Commentary on Romans 8:14-17
Anyone who reads this commentary has heard it hundreds of times: “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
A Google search yields 1,360,000 results for that sentence, and Robert Fuller’s 2001 book on the topic estimates that twenty percent of American people identify themselves with some sort of expression. The statement is revealing, not just for its implied disdain for the life of religious communities, but also for its reduction of “spirituality” to a personality trait. To say that “I” am “spiritual” here is on par with saying that “I” am patient or thoughtful or generous; it is a description that is all about “me.”
The celebration of Pentecost invites us to reflect on the spirit (or spirituality) as something other than a trait attached to certain individual personalities (and presumably not to others). In the context of biblical tradition, spirituality, instead, is a gift poured out by the Holy Spirit, one that astonishes and empowers in the present even as it anticipates God’s future triumph. Romans 8:14-17 is among the texts that provide us a glimpse of the Spirit’s work.
Admittedly, at first glance, the text presents preachers with real challenges. As is so often the case, the demarcation of the lectionary is awkward. Verse 14 follows closely on what has come before in verses 12-13, which is tightly connected all the way back to 8:1 or perhaps even to chapter 7, and it is hard to make sense of any individual snippet on its own. More frustrating is that the language of “slavery” and “fear” and “crying out” (to say nothing of “suffering”) has little place in our contemporary religious lexicon. This makes it hard to understand what Paul means and harder still to know that what he means might be considered good news.
Careful attention to the context helps. The passage is something of a hinge between the first half of the chapter, with its contrast between the work of God’s life-giving Spirit and the death-dealing work of “flesh” (which here is a shorthand reference to merely human ways of thinking and living), and the second, where Paul forthrightly confronts the fact that the life-giving Spirit does not preserve Christians from a human present that is still overwhelmingly marked by suffering and pain.
Verse 14 identifies those led by God’s spirit as being God’s sons and daughters. The NRSV reads “children,” but the word is literally “sons.” This is important since, until this point in the letter, every reference to a “son” has been to Jesus Christ as God’s own son (as in 1:3 and 8:3). The application of this term to the community begins the important work of locating them in God’s own family.
Verse 15 unpacks this connection between being “led by the Spirit of God” and being God’s children. Using the “not this but that” formula that Paul often uses, he contrasts a “spirit of slavery” with a “spirit of adoption.” Following on Paul’s self-identification as a slave of Christ (1:1, where the NRSV reads “servant”) and his contrast between being “slaves of sin” and “slaves of righteousness” in Romans 6, this contrast seems a little inconsistent.
But the question for Paul is always to whom or what one is enslaved (as Bob Dylan rightly puts it, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”). Here, the slavery is “to fear” (NRSV: “to fall back into fear”). This anticipates the end of Chapter 8, with its litany of those things that might provoke fear (hardship distress, persecution, famine, etc.). This slavery to fear gives way for Christians because “you have received a spirit of adoption.” This is what being God’s slave looks like–it looks like being adopted into the family.
Much is made of the fact that Paul says that “we” address God here as “Abba,” echoing Jesus’ address of God as “Abba” in Mark 14:36. It is also important to understand that this calling out to God as one’s own parent is enabled by the Spirit. It is this cry to God that overturns Paul’s earlier characterization of human existence. In 3:13-14, he cites scripture about the vileness of human speech and concludes in 3:19 that “every mouth is silenced.” The “I” of Romans 7:24 has cried out for rescue. This new cry to God as father means that the Spirit has opened human mouths. Even if Paul will go on to say in verse 26 that we scarcely even know how to address God, a beginning is made, one that will culminate in the glorification of God in 15:1-13.
The Greek of verse 16 is quite ambiguous, making it unclear whether the Spirit testifies “through” our spirit, “with” it, or “to” it. Resolving that question is less important than noticing the shift again to the language of “children” (this time with a different Greek word, tekna). The claim that “we are children of God” sets the stage for the crescendo of verse 17. Not all children in the Roman world were heirs, making the move here from “children” to “heirs of God” and then to “joint heirs with Christ” quite dramatic.
The crescendo grows dissonant, however, with the last few lines of verse 17. Being a “joint heir” with Christ means that we “suffer with him so that we might also be glorified with him.” With the ominous word “suffer” Paul anticipates the second half of this chapter, where the whole created order cries out for God’s final victory. Being adopted by God is a glorious thing, but not by standards most folks–then or now–would recognize as glorious.
Throughout this passage, as elsewhere, the pronouns are plural; “we” not “I” and “you” is plural rather than singular. And repeatedly the language is that of reception: “you received” rather than “you achieved.” Far from being our possession or an individual personality trait, Paul’s “spirituality” is a gift, a gift to the community, and a gift that does not exempt believers but plunges them right back into the world’s sufferings and pains, empowered and confident in the future God is bringing about.