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Sermons » 23/05/1999 (6.30pm)
The Holy Spirit
- Romans 8
A sermon preached by Jonathan Pryke
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Introduction: The Holy Spirit lives in the believer Cassie Bernall was 17. She wore scruffy flares and Doc Martens, worried about her looks and wanted to be several pounds lighter. Cassie was in the library of Columbine High School when the Trenchcoat Mafiosi, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, burst in brandishing guns and bombs. Like others, Cassie ducked under her desk and prayed. One of the teenage killers pointed a semi-automatic pistol to her head and asked: "Do you believe in God?" Cassie looked back at him and answered, "Yes". He pulled the trigger. Survivors accounts vary. One remembers that the gunman said "There is no God" before he executed Cassie. The killers who dabbled in satanism and chose Hitler's birthday for their rampage appear to have been looking for Christians to kill. Two other girls were picked out because they were holding Bibles. Of the 12 children murdered, four were Catholics and four, including Cassie, were evangelicals. Nearly 2000 years earlier, while the first disciples of Christ were talking among themselves about how two of them had seen Jesus alive, risen from the dead, "Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, 'Peace be with you.'" The first reaction of those present was confusion and doubt and fear. But Jesus reassured them. "Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures" and he taught them. He told them how their lives would now fit into his Father's plan of salvation: they were to begin the process of telling all the nations of the world about him. They were to be witnesses. But not immediately. First they had to wait, because they could not go it alone. They would be wrapped around with the power of God. And a bit later, says Luke, "he left them and was taken up into heaven". Jesus was no longer among them. He had returned to his Father in heaven. They waited, as he had told them to do. Acts 2 records what happened a little later: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Jesus had promised them that he would be with them always, even though he left them. This was the fulfilment of that promise. They were no longer alone. They were surrounded and filled with the Spirit of God, as Jesus had promised. Jesus was among them and in them by his Spirit. And their witness began. They found that they had the power they needed to do what Jesus had told them to do, and they began to tell the world about him, calling the world to repentance and faith. As Peter preached about Jesus, some were cut to the heart, and said to the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?". And Peter replied:
The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off for all whom the Lord our God will call.
Those who repent and are baptised in the name of Christ, those who turn to Jesus when they hear his call, will be clothed and filled with his Spirit - not just on the Day of Pentecost, but down the ages and the generations. In other words, that promise is no less true for us here today than it was for those who stood in front of Peter that day. It was spoken to them. It is spoken to us:
Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
You cannot be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit. When I say 'Christian', I mean of course a true Christian. Not a nominal Christian. Not someone who lives in a Christian country. Not someone whose parents are Christian. Not someone who sits on an uncomfortable pew in a fine example of high Victorian neo-Gothic architecture at 6.30 on a Sunday evening. I mean someone who stakes their life on Christ; someone who has handed their life over to Christ. You cannot be like that, and not have the Holy Spirit. That is exactly what the apostle Paul says in the course of his teaching about what it is like to live with the Holy Spirit in you. Romans 8:9:
if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.
What, then, is it like to have the Holy Spirit living in you? Not everyone finds that they have what seems like a tongue of fire resting on them. Even for the apostles that was a temporary and extraordinary sign. And the gifts and roles that the Holy Spirit allocates to us vary enormously. What, then, is the common experience of all who are indwelt by the Spirit? That is what Paul describes in Romans 8:1-17. Let's take a look at that together. You will find it on p1134 of the pew bibles. It is the section headed "Life Through the Spirit", which is a fair summary, though not part of the original text. My four headings that you will see on the back of the service sheet are an inevitably inadequate attempt to summarise the riches of what is taught here about the impact of the presence of the Holy Spirit in someone's life. The first is this: The Holy Spirit frees the believer from the guilt and power of sin Look at verses 1-2:
To what is this referring back? In general terms, it refers to the whole sweep of Paul's teaching from the end of chapter 3 onwards. He has been spelling out how it is that those who put their trust in Christ have been saved from the eternal death penalty that their sin deserves, because, as 5:8 puts it, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us". Specifically, Paul is going back to the point that he reached in chapter 7 verse 6 before he launched into his depiction of the war that rages in the believer's life between the residual sinful nature which is under sentence of death but not yet finally finished off, and the new Godly nature brought to birth by the work of Christ within the believer's heart. That vivid war report from the front line is in 7:7-25. But in 8:1 Paul returns to the studio, as it were, where it is clear from a strategic overview that though the fighting continues, the war is already won. So he has said in 7:6:
we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit
What is the new way of the Spirit? That is what he expands on now.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son
Now, we need to take some care if we are going to understand this. There are three different 'laws' being spoken of in those verses. First, there is in verse 2 'the law of the Spirit of life'. What that means is 'the constraining authority and power of the Holy Spirit'. Then secondly, at the end of verse 2, there is 'the law of sin and death'. That means 'the constraining authority and power of sin', which leads to death for all those who come under its control. The writ of sin and death runs in the life of unbelievers rather as the writ of some war-lord might run in territory from which a lawful authority has been pushed out. Then thirdly there is 'the law' mentioned at the beginning of verse 3, which is the law in the sense of the commands of God, written in the Scriptures for God's people, and on the hearts of all mankind. Verse 3 is saying that those commands could never set us free from the hold that sin and death had on our lives. Not that there was anything wrong with God's commands. If we had obeyed them, we would have been OK. But we never have obeyed them. The constraining authority of sin has spread like a cancer through our moral muscles to the point where we are incapable of obeying God and living lives that please him. We have been paralysed by sin, and no amount of being commanded can rebuild our destroyed moral and spiritual muscles. We need to be remade. And that is exactly what God is in the business of doing. So verse 3:
For what the law [that is, God's commands] was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son
Jesus died and rose and ascended to the throne of heaven and poured out his Holy Spirit. He died for our sin so that we don't have to go to hell. He rose again so that we can have eternal life. He sends his Spirit into our lives to remake us. So verse 2 is saying: Through all that Jesus has done, the constraining authority of his Holy Spirit has set me free from the constraining authority, the deadly grip, of sin and death. In fact, it is not clear whether Paul said 'set me free' or 'set you free' you individually rather than you plural. Either way the emphasis is the same. This is not merely a vague generalised freedom. This is a real freedom experienced for real in the life of every individual believer. Are you a believer? Then you, you individually, you personally, you insert your own name have been released from the stranglehold of sin that was hatefully and determinedly squeezing the life out of you . You are now in the safe, secure and invincibly strong hands of the Holy Spirit. And why have we been liberated so wonderfully? Why has Jesus done this for you? Verse 4:
in order that the righteous requirements of the law [that is, God's commands again] might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.
One righteous requirement of the law is that the sinner must die. That requirement has been met for us by the death of Jesus. When our name is called we can point to Jesus and say 'he died for me, as my substitute and my representative. The sentence has already been carried out'. The law also requires that we live holy lives, lives pleasing to God, Christ-like lives, lives of self-sacrificial love and service. And the Holy Spirit has liberated us from the grip of sin so that that requirement of the law might be fulfilled in our lives. A Christian life is a changed life. The transformation will not be complete this side of our physical death. Paul has just left us in no doubt, in chapter 7, that there is a continuing and intense struggle between sin and holiness in the believer's life. But it is an unequal struggle. Sin is done for. A Spirit-filled life is a Christ honouring life. The Holy Spirit frees us from the guilt and power of sin. Cassie Bernall's experience is an example of that. Her parents have told how in her early adolescence Cassie herself was angry and dabbling in witchcraft, drugs and alcohol. The clique she belonged to is said to have been sinister, brooding, suicidal and angry much like the Trenchcoat Mafia. Her parents, evangelical Christians themselves, took her out of school, cut off the phone, and kept her in the house, allowed out only to go to church. But those kinds of measures cannot change the heart. The law is powerless. It can restrain us but it cannot change us on the inside. Only the Holy Spirit can set us free. Cassie's parents enrolled her in a Christian school and sent her to a Christian summer camp. There, other children gathered round her and prayed over her. Cassie later recalled: "I don't know what happened, but I was changed. I felt this huge burden lifted off my heart." She became a Christian: free from the guilt of sin. Later, she asked to leave her Christian school so she could go to Columbine High and be a witness for Christ: free from the power of sin; her life transformed. As a journalist who was not without some cynicism had to describe it: So she returned to "spread the Word" in a secular school, and there died rather than deny God to killers representing the nihilism she had so recently rejected. The Holy Spirit frees us from the guilt and power of sin. Then secondly: The Holy Spirit frees the believer from a sinful mindset When verses 5-9 speak of 'the mind', they mean a person's whole way of thinking - his or her entire mindset. Look at what Paul says about the mindset of the unbeliever and its consequences in those verses. Verse 5:
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires
The mind of sinful man is death
the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
That doesn't mean that all that an unbeliever does is bad. It means that the world-view of the unbeliever is opposed to God and his law. Of course, the unbeliever thinks that he or she has good reason to reject God and to reject his rule over his or her life. It may be that God is morally inferior ("How could God allow such things to happen?"). It may be that God does not exist ("Mankind is all alone and must make the decisions about what is right and wrong"). But whatever the reason, the result is wholesale hostility towards God. That is the essence of sinful thinking. And such is the constraining power of sinful thinking that when we are caught up in it, even if we wanted to please God, which we don't, we find ourselves powerless to do it. Our 'pleasing God' muscles have wasted away. But when the Holy Spirit liberates our minds, all that changes. Verse 5b:
those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace
You, however, are controlled, not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.
Our whole way of thinking changes. Take Cassie Bernall as an example again. Last June, Cassie wrote to a friend: "Some people become missionaries and things, but what does God have in store for me?
Isn't it amazing this plan we're part of? I mean, it's a pretty big thing to be a part of God's plan." You see how the Holy Spirit had set her mind free, how she was now thinking, as it were, through the mind of Christ, seeing things from his perspective? And seeing things as Jesus sees them inevitably transformed the way that Cassie lived her life. Her main purpose in life became pleasing Jesus. Among the thousands of mourners at the Columbine memorial service were drug addicts and ex-convicts and gang members whom Cassie had befriended as she joined other church members talking to down-and-outs on the streets of Denver. The Holy Spirit frees the believer from a sinful mindset. That's the second experience common to all who are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. The third is this: The Holy Spirit frees the believer from death Verse 10:
if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin
In other words, everyone dies physically, whether a believer or not. That is in store for all of us. Christians are subject to the ravages of disease, old age, violence and disaster like everyone else. But even now, verse 10 again:
your Spirit is alive
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life. That is, it is in his nature to give life. He is the life-giving Spirit. It is inevitable that if someone is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they will live. The eternal life of the believer has already begun. What, then, of the body? Does that get left behind? Absolutely not! Human beings are physical beings. God's creation is physical. It is not just our minds that are saved from eternal death by God's grace. It is our bodies as well. But there is a time lag. Verse 11:
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
For the believer, physical death is the gateway to bodily resurrection, and entry into the new heaven and the new earth - the new physical and spiritual realm that God will create when Christ returns. That transforms the way we think about death, and the way we think about our priorities in this temporary life. The Holy Spirit frees the believer from death - in spirit now, and in body after the general resurrection. And that leads on to the fourth experience common to the Spirit-filled, which is this: The Holy Spirit frees the believer from fear of the future Verse 15:
You did not receive a Spirit that makes you a slave again to fear
Fear of the future is characteristic of life without the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is the uncertainty about what might happen that creates fear: the 'what if' fears that burden many hearts, even if in the end those worst fears don't materialise. Even a very positive attitude to life, with strong ambitions can generate underlying fears: 'I may not achieve my ambitions'; 'Now that I've got where I wanted to get, what if I lose it all somehow?' Sometimes it is not the uncertainty of life that dogs us, but the certainty that one day in the next few decades we will die. All that we have lived for will turn to ashes. For many people, that fear is so strong that it is never properly faced, and life becomes a desperate attempt to find satisfaction now. 'Happiness today' becomes God. What a contrast to the Spirit-filled life. Verses 15-17:
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ
The life of an unbeliever is full of insecurity: about myself, about my worth, about my relationships, about my future. But when the Holy Spirit comes to live within us, we are given an absolute security that nothing can touch. God becomes our loving Father, always there to turn to. Death becomes the gateway to glory, which means that we can live today secure in the knowledge that our eternal happiness is assured. So the believer can make tough choices and handle hardship knowing that there is a glorious light at the end of the tunnel. The believer does not need to live for today. Instead, the believer can contentedly live for Jesus, and for others - whatever the price. The Holy Spirit assures us that we are loved, and we are safe. It is quite possible, mind you, that life today will be very tough indeed. Don't miss what verse 17 adds at the end of our passage:
co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
The Holy Spirit frees the believer from fear of the future, and makes suffering for Jesus, when it is necessary, a sensible thing to put up with. When Wayne Depew, a police officer, found Cassie Bernall's body lying on the library floor, he did not at first notice the bullet hole in her temple. He saw only her hands clasped as though in prayer. "She had a real soft look on her face with a slight smile. This is just my opinion, but she looked as if she had accepted God's will, that she was going to die for what she believed in", he said. Joshua Lapp, 16, who was there, said the murderer's voice was "really cruel
like Satan was trying to talk through him
Cassie was scared, but she sounded strong, like she knew what she was going to answer". And the hard-bitten reporter concludes:
"Maybe Cassie would have been shot whatever she said to the psychopath staring at her down the barrel of a gun. But there is no getting round the central fact that she loved God above life."
She had visited the UK and wanted to come to college here. It was not to be. God had other plans. Recently 73,000 teenagers flocked to an evangelistic rally inspired by her witness. All the major newspapers in the US have written about her. Josh McDowell (who preached here at JPC recently) is quoted as saying: "I think young Cassie's life is going to probably have a more phenomenal impact upon young people over the next 10 years than anything I've seen in the past 10 or 15 years." Who knows. The circumstances of Cassie's death were unusual, to say the least. But in a way, the most remarkable thing about Cassie's story is that she was such an ordinary Christian. She simply experienced what is common to all believers, indwelt by the Holy Spirit: true freedom. Freedom from the guilt and power of sin; freedom from a sinful mindset; freedom from death; freedom from fear of the future. Not that life is trouble free. It is a struggle. There is pressure from the world, pressure from the Devil, pressure from the sinful side that remains for now. But those who have the Holy Spirit can and do submit to God's law; they can and do please God; they can and do stop sinning; they can and do talk with their Heavenly Father; they can and do share in the sufferings of Jesus. As Paul ends chapter 7:
Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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