Commentary on Romans 8:1-11
In Romans 7:15-25, Paul concludes that both the law and the individual’s will, while not bad in themselves, cannot bring about the freedom humans need in order to want what is right and to do it.
In Romans 7:24, after Paul had established the limits even of a law-shaped imagination, Paul had inquired, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Romans 8:1-11 clarifies the means of rescue. The clarification begins with a bit of wordplay. The Greek, katakrima (“condemnation” in the New Revised Standard Version) is the pronouncement of punishment upon a guilty party. As such, the word could be translated, “death sentence.”1 For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is no death sentence; rescue from “this body of death” is assured for them. Instead of humanity, sin–that power that has been vying with God for control of humanity and indeed, all creation–has received the death sentence (see also 8:3).
Several verses of this lectionary reading offer a contrast between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. Do not see here a rejection on Paul’s part of flesh-and-blood existence. Paul is not opposed to the material world and bodily existence (see also Paul’s reference to life for “your mortal bodies” in 8:11). In Paul’s thought, flesh is not the meat on our bones but rather everything predisposed toward sin. By “the flesh,” he means any human faculty which sin has been able to commandeer.
Fleshly existence and outlook is bad, not in that it is material, but in that it is (by definition) controlled by sin. Likewise, an existence and outlook shaped by the Spirit is good, not because it is immaterial (it is not), but because it flows from God. Paul describes the Spirit as: (1) the Spirit of God (8:9), (2) the Spirit of Christ (8:9), and (3) the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead (8:10). All of these point to the same Spirit, who is the means by which human beings access Christ’s victory over sin and death for life presently and eternally.
In 8:5-7, Paul contrasts the outlook inspired by the flesh versus that inspired by the Spirit. The New English Translation Bible translates phronēma in Romans 8:6 and 7 as outlook, noting that “the Greek term does not refer to one’s mind, but to one’s outlook or mindset.”2 As those know, who have exhorted someone to “look on the bright side” only to discover that their conversation partner does not see a bright side, an outlook can rarely be summoned by force of will. Readers of these verses will notice that Paul does not exhort an outlook here but describes differences between two of them. The second of these—the outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit—belongs to those whose life flows from the Spirit of God. The outlook, like the Spirit itself, is a gift. Paul’s purpose in these verses is to assure his readers that they have the Spirit; they are in Christ and he is in them.
No fewer than five times in eleven verses, Paul assures his hearers that they are not subject to sin, death or the flesh. Paul speaks of his audience’s present and future circumstances in the following ways.
- Paul announces that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (8:2).
- Paul describes himself and his readers as those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4; see also Romans 6:4).
- In 8:9, after Paul has described the hostility of “the flesh” toward God, Paul declares, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
- In 8:10, Paul uses a condition of fact to say, “If Christ is in you (and Christ is), though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
- Again in 8:11, the conditional clause is one of certainty, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwell in you (and it does) …, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also …”Paul’s shift to the future tense leads some commentators to believe Paul refers here to the future resurrection of the bodies of those who have died in Christ, but the emphasis need not be exclusively on the last day. In the rest of the chapter, the immediate future is Paul’s concern.
In the remainder of chapter 8, Paul will name hallmarks of life in the Spirit. Among them are the assurance of adoption as God’s own children, the experience of eager longing for a future assured but not seen, and the promise of the Spirit’s intercession with sighs too deep for words.
Sermons that seek to stay within the confines of this week’s reading might focus on the wonder of the Spirit of the risen Christ dwelling within the community of the baptized. Like the fourth evangelist, the apostle Paul offers assurances that Jesus has not left his own orphaned (see also John 14:18). Rather the Spirit “makes a home (oikéō) among you (plural)” (see also 8:9 and 8:11).
God has not abandoned the gentiles or God’s people, Israel, to the power of sin or the reality of death. Whatever we do next, and whatever powers against God assail us (and they will, according to Romans 8:12 and following), we live in the assurance that God, not sin, rules in and among us, and that God, as Rachel Held Evans has said, knows the way out of the grave.3
1. katakrima (κατάκριμα) in Bauer, et al., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., rev. and ed. by Frederick Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
2. Translation note at Romans 8:6, New English Translation Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).
3. Emma Koop Liechty, “Rachel Held Evans on ‘Keeping the Church Weird,’” July 6, 2017. URL: https://anabaptistworld.org/rachel-held-evans-keeping-church-weird/. Accessed 4/10/23.