Walking according to the Spirit

June 30th, 2020

Romans 8:1-11

Before we truly can hear Paul, we have to have a proper understanding of our guilt. We don’t like to talk about this, but we can’t grow in our faith unless we reflect on our guilt. We approach our guilt in several ways. We sometimes deny our guilt. We rationalize, defend ourselves, blame others or make excuses. We become stubborn, lashing out at people who point out our sins. Paul talks of this in the first two chapters of Romans. He tells us that we are all self-righteous sinners, finding idols everywhere. Paul leaves us no place to hide.

The flip side of this first attitude is that guilt can be like Velcro, sticking to us so that we can’t shake it off. This feeling can be so miserable, it is no wonder we deny our guilt. We may look back at something we have done, and we just cannot let the guilt go. In chapter 7, Paul addresses this feeling of excessive guilt. He describes the agony of wanting to do better and be better but not being able to get there: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). Then Paul speaks on behalf of everyone who has ever felt guilt as a weight: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24).

That sentence reflects Paul’s own anguish, as well as the anguish he knows that we feel. He knows the struggle we have with guilt. When people try to say that Paul gives us a guilt trip, they haven’t read enough of him. It’s true that he doesn’t want us to be self-righteous, ignoring our guilt. He doesn’t want us to be self-satisfied and smug about our relationships with God and other people. But he doesn’t want us to wallow in guilt either. Once we realize what our guilt is, he wants us to be rescued, living in peace.

Paul proclaims that Christ offers us that peace. By working in Christ, God has broken the power of sin in our lives. In chapter 7, Paul has talked about how sin corrupts everything it touches. God gave the law as a gift, but sin corrupted the law. The law became a burden rather than a gift. Paul uses the example of coveting to show the law has become corrupted. Coveting drives us crazy. We become jealous and then frustrated when we look at what we don’t have. The law, as gift, tells us not to covet. Sin corrupts the law so that we not only covet because we lack strength to obey, but we also feel guilty about coveting because it is against God’s law. Trying to fulfill the law on our own leaves us with both frustration and guilt.

Christ has broken the power of guilt. Christ has disarmed guilt so that it does not have to weigh us down. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. That frees us from the trap of guilt added to frustration.

We still face our weakness, however. Christ frees us from condemnation, but we still cannot obey the law, rising above our weaknesses by our own strength. So Paul offers us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit strengthens us from within. Paul says that our choice is to set our minds on the flesh or on the Spirit. To set our minds on the flesh is death. When Paul uses the word flesh he does not mean just sensual sins. We are bombarded with powerful sensual temptations that affect our behavior. We have made sensuality into an idol. Nevertheless, Paul means more than sensuality when he talks about setting the mind on the flesh. The flesh includes the many manifestations of our sinful side. Greed and the desire for revenge are as much a part of the flesh as anything else.

The alternative is to set our minds on the Spirit. To set our minds on the Spirit is to let the Spirit work within us, letting God’s strength take over when we are too weak. Setting our minds on the Spirit does not mean that we will never sin or face frustration again. Setting our minds on the Spirit means that God is nurturing within us the grace to become loving, strong, joyful. Setting our minds on the Spirit leads to life and peace.

Paul knows that we are still weak and that we live in a fallen world. Paul’s understanding of our sin is complicated. Paul believes on the one hand that we are responsible for our sins. We choose idolatry, rebellion and submission to temptation. On the other hand, Paul says that we are not responsible for our sins. The whole creation is not what God wants it to be because it is held captive to the powers and principalities. The sin of the whole creation spills over onto us.

We have three choices. We can deny our guilt, we can wallow in our guilt, or we can recognize our guilt. In this third approach, we acknowledge that we are sinners who live in a sinful world, and we open ourselves to forgiveness. We face no condemnation. The Spirit enables us to resist temptation and grow in grace.

In chapter 7, Paul uses the example of coveting. We covet because we see others with more than we have. We feel jealous and insecure, making ourselves miserable. The law tells us not to covet, so we know that coveting is wrong, and then we feel guilty about it. Christ has broken that cycle, taking our guilt for coveting. The Holy Spirit enables us to learn to live abundantly with what we have. We don’t define ourselves by what we own. We know that we are not more important because we have more money or a bigger car. We are content.

With the economy as unstable as it is, we cannot say to those who really are in desperate straits, “Be content with what you have.” We have an obligation to help others. If our needs are met, the Holy Spirit enables us to look at what we have and be at peace so that we have the strength and the will to reach out to those in need.

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