According to Chadwick Thornhill, “Language itself is never static, [it is] always evolving through usage,” so before Romans 8 can be properly understood, the author and his intent must be properly comprehended. John Butler reminds the reader, “When it was time, in the gracious plan of God, to proclaim the Gospel throughout the world, Paul was the special instrument chosen by God to lead the way in world missions. Though to man’s way of thinking, Paul was a most unlikely choice because of his great persecution of the church; yet he proved to be the right choice, as do all of God’s choices.”
Romans 8 is considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest books and chapters in the Bible, so it deserves immense scrutiny in order to provide the proper translation of the text, while also making its message understandable. It is important to note, the original message was intended for the first century believers and the message was very descriptive in nature. To apply the text properly today, one must frame the text this way before it can become prescriptive for modern-day application. Scripture’s promises and commands must also be interpreted in proper context. Only then can proper application be applied, as application is always the goal of exegesis. Through an understanding of this process, this exegetical paper will utilize the Greek language tools currently available to convey the author’s original message to the intended audience. In addition, by employing textual criticism, historical/cultural/literary context, and by outlining the passage, the aim of this paper will be to provide clear theology, correct any interpretative problems, and provide specific application to the original audience by allowing the text to speak for itself while also allowing it to challenge one’s own presuppositions.
The Spirit of Life Liberates the Believer. (8:1-2)
Paul’s letter to the Romans severed several purposes. First, Paul is trying to address a situation that has arisen regarding differences in belief among Jewish and Gentile Christians, specifically the Gentile’s relationship and observance of the Torah. Secondly, Paul was looking to establish a base of operations in the west and since he had not yet visited Rome, he was securing his legacy and jurisdiction by passing on his doctrine, so it could then be preached there and all around the world. Lastly, and at the core of Paul’s writing was his sincere desire to minister to the spiritual needs of the Christian community in Rome, by diffusing internal conflicts and silencing false teachers.
When studying the writings of Paul, it is paramount to understand that everything he said, believed, and taught was grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ. At the same time, Paul also understood the relevance of the Old Testament. This is made evident early on in the opening of this chapter, as the reader is presented with a dilemma that affected Jews and Gentiles alike: the bondage of sin. However, Paul quickly asserts an even greater advantage, which was the deliverance from the flesh by the power of the Spirit, through the work of Jesus Christ. Paul had already established how his previous doctrine gave no license to believers to continue in sin and now he continues the same subject of justification by founding it on new grounds, teaching that to those who are “in Christ Jesus,” there is no condemnation. In fact, Romans 8 is often referred to as, “The chapter that begins with no condemnation and ends with no separation.”
What the Mosaic Law was incapable of doing; Paul demonstrates how Christ fulfilled all of its requirements. Gordon Fee refers to this act as, “God’s alternative to the Torah and antidote to the flesh, [demonstrating] the Spirit is the key to our new relationship with God.” Douglas Moo further illustrates how, “Paul’s focus is not so much on the Spirit as such, but on what the Spirit does.” While the Spirit “pneuma” or “πνεύματος” is mentioned at least twenty times in Romans 8, Douglas Moo emphasizes, “For, as important as it may be to define the nature of the Holy Spirit and His relation to Christ and the Father, the Spirit is best known in His ministry on behalf of Christians. It is those blessings and privileges conferred on believers by the Spirit that are the theme of this chapter.” In Paul’s complete letter to the Romans, Gordon Fee points out, “The Spirit is explicitly mentioned at least 31 times [and] the adjective ‘πνευματικός’ or ‘Spiritual’ also occurs three times, ‘χάρισμα’ or ‘gracious gift’ six times: twice referring to the Spirit’s activity and prophecy as a charisma once.” There is little doubt to the importance of the Spirit’s role in Paul’s letter to the Romans and specifically chapter eight. Fee cautions the reader in their interpretation citing, “[The role of the Spirit] has often been seen in terms of the sanctification of the believer, where the Spirit serves as the proper ‘successor’ to Christ, whose justifying work is the primary concern of the latter, but there are good reasons for seeing this traditional interpretation as too facile.” Paul’s passion for the gospel is undeniable and his chief concern in addressing the Romans was breaking down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles, so they would become a single people united in their belief, love, and obedience to God.
Grammatically speaking, this chapter begins with “therefore,” meaning Paul is introducing a conclusion based upon everything he had written from chapter 3 on, but as Thomas Constable points out, Paul is specifically referring to: 7:6. It is here that Chuck Lowe poses the question whether sanctification is the consequence of rather than the grounds of justification highlighting, “The crux of the problem is that 8:1-2 appears to ground escape from condemnation not in the death of Christ as a substitute for sinners, but in the work of the Spirit in transforming sinners.” Lowe demonstrates there are two ways to solve this paradox: either condemnation is averted through justification or more likely what Paul was saying is that sanctification is the consequence-rather than the grounds-of justification. Romans 3:20 uses the “therefore of condemnation,” but 8:1 uses “therefore of no condemnation.” It is important to note that “no condemnation” is different from freedom of judgment. The use “no condemnation” or “κατάκριμα” by Paul was meant to illustrate while the Law condemned, once a believer was “in Christ,” he or she could not be condemned, much like the rule of double jeopardy. Eric McKimmon adds to this point saying, “There is no condemnation because Christ Jesus has created a new atmosphere. Paul did not come to this view lightly. He came to it only through a deep, existential struggle that shook his life to its foundations. Whatever Paul meant by the law, the Torah or the moral law, he felt himself oppressed by it.”
Paul also uses the before and after in his initial cry of despair in verse 7:23-25 to begin his discussion on the law of sin and bondage of the flesh. By using the aorist active verb “ἠλευθέρωσέν” Paul adds on the prepositional phrase “ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ” or “in Christ Jesus” to demonstrate those “in Christ Jesus” have been “set free” from the law of sin that leads to death. It is also worth noting Paul’s usage of the second person singular here, which appears as the object of “set free.” The subject then begins to move away from Christ’s work for believers to the Spirit’s work within the believer. Essentially, what the Law was unable to do, because sin was stronger than the Law, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit have now accomplished. This was a declaration by Paul to his Jew and Gentile audience and it demonstrated they both were His children and also how the Spirit had freed them from the law of sin and death. Fee demonstrates, “The old slavery to sin and Law has been replaced with adoption into God’s family as children who are full heirs of God’s glory.”
Upon applying textual criticism in the first part of chapter eight, Christ Jesus has set “you” or “σε” free is second singular number, while other translations read “me” or “us.” Also, the later manuscripts added from verse four, “who walk not in keeping with the flesh” and eventually the whole phrase was added to read, “those who walk not in keeping with the flesh, but in keeping with the Spirit.” The use of “κατάκριμα” can also present some interpretive issues as it can mean the process of judgment as well as the end-result. Fee demonstrates that Paul is using it here to describe the process of judgment by his use of the cognate verb two sentences later [foreshadowing] it to be understood eschatologically.
God Provided a Way Where There Was No Way. (8:3-4)
Paul now moves away from describing the restoration of holiness by the Holy Spirit and begins to show how from this destruction of sin there follows that of death. Frederick Godet further illustrates how “The Spirit has thus destroyed the two last enemies of salvation [and how] grace does not save by patronizing sin, but by destroying it.” While verses 1-2 dealt with “condemnation” or “κατάκριμα,” John Murray demonstrates, “Condemnation” is the opposite of justification and justification implies the absence of condemnation. Since the justification which is the theme of this epistle is the complete and irreversible justification of the ungodly, it carries with it the annulment of all condemnation.” Brian Pounds then contrasts how:
James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright offer explanations of the text, which diverge from its conventional reading due to their redefinition of ‘justification’ as the inclusion of Gentiles within the covenant people and “works of the law” as those aspects of Torah observance that functioned in separating Jews from Gentiles. However, it is argued that understanding ‘justification’ as acquittal by God and ‘works of the law’ as general Torah observance leads to a more straightforward interpretation of Paul’s metaphor of worker and wages as well as his use of Abraham and David as types.
In verses 3-4, Paul is establishing an argumentative attitude stating Christ and the Spirit are God’s new way to deal with the Law and the requirements of the Torah. Grammatically, there are issues early on in this passage. Paul seems to offer up the subject, who is “God,” instead of providing a verb, so it seems likely the opening of this statement was intended as the object of the sentence. This would mean God was supposed to be the subject, but instead Paul begins talking about Christ and God’s way of accomplishing what the Law could not do.
Dirk Venter further demonstrates how:
God effects the fulfillment of the requirement of the Law through the agency (mission) of Christ. Those ‘in Him’ are the point of reference in whose favor the Law’s requirement is fulfilled, with the effect that they are no longer obligated to Torah. Being ‘in Christ’ they nonetheless, are also envisioned as living in a way that corresponds to what Torah would have required of them, had they still been subject to it, but they are now being governed and empowered by the Spirit.
Fee also demonstrates how the Torah has been directly linked to sin and death, so what Paul is also doing here is correcting any previous misunderstandings any of his earlier statements may have had, while also positioning the Spirit of life as God’s response to the second law. Paul’s use of “Spirit of life” is perhaps the most important designation in all of Paul’s writing to the Spirit. Moo suggests, “Whatever else may be true of the Old Testament understanding of God, Yahweh, by His very name, is forever known in Israel as ‘the living God’…Therefore, because he is the Spirit of God, the Spirit is also the Spirit of life [assuming] the genitive ‘of life’ modifies ‘Spirit” and not ‘law.’” Craig Keener clarifies how in, “Romans, 8:1-4, Paul’s point here is whether the law brings life or death depends on whether it is written in one’s heart by the Spirit or practiced as an external standard of righteousness, which is unattainable by human effort .” According to Kevin McFadden, for “the majority of scholars who work on ‘Paul and the Law,’ there is an assumed interpretation of Rom 8:4a today – Paul refers to the new Christian obethence that fulfills the ‘righteous requirement’ of the law.”
J. F. Bayes illustrates the complexity of interpretation and different translations. He believes the formal equivalent (NKJV) on Romans 8:3, which reads, “For what the Law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,” should instead be read as, “For this being the Law’s disability while it used to be weak in the sphere of the flesh, God, having sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” His conclusion stems from believing the verse is grammatically incomplete: an anacoluthon demonstrating the syntactical inconsistency and incoherence within the verse. Bayes concludes, “To complete the sense, it is assumed ‘God’ is the subject of an unstated verb, which must be inserted.”
If valid, Bayes highlights:
The implications both for the debate about Paul and the Law, and for the controversy within Evangelicalism about the status of the Law in the life of the Christian believer… implies that the moral heart of the law, while disabled as a means of the life which, results from justification (5:18), is nevertheless, once transferred to the sphere of the Spirit, a power for holiness in the life of those who are justified through faith.
The use of the word “law” in this passage has been a highly debated topic. In some instances Paul seems to be speaking about the Mosaic Law, while others it is not as clear, as he seems to be possibly referencing the moral law. What is clear in this verse is the flesh weakened the Law. Fee demonstrates how this both exonerates the Law, but also points out its failure. Another area of debate regarding the law pertains to the use of “ἀδύνατον” and whether it is active or passive in force. Fee believes it takes a more active role and explains the two choices emphasize either the Torah’s inability to do anything or its powerlessness to do so.
Another common technique Paul employs in his writing is called freedom language, which equates deliverance to the elimination of the tyranny of sin. Fee emphasizes, “Deliverance from sin [did not] mean sinlessness or freedom from the desire to sin, but it did mean deliverance from its tyrannical hold on the lives [of those] sold as slaves to its tyrannical mastery, as the ‘wretched person’ in 7:14-25.” Paul knows and has already demonstrated Christ became the ultimate sin offering and is now demonstrating how the Spirit breathed in new life to the believer. Paul wanted to convey how the Spirit brings new life and is the source of all life.
This section begins with the subordinate conjunction “for” or “γὰρ,” which ties it directly to the previous verse, expressing a freedom that could not be achieved through adherence to the Law. Next the reader is presented with “ἠσθένει” or “to be weakened” or “powerless” and the mood of the verb is indicative, while the tense is imperfect being used in the third person singular active voice. In addition, Paul uses the verb “κατέκρινεν” in the active indicative aorist form meaning it referred to actions, which occurred in the past. Verse four then begins with “ἵνα” or “that,” serving to reintroduce the concluding clause, which was related to why God had to deal with sin. The “δικαίωμα” or “righteous requirements” then becomes the nominative case or subject of the verse. Next, Paul uses “πληρωθῇ” or “may be fulfilled” to denote a singular verb in the subjunctive mood, aorist tense, passive voice, and third person singular. Since the subjunctive mood generally speaks of possibility, this passage seems a bit contradictory until you read it in the context of it being a definite conclusion that resulted from God’s condemnation of sin in the flesh.
The Spirit of Life is in Constant Opposition to the Desires of the Flesh. (8:5-8)
This next portion of scripture presents the antithesis of the flesh and the Spirit and portrays God again as the subject of the saving verb. Fee recommends separating this passage into two parts reasoning, “The first (vv. 5-6) describes what is basic to, and characteristic of, the two ways of life; the second (vv. 7-8), in the form of a casual or inferential clause, gives the reason why life in the flesh results in death: its essential character is enmity against God.” Paul portrays how incompatible the two ways of life are, because those who are “in the flesh” cannot please God. Essentially, it meant Christ was the means of salvation and the Spirit was how the act of salvation was effectively worked out in the life of the believer. However, Emma Wasserman demonstrates how, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit ‘πνεύμα’ set their minds on the things of the spirit.” A more literal translation is, ‘those who live according to the flesh think of the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the ‘πνεύμα,’ think of the things of the ‘πνεύμα.’ Understood in terms of Platonic or “Πλατωνικός” assumptions and for the original audience, this meant ‘things of the flesh’ were the bad desires or appetites that one pursued in excess like sex, food, and wine. The flesh was also commonly associated with weakness and morality, especially when it was used in conjunction with God or the Spirit.
Anyone who thought ‘according to the flesh’ was ruled by their lusts, and would be condemned to death at the final judgment. This makes even more sense of Paul’s following statement in 8.6, ‘to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit ‘πνεύμα’ is life and peace.’ A more literal translation reads, ‘the intelligence of the flesh is hostile to God, but the intelligence of the ‘πνεύμα’ is ‘life and peace.’ Wasserman shows how, “Translated in light of Platonic assumptions, this makes considerably more sense. Though the passions do not literally have ‘minds,’ they have aspects of minds attributed to them in the context of certain metaphors and personifications. In service of the analogy, Paul poses two hostile powers within the body, here flesh and spirit, and attributes them antithetical reasoning activities.” Constable then illustrates how, “From the end of verse 7 to the end of verse 8, it seems clear that Paul was thinking of an unsaved person… He wanted to expose the flesh in its stark reality as being totally alien to God and His purpose… Nowhere is scripture do we find a clearer indication that the Spirit enters a person’s life at the moment of conversion, [since] a person without the Spirit does not belong to Christ.”
This final portion of scripture is thus best read as, “The mind of the flesh means death, but the mind of the Spirit means life and peace; because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God, in that it is not subject to the Law of God, for neither can it be. The end result was those who were in the flesh could not please God.” Fee demonstrates how this was more of a description, rather than a exhortation, “whose intent is to elaborate what has been said earlier, by drawing the sharpest possible distinctions between life before Christ and the present life of the Spirit.” The original audience would have also been concerned about maintaining righteousness without the Torah, so it is interesting how Paul uses the third person plural “those who” to demonstrate how the Spirit does much more than maintain mere righteousness based on the Law. While death is often depicted as the result of sin, it does not mean life is simply the opposite of death. “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” The righteous requirement was the initial aim of the Torah and through the Spirit it was thus fulfilled. Note that it does not say it was obeyed, kept, or done; instead, it says it was fulfilled. Fee emphasizes, “[The] Torah was not evil; to the contrary, it was good, holy, and righteous. But it proved ineffective to bring about the righteousness that it called for.” There is a slight difference in Paul’s wording here compared to his letter to the Galatians where he employed “πνεύματι” or “by the Spirit.” In Romans, Paul uses “κατὰ πνεύμα” or “according to the Spirit” to demonstrate the contrast between the present life with Christ compared to the old.
Ultimately, Paul sought to demonstrate that the person whose “mind” was renewed by the Spirit sought to please God through an empowering presence, while those whose “mind” was set on the things of the flesh maintained a constant barrier of hostility towards God. An area of disparity occurs in how the work of Christ’s redemption is viewed. As Fee demonstrates, “Fulfillment happens is us who walk in keeping with the Spirit, [so] fulfillment lies in those who walk by the Spirit, not in the perfect sacrifice of Christ.” To help demonstrate this, Paul uses the present tease, active voice, and indicative mood of “φρονοῦσιν” to illustrate a statement of fact or actual occurrence and he begins this section of scripture with the conjunction “γὰρ” again. He is essentially saying, “Since the mind set on the flesh leads to death.” He then uses the nominative case of “θάνατος,” to express not so much the act of dying, but the result of death itself. Paul then contrasts this with a mind set on the Spirit, which leads to “ζωὴ” or “life” and “εἰρήνη·” or “peace.” Next, Paul uses the nominative noun “ἔχθρα” to describe the hatred and hostility toward God when one’s mind is set upon the flesh. The verb “ὑποτάσσεται,” occurs in the third person, indicative mood, present tense and passive voice, which explains the subject of the mind being set on the flesh. Paul then closes this section of scripture illustrating it is impossible to please God when one’s mind is set upon the flesh or carnal desires, much like it is impossible to please God without faith. Paul’s use of “ἀρέσαι” here uses the aorist tense and active voice, yet the verb here is being used without any concept of time. Instead, the focus is placed on the action itself and his active voice attributes the action to the subject, the unbeliever.
By employing textual criticism, historical/cultural/literary context, and by outlining the passage, this paper has provided clear theology, correct interpretation, and has provided specific application to the original audience.
In summary, Paul was always mission-minded and arguably the most proficient apologist of the time, which made him a great instrument of the Lord. In Romans 8, Paul highlights how the Spirit of life liberates the believer from the penalty of sin by justification and through sanctification. He cites those who are in Christ Jesus know no condemnation, as they are free from the death-dealing misuse of the Law. He reasons this because Jesus paid the ultimate price for humanity’s sins, and since believers are “in Christ,” God would not condemn them. God, in His infinite wisdom had provided a way where there was not way. Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice and it was His shed blood, which served as atonement and covered the remission of sin.
Paul further demonstrates before Jesus, the Law had become an instrument of sin leading only to death. He then points out the Law was never given as a means of obtaining righteousness and it was surely incapable of rescuing people from the domain of sin and death. Even the animal sacrifices of the day were just enough to restore one’s fellowship with God, until they sinned again. Only Jesus, the Spotless Lamb could save humanity through His atoning sacrifice at Calvary and through that act, believers would no longer be condemned because they were in Christ; instead, sin itself became condemned. As a result and through the work on the cross, the Spirit of life now stands in constant opposition to the desires of the flesh. The Spirit leads to peace and life while the flesh leads to turmoil and death and it is this antithesis, which separates those “in Christ” from those who are not. Paul establishes it is impossible to please God if one’s mind is maintained on the fleshly desires of this temporal world and only those who walk, think, and are after the Spirit can have everlasting life while those who walk according to the flesh will never be able to escape death.
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