Thursday, April 16, 2009

"In the Flesh" vs. "In the Spirit"

by Bruce Mills

I have been studying Romans 8:9-11 over the past few days in preparation for teaching my adult Sunday School class, and found that these verses provide significant instruction for us on the difference between those who are genuine believers and those who are not. There is no more important issue, as man's eternal destiny is determined by whether a person is "in the flesh" or "in the Spirit."

In these verses, Paul gives the litmus test of whether or not someone is a true Christian. Notice Paul's direct and ruthless logic. First, in verse 9, he says if you do not have the Spirit of God, you do not belong to Christ. Second, in verse 10, he says if you belong to Christ, you have the Spirit of Christ, and three, in verse 11, he says if you have the Spirit of Christ, you will not be controlled by the sinful nature but by the Spirit. In other words, if you belong to Jesus, you will live like it. If you do not live like it, you do not belong to Him, regardless of your outward profession.

However, in this post I only want to draw out some thoughts from verse 9. Paul begins by saying, “you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.” The word “dwells” has the idea of being in one’s own home, a place where you settle down and relax because you are comfortable there. In a marvelous and incomprehensible way, the Spirit of God makes His home in the life of every person who trusts in Jesus Christ.

Now, don’t be confused by that statement if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.” That is not a way of throwing doubt on this matter of the Spirit of God indwelling believers. This is what is known in the Greek as a first class conditional statement. While the word used here means “if indeed,” it carries the force of “if, as is the fact.” It comes very close to meaning “since.” So there is no doubt here in Paul’s statement. He is saying that if “the Spirit of God” is in you, you are “in the Spirit.”

In contrast, however, “anyone [who] does not have the Spirit of Christ…does not belong to [Christ].” The person who gives not evidence of the presence, power, and fruit of the God’s Spirit in his life has no legitimate claim to Christ as Savior and Lord. The person who demonstrates no desire for the things of God and has no inclination to avoid sin or evil desires in order to please God is not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and thus does not belong to Christ. In light of that sobering truth, Paul admonishes anyone who claims to be a Christian to “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).

This is absolutely critical because it means that being a Christian is not merely a matter of adopting a particular set of intellectual or theological beliefs, however true they may be. It involves a change of state, which is accomplished, not by us, but by God who saves us.

This change also means that being a Christian is not a matter merely of living in a Christian manner either, as important as that also is. If you are a Christian, you will live like one. But living like a Christian, at least in an external, observable sense, does not in-and-of itself mean that you are one. Many unbelievers live outwardly moral lives.

I have had occasion through the years that I have been involved as an elder at my church to have people come to me and say, “Bruce, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been learning from the Word here at the church and I’ve been examining my life and my sin, and I’m not sure whether I’m really a believer or not.” Now when someone comes to me and says that, I don’t say, “Well, of course you are. Don’t you love Jesus? Didn’t you pray a prayer to ask Him to forgive your sins one time? You know, I’ve seen all the things you’ve done around the church here; you’ve been involved with all kinds of things. Sure you’re a Christian. Stop having those doubts.”

Now, there is no question that Satan loves to cause genuine believers to doubt their salvation and live defeated lives that accomplish little for Christ. But I don’t think we should be quick to reassure someone who is doubting their salvation that they really are saved and to stop thinking that way. It may be that they aren’t truly saved and that it is the Holy Spirit who is at work in their heart.

So when someone comes to me with questions or doubts about their salvation, I usually say something like this: “Why do you think that might be the case? Is there some particular sin in your life that you are struggling with, or do you find that your life is characterized by a love of sin?” (Often, if the person is a true believer, that’s why he is doubting his salvation—there is a sin issue in his life). And then I’ll tell them, “I think you need to examine your heart before God and let His Spirit and the Word reveal the truth to you. If you are a believer, it will become clear to you, and if you are not, pray that the Spirit will reveal that to you also.”

And then I make some suggestions of questions they should ask themselves to help them examine their heart. I’m going to give you those questions starting in about two more paragraphs, so don’t think that I’m going to leave you hanging, wondering what those diagnostic questions might be. I promise I’ll give them to you.

But that isn’t always the answer they wanted to hear—they just wanted me to give them quick, simple assurance that they are a real Christian because of some spiritual epiphany or emotional experience that took place in their life at sometime in the past. But only the Holy Spirit of God can give someone genuine assurance. I can’t do that. All I can do is point them to the Word which tells us to examine our hearts to make sure we are truly in the faith, and then let the Holy Spirit do His work in convicting and convincing them of the truth of the matter.

Now, here are the questions that I suggest to people as an excellent test of whether they are genuine Christians. They are not original with me, but I recommend people use these questions to examine their own heart before God to determine if they are genuine Christians. After all, that’s what we saw that Paul instructed us to do in 2 Corinthians 13:5.

  1. Is God real to you? I do not mean, “Do you understand everything about God and God’s ways?” Of course, you do not, and you will never understand God completely. I simply mean: Is God real to you? When you pray, do you know that you are really praying to Him and that He is listening to you and will answer you? When you worship Him in church, is it a real God you are worshipping?

  2. Is the Bible a meaningful and attractive book to you? I do not mean, “Do you understand everything you read in there?” Obviously you do not. But does it seem to be right when you read it? Are you attracted to it? Do you want to know more of it?

  3. Are you drawn to other Christians? Do you want to be with them? Do you enjoy their fellowship? Do you sense how much you and they have in common? Do you find yourself having a love for them and desiring to spend time with them, worshipping God together and studying His word with them?

Let me just say that if God is not real to you, if the Bible is not attractive to you, and if you are not drawn to other believers, you have no valid reason to believe that you are a Christian. In fact, you probably are not. On the other hand, if those things are true of you, that is evidence you are a genuine believer. You should be encouraged by them and press on in following after Jesus Christ.

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