Commentary on Romans 8:14-17
These four verses come midway in the ecstatic account of post baptismal Christian life that runs from Romans 8:1 through Romans 8:39.
The word “spirit” is repeated and concentrated (I count it twenty-two times — five times in these four verses). The frequency of the word conveys the exuberance of the baptismal experience, and the variety of different ways the spirit is described — “you in the spirit,” “the spirit dwells in you,” “you have the spirit” (Romans 8:9) displays the diverse and multiple ways that the spirit is imagined and located. Although the NRSV translation makes some references to “spirit” “Spirit,” and others “spirit,” the Greek makes no distinction between upper and lower case forms of the word. Here in these verses, “spirit of God,” “spirit of slavery,” “spirit of adoption” prepare for the claim that the cry of “Abba, Father!” is evoked by the interaction, the intervention (“bearing witness”) of the spirit of God with our spirit. Krister Stendahl has argued that behind this passage is glossalia, speaking in tongues under possession by the spirit. In the scriptural world of imagery here, God’s spirit is present at creation, linked to the resurrection, and given at baptism. The plenitude of references to spirit in this baptismal prayer suggests that a preacher might explore and celebrate the omnipresence, creativity, and activity of the spirit in the Christian life.
Slavery and adoption
In the apocalyptic perspective of this passage, history is envisioned as a battle between opposing forces, a struggle about to be concluded by the intervention of God. In the action of Jesus Christ, those who participate in his death and resurrection through baptism will not be condemned, but will become children of God. The opposition is between being “sons,” translated in the NRSV as “children” (“all who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God”) and slaves, the “spirit of slavery” and the “spirit of sonship,” translated in the NRSV as “spirit of adoption.” While slaves do not have rights of inheritance, sons do, so those who receive the spirit recognize and address “Abba, Father” become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.
As in Romans 6-7, the primary opposition is between life and death, and its parallel opposition: freedom and slavery. Slavery is equivalent to death, and becoming a “son” or a “child” of God, is parallel to life. “Falling back into fear” characterizes slavery. Katherine Grieb has written about the traditions of the Exodus that undergird this passage: the people of Israel are children of God whom God creates, elects, and delivers from slavery in Egypt. The redemption in Christ is parallel with the delivery of Israel in the exile. Preaching might capitalize upon and develop the intense and suspenseful drama of the battle in which victory is at hand through the work of Jesus Christ. While much of Christian tradition interprets slavery and freedom as spiritual states, the imagery of this passage and the exodus traditions that underlie it, speak of liberation from slavery. African American biblical interpretation has read Romans this way and found in the New Testament inspiration to work for real freedom. In the contemporary world, slavery continues to exist as sex-trafficking, human labor trafficking, and exploitation. The gospel of freedom motivates current readers to mobilize to oppose all forms of human slavery.
Gender and liberation
The transformation from “slaves” to “sons” and “heirs” describes the move from death to life and from slavery to freedom accomplished in baptism. The NRSV translation of huoi as “children” obscures its male referent and masks the patriarchal assumptions in which the metaphors of adoption, sons, and heirs operate. At the same time society’s customs around adoption are not merely reflected by the text, but challenged, as indicated by the use tecknoi “children” in verses 16 and 17. As interpreters of scripture for the present, preachers can amplify dimensions of a text and minimize others. To develop the inclusivity of the children of God made heirs through baptism, they might reflect on another baptismal prayer, Galatians 3:28. Phoebe, Junia, Prisca, and the other women addressed in Romans 16 are evidence that women are part of the first person plural “we” of Romans 8 with whose spirit God’s spirit bears witness. To become children of God is to experience transformed relationships in a new community created by resurrection. The feast of Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and God pouring God’s spirit upon “all flesh” (Acts 2:17).