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034 Finding Liberty in the Spirit

Romans 7 contains a discussion that Evangelicals may still be debating when Jesus returns. Paul, the Apostle, describes the frustration he feels while attempting to please God by doing good. Evangelicals wonder: does he mean BEFORE he became Christian, or is he feeling this AS a Christian?

A lot of Evangelicals--most of us, really--wonder this because we feel the same frustration most of the time. We have a notion of what we're supposed to be in Christ. We're not that. We want to be, but...well, we all have sins that we keep doing seemingly by nature, things that we know we ought not to do. That sounds an awful lot like what Paul describes in Romans 7. And it's an enormous comfort to think that Paul, the great Apostle, felt the same frustration that we maybe we're not so bad after all.

My goal today is to ruin that comfort completely, and to provide a new, more accurate comfort. Ready?

First of all, Romans 7 is a description of what Paul experienced as a Jew, before he obtained the Holy Spirit. It makes no sense otherwise. Romans 1:16 through Romans 8:39 contains a complete rendition of the gospel as Paul preached it. In Paul's general letters, his practical advice to Christians always follows after his theological expositions, and it never includes comments from Paul about his own struggles. In Romans, the practical advice begins in Romans 12. If Romans 7 is a lecture about how Christians ought to manage their frustration, it's badly out of place and uniquely personal. It simply does not fit unless it's part of the gospel presentation; and that makes it a pre-Christian complaint as a Jew under the law, for which Paul is about to supply the remedy.

Furthermore, Paul brackets the description of his frustration with clear declarations of freedom. In Romans 6:22, he declares that you (the Romans as Christians) have been freed from sin and enslaved to God. He acknowledges an ongoing battle due to "the weakness of your flesh" (6:19) but the declaration is clear: "You're free." He repeats that declaration in Romans 8:2: "...the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death."

Romans 7, by contrast, is about being a slave. He says so explicitly in 7:14 and 7:23, and he implies it at every other point in the argument. In fact, it is the law of sin that he mentions in 7:23 from which he declares freedom in 8:2. So Romans 7 is a small retrospective to remind his readers about that from which they have been freed.

It's true that he describes this in the present tense, but that's just a literary figure. It has no real weight as an argument.

So, sadly, it is pretty clear that what Paul was describing in Romans 7 is the frustration he experienced as a Jew, before he encountered the Holy Spirit. That's why Romans 8 makes sense; Paul is overjoyed that he is no longer bound by the law nor enslaved by his flesh, but instead walks in the freedom and provision that are his as a Son of God.

So why is it that so many of us experience as Christians what Paul experienced as a Jew?

I'm convinced that it's because most of us, as Christians, are still trying to please God the way that Paul tried to please God as a Jew. Anytime anybody attempts to please God by obeying a law, they're going to feel that same frustration.

It does not matter that it's a New Testament law. If it's a law, it's going to expose your flesh, and you're going to feel frustrated trying to keep it. That's actually the purpose of laws; "...through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." Romans 3:20.

It also does not matter what you say you believe about justification by faith. You may believe it all you like, but if what you do attempts to please God by obeying a law, then you're enslaved to the law of sin, and frustrated.

Now, that's actually good news, and very good news for some of us.

The Christian who imagines that he's fully in the Spirit and yet still experiencing the frustration of slavery to the flesh lives in a hopeless position. He's like a sick man who's tried all the cures for his disease but none of them have worked. He has no choice but to continue to struggle until the sickness ends him, hoping against all possibility that something is going to change. In extreme cases, he simply gives up with the observation, "It doesn't work," and goes back to his life before Christ.

But what if he hasn't really taken the cure yet? What if it works exactly as advertised, but it doesn't come automatically just by saying "I believe?" What if it comes only by acting as though one believes?

We Evangelicals in general have this silly imagination that what Paul says is ours in Christ gets applied automatically the instant that we say that we believe. Paul says "If anybody does not have the Spirit, he does not belong to [the Christ]." (Romans 8:9) We think that means that everything that's in the Spirit is ours automatically at that moment.

In a sense, that's true; it's ours by birthright as Offspring of God. But it's not necessarily ours by application, not yet.

Walking in the Spirit takes work, and the benefits in the Spirit come over time. It takes spiritual discipline--prayer, fasting, study, faithfulness in suffering, waiting on God, patient participation in less-than-perfect fellowship, etc. It takes acting in faith. It takes obedience to the Spirit. It takes choosing to take risks in God with the expectation that He is going to act if we take a chance that He actually meant what He said to us. It takes living as a disciple of Jesus.

Obeying the Spirit is not the same as obeying the New Testament as though it were law. If we read and obey, we're not doing anything that we couldn't have done as Jews or Mormons. There's benefit in doing that, sure, but it's the same benefit obtained by Jews and Mormons, and it's not the life of the Spirit that Paul describes in Romans 8. Rather, it comes with the frustration he describes in Romans 7. You pays yer money, you takes yer choice.

But when you're talking to a Buddhist missionary standing in the cold with no gloves on and he tells you that the cold is just an illusion, and the Spirit tells you to take the gloves off your hands and give them to him, you'd better do it. If you don't, there's some progress in the Spirit that you've missed, not to mention what might happen to the Buddhist without the example you were supposed to give him.

That was me, by the way, about 40 years ago. The Spirit told me to take off my gloves and give them to the Buddhist, but they were my favorite gloves and I balked. When I realized my error later, I ran out there to give them to him, but he was gone, and so was my opportunity.

I didn't die. I also didn't progress until later. I missed a chance to become more free than I was. (God was gracious, and brought me back around to it later. He's like that.)

In Matthew 14:22-33, twelve disciples saw Jesus walking to them on water in the middle of a storm. Only one, Peter, remembered that he was a disciple and was supposed to be learning to do what the Master did. So he asked, "Will you teach me to walk out there with you?" "Good idea," Jesus replied. "Come on." (Notice that He did not reply "That's really arrogant of you to ask, Peter," nor did He reply "Only I can do this.") I hear preachers all the time talking about Peter's "failure," but they don't get it. That wasn't failure. That was growth. Eleven disciples stayed right where they were and safely marveled at how great Jesus was. They didn't die; but one disciple took a chance, walked in the Spirit, and obtained something there that the others would have to get later in some other way.

So...frustrated? Still fighting off slavery to the flesh? I've got good news: there really is a cure, and you haven't taken it yet. It's waiting for you in the Spirit, but it takes some risk to go where it is. You have to give up comfortable and familiar things and go where the Master goes. Liberty is out there where the needs are, 'cause that's where the Master is and where He's always been. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (II Corin 3:17).

Phil Weingart


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