This passage in Romans can be a very confusing one. On the one hand, we identify with the struggle to live godly lives; on the other, did Christ not die so we could live life more abundantly? I’ve read this passage many times, and I don’t pretend to understand it completely; but the way I have come to understand it is something like this:
Our salvation is entirely and completely achieved through the work of Christ on the cross. Jesus Himself declared that “It is finished;” (John 19:30) the Greek word is teleo, which means “to fill completely.” There is no work, no behavior on our part that can add to what Jesus already did, because His defeat of sin was utterly completed on the cross. When we believe in Him and accept His atonement for our sins, we are given His victory over sin – that is, in God’s eyes we have entered in to that victory. So our salvation is not based on anything we do, because it is all already done (Titus 3:5).
However, in the living out of our faith in the world, we find that there is still a part of us that resists doing good, and this is what Paul describes so well here in Romans. In a “legal” sense, we have already entered into righteousness by virtue of Jesus’ atoning blood; but in the realm of earthly experience, we still struggle with the sinful nature. The temptation is to resort to behavior modification, since Christ already did so much for us on the cross; but in this effort we fail every time, because behavior modification never could and never will obtain God’s grace. The only way our behavior can change is through the inner workings of the Holy Spirit as we submit to His patient work in us.
In the end, the battle is fought on the grounds of FAITH: do we believe that Jesus did all for us, that He will manifest His righteousness in us despite all apparent evidence to the contrary? Satan first and foremost wants to attack our faith; because it is through faith that we obtained our salvation (Ephesians 2:8) and it is through faith that we will see our deliverance from the power of sin over time. Satan cannot attack God’s saving power, but he can attack our faith in that power. It is the same lie Satan used in the garden, “Hath God said….?” (Genesis 3:1) As we walk in faith, God is able to adjust out behavior to reflect His Son, since we are now heirs with Him and are being transformed into His likeness (this process of course not being perfected till we join Him in heaven); but the renewing of our mind and our actions is based, always, on our faith in His grace.
“Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” – John
This is where a lot of Christians become disillusioned, because we expect our earthly experience to match with the heavenly promises right from the start. And we’re right in that we don’t have to wait for the next world to start experiencing those promises; but we have a crafty Enemy who knows how to use those very real experiences of failure to confuse and discourage us. Paul here is assuring us that despite the confusion that these attacks can cause on our reason, God’s truth is always sovereign – “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7: 24-25) Jesus Christ is always our answer, because He is the Author and Finisher of our faith, and He is the one who gradually makes our experiences match with His finished work as we learn to trust in Him.
I know there is concern that some will develop a sort of permissive grace mindset; that since God’s grace covers everything, there’s no responsibility on our part to be conformed to the standards of righteous living. But Paul is very clear that God’s grace is not there to be flaunted (Romans 6:1-2), and that we have a responsibility to cooperate with His work in our hearts by submitting our will to His (2 Corinthians 9:8). In my own life, I find that when I rest in that trust, I find that I DO have the strength to behave more like Christ, because when I am “weak” in my own eyes, then He is strong. We are to be active in our submission to Him, and we become more and more like Him if we learn to lean on faith and not on our own actions and experiences (Proverbs 3:5-6). That’s the fruit He promises, because any branch that abides in the vine cannot help but bear the fruit of that vine sooner or later.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. ~ John 15:4-5
by Joelle Heilemann