The Spirit is Salvation: Part 6, Spirit and Law

Many of the controversies we have about salvation result from not recognizing the central role and activity of the Holy Spirit. Two related controversies involve law versus grace and justification versus sanctification.

Regarding law and grace, these two are often pitted against each other. We are told to eschew a "works-based righteousness"--moral performance under the law--to embrace grace.

Relatedly, we struggle to articulate the relationship between justification and sanctification. We are saved through faith (justification), but there's the ongoing demand of righteous living and holiness (sanctification). Which seems to sneak a works-based righteousness in through the backdoor, negating the gift of grace. How to strike the right balance? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer's contrast between "cheap grace" and "costly grace" is an example of a theological attempt to find a proper balance between justification and sanctification.)

I'd like to argue that many of these tensions result from failing to attend to the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation.

To start, let's consider the law.

The last generation of scholarship on Paul, the New Perspective in particular, has shown us that Reformation understandings of Palestinian Judaism as a legalistic and works-based religion are simply wrong. Consequently, when we pit grace against "works-based righteousness" we're mistaken. That wasn't a problem in Judaism, and it wasn't the problem Paul was dealing with.

That said, Paul clearly does have issues with the law. But if it's not works-based righteousness, what's the problem?

To get a handle on this we need to examine Paul's seemingly contradictory statements about the law. On the one hand, the law brings death:
Romans 7.5
For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.
So it seems that the law is a bad thing for us, it arouses sinful passions. And yet, Paul goes on to say that the law is good:
Romans 7.12
The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
So which is it? The law brings about our death, yet the law is holy, righteous and good.

The paradox here is resolved when we note that the problem isn't just the law. The law, as we've noted, is actually good. The problem is the interaction of law and flesh, the mixture of non-spiritual with the spiritual. It's that interaction that's the problem. Simply:
Law + Flesh = Sin
In Paul's words: "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin."

Our problem with the law is this ontological disjoint between our unspiritual nature (our "flesh") and the spiritual law. Our problem is an ontological incapacity to fulfill the law:
Romans 7.21-23
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 
Notice that the problem here isn't a works-based righteousness, trying to "earn" grace. The problem is an ontological and moral inability to do the right thing you know you should do:
Romans 7.15-18
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 
That's the whole problem in a nutshell: "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out."

Ontological incapacity. The law is holy, righteous and good but I lack the capacity to carry it out. So I fall back into sin and death. Rinse and repeat.

Stuck in this cycle Paul cries out for salvation, and the answer to his cry is...the Spirit. The Spirit is given to flesh to give us the ontological capacity to become holy, righteous and good:
Romans 7.24-8.14
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 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 because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 
I know that was a long text to read, so if you skipped it, seriously, go back and read it slowly, internalize the argument.

Note that the problem is not a works-based righteousness. The problem is ontological incapacity. Paul says this very, very clearly: "The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God."

The mind of the flesh cannot submit to God's law, nor can it do so.

Because of this ontological incapacity, the problem is how the law interacted with flesh to bring about sin. Salvation, thus, comes through the Spirit which breaks this cycle.

Note how the goal in all this is holy and righteous living: "Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation...put to death the misdeeds of the body." This holy and righteous living is ontologically empowered and enabled by the Holy Spirit. Our flesh, once "subject to death because of sin," is given power and life through the Spirit, which gives us the spiritual and moral capacity to "put to death the misdeeds of the body."

And when we put the misdeeds of the flesh to death we live: "If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live."

There's no conflict here between holiness and grace, between righteous living and salvation. There is no conflict here between justification and sanctification. Grace gives us the ability to be holy. Holiness is freedom from sin and death. Justification gives us the capacity to live sanctified lives and sanctified lives are the sign that we are, in fact, the children of God.

And it's all because of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is salvation.

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