Sometimes we'll find something in scripture that just leaps out and gets in our face. When it happens, it's hard not to think about it all the time; and we see it everywhere we look. One of those things had happened to me this year. Like happens so often to me (not only to me, I'm sure), it's a truth I've known for years, but it's taken on a new depth and I feel almost like I never new it before.
I've been struck by the thought that God is no longer dealing with man in the flesh. That's the "brethrenese" version. The English version is this: God started something with Adam. He created Adam to have a relationship with him, but Adam choose something else. From Adam to Christ, God has demonstrated that there is nothing for Him in Adam or in his descendants. So the crucifixion marks the point where God wrote off the human race. It wasn't just that one Man died there: as far as God is concerned, the whole human race is done. God is finished with us. The death of Christ was the summing-up and finishing of the entire human race, so far as God is concerned. That's why Scripture refers to Christ as the "last Adam" (1 Corinthians 15:45).
Of course God knew all along that Adam's race is hopelessly lost, but it wasn't until the cross that He gave the verdict (Romans 8:3). So when God justified Abraham (Genesis 15:3; Romans 4:1-5), He knew very well that Abraham had nothing to offer. But that didn't stop God from justifying him. That's one reason Romans calls God the One "who justifies the ungodly" (Romans 4:5).
God justifies us on exactly the same basis that he justified Abraham, and exactly the same way. We are justified by faith without works (Romans 4:5, 5:1), just like Abraham. But there is a difference between how God dealt with Abraham and how God deals with us.
Men and women aren't only guilty sinners before God, they're lost, guilty sinners before God. Justification deals with the guilt, but it doesn't deal with the lost-ness. It's not enough for God to deal with a sinner's guilt: a sinner will sin again – that is, after all what sinners do. God deals not merely with the guilt of actual sins committed, but with the source of the sins: the sinner himself. This is what Romans 5:9–10 teach: having been justified, we shall be saved. And so there is the discussion in Romans 6 about our having died with Christ. When He was crucified, I was crucified. And I have every right – in fact, I have the duty – to "reckon" myself to have died with Him there (Romans 6:11).
Romans 7 takes the discussion a little further than Romans 6, and introduces a new concept in v. 5: "when we were in the flesh". This isn't the language of Romans 6: it's a new concept. It's what old "brethren" referred to as "standing" contrasted with "state". These two words aren't actually in Scripture, but they do capture a Scriptural concept: "standing" refers to my relationship with God, "state" refers to how I practically live my life. My standing is that I am accepted in Christ before God. My state is that I am down here, walking in a wicked world.
So Romans 7 introduces our standing when it says "when we were in the flesh" (Romans 7:5–6). Romans 8 discusses this in more detail when it says we are "not in the flesh, but in the Spirit" (Romans 8:9). So there is a contrast between Romans 7 and Romans 8. Romans 7 is the experience of a man whose standing is "in the flesh". Romans 8 is the experience of a man who is "in the Spirit".
Let's go back to the old "brethrenese" expression: "God is done with man in the flesh". Man is God's creature, and God has every right to demand certain things from man. But Scripture is explicit: God has found that man has produced nothing of value for Him (Isaiah 5:1–7; Luke 13:1–9; Romans 3:9–19). So Scripture concludes that man as a creature responsible to God is a failure.
But God has done something wonderful and terrible: He has provided His own Man, a Man who is not lost, a Man who actually has produced every fruit that God has looked for in man. The Son from eternity has become a Man, and He has done everything that God wanted from man. So Scripture calls Him the "last Adam" (1 Corinthians 15:45). He is, in a way, the accomplishment of what God wanted in man. And here's the important part: since God has found in His Man what he couldn't find in any other man from the Fall to the Crucifixion, He has stopped looking. This is the point that seems so hard for us to accept: God isn't looking for anything in me, because He has found everything He wants in Christ.
Does that mean that God isn't saving men and women anymore? Not at all! But it does mean that He is dealing with them in an entirely different way, and on an entirely different principle. Up until the Cross, man was on trial: "Not only was man lawless without law, and a transgressor under law, but when grace came in the Person of the blessed Son of God, they would none of it" ("Union in Incarnation, the root error of modern theology", Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Volume 29, p.193). The trial has ended and the verdict is in. God is not looking for anything from me – He knew all along there was nothing there, and the whole history of the human race corroborates that. It was men and women who had the Law – who had the holy scriptures in their own native language – who turned the Son of God over to the Gentiles and demanded He be put to death. And it was the lawless Gentiles who actually nailed the Son of God to a cross and left Him to die. So God has already proven that no matter what He has done to work with man, man – Gentile and Jewish alike (Romans 3:9) – just proves his own worthlessness.
So Romans 7 looks back to the times before and says "when we were in the flesh" (Romans 7:5–6). It's taking about relationship. God used to deal with man as a responsible moral creature: that's what it means when it says "in the flesh". Now God deals with us "in the Spirit" (Romans 8:3), and He accepts us "in the Beloved [Christ]" (Ephesians 1:6). So God isn't treating me as a responsible moral creature: if He treated me like that, I would be totally lost (Psalm 143:2). When the relationship is Creator and creature, I am totally lost. So God has put me into a new relationship: I am now "in Christ". What does it mean to be "in Christ?" it means that I am accepted (Ephesians 1:6), it means that I am dead to sin (Romans 6:11), it means that I have no righteousness (Philippians 3:9). And this last point is probably the hardest to grasp: God is not interested in my goodness. Neither my sins nor my righteousnesses have the slightest effect on the relationship between God and me.
Now, this is all a question of standing, not of my practical state in this wicked world. So even though God doesn't seem my sins, I might actually sin. And make no mistake: He will chasten me as a son. He has not called us to live in sins just because He has forgiven us. He hasn't called us to claim a heavenly standing while enjoying sin and debauchery as our earthly state.
But the inescapable truth is that the Christian life flows from standing to state. God doesn't start with how we live and reason from that to how He deals with us: that is exactly what He did in the Old Testament, and He Himself has said that didn't work. What He's doing now is the exact opposite: He says, "I have given you a perfect standing before Me, now I want your earthly state to reflect it".
And here's where human responsibility comes in. We are called to accept our standing. What does it mean to be in Christ? It means, among other things, that we are content to have no righteousness of our own (Philippians 3:9). As long as I am clinging to the idea that I produce, can produce, or have produced righteousness, then I am in exactly the state of the man in Romans 7, "when we were in the flesh".
J. N. Darby, William Kelly, et al. were adamant that Romans 7 is actually the experience of a man who has been born of God, but hasn't yet been sealed with the Holy Spirit. I actually agree with them. But the fact is that there is an experimental truth in Romans 7: if you want to relate to God as a responsible creature, you'll end up experiencing all the defeat and heartache of the last half of Romans 7. If you want to experience Romans 8, then you need to give up on yourself. God has already given up on you, you need to join Him and be content to be in Christ, with no righteousness of your own.
Galatians 6:15 makes this point strikingly: "neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision; but new creation". We're not called to live as Jews (circumcised), nor as Gentiles (uncircumcised). Both law and lawlessness have been shown to be incapable of producing fruit in lost man. God doesn't want a Christian life of circumcision or of uncircumcision: God wants to see an entirely new creation. The Christian life isn't the life of a forgiven sinner: it's the life of men and women who no longer have lives of their own. It's the life of someone who has died with Christ, and now He is their life (Colossians 3:1–4). In practical terms, our responsibility is to accept what God has said. It's our responsibility to accept that God sees me "in Christ", where I have no righteousness of my own.
What does it mean that "God is done with man in the flesh?" It means that God has demonstrated that man as a responsible moral creature is incapable of pleasing God. And so He no longer deals with us as responsible moral creatures. God has found what He was looking for in Christ, and He's not looking anymore. What He wants is for me to join Him and look at "this Man" (Isaiah 66:2), at Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).