Commentary on Romans 8:12-17
The Apostle Paul does not explain the Trinity — how God is three-in-one and one-in-three — and no systematic explanation is to be found in the other biblical writers, either.
Although the passage does use Trinitarian language — mentioning Father, Son, and Spirit — its focus lies not on doctrinal explications or intellectual precision but on the action of God as experienced by the people of God.
On this Sunday celebration of the Holy Trinity, the preacher would be wise to follow Paul’s example and leave Trinitarian explanations aside in favor of the proclamation of the good news into the nitty-gritty realities of life.
The specific notes of good news will differ depending on the preaching context, but the melody that plays throughout this passage represents multiple variations on a theme: through the power of the Holy Spirit God can change your life.
Starting in the Middle
The assigned pericope begins in the middle of an extended argument. It is as if we have entered the classroom after the morning bell and we are trying to make sense of what the teacher is dis-cussing. Whatever the topic, it is closely connected to something that has been said previously: “So then,” writes Paul. So then. These opening words suggest that what follows is a conclusion or outcome to whatever has been laid out prior to our hearing.
What Paul has described is a fundamental dilemma facing humankind. The power of sin, dwell-ing within us, prevents us from doing what is good and right despite our best intentions (7:14-25).
Paul asserts that the solution to this human dilemma is the indwelling power of the Spirit (8:1-11). “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11). Again, although the language is thoroughly Trinitarian, it points not to doctrinal under-standing but to the real, life-giving power of God.
However we name sin’s power to overwhelm — whether with traditional lists such as the seven deadly sins or with reference to sin’s systemic manifestation through, e.g., sexism, racism, and classism — Paul’s words remind us that many people living among us, perhaps including our-selves, feel powerless against the clutches of sin. Others do not realize how thoroughly trapped they are in the grip of such forces. The preacher may want to spend enough time on this topic to bring it to the surface of people’s awareness before moving on to the periscope’s main focus: God’s desire that we receive the true life that God so willingly offers to all.
Life is yours! That is a powerful promise, affirmed many times through Paul’s letters and again in our passage: if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (8:13). The resurrection is promised not for Jesus alone, but for all the brothers and sisters who are in Christ. No one is so dead in sin that the power of God cannot bring that person back to fullness of life.
God’s power is for all in the gathered community who face death-dealing forces in their lives. In the midst of all the ways we might feel trapped — unable to see a way out, weighed down by thoughts, feelings, or circumstances beyond our power to control — Paul invites us to receive the Spirit of God as earnestly and completely as the Spirit of God receives us.
Children of God
The life-giving power of God is active in several ways. Most notably, perhaps, that power makes it possible for us to receive life through our adoption as children of God.
Adoption into God’s family is the work of the Spirit: it is the Spirit that leads us (8:14) that bears witness with us when we cry, “Abba! Father!” (8:15-16), that dwells within us (8:11). Elsewhere in Romans we learn that this Spirit intercedes when words fail us, “with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26). It is the same Spirit through which the love of God is poured into our hearts (5:5).
As loving adoptive parents everywhere will attest, children who enter the family by the miracle of adoption are every bit as beloved — and every bit “family” — as those who are born to the par-ents in the old-fashioned way. God makes it possible for the family of God to encompass all of us.
Joint-Heirs with Christ
At a recent family gathering, my nine-year-old niece cried to her mother, “I wish I was adopted, like my cousins. Then we’d have more in common with each other.” Her lament may surprise some of us, but it reflects a very human concern for belonging and identity. My niece is looking for something in common with children who seem to be quite different from her. She wants to know that she fits in with the rest of the family.
The good news of our pericope is that all God’s children, adopted into the family of God, share together as common heirs of God. Further, the identity we share with one another as children of God is shared also with God’s own Son. This is more obvious in the Greek of Romans 8:14, where “children” derives from the Greek huioi (“sons”).
Christ is a joint heir with us; he suffers and is glorified, and we suffer and are glorified right along with him. What happens to Christ (resurrection life), happens to us; the glory that is Christ’s (God’s son), belongs to us as well (God’s children).
A Trio of Dualisms
Paul’s argument trades on oppositions between death/life, flesh/spirit, slavery/adoption. Death, flesh and slavery stand on one side, with life, spirit and adoption on the other. On any given Sunday, any member of our congregations or any visitor who walks through the church’s doors may feel trapped and dead, outside of the realm of God. Or they may feel alive and free in Christ. It is the preacher’s task and joy to ensure that the fullness of Paul’s gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to everyone in the room.1
1I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Frank Crouch, Dean of Moravian Theological Seminary, whose reflections on this lectionary passage have influenced portions of this essay.