Commentary on Romans 8:22-27
Romans 8 is perhaps the greatest chapter on the Spirit in the entire New Testament.
It tells of how we become incorporated into the most important story told in scripture: God’s salvation of the cosmos through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It shows us that this is an “incorporation” in the literal sense of that term: we, in our bodies, become part of Christ in his body, so that we can be part of the new humanity that God is forming for the new creation.
The Spirit and story of Christ
In this story of salvation, Jesus’ story becomes our story. Depending on what sort of gospel story we grew up with, this might be a hard thing for us to get their heads around. Many of the ways that we depict the death of Jesus are distant from us: Jesus’ death creates a transaction on a ledger of reckoning that gets credited to our account. But the full story is much more intimate.
The reception of the Spirit makes us capable of walking in a way that is pleasing to God (Romans 8:4-6). This new life, and new world of possibility, comes not just from the Spirit as an empowering agent, but from the Spirit as Christ’s own gift and presence, empowering us to recapitulate Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection through our own (Romans 8:9-11).
At the heart of this union with Christ is the gift of a renewed identity: all who are led by the Spirit of God are God’s beloved children (Romans 8:14-17). Here we should recall that the Spirit is inseparable from Jesus’ own identity as God’s son. We see this first in his birth: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you… therefore the child will be called holy, the son of God” (Luke 1:35). We then see it in his baptism: “… the Spirit descending on him like a dove… You are my son, the beloved” (Mark 1:10, 11).
But most importantly for understanding Romans 8, we see the Spirit being responsible for Jesus’ sonship at his resurrection: “he was appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness, by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4, my translation). Who are we who have received the Spirit? We share the Easter story, we participate in Christ’s own sonship, we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.
Resurrection and new creation
One more lens helps bring this week’s reading into focus. The resurrection is the beginning of new creation, and the resurrected Jesus is the birth of renewed humanity at the heart of it. In Romans 8:29, Paul tells us we are conformed to Christ’s image. The idea of “image bearing” echoes Genesis 1, where humanity is created in God’s image and likeness, which is to say, as God’s sons and daughters charged to rule the world on God’s behalf (Genesis 1:26–28; 5:1–3).
Thus, while our vital experience of the Spirit often provides us with an intimate connection with God, we discover through ever-growing concentric circles that this personal experience is far from private. To walk with the Spirit is to walk in the way of the crucified Christ. To cry out “abba, Father,” is to be part of a large family of sisters and brothers doing the same. To taste the first fruits of the resurrection by the presence of the Spirit is to find ourselves connected with the entirety of creation on its way to restoration and renewal.
This week’s reading pairs us with creation in the suffering groans that mark life in its futile, fallen state. But for both creation and ourselves these sighs are laced with hope. Paul calls the groans of creation “labor pains.” Its suffering is not the throes of death but the pangs preceding birth, newness of life.
When he turns to humanity, the groans are generated by the Spirit, which has given us a taste of the age to come. Strangely, in Romans 8, Paul says both that the Spirit shows us we have already been adopted (Romans 8:15), and that it is the promise of a future adoption (Romans 8:23). This is because adoption comes with resurrection. We have adoption now because we have received the Spirit by whom Christ was raised from the dead. We await our future adoption, the fulfillment of our participation with him in resurrection life.
Salvation, hope, and the suffering God
Salvation, then, makes itself known in the present, but also remains a hope for our future. We have to take care never to think that salvation is fully resolved in the present, even as we have to avoid allowing its future fulfillment to keep us from seeking its realization here and now. It is we who are God’s adopted children who await our adoption. It is we who are presenting our bodies as instruments of righteousness to God who looks for the resurrection of our body.
The groaning of creation and of humanity is matched by the groaning of the Spirit. The New Revised Standard Version says that the Spirit “sighs,” in verse 26, but the Greek here is the noun form of the “groaning” that creation and humanity are said to do in verses 22 and 23. If the incarnation and cross of Christ show us that God boldly enters into the brokenness of the world, the presence of the groaning Spirit demonstrates that God stays with the broken world all the way through to the end. But the end, in fact, is the new beginning.
This groaning Spirit becomes the culmination of our hope. The Spirit who endures the suffering and simultaneously offers us a foretaste of resurrection life makes sure that we are remembered before God. The divine plan to create a new humanity upon a new creation will come to pass, as the Spirit reminds God of those whose bodies need to be redeemed for God’s purpose to be fulfilled.1
- Read more of Daniel Kirk’s thoughts on resurrection in Romans in Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God.