Notes on Romans 8:12-17

21 May

Here are my notes from our Sunday night study in Romans 8.

So far in Romans 8 Paul has been talking about the way things are for two groups of people: those who are in Christ Jesus and those who are not. Those who are in Christ Jesus are under no condemnation. Through the work of Christ the requirements of the law are fulfilled in them. They have a mindset on the Spirit who dwells in them. Through the work of the Spirit they have life and peace.
On the other hand, those who are in the flesh are under condemnation, they can’t fulfill the law, they have a fleshly mindset that is actually hostile to God and unable to submit to God’s law. They are unable to please God and are in the way of death.
Up to this point it has been all about what we are. There are few if any commands in this section. But when we get to verse 12, we shift to commands. We move from what we might call the indicative to the imperative, from who we are to what we do.
When Paul starts giving commands, he does two things: he encourages us toward godliness while at the same time assuring us of salvation. Any time we talk about growing in the Lord and we aren’t doing both of these things we are not following the biblical pattern. Paul wants to assure us that we belong to God while at the same time urging us to act like we are children of God.
So let’s look tonight as at much as we can of verses 12-17 and see this dynamic played out . . .
12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.
This first phrase, so then, is a strong transition in Greek, a stronger emphasis than normal. The point is that Paul is moving on to say what results from all he has been saying in verses 1-11.
The word “brothers” obviously means that he is talking to believers. Both women and men are included in this word and some translations will say “brothers and sisters.” So this section is not going to describe the worldly, sinful person and the Spirit led person so much as it is going to prescribe how the true Christian should live.
We should live first as those who are debtors. Christians are people under obligation. Because we have received such grace from God, the gift of His Spirit, adoption into His family, an inheritance with Him, freedom from condemnation, life and peace, eternal life, and a thousand other gifts, we are debtors.
Now we don’t like the idea of obligation. For many Christians, the idea of obligation strikes them as wrong. We should be motivated by gratitude, not obligation. I think this way most of the time. I want to avoid any sense of trying to earn favor with God and instead rest in His grace. Yet there is a clear theme in the Bible that we are under obligation. It is our duty to love Christ.
It makes more sense when I think of it in relation to marriage, for example. A good marriage would be mostly grounded in gratitude and love and joy but there is, in a good marriage, an undertow of obligation, of debt. This person has chosen to commit to me for life therefore I am going to persevere in this relationship. I made a commitment to them too and I am going to honor that commitment in the hard times. And when I am challenged to not love and cherish my wife I am going to remember that I am under obligation. And I think this is the place where duty may serve a good purpose in the Christian life. When worldliness is surrounding you and challenges are coming your way that are pushing you toward the flesh, there is a time when you just must do your duty. If you can’t obey from a sense of gratitude and delight, you should still obey. So when you are about to say the slanderous thing that you are tempted to say, you back up and say, no, this is not what a person saved by grace does.
Our debt is not to the flesh. The flesh gave us nothing but misery and death. Our new life and peace did not come from the flesh. We don’t owe the flesh a single thing.
If you remember chapter 7, before we were in Christ we were sold as slaves under sin. But now we have been set free from that slave master and have become instead servants or slaves of righteousness.
But freed slaves might sometimes be tempted to go back to their former masters because it is all they’ve known. So we also may still listen to and follow our flesh even though we have been freed from slavery to sin through Christ. This means that the Christian life is one in which we can still sin, but we have power through the Spirit not to sin. We must trust in Christ to be saved and we must continue to trust in Christ day by day in order to grow as believers.
But interestingly, the next verse will tell us, we must live by the Spirit day by day, not only to grow as believers, but to avoid eternal death. That may strike you as strange. You may wonder whether I am teaching that we can lose our salvation. So we need to look at this carefully.
13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
It is clear that one who lives according to the flesh will die. This is obvious because of what we have already seen in Romans. The mindset on the flesh is death. But those who put to death the deeds of the body will live. Why? Because they live by the power of the Spirit.
Our way of thinking is all twisted. Most people think to live for Christ is a kind of joyless, sour existence filled with duty alone. And they think giving in to every fleshly desire is the way to live. But in reality, they are heading for eternal death. And the fact that indulging the flesh leads to death causes Paul to use it as a motivation to tell Christians not to give in to the flesh. This is not a new thing for Paul. Look at the first 11 verses of chapter 8: “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus liberated me from the law of the sin and of the death” (v. 2); “the mind of the flesh—death; but the mind of the spirit—life and peace” (v. 6); “the spirit—life through righteousness” (v. 10), the Spirit who raised up Christ “shall make alive” even our mortal bodies.
The theologian Charles Hodge said, “There can be no safety, no holiness, no happiness, to those who are out of Christ: No “safety,” because all such are under the condemnation of the law (Ro 8:1); no holiness, because such only as are united to Christ have the spirit of Christ (Ro 8:9); no happiness, because to be “carnally minded is death” (Ro 8:6)”
But the issue of course is whether a believer can lose his salvation if he lives for the flesh.
Some would say yes, if a believer goes on in a fleshly way in their life they can lose their salvation.
Others believe that a true believer cannot lose his or her salvation and if a person does go back to a fleshly lifestyle after professing faith in Christ they were most likely never saved.
This is an issue which is not easy, for there are passages that seem to provide assurance and there are other passages which seem to warn believers that ongoing sin will lead to eternal death. So if we really want to be fair with the Bible, we have to consider all the passages. We can’t just throw out the ones that don’t suit us and keep the rest.
So how does this all fit together? I think of the president of my seminary, Robertson McQuilkin, who said that we must strive to “stay in the center of biblical tension.” I think that is right. And what it means is that we hold both of these things to be true.
How do we do that? We hold two truths in tension: that faith in Christ infallibly secures eternal life and that a lifestyle empowered by the Holy Spirit is necessary to inherit eternal life. Every true Christian has trusted in Christ and every true Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and every true Christian will submit himself to the work of the Holy Spirit, not perfectly but substantially.
This means that all the great truths we talked about in verses 1-11 do not make us passive, just believing truth but not acting on truth. Instead, these truths produce faithful, grace-dependent lives. We see this clearly in Titus 2:11-15.
So, yes, we do work actively for our growth in grace, but even here when we are told to mortify, or kill, the deeds of the body, there is only one way this can happen. We must mortify the deeds of the body “by the Spirit.” So it is not that I must defeat my flesh. Instead, the Spirit defeats the flesh as I draw on the power of the Spirit. So we are not saved by works and we are not sanctified by works.
A couple of illustrations might be helpful to understand this. First, it is like the difference between a snapshot and a movie. If you took a snapshot of my life, you might see me at some point looking like I am living in the flesh. But if you took a movie of my life, if I am a true Christian, the overwhelming sense you would get is that I am not living in the flesh.
I also like what CH Spurgeon said, “The believer, like a man on shipboard, may fall again and again on the deck, but he will never fall overboard,”
As John Murray says, “The believer’s once for all death to the law of sin does not free him from the necessity of mortifying sin in his members; it makes it necessary and possible for him to do so.”
I think the overwhelming force of Romans 8 is for the security of the believer. This especially of 8:35-39. Yet we can not ignore warning passages in the New Testament.
So there seems to be a paradox: Christ’s work is the ground of eternal life but holy living is necessary for final salvation. The resolution of the paradox is that when we trust in Christ the Spirit comes to indwell us and gives us power to do God’s will. This is a middle way between moralism/legalism on the one hand and “Let go and let God” passivity on the other hand. I think it gets closer to taking into account what all the Bible says than any other view.
So on the one hand the New Testament is clear that believers have an obligation by the power of the Spirit to live lives of righteousness. Think about just a few passages.
• Romans 6:13: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin.”
• Colossians 3:5: “Put to death … whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
• Galatians 5:24: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.”
• Mark 9:43–47: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.… And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.… And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.”
But on the other hand, as Jesus says, no one can snatch us from the Father’s hand. And as Paul says in Romans, nothing can separate us from God’s love.

But there is an even more compelling reason of all to live lives of holiness which we see in verse 14 . . .

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
The compelling reason to live holy lives is because God has not only freed us from slavery to sin, He has also made us His own sons and daughters.
All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. Now we have not talked about this at length up to this point, but we need to answer an important question. What does it mean to be led by the Spirit?
Ligon Duncan lists five ways in which we are led by the Spirit. First of all, when Paul says that we are led by the Spirit, he means that we are governed by the Spirit constantly. He’s not saying that, well, you know this Christian was up against this particular trial, and it was like the Spirit just took over. Now you may feel like that sometime, and the Lord may help in extraordinary ways, but that’s not what Paul is talking about here. Paul is talking about the believer constantly, not sporadically, not occasionally, not two or three really extraordinary times in life, but constantly every second being governed by the Holy Spirit. Notice, you see this even in the language. ‘He leads us.’ You know it’s not that the guide is there with you for five minutes, he drops off the trail for several days and comes back and meets you again for another five minutes, and then drops off the trail for a few days. He’s there with you every step. He’s constantly leading you.
Secondly, notice that the leading of the Spirit, as you look at this context, is primarily about correcting not protecting. Paul gives no indication whatsoever that the Holy Spirit protects us from suffering in this passage; in fact, the opposite. The final words of this passage indicate that just because you are led by the Spirit, does not mean that you are not going to go through trial. On the contrary, if you are a true son of God, Paul says you will. So, the Spirit’s leading here primarily is in correcting us. He’s knocking off rough edges; he’s making us to be like the Heavenly Father.
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit does not merely guide us. When we speak of the leading of the Spirit, we’re not speaking merely of guidance; it is that the Holy Spirit empowers us. It’s not like an Indian guide who sort of takes you across the mountains through the treacherous passes because he knows the way. He doesn’t just have information that you need, but he is actually the force that keeps you going. He’s the one who gives you the energy to start the trail in the first place, and to finish it just as surely. So He is empowering you from within.
Fourthly, notice that the leading of the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean that you are lost. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come in and replace some part of you. The Holy Spirit doesn’t displace you; instead He encourages and ages you. It’s truly you who are growing in grace. It’s truly you who are following in the way of the Spirit. And the Spirit is encouraging you and aiding you and helping you in that; not displacing your personality. It doesn’t mean when we say that it’s Christ in me, it doesn’t mean that somehow I has been evacuated, and I don’t exist anymore, and I don’t have no personality, and I’m sort of part of the board now. That’s not what Paul is talking about. The Spirit is encouraging and aiding us, our true self. And it’s helped and encouraged by the Spirit.
Finally, when the Holy Spirit leads us, He always leads us in the way of truth. How many times have you had Christians come to you and say, “Well, you know, the Spirit is leading me to do ‘X.’” And you’re sitting there scratching your heard, and you’re thinking, “That’s wrong. What you’re saying that you’re being led to do is wrong.” So I know it’s not the Holy Spirit that is leading you to do that, because the Holy Spirit leads us in the way of God’s word, God’s law, God’s truth, Psalm 1, Psalm 19, Psalm 119. You can get a hundred other passages. The Holy Spirit never leads against the word of God. He never leads against the will of God. He never leads against the truth of God. He always leads with them. Now we could say a lot more about the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we’ve only scratched the surface on touching this subject of His leading, but we have said at least that. And the apostle Paul, don’t miss the point here.
So this is something of what it means to be led by the Spirit. And when we are led by the Spirit, we are sons of God.
This title, sons of God, is often used in the Old Testament for the people of Israel. It is also a title Jesus used of Himself. How do you know that you are a son? Because the Spirit is working in you for your growth in grace and this is evidence that you are a child of God. It is not some upper class of Christians who are led by the Spirit. All who are children of God are led by the Spirit. The word “led” tells us that Paul is not talking about a temporary status but about a continuous leading.
As Bob Utley says, “Assurance is not meant to soften the Bible’s call to holiness! Theologically speaking, assurance is based on the character and actions of the Triune God (1) the Father’s love and mercy; (2) the Son’s finished sacrificial work and (3) the Spirit’s wooing to Christ and then forming Christ in the repentant believer. The evidence of this salvation is a changed worldview, a changed heart, a changed lifestyle and a changed hope! It cannot be based on a past emotional decision that has no lifestyle evidence (i.e. fruit, cf. Matt. 7:15–23; 13:20–22). Assurance, like salvation, like the Christian life, begins with a response to God’s mercy and continues that response throughout life. It is a changed and changing life of faith!”

How many professing Christians today are not putting to death the misdeeds of the body? This is not what we are intended to be or how we are intended to live. We are sons of God. How can we live in a way that denies that truth? That is what Paul is going to take up in verse 15.

15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

In contrast with the control of sin, which enslaves to the point of fear, believers have received the Spirit of sonship. The word translated “sonship” (huiothesias) means “placing as a son” and is frequently translated “adoption” (as in, e.g., v. 23). Believers are adopted sons (Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5), not slaves (Gal. 4:7); so they need not be enslaved to sin or in fear. In New Testament times adopted sons enjoyed the same privileges as natural-born sons. So, instead of cowering in slave-like fear, Christians can approach God in an intimate way calling Him Abba, Father. “Abba” is a Greek and English transliteration of the Aramaic word for father (used elsewhere in the NT only in Mark 14:36; Gal. 4:6). Besides being adopted into God’s family as sons, believers also are His children (tekna, “born ones”) by the new birth (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1–2). And the Holy Spirit, who gives believers life, testifies with (not to) their spirit (s) of the fact of the new birth.
In adoption all previous relationships are severed. The new father exercises authority over the new son, and the new son enters into the privileges and responsibilities of the natural son. “Abba,” the Aramaic word for “father,” was used primarily within the family circle and in prayer (cf. Mark 14:36; Gal 4:6). Montgomery’s translation (“My Father, my dear Father!”) underscores the intimate nature of the expression, which is so clearly the opposite of fear (v. 15a).

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
And then finally in verses 16 and 17, Paul makes it clear that the Spirit witnesses, He Himself witnesses along with our spirit, that we are truly children of God, and thus heirs of God. Christians are assured of their sonship and their inheritance by the witness of the Spirit. And, interestingly, Paul says, look at the end of verse 17, in their perseverance and suffering. In other words, Paul is saying that this assurance that God gives you is not merely subjective or objective, it’s both. Your spirit bears witness, but the Holy Spirit also bears witness. But furthermore, he says that the Holy Spirit’s bearing witness that we are sons of God does not mean that we’re not going to suffer. In fact, precisely because He bears witness that we are true sons of God, we may expect to suffer in this life. One of the old Puritans said, “God has one Son without sin, but none without suffering.”
So what is Paul’s point in this passage? Paul’s point is that you have been so united to the Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit of adoption, that you are one with Him in His sufferings, and you will be one with Him in His glory. And when you doubt that you will be one with Him in His glory, you remember that you are one with Him in His sufferings. And it is just as certain that you will be one with Him in His glory, as it is that you are going through trials now. That’s what Paul is saying. Every trial that you go through in life is a witness of the Spirit that you are going to share in the glory of the inheritance of the Son of God.
And so the apostle says, grow in grace because you are under obligation, because sins kills, because you’re sons of God, because the Holy Spirit of adoption is at work in you, and because the Holy Spirit is in you bearing witness that you are sons of God. Now live, Paul says, in that light.
Our adoption into God’s family, however amazing and comforting, is not the end of the story. For to be children is also to be heirs: to be still waiting for the full bestowment of all the rights and privileges conferred on us as God’s children (17; see especially Gal. 4:1–7, with an argument quite similar to that in 8:1–17). As the Son of God had to suffer before entering into his glory (1 Pet. 1:11), so we sons of God by adoption must also suffer ‘with him’ before sharing in his glory (see also Phil. 1:29; 3:20; 2 Cor. 1:5). Because we are joined to Christ, the servant of the Lord ‘despised and rejected by men’ (Is. 53:3), we can expect the path to our glorious inheritance to be strewn with difficulties and dangers.
In many families children inherit their parents’ estates; each child is an heir and the children together are co-heirs. Similarly, since Christians are God’s children, they are His heirs (cf. Gal. 4:7), and they are co-heirs with Christ. They are recipients of all spiritual blessings (Eph. 1:3) now, and in the future they will share with the Lord Jesus in all the riches of God’s kingdom (John 17:24; 1 Cor. 3:21–23). Sharing with Jesus Christ, however, involves more than anticipating the glories of heaven. For Jesus Christ it involved suffering and abuse and crucifixion; therefore being co-heirs with Christ requires that believers share in His sufferings (cf. John 15:20; Col. 1:24; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12). In fact believers do share in His sufferings; if indeed translates eiper, which means “if, as is the fact” (cf. Rom. 8:9). Then after the suffering they will share in His glory (2 Tim. 2:12; 1 Peter 4:13; 5:10).
Paul himself provides the best illustration. Instead of a spirit of fear, we have received a spirit of sonship, or adoption. Adoption is a strictly Pauline metaphor, one common to him and his readers in Rome, due to the practice of adoption in the Roman Empire. Paul says in Ephesians 1:5 that adoption is a sovereign act of God, the result of his predestined pleasure and will. In Galatians 4:5–7, he repeats much of what he says in our Romans text, with one important addition: “That we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:5). Therein lies the heart of sonship, or adoption. One who was not a natural son is adopted by a father and given every legal right of sonship held by the natural sons. He is made an heir of the father, and given equal standing (often a more privileged standing) with the father’s natural progeny.
Because Paul does not expand the metaphor in detail, the careful expositor will not do so either, pushing cultural aspects of Roman adoption into the realm of sanctification. But the key point—legal standing as a child of God—is fully represented by Paul’s adoption metaphor: Jesus Christ is God’s (only) natural Son and believers are adopted into the family of God and made “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).
Suffering is the norm for believers in a fallen world (Matt. 5:10–12; John 15:18–21; 16:1–2; 17:14; Acts 14:22; Rom. 5:3–4; 8:17; II Cor. 4:16–18; Phil. 1:29; I Thess. 3:3; II Tim. 3:12; James 1:2–4; I Pet. 4:12–19). Jesus set the pattern (Heb. 5:8). The rest of this chapter develops this theme.

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