Where do we start with Romans 8? It’s a sumptuous banquet – but which of its dishes do we sample? It’s a glorious symphony – but which of its themes do we to attune our ears to? It’s a lofty mountain range – but which of its peaks do we try to scale?
As always, it’s good to get our bearings from the context. Chapter 5 – in Christ, we have victory over sin and death. But that’s not quite the end of the story. In case you hadn’t noticed, we still sin, and we still die.
By the time we reach chapter 8, Paul is still dealing with that problem. Sin and death have been decisively dealt with in the cross-work of Jesus Christ. God will one day make all things new and bring us into the fullness of his glorious inheritance in the saints. Although we do not yet see the renewal of all things, we do experience here and now the power and privileges of the age to come.
1. We are no longer dead, but alive.
V1 – There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Paul has taught in 6:23 that the wages of sin – the penalty that sin deserves – is death. Now, he says, there is no condemnation, and therefore no penalty. Please note: he doesn’t say, ‘no accusation’, ‘no mistakes’, ‘no failures’, or even, ‘no sins’. He says, ‘no condemnation’.
This ‘no condemnation’ is not like that experienced recently by Brian Thomas, the devoted husband who killed his wife in his sleep because he dreamt that intruders had borken into their camper van. He was excused because he had no control over what he was doing: he was suffering from a sleep disorder. But we have knowingly and deliverately and repeatedly rebelled against our God, and yet he is willing to lift the sentence, remit the penalty, pay the price out of his own account.
Nor is this ‘no condemnation’ like the pardon that President Obama granted a few days ago to a turkey named ‘Courage’. Of all the 45 million turkeys that are cooked on Thanksgiving, just one received the presidential pardon. But God’s purpose is to gather ‘a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.’
V3 tells us how this has been achieved. ‘The law was powerless to do [it] in that it was weakened by the sinful nature.’ As chapter 7 makes clear, Paul has nothing against God’s law. The law itself is fine. ‘The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good,’ Rom 7:12. And yet the law is feeble – ‘powerless’, ‘weakened’ – unable to deal with the problem of sin. But what the law couldn’t do, says Paul, God himself has done. He did it ‘by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.’ God has condemned sin by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sacrifice for sin. What Paul is saying here is that the incarnation brought the sinless Son of God into the closest possible connection with our sinful nature, short of actually becoming a sinner himself. He took on its frailty, in order to exhaust its penalty.
And so God condemned sin in sinful man. He broke sin’s power, by pronouncing and carrying out a sentence of execution. ‘For those who are in Christ Jesus…there is no divine condemnation, since the condemnation they deserve has already been fully borne for them by him.’ (Cranfield)
But I wouldn’t want you to suppose eternal life just means the absence of death. If eternal life were just endless existence, that would soon become be intolerable. The life that is being spoken of here is the presence, in the here and now, of the very life of God himself. According to v9 and v11 the Spirit of God lives in us. In fact, it is not possible to receive Christ without receiving the Holy Spirit at the same time. V9 – ‘if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.’ ‘Of course there may be many further and richer experiences of the Spirit, and many fresh anointings of the Spirit for special tasks, but the personal indwelling of the Spirit is every believer’s privilege from the beginning. To know Christ and to have the Spirit are one.’ (Stott)
All this has happened already. But Paul also has his eye on the future. V11 – God who raised Christ by his Spirit will also raise our bodies through that same Spirit, who lives in us.
We are no longer dead, but alive. We have that life now. And there is more – much more- to come.
2. No longer slaves, but sons
V15 – You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.
To be a servant, a subject, a soldier, a disciple, a friend, of God: all these are wonderful indeed. But to be a child of God is best of all. ‘Adoption is the highest privilege that the gospel offers’ (Packer).
Why does Paul say ‘sons’ and not ‘children’? Well, it’s not enought just to reply that he lived in the days before political correctness. When he speaks of the church, Paul deliberately uses the feminine – ‘Christ loved church, and gave himself up for her’, Eph 5:25. But adoption is equally deliberately masculine. The reason for this is that in New Testament times the adoption of sons implied a special status, relationship and inheritance.
We have the status of sons. ‘In the Roman world of the first century AD an adopted son was a son deliberately chosen by his adoptive father to perpetrate his name and inherit his estate; he was no whit inferior in status to a son born in the ordinary course of nature, and might well enjoy the father’s affection more fully and reproduce the father’s character more worthily.’ (Bruce)
A little girl once wrote a letter to God. “Dear God,” the letter said, “I am adopted. Is that as good as being real?” We are ‘in Christ’, and have the same status before God as his only-begotten Son. “He am I,” he says to his heavenly Father, “and the children God has given me.”
We have the relationship of sons. V15 – By this Spirit we cry (call out, scream), ‘Abba, Father’. What a wonderful thing it is for us to address the Most High God in such a way. And, with just one exception, this is just how Jesus himself addressed his Father. In crying out ‘Abba’, the Christian not only claims a loving, trusting, affectionate access to God, but a status and a relationship comparable to that of Christ himself.
We have the inheritance of sons. V17 We are heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ. Think what Christ has inherited. Consider all that he now enjoys. All this belongs to us as well.
Now the idea of ‘inheritance’ looks very much to the future. Already we are God’s adopted sons. But we do not yet come into our full inheritance. Already we have received the first instalments. But we do not yet have the full amount. Indeed, if we expect to enter into the fulness of Christ’s inheritance, v17 says that we must also expect to share in his suffering. As it was for Christ, so it must be for those who belong to Christ: first the cross, then the crown.
- We are no longer dead but alive.
- We are no longer slaves, but sons.
But for Paul, these inestimable privileges have inescapable consequences. These can be summed up under our third and last heading.
3. We no longer serve the flesh, but the Spirit
If v1 has taught that we have been set free from sin’s penalty, then according to v2 we have also been liberated from sin’s power: ‘Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law [rule] of sin and death.’
In v12 Paul puts it in a slightly different way. We have an ‘obligation’, but not to the sinful nature, but to the Spirit. This is an obligation to put to death the misdeeds of the body. Of course, the body is not evil in itself. Paul teaches that our bodies – indeed, the whole creation – will be redeemed. But our bodies are the vehicles by which sin finds expression in acts of wrong-doing, and it is these must be ‘put to death’. It is with our eyes we see what we then covet. With our ears we hear gossip and slander, which we first embroider, and then pass on. With our tongues we curse and boast and threaten. With our feet we run into temptation when we should be running away from it.
But there is, of course, a positive counterpart to all this ‘putting to death’. We are to set our minds on what the Spirit desires, v5. Biblical teaching on ‘guidance’ has less to do with trying to guess the mind of God with regard to where we should live, what job we should apply for, whom we should marry. It has much more to do with asking, ‘What would please the Holy Spirit?’ I’m not suggesting you wear the T-shirt, but I do encourage you to adopt the attitude, the habit of thought, the mind-set, that asks, ‘WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?’ This is what it means to be ‘led by the Spirit’, v14.
And this one looks to the future too. If we fulfil our baptismal vows to fight valiantly against the world, the flesh and the Devil, then there will be pain, difficulty, opposition. Therefore, v17, we must be willing to share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. But that is beginning to take us into the rest of Romans 8, and next week’s territory.
Summary & conclusion
- We are no longer dead but alive.
- We are no longer slaves, but sons.
- We no longer serve the flesh, but the Spirit
Each of these has already begun through the life-changing work of God’s Holy Spirit. But none of them is yet complete. The remainder of this great chapter will take us further and deeper than any other in the whole Bible, into the confidence that we have that God who has begun a good work in us will bring to to completion from v1 – ‘no condemnation from God – now’, to its triumphant conclusion in v39 – ‘no separation from God – ever.’
And in the meantime we cry, we sing, we pray, for the Holy Spirit of God to visit us afresh, to fill us again, to empower us to live abundant lives, to be faithful sons, and to fulfil out obligations to him in every way.