’s Romans and Galatians, pp 128.

Fifth, the incarnation is key to both solving the weakness of our flesh and granting us the strength of the Law. The covenant with Satan, forged in the disobedience of Adam, truly made us Satan’s sons. Satan ruled over humanity as a tyrant from then on, and his rule was enforced by the deep entrenchment of sin in man, for they followed after Adam. The Incarnation ripped the sin-bind asunder by bringing together both God and Man in one — Jesus Christ. A man, perfectly obedient, stands as a new representative. God, unbreakable, takes on the full curse of the Law.

With the Curse of the Law removed, we now have the Spirit-empowered ability (regeneration) to apply ourselves to the keeping of the Law joyfully.

Sixth, the goal of the Father sending His Son was for the Law to be fulfilled or executed (πληρωθῇ) in us. Rushdoony writes,

The word fulfilled is pleroo, here plerothe, executed, or put into force. The justice of the law is to be made full, perfected, or executed in us. This is only possible in those “who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.” The word “walk” is peripateo, to tread all around, i.e., it refers to those who apply God’s justice across the boards to all of life. It has reference to the exercise of dominion. Dominion man executes or puts into practice the justice of God.

RJ Rushdoony, Romans and Galatians, pp 128.

Mindsets: spiritless death or spritual life

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. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 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. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:5-8

Verse 5 gives us the great division of humanity — those who live by “flesh” and those who live by the Spirit. Living by “flesh” comes in many shapes. It can look aggressively atheist, spiritually interested or seeking, or even devout in faith towards a false god. The baseline of all these manifestations is the rejection of God and His Law. To take an assessment of life, or ethics, on any issue at odds with Scripture is to live by “flesh.” Notice that this anti-Spirit walk begins not with action but with our thoughts. And verse 6 tells us that ideas have consequences.

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

Thought-rejection of God leads to death. Thought-conformity to God brings life and peace, for its teacher is the Spirit of life, and the curriculum is God’s Law. Death is the consequence of an autonomous mind, a mindset on the “flesh” because it is at odds with God. Verse 7 says the rejection of God’s Law defines the “hostile” mind.

Fallen man decides his morality and god, denies the Triune God’s governing of all of life seen primarily in His Law, and falls under the tyranny of sin and death. As verse 8 says, there ain’t no pleasing God in that.

We are acceptable because of Christ, and in return, we accept Christ’s kingly authority. This is the logic presented to us so far in Romans 8.

Resurrected into righteousness

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. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:9-11

Paul started talking about walking according to the Spirit, then moved to cover the hostile mind conformed to our fallen nature “flesh,” and now, he is shifting back to the Spirit-filled life. To be outside of Christ is to live in the first Adam’s world. It’s life under the burden of God — His curse. In the old Adam, death only leads to death.

However, in the new Adam, Jesus Christ, we have the Spirit of God in us. The indwelling Spirit, the same one who hovered over the waters in Genesis 1, that filled the tabernacle and temple with God’s glory, the Spirit that descended upon Jesus after His baptism to anoint Him as the Messiah, and raised Him from the dead, now lives in you. The Holy Spirit is powerful, creative, and guides the workings of the world.

In verses 10 and 11, we learn that so great is the power of the Holy Spirit, that by virtue of its indwelling, our bodies will resurrect as Christ’s did. Even though we rightly receive the punishment of physical death, the seed of our Spiritual resurrection will translate to our physical body. What is the connection between this very ethics-based passage of Romans to the resurrection of our bodies? The Spirit who resurrected Christ, your soul, and eventually your body, will not fail to sanctify our head, heart, and hands in conformity to God’s Word, which has been the focus of verses 1-9.

Debtors to God

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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.

Romans 8:12-13

If you’re familiar with Star Wars, whether Disney canon or old canon, you’re probably familiar with Chewbacca’s life-debt to Han. This life-debt was formed due to Han saving Chewie from chattel slavery. Verse 12-13 paints a similar picture.

First, we are “debtors.” The word means we are obligated to give to someone what they want and how they demand it.

Second, our debt is not to sin or the “flesh.” If we owe sin our obedience, then we die. This is true even for Christians, which is who Paul is writing to. Our relationships will die, obedience to God’s Word will die, and so we will effectively create a culture of death in our life. This is what Jesus calls being “small in the kingdom” when delivering the Sermon on the Mount. We will be impotent for God’s kingdom if we continue to act as slaves to sin, in thought and action, because we are out of line with the Spirit of life and power.

Lastly, our debt is to God. We don’t have the right, nor should we want, to think or act contrary to what God commands. As debtors to God, because of His amazing grace, we are called elsewhere in Romans “slaves to righteousness.”

Reflection Questions

What are the downfalls if we make salvation ONLY about Jesus being righteous in our place?

  • We become passive
  • We don’t know what to do
  • We don’t know how to make decisions
  • We praise God for what He has done with our words, but not with our actions
  • We don’t take all of God’s Word to heart

Which of these do you tend towards?

How do you reject God with your thoughts? At what point is ignorance rejection?

So what does it mean to be a debtor?

  • In what areas are you living like a debtor to sin?
  • What does it look like to be a debtor to God?

Write down three takeaways. Maybe they focus on your thoughts (pray about what it means to follow the Law of God or ask God to help you conform your thoughts) or maybe they focus on repentance (how you’ve been living as a debtor to sin, how you haven’t been a joyful debtor to God) or maybe they are actions to take (obey God in this area, assess upcoming decisions in light of God’s Word).