Our study in the last chapter, of the establishment of the church by the Holy Spirit has made it clear that the one Spirit works in a variety of ways: that way which we term miraculous is but one and not really the most fundamental. The most significant works of the Spirit are those which affect the mind and heart: witnessing within, converting and regenerating, enabling one to witness without; providing courage and clarity of thought and spiritual fruit, binding the new converts together into a new collective experience. All these activities were a continuation of the Lord's earlier ministry.
The Christian church "is not simply the result of the coming together of like-minded people, drawn together by a common interest. It is the result of the action of the Spirit Himself. Throughout the New Testament the church appears as a Spirit-filled and Spirit-indwelt body. No amount of the energy of the flesh could produce the church of God, only the divine within could do that. The Church did not go its own sweet way. It was the fellowship of the Spirit. It went where the Spirit led".
These principles are particularly developed by Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians and in the epistle to the Ephesians. Throughout them both we are conscious of the living presence of the Lord in the church, irrespective of the precise nature of the manifestations of the Spirit, and are brought to ask why the atmosphere of those churches in those days should not be reproduced in our own in these days.
The very beginning of I Corinthians speaks of a relationship with the Lord of an intensely personal nature. They were dedicated to God in Christ Jesus, claimed by him as his own (1:2). The salutation which is normal in all the epistles is not a mere conventional greeting: "grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ". It speaks of the basis of Christian living, individual and collective, as resting in the gift (grace) of the Lord's presence and the oneness (peace) with him which is the theme of the gospel. These and many other phrases where the word "Spirit" does not appear, nevertheless speak of the work of Christ as expressed in John 14 to 17. An awareness permeates the epistles of the work of the living Lord -- a fulfilling of the Comforter promises, and most of the time in seemingly natural ways. The awareness that he is there makes a tremendous difference to Christian living and Christian fellowship.
Then 1 Corinthians I goes on to speak of "all the enrichment that has come to you in Christ" (1 Cor. l:5). "God called you to share in the life of his son Jesus Christ our Lord" (1:9). This was a reference to a sharing now, because he goes on to draw from this the lesson of avoiding party spirit: and commenting on the folly of depending on human wisdom, Paul sets forth the basis of their Christianity: "you are in Christ Jesus by God's act, for God has made him our wisdom; he is our righteousness; in him we are consecrated and set free" (1:30).
In the second chapter (v 6-10) Paul refers to the passage in Isa. 64 "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" -- and then he goes on, contrary to how many think of this passage -- "but he hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit". The idea is that man's own observation (eye), man's own attentiveness (ear), man's imagination, could never have found the love of God in Christ. It has been necessary for the Spirit to reveal it as promised in John 16:14-15, where the Comforter will "draw from what is mine", i.e. mediate redemption in Christ to the experience of the believer.
We could never know the things of God if the Spirit had not revealed them: only God's Spirit knows what goes on in the inner being of God -- and this is the Spirit we have received, in distinction from the spirit of the world (1 Cor. 2:11-12). The familiar phrase "comparing spiritual things with spiritual", which has been interpreted to mean looking up the concordance to compare one Bible passage with another, is translated in the NEB "because we are interpreting spiritual truths to those who have the Spirit, we speak of these gifts of God (i.e. those relating to salvation and the Lord's living presence) in words found for us not by our human wisdom but by the Spirit" (v 13). This echoes "it shall be given you" in the words of Jesus and leads us to realise the grace of God not solely by appeal to reason, logic and Bible, but by something more than Scripture.
"A man who is unspiritual refuses what belongs to the Spirit of God; it is folly to him; he cannot grasp it, because it needs to be judged in the light of the Spirit" (v14) This clearly speaks of a divinely given inner awareness without which a real fellowship of the Spirit is impossible. This does not mean a merely subjective light within or indulgence in transcendental meditation: facts about Jesus revealed by God are the raw material on which the Spirit works, and they, for us, are found only in the Bible: prayer is the tap which opens the channel for the Spirit's operation. Then the Spirit gives discretion and true awareness, for a man "gifted with the Spirit can judge the worth of everything". He has inbuilt standards of judgment (v 15-16), and it can be said that be has the mind of Christ.
So in chapter 3, still combating the following of human leaders, even though Spirit gifted, he regrets that his readers were so immature that he could not speak to them in the way that he ought to be able to speak to those "who have the Spirit". The fact of their immaturity did not alter the fact of the Spirit's indwelling, though it was a cause for regret that they did not fully respond to the Spirit.
He likens the whole church collectively to a building -- indeed a temple, "God's temple where the Spirit of God dwells" (v 16-17) -- a passage which few would deny refers to the community of the believers in all periods of Christian history.
Then in I Corinthians 6 -- a chapter on moral standards of timeless application -- Paul derives the whole power of his appeal for purity from the fact that their individual bodies were "shrines of the indwelling Holy Spirit", that the Spirit was God's gift to them, and that they no longer belonged to themselves, they were bought with a price. Our bodies should be shrines of the Holy Spirit for a deeper reason than that we have a good knowledge of the Bible which, because ideas have power, influences us. That is part of the story -- the factual part -- but the facts have vital and transforming impact and this is the work of the Spirit. In the same chapter Paul so clearly states:
They had been delivered from moral evils through being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Note however that not only were they (and we) justified through the name of the Lord Jesus -- but also through the Spirit of our God. This is yet another echo of the Comforter taking of the things of Jesus and working them into the experience of the believer (John 16: 14). Redemption becomes real to us through the work of the Spirit. Thus the Spirit shares in the work of our justification. As we said earlier in this book "Calvary without Pentecost would not be atonement to us"
The major section in 1 Corinthians on the Spirit in the church is of course the section in chapters 12-14 where Paul begins:
Paul starts by giving a general guideline for recognising the activity of the Spirit:
This verse very clearly states that every Christian is under the influence of the Holy Spirit. No mere intellectual pursuit could bring him to recognise Jesus as Lord: it is a divine act that creates the realisation in the mind and heart of man and brings about the consequent commitment. The written Word, prayer, experience, the witness of others are media through which the Spirit works -- but the Spirit is the creator of the conviction -- the heart and mind of a man respond (2 Cor. 3.3).
The exposition then proceeds to clear up a point which often hinders understanding.
It is thought that where certain specific gifts (e.g. healing, miracles) are not evident today in a community then the Holy Spirit is absent: this is not so. Because some varieties of gifts are not in action there is no cause to say that the Spirit has been withdrawn. The absence of some actions of the Spirit may be due to our deficient faith, but in any case the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to do the Divine will, as they decide.
The next point to notice is the bringing together of Father, Son and Spirit in the work of ministering to the whole body.
Often in similar passages the Spirit is just described as the Spirit; on other occasions it is described as the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Jesus. Also the Spirit's work is often attributed to God or to Jesus. However inadequate the Athanasian trinity may be, we must recognise that the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is all the work of God.
Paul proceeds to suggest that all members had some gift of the Spirit to bring to the common benefit. "In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose" (v 7).
That all members of the church were thus involved is evident from the analogy to a human body in verses 12-27.
All were baptised, into the one body in the one Spirit. The Holy Spirit was poured out for all of them to drink (cf John 7:37-39). Not all had outstanding gifts, but all were organs of the one Spirit-produced body of Christ. The absent Lord was nevertheless very much present with them. Baptism and Spirit endowment are inseparable here, and there is no indication that they would ever be otherwise.
Therefore each brought some Spirit-produced contribution to the whole, unless we are going to say that the body of Christ is the aristocracy and not the totality of the church. No one would say that, for:
"Now you are Christ's body, and each of you a limb or organ of it" (v 27). And therefore all are included in the serious humour of v 14-26 where we have a kind of cartoon of the various limbs and organs of the body -- foot, hand, ear, eye, nose, vying with each other in rivalry, "Because I am not a hand, I the foot, am not part of the body". "Suppose the ear were to say 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body', it does still belong to the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell?". A modern cartoonist would have a wonderful time drawing this -- a big ear with minute head, arms and legs, or a big eye or nose with similar appendages.
According to Paul the body of Christ knows of no elite who alone possess the Spirit: this idea of a special group in the church called "the spirituals" or "Spirit possessed" would disrupt the unity of the body of Christ, and to propound it is to miss the point Paul is making. All members are organs of the Divine Spirit activity, though some have a seemingly more prominent role.
Verses 8-10 set out a specimen of some of the gifts possessed. All are said to be through the Spirit, through the same Spirit or through the one Spirit. We may list them as follows:
- the gift of wise speech (v 8)
- power of putting the deepest knowledge into words
- faith (v 9)
- gift of healing (v 9)
- miraculous powers (v 9)
- gift of prophecy (v 9)
- ability to distinguish true spirits from false (v 10)
- the gift of ecstatic utterance of different kinds (v10)
- the ability to interpret it (v 10)
It would be mistaken to assume that none of these gifts is still in action. How we thank God today for those with the gift of wise speech: and how glad we are that some can put the most profound knowledge into words that we can understand: and how those with strong mature faith galvanise us by their lifetime of experiencing Christ.
Faith that can move mountains (1 Cor. 13:2) could be faith strong enough to overcome major obstacles or it could be the faith needed to make "miraculous power" effective (Mark 9:28-29, Matt. 17:19-21). Or maybe there is less difference than we suppose.
The gift of healing is not recognised among us in the "miraculous" sense -- but there are those whose sympathy and practical care, as Christian nurses for example, can be considered as a gift of the Spirit, for even in the first century, ointment was used as well as prayer (James 5:13-15). The gift of prophecy has a current counterpart in exposition which deepens the insight of the church. Ability to distinguish true spirits from false is a valued quality among those to whom we look for wise counsel in the church.
In verses 29 and 30 there is a list of particularly gifted people, with presumably some order of priority in the benefit that came to the church through them:
d. Miracle Workers,
e. Those with gifts of healing,
f. Those with ability to help others,
g. Those with power to guide others,
h. Those with gifts of ecstatic utterance (tongues).
Only the presence of a. and d. and h. is in doubt today: c., f. and g. are present: b. and e. are present, even if not miraculous in activity.
How can we say all gifts of the Spirit have been withdrawn? To say so is to say that the Lord has revoked his promise of John 14-17, or else he confined it to the Apostles themselves plus (though there is nothing of this in the text) those to whom they would personally transmit it. Some gifts are not in evidence; others have been modified in form, but may we not think that the Spirit still works and suits the gifts to the need of the situation as God alone can determine. We ought to rejoice in the gifts we have from God: if some are missing, let us be thankful for what we have.
Romans Chapter 12 has similar comment on the Spirit's gifts.
Note that all serve by some gift or other as a result of their union with Christ.
In Romans 12 the Apostle goes on to give yet another list of gifts. Note how "natural" and "non miraculous" some of them are, and how relevant to our own day:
a. the gift of inspired utterance, in proportion
to a man's faith (not necessarily miraculous utterance),
b. the gift of administration, in administration.
c. a teacher should employ his gift of teaching,
d. one who has the gift of stirring speech should use it to stir his hearers.
e. if you give to charity, give with all your heart;
f. if you are a leader, exert yourself to lead;
g. if you are helping others in distress, do it cheerfully".
All these gifts can be found in the church of the twentieth century. They are the marks of the presence of the living Lord. All are the gifts of God's grace, even generosity and helpfulness, which should encourage those members of the church today who feel they are less gifted. Response to the Spirit does not depend on intellectual ability.
I Cor. 14 amplifies information concerning the gifts as experienced in Corinth. The question of the gift of tongues is outside our main theme in this chapter. Suffice it to say that apart from Acts 2 in no place does it seem likely to refer to the ability to speak in foreign languages -- but to a gift of emotional involvement in the power of the Spirit with associated ecstatic utterances. Paul plays it down because it was asserting itself to the disruption of the assemblies and he prefers that more emphasis be given to prophetic utterance. "The prophet is worth more than the man of ecstatic utterance".
The chapter serves our immediate purpose by the information it provides about the way in which the gifts were used for the benefit of all. Note how the Spirit is here working in a way much of which
"To sum up, my friends; when you meet for worship, each of you contributes a hymn, some instruction, a revelation, an ecstatic utterance, or the interpretation of such an utterance. All these must aim at one thing: to build up the church" (v 26).
The first century church was very much a worshipping community and their worship was "in the Spirit" (Phil. 3:3 KJV). Paul is telling the Philippians that their association does not depend on racial descent, human will, circumcision or anything external. Worship is an expression of fellowship between God and man, not derived from any human source.
As Jesus told the woman at the well:
The Christian society as a worshipping one would be directed by the Spirit. This would be "true" worship -- fulfilment compared with the symbolic ceremonialism associated with the law ("true" here means the real thing as contrasted with the shadow). Worship would cease to depend on geographical location. The meeting place would now be Christ himself and worship inward ("in spirit") not external.
Should we not dismiss our hesitation to apply these words to our collective worship? Think how often prayers are offered in our services for God to make his presence felt among us: "thou hast said where two or three are gathered together there thou art in the midst of them". "Grant that our worship may ascend as a sweet smelling savour". "Be unto him who shall minister unto us, mouth, matter and wisdom". These phrases recognise that our worship is a partnership between God on the one hand and ourselves on the other: that the living Lord is present in our midst, continuing his ministry as he promised.
It is also important in seeking to show the comparative narrowness of the gap between the working of the Spirit in the first and twentieth century to observe that when the prophets contributed to the collective worship they were not helpless automatons:
Moreover when they spoke, the rest had to exercise their judgment on what was said (v 29). This connects with what Paul told the Thessalonians: "quench not the Spirit" (KJV): "Do not stifle inspiration, and do not despise prophetic utterances, but bring them all to the test and then keep what is good in them and avoid the bad of whatever kind" (1 Thess. 5:19-22). In other words it was not the work of the Holy Spirit to ensure infallibility in the elders. What they said was to be tested against the witness in the hearts of the listeners to the total message of God in Christ so that the first century church was not in a radically different situation from ourselves, who listen to our speakers and preachers and have to decide for ourselves whether what they say is in accord with Scripture. We, like them, have to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1).
The danger that human ideas might get mixed up with the Spirit's should not however lead them on that account to stifle inspiration. They were to listen attentively and pick out the good and beneficial, rejecting the chaff. This means that the utterances of Spirit gifted men, could be a mixture of sound and less sound ideas. God did not vouchsafe a stream of infallible information for unthinking reception by the listener. He wanted people to reflect and exercise judgment in the first century as in the twentieth.
This was based on the principle from Moses, where even if a man foretold events which came to pass he was not to be followed if his advice ran counter to God's commandments (Deut. 13:1-5). God does not want dumb, unthinking acceptance of an authoritarian line -- even though he is the ultimate source of authority.
The work of the Holy Spirit did not create a situation in the first century, where a twentieth century visitor, if such were possible, would have found himself out of his element, surrounded by a totally and obviously supernatural atmosphere. As today, there was the need for the right blend of tolerance and intolerance in relation to those who expounded the Word.
Returning to 1 Corinthians 12-14, the most important feature is the exposition of love. It was quite proper that the members of the church should pray for the higher gifts (12:31) but there was something which Paul called the best way of all -- the way of love (agape).
The words are well known to us; a man might be gifted by the Spirit with tongues, prophecy, strong faith, courage, but without love it was fruitless -- for love was the end product aimed at by all the operations of the Spirit -- it was that quality of reflecting in dealing with others, God's concern for undeserving sinners.
Love was the reverse of the attitude being shown in Corinth, as they showed envy and rivalry, wishing they had the gifts of others, thereby regarding them as means of self gratification. Love was characterised by patience and kindness. It excluded envy, boastfulness, conceit or rudeness, selfishness or ease of taking offence, keeping score of wrongs, gloating over the other men's sins (which last sin often goes with zeal for purity). This love can face anything with limitless faith, hope and endurance.
Then in chapter 13:8 we come to the section which is often thought to prove that the gifts of the Spirit were withdrawn when the canon of scripture was complete. Prophets, tongues, special knowledge -- all would go when the perfect (i.e. wholeness) came. The perfect is sometimes interpreted as being the completed Bible which rendered superfluous, so it is said, any special activity of the living Spirit in the church. The Spirit was thenceforth in the Bible and of course angels would still encamp round those who feared God.
But is this what the section really says? A natural reading would suggest that Paul is simply saying that the full glory of the Spirit was not available in the church. The treasure was in earthen vessels -- "our knowledge and our prophecy alike are partial, and the partial vanishes when wholeness comes". And wholeness will come when the fullness of fellowship with Father and Son is manifested in the consummation of the Kingdom. "God all in all" is obviously a much more complete state of Spirit indwelling, before which earlier manifestations of the Spirit pale. It does not teach that there were only two Spirit outpourings: one in the first century and the other when Jesus returns. Instead it seems to be saying that when the perfection of the Kingdom comes, the imperfect outpourings of Pentecost, and after, fade before the complete Glory of God.
Some have so translated the idiom whereby "partial" or "in part" become "from parts", and held it to mean that only particular parts of the church had particular gifts, but that in the completed New Testament all that we needed would be brought together to supersede the gifts of the Spirit which were a temporary system to launch the infant church. But there is no such contrast in the Apostle's words. He was contrasting the limited nature of current insights with the maturity and perfection of the full glory.
The Spirit's guidance was partial: it did not bring the church fully face to face with God as will happen in the final Kingdom age.
This seems to be the Apostle's argument here, although there is an interesting suggestion that the various gifts were partial because no one member had the whole. Each eye, ear, hand or foot contributed its quota and it should not negate love by childishly arguing about the effectiveness of its contribution. If the parts were brought together into a harmonious whole by the exercise of love then they would have left behind their childishness and be no longer tossed to and fro but would have reached the manhood of the unity of the Spirit. Exercising the gifts unitedly in love might then be said to be the perfect thing or wholeness. However, this perfect pooling of partial resources will only be fully attained in the day of consummation. Individual contributions are lost sight of in the beauty of the whole till the glory shall be to God and Him alone.
Covet the best gifts earnestly (12:31) -- but love was greater than them all. The fact that it is presented as superior to any one gift of the Spirit, and as the objective of them all demonstrates that the indwelling of the Spirit was for all the believers. The kind of love shown by Father and Son consisted in loving, even unto total sacrifice, those who were totally unworthy. This love was, by the Spirit, to be implanted in the believers. Because this love is divine and not human it cannot be produced but by the Spirit. Awareness of this will reduce human endeavour and enhance trust in God from whom alone comes the fruit of the Spirit, of which love is the leading feature (Galatians 5:22).
The Epistle to the Ephesians is very much the epistle of the Spirit. And because it may have been a circular letter sent to a number of Asian ecclesias including Laodicea (Col. 4:16) and Ephesus, it offers a helpful picture of how the Spirit guided the new society and in the fourth chapter parallels Corinthians. Sometimes the Epistle describes the divine activity in plain terms; sometimes Paul uses the words Spirit or Holy Spirit -- but all is of God: all of it demonstrated that the absent Lord was nevertheless present, continuing his ministry.
In Christ God has bestowed on us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms (1:3) and has lavished upon us the richness of the free grace (1:8-9) imparting wisdom and insight.
The real essence of our standing in Christ is expressed in Chapter 1:13-14.
When we come to be "in Christ" (incorporate in Christ), we are sealed with the Holy Spirit which is the pledge of the glory to come. The word "pledge" means "down payment" or "first instalment". We can hardly suppose that first century believers received the down payment and that we do not in the twentieth.
This idea is a familiar one in Paul's writings :
"Our desire is to have the new body... so that our mortal part may be absorbed into life immortal. God himself has shaped us for this very end: and as pledge of it he has given us the Spirit" (2 Cor. 5:4-5).
All Christians look forward to the complete heritage -- the life immortal; it is therefore evident that they all receive the pledge or first instalment: the Spirit -- the new life which Christ generates in the believer and which will ultimately be clothed with a house from heaven.
In Ephesians 1, Paul goes on to pray for these Spirit filled Christians (and if Christ dwells in our hearts by faith we are among them): --
Vast resources of power from the Lord at God's right hand give spiritual wisdom and vision and illuminate their inward eyes, enabling them to hold within themselves collectively "the fullness of him who himself received the entire fullness of God" (v. 23).
Paul would not have expected them to be exempted from diligent reading of God's Word -- but spiritual powers of wisdom and vision and inward illumination would be working with this Word. Indeed by the spiritual powers of wisdom and vision there comes the knowledge of Christ. This is yet another way of expressing the thought of John 16:14 -- the Spirit taking of the things of Christ and making them part of our experience. Knowledge of Christ is of course knowing him -- not just knowing about him.
The second chapter portrays the closeness between the Father, the Son and the Christian community.
Our whole life in Christ depends on grace; none of it is our own doing. However natural our lives may appear, yet we are God's handiwork. On earth bodily, yet our real home is in union with Christ Jesus. Even our good deeds are God's deeds worked through us. "We are God's handiwork created in Christ Jesus to devote ourselves to the good deeds for which God designed us" (v 10).
The chapter continues to describe Jew and Gentile united in one community by the Lord's sacrifice and sums up :
That one name into which we were baptised is here once more "through the Son to the Father the Spirit". In this way we are grafted into God's new Israel (v 19-20). Jesus is the foundation stone of this community; in him the whole building is bonded together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord (v 21), "in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit" (v 22 KJV). In such words as these, shot through with specific references to the Spirit, is described the whole quality of Christian living, both individual and collective, for all time.
The third chapter of Ephesians is in the same mood as it describes how God's secret was revealed to Gentiles as the unfathomable riches of Christ were made available to them. "In Christ we have access to God with freedom, in the confidence born of trust in him" (v 12 -- such verses speak of a very close and personal relationship that goes beyond the merely intellectual acceptance of truth).
"I kneel in prayer to the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name, that out of the treasures of his glory he may grant you strength and power through his Spirit in your inner being, that through faith Christ may dwell in your hearts in love. With deep roots and firm foundations, may you be strong to grasp, with all God's people, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge. So may you attain to fullness of being, the fullness of God himself. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive,
by the power which is at work among us, to him be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus from generation to generation evermore. Amen" (Ephesians 3:14-21).
"Strength and power in our inner being through his Spirit", so that "through faith Christ may dwell in our hearts in love". Let us recognize this work of Father and Son as no less "a power which is at work among us", through the Holy Spirit in the twentieth century; it will add joy and power to our Christian living and our community fellowship.
The fourth chapter continues the exposition of the effect of the Spirit upon the church. The prime task of the elders was (and is) to "spare no effort to make fast with bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives. There is one body and one Spirit, as there is also one hope held out in God's call to you; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:3-6). The one Spirit is a permanent part of the seven-fold spectrum of the divine unity. The one God and the one Lord by the one Spirit make the effects of the one Salvation collectively available.
This chapter and the next abound with practical advice in Christian living but it is all part of the work of the Spirit. "You must be made new in mind and Spirit, and put on the new nature of God's creating, which shows itself in the just and devout life called for by the truth" 4:23-24. Christian behaviour is the result of the work of the Father and Son through the Holy Spirit -- not of our own strong characters and resolute wills.
Uncontrolled tongues, cursing and swearing, ought not to be heard from saints. This would "grieve the Holy Spirit of God, for that Spirit is the seal with which you were marked for the day of our final liberation" (v 29-31). So "have done with spite and passion, all angry shouting and cursing. and bad feeling of every kind".
We have already had occasion to consider the phrase "filled with the Spirit": it occurs yet again in Ephesians chapter 5:17-21:
This passage is collective: it speaks of the fellowship of the believers. There is a touch of humour in the admonition to avoid becoming drunk with wine -- and rather be filled with the Spirit. These verses then give four effects of a community being filled with the Spirit:
b. singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.
c. giving thanks always for all things unto God.
d. submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
So when we sing hymns together, or just within ourselves; when we give thanks or when we submit to one another in love, we are not acting naturally: the Spirit is at work.
The Epistle concludes on a note of triumphant power. "Finally then, find your strength in the Lord, in his mighty power"' (6:10-11). There follows the analogy with a warrior's armour based on the prophecy of Isaiah. One item of equipment -- the sword -- is specifically linked with the Spirit.
The words from God were more than verses selected from the Old Testament: more than groups of letters in a book. The Word of God was not just the Old Testament as an inert book, but was all that God had to say in any way and included the way in which the Old Testament was made by the Spirit to come alive in his life and experience. In the first century there were included new revelations of additional information from God: in the twentieth century, though this is not granted to us, exhortation based on Scripture may stimulate us with new insights so that we might legitimately say that the preacher "truly spoke by the Spirit this morning".
And as to prayer, there is no other way to pray but by the Spirit. Prayer is a Spirit activity. It is not from men.
When Paul begs the Romans to be his partners in prayer, his words are:
The Spirit inspires the love which is the basis of their fellowship and of their prayers.
So much is the Spirit at the root of prayer that when we cannot find the words the Spirit does :
Have we never known the inward, personal, moving out towards the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ with groans inexpressible. This is the Spirit, worked into our experience, doing what we can't find words for.
Thus we have looked at some references to the Spirit in each chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. Throughout we have seen a message that is appropriate for the church in the twenty-first as well as in the first century.
Chapter 2 -- a habitation of God through the Spirit.
Chapter 3 -- strength and power through his Spirit in your inner being.
Chapter 4 -- the unity which the Spirit gives.
Chapter 5 -- filling with the Holy Spirit.
Chapter 6 -- prayer in the power of the Spirit.
We have however omitted reference to Chapter 4: 7-16. If the rest of the epistle is relevant to our own day is it likely that this section will be irrelevant and be applicable only to first century experience? Let us set out the text:
To illustrate that each member of the Christian society has been given his gift -- his portion of Christ's bounty, Paul turns to Psalm 68. We need to do the same.
The Psalm is descriptive of the progress of the Ark of the Covenant from the wandering of the wilderness to the stability of Mount Zion. The opening verse: "Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered before him" (v 1 KJV) is based on the words of the priests when the ark led Israel to their next camping place, when it went forward to search out a resting place, for them. (Numbers 10:33-36). The final resting place was Mt. Zion: it was the end of the journey. Similarly Jesus (the antitypical Ark of the Covenant) went to "prepare a place" for the believers (John 14) and his ascent to the right hand of God was for this purpose.
David completed the work of Moses and on the day when at last the ark settled down David would celebrate by distributing gifts so that all might rejoice together in peace. It was the end of a centuries old battle, just as the Lord's victory defeated centuries old sin. As the ark was taken into the place of God's choice, so the Lord was taken into heaven and from the right hand of God sent forth his gifts to men, that God might dwell among them.
Again we are meeting the theme of the ascended Christ. "The Spirit was not yet given because Christ was not yet glorified" (John 7:38:39). When he was glorified then it was given. "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I depart I will send him unto you.
Ephesians chapter 4 then lists the gifts, more briefly than Corinthians.
Pastors and teachers.
The object of the gifts was and is to equip God's people for work in his service, to build them up, to bring them to unity, to enable them to know the Son of God, to give them stability, that they might grow up into Christ.
If we think of the word Apostle too technically then Christ selected twelve men and they alone are entitled to the description (whether Matthias or Paul has the 12th place being a disputed point). However the word means "one sent" and is applied in the New Testament to many others beside the Twelve, although we rightly hesitate to use it in the twentieth century. Prophets: on the other hand there are still those who tell forth the Word of the Lord and give us new insight. Evangelists: there are those who specialise in the external work of proclaiming the gospel in simple terms to those who believe not.
As far as pastors and teachers are concerned -- men who concentrate on the internal work of stabilising what the evangelists had founded -- there is no doubt that we are blessed with these in our own day even though we may sometimes pray for a larger supply of them. Their objective is still to bring us to manhood in Christ.
We might demur from the application of these descriptions to the twentieth century on the ground that the first century Apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors were infallible and our counterparts are not. However these men did make mistakes even in the first century. As we have seen already, they had to be tested very carefully. Even Paul, Peter and Barnabas did not always speak with one voice -- but the fact that infallible accuracy was not assured every time they opened their mouths did not prevent the essential message from getting through: "Christ in you the Hope of Glory". (see Gal: 2:11-14; Acts 15: 36 -- 41).
Christ still gives to his church Spirit-filled men who have special roles in guiding the community that it may increase in the unity of the Spirit: and be "built up in love" (Ephesians 4:16). Love is the end product of the Spirit's work. Love -- that word so hard to define -- and still harder to display as Christ did: "This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this that a man should lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:12-13).
This love is beyond ordinary human Love of even the highest calibre. The Greek idea of love -- eros, was a love created by desire to acquire its object: it reached upward in its own strength; it was man's way to God: it was man's own work; it was egocentric, however noble it might sometimes be, it sought to gain its reward out of self interest; it was man's love; God was its object; its strength was determined by the beauty and worth of its object.
Christian love, agape -- this bond of perfectness and end product of the Spirit's activity is unqualified goodwill expressed in sacrificial giving, it comes down and is God's way to man; it is directed toward righteous and unrighteous alike; it is independent of value in its object.
As Nygren puts it in "Agape and Eros", "Eros recognises value in its object, and loves it. Agape loves and creates value in its object".
Thus it was that when we were yet sinners Christ died for us. The Father and the Son did not wait for us to acquire value before loving us to the uttermost (Romans 5:6-11). It is this love -- agape -- that the Spirit designs to create in the society of the redeemed. Yet again we have an application of the passage we quote so frequently -- "He shall take of mine and show it unto you" (John 16:13-15). The Spirit works Christ's sacrifice into our experience (Gal. 2:20) and when this happens, we begin to love with his love in us. Love of this kind is unnatural in us. It is the most supernatural product of all the Spirit's activity. "I give you a new commandment: love one another; as I have loved you so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then all will know that you are my disciples (John 13:34-35).
The key thought in all that we have been studying is that in our relationship with God, everything is of Him and nothing is of ourselves. Fellowship with God and inner experience of the Lord's sacrifice is the creation of the Spirit, and grateful response produces action in love which, as we saw in the last two chapters, is the fruit of the Spirit.
We move on to consider more fully the foundation of Christian conduct to see that it is not a matter of law keeping, code observing or trying hard, but of walking in the Spirit and trusting in the Lord. Thus Jesus says:
Similarly Paul in the chapter which provides our heading "The dispensation of the Spirit" declares: "not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who hath made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life" (2 Cor. 3:5-6).
In these words: "it is the Spirit that quickeneth" and in the parallel ones: "the Spirit giveth life" we have something that comes close to a definition of the Spirit. Here is the life giver and the only way whereby men can be energised to spiritual action.
The phrase, "the flesh profiteth nothing", is not describing the flesh as the source of sin, but as the power in which the natural man, or even a believer who has not fully learned his heritage in the Spirit, seeks to serve God or to know and possess divine things in his own strength. All such efforts to please God profit nothing and are of flesh. The dispensation of law is a dispensation of the letter and the flesh, and is based on doing. The dispensation of the Spirit is based on grace and receiving. This comes over clearly in 2 Corinthians chapter 3.
It is by the Spirit that we are to put to death our earthly deeds (Rom. 8:13) and we have been called away from the spirit of slavery and bondage (Rein. 8:14-15).
2 Corinthians 3 and the epistles to the Galatians and Romans are continually saying that I must surrender my own efforts to be righteous, stop trying and start trusting. Fearful Christianity is not fruitful. An understanding that the Spirit is the source of Christian behaviour will put to flight such foreboding remarks as "I'll never be in the Kingdom" or "I keep trying but I never seem to get anywhere in Christian living". This sad story of failure springs from inability to believe fully in the indwelling Spirit and consequent failure to let the Spirit take over the running of our lives.
Let us look at the third chapter of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians in its context.
The letter begins in an atmosphere of recognition of God as the source of all mercy and comfort (1:3) who personally supervises the believers in their troubles that they may learn not to trust in themselves, but in God, who raises the dead (1:9). Paul then handles the doubts he had incurred in his recent relationships with them through his change of plans. He stresses that he has been absolutely straightforward with them (v 15-18). He doesn't plan with his tongue in his cheek, saying "yes" and meaning "no": in this he follows the Lord Jesus who was himself the divine 'Yes'. "He is the Yes pronounced upon God's promises, every one of them" (v 20 -- "all the promises of God in him are yea and in him Amen" KJV).
All God's promises find fulfilment in Jesus. And he goes on to mention one particular promise the fulfilment of which they and he had experienced. "And if you and we belong to Christ, guaranteed as his and anointed, it is all God's doing: it is God also who has set his seal upon us, and as a pledge of what is to come has given the Spirit to dwell in our hearts" (v 21-22). If this promise has ceased to be applicable and the pledge is no longer available in the twentieth century, then will not the Lord Jesus himself have proved to be "yes and no"? That is unthinkable as Paul indicates. Do we not belittle the Lord's faithfulness to his promises if we underrate the effectiveness of the Spirit in our own day?
He goes on to explain his conduct in relation to them; he had refrained from visiting them out of love, to avoid an open rupture, and he justified his activities in writing severely to them as fully sincere and motivated by deep concern. Toward the end of the second chapter he begins to introduce his defence of his ministry and the validity of his Apostleship which becomes so important later in the epistle. This is the background of the third chapter which starts by saying that if evidence of his Apostleship is needed, they themselves are the evidence.
He then expresses the witness of the Spirit to the fact that they belong to Christ, in the words: "you are a letter that has come from Christ, given to us to deliver, written not on stone tablets but on the pages of the human heart". He is contrasting two forms of writing, the material on stone and the spiritual on hearts. He is presenting his credentials as a dispenser of the New Covenant and in so doing is expounding Jeremiah 31:31-34 :
This new covenant, says Jeremiah, was to supersede the old one made with Israel at Sinai, which was external in its action, whereas the new one was to have inward force. The old one did not provide for forgiveness of sins, only cleansing from ceremonial defilements and general national uncleanness and specific judicial crimes; the new one would provide for the forgiveness of sins and would restore them to fellowship with God. This is termed the better covenant in Hebrews chapters 8 and 10 and it is brought into effect by the work of the Lord Jesus, who at the last supper said of the wine he shared with the disciples "this is the blood of the new covenant shed for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:26-29).
It was this new and better covenant that Paul ministered and the fact that God's law had been written in the hearts of the Corinthians was evidence of the validity of his ministry. That is how they were his letter of credentials. And the great feature of the new covenant is that it produces inward change by the working of the Spirit of the Living God. This is something which cannot be achieved by trying to keep laws external to one's self by one's own resolution and self determination.
The covenant he ministered was independent of human ability, and thus Paul's ministration of it was not in his own strength, but in reliance upon God, through Christ. He was dealing not in "letter" -- an eternal written code: but in Spirit. Men could not keep the external written code and so it condemned them to death. The new and Spirit-applying covenant gave an inner power which achieved a change of outlook and heart which no amount of effort to comply with an external law could achieve (2 Cor. v 4-6). And as we read this epistle we will be conscious of the fact that the New Testament predicted no discontinuance of the new covenant. On the contrary it was permanent as were the blessings that featured in it. There is no ground for expecting any change, either in intent or manner of working. It established relationships which are spiritual not physical.
Paul (still justifying his own ministry) now shows how the ministry of the inferior covenant by Moses was accompanied by great splendour or glory. When Moses came out from the presence of the Lord his face shone and he had to cover it with a veil. How much more glorious then must be the administering of the covenant of the Spirit which gives life. In comparison there is no glory at all in the old covenant ministry which could only show men up as sinners. Paul is implying that they are not to assume that because his ministry is not accompanied by physical brilliance and glory, it therefore lacks effectiveness. The ministry of Moses and its glory was visible and physical, for that was the plane on which it operated. The ministry of Paul dealt in the invisible and the spiritual; it operated on the higher plane; it brought the power of the invisible Christ, continuing his ministry invisibly and inwardly, into the hearts of the believers.
Once more we are against the background of the Lord's exposition in John 14 to 17. It was necessary for him to ascend to the Father so that his invisible universal ministry, unhampered by physical and spatial limitations might begin ("it is expedient that I go" John 16:5-7). The new covenant was not being ministered by a physically visible Christ, but by the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18). Remember our earlier study of the way in which the Comforter would be the Lord's other self. There is no doubt of the allied thought in Paul's exposition that his own personal ministry very much reflects the new relationship associated with the new covenant. The other Apostles had as prime among their credentials the fact that they had been physically with the Lord in his visible ministry. This had not been Paul's experience; his association with the Lord belonged entirely to the post ascension ministry. His seeing of the Lord was on a different plane from the original experience of the other Apostles. Far from making Paul's ministry inferior to theirs, his experience was intensely appropriate to ministering the invisible Lord to the inner experience of the believers.
Gem after gem springs out of the wealth of Paul's thought in this section of the second Epistle to the Corinthians. For example he shows the inferiority of the law (or in fact any law-keeping approach to salvation) by a neat explanation of why Moses wore a veil when he came out from the Lord's presence (Exodus 34:29-35 -- it should be re-read here to get the point). It was so that Israel should not see the glory fade, says Paul. Moses took the veil off when he went into the Lord's presence and received a further inflow of glory, which he then again veiled from Israel, who therefore never saw it fade and attached an unwarranted permanence to it and to the law which it represented.
Then, again, Israel were, figuratively, the body of Moses and they were like Moses in his veiled state, only they had been keeping it on all the time and were sticking to the old covenant which had been abrogated. However if only, like Moses, they would enter the Lord's presence ("turn to the Lord") -- and this Lord would now be the Lord Jesus -- the veil would be taken off and they would behold the superior, unfading glory of the ministration of the Spirit. And this was just what Jews who turned to Jesus, like Paul, the Corinthians and all new covenant believers, were doing: "the Lord of whom this passage speaks is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And because for us there is no veil over the face, we all reflect as in a mirror the splendour of the Lord; thus we are transfigured into his likeness, from splendour to splendour; such is the influence of the Lord who is Spirit". (2 Cor. 3:17-18).
Instead of seeing their salvation in external compliance with a code of laws in their own strength, the believers in Christ are invited to keep their gaze absolutely fixed on Jesus (looking unto Jesus) and his reflection will show in their whole being. They themselves will progressively develop into his likeness: obviously falling short as a mirror reflection does of the real person. Also the very idea of progression suggests that completeness is not reached. Phillips renders it: "We are transfigured in ever increasing splendour into his own image, and the transformation comes from the Lord who is the Spirit".
These verses are universally conceded to be speaking of all believers in all times, even though the Lord's influence is sometimes thought to be operated solely through the written word. But it is impossible so to limit these words in view of the whole sweep of the argument, which justifies Paul's particular ministry as a mediation of the continued, though invisible, ministry of the absent Lord, present through the Spirit. If v18 applies today then the Lord by the Spirit is still writing his law in men's hearts. From his throne at the right hand of God he still ministers the new covenant and sustains the saints in a spiritual relationship with himself.
Paul continues the theme in the fourth chapter of this second epistle. He goes on justifying his ministry. If people couldn't see his gospel of grace -- it was because there was a veil on their minds. For one reason and another, their own self sufficiency blinded them to the light of the glorious gospel of Christ. "The same God who said, 'Out of darkness let light shine', has caused his light to shine within us, to give us the light of revelation -- the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (v 6).
He and they were mere earthenware pots to hold such treasure. His own experience could be theirs and in offering to share it he was not boosting himself as some had suggested: "wherever we go we carry death with us in our body, the death that Jesus died, that in this body also, life may reveal itself, the life that Jesus lives" (v 10). The invisible heavenly ascended life of Jesus was, by the Spirit, being made part of Paul's experience and by his preaching, part of their's: the starting point was sharing his death, so that in his death their sins were dead. Here are echoes once more of John 16 -- the need for the Lord to ascend so that he might be universally present and the fact that the Comforter would make redemption in Christ real in the experience of the believer.
Verses 16-18 will no doubt always be best remembered as expressed in the incomparable King James' version: "though our outward man perish, our inward man is renewed day by day". This is still the work of the Spirit as expounded in chapter 3. The contrast between "the things that are seen" and "temporal" on the one hand, and those which are "unseen" and "eternal" on the other, is in fact continuing the contrast of the two covenants in chapter 3 and the higher plane of living with Christ within, rather than by law without.
The change, from the law to Spirit stressed in 2 Cor. 3-5, was a permanent change, not a temporary privilege limited to the Apostolic epoch. It was evidence that the new age -- the age of fulfilment had dawned. Associated with this thought was another which Paul has constantly emphasised -- the old covenant could not continue side by side with the new spirit covenant. They were mutually exclusive. The new covenant had rendered the earlier covenant obsolescent: it was on a new plane and produced a new approach to fulfilling the will of God. The law said "Do and live". They said "We will", but they didn't, and, as far as law went, were condemned. The ministry of the Lord who is of the Spirit says "Let me do it! Receive me into your life and let me live in you. Trust in me and I will gradually change you from within and you will live". And after the bondage of trying to achieve one's own salvation by self determination, this was liberty.
Too many Christians still consider obedience a matter of gritting their teeth and clenching their fists and making up their own minds that they will summon every ounce of their own will-power to do what is written on the pages of the Bible. Instead they should be heeding the voice of the one who stands at the door and knocks and says "if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sit down to supper with him and he with me" (Rev. 3:20). They still place most emphasis on trying rather than trusting and achieving rather than receiving. They hesitate to declare "Yes I believe the Holy Spirit works in our lives today" and often lack the confidence and assurance that the living Lord will see them through.
Victorious living is only possible when we know that of our own selves we can do nothing. The initial victory is the Lamb's and the continuing victory is his as well: through the Holy Spirit -- whose spiritual power transforms our lives in Christ.
We are not excused of all effort in the working out of our salvation, but our primary task is sufficiently to empty ourselves that the Lord of the new covenant may truly inscribe his will upon our hearts. This is where our effort should concentrate itself. It is hard enough to bring ourselves to open the door and let him in. This will take us all our time. But it is joyous effort which brings peace, whereas to agonise to express his will as a code of commandments, external to ourselves, and to concentrate on effort to obey each one will bring us defeat and despair and will give us burden and bondage. How to say these things without being thought to imply that conduct doesn't matter is difficult indeed, as the apostle Paul discovered. The difficulty can only be met by traversing the ground a number of times as we look in all the epistles at the way Paul and the Apostles viewed Christian living as the work of the Spirit and not of the flesh, however devout that flesh might be.
The letter to the Romans was the most comprehensive exposition of the gospel to come from the pen of Paul. It is not surprising then that it is largely taken up with contrasting salvation by grace and by Spirit with that by law or by flesh. A comprehensive exposition of Romans will not be possible here and we shall have to rest content with a sample of the Apostle's teaching, just sufficient to bring home the way of peace and the route to righteousness in the age of the Spirit.
Early in the epistle he expresses the same thought as we have seen in 2 Corinthians chapter 3. Thus "the true Jew is not he who is such in externals, neither is the true circumcision the external mark in the flesh. The true Jew is he who is such inwardly, and the true circumcision is of the heart, directed not by written precepts, but by the Spirit" (Rom. 2:28-29).
In chapters 1, 2 and 3 Paul demonstrates that all men, Jew and Gentile alike, are one in sin and the condemnation that stems from sin. The only saving power is from God and is by faith in the gospel, which reveals God's way of righting wrong (ch. 1: 16-17). Chapter 3 emphasises that God's free grace alone justifies men, or puts them in the right, when they put their whole trust in the redemptive work carried out once for all by the Lord Jesus (3:23-26).
Where men deceive themselves into thinking they have kept God's law they are filled with human pride. Religion which seeks to achieve righteousness in its own strength is described by Paul as "seeking to establish their own righteousness" (Rom. 10:3). One writer has aptly remarked that this:
This is a fearful delusion, because no one except the Lord has ever been perfectly obedient to God both in outward action and also in inner motive.
In Romans 4, the Apostle Paul shows how Abraham was considered (counted) by God to be a righteous man, not because of outward obedience to the rite of circumcision but because of his faith. He took God at his word and lived in total commitment to God. He proceeded not upon the basis of earning his wages for good deeds, but rather did good deeds because God had freely promised to make him heir of the world. True believers walk the path of Abraham's faith and, taking God at his word, receive the gift. They do not wrest from him a reward in recognition of their moral superiority to other men. They receive it gratefully, recognising their inferiority to Christ.
Thus Chapters 1-4 bring us to the point of universal sinfulness from which conscientious attempts at law keeping did not deliver. So God had another way of putting people in the right (justifying them); that was by including them in Christ as an act of grace, permitting them to share the fruits of his victory -- to participate in the righteousness of God declared in Jesus. This sharing in the triumphant Christ is independent alike of ritual such as circumcision, of racial origin, and of merit. All a man has to do is to believe, have faith, trust that he has been included in Christ, then his sins are forgiven -- he is justified by faith.
Chapter 5 speaks of the believers as justified by faith and continuing at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. "We have been allowed to enter the sphere of God's grace, where we now stand". This gives us hope of the completeness of divine glory which is to come and we are not to be in doubt about this, like those who depend on their own righteousness. "Such a hope is no mockery, because God's love has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us". This is the same idea as the one we have met already that the present inward working of Christ, the present indwelling of the Spirit, is the pledge -- the assurance of the fullness to come. The partial points to wholeness to come (1 Cor. 13). For all our personal failures, we know that the Lord is at work within us progressively transforming us; so there is no need for morbid despair about attaining to glory. We heed his promises "fear not little flock: it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom". Paul's argument will not allow us to limit the application of God's overflowing love through the Spirit. The first few verses of Romans 5 are part of a sequence as applicable in the twentieth century as in the first. It is a call for us too, to rejoice even though we may not be able to specify precisely how the Spirit works.
In Romans 5, Paul shows that every member of the human race recapitulates in himself the sin of Adam and thus lies under the just wrath of God.
God cannot condone his sin and still remain a moral God. But the man who believes has, by God's free love to the completely undeserving, been placed in Christ, as part of him. Thus Christ's breaking out of the circle of sin and consequential death avails for the Christian as well. The Christian does nothing to earn it. All the action is from God to man, not from man to God. Reconciliation is the gift of God, though it does something to the whole manner of life. Christ has shared the death we deserve in order to render it powerless; we are permitted to share the life he now lives. When we were enemies and without strength we were reconciled to God by the death of his son, and now we are reconciled, the life of the ascended son works in us that we may be freed from wrath and saved by his life (Rom. 5:9-10).
Then by God's grace and his gift of righteousness we may live and reign through Jesus Christ. The contrast is between sin and death reigning as a dictator over us and righteousness establishing a reign which we share in Christ, partaking of his ascended life, now and in the age to come. As sin established its reign by way of death, so God's grace establishes its reign in righteousness, and issues ultimately in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (v 21).
"Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound". The very entry of sin into the world, regrettable though it was, gave God the opportunity to shower grace on men who did not earn anything, but received a gift.
Paul realises that his readers are going to interpret him as saying: "if this be the case, let us sin more that God may forgive more". At this idea Paul is aghast! "How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?" We appropriate the death of our Lord Jesus when we repent and are baptised. In his death our sins are dead. Romans chapter 6 says that if we are crucified with Christ we cannot sin: we have yielded our will to a new master -- righteousness. The regenerate "me" cannot sin; it is the area where Christ dwells. The non-generate "me" still sins; it is the area where I still try to do things myself and run my own life.
The chapter shows the inherent contradiction in a Christian being dominated by sin. "Life in sin cannot co-exist with death to sin" and baptism implies death to sin in the sharing of Christ's death: and coming out of the water is a token of sharing in Christ's resurrected and ascended life. We have shared his death: we shall also share his resurrection life (v 8): what follows indicates that Paul primarily has in mind the present new life as much as future immortality, though the two are related. "In dying as he died, he died to sin, once for all, and in living as he lives, he lives to God. In the same way you must regard yourselves as dead to sin, and alive to God, in union with Christ Jesus" (v 10-11). The famous baptismal chapter is saying most clearly that when we become part of the body of Christ, he sends forth the Comforter from the right hand of God, that we may be alive with his life. John 14-17 is reproduced in the baptismal situation of Romans 6.
We have a new king -- Christ instead of sin -- and our bodies are to be yielded to him so that he may work his righteous will through them (v 13-14) He uses us as his instruments. This is the basis of Christian morality: our behaviour is not our own, but another is using us, if we will let him. Sin as a ruler has been dethroned and we have a new ruler within our hearts. This does not mean we are sinless -- but that we have come over to God's side and have the divine reinforcement in the struggle, though not exemption from the struggle. One writer remarks: "the God of whom Paul speaks is the living God, and when men and women present themselves to him to be used in his service, he accepts them as his servants and gives them the power to do his will. The Christ of whom Paul speaks is the Christ who truly died and rose again, and in the lives of those who put their trust in him, 'He breaks the power of cancelled sin' ".
Augustine once said "Love God and do as you please" -- and, although there is the exaggeration allowable in an epigram here, yet God's love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, should result in our being pleased to do things which please God. "Freed from the commands of sin, and bound to the service of God, your gains are such as make for holiness, and the end is eternal life" (v 22).
The very use of the verb 'yield' in Romans 6 suggests that we are mastered by a power greater than ourselves, far greater than our own resolution could be. The foundation of Christian conduct lies in yielding to the Spirit. Those who minister words of exhortation in Christian worship should motivate their congregations by this great truth. Then their listeners will go home resolute to respond, without feeling that the goal is beyond them. Those ministering public exhortation who carry their duty to warn to the point where their hearers are made wretched and joyless are missing the point of the gospel and tending toward law and the ministration of death. As one writer says,
Thus those who exhort their Christian brethren should be telling them of their privileges and how to claim them, rather than increasing their anxiety and implanting a sense of despair. "You are no longer under law, but under the grace of God" (Rein. 6:14).
But some will say: "what about Romans chapter 7? Surely this tells us that wretchedness is the normal experience of the Christian". We shall see that this is not the message of Romans 7.
In the first part of Romans 7, Paul uses the analogy of marriage to state that death ends the sway of law, just as only death ends the marriage bond because then the husband is removed from the pale of the law. Paul might equally well have used the analogy of a defendant in a murder case, who dies while on trial. He too would have been removed from the sphere of law. It would have no more claim on him.
As Nygren puts it in his commentary on Romans, "It is, then, indubitable that one can die to the law. Paul has shown that clearly in this illustration. And that is exactly what has happened to Christians, according to Paul. They were formerly under the law. The law was the power which had complete command of them and placed them under condemnation. But now a death had intervened. Christ had died and they have died with him: and the result is that they are henceforth free from the law. Hence Paul continues, 'Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the law through the body of Christ (i.e. as part of Christ) so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God' (Rom. 7:4 RSV)".
Paul is not working out a detailed allegory here. There is no question of law being represented by the husband and dying. The law does not die, i.e. God still has standards, a righteous requirement which man cannot meet. "There is only one way to liberation. Only in the fact that the Christian has died with Christ is he really and truly set beyond the realm of law. The law no longer rules over him, for he belongs to Another, he has another Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ who arose from the dead."
As in Romans 6 when one is dead to sin in Christ he lives for God in Christ Jesus; so in Romans 7 when one has died to the law in Christ, he lives for Christ and belongs to him, and this is the context of the oft quoted Gal. 2:19-20. "For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me". As the body of Christ, we are him and he is us, and what happens to the one happens to the other, dying, rising and living in heavenly places. By one Spirit we were all baptised into One Body (1 Cor. 12:13). Rom. 7:4 thus gives us the idea of a man under law finding himself incapable of bringing forth fruit unto God, but when he dies and rises with Christ, he is on a new plane of existence: he is freed from the approach of law keeping and reward earning. Only in Christ, can he really bear fruit for God. The Christ, who by the Spirit lives within him, achieves through him what his own efforts never would.
"While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bring forth fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code, but in the new life of the Spirit" (Rom. 7:5-6).
This is the same idea as that in 2 Cor. 3; we are delivered, in Christ, from the outward observance of the external code into the new covenant, where the Spirit writes the Lord's will in the heart -- in the inmost being. And only as Christians base their conduct on committing their way to the Lord will they find that peace and joy which belong to the fruit of the Spirit. Not now "I must", but rather "He will". Let him work his will in me.
Rom. 7:7-13 continues by speaking of the way in which the law defines sin and by prohibiting certain actions stimulates the perverse will of man to perform those very deeds. One has quaintly put it that God gave us a law to break -- not that he wanted us to break it, but because he knew that, in the inevitable fact that we would break it, we would learn our own weakness as Adam did. We would learn our own need of a Saviour.
Again and again we commit the same sin. I want to serve him. I want to please him, but I fail. The trouble is, I am trying to do something for God. Law means I do something for God. Grace means he does something for me. In Rom. 7:14-24 there follows the cry from the heart of Paul which some have explained as belonging to his pre-conversion period when he tried to follow God. Actually it belongs to the experience of Christians because they live in two ages at once, that of the Spirit and that of the flesh. They still experience the pull of sin and, all too often seek to meet it by their own will-power.
The reading of Paul's cry requires carefully placed emphasis. For example in verse 19 the emphasis needs to be on the 'I' and the 'would': "the good that I would that I do not". It is a picture of failure because I am trying to succeed. However, this is not the norm, the standard, of Christianity. Although we often experience this battle, this grief, this terrible struggle, we should not think of it as an exhibition of Spirit-guided Christianity. Instead of "I must", we have to learn "I am unable to do anything but trust". When I know that I am at the end of the line, with no resources of my own, then some progress will be made. The man who is nearly drowning and is too weak to resist his rescuer, is the one who is most likely to be saved. We deny the cross until we know we are powerless. The frenzy of religious activity: 'I must do better', 'I must not sin' is in fact negative thinking. Even if I say 'I must do more Bible reading', good though it is of itself, I may still be stressing human effort. If I say 'I must take more resolute action' as I dispose of some impediment to Christian living, such resolution is not of itself making me more the sort of person God wants, spiritually wise though the action could be. The more I try in my own will power the more I shall cry out "O wretched man that I am; who shall deliver me from the body of this death".
When I say this struggle is not the norm of Christianity, I do not mean it is not the usual experience of Christians. There is for all of us a tension between sin within and the Lord within -- but the idea of winning the struggle by mere effort is non-Christian. The Christian lives, as we have said, simultaneously in two worlds and the two clash. Temporally he is a flesh and blood son of Adam living in this world: "Spiritually however, he has passed from death to life, from the realm of darkness to the Kingdom of Light; he is a member of the new creation".
When the Lord returns, then the tension between the two ages will be resolved. But so long as Christians live 'between the times', Paul's words in another epistle retain their full relevance: 'the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would' (Gal. 5:17).
But the cry "wretched man that I am" belongs only to the body of death. As part of the body of Christ, the Christian is redeemed and the Spirit of Christ dwells in him. When he grasps this, then his struggle ceases and he cries; "I thank my God through Jesus Christ" (v 25). As one commented: "The passage which begins with a sad confession of inability leads up to a paean of triumph. The inability persists only so long as 'I myself ' -- that is, I in my own strength -- fight the battle. So long as I do that, says Paul, I may serve the law of God with my mind, but my body willy-nilly goes on rendering obedience to the law of sin. Must I always know defeat? Must I always carry this incubus on my back? Will deliverance never come? Thank God it will through Jesus Christ our Lord".
Thus we are lifted out of our depression on to a higher platform altogether, one which transcends law and brings forth fruit unto God. How this deliverance from indwelling sin may be appropriated is the theme of chapter 8 which begins:
This is the way of escape from the fear filled life. There is the law of sin which brings death, and there is the law of the Spirit which brings life. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus may be likened to a bird free upon the wing, quite unperturbed by the law of gravity, which parallels the law of sin and death. There is life in the bird which counteracts the other law; so the life of the Spirit counteracts the law of sin and death which pulls to the earth. It is a matter of an inner and upward power spontaneously developed by the Spirit, in contrast with the outer and downward pull, of a code law demanding outward compliance.
I could not do it -- he did. All the clenching of my teeth, all the taking grip of myself could not gain the victory, but the Father can do what we cannot. We let go and we trust in him who is in us. It is not however a passive response. It involves a constant drawing on him, and trust in him. And the result is that "the righteousness of the law" (i.e. the righteousness at which Law aimed, but could never bring about) is fulfilled in us (v 4) -- not by us, who walk not after the flesh, that is in their own strength, but after the Spirit. "For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh"; that it is to say if one's mind is set on willing to avoid sin then there will be much more concentration on sin than on righteousness. Those who are after the Spirit, because of their positive thinking in Christ, will follow the things of the Spirit: and it will not merely be a matter of keeping the law by the Spirit, but of living on a new and higher level.
The conduct of such Christians is no longer "under the control of the lower nature", but "is directed by the Spirit" (v 4). "Those who live on the level of our lower nature (after the flesh KJV) have their outlook formed by it, and that spells death; (they are working independently of God) but those who live on the level of the Spirit have the spiritual outlook and that is life and peace. For the outlook of the lower nature is enmity with God; it is not subject to the law of God; indeed it cannot be: those who live on such a level cannot please God" (v 5-8). In other words to go a warring at our own charges is to fight a losing battle. "Under the old order it was simply impossible to do the will of God, and if that old order still dominates a man's life, to do his will remains an impossibility".
"But that is not how you live. You are on the spiritual level, if only God's Spirit dwells within you; and if a man does not possess the Spirit of Christ, he is no Christian. But if Christ is dwelling within you, then although the body is a dead thing because you sinned, yet the Spirit is life itself because you have been justified" (v 9-10). These words make it clear that Christian living cannot proceed without the Spirit: only when the Comforter is received, so that the absent Lord may continue to minister his redemption to our experience (John 14 to 17), can a man begin to do the will of the Father. The Spirit does not mean a righteous disposition induced by our own effort. It does really mean Christ within.
Rom. 8:10 acknowledges that the body is still for the time being subject to the law of death, but if the Spirit of life is allowed to prevail, then this indwelling presence is the token that the body will escape from present mortality and share the new physical life of Christ's resurrection body. There are intimations of future immortality even now in the inward work of the Spirit. As John Thomas puts it: "The saints have within them the seed of immortality". This is the message of Romans 8:11: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells within you, then the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give new life to your mortal bodies through his indwelling Spirit". This links with the idea we have met in a number of places that the present work of the Spirit is the pledge of the complete inheritance of the future, and that the presence of the Spirit is the first-fruit of glory to come (v 23).
So then we are out of the realm of self effort and fleshly independence of God. "If by the Spirit, you put to death all the base pursuits of the body you will live" (v 12-13).
And the Spirit does not affect us spasmodically. It is a habitual experience and makes the believer into the free-born son of God, so that instead of regarding God as an awe-ful potentate, the Spirit-guided believer is in the family of God and calls him 'Abba', the intimate name a child gives to his father. "For all who are moved by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. The Spirit you have received is not a spirit of slavery leading you back into a life of fear, but a Spirit that makes us sons, enabling us to cry, Abba! Father!" (v 14-15).
This intimate link with God is the inner witness to the reality of Christianity which from Pentecost onward has been a key feature of the work of the Spirit. "In that cry the Spirit of God joins with our spirit in testifying that we are God's children: and if children, then heirs" (v 16-17).
Notice that the Spirit joins (or KJV bears witness) with 'our spirit' in testifying that we are the sons of God.
This phrase 'our spirit' is interesting. There is in the human make-up a spirit which is capable of responding to the Holy Spirit. This does not alter the fact that "in the flesh dwells no good thing", that mere human will-power is not capable of evolving godliness, but it does mean that there is an element in the human make-up, as God made it, which is capable of responding. This is involved in God making man originally in His image, after His likeness.
Let us then open our minds and hearts to receive the teaching of Romans 5-8. Let us recognise that we cannot create righteousness -- but we can hinder the Spirit. The Spirit can be hindered by the flesh, when the flesh is the power behind service to sin. The Spirit can be hindered no less by the flesh, when the flesh seeks to be the power behind service to God.
We need to join our spirit with God's spirit. Then the note of joy which concludes Romans 8 can be ours.
In other words throughout his exposition Paul has Christ at God's right hand before his mind. "It is for your good I am leaving you. If I do not go, your Comforter will not come, whereas if I go, I will send him to you" (John 16:7). The presence of the Lord Jesus in heaven is the source of the inner victorious life of the Christian on earth. "Then what shall separate us from the love of Christ?- Nothing! There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord".