ROMANS 8:1-11. CONTRASTS AND REASSURANCE
In 5:12-21, Paul contrasted Adam and Christ. Just as sin and death came into the world through Adam to afflict all (5:12-14), so the free gift of grace came into the world through Christ to justify many (5:15-21). We have a similar contrast in chapter 8 between “the law of sin and of death” (v. 2) and the action of God’s Son, who “condemned sin in the flesh” (v. 3)—and a further contrast between “those who live according to the flesh” and “those who live according to the Spirit (v. 5).
Paul repeatedly contrasts flesh (Greek: sarx) and Spirit (pneuma), i.e., “For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace” (v. 6).
• When he uses the word sarx, he is not talking about people embodied in flesh, but is instead talking about people whose lives are focused on “the works of the flesh”—the baser things of life—”adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21).
• When he uses the word Spirit, he is speaking of God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who transforms our lives, helping us to focus on higher things, and making us fit for the resurrected life with Christ (Barclay).
Paul reassures the Roman Christians that they “are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit” (v. 9). Therefore “the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead…will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (v. 11).
ROMANS 8:1-4. THERE IS THEREFORE NO CONDEMNATION
1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. 3For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh (Greek: sarkos—from sarx), God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; 4that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Greek: pneuma).
“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1a). The word “therefore” links what Paul says here to what he said earlier. In chapter 7, Paul spoke of the limitations of the law. While the law was holy (7:12), it enlightened people to the reality of sin, making them accountable. It failed to make people holy, but instead revived sin (7:9)—”found to be for death” (7:10)—allowed sin to deceive and kill (7:11)—and rendered Paul “into captivity under the law of sin” (7:23).
But Paul reverses this gloomy assessment with the assurance that there is no condemnation (see 5:18) “those who receive…through the one, Jesus Christ.” The condemnation of which he speaks has to do with the judgment that God will render at the end of time.
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (v. 2). In this verse, Paul specifies the reason why there is no condemnation for “those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). The reason is that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets us free from the law of sin and of death. This “is Exodus language”—God brings us “out of the Egypt of sin and death and (promises) citizenship in the kingdom of life” (Wright, 576).
Given some of the negative things that Paul says about slavery to Torah law (Galatians 4:1-11; 5:1-4), we must wonder if it is Torah law that he now calls “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” While scholars are divided on this issue, they tend to favor the idea that it is Torah law. After all, it was not Torah law that was faulty, but “sinful flesh” that kept it from being fully effective (v. 3).
“For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh (sarkos—from sarx)“ (v. 3a). Paul does not specify just how the law failed, but we know that the law was intended to revive the soul—to make wise the simple—to rejoice the heart—and to enlighten the eyes (Psalm 19:7-8). It was intended to keep Israel from shame—to help them to praise God—to help them live in such a way that God would not forsake them—to keep them pure—and to keep them from sinning against God (Psalm 119:5-12).
However, the law failed even its chief guardians, the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus called them a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7) and hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-29). They frequently challenged Jesus (Matthew 9:11; 12:2; 15:1-2; 16:1; 19:3; 22:15), took offense at him (Matthew 15:12), and plotted to kill him (Matthew 12:14; 26:4). They observed the law in minute detail, but they neglected the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). Paul tells us, though, that it was not the law that failed, but frail flesh (v.3).
“God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (v. 3). There are two ways in which this is true.
• First, God sent his Son as a sacrificial lamb to absorb the penalty for our sins—to make forgiveness possible.
• Second, being born in human likeness and living among us as a sinless man, Jesus “condemned sin in the flesh”—beat sin on its own turf.
This was in accord with God’s plan. In the Garden of Eden, God cursed the serpent, saying that the offspring of the woman would “bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). A hard strike to the heel is painful, even crippling, but a hard strike to the head is lethal. At the beginning of human history, then, God predicted that the woman’s offspring (Jesus) would deal the serpent (Satan) a deadly blow—and so he did.
“that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (v. 4). How is the just requirement of the law fulfilled in us? Scholars are divided. Some emphasize that Christ fulfilled the law by living a sinless life and deny that there is any sense in which we also fulfill the law. Others, however, emphasize that the person who is “in Christ” takes on a holy character made possible by the indwelling Spirit. There is no doubt that Christ fulfilled the law by his sinless life, but there is also no doubt that those who accept Christ begin a journey toward sanctification—toward holiness. The Spirit has produced some genuinely beautiful and holy lives—none perfect, to be sure, but beautiful and holy nevertheless.
When Paul talks about walking “not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,” he contrasts two very different kinds of life. The person who walks according to the flesh lives in rebellion against God—goes his own direction. The person who walks according to the Spirit is committed to following the Spirit’s leading.
It is as if one person fixes eyes upon the North Star and determines, whatever the obstacles, always to move in that direction, while the other person sees the North Star but deliberately moves away from it. The person determined to move toward the North Star will sometimes find himself/herself moving in another direction for a host of reasons—obstacles, distractions, fatigue, perhaps even occasional rebellion —but will, in time, by God’s grace, make good progress in that direction.
ROMANS 8:5-8. THE MIND OF THE FLESH IS DEATH
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace; 7because the mind of the flesh is hostile towards God; for it is not subject to God’s law, neither indeed can it be. 8Those who are in the flesh can’t please God.
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit“ (v. 5). This verse restates the contrast that Paul mentioned in v. 4, and begins a section where he spells out where the two different paths lead.
“For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace“ (v. 6). Earlier, Paul contrasted Adam, whose trespass resulted in death for many, and Christ, whose life brought about “the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” for many (5:17). Now Paul offers a similar metaphor, contrasting the mind that is set on the flesh (which he equates with death), and the mind that is set on the Spirit (which he equates with life and peace). Paul is talking about two different kinds of people with two different sets of loyalties—living two different kinds of life—moving in two very different directions.
Paul focuses here, not on specific behaviors, but on the mindset that lies behind behaviors. While it is possible for a person whose mind is set on the flesh to adopt behaviors that appear to be Godly (such as attendance at worship), the fleshly mindset constitutes a rotten foundation that is bound to fail under pressure. “To ‘set one’s mind’ on the flesh… is to think and act as if life, so to speak, swirled around and around the hole in the sink” (Bartow, 72).
The person whose mind is set on the flesh will love the things of the flesh instead of God. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). The person whose mind is set on the flesh will hate God and not be able to serve God. Paul warns that the mind that is set on the flesh is opposed to God and therefore leads to death.
But the mind that is set on the Spirit leads to life and peace. To achieve this mindset requires a spiritual transformation—the kind of transformation involved in being “born anew” or “born from above”(John 3:3). Later in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul will say, “Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God” (12:2). That transformation is a tall order, unachievable apart from the grace of God. Christ’s death and resurrection, however, makes such transformation accessible to us, and we are free to pray that Christ will transform us—will grant us the new birth—the necessary birth from above (John 3:3).
“because the mind of the flesh is hostile towards God; for it is not subject to God’s law, neither indeed can it be“ (v. 7). The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, because it is struggling to avoid God’s claim on its life. The mind that is set on the flesh understands, in some measure, that God is calling it to give up the things of the flesh—to submit its will to God—to acknowledge its dependence on God. However, the mind that is set on the flesh:
• Loves the things of the flesh, and so is loath to give them up.
• Is in rebellion against God, and so is loath to submit to God’s will.
• Loves to imagine that it is the captain of its ship, and refuses to acknowledge its dependence on God or acknowledge Christ as Lord.
“Those who are in the flesh can’t please God“ (v. 8). Elsewhere, Paul speaks of Christians as being “in Christ Jesus” (3:24; 6:11, 23; 8:1, etc.), but here he speaks of the opposite—the person who is “in the flesh.” Such a person cannot please God, because he/she is hostile to God—is in rebellion against God—loves the things of this world instead of God.
While those who are in the flesh cannot please God, Paul implies here that those who are in the Spirit can do so (Wright, 583).
ROMANS 8:9-11. BUT YOU ARE IN THE SPIRIT
9But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you (plural). But if any man doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his. 10If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11But if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Note the close proximity of these phrases:
• “the Spirit of God (who) dwells in you” (v. 9)
• “the Spirit of Christ” (v. 9)
• “Christ…in you” (v. 10)
• “the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead (who) dwells in you” (v. 11).
In earlier times, God dwelled among his people in the tabernacle or temple. Now he dwells in us.
“But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you“ (v. 9a). Paul spoke in general terms in verses 6-8, but now speaks directly to the Christians to whom he is writing. He assures them that they are not in the flesh, but are in the Spirit. The reason is simple—the Spirit of God dwells in them. In saying this, Paul cannot mean that they are somehow immune from temptation and sin. After all, he has just admitted his own struggle with temptation and his failure to do the right thing and to avoid the wrong thing (7:14-24). He admits being torn. With his mind he “serve God’s law, but with the flesh, the sin’s law” (7:25). He obviously knows that Roman Christians are experiencing the same struggles, but nevertheless assures them that they are “in the Spirit”, since “the Spirit of God dwells in” them.
“But if any man (Greek: tis–someone, anyone) doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his” (v. 9b). Having (or failing to have) the Spirit of Christ is the litmus test to determine whether a person is a Christian.
“If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness“ (v. 10). While Paul has assured these Christians that the Spirit of God dwells in them, he must also acknowledge another reality—that “the body is dead because of sin.”
• Abraham is an example. His body “already having been worn out” (4:19), but he continued to live in faith, and God proved faithful. Abraham’s nearly dead body begat and Sarah’s barren womb gave birth to a baby through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3) and whose descendants would become a “multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4).
• The dry bones of Ezekiel 37 are another example. At the word of the Lord, dry bones took on sinew, flesh, skin, and breath. They came to life and stood on their feet as a promise that God would restore dead Israel to life.
“the Spirit is alive because of righteousness” (v. 10). This is not the righteousness of perfect conduct, but the righteousness with which God credits Christians because of their faith. It is not earned righteousness, but a gift of God.
“But if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you“ (v. 11a). The “if” at the beginning of this sentence is not intended to introduce doubt about the spiritual condition of the people to whom Paul is writing. It could be translated “If, as is surely true,…”
“he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you“ (v. 11b). God demonstrated his power over death by raising Jesus from the dead, and now dwells in us. Therefore, we can be sure that he “will also give life to (our) mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in (us).” Christ’s resurrection was not an isolated case, but was rather “the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). His resurrection stands as a guarantee of our resurrection.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Paul J., Interpretation: Romans, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985)
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Bartow, Charles L., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Copyright 2008, 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan