Commentary on Romans 8:1-11
The transition between chapters 7 and 8 presents interpreters with a challenge, namely, to know exactly where one of Paul’s thoughts leaves off and another of his thoughts begins.
Moreover, one is left wondering how Paul’s thoughts relate to each other. The lectionary recognizes this difficulty and presents one solution by ending the reading Pentecost 8, Year A with Rom 7:25a and, then, beginning the reading Pentecost 9, Year A with Rom 8:1. In this approach, however, Rom 7:25b gets left out of the reading altogether. While not attempting to solve the matter here (it is a point that merits/requires extensive reflection), one should at least be aware that Rom 8:1-11 is not “context-less.” This passage follows (closely) on the heels of the text of last week’s lesson.
Romans 8:1-2 form a thesis statement that is explained in 8:3-8; then, 8:9-11 present a further explanatory statement that contrasts the situation laid out in vv. 7-8. Noticing and reflecting on this structure goes a long way toward (1) understanding this demanding passage of Romans, and (2) discerning an outline or method for re-presenting the text in preaching.
Just as in Rom 7:25b there is a pointed contrast made between “mind” and “flesh,” so all through 8:1-11 there are a series of dramatic dissimilarities sketched out by Paul:
- law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus/law of sin and of death;
- law “weakened by flesh”/Son sent to deal with sin;
- death/life and peace;
- in the flesh/in the Spirit;
- according to the flesh/according to the Spirit;
Interpreters sometimes refer to these pairs of ideas or entities as “antinomies,” thus recognizing that Paul’s view of the world brought him to identify pairs of opposites that together composed reality, as Paul understood it. In essence these pairings are typical of an apocalyptic eschatological outlook wherein there is an ultimate contrast between opposing forces: good and evil, darkness and light, etc. Paul’s contrasts fit into this kind of “apocalyptic” thinking.
Thus, as Paul recognizes these opposites, so too the preacher can recognize and speak about the opposing forces that challenge our existence today. Here, it is helpful to note that Paul’s language of “the flesh” can essentially be taken up in language related to “a human point of view.” In fact, some contemporary translations render Paul’s talk of the flash with phrases like “a human perspective” or “a human point of view” or “human nature.” In the places where Paul juxtaposes flesh to Spirit or mind, this “translation” is helpful (though there are other contexts in Paul’s letters where “flesh” merely means a part of the human body–discerning the differences can sometimes be tricky).
One of Paul’s pairs of contrasts in particular needs attention. In v. 3 Paul juxtaposes “the law, weakened by the flesh” with God’s own Son, sent in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with sin. Here Paul presents
- the law as unable to bring about the salvation of humankind on the one hand, and
- God’s own attainment of salvation for humanity by sending the Son on the other hand.
The idea of a “saving sending” was one of the ways that ancient Judaism thought and taught about the law and wisdom, as God’s own gifts to humanity meant to accomplish the salvation of humanity, particularly the children of Abraham. Paul seems to have picked up this pattern of thought and to have used it to express his (and other early Christians’) conviction that God had acted in sending Jesus Christ to do for humanity what humanity cannot do for itself. According to Paul, as God sent Jesus Christ, God accomplished what the law itself could not achieve. Human effort (“flesh”) could not combine with the law (holy and just and good as it was/is) and win a right standing with God, for humanity was hopelessly in bondage to sin. In sending the Son, God defeated sin and freed humanity to live freely “according to the Spirit,” i.e., under the gracious leadership of the Spirit.
Ultimately, in vv. 9-11 Paul presents his concerns in a predominantly positive way. He states who Christians are–they/we are in the Spirit and the Spirit is in them/us. This condition is the distinguishing characteristic of Christian life. Paul brings this emphasis for a purpose: With all the foregoing talk about the Christians’ setting their minds on the Spirit rather than the flesh, it might be easy for Paul’s reader to conclude that salvation itself is nothing more than making the right decisions in life. Yet, while we do have the responsibility to focus our lives on and in relation to God, the good news of the Gospel is that not only are we called to be “in the Spirit,” but also the gracious gift of God to us is that the Spirit of God dwells in us. The paradox of Christian faith is that gift and demand go hand in hand: What God demands of us is what God has already given to us, namely, that we abide in the Spirit who indeed abides within us. There are both external and internal dimensions of the experience of grace that take shape as we abide in the Spirit and the Spirit abides in us. Indeed, in the final verses of this week’s lesson, we encounter a collection of Paul’s phrases along these very lines that sometimes confuse as much as they clarify: “in the Spirit”; “the Spirit of God dwells in you”; “the Spirit of Christ”; “Christ is in you”; “the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead is in you . . . his Spirit that dwells in you.” The language smacks of a kind of proto-Trinitarian thought, but without articulating a doctrine of the Trinity. What is clear, however, is that God has brought about an intimate relationship between the divine and the human that had never existed before and that exists now only as a result of what God has done in Jesus Christ.