When we were in Israel we became aware that Jewish people identify themselves in different ways. Some are orthodox, others conservative, some practicing and still others, secular Jews. The same kind of language is also used for Christians. I have heard people speak of themselves as nominal Catholics. I have heard people speak about a person as religious. I have heard a distinction made between cultural Mennonites and faith based Mennonites.
How do you identify a person who is a Christian? We know that some people in the world consider our country as a Christian country, but we know that not nearly everyone in Canada is a Christian. How do you recognize that a person is a Christian? Do we know if a person dresses a certain way, or does or does not do certain things, or goes to church? Is it a person who believes certain things, but which things?
Today is Pentecost which is the most significant day in the life of the church because it marks the beginning of the church and the beginning of the present age, which will go on until Jesus returns. As we think about what happened on Pentecost we are reminded that the Christian life is life in the Spirit. On Pentecost we are reminded that it is the presence and work of the Spirit in a person which identifies him or her as a Christian. Romans 8:9-17 helps us to remember that a Christian is a person who lives by the Spirit.
I. How Do You Recognize a Christian?
A. The Presence of the Spirit
There are other statements in Scripture which tell us what identifies a person as a Christian. I John 5:1 says, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God..." This tells us that belief in Jesus as the Christ identifies a person as a Christian. This is foundational and we know that belief in Jesus marks a person as a Christian. The only problem is that some people are self deceived. They think they believe certain things but all the evidence would not support that they actually do believe. How do we distinguish between a person who thinks they believe and a person who actually believes?
Romans 10:9 is another such passage and says, "That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” …you will be saved." This verse is significant as a marker for identifying a Christian. It indicates that the confession that Jesus is Lord is what identifies a person as a Christian. Confession is important as the declaration of belief. Once again, however, we know that there are people who declare belief, but do not in fact believe. Even Jesus warned that there are those who say “Lord, Lord,” but do not actually follow Him. How do you distinguish a person who actually believes from one who just says he believes?
In the commercial world it is not unusual for high end products to be imitated and sold for a greatly reduced price. They are called knockoffs. It is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between the genuine item and a knockoff. Similarly it is sometimes difficult to identify a person who is a Christian and one who only claims to be.
What this passage of Scripture does is help us know how to identify the real thing. If a person genuinely confesses what they believe, the evidence that this is a truly believed confession will be the presence of the Holy Spirit in that person’s life. Four statements in this passage teach us that this is how you identify a follower of Jesus.
Verse 9 says, “…if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ." That is a pretty straightforward marker of identity. If someone claims to be a Christian, but does not have the Spirit of God living in them, they are not Christian. The only people in the world who have the Spirit of God in them are those who belong to Jesus. Since the day of Pentecost every person who receives Christ is assured that the presence of God, in the person of the Holy Spirit comes to live in them. John Toews says, “Followers of Jesus are people of the Spirit, people who live in the worldview and power sphere of the Spirit.”
Verses 10 & 11 further explain this. Translations vary and it is unfortunate that NIV is not a very good translation. The way NIV translates it sets up a split in our personalities by saying that we are dead because of sin, but alive in our spirit. Good News Bible is much better when it says, “But if Christ lives in you, the Spirit is life for you because you have been put right with God, even though your bodies are going to die because of sin.” This tells us that because of sin our bodies are subject to decay and our physical bodies will die. But the good news is that the Holy Spirit has come into our lives to give us life. It isn’t our spirit that is alive, but the Holy Spirit within us that gives us life. It is important to recognize that it is the power of God present with us that will transform our dead spiritual selves and give us life. This life will be fully manifest after death when the Spirit will transform our mortal physical bodies to eternal bodies.
What is particularly exciting is that the power of the Spirit present with us giving us life is the same power of the Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead and gave life to Him. This assures us of the powerful and effective presence of God with us. It is this powerful life transforming presence of God which marks us clearly as followers of Jesus. In other words, the Spirit is the life giver within us.
But how do we know that God’s Spirit is present in us?
Verse 14 answers this question when it says, “…those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
A few years ago we were sitting in the dining room and a guest asked me about the apple tree in our front yard. I told him we did not have an apple tree in our front yard, but when I looked again I noticed a tree with fruit on it that had never had fruit before. I had not recognized the tree from its leaves, or branches or even the flowers it had. So we went out to look at this apple tree but found as we came closer that it was not an apple tree at all, but a plum tree. The fruit on the tree identified the tree. In Matthew 7:16 Jesus says "By their fruit you will recognize them." That is the message of Romans 8:14. It is the daily walk of a person which will give evidence that the Spirit of God is in a person and the conclusion can then be easily reached that they are children of God. If the life giving Spirit is within us and we walk in the life given by the life giver that is what identifies us as Christians.
A further witness which is within us is given to us in verse 16 which says, "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children." How do we know within ourselves that we are Christians? We know by the inner witness of the Spirit.
So this passage is very clear that the unmistakable way of identifying a person as a Christian is by the presence of the Spirit of God in them which will be marked by their being led by that Spirit and by the witness of the Spirit within. As we think about this, we need to ask ourselves, “What is the evidence of the presence of the Spirit in me?” Does my obedience to God show it? Does my own spirit receive the affirmation from the Holy Spirit?
II. Life in the Spirit
Since the Spirit is the life giver that has powerful implications for life.
A. Walking Obediently
A moment ago I said that the evidence of the presence of the Spirit is in the fruit of that life. Yet God has designed things so that He will never impose His will on ours. The Spirit of God is in us, but He will not work in opposition to us. Therefore, we read in Romans 8:12-14, "Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it." Since the Spirit of God is in us, we are obligated to allow the Spirit of God to work in us and to change us. We are urged to participate with the work the Spirit of God is doing in us.
Our obligation is to “put to death the misdeeds of the body.” Notice the violent language used here. It does not say, push it aside, or starve it. It is violent language that says, “Put to death.” Jesus used similar violent language when he encouraged us, in Matthew 5:29 to cut off the offending hand or foot. The lesson is of course not to cut off hand or foot, but to be decisive and clear in getting rid of sin in our life. We must not allow lying, or gossip or taking offence or theft to die a slow natural death, but we must put it to death.
But there is also a wonderful promise included here. This cooperation with the Spirit is empowered by the Spirit. Verse 13 says, “…if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
Carla’s aunt was famous for her huge pink 1959 Ford Fairlane 500. It was a massive car with a large wheel base and a great big steering wheel. The large steering wheel was needed to steer the car because it did not have power steering. Even though it had a large steering wheel, it was still difficult to steer at slow speeds. How different things are today with every car having power steering! Living our Christian life on our own is difficult and even though we may have the huge steering wheel of a big Bible all memorized, walking in obedience is intended to be much easier than that because we are intended to walk obediently with the power steering of the Holy Spirit.
B. Free to Relate
Because we learn obedience in the power of the Spirit our perspective on obedience completely changes. The presence and power of the Spirit means that we do not live in obedience with constant fear. In the Old Testament and unfortunately the way some Christians live their obedience leaves them always in fear that they are not doing all the right things and always doubting that they are measuring up. If we obey God by following an external list of rules, then it is always difficult to know if we were OK with God. The presence of the Spirit assures us that we are accepted with God and so we do not need to live as slaves to fear. We are free from fear because we know we are no longer guilty, because we know we are empowered to live in a new way, because we know that every misdeed is covered by the blood and because we know that our hearts have been changed to desire a new way.
In place of fear, we are introduced to a completely new relationship in which we know God as “Abba.” “Abba” is the Aramaic word for “daddy” and emphasizes the intimate relationship which we have with the Father. Bromiley says, “In the colloquial speech of Jesus’ time, ’abbā’ was primarily used as a term of informal intimacy and respect by children of their fathers…” As a result our obedience is a willing relational obedience. In obedience by the Spirit the question no longer is “am I keeping all the rules?” but “am I living in relationship with my Father who loves me?”
C. Sharing in Suffering and Hope
Yet every Christian knows that life continues to be difficult. I was saying to someone recently that it amazed me that even though I have seen so much of God’s grace in my life and in that of others, I still sometimes struggle to trust Him in specific situations. If we have the powerful presence of God with us by His Spirit, why is life not easier?
Verse 17 reminds us that even though we have the presence of the Spirit, we also share in the sufferings of Christ. The presence of God’s Spirit with us doesn’t take us out of the suffering in this world. Jesus was filled with the Spirit and still experienced suffering and so will we. As children of God we will experience suffering just as Jesus did.
But Jesus won over suffering, sin and death and in Him we will also. As children of God, we will also experience victory just as Jesus did. And so because we are children, we will experience suffering, but because we are children, we will also receive our inheritance. Suffering is not the end of the story. The presence of the Spirit within us is the guarantee that we will inherit the glory which Christ has already received.
On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter was asked, in the presence of others, “Do you know Jesus?” He faltered severely and denied Him.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter was once again in the presence of many people and did not wait to be asked whether he knew Jesus, but boldly proclaimed Him as Saviour and Lord.
What made the difference? The presence of the Spirit of God!
As time has gone by we have often lived our Christian life, culturally, or in our own strength or legalistically. Pentecost proves that God’s intention is that being a Christian means living by the Spirit. Romans 8:9-17 demonstrates what that means practically. It means that we are clearly identified as a Christian only by the presence of the Holy Spirit. It means that the power to live as a Christian is with us in the presence of the Holy Spirit. May we be encouraged and challenged to walk by the Spirit.