The Transforming Presence of the Spirit

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*ECF 7th September 2008 Romans 8:5-13

In 1921, Lewis Lawes became the warden at Sing Sing Prison. At that time, Sing Sing was notorious as a tough and brutal prison.  And yet, when Lawes retired 20 years later, that prison had become a humanitarian institution. Many people credited Lawes for the change.  But Lawes himself said something different: “I owe it all to my wonderful wife, Catherine.”

Catherine Lawes was a young mother with three small children when her husband became the warden. Everybody warned her never to set foot inside the prison walls, but she didn’t listen!  And so when the first prison basketball game was held, she walked into the gym with her three children and sat in the stands with the inmates. Her attitude was: “My husband and I are going to take care of these men and I believe they will take care of me!” She insisted on getting acquainted with the men.

One convicted murderer was blind so she paid him a visit. Holding his hand in hers she said, “Do you read Braille?”   “What’s Braille?” he asked.  And so she taught him how to read. Years later he would weep in love for her.

Later, Catherine found a prisoner who couldn’t hear or speak.  She went to school to learn how to use sign language to communicate with him.

Then in 1937, she was killed in a car accident. The next morning didn’t come to work, so the acting warden took his place.  The following day, her body was resting in a casket in her home, three-quarters of a mile from the prison. As the acting warden took his morning walk, he was shocked to see a large crowd of the toughest, hardest-looking criminals gathered at the main gate.  But as he came closer he saw tears of grief and sadness.

He faced the men, “All right, men you can go. Just be sure and check in tonight!” Then he opened the gate and a parade of criminals walked, without a guard, the three-quarters of a mile to stand in line to pay their final respects to Catherine Lawes.   And every one of them checked back in afterwards.

It is amazing what this one remarkable woman did in that prison.  She transformed it.  Not through stricter rules, or more painful punishments.  No.  She changed it from the inside out.  She changed it by her presence. 

This morning I want us to think of an even greater transformation.  God wants to change our lives.  But he doesn’t do this by imposing stricter rules and by threatening punishment on us.  Instead he wants to transform us from the inside out.  He wants to come and live in us!  Read Romans 8:5-13


1)      He Indwells Every Believer in Jesus!

Sometimes Christians have overlooked the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  At other times Christians have focused on him, but in a very limited way – on the more spectacular and exciting gifts he gives, on the ecstatic experiences some people have had.  But the work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely crucial in our everyday lives as followers of Jesus. 

a)      Two basic Groups

All through this passage Paul divides people into two groups.  Those “who live according to the sinful nature” and those “who live in accordance with the Spirit.”  v5  These two groups live very different lives.  But who are these two groups and which one do we belong to?

Well Paul makes this clear in v9.  He says to his readers: “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if [or since] the Spirit of God lives in you.”  Paul is confident that these Christians live in accordance with the Spirit, because he knows the Holy Spirit lives in them! 

Well how does he know this?  Well, because they belong to Christ.  Look at the second half of that verse: “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” v9  Receiving the Holy Spirit is not some secondary experience to trusting in Jesus.  The Bible clearly teaches us that if we have trusted in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit is resident in our lives!  Not as a temporary guest but as a settled and permanent resident.  “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you.” 1 Corinthians 6:19  We become his home.

b)      The Hallmark of Authentic Believers

The Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is the hallmark of every true believer in Jesus!  He is the seal that guarantees that we belong to Christ: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” Ephesians 1:13

Paul here calls him “the Spirit of Christ” v9.  And in the next verse Paul says that to have the Spirit of Christ is to have Christ in us (v10a).  So the presence of the Holy Spirit and our faith in Christ are intimately linked.  When we invited Jesus into our lives, he came in the person of the Spirit. 

Of course there may be times when we experience his power and presence in fresh ways, when we are filled with the Spirit.  We’re encouraged to “be filled with the Spirit” Ephesians 5:18, to keep on being filled with the Spirit.  But receiving the Spirit is an initial and universal blessing for everyone who repents and trust in Jesus! 

c)       The Difference the Spirit Makes

And so the contrast between two groups in this passage is not between two different kinds of Christians –spiritual versus carnal or worldly.  Rather it is between a Christian and someone who has not yet trusted in Jesus.  He is describing the difference that trusting in Jesus makes in our lives, because we receive the Spirit! 

And so if we’ve trusted in Jesus, then this is what God is already doing through his Spirit.  If we’ve not put our faith in Jesus yet, this is the transformation that God wants to make in your life!

2)      He Changes our Thinking

How we think has a huge impact on how we live.  Someone has said: “Thoughts produce acts, acts produce habits, and habits produce character.”  Gary Collins has said that: “People become what they think about.” 

The Holy Spirit transforms our lives firstly by changing what our minds are set on.  Look at v5.  This is talking about our way of thinking; our interests, passions, our priorities, ambitions; what drives us, what we concentrate on.  And this mindset reflects who we are.

a)      From Being Hostile to God

“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires.” v5  They haven’t the Holy Spirit because they haven’t trusted in Jesus.  And so their thoughts, their priorities, attitudes reflects their human nature with its sinfulness and self-centredness.  Their thoughts are against God, his kingdom, his will, his Son, his people and his word.  Paul says, “The sinful mind is hostile to God”  v7. 

This hostility is seen in violence and hatred against Christians; in the dedication of some atheists to try to convince people that God doesn’t exist; in the swear words people use.  How many times a day do we hear God’s name taken in vain? Maybe we’ve seen this in the ridicule we experience when we try to share Jesus with others.

We can also see this hostility in people’s rejection of God’s law.  This mind “does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” v7  Sometimes this is obvious in those who flagrantly reject God’s moral standards.  Other times its more subtle in a quiet rejection of God’s claims to be first in their lives, to be the only standard of truth, to be their rightful judge:

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9

b)      To Wanting what God Wants

But the Holy Spirit radically changes how we think.  “Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” v5 

The Holy Spirit changes our ways of thinking, our attitudes, goals, our whole purpose in life!   Jesus said of the Spirit that “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” John 16:14.  His job is to glorify Christ by showing Christ to us and forming Christ in us!  

And so if we have the Holy Spirit, Jesus will now be the centre of our lives.  We will agree with Paul’s ambition when he wrote: “I want to know Christ…” Philippians 3:10.

As we sing:

Jesus, be the centre, be my source, be my light, Jesus

Jesus, be the centre, be my hope, be my song, Jesus

Be the fire in my heart, be the wind in these sails, be the reason
that I live Jesus, Jesus

This is what the Holy Spirit desires and this should be our desire too. 

c)       A Fundamental Change

And so trusting in Jesus is about a fundamental, a radical change!  Becoming Christians is not about becoming good people – people who do good things and conform to a good standard, but about becoming God’s people – people who have been transformed by God’s presence from the inside out!  “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Hebrews 8:10

Of course this transformation has not been completed.  We still at times are influenced by the thought-processes from our sinful nature.  That’s why Paul writes later: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Romans 12:2.

And yet if we’ve trusted in Jesus we can see how God has changed our thinking in many different ways.  He has given us a concern for others that we know is not our own; a desire to meet with his people; a desire to learn from his word; a passion to share Jesus with this world; a desire to grow more like Jesus. 

It also clarifies what our job as Christians in the world is.  Our job as believers as we try to change this world for God is not to try impose religious rules and regulations on society; to force people to externally conform to God’s laws!  Our job is to share Jesus with them.  Only through trusting in Jesus can they experience the life-changing presence of the Spirit. 

3)      He Brings us into Life

Secondly the Holy Spirit brings us Life!

a)      Life even in death

Paul says that “the mind of the sinful man is death.” v6.  This is the end result of humanity going its own way.  We may have thought we’ve been choosing the better way – they way of fun and fulfilment - but God knows that it leads to death: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Proverbs 14:12

This choice was first made in the garden of Eden but it has been repeated by each of us down through the years.  The result is our spiritual death, separation from God and ultimately eternal death.  Hell is the end result of humanity going its own way! 

Even as Christians we partly experience this death.  v10: “your body is dead because of sin.”  Our bodies are mortal.  They’re dying.  Martin Lloyd Jones said: “The moment we enter into this world and begin to live, we also begin to die… the principle of decay, leading to death, is in every one of us.”

“But the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”  v6  Even although your body is dead, “your spirit is alive because of righteousness” v10.  We have been brought into the eternal life of knowing God as our Father and Jesus Christ as our Saviour.  We have the joy of fellowship with God because we’ve been declared righteous through our faith in Jesus. 

And we have peace with God.  Romans 5:1: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This is the radical difference the Holy Spirit makes.  From hostility to God, to being at peace with him!  From being separated from him, to being united with him.  It is nothing less than from death to life!  


b)      Life after Death

But this life is not just life even in the death and decay of this world.  It is also life after death!  Look at v11: He “will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”

The Holy Spirit has not only transformed our spirit from death to life.  One day he will also transform our bodies.  For many this will be life after dearth, for some it will be without facing death when Jesus comes.  These bodies that are subject to decay and death will one day be changed.  Jesus “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Philippians 3:21.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that they will become imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, immortal.    

Does this seem too difficult?  Do we look at our bodies and think they could never be transformed.  Well the power comes from the Spirit – and he has proved he has the power to do this, because he has done this already!  “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you” v11. 

It was the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit,” 1 Peter 3:18

There was no greater demonstration of power than the Resurrection of Christ.  And this is the power that the Holy Spirit has to ensure our resurrection as well!  We have this wonderful confidence and hope.  As an old hymn says, “The sky not the grave is our goal!”

4)      He Empowers us to Live For Christ

Thirdly the presence of the Holy Spirit should also transform how we should live every day.  “We have an obligation.” v12

a)      We have a Responsibility

This literally means we are debtors.  We owe something.  We have a responsibility to live out the life that we have been given!  To live out who we are! 

Our obligation “is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.” v12  The sinful nature has no claims on us.  We owe it nothing.  We don’t need to live in that old way any more! 

But implied in this verse is that our obligation is to the Holy Spirit, to live according to his desires, his direction.   Paul writes in Galatians 5:25:  “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

We need to “put to death the misdeeds of the body.” v13  Daily we need to deal radically and ruthlessly with the sins in our lives.  We need to reject any opportunity to sin, run from situations where we’re tempted to sin.  If we do we will always be blessed.  Paul says, if we do, “we will live” v13.  We will experience the rich, abundant and satisfying life of a life lived with God in charge. 

This is our responsibility.   We need to take action.  We need to be actively involved. 

b)      He Works Powerfully but Gently in our Lives

But the power comes from God.  We do this “by the Spirit” v13.  We are not left to our own devices.  The Holy Spirit comes in power to empower us, free us, lead us into this way of life.

Paul expresses this balance in Philippians 2:12-13: “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.” We have responsibility, but the Holy Spirit gives us the power we need!

But the amazing thing he works so gently in our lives!  The Bible warns us, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Ephesians 4:30 and “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” 1 Thessalonians 5:19.  He has promised that he will never leave us, but will never force his work in our lives.  He only works as we allow him to.   

It’s like if I take a sponge and squeeze it.  Then I put it completely under water, but don’t let go.  The sponge is in the water and the water is in the sponge.  But as I keep it under water, if I start to open my hand, the water will fill all the pores of the sponge.  The more I release my grip, the more the sponge is filled with water.

It’s an imperfect picture.  But everyone who has trusted in Jesus is in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is in us.  But we need to release control of our lives to allow the Holy Spirit to fill every part, every aspect of our lives.  The more we do, the more we will see his transforming power! 


The neighbours were always complaining about the state of the house.  It was always a mess.  The garden was full of weeds and littered with rubbish. The grass grew long and wild.  Warning letters from the council were sent but never heeded.  The house was never was clean or in order. 

And then suddenly the house was different.  It was painted.  The garden was immaculate.  The grass was regularly cut.  It was like a brand new house.

What had changed?  Had all the complaints been listened to.  Had the warning letters been heeded?  No.  A more radical change had taken place.  The house had been sold and there was a new family living there. 

This is how the Holy Spirit wants to transform our lives.  Maybe today you’ve wondered how you could live out this new life in Christ.  Maybe this has even stopped you from giving your life to Christ - you think you couldn’t keep it! 

But the Holy Spirit wants to come into our lives to stay, and transform our lives from the inside out.  Change our way of thinking.  Bring us into a brand new life.  Empower us to live for Christ. 

Maybe this morning you need to receive him into your life for the very first time.  Maybe he is present but we need to let go and allow to fill our lives more.  My prayer is that each of us will experience his transforming presence in our lives.

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