Commentary on Romans 8:12-25
When he received the Spirit as his baptism, Jesus was proclaimed to be God’s son. Driven by the Spirit, Jesus was tempted; empowered by the Spirit, Jesus exorcised demons.
This Jesus who was marked out as God’s son by the Spirit at his baptism cried out “Abba, Father” in Gethsemane, praying for deliverance from his hour of greatest anguish.
Paradoxically, Jesus’ sonship was put on display in what should have been its veiling on the cross. The centurion cried out, “Surely this man was God’s son!” And God vindicated Jesus’ filial obedience in raising him from the dead.
When reading Romans 8, we must keep all this fresh in our minds. Because what we learn in this chapter is that the Spirit grafts us into the story of Jesus. As our lives bear the marks of Jesus’ life, we grow in hope that we, too, are God’s beloved daughters and sons — those with whom God is well pleased, and upon whom God will bestow God’s glorious, eternal inheritance.
Paul says in 8:14 that those who are led by God’s Spirit are marked out as God’s family. Identity, however, is not just who we are in the inside. Our identity is made known through our actions.
First, our lives as God’s children are made known through our “putting to death the deeds of the body,” no longer living “according to the flesh” (verses 12-13). This speaks of what we might generally call “sanctification,” but Paul’s language is more evocative, referencing bodies, flesh, and death.
The language he uses does not mean that bodies are inherently bad, but it reflects the ancient idea that “physical” passions draw us away from moral virtue.
Paul differs wildly from his peers, however, in his conviction that the way these passions are brought under control is not through exercise of reason (as his Roman contemporaries might imagine) nor through the Torah (as his Jewish compatriots might hope) but through the Spirit of God uniting us to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Our “sanctification,” as we call it, is participation in the cosmic reality that God has put sin to death in the body of Jesus. We make good on our salvation by seeing that the sinful markers of this age are put to death in us, the sons and daughters who are led by the Spirit.
Second, our filial identity is actualized in literal suffering. Verse 16 puts the matter starkly: we are children and heirs with Christ, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (NRSV).
Here we have moved from “death” as doing away with our shadow self, into suffering that comes in many forms — perhaps most of all in the suffering that comes from living in faithfulness to God.
Early Judaism developed the idea that the suffering of the faithful would summon God’s final deliverance. These were the “labor pangs” that would birth to the age to come.
For Christians, Jesus’ suffering on the cross was just those pangs: not pains leading to death, but those signaling new birth, new beginning. Caught between the old age and the age to come, we join Jesus in that suffering, participating in the advent of the new.
The life of faith is nothing less than entrusting ourselves to this story — not only trusting the idea that Jesus died for us and was raised, but also trusting that if we enter into his death we, too, will be given newness of life.
Had we the ears to hear, we would have learned from scripture, long ago, that our destiny is intrinsically tied to that of the created order (and vice versa).
Reading Genesis 1-3 we learn not only that we have a role to play on earth, mediating God’s rule to the world, but also that our failures have all-embracing implications: human relationships are marred, our relationship with the divine is set askew, and even the dirt of the ground responds to our grasping after what is not rightfully ours (Genesis 3:8-19).
In Romans 8 we see that God has not decoupled us from the earth. God continues to allow humanity to stand at the fulcrum point of the destiny of creation.
In verses 18-25, this is the story Paul tells: creation has a future, and that future is tied to the resurrection life that God is bringing to God’s beloved children. The identity that is ours by the Spirit (daughters and sons of God) is consummated when our bodies are redeemed and all creation is ushered into the glory that God has bestowed first on Christ and then on us (verses 18, 21, 23).
God’s project, made known in the work of Jesus, runs through us, and does not stop until the entire created order is renewed. And so we see that a section that begins with a call to put to death the deeds of the body is not about escaping from our bodies or escaping from earth, but becoming more truly embodied people upon a flourishing eternal earth.
In all of this, the resurrection that we think of as future is forcing its way back into our present. To be adopted daughters and sons of God (8:15) is to have our future hope of adoption through resurrection (8:23) intrude on our present. This can happen because the same Spirit through whom we are adopted raised Jesus and exalted him as God’s firstborn Son (Romans 1:4).
We become agents of resurrection as we pursue our own sanctification, as we lay down our lives so that others might live (2 Corinthians 4:12), and as we treat the earth like an eternal partner in the life that God has in store for those who love Him.