Law-living Vs. Grace-living
God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. —Romans 8:3
How do people change? How do you and I really change? We all need to. If God is who he says he is – and he is – and if we are who he says we are – and we are – then we need to change. But how? There are basically two approaches to change: law and grace.
Law with a capital L is God’s law, the Ten Commandments and all his commandments in the Bible. That’s what Paul is thinking of here in verse 3. And God’s Law is holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:12). What if for just one day everyone on the face of the earth obeyed the Ten Commandments? It would go down in history as a great day. The problem is not the Law but what Paul calls “the flesh,” and I’ll explain that in a moment. For now Paul wants us to notice that even the Law of God is weakened in its practical impact. It tells us right and wrong, but it doesn’t change us. It only condemns us. Alexander Pope, in his “Essay on Man,” referred to the principle of law as Reason because he was an eighteenth-century man. But he nailed it when he wrote,
Ah! if [Reason] lend not arms, as well as rules, What can she more than tell us we are fools? Teach us to mourn our nature, not to mend, A sharp accuser, but a helpless friend!
Law is not only the commandments of God in the Bible. Law with a small l is also inside us. It’s the accusing voice within, accusing ourselves, accusing others. Religious law, which is uncool these days, says things like, “Join our group, and you’ll be superior. Follow our rules, and God will like you. Conform to us, and we will accept you.” Secular law, which is cool these days, says, “Here are three principles for stress management, here are five steps to a more balanced life, here are seven keys to a successful future, here are nine secrets to a new you.” There’s a lot of law in our culture. The self-help industry is all law, appealing to our pride and control, offering practical tips that work. And sometimes they do work – at the level of outward behavior. It’s like “baby-stepping” in What About Bob? But Bob Wiley was just as weird with every baby-step he took. Neither the Law of God nor the law of man can change our hearts. But that’s where we need to change – down deep where we feel our guilt and anxiety.
So that’s law. It’s one mechanism for change, but it doesn’t help. The other way for us to change is the grace of God. And grace helps, way down deep. The grace of God does not say to us, “I love you just the way you are.” It says, “I love you for the way Christ is. I love you enough not to leave you the way you are. I will imprint Christ on your heart.” And grace succeeds, because it works with two unstoppable powers – the power of acceptance, and the power of the Holy Spirit. I want to explain today how that can work for you. But I have to warn you, at first glance grace doesn’t seem as practical as law, because grace is miraculous. It’s God at work. Grace is God giving himself to us wholeheartedly and calling us to trust him and surrender to him and put our hope in him. Grace works only for weak people. But it’s how we change – when we face what we are and hand ourselves over to the grace of God because he knows what we are and still handles us with compassion.
My purpose today is to explain, from Romans 8:3-4, how God does and does not change us. I’m going to ask you to abandon law as your m.o. for change. I’m going to ask you to give yourself to God, for him to change you by his grace alone. And I’m going to show you how it works. So let’s take these two verses phrase by phrase.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.
In a moment Paul is going to tell us what God has done. But first he tells us how weak the law is and why. What is he saying? He tells us that our problem is “the flesh.” This is the first time Paul uses the word flesh in Romans 8, and he’s going to use it a lot now because it tells us a lot about ourselves. Let’s pay attention to this word flesh. The NIV makes a mistake translating this word with the phrase “sinful human nature.” The NIV says here, “What the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful human nature . . . .” I’m not often tempted in preaching to use the word “Dang!” But sometimes I can’t resist, and this is one of those rare occasions. The NIV translation is misleading, because the flesh keeps us stuck where we are largely because it doesn’t feel sinful. So if all I watch out for in myself is my “sinful human nature,” I won’t understand myself. I’ll never notice the real enemy within. I’ll never know how much I really need God. I’ll think I’m a pretty good guy who’s working on a few problems. And I’ll end up with shallow, recreational Christianity that only rearranges the surfacy things of my life. But real Christianity takes me deeper. It’s scary but helpful. The biblical term “flesh” alerts us that our problem is as much a part of us as our very flesh. In the film “Lawrence of Arabia,” after Lawrence has been humbled, he and his friend Ali have a conversation:
Lawrence: I’ve come to the end of myself.
Ali: A man can be whatever he wants. You said it.
Lawrence: I’m sorry. I thought it was true.
Ali: You proved it.
Lawrence, opening his shirt and grabbing the flesh of his chest: Look, Ali, look. That’s me. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
Ali: A man can do whatever he wants. You said it.
Lawrence: He can. But he can’t want whatever he wants. This is the stuff that decides what he wants.
We hear a lot today about making good choices based on good information. That’s law living, and it is superficial. It isn’t in touch with how radically undone we really are. Our very flesh – God made it good, but we’ve become corrupted so deeply that sin is now as unchosen as hunger and as comfortable as sleep. How can we even want to obey the law, if powers inside us decide that we’re going to want other things? It’s like trying to jump out of a hole that has no bottom.
What Paul calls “the flesh” is our moral and emotional and psychological substructure underneath everything else about us. The flesh is the you and me that seem too obvious to think about, much less question. It includes the mediocrity we settle for – our defeated selves that we prettify with socially acceptable appearances. The flesh is our natural moral condition, including both our vices and our virtues. It’s our natural moral potential, including both our capacity for evil and for good. The flesh can be virtuous. The Pharisees proved that. But the virtues of the flesh destroy. Have you ever looked at a bad person and thought, “Well, I may not be perfect, but I’d never do that”? That’s the flesh talking. It’s Original Sin bubbling up to the surface in the form of horrible goodness. And we’re all capable of horrible goodness. Think of an unwed mother might be treated in small town America. Our virtues impress us way too much. Give me three square meals and eight hours of sleep, and I can be good – for five minutes at a stretch. But it is the goodness of the flesh. It is weak and boastful and complacent. There is nothing supernatural about that kind of virtue. It is not of the Holy Spirit. It may do some good for society; but it will do harm too, because it isn’t Christianity, it isn’t miraculous. And it weakens the practical impact of God’s law.
When the flesh – that is, our natural moral psychology – when the flesh encounters the law of God, two things happen: collision and collusion. I saw it on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” There was a clip of a little girl standing up on the kitchen counter with the cupboard door open and she’s been stealing cookies. Her mom walks in with the camera running and says, “Have you been eating the cookies?” The child looks at her with defiance and shouts, “What are you doing here? Turn that camera off!” Collision. Then her mom calmly says, “You have chocolate on your face.” And the child’s demeanor softens instantly and she says, “I love you, mommy.” Collusion. That little child, uncoached by anyone, shows us ourselves. That is the flesh encountering the law. First, there’s defiance, as the law peers into our lives. We think, “What right do you have in my private choices?” Secondly, when that doesn’t work and our guilt is too obvious to deny, the flesh changes its tactic to a fawning sweetness. But both are strategies for changing the subject from our guilt and fear and sense of condemnation. The flesh collides with the law and the flesh colludes with the law, but in both ways the flesh weakens the impact of the law by sidestepping our real guilt and shame. And the flesh cannot change. It is what it is – the unfree will. This is why we must abandon all forms of law, if we hope to change.
God loves his law. God never lowers his standards. God is always true to himself. But he also understands our weakness. The Belgic Confession of 1561 tells us: “Since it has pleased God to give us his Son as our Advocate, let us not leave him for another. For when God gave him to us, he knew well that we were sinners.” What then has God done in grace for us sinners who are stuck with what we are and not much bothered about it as long as we can get by looking good?
By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin…
Paul is telling us about the most gracious thing that’s ever happened in all of human history. God sent Jesus on a mission. Our only hope for positive change came down from far beyond us, from outside our culture of sin-management and self-improvement and image-enhancement. And we need to know two things about Jesus and his mission into this fraudulent world. One, Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh. He humbled himself and became human, like us, with us. He didn’t stand aloof and try to fix us by remote control. He came down among us, as one of us. But Jesus was not entirely like us. He was not corrupted and sinful. His heart was perfect, his life was perfect. If we want to see what a human being was always meant to be, it’s Jesus. He came in the likeness of sinful flesh.
Two, Jesus came for sin. That is, he came to die as a sacrifice for sin. That’s how extreme our guilty helplessness is. Now, what does it mean that Jesus came as a sacrifice for sin? We all have a sense of atonement. We’ve all been wronged along the way. And we all know that when we’re wronged, it can’t be ignored. The injury done to us must be offset somehow. Something has to make up for the injustice, because it’s really there. We all know how frustrating it is when someone wrongs us and then acts as if we should pretend everything’s okay. They may even be offended if we don’t play along. Well, that’s what we’ve all done to God. We have wronged him. We have offended him. And then, if he doesn’t seem to be okay with it all, we think he’s being persnickety. That’s the flesh, busy with transference. What has God done for haughty sinners in denial? He moved toward us in grace. He sent his only Son, who offset our wrong for us. He paid our debt for us. He owned our wrong as if it were his. God did this in grace toward us at the cross of Christ. Here’s how decisive God was:
…He condemned sin in the flesh…
Paul is finally telling us what God did that the weakened law could not do. But it seems a strange thing to say. If the law could do anything, it could condemn us. That power of the law is not weakened by the flesh. It’s why the law intensifies our anxiety. It tells us how inexcusable we are, because we are. And it’s terrifying to be confronted with the embarrassing truth that we cannot do anything about. The law condemns us powerfully, not weakly. So, what is Paul saying here? What did God do for us? God so condemned our sin in Christ’s human flesh – “he condemned sin in the flesh” means in Christ’s flesh on the cross – God so condemned our sin there as to execute his final sentence. God doomed sin’s very presence in us and here in God’s world. Something decisive and final happened 2000 years ago at the cross of Christ. The evil we create, everything that dishonors God and damns us – God took it onto himself deep inside the humanity of his Son, it sank him down to death. The condemnation we most dread – God stepped in and took it himself. That’s why Paul could say in verse 1, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” God’s grace didn’t overlook our offenses. God in grace took responsibility in himself for our offenses. He didn’t scream for our blood. He gave his own. And in one blinding moment of painful atonement, he took our guilt and hell far away, never to return.
The law could never do that. The law can only threaten us and penalize us and drive us deeper into ourselves, deeper into futile efforts to prove ourselves and create that smiling world of smiling people with smiling children who don’t have any problems. But grace gets underneath all that and starts changing us, really changing us, by – well, if you belong to Jesus, you will never hear him say, “If you ever . . . .” He will never drag your sins out to embarrass you. Everything wrong with you was condemned once for all at his cross. There are still deep caverns within you, hidden places of fear and willfulness and incomprehension and pride and lust you’re not even aware of. God knows it all and sees it all and still holds you with compassion. In fact, because of the cross, God treats you now like a righteous person. He calls you righteous in Christ. You have no right to say that about yourself. But God has the right and the grace. This is why you can be honest about yourself now. You can face yourself without an existential crisis – no more evasion in you because no more condemnation in God. At the cross, you are received, you are washed, you are loved. You are now in a safe place with God. Here’s how that grace changes us:
…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
God justifies us, in order to sanctify us. He settles us in grace and peace, in order to get us moving in grace and power. But we never go back to law and the flesh. I like the way Martin Luther illustrates it:
It is just as with a sick man who wants to drink some wine because he is of the foolish opinion that he will thus be cured. When the doctor, not meaning to say anything at all against wine, tells him, “The wine cannot possibly cure you; it will only make you sicker,” he does not put any blame on the wine but only on his foolish patient. For his patient needs some other kind of remedy in order to get well, so that he can drink wine. So also, our corrupted nature is in need of another medicine than the law, in order to become whole so that it can fulfill the law.
Do you want to change? Forsake your own moral potential. Forsake leveraging yourself by law. Stop it. It will only make you sicker. Do you want to change? God gives the Holy Spirit. Open your heart, and God will replace the virtues of your flesh with the powers of his Holy Spirit. If you belong to Jesus, you are no longer merely “the flesh.” You have been supernaturalized. God has replaced the best that we can do – walking according to the flesh – with the best that he can do – walking according to the Spirit. Christianity is not an improved version of human morality and religion. It is miracle through and through. Do not think, “I have the Holy Spirit, but I still have problems. What good does grace do?” Think, “I have problems, but I also have the Holy Spirit. So, okay. Let’s get going!”
Here’s our part in the miracle. The word “walk” tells us it’s practical, moment-by-moment, like walking step by step. The words “according to” tell us there is a Guide to follow. The words “the Spirit” remind us that there is Someone who helps us best when we are weakest. Let me apply it to one sin men sometimes commit and another sin women sometimes commit.
Some men look at pornography. That’s a sin. How does the Holy Spirit change a man who looks at pornography? How does a pornography-prone man walk according to the Spirit? Step one: honesty. The flesh will lie to you and tell you it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. Pornography hollows a man out and makes him incapable of a real relationship. Step one in walking according to the Spirit is agreeing with the Spirit against the flesh that it’s sin. Step two is hope in acceptance. Step two is believing the gospel: “There is no condemnation in Christ.” Not hope for acceptance – that’s law – but hope in acceptance – that’s grace. In your shame and self-hatred and weariness, fall into the arms of God. He will comfort you, the pornographer. Step three, repent. Go by faith to the cross, where your lust was paid for, and look again. Look at his flesh cut and torn open. Look at the blood oozing out of his wounds. Look at the sweat and the flies, inhale the stench, hear the mockery, look into his eyes and see that your secret pleasures did that to him, and he does not scorn you but loves you. When by faith you go to the cross, your lust will start dying and your holiness will start living. God will accomplish it, as you hand yourself over to his grace in Christ. That’s how you walk according to the Spirit.
Some women are jealous. That’s a sin too. Women are jealous of other women who have a husband or don’t have a husband, who have children, who have money and a nice home, who have beauty and looks, who have abilities and connections and opportunities and recognition. What does it mean for a jealous woman to walk according to the Spirit? Step one: honesty. Admit the rage in your heart. Step two is hope in acceptance. God wants you to hear the good news: “There is no condemnation in Christ.” He wants to comfort you and pour his love into your heart so that you’re happy rather than brooding. Fall into his arms. He longs to receive you. Step three, repent. Go by faith back to the cross where your jealousy was paid for and look again at your crucified Savior, who loves you. When by faith you go to his love, your jealousy will start dying and your joy will appear as if out of nowhere. God will give it to you, as you walk according to the Spirit.
May God help us all to abandon the flesh and take new steps according to the Holy Spirit. We will change in ways that surprise us.