The New Testament reveals various reasons why the law was given, and it turns out as quite a surprise to many that not once does it say that it was given to help people live godly and moral lives. In fact, it says just the opposite. Paul says that the law came to condemn and to produce death. He called it “the ministry of death” and “the ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor 3:7-9) and he said it was “against us” and “contrary to us” (or “hostile to us”) (Col 2:14).
Romans talks about how “the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death” (Rom 7:5) and how “sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire.” (Rom 7:8). The point in all of this is that the law was never put in place to help man to overcome sin or the flesh, but only served to do the opposite.
In Colossians 2, Paul addresses rules and laws in the life of the Christian, saying, “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (see Col 2:20-23).
Fortunately Paul doesn’t leave us hanging with these statements. When he talks about how the law ended up working in us to “bear fruit to death” and to “produce all manner of evil desire,” he also gives the “solution” to all of this. In Rom 7:5, Paul says we became dead to the law... “that we should bear fruit to God.” He then says in verse 6 that we died to what we were held by (the law) so that we can “serve in the newness of the Spirit and not on the oldness of the letter.”
Therefore, “right living,” according to life in Christ, is never a matter of going back to law or rules or our own sense of morality. Laws and rules might sometimes cause temporary outward changes of behavior, but in the long run they cannot truly deal with the issues of the flesh. That’s why we had to die to the law in order to be joined together with the One and only source of real life and godliness. Right living, then, comes not from external rules and laws, but rather internally, from the very life of Christ who indwells us. Through Him, God gave us a new heart and a new spirit. He made us into a new creation. He caused us to become partakers of the divine nature (His very nature).
All of this is why Kap and I, on our Growing in Grace podcast, focus so intently on our new identity in Christ and on living from grace and not from laws and rules. Our aim is to steer people away from trying to live “morally” and by “laws and rules,” and to instead turn to the very Spirit of God who indwells us and with whom we’ve become one spirit (1 Cor. 6:17). What many Christians are doing, when focusing on laws and rules, is nothing more than trying to overcome the flesh with flesh. They perhaps will zone in on a given area of “positively” programmed flesh in order to drown out some “negatively” programmed flesh, but all the while the bottom line is that they are relying upon the flesh and missing the life of Christ in them.
The solution, then, is growing in grace and in knowing our true spiritual identity, and living from our union with Christ. When Paul exhorts his readers to not let sin reign in their mortal bodies, that they should obey it in its lusts (Rom 6:12), he is right in the middle of his talk about us having died to the law and having been raised together with Christ. So when it all comes down to it our lives are lived by grace through faith, by the Spirit of God. The fruit of the law and rules is sin, death and condemnation. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23)
Note that living by the Spirit doesn’t involve “steps” to godliness or morality, or “steps” to overcoming sinful behavior. This isn't a “how to” or a set of “principles for godly living.” What this is about is the power of a resurrected life (we have been “raised together” and “made alive together with Christ”). This is about God, who is “at work in us” (Phil 2:13) and who is faithful to complete the work that He began (Phil 1:6). This is about God's grace at work in us.
Do we have the ability to make choices in all of this? Yes, of course we do! We're not mere puppets. But the choices we make are not based upon any rules or standards of right and wrong, and they're not based upon trying to live by God's laws. Standards of “right and wrong” can tell us, well, what is right and wrong, but they give us no power to live by what is right and to avoid wrong. So our choices are based upon “growing in grace, and in the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) and they are based upon growing in love and in the knowledge of who He has created us to be.
This is a “working out” process (Phil 2:12). Now let’s just first say what that doesn’t mean. That doesn’t mean that we are the ones doing the work of producing godly fruit. Rather, the phrase “work out” in this verse means “to fashion” or “to give shape to.” God is at work in us to “work out” – to give shape to – what is already true about us and our identity in Him. His divine power has already given us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). There is no law and no rule that can work that out in us, or give outward shape to it.
So how do we overcome the addictions and indulgences of the flesh? Again, it’s not a set of rules or principles and it’s really not a “how to.” It’s a Who. It’s a Person. It’s the work of God in us. It’s giving up the old life of trying to overcome flesh with self-effort (fleshly effort) and walking in the miraculous life of the living God who richly indwells us. Which will we choose? Fleshly right vs. wrong – or supernatural and miraculous co-resurrected life with Christ!