Commentary on Romans 8:12-17
At first thought, the readings for the Festival of Pentecost and the Festival of the Holy Trinity in Year B seem to have been inadvertently reversed.
The reading for Pentecost, a week earlier than Holy Trinity, is from Romans 8:22-27. The reading for Holy Trinity (Romans 8:12-17) requires one to back up to an earlier place in the chapter. But the arrangement is understandable. The choices for each of the Sundays are governed by the needs of the church year. While both texts have Trinitarian elements, the reading for Pentecost is directed more to the ongoing operation of the Spirit in believers and in creation; the text for Holy Trinity refers more explicitly to each of the persons of the Trinity. The verses speak of God the Father (Abba), the Son with whom we are joint heirs, and the Spirit who leads the children of God.
As with the text for the previous Sunday, this one is located in a chapter in which Paul writes concerning the new life in the Spirit. He declares that those who are “in Christ” can and should put to death “the deeds of the body” and live as children of God; in other words, they should become what they are.
Paul begins in Romans 8:12-13 to make a contrast between two ways of living, which consequently have two outcomes. To live according to the flesh ends in death, while living by the power of the Spirit leads to life. Living “according to the flesh” is to live for that which is transient, pursuing self-interests at the expense of others, and ignoring the presence of God. As an entry into the meaning of the phrase, one can think of “creature comforts,” those things that a person indulges in to please oneself without thought of God or other persons. Paul is not talking about flesh that adheres to one’s bones. He uses the term “flesh” (sarx in Greek) as a metaphor for the human tendency to seek and to possess all that brings immediate and imminent satisfaction to one’s own self and without regard for a spiritual perspective. The consequence of this way of living is death. Again Paul uses a metaphor. The term “death” in this context does not mean physical death, but a dying of the self as God intends one to be, spiritual death.
The alternative is to put to death “the deeds of the body.” Paul associates the “body” (soma in Greek) with human weakness. It is mortal, and although it is not sinful in itself, it is the place where sin seeks to have dominion (Romans 6:12; 8:10); it is open to failure and corruption. But Paul is confident that the believer can put to death those deeds of the body that are sinful “by the Spirit.” The consequence of this way of living is life (8:13, “you will live”). The metaphor refers to life that is truly life, the life that God intends for his own, a life led by the Spirit. It is also a life that has an ethical significance. Paul says elsewhere: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
At Romans 8:14 Paul indicates that those led by the Spirit are “children of God” (NRSV). The Greek term translated as “children” in the NRSV is huioi (masculine plural for huios). Older English versions (KJV, RSV, NIV, and others) translate it as “sons,” but the word obviously refers to both males and females, so the inclusive “children” is to be preferred. In any case, believers are in an intimate relationship with God, comparable to that of children with their parents.
In the next two verses (Romans 8:15-16) Paul elaborates on the theme of being children of God. Believers have received the Holy Spirit. For Paul, whoever confesses Jesus as Lord does so by the power of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). That is evidence enough for being a person in Christ. They have thus already been adopted as God’s children. By faith and baptism and through the power of the Spirit they have a new relationship with God. There is evidence of this whenever they cry out “Abba, Father.” That conviction was obviously important for the apostle Paul. He uses the same formulation in his Letter to the Galatians: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father’” (4:6).
The word “Abba” is an Aramaic term for father. It is less formal than “Ab,” which also means father. But Abba was usually the word used in the home, as children addressed their fathers. It is easier for a child to use a two-syllable word ending in a vowel than to use a single syllable word ending with a consonant. (So “Daddy” is easier to say than “Dad,” “Mommy” is easier than “Mom,” and so on.) But of interest here also is that “Abba” is the word used by Jesus in the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Mark (14:36, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible … ”). The use of “Abba” must also have been characteristic of Jesus’ prayers, as in the use of “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9; the Greek pater of the prayer is probably a translation of the Aramaic Abba). Apparently the term was familiar to the Christians at Rome as well as for Paul and for the Christians in Galatia. It is generally held that the term was used as a liturgical term to address God, first by Aramaic-speaking Christians and then, untranslated, by Greek-speaking Christians. That would have been in imitation of the prayer language of Jesus. To be sure, both Mark and Paul add “Father” after the term (so “Abba, Father”). It is possible that use of the Aramaic term was passing by the time that those writers wrote, and so it had to be translated for later and broader audiences. On the other hand, the addition of “Father” (pater) may have been primarily for emphasis.
The final verse in our reading (Romans 8:17) contains two conditional clauses: “and if children [of God], then [we are] heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” The first of the conditions (“if children … ”) has already been established. We are children of God, and the good news attached to that is that we are heirs of the promises of God in Christ. Christ himself is an heir of the promises, which were spoken to the king (messiah) of Israel, beginning with David, declaring that he is the son of God (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7; 89:20-29). And if Christ, son of David, is an heir of God, all those who are “in Christ” are joint heirs with him. All the blessings coming upon Christ are shared with those who are one with him.
The second condition in 8:17 (“if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him”) is not so clear. Does Paul say that believers are joint heirs with Christ only “if we suffer with him,” as though our suffering is a condition for being joint heirs with Christ, and so our suffering is, in effect, meritorious? Was Christ’s own suffering for our atonement insufficient? Taking into account Paul’s theological claims as a whole, that line of thinking is impossible. More likely, Paul means that suffering is to be expected in the present era. In fact, the suffering of a disciple arises out of one’s loyalty to Christ in all circumstances.
The Festival of the Holy Trinity is a feast day, and it is about the triune God. As often said, it is the only Sunday of the church year on which the church celebrates a doctrine. Since that is the case, it tends not to be a day given to attention to the life of Christians in the world. But the text from Romans opens up the possibility to go in that direction. It provides an opportunity to take up terms that are perplexing, particularly the terms “flesh” and “body” that are used in the text. It has to be said that Paul, and the Christian tradition, are not “anti-flesh” and “anti-body,” even though so many passages from the Bible might seem to indicate that. This is a good occasion to explain that the terms have a theological meaning; that they are not about physical flesh and physical bodies per se. If we understand the words theologically (as above), they help us see aspects of the human condition.
There are of course aspects of the Christian faith that do refer to physicality. But those are in different contexts. We affirm that Jesus the Messiah came in the flesh; we also confess our faith in the resurrection of the body, although that entails a transformation of the physical body into a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-56).
Beyond the matters of “flesh” and “body,” the text from Romans also contains the word “Abba,” which can be explained. And then the point can be made that when we refer to God as Father in the church and in our prayers, we are not assigning gender to God, but are speaking of God in the most intimate way. Here one might make use of Martin Luther’s explanation to the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer in his Small Catechism: “With these words God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.”1
That said, the preacher will do well to bring up the fact that there is feminine, indeed maternal, imagery for God in the Bible also (Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13). That imagery is also used to speak of God in an intimate way, not to define God by gender. God is transcendent and beyond human description. The biblical authors, like people down through the ages, have used words and images to promote trust and love for God. There is no reason to avoid using either paternal or maternal terms for God. Scripture and hymnody employ a wide variety of images for God, and the church is the better for it. God is Father, Mother, Shepherd, King, Lord, Rock, Redeemer, Fortress, and more. We are impoverished if we restrict the wide range of biblical images for God. We are enriched if we are imaginative and expansive, even as the Bible itself is in surprising places and moments.
1 Quoted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 1163.