Biblical Exegesis of Romans 8:1-13

A. Observations

Cultural-Historical Background

While it is always important to be aware of the context in which a passage or book of the Bible is written, Romans 8:1-13 seems like one of the more "universal" passages, in the sense that it easily could have been written to other churches besides the one in Rome. However, it is still important to understand how this passage fits with the book as a whole and within the Bible, and some cultural and historical background is helpful. Thomas Wright states that Romans was written by Paul in the "middle to late 50s of the first century, from Corinth or somewhere nearby, while planning his final voyage to Jerusalem with the intention of going on thereafter to Rome and thence to Spain" (New Interpreter’s Bible, 396).

This takes care of where and when, but to whom was the letter addressed? Douglas Moo discusses Paul’s audience as "both Jewish and Gentile Christians, with the emphasis, if anything, on the latter group. This fits better with both the focus on Gentiles in the letter and the probably increasingly dominant position of Gentiles in the church" (Epistle to the Romans, 19). Several commentators have noted that after the forced exile of Jews from Rome (under Claudius in A.D. 49) and their subsequent return, Gentile-Jew relations were strained as they made the transition from Gentile Christian-dominated house churches to a body with different parts. Moo explains in the NIV Application Commentary that Romans is an "occasional, not systemic theology" with an emphasis on "issues such as Jewish-Gentile relationships and the place of the Mosaic law in the history of salvation" (20). Edwards and Reasoner also point out in Rome: Overview that Paul recognized "that Romans viewed religion as a matter of law," which probably encouraged the rational, logical style of Romans (1021). Finally, while Moo does suggest that Paul was "writing to correct the Gentiles’ indifference, even arrogance, toward the Jewish minority" and to "show the Jews that they must not insist on the law as a normative factor in the church" (The Epistle to the Romans, 19), he also notes that this issue was a reflection of the problems within the church as a whole (20). Toews suggests that Romans was written rhetorically, in order to "impart some gift, to reap some harvest, to remind the followers of Jesus of some things" (BCBC Romans, 21). This fits with Paul’s own words in 1:11, when he writes "I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established" (NASB). F.F. Bruce seems to agree with the Romans need of reminding, as he states that "Paul’s gospel, we know, was charged with promoting moral indifferentism, if not with actively encouraging sin, and the form of his argument in this letter implies his awareness that this charge was not unknown in Rome..." (The Romans Debate-Continued, 183). Romans in this light could become an apologetic letter of Paul’s theology. According to Dunn in Letter to the Romans, Paul knew that the house churches formed a "spectrum" of practices and beliefs, and that his "combination of general teaching and specific exhortation... would resonate with different force among the different congregations" (DPHL, 839).

With this multiplicity of factors, the importance of reading Romans in context can be difficult, yet rewarding. Romans 8:1-13 does not appear to address the Jewish-Gentile relations within the Christian community, yet it certainly applies to the suggestions made by Toews and F.F. Bruce that Paul was not only showing his disapproval of sin, but also giving an answer to it: the transforming power of the Spirit of God, and the believer’s responsibility to pursue Christ in thought and in actions.

Problems and Questions

The context of Romans 7 (as well as of the entire epistle) is useful in aiding one’s comprehension of Romans 8 (yet note Moo’s assertion that "neither 7:6b nor 7:7-25 is to be seen as the main jumping-off point for chap. 8. Both are subordinate connections taken up within Paul’s reiteration of the theme of Christian assurance and eschatological victory..." (Epistle to the Romans, 470)). Therefore, the debate regarding the nature of that chapter is relevant: Toews argues that unlike the interpretation of Augustine and Luther, "Romans 7 is about God, not the struggle of men and women with God. The agenda is defined clearly as the law by the questions in 7:7 and 13, and by the fulfillment of the law in Christ and the Spirit (8:1-11)" (215). Moo also asserts that 8:1-13 comes after "Chapters 6 and 7 make slight detours from the main line of Paul’s argument, in which he deals with sin and the law, two key threats to the security of our new life. Now he is in a position to return to the main road by continuing his exposition of the believer’s security in Christ" (NIV Application, 248).
On the other hand, Dunn argues that the phrase "No condemnation" is meant to remind readers and listeners of 5:18, and that in spite of "their continuing captivity to the law of sin as members of this age (7:23)... being "in Christ" is what gives the assurance that the end result will be acquittal... the tension of living between the two is temporary; the sobering realism of 7:14-25 is matched by the reaffirmed assurance of 8:1" (WBC, 435).
This debate is ongoing and rather heated at times, but it is important to be aware of as one reads Romans in order to appreciate both Paul’s original intent, and the manner in which Christians throughout history have understood this fascinating chapter.
The word "condemnation" is reminiscent of Romans 2 when the readers are charged with passing judgment on one another, by which "you condemn yourself" (2:1), and Paul warns of God’s impending righteous judgment (v.2-3). In verse 4 Paul talks about the "requirement of the law" (NASB), and Moo notes that the New International Version incorrectly translates dikaioma (a singular word in Greek) as "the righteous requirements of the law" (NIV Application, 249). He asserts that "the singular word, along with the passive form of 'fulfill,' suggests a different idea: God in Christ has fulfilled the entirety of the law’s demand on our behalf... The people in whom the law is fulfilled are those who live in the realm of the Spirit" (250). This then introduces us to yet another issue- that of the meaning of the Law.

Key words and concepts

Law: Law, or nomos is mentioned 4 times within Romans 8:2,4, and theologicans debate over the exact meaning behind each use. Bryan argues that "it is not two different 'Laws' of which Paul speaks here, but the same Law-the Mosaic Law- understood rightly or wrongly" (146). His definition of a correct understanding is that by the Spirit of Christ that the truth in the Law is seen, whereas the wrong understanding of the Law makes it "a way to salvation," which "simply shows me my sin... and condemns me to death" (146). Schreiner notes that scholars debate whether the Law is meant metaphorically or literally, and his position is that in verse 2 it is to be taken literally:

"The Mosaic law is in the realm either of the Holy Spirit or of the powers of sin and death... for those who have the Spirit the law plays a positive role. This fits with the conception of the law in Ps. 119 and Ps. 19:7-11... where the Torah restores and revives the godly" (400).

On the other hand, Moo argues for a more metaphorical understanding of the Law, denoting it as the authority and power of sin, so that "The law of the Spirit... denotes the authority or power exercised by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit exerts a liberating power through the work of Christ that takes us out of the realm of sin and the spiritual death to which sin inevitably leads" (248-9).
Life: Life, living, and alive are all words used throughout this passage as the great "foil" to the consequence of sin, which is death and decay. Wright compares the contrast of life and death with the passage in 5:12-21 that contrasts Adam with Christ. He then continues on, artfully explaining that "the key contrast for the present passage is that between death and life: 'life' is the golden thread that runs through 8:1-11" (574).
Condemnation: According to Wright, condemnation refers to the final judgment that God will deliver at the end, which is "the necessary reaction of the justice-loving God to all injustice; of the God who created image-bearing human beings to all that defaces and destroys that likeness" (575-6). The exciting thing is that in this verse, it is used with a negative in front of it! "There is now no condemnation," or in other words, the death sentence is revoked and those who are "in Christ" will have abundant life. This answers Romans 5:18: "So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men." While Adam is the implied "one transgression" that resulted in condemnation for all, another man- Jesus Christ- performed the "one act of righteousness" which resulted in life for all.
Righteousness: In "Righteousness" by Onesti and Brauch, God’s righteousness is described as His "saving deed" and "relation-restoring love" towards His creation (836). Wright explains the reason for the broken relationship as the result of sin and evil "fracturing... the social and human fabric. What is required, therefore, is that justice be done, not so much in the punitive sense... but in the fuller sense of setting to rights that which is out of joint, restoring things as they should be" (The New Interpreter’s Bible, 399).
Spirit and Flesh: Paul mentions both the Spirit and flesh several times as a contrasting pair of "spheres of influence" (Keener, 428):

"For Paul the central anthropological terms are sarx... and pneuma, and Christians can "set their minds" on either, with negative or positive consequences (Rom. 8:5-6). Christians are exhorted to live according to the Spirit rather than the flesh with the goal of eschatological triumph" (Aune, 294).

With this emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Moo is quick to point out that Paul is focused on the work of the Spirit (Epistle to the Romans, 468). According to Dunn, the Spirit is "determinative for Christian belonging and sonship" (WBC, 415), and the Spirit of Christ is "that power which determined Christ in his ministry and in so doing provided a pattern of life in the Spirit" (446). On the opposite side is the flesh, which according to Craig Keener can be defined as "'human susceptibility to sin,' or 'self-centeredness' as opposed to 'God-centeredness'" (428). While several commentators would argue that the believer must choose between the two, Dunn gives a more gray definition, noting that the description of the flesh in the chapter "sums up the weakness and corruptibility of man belonging to this age" (WBC, 414).

B. Interpretation

Verse-by-verse interpretation

8:1 – Those who are "vitally united" to Jesus Christ by faith (Stott, 79) are not sentenced to death. This immediately sets a precedent: it is Christ alone who justifies us- not any work we do. Several commentators have noted that this sentence is backed up by passages that follow and not vice versa: "Paul has created a striking effect by advancing c and explaining it with b: 'I serve God’s law with my mind, but sin’s law with my flesh; there is therefore no condemnation, because God has dealt with sin in the flesh, and provided new life for the body'" (Wright, 575). This verse is often seen as linked with 7:6, because both have an eschatological sense of the new era (Schreiner, 398). Later in Romans 8:34 Paul asks outright "who is the one who condemns?" and implies that by Christ’s death and resurrection we are not condemned, nor separated from God’s love for us.

2 – The spirit brings life in union with Christ, and sets us free from the law that condemns us as sinners. This verse explains verse 1. It also appears to begin a section that answers "the dilemma of ego" in 7:7-25. God’s work in Christ, mediated by the Spirit, is what overcomes the inability of the law, weakened as it is by the flesh, and liberates the believer from "the law of sin and death" (Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 469).

3 – The false hope that the law can save us is gone, because it is God who saved us through the death of Jesus, who was both perfect and human-sinless flesh, the perfect sacrifice (Stott, 81). Moo succinctly states that "Christ became what we are so that we could become what he is" (NIV Application, 249). Dunn on the other hand thinks that Paul was implying the weakness of men to follow the law (WBC, 438) and not simply man’s attempt to attain righteousness and salvation by their work, by the Law.

4 – This verse provides us with the promise that in the bodies of those who belong to Christ, the law is fulfilled, and we are not condemned. This is only by our "conscious dependence on the living and dynamic power of God alone, at work in us (8:4b)" (Bryan, 146). Dunn notes that Paul purposely states that the purpose is to fulfill the requirements of the Law- not to live licentiously (WBC, 440).

5 – When people are slaves to their sinful nature, they are "preoccupied" (Stott, 87) with sinful thoughts, while those who let the Spirit reign over their lives (Bryan, 147) are preoccupied with spiritual things. The importance of one’s mindset, worldview, or "attitude of the heart" is established here.

6 - This verse describes the results of two lifestyles led by two different forces- one of death, or ‘separation from God’ (Stott, 87), and the other of life, or ‘continuing fellowship with God’ (87), and peace. Dunn notes that this verse echoes 2:7, 10 in its mention of life and peace: "to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life... but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good."

7 - We become God’s enemy when we live according to sinful flesh instead of following God’s Spirit. Those who do so don’t obey God, and can’t. This is why it is so important to decide which "force" will reign in you, because verse 6 describes what the result is! The law is useless when our thoughts are centered only on our desire for pleasure, and things will only get worse (WBC, 443).

8 – People who are living under the dominion of sin can’t be pleasing to God- it’s the logical end of this warped lifestyle and mindset that are set on death. Dunn explains that it is "submission to the Law of God" that is pleasing to our Creator (WBC, 443).

9 – Those who claim to have God’s Spirit dwelling in them are not in the flesh! That is the plight of the "children of Adam" (Stott, 88), while God’s children have Christ’s Spirit abiding in them- if not, you’re on your own and Jesus will have no part of you. Paul is reminding the Romans of the assurance they have in Christ even now of "living in fulfillment of the 'just requirement' of the Law... certainly Christians continue to sin and will continue to need, along with praising God, that constant round of contrition that must also mark any life that is in the process of sanctification" (Bryan, 147). Dunn contrasts this with the statement that "in flesh" and "in Spirit" are not meant in a strict sense of all-or-nothing, but that Paul is describing a "process of salvation" that has begun (WBC, 443).

10 – You will physically die because of the curse of sin (see Romans 6:6, the crucifixion of our old self that does away with our "body of sin"), but if Christ is in you, the spirit- Christ’s presence dwelling in you- is alive, because God made you holy and right with Him.

11 – So the body is dead, the spirit is alive, and this happens because the indwelling Spirit in us also raised Jesus from the dead! Romans 6:4-5 mirrors this: " that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father... certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection." This happens by His indwelling Spirit that is in us.

12 – So now that we, the body of Christ, are dead to sin (Schreiner, 431), we have a duty to obey, but not to obey the flesh! This verse is similar to 6:2- "How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" Schreiner argues against Dunn that this is a done deal and not an ideal to reach for (431).

13 – Remember, those who chose a lifestyle of sin will spiral down into death in the age to come, so don’t go there! Instead, obey the Spirit and crucify the sinful actions of our mortal bodies so your spirit can live in this up-and-coming age! (Schreiner, 433).

Summary of theological and ethical teachings

The idea of holiness, of being a "new creation" and a "living sacrifice [that is" is important in both theology and Christian ethics. Stott states that verse 4 is what tells Christians about living a holy life: "the reason for holiness is the coming and the death of Christ. The nature of holiness is the righteousness of the law, conformity to God’s will expressed in His law. And the means of holiness is the power of the Holy Spirit" (82). Toews also notes that in reaction against Luther’s ‘theology’ of "justified and sinner at the same time," the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century used Romans 8 to justify the belief that Christians were capable of fulfilling "the law in a life of radical discipleship, because they experienced the life transforming power of the Spirit. The charismatic renewal of the church in the twentieth century is teaching the church again that life in the Spirit genuinely transforms people and the church" (Toews, 217).
Similarly, F.F. Bruce notes that the gospel preached by Paul was meant to explain "not only the way of righteousness, in the sense of the righteous status which God by his grace bestows on believers in Christ, but also the way of holiness" (183). Finally, in Romans 8:9 Moo finds that this passage provides a good example of the middle ground between Arminianism and Calvinism by the "jarring" juxtaposition of verses 1 and 13. The Arminian fears that the promise of "no condemnation" from being "in Christ" is precarious because one may cease to be "in Christ," whereas the Calvinist focuses on the assurance and ignores the danger of sliding into a lifestyle of sin that would result in death (NIV Application, 258). The importance of one’s mindset or "heart attitude" (257) is stressed, though it is only by the Spirit that one can hope to control the governance of one’s thoughts. Therefore the theological principle is that to be a believer, one must "be under the dominance of God’s Spirit" (256) (Christ’s Spirit) for assurance of eternal life, which Dunn also states with reference to verse 10: "the Spirit is life by virtue of God’s righteousness... when sin plays death as its last card God’s Spirit will trump it" (WBC, 445).

Works Cited

Aune, David E. “Romans as a Logos Protreptikos,” The Romans Debate.
Bruce, F.F. “The Romans Debate-Continued,” The Romans Debate. 175-94.
Bryan, Christopher. A Preface to Romans: Notes on the Epistle in Its Literary and Cultural Setting.
Dunn, James D.G. Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8.
Dallas: Word Books, 1988. ---. “Letter to the Romans,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.
Edwards, R.B. and M. Reasoner. “Rome: Overview,” Dictionary of New Testament Background.
Hawthorne, Gerald F., and Ralph P. Martin, eds. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.
Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.
Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans: The New International Commentary on the New Testament.
---. The NIV Application Commentary: Romans.
New American Standard Bible.
Onesti, K.L. and M.T. Brauch. “Righteousness,” The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. 827-37.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans.
Stott, John R.W. Men Made New: an exposition of Romans 5-8.
Toews, John E. Believers Church Bible Commentary: Romans.
Wright, N. Thomas. “The Letter to the Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible.