Lent 5 · Romans 8:1-11 · March 9, 2008
By Jeffrey A. Gibbs,
Romans 8:1-11 is a rich and theologically important text. Here Paul expresses in remarkable fashion both the distinction and the proper relationship between the Spirit’s work to bring salvation to believers (subjective justification) and the same Spirit’s presence in believers to empower them for Christian living (sanctification). Moreover, because the Spirit is the “eschatological down payment” that God has granted to all Christians in these last days, this reading also proclaims that those who are justified and (hence) seeking to live for God also possess the certain promise of final, bodily resurrection and eternal life on the Last Day.
The structure of Paul’s argument in these verses is relatively clear. The main statement occurs in verse 1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The “therefore” links chapter 8, at the least, with the end of chapter 7. Because God has delivered believers and will finally give deliverance even from the combat between “the flesh” and the regenerate “mind” (7:25), already now believers have the gift of acquittal before God’s bar of justice. God already pronounces believers in Christ, “not guilty”!
The remainder of the lesson explains and grounds why verse 1 is true, and that grounded explanation is centered in the work of the Spirit. Verse 2 says, “For the Spirit of life’s ‘law’ freed you in Christ Jesus from sin and death’s ‘law.'” It is hard to imagine that Paul would say that a law had freed believers. Paul uses the verb “to free” (ελευθερόω) five times in his letters. The three other uses in Romans are all passive tense forms, with God or Christ implied as the one who frees Christians/the creation (Ro 6:18, 22; 8:21). In Galatians 5:1, “Christ” is the explicit subject of the verb. Here in verse 2, then, if the Spirit is the real agent of our freedom, it is likely that Paul uses the term νόμος with the meaning of “principle” or “truth” (see also Ro 3:27). The principle of the Spirit of life is the Gospel message, which immediately Paul explicates and explains in verses 3-4. The “principle” of sin and death is the demand for obedience which no human is able to perform sufficiently. Verse 2, then, proclaims the Spirit’s use of the Gospel, through which He has freed believers from the demands of sin and death, here personified.
Paul offers the content, the good news of the “law of the Spirit of life” in verses 3-4. In reference to the Law’s inability, weakened as it was through the sinful flesh of fallen humans, God acted decisively. In the flesh, that is, in the flesh of Jesus, God condemned sin by sending the Son who bore the likeness of sinful flesh. God’s purpose in so doing was to acquit believers, namely, to vicariously, in Christ, satisfy in believers the Law’s requirements.
Thus far, the text has focused on subjective justification, the Spirit’s act in bringing the good news of God’s work in Christ into the lives of believers. But when he describes the believers in whom the Law’s requirement has been vicariously fulfilled, Paul shows the Spirit-created connection between justification and sanctification. Paul refers to believers as those “who walk, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (v. 4). Here the apostle shows that the same Spirit who set believers free from condemnation through the Gospel also directs their minds to walk (that is, to live with a regular and ready responsiveness) in the Holy Spirit. That is to say, justification leads to, energizes, and enables sanctification. (For a similarly focused argument that explicitly evokes the promise and power of baptismal union with Christ, see Ro 6:1-11). This sanctification-work of the Spirit is described in verses 5 through 10. The Christian’s mind, though surely tempted and sometimes torn by the struggle between flesh and Spirit (see Gal 5:16-17), will be directed again and again toward the things that the Spirit desires: faith in Christ, joyful service to the neighbor, warfare against sin. Paul starkly describes what happens when the mind of an unbelieving human being is not empowered by Spirit: that way of thinking and living is death (verse 6), hatred of God, and the unwillingness to submit to God’s will (v. 7). Indeed, those whose minds are not empowered by the Spirit are not even able to please God at all (v. 8).
The Christian, however, can believe this promise joyfully: the same Spirit who brings us to faith through the Gospel is also living in us to direct and strengthen our daily lives. Even though our life in this age is still mortal and our bodies are still “dead” in the sense of being subject to death, the Spirit in us is life on account of righteousness (v. 10). That is to say, because we have been justified, the Spirit’s life is at work in us. And all of this Spirit-filled promise leads to a goal: resurrection on the Last Day (v. 11).
A basic sermon outline is below.
Remember when you have seen a child learning to ride a bicycle? His dad or mom runs alongside, holding on to the seat to keep the child from crashing. The goal, of course, is that sooner or later, the child will not need the parent to hold on—he will be able to ride by himself, under his own power.
That familiar picture is never, never the goal in the Christian life! From beginning to end, from new birth to resurrection on the Last Day, we are Christians only because of the Holy Spirit’s power. We can learn to rely at all times on the Spirit’s support. Listen to God’s promises about the Holy Spirit’s work in your life, from beginning to end.
By the Spirit’s Power, From Beginning to End! (Ro 8:1-11)
I. The Spirit sets us free in the first place—through the Gospel!
A. Unless the Spirit brings the Good News to us, we remain under condemnation.
B. But the Spirit has set us free, by leading us to believe in what God has done in Christ to condemn sin and fulfill the Law’s demands for us.
C. That means your baptismal certificate is your emancipation proclamation! You are free from accusation, free from fear, free to belong to God!
II. The Spirit is present each day, empowering us to walk in ways that are pleasing to God.
A. New desires have begun in you—when you were baptized.
B. The Spirit who brings the Gospel to forgive you each day also uses the Gospel to lead you into choices that are pleasing to God.
III. The Spirit leads us into God’s glorious future, on the day of Christ.
A. The struggle with temptation—between “flesh and Spirit” (Gal 5:16-17)—will be over!
B. Because God gave us His Spirit who frees us and empowers us, God will raise us from the dead!
Conclusion: Do not ever try to go it on your own. Rely on the Spirit and His message of Christ.