Paul’s Defense of a Sufficient Savior

PV and Torrey Honors Class

There is a Christian who- despite years of exposure to the Gospel and teaching in the faith- does not fully contend with the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. For the sake of the argument, this Christian will be referred to as Maryfield, although different fractions of her inherited beliefs may exhibit themselves in a multitude of contexts to greater or lesser degrees. Perhaps many Christian’s will recognize remainders of this dissension in their own lives. Maryfield’s faith is heavily grounded in her beliefs about God and in how she lives out her life in light of the Gospel. She is sincere in her pursuit of truth, always seeking out new ways to put into practice what she’s learned. Isn’t this the goal of the Christin life? She asks herself. Isn’t this how I glorify God and enjoy Him? The simple answer is yes. The Christian life of obedience in Christ is indeed the fruits of salvation. Yet many Christians, like Maryfield, experience a grave and dangerous disconnect between the fruits of the Christian life (works such as having good doctrine, living according to God’s word, helping others, etc.) and their personal, intimate relationship with God. Oftentimes this leads to works that are done merely in human strength and cognition, a life that is void of Christian joy, and a sneaky strain of legalism which tends to strip the Gospel of its fullness and retract from opportunities to do the Lord’s work in His power, by His Spirit, and out of a pure heart which seeks no added gain or acceptance from God. What underlying argument or pretension do these most-reasonable yet erroneous people make? Paul speaks to this tension in  Romans chapter eight, stating that  “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” This would seem to imply that the Christian has a Biblically-administered hustle: they are responsible for “setting the mind” on God. To them is the pursuit of the Spirit-filled life, and to them is the task of pleasing God, thus avoiding the following warning that “the mind…set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (verse 7.) That is, a person who does not cultivate this mindframe has declared open war with the Creator and is not pleasing God. In order to please God, he must strive vigilantly to live the spiritual life by disciplining his mind. This Christian reads Romans as a letter of thanksgiving for the Spirit’s work in the heart of believers, followed by a prompt call to action which demands them to work out their salvation through grit and persistence. Directly after the warning in verse seven comes this Christian’s most dreaded phrase:  “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him… the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”  This solemn phrase is arguably the crux of their position which pleads: I must not live in the flesh; for if I walk the wrong walk, I am reprobate. On the opposing end, there is a sturdy dissent which counteracts this position, claiming that this quest itself is actually founded upon exceedingly fleshly principles. This is the position which will be argued. It will be demonstrated that this interpretation of Paul’s call to spiritual life is based upon the same sinful flesh which he warns about- at the consequence of true spiritual growth and a Christ-accomplished salvation leading to a fruitful life. 

 

     Expounding first on Paul’s warning against the flesh, it is helpful to define what he means by this, and how far the flesh can extend in the life of the believer. Following suit with Paul’s other epistles, the term “flesh” is generally used to convey the natural man, born under sin. This natural man sees the light of God’s creation and recognizes that a god exists, but he or she never glorifies God and instead suppresses the knowledge of the Creator. This person born of the flesh has God’s law written on their heart, but is completely unable to perform anything which pleases God on their own. The law (God’s standard) condemns, rather than justifies them.  As Paul states planely in Romans eight, this person “cannot please God.” This person is “hostile to God.” This person is “is death.” Truly, this is very offensive language being used, yet it is important to understand the totality of Paul’s claim which declares that there is absolutely no spiritual good found in the natural man and that even his utmost striving for perfection results only in putrid and lifeless death. He is degenerate. As if this were not enough to swallow, Paul intensifies his claim and extends this same language even unto those who are in the Church, rather than merely the unsaved man living according to the flesh alone.  Paul states that  “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Since Paul has established that a dead man can’t set his mind on the Spirit whatsoever,  (be pleasing to God,) he is therefore taking his argument further and applying it not only to the world but also to the Christian Church. Why does Paul feel the need to make this distinction so often, even among those who are in Christ and are being renewed? One reason for this that is often overlooked is that the flesh will without a doubt try to convince the Christian that it is still the answer. Just like the disconnect Maryfield and other Christians experience between their inner faith and their “working out” of that faith, the flesh will pretend to be holy and set apart. It will do everything in its power to convince the Chrsitian that it can become closer to God if it only tries a little harder; if it only lives a little better. This tendency is exemplified in the same verse which the dissenters use to persuade themselves of their spiritual hustle: “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” If Paul’s definition of the flesh is man apart from God, then the tendency of the flesh would constitute an attitude that is devoid from godliness and distinctly separate from the work of the Spirit. If then Paul furthers his argument stating that the body of Christ is still prone to this diversion, he must therefore be affirming that the misled Christian has replaced the grace of the Spirit with a natural tendency to attain godliness through the flesh. Again, why does the flesh seem to be set apart and holy? Paul’s answer is that the mind has literally been set on the flesh. This phrase needs to be seen not only as it relates to an individual but rather as a blanket statement for all natural men, for all are fleshly. It then follows that Christ and His Spirit alone must do the liberation. There is nothing sneaky, subconscious, or normal about this saving; it is radical, supernatural, and direct. The very fact that Paul still felt it is necessary to include this longer portion of Scripture about Christ-centered life in the Spirit strongly implies that even in the early Church, they were experiencing confusion between the elements of the flesh and the work of the Spirit. 

 

Paul  goes on to confirm this stark differentiation starting at verse twelve: 

“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live…  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 

Notice that Paul does not say, as it may be proposed, that a Christian is to put to death sin by discipline, will, or self-striving. These things may be tools used, but Paul argues that this act is done specifically “by the Spirit” (Emphasis added) in that it is not through the same compulsory bonds of slavery mentioned, but rather a relational putting to death of sin, as exemplified by the crying out of the believer “Abba! Father!”  Again, Paul is not arguing that obedience and discipline are not fruits of the faith, for he commends the Church in verse twelve saying “by the Spirit… put to death the deeds of the body.” He is, on the other hand, placing unreserved emphasis on the significance of these fruits being the result of God’s work, and not man’s. Corruption seeks to elevate corruption, therefore it should be no wonder that even Christians still have a tendency to try and pursue God on their own fleshly. This is often accompanied with great fear on the part of the believer, for he or she is often dwelling in a mind burdened down with the weight of sin, unwilling to acknowledge that Christ has already taken that burden upon Himself at Calvary. Paul’s answer is that this fleshly pursuit can only give birth to death, rather than life. The flesh starts and ends with man’s own natural state and capabilities after the fall, which Paul already established as displeasing to God and deathly (verse 8.) The Christian seeking to cultivate a deeper relationship with God and a more pure walk must then cast off this attitude and mindset in tune with the flesh, for it cannot bear true fruit but instead only strange fire. 

 

     The nature of this casting off of the flesh and  “setting of the mind”  towards the Spirit must be fundamentally different from anything associated with the flesh. In fact, one of Paul’s main points is that it doesn’t originate from the natural man but is rather imparted to him from above. In a very real sense, it is supernatural. Verses eight and nine for instance declare that “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot… You, [Christians] however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Do not let the apparent redundancy of the language cause the meaning to be lost! To paraphrase this, Paul is actually making a quite radical statement, asserting that for the non-Christian, any acts of submission are thoroughly impossible. The only differentiation after the phrasing “you however,” is that this new creation has the Holy Spirit. This is stressed two times, as it is secondarily stated that the Christian is not of the flesh “if  in fact the Spirit… dwells in you.” Therefore, Paul’s entire argument and exhortation rests not in the convention of man but in God’s work of applying His grace to the individual believer through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit filled life then, and anything that is pleasing to God, must be a result of this Spirit at work. Martin Luther commentates a meaningful distinction in Romans between those who do not live by the Spirit, even though they appear to. He states: 

“Outwardly you keep the law with works out of fear of punishment or love of gain. Likewise you do everything without free desire and love of the law; you act out of aversion and force. You’d rather act otherwise if the law didn’t exist. It follows, then, that you,in the depths of your heart, are an enemy of the law.”

This passage of Luther’s relates well to Romans and helps to distill the accusations of dissenters. According to Luther, the proposal that spiritual growth is epitomized in heartless, man-founded axioms is absolute kuddelmuddel [German for an absolute mess.] Yet nonetheless, this interpretation is still lived out by many Christians today, both in and out of the Catholic Church. Why live good if my best good is actually evil? They might argue. Notice however that Luther doesn’t begin by taking into account the outward putting to death of the flesh but cuts straight to the heart, asking foremost what spiritual growth has occurred to the inner man. Maryfield may claim that proof of the Spirit’s work is exemplified in the putting to death of the flesh and cultivating a good mind, however Luther holds that unless this work is done as a result of the Spirit working out an attitude of love in the heart of the Christian, then this presumed quest for sanctification is actually encouraging the flesh to rely more on its own power, and thus proving the man to be an enemy of God’s holy law. Paul concords with this line of reasoning stating in verse three: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” Rather than leading to true spiritual growth or hindering further sins, the mindframe of this discenter is still acting as though redemption were available under the law. Yet as Paul states that this law has been completed, and furthermore, man’s attempts to appease God on it’s basis are futile because of the flesh, rather than these attempts serving to hinder the propagation of it.  

 

      The one who lives by the Spirit, on the other hand, has  “no condemnation… in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” [vs. 8] Seen within the greater context of this monumental spiritual battle of the heart, those opening lines to Romans eight hold a much greater significance than first glance allows. The Spirit-filled life does not work under compulsion, as if worldly fear and faith were kind friends. Neither is it a life devoted towards a frantic attempt to earn “brownie points” with God- for God’s standard is His law, and through Christ, “the law… [is already] fulfilled in us,” as verse four extols. Sadly, this new life in the Spirit is often misunderstood, especially by Christians with mindframes like Maryfield. What about misusing Christian freedom? What about the call to put to death sin and pursue truth? This opposing hesitant person has valid points, yet the congruence of Scripture does not invalidate either of these positions but rather frames the Christin life as something which joyfully proceeds from setting the mind on the things of the Spirit, by the Spirit. Walking and thinking according to the flesh serves only to reveal its power- death. It cannot fulfill God’s law of love and is dead to the beauty and love of Christ. Walking and thinking according to the Spirit  does not negate the call to obedience or the fruits of the truth, truth, but is rather drawn to do so out of adoration for Christ and His beauty. 

 

     Lastly, the Christian walking in the Spirit is not filled with striving to attain unto anything by its own actions. Yes, the true Christian will perform good works, but this will not be the qualifying factor in whether or not they are a “spiritual” Christian. Rather the spiritual Christian is closer to God, (and as a result more holy) because they have an ever-deepening understanding of the fullness of Christ’s sacrifice as savior for the sinner. Perhaps at this point, Maryfield would chime in and ask: “How is this intangible life even possible? Surely I can never discover enough of what it means to live by the Spirit and have Christ as my intercessor.” Indeed, this is one of Pual’s main points: The true Christian life is impossible according to man! It would require human perfection, which he has already thrown to the wind. Rather, the entire essence of the spiritual mind is found in recognizing that man is completely incapable of personal good- and then trusting completely in Christ for His intercessory work. Even on the best of days when a Christian is “checking all the boxes” of the faith, it is by the intercession of Christ alone that a lifestyle can bear any resemblance of pleasure before God. The fleshly mind might argue again: “No, I must contribute… I must respond… I must… I must.” To which the spiritual mind must rebuttal: “Your human striving is but of the flesh. It is dead. It is not founded in faith. As Paul states in Romans fourteen, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”  Martin Luther chimes in again, stating that 

The flesh is accused, exercised, saddened, and crushed by the active righteousness of the law. But the spirit rules, rejoices, and is saved by passive righteousness, because it knows that it has a Lord sitting in heaven… who has abolished the law, sin, and death, and has trodden all evils under foot, has led them captive and triumphed over them in Himself (col. 2:15)” 

Notice that this interpretation of Scripture calls for men to rejoice in a passive righteousness which is yoked under God’s active righteousness. Luther contends that for man to presume an active role quite literally causes sadness in the life of the believer rather than spiritual growth. He also declares that it exercises the flesh, meaning it is strengthened by this endeavor instead of smitten.  Passive righteousness, on the other hand, causes men to rejoice. Their confidence and joy wells up from a firm conviction of the completed work of the Lord. It is in this atmosphere that Luther says that “the spirit rules… and is saved.” Why? Because in Christ’s triumph, he has abolished the law, sin, death, and all things that stand between God and man. The phrasing “[He, our Lord] has led them captive and triumphed over them in Himself” adorns the believer with the snow-white wool and crimson flowing blood of the Lamb and Savior Jesus Christ. 

 

     The spirit-minded Christian’s hope does not end with acknowledging his or her own fleshly tendency, but further encompasses the “inheritance” of Christ’s very own righteousness through adoption by the Spirit. This is what is meant by the “passive righteousness” and “fulfilled in us” language language found in Romans eight. Not only is the believer’s debt paid in Christ’s sacrifice, but the “good works” or righteousness of Christ are also imparted on the believer so that from a legal position, God sees that person as he does His very own son. Is there any room for bragging, then? None whatsoever. The sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ through the work of the spirit has substantial applications that go beyond the surface jargon of standard sermons. It is that which flies in the face of what human flesh accepts and overcomes the power of Hell. The sufficiency of Christ demands that there is nothing a man can do that could ever come close to meriting the favor of the Father. The sufficiency of Christ ministers to the poor and the oppressed, who by all human odds should be the destitute of the earth- yet imparted to them are the riches of heaven. The sufficiency of the cross brings the proud to their knees and lifts the humble up. Yes, the world will scoff at this teaching, but this merely affirms it’s divine nature. As Paul stated, the world has it’s mind set on the flesh and death, which seeks for it’s own a way to salvation but is repelled by God’s answer. The cross cannot be understood in human terms but is only understood with the spiritual eye. It cannot be imparted through reason alone but rather demands a man to deny himself and put on His Christ. His savior. This is both the beauty and the offence of the Gospel, and it is upon this Revelation that Paul makes his affectionate argument for the total sufficiency of Jesus Christ.

     Returning back to Maryfield and the confused Christian, it must be once more affirmed that Romans eight proclaims a Gospel of life which utterly refutes the natural inclinations of man and is lived out only by the transmission of the Spirit through the sufficient work of Christ on Calvary. Even after a Christian is saved, it is a temptation to substitute the flaky, fleshly pursuit of the world rather than a relationship with Christ that results in good works through joyfully abiding in Him alone. The fleshly minded person may sincerely think they are on the right track simply because they are attending all the proper Bible studies and doing the right things. Paul however clearly spells out this tendency to seek ultimate fulfillment in the law as an aspect of the “old man” which ends in death. It cannot stop sinning, even if it has a base desire to do so. The spirit minded person on the other hand has a genuine desire for good not of his or her own accord but rather because they understand by the impartation of the Holy Spirit the sufficiency of Christ’s work and are made able to delight in God. This is purely a supernatural happening in a person’s life because, as Pual argues, it flies in the face of human nature. It instead demands that a believer live in complete dependency on Christ’s perfection of the law; not only for the one-time-act of justification but also in the Christian life of seeking God and pursuing truth. Paul is able to empathise well Maryfield’s struggles on an intimate level because he came from a similar position: he considered his previous life in the flesh to be akin to that of a pharisee of pharisees, meaning that he came from a line of men who sought to please God through human religion alone. The Pharisee sect strove to follow every word of the law and considered it a holy zeal to do so, therefore it was with great passion that Paul tried to tear down the Christian Church before his conversion. He believed there could be no redemption apart from dedicating oneself to the law. This type of thinking (setting the mind on the flesh) did not result in the Christian love which is required to fulfill the law however, but rather prompted death to the point where Paul sought to capture and kill Christians who disagreed with him. For the born again Christian today, there is similarly a very real battle and choice to make that begins in the mind and flows out into all of life, mainly: will I set my mind on the things of the Spirit that lead to life, or will I set my mind on the things of the flesh that lead to death?” This setting of the mind upon life acts in total dependence upon the Spirit, for it is through the Spirit alone that the Christian is able to function apart from deeds of darkness, trusting in the sufficient work of Christ and the synonymous power which raised Him from the dead- now alive and working among His bride, the Church.