“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh!”

The 8th Sunday after Trinity—2 August 2020

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Reading from Holy Scripture: Romans 8:12-17

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.  13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”  16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (ESV)

Here is a sad statistic that recently made the news: across all Canadian households, we collectively owe almost $1.77 for every dollar of disposable income we have. What a burden it must be, to owe more than one earns. Of course, most people are working towards paying off their debt, no matter how long it may take. For those who cannot repay their debt, the worse thing that could happen to them is that they would have to declare bankruptcy and possibly even have their homes and cars re-possessed. 

There was a time, though, when the situation for debtors was much, much worse. If you could not pay off your debt, you and possibly your entire family, would be thrown into debtors prison! Listen to this description of a 19th century debtors prison in Dublin, Ireland: 

The debtors prison was overcrowded and rat-infested. Debtors were not entitled to medical attention. And they actually had to pay rent, with the prisoners who could afford the higher rents receiving better cells and food. However, those who could not get their families to arrange payments of rent at the prison had to take the lower, damp cells that had no windows or fresh air. Those who could not pay at all were often beaten, stripped naked, and left chained in their cells, and the only food they were given was bread that was boiled in water three times a day. Considering the fact that the prisoners were in jail because they were unable to repay a debt, usually they had no way out of their miserable existence in the prison. Debtors prisons were unescapable nightmares for the individuals confined there. Increasing rates for cells and food worked against the prisoners’ hopes for freedom. Unfortunately, spending the remainder of their life in prison was not uncommon for Irish people in the 19th century (adapted from https://owlcation.com/humanities/debt-in-19th-century-ireland).

As horrible as the treatment of debtors in the 19th century was, it cannot compare to the fate of those who live as debtors to the flesh! St. Paul warns: if you live according to the flesh you will die. 19th century debtors often experienced a lifetime of misery, but those who live and die indebted to the flesh will experience an eternity of misery. When our Lord Jesus Himself speaks of hell, He describes it as the fiery furnace[,…] the outer darkness… that place [where] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:50; 22:13).

The “flesh” of which Paul speaks is not your body. Rather, the flesh is the whole fallen human nature, with its unavoidable attachment to the things of this age. The flesh cannot be reformed, as if all that was necessary was for you to try harder to be a nicer person. You could say that the flesh, the Old Adam, is the workshop of sin in us that will keep churning out sins until the day we die. We all were conceived and born in bondage to the flesh.

But then all that was changed the moment water accompanied by God’s Word was splashed upon us. We were set free from our bondage to the flesh and made a new creation in Christ.

The devil, though, and even our own flesh, the Old Adam, want to lure us back to the bondage we left behind. And that is where our life in Christ gets rather complicated. You know this; you have experienced the struggle between flesh and the Spirit. But just so that we are all crystal clear on this, let me spell it out for you, point by point, in terms of Good News and Bad News.

First, the Bad News: you entered this world in bondage to the flesh, the unbeliever in you, who is a rebel, God’s enemy, a child of the devil, totally sinful and corrupt, un-reformable, completely self-centered, and a hater of God and of all that is truly good. The flesh is the Old Adam, who loves to sin and who despises God’s Word. You entered this world in bondage, which means your only option was to live in accordance with the flesh, following its dictates and inclinations until finally you experienced the inevitable consequence of eternal death.

And now, the Good News, not just good but the greatest news of all: in Holy Baptism, you have been made sons of God. For in the splashing of God’s Word in water upon you, you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”  The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ

In Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit has descended upon you. You are a new creation, which means you have a whole new bent and set of mind, a whole new impetus of your life. At your baptism, you renounced the Devil and all his works and all his ways, which means you are no longer in the flesh in the sense that the flesh wholly dominates your life and dictates your actions. As you live in your baptism, you live in the Spirit. This is now the dominant and decisive reality of your existence. Oh, there still is indwelling sin, but it is the indwelling Spirit that is the chief mark and characteristic of you and every Christian.

I wish I could say I have no more bad news to report, but I do. You see, even though you are a new creation—with new, Spirit-created attitudes, desires, and actions—you still have enemies to contend with. These enemies—the devil, the world, and your own flesh (the Old Adam, the unbeliever in you)—want to convince you that you are still obligated to obey the impulses and satisfy the desires of the flesh. Now, we all sin daily, even hourly. But thanks be God, you and I have received from the Spirit the strong impulse to join the psalmist in praying with all our heart: Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great (Psalm 25:6-7, 11). God forbid that we should ever stop confessing our sins and trusting God to forgive us for Jesus’ sake. For then we would be living as though we were still obligated to the flesh. And to return to the way of the flesh would nullify God’s work in us. And that way leads to death.

But now, back to God’s Good News for us. The Good News is that because we are baptized and thus a new creation in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, we are no longer obligated to live according to the flesh. Oh, we are debtors; there is no denying that. But we are NOT debtors to the flesh. Rather, we are debtors to God. We owe it to God to live the life He has given us.

We are all debtors. The question is: to whom are we in debt? There are only two options: the spirit of bondage or the Spirit of adoption. We were born indebted to the spirit of bondage, of slavery to sin and fear; and sadly, much of the world still lives indebted to the spirit of bondage. But to sinners living in great darkness, God has brought the greater Light of salvation, Jesus Christ our Saviour, who on the cross took upon Himself all of our sin and guilt so that the Father now declares us to be innocent and righteous for Christ’s sake. We receive this righteousness in Holy Baptism, by which we receive the Spirit of adoption as sons of God. And now, we live as debtors to God.

Our indebtedness to God is totally different from the indebtedness under which we were born. We entered this world indebted to live to the flesh in a spirit of slavery and fear. In Holy Baptism, we were adopted as children of God, and not just children, but also heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. What a treasure more precious than all this world’s wealth—that we are adopted as God’s children and heirs! And as the One who has adopted us, God lays upon us a divine claim, a holy obligation, so that now we are debtors to God.

Now, do not think that your indebtedness to God is at all your attempt to pay something off. We are not talking about paying off a mortgage or a car loan. Rather, the image is that of children being careful to avoid despising or angering their parents, but rather honoring their parents, serving and obeying them, loving and cherishing them. In a sense perhaps, to speak of the debt of love is an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms. But every healthy family is glad to live by such a contradiction. And so too, we who are God’s children and heirs. We take great joy in living as debtors who owe it to God to live the life that He has given us. 

And what is the life God has given us? Well, in our text, St. Paul points out three aspects of our new life in Christ. First, by the Spirit [we are to] put to death the deeds of the body, that is, we are to drown the Old Adam each day through repentance, so that the New Man in us may arise afresh each day. Second, we are to cry out to God as Abba! Father!, which means, of course, that God has drawn so close to us in His Son, and in His Spirit is so near to us, that we can approach Him with all boldness and confidence of dear children asking their dear father. And third, we are to suffer with Christ. It may seem strange to us that suffering should be part of our indebtedness to God. But we must remember that just as surely as our Lord’s way of suffering led Him to the throne of God, so surely shall our paths of suffering lead there too. We suffer with [Christ] in order that we may also be glorified with Him. And as St. Paul proclaims in the very next verse: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18). 

There you have it: the life you owe to God. It is a life of putting to death the deeds of the body, a life of crying out to God as Abba! Father!, a life of suffering with Christ so that you may also be glorified with Him. This is the divine claim, the holy obligation that God has laid upon all who are baptized into Christ. But who among us would ever consider this debt we owe to God as a chore, a drudgery, as hard and menial labour? Rather, is not our fulfilling of this debt of love our greatest joy? For it is God Himself who gives us what we owe Him, who enables us to live according to His holy will. And what’s more, the love we owe God is not the love of slaves for their master but the love of adopted children for their dear heavenly Father, who has given us all things, heaven itself, for the sake of His beloved Son, Jesus. Thanks be to God! Amen.