Many Bible students have looked at the apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 3:17 (“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty“) and have taken this to mean liberty from having to obey God’s law — particularly the commandments, statutes and judgments which God gave to Israel through Moses. “Free from the law!” (Romans 8:2), exult many who profess belief in Christ, thinking that they have been freed from these requirements. But the sad reality — when we come to understand The Whole Counsel of God — is that these students have so concluded without really understanding what Paul meant by the “law” which Christians are freed from.
As the apostle Peter warned, there are “some things hard to understand” in Paul’s letters “which unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
What law did Paul mean in Romans 8:2? He plainly meant “…the law of sin and death“!
Ministry of death
The law of Moses (not that it was his, but that it was God’s law given through Moses) contained not only God’s do’s and don’ts. It also contained certain judgments that were part of what was Moses’ “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9) or “ministry of death” (verse 7). [See: Moses and Jesus — Are They Contraries?]
God’s judgment of death was passed upon the children of Israel who transgressed His holy law (basically the Ten Commandments), and particularly capital sins that required the death penalty. Of this we read in Exodus 21:14-17; 22:18-20; Leviticus 20:9-16, 27; 24:13-18; Deuteronomy 13:1-11; 22:22-24, etc.
It is this law which stipulates the condemnation — to death — for sinners (Ezekiel 18:20 and Romans 6:23 confirm this) that we are freed from. Through His sacrifice of Himself at Calvary, Jesus has liberated or freed true believers in Him from that condemnation to death. Jesus said that He came “…to give His life a ransom for many” (see also Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6) — a ransom from the clutches of death. [See: The Ransomed of the LORD.]
That is why Christ’s ministry, in contrast to that of Moses, is a ministry of grace and mercy — a “ministry of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 3:9) — a ministry of the Spirit that gives life (verse 6). Through His word and His Spirit which He gives to believers, Jesus gives life: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).
John the Baptist [or the Baptizer] said that Jesus came, besides as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), to baptize believers “with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33). It is the same Jesus (as the God of the Old Testament — see: The True Christ) whose Spirit He placed in the prophets of old (1 Peter 1:10-11). That is why those prophets (all the way from Abel right up to John the Baptist) are saved — will be in God’s kingdom — because they had Christ’s Spirit in them. They belonged to Jesus because they had His Spirit in them (Romans 8:9).
Because God had not given the rest of the people of Israel that Spirit — and heart — to obey God’s laws, they failed to keep their part in their covenant with their God by their continual disobedience (Deuteronomy 5:29; 9:6, 13; 2 Chronicles 30:8, etc.). But God has not totally refused His chosen people Israel (Romans 11:1-2, 5, 25-32). He has visited, with His Holy Spirit, many of them since Christ’s ministry and will continue to do so in future (Ezekiel 36:22-38). [See: God’s Kingdom and Israel.]
The Spirit of Christ in every believer makes the believer “spiritually minded” — which results in “life and peace” (Romans 8:6). The mind of one who does not have the Spirit of Christ, by contrast, is “carnal” and leads to death (Romans 8:6) and no peace. Why? “Because the carnal mind is enmity [or hostile] against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Those with such a mind “cannot please God” (verse 8).
What God’s Spirit does
The first work of the Holy Spirit is to open the minds of those whom God has chosen, to the understanding of the “things of God” which, unaided, the natural mind of man cannot comprehend (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). [See: Predestination and “Your Eyes Will Be Opened!”]
One of those “things of God” is His standards of right and wrong, shown through His law. A person whom God has elected or appointed to salvation will understand, through God’s Spirit, what that law requires.
Next, that Spirit will convict the person of sin (John 16:8-9), which is the transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4). At the same time, God’s Spirit will help that person understand the goodness and righteousness of God as revealed in His Word, the Bible, in contrast to that person’s carnality.
Then, this realization would lead such a person to repentance (Romans 2:4) — turning away from sin or disobedience to God’s law and from the person’s carnality. In this sense, repentance is something that God “grants” (Acts 11:18) through His Spirit.
That repentance brings with it a change in the person’s perspective regarding God’s law: instead of being hostile to the law of God, the person learns to love God’s law! Romans 5:5 says that the Spirit of God pours out the “love of God” into the heart of a believer. 1 John 5:3 testifies that the “love of God” is “that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” In John 14:21 Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me…” [See: The Law of Christ.] And indeed we can rightly say that Christ’s ministry is one of “righteousness” because, as Psalm 119:172 declares, “…all Your commandments are righteousness.”
Next, God’s Spirit empowers the true believer to obey God’s law. The prophet Ezekiel declared God’s promise, now fulfilled in “the Israel of God” (spiritual Israel, Galatians 6:16, in contrast to “Israel after the flesh [carnal],” 1 Corinthians 10:18) through Jesus Christ: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Thus true Christians enjoy God’s promise: “…you shall be My people, and I will be your God” (verse 28). [See: Predestination and God’s Kingdom and Israel.]
This is exactly as the apostle Peter described: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people, but are now the people of God; who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Through God’s mercy, the true people of God are freed from the law — and the power — of sin and death, which every sinner (that includes every single one of all people who have ever lived, except Jesus Christ) deserves [see: Freed From Bondage]. Through God’s Spirit in them, the true people of God are empowered and enabled to obey God’s law — God’s statutes and judgments, and other commandments, which a carnal mind (one without God’s Spirit) cannot ever fulfill. That is why the mark of a believer who truly has God’ Spirit in him is an obedient, holy life (Acts 5:32).
Through His Spirit, God promises those who believe in Jesus Christ and enter into a new covenant with Him: “…I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them” (Hebrews 10:16, quoted from Jeremiah 31:33). If God’s laws are written on our hearts and put into our minds, how can we as Christians think or say that we are freed from God’s laws, or that those laws have been done away with?
“Go and sin no more!”
Jesus told the adulterous woman brought to Him by Jews who were poised to stone her, “Neither do I condemn you…” (John 8:11). This meant He had forgiven her. And He admonished her: “…go and sin no more” (same verse). If Jesus came to do away with the law — such as the commandment against adultery, which the woman had transgressed — what sense was there in Jesus telling her to “sin nor more” — that is, “don’t commit adultery again”? As Paul affirms, “…where there is no law there is no transgression” or sin (Romans 4:15). Christ’s word to the woman affirms that God’s law still holds. When we transgress the law of God, we sin (1 John 3:4), and sin’s consequence is death (Romans 6:23).
But thank God! He has sent His Son Jesus Christ to free us from the consequence of sin — death — by dying on our behalf, and by living again to complete our forgiveness and give us victory over sin (1 Corinthians 15:17, 57). We are no longer condemned by the law that stipulates death for the sinner. [See: Transgressions Under the First Covenant and The Ransomed of the LORD.]
With the free gift of God’s Spirit given us when we have faith in Christ, when we truly repent and are baptized for the remission of our sins (Acts 2:38), we receive power to obey God’s laws (Ezekiel 36:24-29). Thank God He is able to grant us His Spirit when we ask — whether Israelite or Gentile — in true faith and sincerity (Luke 11:13)!
But why do Christians still sin?
The apostle John bluntly tells Christians — those who have Christ’s Spirit in them: “If we say that we have no sin [that’s in the present tense!], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us [ in other words, we lie]” (1 John 1:8).
The apostle Paul found the common human dilemma even in his own self as an apostle and preacher of the gospel of Christ: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin [that, again, is in the present tense as is most of the rest of this passage]. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
“I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:14-23).
There is, clearly, a “law” in our fleshly or carnal frame as creatures of the dust of this earth that naturally makes us “gravitate” to sin, to disobedience to God’s law, despite the good intents of our hearts and minds. Yes, like the natural pull of gravity, there is in every mortal man’s heart that downward pull to do the exact opposite of what one knows to be the right things according to God’s law. [See: The Deceitfulness of Sin.]
Though he had every reason to boast about his fleshly accomplishments (see Galatians 1:14, for example), Paul said that he had “…no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3-4).
Paul makes it clear that, by our own human efforts, we are doomed! “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Romans 7: 24)?
Paul answers himself: “I thank God — through Jesus Christ our Lord” (verse 25)!
The only hope of salvation from such death for all sinful men is Jesus Christ. Paul goes on to detail the forgiveness of our sin through Christ which frees us from condemnation to death (Romans 8:1-4). Then, the Spirit of Christ which He gives His true followers redirects that carnal mind to a higher, spiritual plane (verses 5-15; Philippians 2:13).
As someone has put it, Christ’s Spirit acts like the higher law of aerodynamics which helps birds and airplanes overcome the downward pull of gravity and thereby fly in the air. With Christ’s Spirit in him, a Christian can overcome the downward pull of his sinful nature and soar, as it were, like an eagle (Isaiah 40:31), above our mere mundane humanity.
Paul highlights our helplessness in the face of sin. He points us upward, to Christ, for help. As Jesus said, “…without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Jesus explained that, like a live and fruitful branch of a grapevine abides in the vine’s trunk, a Christian must abide in Christ and in His words in order to bear much spiritual fruit (John 15:4-8; Galatians 5:22-23).
Israel’s King David, a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22; 1 Samuel 13:14), had Christ’s Spirit in him (Psalm 51:11; 1 Peter 1:10-11). Yet David was a man who sinned big time! He committed the double sins of adultery and murder, for which the Law of Moses required the death penalty. But God forgave David these sins — as well as all his other sins, which David described as “more than the hairs of my head” (Psalm 40:12; 32:1-5). Forgiveness of sin is a blessing God extends to those, in this age before Christ’s return, who are a part of God’s “elect,” as David surely was. [See: Predestination.]
David acknowledged his helplessness in the face of his sins. Yet he is our model of delighting in God’s law, letting God’s law show the magnitude of one’s sins, wholeheartedly repenting of sins, and depending upon God for help in every aspect of life — even whatever “goodness” one is able to perform. David confessed to God: “My goodness is nothing apart from You” (Psalm 16:2; compare with John 15:5). David exemplified that “righteous man” who “may fall seven times and rise again” (Proverbs 24;16).
Like Paul and David, Christians are powerless without God’s help, and that through God’s Spirit. We must — and can — depend only on that help! With Christ’s and God’s Spirit, sinful humanity can overcome sin, and obey God’s commandments. [See: The Higher Law of the Spirit and The Ransomed of the LORD.]
Overcoming sin in this life is no minor expectation from God. In His revelation to John at the Isle of Patmos, the resurrected Christ repeatedly (seven times!) declares various promises of reward to all who have been in the true Church of God: “To him who overcomes…” (Revelation 2:, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12,21). [See: Breaking Down our “Walls of Jericho.”]
With Christ’s Spirit working in every true Christian by teaching God’s Word, enlightening the mind on God’s truth, convicting of sin, granting the gift of repentance and forgiveness, encouraging and strengthening in righteous living, the Christian overcomes sin and every fleshly weakness. At death, true Christians who have thus led a just or righteous life, will have had their “spirits … made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23) and have had their spirits kept in heaven. God will use those respective spirits as some kind of “templates” in resurrecting these people of God at Christ’s return to give them their reward (Revelation 22:12). [See: What Happens to Man After Death? and watch for: Does God Require Man to Do the Impossible?]
God’s Spirit reassures true Christians that they are indeed the children of God, and co-heirs with Christ of God’s kingdom (Romans 8:14-17). That Spirit in them is a guarantee that they will have everlasting life in God’s kingdom (Ephesians 1:13-14; John 3:16).
Revelation 22:13 assures those who have the Spirit of Christ in them and obey His law: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life [symbolic of everlasting life, see Genesis 3:22-24], and may enter into the gates of the city [the New Jerusalem].”
Then will be fulfilled what the apostle John was inspired to write, in 1 John 3:9: “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed [Spirit] remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” [For more Biblical exposition on the “born again” issue, click on this link: http://www.herbert-armstrong.org, click ENTER HERE, choose “Books & Booklets” and scroll down to the booklet titled “Just What Do You Mean — Born Again?” You may also stay on the link and select “Reference Material” instead, and scroll down the index for a more scholarly study on “Born Again” (UCG).]
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.