Up to this point in Romans, we have discovered that God alone can give faith and God alone can impute His righteousness. God alone is doing this work of salvation. God alone calls us friend. God alone sets His people free. Up to this point, I am sure there has been a burning question in our minds. Do people not have responsibility? Do we not have the freedom to choose either to honor or dishonor God?
There was a man born in a deep whole in the earth (no, not Bane). It was impossible for him to climb out. This is his story. It is my story, and it is yours.
Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you.
Reality of human condition
The first thing I want to do is answer this question: Do human people have free will? The answer is complicated by the fact that different people define free will differently. There is a reason I don’t often use the terminology of free will while I am teaching. The concept can be confusing because we don’t take the time to clarify exactly what we are referring to when we refer to this idea of free will.
“Free will” can be defined one of three ways. First, it can be defined popularly as my ability to make free choices and try to willfully follow through with the choice that I have made. In this sense, it seems as though I do have a sort of free will. It is interesting, here, that the atheist cannot even rightly believe in this sort of free will because everything, no matter how spontaneous, is reduced to cause and effect. If we believe that there is a God who gives freedom, then we can believe that we actually have the ability to make free decisions.
Second, free will can be defined technically in such a way that the human person is the ultimate determiner of his or her life. In this sense, I can never have free will because there are some things that I cannot determine for myself. I cannot determine to change my nature. I cannot determine to walk through walls without damaging either the wall or myself. I cannot determine to be righteous because it is not my nature. It is why Scripture reveals to us that we are helpless (Romans 5:6).
Third, free will can be defined as the ability to freely please God. This is only possible by faith, as we have discovered. Faith is a gift. This means that before we are gifted faith, it is impossible for us to live by faith and we cannot please God because we are unable (Romans 3:11, 20, 21-27). After faith is gifted to us, we are free to live by faith only because God is changing us.
So, depending on how a person defines free will, that person may or may not have it. I am free to make decisions and carry through with those decisions. After all, I am created in God’s image by God’s own hand. My decisions are limited by my own nature. Consider verses 7 and 8, “For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (emphasis added).
This is our condition. Paul has been honest about this through the book of Romans thus far. This is why it is so important for us to have a decent understanding of what faith is and what righteousness is. I can’t change my nature. My nature is unrighteous. While I have the freedom to make free choices, I must understand that those free choices are always going to be in line with my nature. There is this weird caricature that some people draw such that the reformed community is made out to believe people cannot make decisions. I’ve never met any person that would actually make that claim. Instead, we just believe what the Bible states without trying to add to it or twist its words to fit our religiosity. If my nature is unrighteous, then my free decisions will be in line with my own unrighteousness, such that I am unable to submit myself to God’s law and such that I cannot please God.
I feel a need to clarify. This does not mean that I am destined to do terrible things. It does mean that I am unable to live by faith because my nature causes me to rely on my own works or deeds. God’s grace-based system is incompatible with my works-based righteousness. Why? Righteousness cannot be earned. It must be a part of one’s nature. Since God alone is righteous, then righteousness must be imputed to people. I can do things freely that might be considered to be morally good, but unless I live by faith (which is opposed to living by works), I have not submitted to God’s law and I have not pleased God. Again, this is only possible if God gives faith as a gift. I am the man in the hole, unable to escape. Since I only know the darkness, I am unaware of the world above.
I can make choices, but I am not king.
Reality of God’s economy
This brings up for us a reminder about God’s economy. It is purely by grace, not by works. Even if we had the freedom to please God, God does not operate by our works. If He did, then He would in some way depend on us. Since we believe, by Scripture and by common sense, that God does not depend on us, we would benefit from recognizing, again, that God’s system is not a works-based system. We want to be consistent in our belief and in our thinking.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it is good to be reminded. We measure ourselves by our works. This could be our perceived level of success, our charity, the things we do for our family, power, wealth, or any number of things. Since God’s economy is not works-based, none of that pleases Him. We might even consider God’s words to the people of Israel through the prophet, Isaiah:
“‘What are all your sacrifices to Me?’
asks the Lord.
‘I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams
and the fat of well-fed cattle;
I have no desire for the blood of bulls,
lambs, or male goats.
When you come to appear before Me,
who requires this from you —
this trampling of My courts?
Stop bringing useless offerings.
Your incense is detestable to Me.
New Moons and Sabbaths,
and the calling of solemn assemblies —
I cannot stand iniquity with a festival.
I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals.
They have become a burden to Me;
I am tired of putting up with them.
When you lift up your hands in prayer,
I will refuse to look at you;
even if you offer countless prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves.
Remove your evil deeds from My sight.
Stop doing evil.
Learn to do what is good.
Correct the oppressor.
Defend the rights of the fatherless.
Plead the widow’s cause.
Come, let us discuss this,’
says the Lord.
‘Though your sins are like scarlet,
they will be as white as snow;
though they are as red as crimson,
they will be like wool’” (Isaiah 1:11-18).
God had given the Law to show His people that they were insufficient and in need of grace. Unrighteousness caused them to become slaves to sin and they imagined that it was their keeping of the Law that earned them favor with God. This is simply not how God operates. He never has. He measures us according to who He is, not what we’ve done.
So, because our nature is unrighteous we became slaves to sin through the Law. We loved the darkness. Yet, by grace, God still says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow.” When we are simply trying to be good people and keep the Law, God is not pleased. In fact, He stated that He has had enough of our religiosity. That is not how He does things. God’s economy is an economy of grace. Praise Him for that. Again we see why the Gospel is such great news, news that is so refreshing and so different from what we usually hear (even in the organized church) in our current context.
Christ is the one who is able, not me.
Redemption of the will
There is a truth that becomes evident, here. If I am a defender of my own will or my own desires, it is death for me because I live in the flesh (Romans 8:6). The good news is this: Christ is redeeming more than merely the eternal state of my existence. He is redeeming my will. When Adam sinned, his will became subject to his unrighteousness. In the same way, we all became slaves to sin through the Law as we discovered last week. Christ redeems my will by ending my slavery to sin, arresting my mind, and captivating my will with His own.
Consider the language here in Romans 8:
- There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ (v. 1).
- Law of the Spirit of life has set us free from the Law of sin and death (v. 2).
- Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh so that the requirement of the Law would be fulfilled in us through Him. We cannot fulfill the requirement of the Law. The Law was meant to draw us into grace (v. 3-4).
- Those who live according to the Spirit actually begin to think differently (v. 5).
- If we are in the Spirit, we are no longer bound by our unrighteous nature or the limitations of our own wills (v. 6-9).
- The Spirit gives life to the body that it didn’t have before, because it was dead in sin (v. 10).
- Our mortal bodies will be brought to life. This is a promise that we get to taste now, but will come in its fullness at the resurrection (v. 11).
- We did not receive a spirit of slavery, but a Spirit of adoption. Even the way we think about faith is different, as we saw in the first two sermons of this series (v. 12-15).
- We get to suffer with Christ and be glorified with Christ (v. 16-17).
- God subjected all of creation to futility so that He might free His children from their unrighteousness, which is their nature. Unrighteousness, remember, is our nature because we are created in God’s image. God is righteous, so we strive for our own righteousness, but we are not God. Our striving for our own righteousness results in works-based living, which, under the Law, is slavery to sin. It is why God’s righteousness must be imputed and faith given as a gift (v. 20-21).
- Our bodies will be redeemed (v. 22-23).
- The Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God because our wills are limited in their current state (v. 24-27).
- God has been working all things together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. God has been knowing, and choosing, and calling, and justifying, and glorifying as He works all things together (v. 28-30).
- Nothing can separate us from God’s love, specifically with regard to election and justification (v. 31-39).
God is redeeming my will, so that I live by faith and not by works. This has been His plan all along. Scripture is even brutally honest about the fact that God subjected the world to futility in order to accomplish this. It was necessary because we were created in God’s image, prone to seek our own righteousness rather than seek after God’s. In this way, the life of the genuine Christian looks different from the lives of anyone else in the world. Everyone is born in the hole; God has delivered His people. Everyone works for acceptance; we have it by grace as we live by faith (being free from the Law). The point is not that I chose Christ, but that He chose me and redeemed me and is redeeming me. Because I have received faith that Christ gives and have received His righteousness by imputation, I am now able and free to live by faith where I was not free to do so before.
This has some significance regarding human responsibility. What exactly is our responsibility if God is the one working all things together? It is even God who transforms the way we think and sanctifies us. Everything depends only on God and not on me. This is the message throughout Scripture. What requirements are there for me?
See how easily this works-based sort of thinking creeps back in because of our unrighteousness? The truth is this: in light of this text and in light of the Gospel, my attention should be on simply stewarding well the faith that God has given and living in the freedom that God has given. Remember that Jesus Himself stated that we must become as children if we even hope to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3). Children are entirely dependent and rarely have much responsibility. How self-righteous of us to assume that we have weighty responsibilities regarding God’s work of justification. Those who believe in Christ are saved and set free. It is God who moves our hearts to serve and to act in His righteousness. Christ’s burden is light. That is why our trust is in Him, not in our ability to respond or to reach out to God or to walk down an isle during an invitation or to pray a prayer. God is the one doing this amazing work from the foundation of the world.
The world, then, is such that I am responsible for my slavery to sin. The wage of sin is death. God is entirely responsible for my justification. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.
I worked for my condemnation, Christ saved me by grace.
I can make choices, but I am not king.
Christ is the one who is able, not me.
I worked for my condemnation, Christ saved me by grace.