There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 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. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:1-11)
Back in in the 1990s I worked in the Bristol office of an international firm of Chartered Surveyors. My particular brief was property management, and so I looked after a portfolio of shops, office blocks and industrial estates across the southern half of this Emerald Isle. The job was pretty straightforward: make sure the tenants didn’t damage the buildings, ensure the money came in to the Landlords and - where possible - try and bring in more money. This income would then mainly swell the coffers of pension funds.
I had a wide range of clients. Some you would know - Clerical Medical, the Church Commissioners, the Salvation Army - and some we more local. Amongst the local clients was the venerable Society of Merchant Venturers who were quick to tell you that they were established under Royal Charter in 1552. Having their roots in the medieval guilds, the charity now does sterling work in supporting education for the young and care for the elderly. The property portfolio I managed mainly went to fund a large retirement home on the downs which spread to the North West of Bristol.
My contact was a wonderful man who had served as Brigadier of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers and was mentioned in dispatches in Ulster. As a callow youth in my mid-twenties, I once telephoned him to offer some advice on a periodical review of the rent charged on some shop or others. I ran through the options and then gave my advice. Having done that I wondered how he would want me to proceed.
Down the line came the answer: “don’t keep a dog and bark myself”. In other words, I was paid to manage the portfolio and take the decisions, not him!
Knowing who is responsible for what is an important lesson in life. I would be daft to employ a barrister to defend me in court, if I kept butting in to try and ‘help’. I wouldn’t think of going to a surgeon with a penknife in my pocket, planning to join in and have a go myself. I wouldn’t bark if I had a dog. Certain people have certain jobs. And certain people do not. Knowing which is which is key.
The wonderful, foundational, heartening passage from the great Apostle which sits at the top of this piece makes a similar point. Know your place!
The logic of this passage runs along these lines. On Mount Sinai God set in place a system of laws (‘the law’) by which we are to live. The problem is that our human frailty (‘the flesh’) has meant that we were unable to keep them in their entirety and at all times. So the law has been broken, and that would bring condemnation.
Yet rather than simply trying harder and harder to keep laws which we are doomed to break, we need to rely on someone else to do this on our behalf. Paul writes “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 …”.
Jesus was sent to keep the law on our behalf. He also suffered and died on our behalf, taking that ‘condemnation’ for us. Moreover, he defeated that death by rising from the dead. So in Jesus we have one who keeps the law and so is reconciled to God. He dies and so suffers the punishment for any transgressing of the law. He then defeats the death which had dogged the human race since the third chapter of Genesis, and is a result of disobedience to God.
And then - Paul rejoices to tell us - we can be united to Christ so that we can share in all these benefits. This link is made through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Through that Spirit we are strengthened to keep God’s commands, we are forgiven when we fail, and we are assured of a life which is undimmed by death
This is the job of Christ. It is done on our behalf, and we simply have to place our trust in him. Trust that we need not do any more, trust that this will be effective, trust that this actually applies to you. As we do this the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell in us, and we are slowly transformed. We live through this Spirit, and begin to act increasingly in Christ-like ways.
This, I know, sounds odd. It cuts against an understanding that we are judged on our deeds. It undermines the whole philosophy of “God helps those who help themselves” (a phrase and teaching which is nowhere found in the Bible). It means we have to rely on someone else, and acknowledge our own shortcomings.
But why keep a dog and bark yourself?