The Two Parts of the Christian Life

Mortification, the putting to death of the old man, and vivification, the making alive of the new.

In order to think about the Christian life clearly, biblically, and confessionally we need to understand that we are not speaking about our standing before God but how we live in light of that declaration, in light of God’s free, sovereign, gracious salvation. We are asking about the consequences of salvation and the gospel, not the conditions to receive or benefit from them.

 

The doctrine of the Christian life is remarkably simple. There are two parts: death and life. The practice of the Christian life, however, is quite another thing. The practice of the Christian life, the living out of our life in Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ is so difficult, so incomplete, so littered with failure that the Apostle Paul nearly despaired of it.

Remember that, as he came to Romans 7, he had already preached our guilt under sin and the law. He had already proclaimed the riches of God’s free grace to sinners in Christ, received through faith alone. He has nowhere given us any good reason to think as Arminius suggested, that he was now, in chapter 7, putting on a persona.

Rather, chapter 3 leads to chapter 4, which leads to 5, 6, and 7. As soon as he even began to consider the Christian life, however, he faced a crisis. The problem, he wrote, is not the law, which is “good.” It was not the law but the deadly combination of my sin and the law (Romans 7:13). The great problem lies not with the law, which is “spiritual” but with me. “I,” writes Paul the believer, “am of the flesh, sold under sin” (v. 14). It is a great paradox. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (vv. 14, 15; ESV).

Again, (v. 16) the problem lies not with God’s holy law but with me. There is a principal within me, even though God has graciously granted to me new life, even though he has granted to me the gift of faith, and even though I am united to Christ, nevertheless, that foreign principle that once dominated me, sin, “dwells within me” (v. 17). As a consequence of the Christian’s conflicted reality, when we sin “it is no longer I who do it” but that foreign principle, sin.

The non-Christian cannot say this because it is not true of him. In the unregenerate, sin is not a foreign principle. It not something else in him. No, when the non-Christian sins it is he who is doing it. There is no competition within him. There is only one principle at work, not two. As a Christian I recognize that nothing good lives in my flesh, i.e., my sinful nature (v. 18).

By grace, as a believer, who has been granted the principle of new life, “I have the desire to do what is right, but” because I live still live in this life, because I am not yet glorified, I too often lack “the ability to carry it out” (v. 18). It’s not that I do not want to do good. I do but, in reality, the evil that I do not want to do, I keep doing” (v.19). Because I have been given new life, I realize that, when I sin, when act contrary to my new nature, it is not I “but sin that dwells within me” (v. 20) that is doing it.

There is a law at work in me, “that when I want to do right” (v. 21) evil is right there. As a new creature in Christ, declared righteous only for the sake of Christ’s righteousness imputed,  “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (v. 22) but too often there is within me a war waging within me (v. 23). This war, like all wars, is terrible. it is exhausting. It is discouraging. It makes one cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Nevertheless, quite unexpectedly, the very fact of the struggle is encouraging. With Paul I say ” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (v. 25; ESV). Because, in the unbeliever, there is no struggle between the new life and the new man in which serve God’s holy law out of gratitude, and the old law of sin and death that still resides within me.

I find the greatest encouragement, however, in the gospel truth that is outside of me, that comes to me in the preached gospel, in the gospel made visible (in the sacraments). The first word of the gospel is: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The second benefit of the gospel is:

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:1–4; ESV).

Read More