Proper 10 · Romans 8:12-17 · July 13, 2008
By William W. Schumacher,
The texts for Propers 10-12 are consecutive readings from the eighth chapter of Romans, closely related thematically, and therefore can naturally be grouped as a three-week sermon series. All three texts deal profoundly and realistically with a common theme: The struggle of faith in a fallen world.
The first part, following this present text, could be entitled “Life by the Spirit of Christ.” All human beings are in a life and death struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. “Flesh” in this context should be explained clearly as referring to the entire sinful nature, not just our physical bodies. Christianity does not teach dualism, as if the material world were inherently evil, and non-material or spiritual reality were superior or godly. Some people, of course, do simply indulge their coarsest physical appetites and lusts. But it is also fairly common that people in our communities live according to some sort of ideals or principles and may even think of themselves (and be thought of by others) as quite “spiritual” in some sense. People like to say, “I am spiritual, but I’m not religious.” But any kind of “spiritual” life which is disconnected from Jesus Christ and His Word of promise falls under Paul’s category of “flesh” in the sense that it arises from our fallen human nature and is at war with what the Spirit of Christ wants to do in us and in the world.
Whether driven by physical appetites and lusts, or deluded by a “fleshly spirituality” directed away from the true God and the Spirit of Christ, the sinful human nature or “flesh” leads ultimately in only one direction: death. Apart from Christ, there is only one possible outcome to the struggles of human life, because that sinful nature is cut off from the Creator from whom alone we can receive adoption, an inheritance of life, and true freedom in relationship with Him.
Paul does contrast life “according to the flesh” with life “by the Spirit,” but he is much more interested in what we have been given by the Spirit in Christ than in describing or condemning the dead-end alternative of the flesh. Preaching that is faithful to this text will emphasize the positive gifts and fruits of a life directed and sustained by God’s Spirit, rather than a vivid denunciation of the flesh. In other words, the sermon will stress the Gospel more than the Law, because the text does that, too.
What does life by the Spirit of Christ look like? It is characterized by crushing and killing the sinful actions that are typical of a Christ-less life (“you put to death the deeds of the body,” v. 13). Life by the Spirit is life as a member of God’s family, a son (or daughter) (v. 14), with a permanent and legitimate place in God’s household. It is the antithesis of slavery, but rather gives us free and intimate access to God as our Father (v. 15). And the Spirit Himself is active in our life as God’s children, testifying that we are God’s children and that we will inherit a glorious life. All this comes as the Spirit unites us with Christ. We are sons and daughters because we are connected to the Son, we are heirs if and only if we bit fellow heirs with Christ, and we call God our Father because He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
None of this beautiful description of life by the Spirit exempts Christians from the struggle inherent in life in the world as we experience it. There is no choice between suffering and not suffering, between dying and not dying. If we live by the flesh, we will die; if we live by the Spirit we are putting the flesh to death so that we may live in Christ. Being adopted as God’s children, united with His Son, and made fellow heirs with Christ all entails that we also suffer with Christ. Being baptized into Christ means being baptized into His death (6:3), so that the Christian’s life in the world will often look like something other than freedom, joy, and glory. But the Spirit of Christ lets us in on the secret, and we look forward confidently to the glory of resurrection life with Christ.