The story is told of an old man who, later in life, believed the gospel and was saved. After some time the local church of which he was a member organised a fundraiser. One requirement was that each church member should wear a T-shirt with a Christian message printed on the front. This presented a dilemma for the old man, since he was illiterate and embarrassed to admit it. It caused him great stress as he thought about what he should print on his T-shirt.
One day, walking in town, he saw a poster in a shop window with something written on it. He took it home, gave it to his wife (who also could not read), and asked her to copy the words onto his T-shirt. When the big day came, everyone was wore a T-shirt of their own with words like, “I love Jesus,” “I’m with Christ,” and so on. The old man’s T-shirt drew everyone’s attention. People commended him for the message and how appropriate it was. Curiosity piqued, he took a young man aside and asked him to read the message on his shirt. This is what it said: “Under new management.” Originally a message about the new management of the shop from which he had taken the poster, on his T-shirt it meant that he was a new creature in Christ and was now under the new management of the Holy Spirit.
Life in the Spirit can be described with those three words: Under new management. A Christian is no longer led by the flesh but by the Spirit. Paul demonstrates that reality in Romans 8. In vv. 1–10, he explains and outlines the privileges that Christians have in Christ. Then, in vv. 12–13, in light of these privileges, he highlights the Christian’s responsibility. He wants to show that life in the Spirit is a life characterised by holiness. The pursuit of a holy life is a clear demonstration of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Paul develops this idea in vv. 12–13 by showing us at least two facts about pursuing a holy life: holiness is a duty, and holiness is a fight. We’ll address the first here and the second in a follow up post.
Holiness is a Duty
After showing us the privileges we have in Christ, Paul goes on to outline our responsibilities as Christians. Life in the Spirit will be displayed in the way we live. The motivation for this kind of life is what God has already done in your life.
Paul demonstrates that, because of our relationship with God in Christ, and the Spirit living in us, our relationship with sin is totally changed. Pay careful attention to what he says in v. 12: “We are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh.” This underscores the reality of what God has accomplished in us through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Paul is saying that your relationship with sin is not what it used to be before you were a Christian. He speaks of a present reality.
What You Formerly Were
To understand this present reality, it is important to look back and be reminded of what life is like without Christ, or what the life of one not indwelled by the Holy Spirit looks like. Sinclair Ferguson rightly explains that “only as we begin to appreciate what we once were before we became Christians (or what we would be naturally were we not Christians), do we begin to sense something of the immense grandeur of being new creatures in Christ.”
But how does the Bible describe a person who is not in Christ?
Speaking to religious Jews, Jesus once said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Paul shows the same truth in Romans 3:9: “All [everyone without exception] are under sin [as slaves].” In fact, if you consider Romans 5:12–6:23, the references to sin in the Greek are usually to the sin, as though it had taken on personal characteristics. As a result, everyone outside of Christ is powerless against sin. The Bible continues to paint a picture of gloom by describing those outside Christ as being dead in sin and trespasses, under the dominion of this sinful world, Satan, and the flesh. It says we were sons of disobedience and children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1–3).
Though this is a former description of those who are now in Christ, who have given their lives to God by believing in Jesus Christ, it is the current description of those who have not. The worst thing about being a slave to sin is that one cannot do anything to save themselves from this slavery. The chains that bind a slave cannot be broken by anyone except God. It is like Samson trying to break the ropes with his head shaved. We need someone to free us from this slavery.
Sons of God
And that’s what God did. It is in the dark cloud of hopelessness and slavery to sin that we see the brightness of God’s grace. Look at the word that Paul uses to refer to the people he writes to: “brothers” (a generic term for brothers and sisters). The word itself has a great story behind it. It’s packed with meaning.
It reminds us that God, through Christ, delivers or saves us from the dominion of sin in order that we may live freely for him. He makes us his children and brings us into his family, giving us a new identity. He is our Father, we are his children, and to one another we are brothers and sisters. He has sealed us with the Holy Spirit. We are, in the words of Romans 8:14, “sons of God led by the Spirit.”
Debtors and DJs
Because of this truth, Paul says we are “debtors,” not to the flesh to live according to the flesh. In other words, because we are now free from the power of sin—because we are no longer slaves to sin—we owe the flesh nothing. The idea of living “according to the flesh” means living under the desires of sin, or doing what the sinful nature wants. Picture sin as a DJ playing a tune that you are dancing spontaneously to. The flesh loves the tune that DJ sin plays. But when God changes your heart and gives you the Holy Spirit, the tunes of DJ sin are not as enticing anymore. There is a new tune that you now love hearing, a tune that is sweeter than the tune of DJ sin. The Puritans called this idea replacing sin with the expulsive power of a new affection.
Although the verse is stated in the negative, in terms of what kind of debtors we are not, there is a positive aspect implied stating what kind of debtors we are. Positively, “we are debtors, to the Spirit, to live according to the Spirit.” In contrast to living according to the flesh, we are now to live according to the Spirit because we are debtors of the Holy Spirit. The word “debtor”speaks of the idea of owing a debt. In this case, the debt of sin we could not pay has been paid for us through the death of Jesus Christ.
And all we can say is: “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be!” Because of what God has done, because of the privileges that are ours in Christ, we have a duty to live a holy life. Living a holy life should not be misunderstood as repaying the debt but rather as a life of gratitude to God. Life in the Spirit is a life conformed to the wishes of the Holy Spirit, and because he is the Holy Spirit, this life must be characterised by holiness. One of the indications that you have the Holy Spirit will be seen in a desire for a holy life. Holiness is a badge that indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Making a Home
Before I got married, my house was dull and messy. It was dusty and my socks were everywhere. It had no personality. Anyone visiting could tell without needing to ask that there was no wife in this house.
After we got married, my wife began to work on our house, beautifying it and making it habitable, changing our curtains, putting nice pictures and paintings on the wall to a point that now it reflects her personality to some extent. In the same way, when the Holy Spirit indwells us, it must be seen in our changed lives that reflect his holy character. It will be evidenced in that we indeed live life in the Spirit.
When we come to the knowledge that in Christ, we are freed from sin and are empowered in our fight against the sin that once bound us. Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll discuss how holiness is not only a duty but also a fight.