Series > Worshiping the Spirit
Living By The Spirit
Zach Pummill // April 28, 2019
scripture Passage // Romans 8:12–17, 26–27 (ESV)
“12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
We're continuing on from last week's passage in Romans 8 this morning, and it was a great passage to celebrate Easter. What did Paul say? He said that the Spirit who raised Christ Jesus from the dead now dwells within you. There's a resurrection life and power within you. Now, did you feel that this week? Did you feel that resurrection power alive within you as you were stuck in traffic? Trying to get extra work done at your job? Dealing with your kid's latest temper tantrum?
Paul will say beautiful words like this all over the place that we all want to know to be true, and yet sometimes, doesn't it feel like he's dangling a carrot on a stick? Because in our day-to-day realities, we don't experience these things to be true. In some ways, they feel like they're just out of reach, and he's telling us about something that we continue to fail to experience. Then in today's passage, Paul is going to go even further. He says that the Spirit even longs and groans for you to experience the reality of your redemption. The Spirit longs and groans for you to know that you are a child, an heir of God.
That isn't something that he's writing because he wants you to know that in your head. He wants you to know that deep within your heart, because when you do, that will shape and change and animate the way that you live. If that's available, then we have to ask ourselves the question: If the spirit groans for us to experience that resurrection power and to know who we are, then why don't we experience it? What gets in the way of that?
You do. Because there's a part of you that actually would rather live as a slave and not as a son. It's your flesh. It's the part of you that is corrupted. It's alienated from God. It doesn't want anything to do with God. It's hostile towards the things of God, and anytime it has the opportunity to move towards God, it's like a magnet that's polar opposite. You just run the other way. On top of that, Paul would say that the flesh is so powerful that you actually are helpless against it. There's really nothing you can do. The flesh is incredibly powerful, and it's something that you have to realize, because when you realize that, then you recognize your need is that you really need something stronger than your flesh to enter into your life.
Paul said last week, who defeated the power of sin and death? Jesus. Who raised Jesus Christ from the dead? Who resurrected him and gave him new life? The Spirit. Who now dwells in you? The Spirit. If you want to experience that resurrection power within you and experience what Paul is talking about, then you have to overcome the flesh. The only way that you can overcome the flesh is through the power of the Spirit, which makes this morning two things that need to be very clear as we consider this passage.
The first, is how do we live according to the flesh? The second, is how do we live according to the Spirit?
As we consider how do we live according to the flesh, we'll start with verse 12, "So then, brothers, we are debtors not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh." Paul is saying that something changed. Now, when he says ‘debtors,’ he's talking about more than owing somebody some money. He's talking about more than taking out a loan. What he's referring to is a much deeper obligation. When he says ‘debtors,’ what he's referring to is the sense of a slave's unquestioned obligation to serve their master.
He's saying that before, this is how you operated. You are obligated to serve the flesh as your master, and you could only do and be animated by its desires for you, but now, you're no longer a slave to the flesh. Now, you're no longer powerless. Why? Because inside of you, it no longer reigns supreme. It no longer sits on the throne. A greater power has now entered your life that's greater than sin and death, and it's greater than the power of flesh. It's the power of the Spirit, which then puts us to this place, it brings you to a choice. Will you be led by the Spirit or will you be led by the flesh?
Now, you have a choice that you can choose life, joy, peace, purpose in a completely new way that before you never could, or you can still live as a slave to sin. For every Christian, there's a profound tension within them. Will I go the way of the flesh or will I go the way of the Spirit? Who will I allow to be my master? Do I want to live as a slave, or do I want to live as a son?
Throughout this entire passage, Paul uses the language of the exodus, which really gives us a fantastic picture of what that tension actually looks like, because what happens? Israel was rescued out of their bondage. They're rescued from the house of slavery. They're brought out into the wilderness, and within three days, what starts to happen? They start to feel the tug of slavery. They start to feel compelled to go back to the slavery in Egypt and to put those chains back on and to go back to their bondage instead of moving forward into this place of experiencing the unknown beauty of God's promises and all that he had for them. Within those three days, they go to Moses and say, "Let's go back to Egypt. At least there we had onions." Goodness, what a trade off.
We know this tension. We feel the flesh is drawing us back to the same sins over and over again that feel easy, predictable, immediately gratifying. They feel safe at times. They make us feel comfortable, instead of being led to a place that's filled with things that you've never tasted, new joys and experiences that the Spirit would desire to lead you, because the flesh always wants to put those chains back on you and pull your strings.
What does living according to the flesh actually look like? How does it operate?
Well, the easy answer is we just say, "Well, living according to the flesh is just giving yourself over to every sinful desire that you have with no sense of conscience or consequence." Well, that's true, but that's not really what Paul is talking about here, because the backdrop of this passage is the law. What he's really describing when he talks about how we live in the flesh is when we attempt to remedy and deal with our sin on our own. We try to fix our own sin problem. There's essentially three ways that we do that.
There's three ways that we live according to the flesh and attempt to deal with our sin.
The first, is that you just never think about your sin. You try to ignore any conviction or tug on your conscience. You don't want to consider any of those areas that might be a source of guilt and shame, and so instead of taking those things to God, you drown it out, but you drown it out with the latest Christian book or the next Christian podcast. What's happening? You’re willing to let God enter your life, but you just don't want him to get too close. You're living by the flesh because you're choosing to settle for what is the appearance of righteousness, instead of actually experiencing the real thing.
The second way, is that you try harder. You do your best. You're very aware, you're the opposite. You're very aware of your sin. You're very aware of the ways that you feel convicted, and so when you feel that, you grit your teeth and you say, "I'm going to do better next time," and your life is filled with one attempt after another of trying to overpower it.
Why? Because the flesh has sold you a bill of goods and sold you a lie that all it really takes to overcome your sin is your willpower, is trying harder. It's not really as big of a problem as you think, which, what, completely cuts out God and makes you think that you can do everything on your own and you are your own savior, but in reality, it's like trying to move a mountain with a shovel. You think you can do it just because you try harder. You dig faster. But what happens? You just wear yourself out every time you try harder, which brings more guilt, more shame, and then the cycle repeats itself and the slavery goes on.
The third way, which is more complex is that you deal with your sin by finding a sacrificial victim. We've talked about this before. I saw an article this week about a 500-year-old tradition in Taxco, Mexico. What happens is beginning on Palm Sunday, there's three brotherhoods that prepare for Holy Week all throughout the year. What they do is beginning on Palm Sunday is they begin this process of self-flagellation. They began this process of torturing themselves by hurting themselves, what, to make atonement for their sin, to get God to be pleased with them by showing how much they hate what they do punishing themselves.
They take ropes. They dip it in molten metal, and then they wait until it dries. Then when it does, every day, starting on Palm Sunday, they whip themselves hundreds of times on the back. If you look at the pictures, the soft parts of their back are just a bloody disgusting mess. They do it each and every day. Then on Good Friday, they take six-foot long blackberry cane reeds that are covered in these long thorns, and they bundle a bunch of them together in these bundles that weigh almost 100 pounds.
They put them on their shoulders. They have two people tie them to these blackberry bundles, and then they walk a mile through town to make atonement to pay for their sins. If they get tired, they're allowed to rest. Those attendants will take the blackberry bundles off of them, and they're allowed to get on their knees and take a breather, but they still have to whip themselves with the rope. Then when they're ready again, they'll take the bundle. They'll keep going. It's just this incredibly gruesome bloody scene.
They are desperate to atone for their sins and hoping that they would have God's favor by being the sacrificial victim, showing God how much they hate it, but it doesn't work because we always make poor sacrificial victims, yet we're still prone and tempted to do it all the time. You may not have a blackberry cane in your house, but we still make ourselves the victim all the time and we punish ourselves to make atonement. When you feel convicted, when you feel guilty, we make ourselves the sacrificial victim by engaging in some form of penance.
We feel guilt and we start to heap self-contempt on ourselves, and we start to say things like, "You're an idiot. You're a fool. What a joke you are. I hate myself." We start to put self-contempt on our shoulders, or we try to deal with guilt through giving, and we make payment by sacrificing financially, or we start to fast from social media and we start to say things like, "I'm going to have a quiet time every day this week." We start to live according to new laws that we think will bring God's favor and bring about life change and make payment, but then whenever we actually fail even the laws that we come up with for ourselves, the cycle continues and the guilt and the shame go on and on and on.
On the other hand, you may not like to be the sacrificial victim, but you're the person that is the attendant that walks along with the person that's carrying the blackberry canes. Why? Because you're more than willing to let somebody else be the sacrificial victim in your place. We don't feel included. We feel left out. We don't feel like we've been made to feel loved and cared for by others, and so we think to ourselves, "Who needs those people anyways? I don't care about them." You start to think about all of their weaknesses, pointing out their flaws in your heart to make atonement for how you feel, and you make them pay for it. We deal with guilt and shame by distancing ourselves and giving the cold shoulder. We feel overlooked at work, so we get home, and we heap all of that contempt and make a sacrificial victim of whichever family member greets us at the door first.
Paul would say there's all sorts of ways that we would try and deal with our sin. We either just ignore it. We try harder. We make ourselves a sacrificial victim or someone else, and he would say to live according to the flesh and deal with your own sin in the end is utterly destructive. It's ineffective, and all it does is alienate you from God because if you try to ignore their flesh, if you try to ignore your sin, it just grows and overwhelms the garden of your life. If you just simply try harder, then all you're left with is more guilt and shame. Why? Because your problem always overpowers your best attempts to solve it. If you try to make somebody else the sacrificial victim or you try to make yourself a sacrificial victim, it's as silly as paying for a mansion with monopoly money. You don't have the resources.
And the flesh will always try to convince you that all of these ways are effective, and they'll work this time, and yet they never will. Why? Because none of them actually include God. All that's left is just you and your best attempts to try and solve your greatest problem.
You need help, which is why we have two things to consider that Paul wants us to see in verse 13. He uses both the language of the flesh, and he uses the language of deeds of the bodies, so he puts two things in front of us. There's the flesh, and then there's the actions. What's the significance of that? Well, he's saying that there's the flesh, that corrupted part of you that is what? It's like a puppet master that pulls your strings. It animates you to carry out its sinful desires and deeds. That's an important distinction to make, because if all you consider your sin is just simply the bad things that you do, then you've radically underestimated what Paul is talking about here, because you're deceived into thinking that your sin problem, it's just a behavior problem, so you can fix that sin problem by just changing your behavior.
It doesn't take into account what Paul was saying about the corruption of the flesh. You're completely unaware of the ways that it's animating you. It's pulling your strings, and you're completely unaware of the deeper problem that you have. Really for us to experience what the spirit wants to offer to us, you can't do it unless you first recognize that the flesh within you is a monster. That gets us to the second part of verse 13, which is your only hope against that monster is “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
It's only by the Spirit that your flesh can be overcome. It's only by the Spirit that those strings that animates you can be cut, and you can begin to be animated by something else entirely.
What does it look like to be led by the Spirit? How does that happen? It's a very mysterious idea. We know we should be, and it's very foggy. It's hard to know how that actually works. Well, let's see if Paul can help us, verses 15 and 16, "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry, "Abba! Father." The spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God."
What beautiful verses. Who doesn't want to feel that truth deep in their heart? Again, Paul isn't telling you this so that you would know some theological fact. His goal is that you would experience that power to where your life is actually animated by that instead. Sometimes, we can treat Paul so impersonally. We can treat him as though he's just writing a doctoral dissertation here, and one day, he's going to go publish his letter to the Romans. We think that he's just approaching the Romans as though he's just wanting to lecture them and inform them on theology. Not at all.
He's telling you about the life and the resurrection power that is available to you. When you choose to be led by the Spirit, you can know what I think is our deepest desire, a very real assurance that you are a child of God, but when does that happen? It happens in the moments where you begin to be led by the Spirit and you cry out, "Abba! Father." That's it. Because if you want to know that you are a beloved child, then doesn't it make the most sense that you would run to your father? Doesn't it make the most sense that you would come and tell him that that's what you want to feel? Is he a bad father or is he a good father?
One of the most important things in this passage that we need to consider is how Paul is expressing how the Spirit leads us into this place of emotive freedom to run to God, because the flesh would only have you ignore your heart, which means it would just deaden your heart. You wouldn't pay attention to your heart, and instead you were just focused on your behavior into a cold, lifeless, ritualistic devotion that just runs you away from God and doesn't do anything in your life other than cause more shame and more guilt and all the things that you want to change. But the Spirit will lead you in the opposite direction, which is to cry out, "Abba! Father!"
Virtually every commentary you find would say that Paul is using very emotional language here, very emotional language in how he is describing the spirit's work in us and what the spirit is doing itself, because the spirit would stir our hearts and lead us towards this evocative outcry, this emotional posture towards God where you now offer him your heart instead of going the way of the flesh where you ignore it, and you just focus on your behavior.
Now, I just said the word emotional, which means I recognize that I just lost about 75% of you, but do we have an emotionless religion?
Let's think about it. What Paul is not talking about here... Well, I'll say this. Some of you are very uncomfortable with the language of emotion and Christianity maybe just because of your story, your history. It's like mine. You grew up in a place where emotions just ran rampant, and it was just silly, and so you think if somebody. When you think of emotional and you think of that, you're cautious of that because you think of somebody just running up and down the isles, you think of people doing really weird stuff, getting beach balls out, hitting them around and this weird chaotic behavior.
Well, let me just say that is not what Paul is talking about here. He's not talking about emotionalism, which is what that is, where you feel like the only way that you can experience God is to get yourself worked up and experience an emotional high and manufacture it, but in the end, it just ends up being fake. Paul is not telling you, "You need to be like that guy at the gym that annoys all of us, that just walks around the squat rack grunting for a while, getting himself worked up, and then getting in there and getting it done." That is not what Paul is telling you you should become.
He's not talking about emotionalism, but you also have to recognize that you've got to do some pretty theological dancing or complex dancing if you want to reject emotion outright in how you approach God. Why? Because how can you love God with all your heart without it? How can you love your neighbor as yourself without it? How can you claim to serve a God that gets sad and weeps? How can you claim to serve a God that gets angry and clears out the temple? How can you explain Paul talking in Ephesians that his desire for you is that the Spirit would reveal to you the height, the width, the depth, and the breadth of God's love towards you? He wants you to experience the fullness of God's emotion towards you. Or think about Peter who says, "I want you to be filled with unspeakable joy."
Honestly, I think, sometimes we treat God this way. When we think about how we have to get rid of emotion is what really pleases God, is this, you're like a father on Christmas who buys their son a big gift. What really would please that father is whenever that child opens that gift and says, "Ah, yes, father, I see that you bought me this tremendous gift certainly by your goodness, your grace and kindness towards me, certainly of no merit of my own, because I know that I'm an unworthy child, and yet you still gave this to me. I thank you and I appreciate this gift so much."
Who wants that? That's stupid. What do you want to see happen? You want your child to run and say, "Yes, this is amazing!" And to give you a hug and then, what, to enjoy watching your child enjoy that gift. You enjoy that together. If you feel like you need to empty your heart of emotion before you come to God, then why does it seem like he’s so concerned with filling your heart with emotion, so concerned with an overflowing heart of gratitude, love, joy, and peace?"
To be clear, Paul is not talking about emotionalism, nor an emotionless, robotic faith. When he's talking about this language of an emotional posture towards God, that the Spirit would lead us to, it's that you wouldn't keep your heart from him. Now, you can offer it to him in a way that you never could before. Now, you can learn to let the Spirit lead you through your heart by actually taking it to the Father. When you do, you're giving him exactly what he wants. Why? Because he's the Father that searches hearts. He's not the Father that searches behavior. He's not the Father that searches your bookshelf to see what you're learning these days to see if it's good enough. He wants your heart, and so how can we move towards a place of this intimacy of knowing that we are a child of God if we never want to look at the part of us that he values the most?
How do we then allow the Spirit to lead us through our hearts? If you want that to happen, where do you begin? Well, consider again the language that Paul uses to talk about the Spirit. It's the Spirit that leads you to cry out. And it's the Spirit that prays for you with groanings too deep for words when you don't even know what to pray. It's the Spirit that longs for and desires for you to know that you are a beloved child of God.
This whole chapter is filled with the Spirit's longing and desire and emotion towards you of what it wants you to experience, and so maybe you start being led by the Spirit in the moment when you begin to fall in line with the Spirit, and you start to do what the Spirit is doing. You start to be led by it, and you too start to give voice to the longings and groanings of your heart. You start considering your heart instead of focusing on your behavior. You too, learn to groan with the Spirit, so then we just simply begin with that question.
What does your heart long for? Where do you groan for something more in your life? Where is your heart stirred? Where do you feel those emotions and desires of the heart that sometimes can feel overwhelming, something you want and desire badly? When you start to listen to those moments and you start to consider your heart in that way, those are the places that you'll most likely find that you're living by the flesh, because it's in those moments that you start to feel hurt. You feel pain. You feel rejection. You feel anxiety. You feel insecurity, loneliness, fear, and you start to long and groan for more.
Then the flesh comes in and starts to convince you that you can go about it in your own way. You can do it with your biggest problem, which is your heart, just by dealing with some behavior things. It convinces you to settle for something far less, but those are also the moments when you begin to experience those things that you could experience something new is to be led by the Spirit to some place new and experiencing something that you've never experienced before, because those are the moments where you choose to no longer be led by the flesh and ignore your heart, and you actually allow the Spirit to help you recognize what's in there because that's where your greatest problem lies.
In that, those moments when you're led by the Spirit, it takes all those theological ideas that you think you know in your head and it sinks it and drops it like a brick into your heart. That's when it will truly change and animate how you live.
What does one of those moments look like?
Well, imagine this, there's a man sitting in an airport, travels regularly for his job. He's tired of traveling because he always travels alone, and whenever he does travel, he struggles with his sin.
He looks at things that he shouldn't look at. He drinks more than he should. He's entertained fantasies and ideas that would simply wreck his life, and he's worn out. He's tired of hiding. He's tired of pretending like he's something that he's not. He hates that return flight home every single time because he just brings back so much guilt and shame. He's sitting at the airport waiting to leave on another trip, and it weighs heavily on him. Why? Because he feels the pull, the tug of slavery. He's come to a moment of decision.
In this moment that he could go the way of the flesh, he could just ignore it and go on, wait until it gets to the next bar, or he could just simply say, "I'm going to try harder this time. This time is different. I'm really gonna try harder." He's going to make some rules to follow, and he'll even memorize a few verses for strength along the way, but in the end, he's afraid because he's done all those things before. In the end, he's tried those things and he's failed because he now recognizes that his flesh is a monster that can't be managed. It has to be killed. He's tired of living like a slave, and he doesn't feel very loved by God, and he wants more.
Then he starts to remember all those theological truth that he's heard his whole life growing up in church. It's Monday morning, and he remembers the Sunday before, which was Easter and hearing a sermon on Romans 8. He thinks to himself, "Man, those truths just feel like a carrot on a stick, just out of reach. Yet, I desire so much for them to be true. I wish so badly that I could feel like a son." This time is different, because instead of focusing on his behavior, now he starts to think inwardly. This time he groans and he says, "Father, help me."
When he does, the Spirit starts to pull his thoughts deeper. It's out of his head. He stops thinking about his behavior, and then pulls his thoughts deeper into his heart. When he does, it starts to consider that he recognizes that beneath all of that sinful behavior that he focused on, is really the fact that he feels desperately alone. Every time he goes on a trip, it's like putting gasoline on a fire, because whenever he's alone, he feels all that insecurity, all the ways that his performance isn't good enough, ways that he feels like a joke, ways that he feels like a sham, and that voice starts to scream at him telling him that that's exactly who he is.
He recognizes that everything he's tried in the flesh doesn't work. Why? Because all those sinful behaviors aren't his real problem. It's just a symptom of how he has tried to satisfy his own heart on his own. He recognizes when he begins to look at his heart that his real problem is that his heart is a monster, is monstrous in the fact that it wants gratification and love and all the things that he can't produce. He looks for acceptance. He looks for feeling valued through a computer screen. It looks for peace at the bottom of a bottle. Why? It's not just those things.
It's that he uses those things to satisfy something deep within his heart, and he realizes that he can't, and so he finally does the only thing that he knows that he can do. He says, "Father, all I have to give you is this mess of my heart. Please help me. Remind me that I am your son." The Spirit starts to bear witness with his, and he starts a new journey, one where he's led by the Spirit. On the return flight home, he doesn't get on the plane as a slave. He comes home as a son.
What that felt like for him, I couldn't possibly tell you, because that's his story. That's why Paul doesn't tell you in this passage either. He just gives you an invitation, because some things are so good, you just have to be willing to experience it for yourself.
Lord Jesus, we thank you for this day in which we could come and sit in your presence, and we could be reminded of the things we don't want to hear. We could be reminded of the things that we do. We recognize that our hearts are deceptive above all else, and who could possibly understand it? You certainly do. You are the God who searches hearts, and we ask that you would search each of ours this morning. You would perhaps draw our attention to the deeper places of our heart rather than just focusing on our behavior, our performance, ways that we try to gain your approval. We just go to those places where we feel our need for you. Would you allow us to be led by your spirit so that we truly might say, "Abba, father?" To you, we come this morning and ask that you meet us at your table. We thank you for it. This in Christ's name we pray, amen.