Commentary on Romans 8:12-17
Romans 8:12-17 does not give a systematic account of the nature of the Trinity, but it does present a compelling snapshot of what it means for Christians to live in the very life of the Triune God.
Central to this text is the affirmation that Christians are children of God by adoption, having been claimed by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:15-16; see also verse 9). No one can acquire this status through observance of the law or any merit of their own (Romans 8:2-4; see also 3:21-31). God’s law is good, but ultimately it does not have the power to free people from the grip of sin and transform them into ones who live out God’s righteousness (for example, Romans 7:7-12). Only Christ does this, taking on sin to the point of death in order to defeat sin and give his righteousness to those who trust him (Romans 8:2-4, 32). The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is the same Spirit who dwells in believers, assuring them that they are heirs to God’s promises to Abraham and members of God’s family (Romans 8:11; also 4:1-25).
In the best cases, to be adopted is to be chosen, included, and loved. A friend of mine who adopted her children recounted how she told them that they should know they are especially loved because their parents chose them in particular to be part of their family. By telling her children this, she hoped it would instill in them a deep sense of belonging and being loved that would shape their identity and how they lived their lives.
We might see something analogous in Paul’s exhortation to the Roman Christians in Romans 8:12-17. As also indicated in other parts of the letter (for example, Romans 7:14-25), Paul informs the Romans in verses 12-13 that even though Christ has already freed them from sin and death, these powers of “the flesh” still wage war against them, seeking to reclaim them for an existence defined by bondage and fear (verses 13, 15). He reminds them that their obligation is not to the old way of life—which in fact leads to death—but rather to the new, real life that God has given them in Christ through the Spirit. Something or someone will always capture people’s allegiance, so Paul exhorts believers to make this Christ and the corresponding life that reflects their identity as valued children of God.
This is not something that Christians do in their own strength. Paul doesn’t give a list of ten tips for righteous living, but rather calls believers to continually let themselves be led by the Spirit who dwells in them (verses 9, 13-14). The foundation of Christian life is an active awareness that we have been brought into the very life of the Triune God, where we are loved, secure, and empowered by God’s Spirit. This gift is what enables us to reflect Christ in daily life.
It is the Spirit who enables us to cry out in intimacy to God as “Abba! Father!” (verse 15), using the same expression that Jesus used when he cried out to God before facing his crucifixion (Mark 14:36). When we are tempted to pursue the vain idols that the world offers, or when accusations about our failures or standing with God assail us (see Romans 8:33-35), the Spirit gives testimony to what is already true in the core of our being—that we have been claimed by God in Christ as God’s children. And not only children, but heirs together with Christ, sharing in the blessing of intimate relationship with the Triune God and other believers. “Be who you already are in Christ” seems to be the heart of Paul’s message.
We might like the text to end there so that we can ponder the vast privileges that have been bestowed on us as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. But Paul goes on to remind us that suffering is an inevitable part of sharing in the life of the crucified and resurrected Christ (verse 17). He does not specify exactly what this entails, but the following passage (verses 18-25) shows that the entire creation is suffering as in labor pains as it waits for the full realization of God’s redemptive purposes.
Paul’s insistence on the relational nature of life as children of the Triune God provides many avenues for preaching. In societies and churches that tend toward individualism, it is an important reminder that Christian life is not just about one’s private relationship with God, but also about treating one another as beloved members of the same family. It can also provide reassurance that we are not alone when we suffer. Just as believers are united with Christ in both joy and pain, so too are we called to support each other in all circumstances. Indeed, the Spirit also intercedes for us in our weakness (verses 26-27).
The passage also encourages us to name and reject the various ways we are confronted with the lie that our identity and self-worth depend on anything other than the Triune God’s self-giving love for us. Becoming more successful in our careers, acquiring more followers on social media, or working on our physical appearances will not ultimately fulfill us. Such pursuits—while not necessarily bad—can return us to a state of bondage if we let them define how we see ourselves and others. Life in the Spirit frees us from such judgments so that we can love each other with the same love we receive from God.