To change internally through external acts can be flesh.
But to change externally through internal devotions can be just as flesh-ly.
Conversely, the external application of word and sacrament can have a wonderful effect internally.
And an internal resolve to look away to Christ can brilliantly impact your externals.
Neither outside-in nor inside-out is the right method for change. The division the bible makes is between flesh and Spirit.
The real issue is whether the Spirit is leading us to Jesus and His finished work. It's the Spirit who takes us outside to Christ who offers up our true standing before the Father.
I talk about this here in a recent sermon on Romans 8 (audio here).
13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live,
What does it mean to put to death the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit. Not by the law, not by the flesh, not by will power or human effort. What does change look like that is by the Spirit?
Well, imagine you lie. You lie to protect your reputation, you tell everyone you’ve done something that you haven’t done to sound like a big shot. And afterwards you feel bad about lying. And you want to stop lying like that because it’s getting to be a habit.
Now at that point – what is Christian about that resolve? Non-Christians resolve to tell the truth too. There’s nothing Christian about trying to be a better person. There’s nothing Christian about putting sins to death. It’s the WAY you put them to death that’s the real difference.
See, you could put it to death through the law. You could say “The law says Thou shalt not lie. I’ve broken the law. I’ll punish myself and put myself under condemnation until I feel I’ve done my penance and then I’ll try really, really hard to be honest next time."
Two problems with the law approach. First, it doesn’t work. Second, I’ve just resolved to be my own Saviour. I don’t need Jesus for this. I don’t need the cross, I don’t need the Spirit. I’m just trying to be more moral. There’s nothing Christian about resolving to tell the truth.
But Paul tells me to put lying to death BY THE SPIRIT.
What’s that? Well to figure out that, we need to figure out what the Spirit is up to in the world. And verse 14 will tell us what we need to know. Here’s what the Spirit is up to:
14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
Verse 15 calls the Spirit "the Spirit of Sonship." So the Spirit of the Son makes US sons and daughters of God. The Spirit sweeps us up into Jesus so that we share Jesus’ relationship with God. And what is Jesus’ relationship with God. He is the Son, who calls out to God, “Abba, Father.” And now, BY THE SPIRIT, so do we!
Abba is a word for Daddy in many middle eastern languages. It’s intimate, it’s affectionate. It’s also deeply respectful. But here’s the question: Who on earth gets to call Almighty God, Abba? Calling the Queen “Liz” is bad enough. But at least calling her Liz doesn’t presume anything about your relationship to the Queen. To call God “Daddy” you’re not only being incredibly intimate with God, you’re also making a claim on Him. You’re saying “God, You are my Father and I am Your child.” And children have certain rights. In verse 17, Paul will tell us one of those rights – we have inheritance rights – as children of God we are heirs of the cosmos.
So that’s what the Spirit is up to – He’s communicating Christ to me, He’s testifying to me that I am in Jesus and in Him God is my Father, He’s communicating all that that means…
Now come back to verse 13 and ask “What does it mean to put to death the misdeeds of this Adamic body BY THE SPIRIT?”
Here’s what it means. It means I open up my bible, I read the Spirit’s words and I allow Him to tell me: “Glen, don’t you realize you HAVE the righteousness of Christ?! You ARE God’s beloved child, unimprovably so. So Glen, when you lied, who were you trying to impress? Why lie? You are dead to lying now, not because there’s an anti-lying law. You’re dead to lying because, What need is there to lie?
The Spirit is constantly telling me, “I am a trillionaire walking around the millionaires club.” And my lying exaggeration is like flashing around a counterfeit £50 note, trying to impress people. That doesn’t impress people in the millionaires club. And it completely forgets that I have a trillion pounds to my name? What am I doing?
So put lying to death BY THE SPIRIT.
It works for all sins.
Put porn to death BY THE SPIRIT. Why go after that counterfeit intimacy, when Jesus brings us into His eternal fellowship with the Father?
Put covetousness to death BY THE SPIRIT. Do you really need the latest outfit or the latest gadget, when you’re about to inherit the universe?
Put anger and harsh words to death BY THE SPIRIT. Don’t you realize you’re loved and appreciated and declared righteous in the heavenly realms? Do you really need to assert your rights here and now?
Whatever the misdeeds of your Adam nature, put them to death BY THE SPIRIT.
To change by the Spirit means to have my gaze drawn to Christ who is my righteousness. It means the Spirit re-reminding me that Christ is my standing before the Father. All my sins spring from trying to live independently of Jesus and establishing my own standing in the world. So look out to Christ who offers up the real you. That's how Christian change occurs.