Romans 8:1-17: In chapter 5, Paul celebrated life in Christ, life in which God’s Spirit and love were poured into our hearts. We come to this life not because we have earned our way in, but because we trust, we have faith in the goodness of God. Chapter 4 described that faith, and there Paul argued for the continuity of this “faith understanding” with the best of the Jewish tradition. All this followed three chapters in which Paul seemed intent on describing the darkness in the world and our participation in it through sin. Sin mars the image of God within us and thwarts God’s purposes in the world, and when we choose to do things which do this, such actions can have a cumulative and synergistic effect, taking on a life and power of their own. In chapters 6-7, Paul seems to have returned to this theme, examining more deeply a connection between death in our spirits (the image of God being marred), sin and the law. Recall that an important part of the context is Paul’s desire to speak to a Roman Christian community that is both Jewish and Gentile. He wants to foster the bonds of community between them, highlight their common bonds in Christ. To do so, he respectfully disagree that the law gives the Jewish Christians a distinct advantage. Yet he does not want to lose his Jewish readers, so he carefully returns to the subject in chapters 6 and 7, concluding that the law is both good in itself (holy, just and good – 7:12) and that it can be entrapping. Sin can warp what is good and turn it against itself. It happens with the law and it happen within the person.
Now Paul is ready to return to a celebration of new life in Christ. If we have felt condemned or doomed by what he has just written, we need to move on. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We are those who have been set free. Paul’s descriptions of “the law of sin and death” can be confusing and depressing, as well as compelling. Whatever their shortcomings and their power, these descriptions are meant to be a contrast to Paul’s primary point, that we are set free by the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” This is true for us. It is what united the Roman Christians, Jews and Gentiles. Being set free we are invited to walk in the Spirit.
Paul contrasts flesh and Spirit as two ways of living. “Flesh is a technical word in Paul’s writings, referring not primarily to physical acts but to… humanity apart from grace” (New Interpreters Study Bible). While Paul will sometimes use the phrase “living in the flesh” to mean physical existence, but here it is a way of life oriented to the realities of the world as they are. Living according to the Spirit means orienting one’s life to the way God would have the world be. For Paul, the way of the flesh means a death to our lives. We lose ourselves, our souls, somehow. The way of the Spirit is the way of life. Paul’s words are not meant so much as a warning, for he moves on to say to the Roman Christians “but you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Remember, Paul has never met these people. He is making a theological determination of who they are. To be a follower of Jesus is, by definition to be a Spirit person. Christ is in us. The Spirit is in us, the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead.
If our life comes from God, from God’s Spirit, then we owe nothing to the way of the flesh, the way of a world that would seek power and fame and “life” in ways that are divisive, spiteful, that pit persons against each other. We are led by God’s Spirit as God’s children – and the “child” image is not meant to denote dependency. We are adult children of God, God’s very people who are to use our freedom in ways that demonstrate the presence of God in our lives. Paul emphasizes this when he contrasts being a slave with being a child. We are God’s children, and there is an intimacy about our relationship with God. Paul strikes a note of realism here. Being a child of God does not mean we will not suffer. Christ suffered, and so may we. This is a distinct contrast to Roman ideas about the power of “heirs of God,” which was an imperial power.
Romans 8:18-30: Paul’s meditation on our lives as Spirit people, children of God, continues. Yes, we may suffer, but such suffering as we may experience belies the incredible strength and glory that is in us and that will be made evident in the future. God’s work is transforming work, a transformation of all creation, and all creation waits with eager longing to see what God is up to, to see it fulfilled. Paul believed that there was something even more wonderful in the future, that God’s transforming work would one day be completed, that the kingdoms of this world would become the kingdom of God. We’ve yet to see that, but we are to live as if it will happen one day, and we are to know the longing for that world of justice, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, love.
In the meantime, we live as Spirit people and God’s Spirit gives us the strength we need, even the strength to pray. In all this we can affirm that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” Paul is not saying here that everything that happens is good. Nor is he saying that everything that happens, including all the awful stuff of life is caused by God - that God made it happen so God could bring good out of it later. Grim, bleak stuff happens in the world. Human beings can be cruel and insensitive. The earth itself with its storms and volcanoes, can wreak havoc. But in the midst of it all, God continues to be at work, and God’s work is to create good even in the midst of tragedy. I don’t believe God causes tragedy to bring out heroic responses from human beings, but we often find that human beings respond heroically to tragedy and there is where I see the Spirit of God at work. Looking at the world through the eyes of faith, we see this kind of thing. We point it out, we rejoice in it, we build on it. Paul is certain that the good work of God will continue, and he offers words of deep assurance utilizing concepts such as “foreknowledge” and “predestination.” Paul is not writing a systematic theology, however, and we should be careful about reading too much later theology into his words here. His point is assuring a faith community that has probably known difficulty that God’s good work goes on, and they can be a part of it.
Romans 8:31-39: And then comes Paul’s crescendo about seeing God’s love at work in the world. “What are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” What can finally separate us from God’s work of love in our lives and in our world? In a word – nothing. Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No…. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. For all his lamenting about the darkness around us, Paul is a deeply hopeful person. He is deeply hopeful because he sees, through the eyes of faith, that God is at work in the world making God’s dream more of a reality. He is deeply hopeful in the way that Anne Lamott is hopeful. Hope… is about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us (Plan B, 275). Paul believes that deeply.