According to the Bible, in addition to needing forgiveness to save us from the penalty of sin, we also need to be from the power of sin that controls us. We are born spiritually dead, a condition we inherited as descendants of Adam. Self-improvement plans cannot make us righteous. We need a way to become righteous inside so that we can live the kind of life God desires. In short, we need transformation.
In a previous post, I described how God took care of our sin problem. On the cross, Christ bore our sins in his own body. (1 Peter 2:24). When we understand this, repent of our sins, and place saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, God credits Jesus’ righteousness to our account and forgives us all our sins. Colossians 2:13-14: “…He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”
I used the analogy of you owing a billion dollar debt and of a wealthy and generous person paying off that entire debt for you. Now, that would be a tremendous blessing. Instantly, your debt would be gone. You would no longer be in the red. But what balance would your bank account show? Zero! What would you live on? You would have no assets, and you would still be without the means to support yourself.
My point is this: all of us (except for Jesus Christ) inherited dead spirits from Adam. We are all born with unrighteousness in us. We are not merely sick; we are dead in our trespasses and sins. (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13). That explains why all of us sin and fall short of God’s righteous standards. Not only are we unable to pay our sin debt; we are incapable of living the kind of righteous life God desires.
If all Jesus had done for us was to pay our massive sin debt to God, that would still be a wonderful thing. In no way do I mean to minimize the significance of that. But, as marvelous as that is, if that were all he did for us, where would that leave us? It would get us out of debt, but it wouldn’t put us any righteousness inside us. We would still be the same sinful people as we were before, slaves as always to the power of sin.
So how did God take care of our self problem?
1. There is more to the cross than forgiveness
The Watchtower completely misses the fact that what Jesus did on the cross for us includes much more than just forgiveness. Our old self is not forgiven; it is crucified. The moment we are saved, God gives us a new self, transforming us from the inside out through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That’s what the new birth is all about.
First, there is crucifixion. The moment we place saving faith in Christ, God puts us in him and crucifies the “old man” that connected us to Adam and made us slaves to the power of sin. Romans 6:3-7 says,
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Notice that the verbs are all past tense. This has already taken place. The Christian has died to the power of sin. This doesn’t mean we are incapable of sinning. It means that we are no longer slaves to the power of sin.
Second, there is transformation. At the moment of salvation, God changes our identity. As a gift, he exchanges the old nature we inherited from Adam for a new nature that comes with our new position in Christ. He takes away our unrighteousness and gives us Christ’s righteousness. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come… God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:17, 21, emphasis added).
We can’t make ourselves worthy of eternal life through our own efforts. God makes us worthy of it supernaturally. Of course, we should live lives worthy of this calling (Ephesians 4:1). But we are to do this because we have been saved, not in order to obtain salvation.
Philippians 2:12-13 says, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” This does not mean that we are to engineer our own salvation through our works, trembling in fear that God might not find us worthy. It means that those of us who have been saved by grace through faith should live in awe of the fact that we are new creations in Christ.
2. The Holy Spirit indwells and empowers all Christians
Paul explains the experience as follows: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
This describes a very intimate relationship with God. At salvation, God the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Spirit of Christ, comes to live inside us. He is the one who empowers us to live righteously. Thus, a person is either “in the flesh” (what we were before salvation) or “in the Spirit.”
Paul explains it this way:
…those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are 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 your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive 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 give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. (Romans 8:8-11, RSV)
The apostle is not describing an experience unique to some special group of Christians who are headed to a different place after they die. He says that if you don’t have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in you, then you don’t belong to Christ at all. That is, you aren’t a Christian; you haven’t yet experienced salvation.
This indwelling is obtained by grace through faith, not through righteous deeds that we perform as part of a loyalty and endurance test (Titus 3:5). In fact, Romans 8:8 says that if we are still “in the flesh,” we cannot please God. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, dwelling in us, we cannot please God no matter how righteously we try to act. All our efforts to prove worthy will be fruitless. It is having this indwelling that makes us worthy. This transformation is a work of God, not a work of man.
As far back as 1519, Martin Luther explained, “… everything which Christ has is ours, graciously bestowed on us unworthy men out of God’s sheer mercy… Through faith in Christ… Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours.” “This righteousness is primary,” he said. “It is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness. For this is the righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam.”
Just as inheriting by birth Adam’s dead spirit makes us slaves to the power of sin, so receiving by new birth the free gift of Christ’s righteousness gives us the power to live righteously.
3. Learning to live by the Spirit takes time
Although our identity is transformed immediately from sinner to saint the moment we place saving faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 6:11), that doesn’t mean that we become incapable of sinning or perfect in behavior. It takes time to learn how to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even apostles such as Peter, Paul, and Barnabas sometimes had difficulty walking in a manner worthy of their calling. We can choose to walk “according to the flesh” or “according to the Spirit.” Sin can still tempt us, but it can no longer control us.
Romans 8:1-6 says,
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just 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. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (RSV)
We have to learn how to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and to live by his power. We progress as we, by faith in what Christ has already wrought inside us by the new birth, yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit so that our attitudes and behavior correspond to our new identity.
Have you discovered that trying to live righteously through personal dedication and self-effort doesn’t work? Do you see why giving us Christ’s righteousness on which to draw is God’s solution?
Share your thoughts in the comments.
 Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” quoted in John Dillenberger, Martin Luther (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961), p. 87
 Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” quoted in Dillenberger, p. 88