Romans 8 opens with the statement that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
One important thing to note is that in the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the books were not divided into chapters or verses. Thus, the statement that “there is no condemnation” was meant to be in the same context as the struggle with sin described at the end of Chapter 7. I think Paul wanted readers to see that we are free from condemnation even when there are problems that we have not yet overcome.
Verses 5-6 state, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Verse 9: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
Verses 12-13: “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 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.”
I think it’s important to consider what it means to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit in order to have life. At first, this may sound like an admonishment to try harder to stop committing sins. However, I think Romans 7 shows how, in some cases, ramping up the effort to live right can actually keep us stuck in bad habits because inward rebellion is stimulated in response to the righteous effort. Thus, I think that, where Romans is concerned, living according to the flesh versus the Spirit isn’t so much about what we are doing, but rather, what is the focus of our minds. The point is that our minds should be focused on freedom from sinful habits, believing that the new life given to us through Christ’s death and resurrection has the power to change our lives as the Holy Spirit works in us.
So, I’ll get back to the question, “Should we continue trying to avoid sin?” I think it comes down to this: What are our efforts, or lack of efforts, doing to the focus of our minds? Ultimately, it is only by the Holy Spirit that certain problems can be overcome in our lives. And deliverance can be a process rather than an instantaneous event. Many spiritual Christians have taught the importance of patience in waiting for prayers to be answered. Although that principle is not often put in a context of personal morality, I think Romans gives us reason to make that extension. In Romans 4, Paul describes the faith of Abraham, who believed in God’s promise to give him descendants even though his and Sarah’s bodies were dead where reproduction was concerned. Paul wrote that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17). When that promise was given, Abraham and Sarah were powerless to fulfill that promise. Even if they had tried to act, it would not have succeeded. They were too old. Likewise, we can try to do what’s right, but our efforts don’t work unless we are spiritually enabled to follow through.
In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, Paul wrote,
“And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?”
Paul wrote that the Corinthians were still “of the flesh . . . behaving according to human inclinations.” However, Paul refers to them as “brothers and sisters,” which clearly indicates they were justified and genuinely in the faith. Spiritually, they were in a situation similar to Abraham’s physical situation. But if we trust in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to set us free, we can know that our time is coming to grow out of the problems in our lives even if currently we do not feel that power working.
If we are trying to change ourselves, and see that our efforts are not working and are simply causing frustration, that frustration takes our attention away from trusting in the Spirit to set us free and puts the spotlight back on the problems in our lives. If that’s the case, we might need to concede the failing efforts, trust in the Spirit’s power to ultimately set us free, and wait until we receive the empowerment to tackle certain issues.
If we realize that we don’t have to change ourselves to be right with God, we become free to conduct an honest examination of ourselves, rather than feeling like we have to twist the data to make it look like we’re meeting a certain standard. When we get a clearer view of what is going on inside of us, we may see why our efforts to change ourselves aren’t working. We can try to create new approaches to solving problems in our lives that better reflect our individual psychology. Ultimately, God may empower us to overcome issues by leading us into this kind of wisdom.
What we should avoid is the situation in which we sense that we realistically have the willpower and strength to make certain changes, but we force ourselves to override our conscience because we want zero pain. In that situation, we are steering our attention away from deliverance and back towards sin. When Paul instructs readers to avoid giving in to sin, I think this is what he is talking about.
I believe there are two mentalities that should be contrasted: A mentality of law, and a mentality of licentiousness. The mentality of law says, “You must do xyz. No buts, no ifs, no debates. JUST DO IT!” The mentality of licentiousness says, “Forget about xyz, there’s no need for change in your life. You can define your own ideals.” Grace, however, acknowledges that we should be subject to God’s will. However, grace (unlike Law) allows us to be realistic about what we can and cannot do. Grace is not lenient; rather, it has the transformative power to bring our lives closer to God’s will. Biblical grace could be likened to chemical reactions, combustion, radiation, etc. When you come to see this, you can see that pejorative terms like “cheap grace” are completely irrelevant. Also, phrases like a “license to sin” become irrelevant because if you are free from Law, there is no need for a license, for a license gives you permission to do something that the law normally forbids. The only reason you need a driver’s license is because there is a law that says you cannot drive without one.
Ultimately, any power to make a change in our lives comes from God. I believe that for some Christians, due to either psychological traits that God designed them to have, or a special working of the Holy Spirit within them, they can apply heavy self-discipline and actually get the desired results because they have some sort of power that many of us do not have. I think that there are even non-Christians who have this inherent ability as I alluded to in Parts 2-3 of this series. For some people, this is the only way that they can understand obedience because they are not experiencing the limitations of willpower. These people can live by the principle that the Apostle James outlined (that faith without works is dead). They show their faith in God by consistently doing what the Holy Spirit convicts them that they should do.
But what can happen is that over time, temptations build up, and they get tired of persevering to live right. But they do not understand the message of grace and transformation outlined in Romans, so they resort to a mentality of licentiousness and disregard Biblical virtues. I think that it is possible for salvation to be lost, and this is where it might occur.
However, I believe if we come to realize that we cannot change ourselves through our willpower and energy, and are trusting in God to help us experience freedom from sin through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, we cannot mess up our salvation. Furthermore, I believe we are living in a state of continual repentance by believing these things even if we have not verbally confessed every act of sin. It is at this point that we are justified apart from our present works. We have left our lives in God’s hands, and we can be assured that He will operate in us so that we will be saved when our lives are evaluated.