Commentary on Romans 8:14-17
Both culture and translation stand between this significant passage and twenty-first century English-speaking interpreters.
I offer the following translation as a tool for understanding, not an example of English prose worthy of proclamation:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons.
When we cry, “Abba! Father!”
it is that very Spirit
co-witnessing with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ —
if, in fact, we co-suffer with him
so that we may also be co-glorified with him.
I hope that — in spite of the awkwardness of this translation — you can see some of the charged points at which this short passage invites the hearers into dynamic relationship with the Trinity, before the Trinity had a name and a place in Christian doctrine.
Sons of God by adoption
The meaning of this passage is highly dependent upon an understanding of the role of sons in first-century Roman culture, as well as Roman practices of and motivations for adoption.
- Adult sons were understood to have the responsibility of carrying on the work of their father, and doing so in a way that embodied the father’s values.
- The agency of daughters, on the other hand, was limited by laws that treated them essentially as minors.
The metaphor of sonship, and the understanding of Jesus as “Son of God” is dependent upon this understanding of the role of sons as partners in, and then heirs of, their father’s work. Jesus was seen to be God’s Son because he faithfully carried out God’s work in the world, exactly as God would have it done. When Christians, led by God’s Spirit, do likewise, then they are living faithfully into their baptismal identity in Christ, living as sons of God.
This important theme in the New Testament — that the baptized have the high calling of living as partners and heirs of God — is masked by translations that render “son” as “child.” As a woman, I understand and appreciate the rationale of gender inclusion; as someone concerned with Christian moral practice, I lament the infantilizing of Christians as children, without the responsibilities of adult members of the household of God.
Adoption in Greco-Roman culture was not pursued primarily as a way for childless couples to experience the love of children, but for families without a male heir to ensure that the work that sustained the family could continue. The word used here for adoption is huiothesia, literally “son-making.” The imagery is especially potent for Gentiles, who were not previously members of God’s family.
Paul contrasts two spirits:
- a spirit of slavery, consisting of the fear and lack of true agency that correspond to being outside the household of God;
- and a spirit of having been made sons through baptism, presumably a state of confident freedom for acting in the world as people authorized to carry on God’s work.
The fact of having been adopted as sons by God puts the baptized in close relationship with Christ. They are literally, as brothers, co-heirs with him to the rights and responsibilities of the family of God.
When Paul turns to the language of “children” in verses 16 and 17, it is to underscore the validity of the adoption. Gentiles who have been “made sons” of God through baptism are legitimate children and valid heirs of the promises.
Pentecost: the nearness of the Spirit
No doubt, this passage has been assigned for Pentecost because of the intensity of identification between the believer and the Spirit. English translations muffle the shocking intimacy of the relationship between the Spirit and the baptized. Paul’s Greek repeats the prefix syn- (translated here as co-), like the continuous heartbeat of the Spirit pounding in the veins of the one who witnesses, acts, suffers, and is glorified.
In contrast to the giddy, unexpected eruption of the Spirit among the disciples in Acts 2:1-4, here the Spirit is made manifest in living witness to Christ discerned by followers…
- who are willing to risk suffering for the sake of Christian witness;
- who cry out to God as naturally as to a trusted parent;
- whose practices of faith repeat the courageous patterns of Christ’s self-offering, no matter the cost;
- who entrust themselves to their hope of eventual glorification by a loving God.
In each of these dimensions of their witness, the baptized are filled with the Spirit of God in a profound co-agency for the salvation of the world.