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Romans 8:12-25 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 8:12-13. YOU WILL DIE—YOU WILL LIVE
12So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. 13For if you live after the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
In verses 1-11, Paul contrasted those “who live according to the flesh” with “those who live according to the Spirit” (v. 5). Those who live according to the flesh are characterized by death (v. 6) and hostility to God (v. 7), but those who live according to the Spirit are characterized by life (v. 6). The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead will give life to those who live according to the Spirit (v. 11).
“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after to the flesh” (v. 12). While Paul does not specify our indebtedness here, his meaning is implicit in verses 1-11. We are indebted to the Spirit, who gives us life. Life in the flesh gained us nothing, but life in the Spirit brought life.
“For if you live after the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (v. 13). While Paul intends this flesh/Spirit dichotomy as a spiritual lesson, we see it manifested in another way every day. People who engage in fleshly excess—gluttony, drunkenness, promiscuous sex, or harmful drugs—suffer shortened lives. Paul tells us that people who live according to the flesh suffer an even more serious penalty—spiritual death. But there is hope. Those who “put to death the deeds of the body”—who refuse to allow themselves to be dominated by fleshly concerns—will live. While Paul does not use the phrase “eternal life” here, he implies it.
A person who engages in healthy nutrition and exercise might consider him/herself to be the antithesis of a person living according to the flesh, but that is not necessarily so. For many people, nutrition and exercise constitute the core of their belief and the focus of their hope—an alternate form of religion. Their church is a gym, and their altar a Nautilus machine. Their lives are focused on fleshly concerns, even if not on fleshly excess. Their understanding of salvation has to do with physical beauty, thinness, muscle tone, and longevity. Such people should not imagine that they are living according to the Spirit, because in reality they are consumed by fleshly concerns.
That is not to say that Christians should not engage in healthy practices such as good diet and exercise. Such practices constitute good stewardship, and are to be commended. However, the person whose hope is rooted in physical things (food, money, pleasure, fame, etc.), whether those things are healthy or not, is living according to the flesh, and Paul warns that such people will not gain spiritual life. Hopefully, people who live according to the Spirit will exercise and eat right, but will also practice spiritual disciplines such as worship, prayer, the reading of scripture, and service to God and neighbor—disciplines that bring them into communion with God and compliance with God’s will. The center of their hope will not be physical health but relationship with Christ.
ROMANS 8:14-17. LED BY THE SPIRIT OF GOD—CHILDREN OF GOD
14For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God. 15For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God; 17and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if indeed we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified with him.
“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God” (v. 14). In Israel’s wilderness wanderings, God “went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them on their way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light, that they might go by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21). Now it is the Spirit who provides that leadership (Wright, 593).
“For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear” (v. 15a). This mention of slavery brings Egypt to mind. It also brings to mind the strict discipline of Torah law—a discipline to which Jews feel obligated, but a discipline so rigorous as to inspire fear. Who, after all, can hope to keep the law in all its detail without significant failure? But Christ has freed us from slavery both to the law and to the sin that the law fails to prevent. Of course, Paul speaks elsewhere of Christians as slaves of obedience (6:16) or righteousness (6:19), but this is not fearful slavery. It represents freedom from sin.
“but you received the Spirit of adoption” (v. 15b). The person who is adopted into a family is placed into that family as a full member.
We Christians are God’s adopted children. While “adopted” might seem to suggest a second-rate status, that is not so when God is the adoptive Father. I especially like the story of the mother of two children––one natural born and the other adopted. When someone asked, “Which child is adopted?” the mother gazed for a moment into the distance and then answered, “I can’t remember.”
“by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” (v. 15c). “Abba” is what a Jewish child calls his/her father—an intimate word like “Papa.” Jewish people are sensitive about using God’s name, lest they somehow use it wrongfully (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11). The idea that anyone would address God so familiarly as “Abba” would astonish anyone raised in that tradition. However, Paul tells us that we are permitted this intimacy because we are children of God—not just God’s people, but God’s children.
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (v. 16). If anyone should happen to question that relationship, the Spirit bears witness to it—bears witness “with our spirit.” What does “our spirit” have to contribute here? What could the witness of “our spirit” add to the Spirit’s witness? Simply this! Living as God’s children and led by the Spirit, our lives take on a new character. People who see our good works “give glory to (our) Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). As we live in accord with our status as members of God’s household, the witness of “our spirit” confirms the Spirit’s witness that we are, indeed, God’s children.
“and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ” (v. 17a). As children of God, adopted into God’s family, we enjoy the full rights and privileges of sons and daughters. God does not treat adopted children as inferior, but makes us heirs—joint heirs with Christ, God’s natural Son.
Israel thought of itself as God’s heir (Deuteronomy 32:9) and the Promised Land as its inheritance. But now God extends family privileges to all those who live according to the Spirit—and expands the inheritance from a small patch of real estate in the Middle East to the kingdom of God.
“if indeed we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified with him” (v. 17b). Paul adds this qualifier. To be eligible for the glory associated with the inheritance, the Christian must be ready to share in Christ’s sufferings. “As members of the same family we share in the trials of life as well as the benefits” (Mounce, 183).
It was Christ’s suffering and death that set the stage for his exaltation in heaven (Philippians 2:5-11). Paul and many other Christians of his day experienced persecution—even martyrdom. In many parts of the world today, Christians are being persecuted. Even nations that pride themselves on tolerance have become increasingly hostile to Christians. While there is no virtue in seeking out persecution, we must be ready to face bravely it if it comes. We can be sure that our faithfulness in the face of persecution will not go unrewarded.
ROMANS 8:18. THE GLORY WHICH WILL BE REVEALED TOWARD US
18For I consider (Greek: logizomai) that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us.
“For I consider” (logizomai). Logizomai is an accounting term having to do with determining the value of assets and liabilities. Accountants try to determine value accurately to assess the health of businesses. In like manner, Paul compares our present sufferings with our future glory, and determines that the glory far outweighs the suffering. Knowing this helps us—puts the ups and downs of life in perspective—keeps us from despair.
Of course, not all suffering is equal. One person might suffer because of his/her decision to serve as a missionary in a primitive or dangerous place. Another person might suffer as a consequence of his/her sins. The suffering of the missionary is obviously nobler, but the sinner’s suffering can also be positive if it brings the sinner to his/her knees—if it spurs repentance—if it leads to rebirth. In other words, all suffering has the potential to move us in the direction of glory.
ROMANS 8:19-21. THE CREATION WAITS WITH EAGER EXPECTATION
19For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.
“For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (v. 19). Paul personifies creation and pictures it as waiting with excitement and longing for the revealing of the children of God. By “creation,” Paul means the whole created order. However, neither good nor evil angels would look forward to the revealing, because good angels have not suffered frustration and bad angels will be the losers at the unveiling.
It is not just Christians who wait “with eager expectation”–but the whole of the created order (Morris, 321).
“For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope” (v. 20). At the fall, God not only cursed the serpent, woman, and man, but also cursed the ground as a part of human punishment. No longer do man and woman live in a garden in Eden, where grows ” every tree… that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food,” and where “a river went out of Eden to water the garden” (Genesis 2:9-10). Instead, we live in a world where “”it will yield thorns and thistles to you” and where “by the sweat of your face you will eat bread” (Genesis 3:18-19).
We might think of human despoilment as the problem here—and humans have certainly made a bad thing worse by poor stewardship—but that is not what Paul means here. He is speaking of the curse of God upon the cosmos at the beginning.
“that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God“ (vv. 20b-21). We must not overlook these two words—”in hope.” God’s last word is not “curse” but “hope.” God cursed the man and woman, but at the same time devised a plan for their restoration. God prepared a degraded habitat fit for a degraded humanity after the Fall, but God will restore the cosmos to its original Eden-like state to make it fit, after the redemption, for the redeemed children of God.
ROMANS 8:22-25. THE WHOLE CREATION—GROANING IN LABOR PAINS
22For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. 23Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. 24For we were saved (Greek: esothemen—from sozo) in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees? 25But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.
“For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now“ (v. 22). In verse 19, Paul said, “the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Now he tells us that the “revealing” will be a birth. Creation’s discomfort is not the result of death pangs, as some people would have us believe, but birth pangs. Its’ longing and groaning are hopeful signs—not reasons for despair.
“Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body“ (v. 23). We share in creation’s discomfort, even though we enjoy “the first fruits of the Spirit.”
The phrase, “first fruits,” would be familiar to Jewish readers and, presumably, to Roman Christians, even though many of them are Gentiles. Leviticus 23:10-11 requires Israelites to bring the first fruits of the harvest as an offering to the Lord. As any gardener knows, the first fruits are the most desirable part of the harvest, because we have waited so long for the first tomato or the first strawberries of the season. God always required the most desirable animals or produce as offerings.
But Paul is not talking here about the first fruits that we give to God but the first fruits that God gives to us—”the first fruits of the Spirit”. Like the first fruits of an agricultural harvest, the first fruits of the Spirit constitute only a small part of the harvest, but point to a greater bounty yet to be received. Our groaning is occasioned by the fact that we have experienced the beginning of our “adoption” or “redemption,” and long for the time when we will experience their full realization.
“For we were saved (esothemen—from sozo) in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees?” (v. 24). Paul says, “we were saved.” Esothemen is aorist, denoting an action that has taken place rather than an ongoing action. However, Paul qualifies that by saying, “we were saved in hope.” Then he goes on to remind us, “hope that is seen is not hope.”
The idea here is that we have been saved—that is not in doubt—but we have not yet experienced the full force of that salvation. We are like the homeowner who has been told that her house is worth ten times what she paid for it. She knows that she has, at least on paper, entered the ranks of the affluent, but she does not yet feel affluent. She cannot take her equity to the store to make purchases unless she sells or mortgages her house, and she is not ready to do either of those things. Nevertheless, she enjoys knowing that her future has brightened because of the appreciation of her house, even if she cannot cash in on it quite yet. In like manner, we have been saved, even if we will experience the full force of that salvation only in the future—in eternity.
“But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience” (Greek: hypomone) (v. 25). The Greek word hupomons is related to the word for perseverance. It is the kind of patience that “keeps on keeping on” in the face of difficult circumstances.
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.
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)
Lockyer, Herbert, Sr., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Mounce, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Romans, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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