Commentary on Romans 8:14-17
Pentecost Sunday celebrates God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.
For many Christians, the Holy Spirit remains a puzzle. The other members of the Trinity, the Father and the Son, are better defined. But there is much confusion about the Spirit. Questions like the following are likely to be in the minds of listeners: Just what does the Holy Spirit do? How would I know if the Holy Spirit is involved in my life? It might be helpful, using our text in Romans as a guide, to describe the work of the Holy Spirit under the following headings.
The Holy Spirit Points to Christ
Often when people speak of the Holy Spirit they associate it with an extraordinary or spectacular event. We tend to let stories like the tongues of fire that appeared on the heads of the apostles (Acts 2:3) or the dramatic conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus define our understanding of how God works in the world. And there is little question that many acts of God are astonishing.
But just as notable is the way God works in a mundane manner. When Paul speaks of the power of the Spirit in our verses he points to our inclusion in God’s family. The Spirit makes us “children of God” (8:14) and so intertwines our lives with Christ that we now understand God as a Father or even a “Daddy” (as Abba might be translated — see 8:15). In addition, Paul suggests we are now “heirs” with Christ (8:17). In other words, all that the Son shares with the Father (peace, life, righteousness) has now been bequeathed to us as well.
In most cases the Holy Spirit usually does not try to draw attention to itself but rather works on us to strengthen our relationship of faith in Christ. This means the Spirit is very busy indeed. In our stumbling attempts at faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit is at work, overcoming our own desire to be in control. When we seek comfort, the Spirit reminds us of Christ’s seeking of the lost sheep and his forgiveness to a betrayer like Peter. When we need correction, the Spirit calls to mind Christ’s injunction against the love of money or the need to forgive — even those we classify as enemies.
Those who wonder about the Spirit’s presence in their lives need only look to their struggling faith in Christ and they will find plenty of evidence. Left to our own devices, we wander far from the source of light and truth. But the Spirit has other plans. God’s Spirit continually reaches out to embrace and encourage us.
The Holy Spirit is a Gift
The Holy Spirit is not something that resides in us or is under our control. There is such a thing as the human spirit, of course. This is the source of our imagination and creativity. It enables poets, painters, writers to practice express their gifts and it inspires magnificent works in literature and art. But when we attach the word “Holy” to the word “Spirit” we move beyond the human realm. We are now speaking of God and a force beyond human manipulation. Similar to the wind, the Holy Spirit is not something we can manage or direct (Acts 2:2).
But the Holy Spirit does have an agenda: it wants to bring us into a relationship with Christ. As Romans 8:15-17 says, God seeks to make us his children by adoption. The language here is suggestive. Children brought into a family by adoption usually have little to say about the process. It is something that happens to them by virtue of parents who are seeking a child and social workers who are helping to make that a reality.
Similarly, we do not earn membership in God’s family. The work of the Holy Spirit is to continually draw us to Christ, in spite of our desire to strike out on our own. Martin Luther’s commentary on the third article of the Apostles’ Creed fits in well here: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…”1
The Holy Spirit Means Trouble
This might strike people as a bit odd. After all, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “helper” (John 16:7). Furthermore, we are told the fruits of the Spirit are things like peace and joy (Galatians 5:22-23). And it is true that to be in a relationship with Christ (the chief task of the Holy Spirit as explained above) does bring a peace that passes all understanding. But those joined to Christ in faith by the Spirit are also returned to the world in lives of self-giving love.
The first thing the Spirit does after descending upon Jesus in his baptism is to drive him out into the desert for a frightening encounter with the devil (Mark 1:12-13). Think about that … the desert … a place traditionally identified with temptation and trial. People should be cautioned about associating the Holy Spirit with “playing it safe” or material abundance. As a wise, older pastor once told me, the “Spirit brings us to where the pain is.”
In fact, our text from Romans assumes that those who are part of God’s family will also experience difficulty. As joint heirs with Christ “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Paul’s point is not that we go out and seek suffering. That would turn suffering into a “good work” and simply be another attempt to manipulate God to our own ends. Nor does our participation in suffering mean that we are somehow in the midst of the Spirit’s work.
For example, I do not believe that God wishes things like depression for his children. God can certainly work through depression to achieve God’s will, but preachers will caution against a passive acceptance of suffering in all circumstances. However, those caught up in the Spirit, that is, those joined to the radical love of Jesus Christ, should not be surprised that it leads to conflict, struggle and trouble. After all, the Spirit not only drove Jesus to the desert; it also propelled him on a ministry that would eventually lead to a cross.
1“The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord, ed. by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.