We are studying Romans 8:1-14 for Sunday, May 12 (Mother’s Day). It’s the dense summary of Paul’s long and equally dense presentation, or perhaps argument, laying out the theology of justification by faith, redemption in Christ, and life in Christ Jesus/the Spirit. Here are my notes on this text (feeling fairly skimpy in relation to the profundity of the text). [Questions on the text are here.]
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our second in a series of four readings from the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul’s long letter to the Roman church that makes a strong case for the theology of justification by faith.
Last week we focused on the end of chapter 3, the first announcement of the “justification by faith apart from works of the law” formula (Romans 3:28). This week, we’re focusing on the beginning of chapter 8, in a sense the summation or recap of the announcement.
In between, Paul has argued that Abraham was not justified by his covenant-keeping (although he was good at that), but by his faith (all of chapter 4); moved on to how this justification produces peace with God for those in Christ, which he elaborates using the figure of Jesus as the New Adam (chapter 5); the implications of this justification by faith – we don’t advocate sinning freely, and we’re freed from sin, but on the other hand, we still seem to sin (chapters 6 & 7).
Chapter 8 will wind up with a ringing declaration of security in God’s gracious redemption (Romans 8:28-39) – God is working everything together for good to them that love God, who are called according to His purpose, and nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
After that, Paul will turn to what this means for the perplexing fact that not all of his Israelite brothers and sisters have accepted his encouraging gospel of redemption by faith in Jesus Christ, at least not as of the late 50s CE.
So our text is a kind of wrap-up or even a kind of restatement of what Paul has been saying so far, with an eye to moving on to its encouraging implications for confidence and courage, and its lingering unexplained matters.
CLOSER READING: Chapter 8 begins with a therefore, a conditional statement: what follows is presumably because of something that came before. In this case, it seems, Paul is restating here what he said earlier about justification by faith, in other words.
There are two pronounced contrasts being developed in this passage. One is the contrast of flesh and spirit. “We” do not walk “according to the flesh” but “according to the spirit.” (Romans 8:4) Living according to the flesh, setting the mind on the flesh, leads to sin and death, but living according to the spirit gives life and peace. So the contrast of sin-and-death with life is intimately related to the first.
The contrasts are emphatic. There are thirteen mentions of “flesh” in these verses, and likewise thirteen references to the spirit (or Spirit – it’s difficult to distinguish, and Paul wouldn’t have used capitalization or punctuation in his letters). In fact, the way Paul talks about the spirit in this passage is somewhat fluid. In v2 there’s the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, in v9 the audience can be in the spirit and at the same time the Spirit of God can dwell in them. But this Spirit of God seems also to be the Spirit of Christ. In v11 we’re back to the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Especially where Paul indicates that the “spirit” he is talking about is the Spirit of God the Father and also the Spirit of [God] Jesus Christ, contemporary Christian readers are probably going to see the Holy Spirit and give this passage a trinitarian reading. I know I do.
Commentators want to stress that when Paul says the flesh, he’s not simply contrasting “the body” with “the spirit” in a kind of body/mind or body/spirit dualism. “The flesh”, we’re told, is a more inclusive category. Karl Barth, for instance, in his Letter to the Romans, talks about “the flesh” as the worldly, socialized, having-a-human-culture humanity of everyday life in the world. A commentator who isn’t Karl Barth might just think of “the flesh” as “according to a human point of view” or as everything that’s earthy and mundane in us.
This pedestrian, self-interested and once in bondage term contrasts distinctly with the spirit, which empowers us to live … differently.
The term translated “condemnation” in v1 “probably” – according to the lexicon – means the punishment imposed after a legal process, like the sentence along with its being carried out. Another possible meaning is “doom.” The idea there seems to be that when we read “condemnation” we probably ought to think of that condemnation being carried out concretely.
To say this text is difficult strikes me as a ludicrous understatement.
Here’s what I notice about it: Paul seems to me to be struggling here to find terms to express what he understands to be true about the Christians’ relationship to righteousness and life on one hand and to sin and death on the other. Clearly, righteousness and life is at hand, while sin and death has been vanquished in Christ Jesus. But … how to communicate what that means, exactly, in a practical situation in which people are still living towards death and still (it seems) capable of doing things they and others understand to be wrong.
Barth explains this as Paul’s understanding that we are in the Spirit “eschatologically,” while we are in the flesh in all the ways that we’re not living eschatologically. I’m not sure that makes things any clearer. It just shows that Barth had a hard time expressing his understanding of Paul’s understanding.
So I conclude: Paul is on to something. And he has done his best, pulled out all the rhetorical stops available to him (and those were plenty), to indicate what it is. We have explanation, different images, telling rhetorical constructions. But all of these remain, to a degree, “fingers pointing at” whatever this life in Christ in the Spirit that is not in the flesh precisely is. But, whatever it is, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”