The Blessings of Life in the Spirit (preaching resource for Trinity Sunday: 5/26/24, Pentecost 1)

This post exegetes Romans 8:1-17, providing context for the 5/26/24 (Trinity Sunday) RCL Epistle reading. This exegesis draws on commentary from John Stott's and "The Expositor’s Bible Commentary."

"Pouring of the Holy Spirit" by van Dyk
(public domain va Wikimedia Commons)

Having discussed in Romans 7 the frustrations of seeking to live for God under the law, Paul now turns in Romans 8 to the blessings that come through living for God in the Spirit.  Contrasting the law and the Spirit, Paul shows that the law has no power to save or to deliver from indwelling sin, whereas the Spirit does both. Thus the apostle points Christians away from living under the law to a life animated, sustained, directed, transformed and enriched by the Holy Spirit.  In Romans 8:1-17 he describes several  glorious blessings of life in the Spirit.

No condemnation 

Romans 8:1

The first blessing of life in the Spirit is related to what Paul wrote in chapter 5: 'Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ'.  Now, in chapter 8 Paul asserts that *there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus*. This peace with God and deliverance from condemnation are the fruit of justification which is due entirely to God's action in Christ (3).  As a result, no one can accuse (33) or condemn us (34).  Our justification is entirely and securely grounded in what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. 


Romans 8:2-4

Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn, “O for a Thousand Tongues”: “He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free.” Paul points to this blessing of liberation, explaining that *through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death* (2).  Here ‘liberation’ is linked to ‘no condemnation’ by the conjunction *because*, indicating that it is precisely because we have been liberated in being joined to Christ that no condemnation can now overtake us.

But what does Paul mean by liberation *from the law of sin and death*? The context indicates that the ‘law of sin and death’ is the Law of Moses. To be liberated from that law through Christ means that believers do not look to the Law of Moses for justification and sanctification. Rather, they look for liberation to *the law of the Spirit of life* (2) or 'the life-giving law of the Spirit' (REB). This 'law' is the gospel, which involves the ‘ministry of the Spirit' (2 Cor. 3:8) and which frees us from the Law of Moses of the Old Covenant with its curses and death. How the gospel provides this liberation is elaborated in verses 3-4 in six expressions which speak to the Trinitarian nature of that liberation, involving God (the Father), the Son and the Holy Spirit: 

1. *What the law was powerless to do…God did* (3a)

God has taken the initiative to do *what the law* (even though it was his own law) *was powerless to do* (3a). The Law of Moses’ could neither justify nor sanctify because *it was weakened by the sinful nature* (3a), or 'because human weakness robbed it of all potency' (REB). That is, the law's impotence is not in itself but in our flesh (*sarx*)—our fallen selfish nature (cf. Rom. 7:14-20). So then, what the sin-weakened law could not do, *God did*.

2. By *sending of his own Son* (3b) 

How did God do it?  Not through law, but through his Son Jesus, whom he sent.  The word 'sending' implies the Son's pre-existence, and highlights the Father's sacrificial love in that sending (cf. Rom. 5:8, 10, 8:32).

3. *In the likeness of sinful man* (3c) 

The Son’s sending involved his becoming incarnate—a human being, 'in the likeness of sinful flesh' (RSV).  The Son’s humanity was both real and sinless. 

4. *To be a sin offering* (3d)

The Son was sent in the flesh to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  He came as our substitute, to be offered in our place.

5. *He condemned sin in sinful man* (3e) 

Literally, God ‘condemned sin in the flesh', that is, in the flesh or humanity of Jesus who was real and sinless, although made sin with our sins (2 Cor. 5:21). God judged our sins in the sinless humanity of his Son, who bore them in our place. The law condemns sin, in the sense of expressing disapproval of it, but when God condemned sin in his Son, his judgment fell upon it in him. Thus the condemnation we deserve is fully borne in Christ.

6. *In order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit* (4)  

Christ’s death not only paid the ultimate penalty of our sin (thus securing our justification) it also makes possible a life that fulfills the law’s intention (thus accomplishing our progressive sanctification). Because the Law of Moses can neither justify nor sanctify, God sends Christ who on the cross justifies us and through the indwelling Spirit sanctifies us. Thus those *who to the Spirit* (4b) meet the law’s 'righteous [just] requirement' (the word ‘requirement’ in Greek is singular, not plural) which is, ultimately, love (Rom. 13:8-10, cf. Gal.5:14). The law can be fulfilled only in this way by those 'who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit' (RSV).  

Thus Christ both brings an end to the law while at the same time liberating and empowering us to fulfill the law’s righteous intent (love) by sending his Spirit to indwell us.  In this way, the righteous and lasting requirement of God’s eternal law is indeed fully met in those who live by the Spirit. 

A new mindset 

Romans 8:5-8

Paul next explains why true obedience to the law is possible only to those who are controlled by the Spirit.  We note here that Paul contrasts the ‘flesh’ (sarx) with ‘spirit’ (pneuma). By flesh Paul means human nature—the sin dominated self. By spirit he means not the higher aspect of our humanness viewed as 'spiritual' (although in verse 16 he will refer to our human spirit), but rather the personal Holy Spirit who now not only regenerates but also indwells and transforms the people of God. This tension between 'flesh' and 'Spirit' is reminiscent of Galatians 5:16-26, where they are in irreconcilable conflict with each other. Here Paul concentrates on the mindset (‘mind’) of those who are characterized by either *sarx* or *pneuma*:

1. Our mindset expresses our basic nature (5) 

On the one hand, there are *those who live according to the sinful nature*. They are people who *have their minds set on what that nature desires*, whereas *those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires* (5). The meaning surely is not that people are like this because they think like this, although that is partly true, but that they think like this because they are like this. The expressions are descriptive. In both cases their nature determines their mindset. Moreover, since the flesh is our twisted human nature, its desires are all those things which pander to our ungodly self-centeredness. Since the Spirit is the Holy Spirit himself, however, his desires are all those things which please him, who loves above all else to glorify Christ, that is, to show Christ to us and form Christ in us.  To 'set the mind' on the desires of *sarx* or *Pneuma* is to make them the absorbing objects of thought, interest, affection and purpose. It is a question of what preoccupies us, of the ambitions which drive us and the concerns which engross us, of how we spend our time and our energies, of what we concentrate on and give ourselves up to. All this is determined by who we are, whether we are still 'in the flesh' or are now by new birth 'in the Spirit'.

2. Our mindset has eternal consequences (6)

*The mind of sinful man* (literally, 'of the flesh') *is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit* (literally, 'of the Spirit') *is life and peace* (6). That is, the mindset of flesh dominated people is already one of spiritual death and leads inevitably to eternal death, for it alienates them from God and renders fellowship with him impossible in either this world or the next. The mindset of Spirit-dominated people, however, entails life and peace. On the one hand they are 'alive to God' (Rom. 6:11), alert to spiritual realities, and thirsty for God like nomads in the desert (Ps. 63:1), like deer panting for streams (Ps. 42:1). On the other hand, they have peace with God (5:1), peace with their neighbor (Rom. 12:15), and peace within, enjoying an inner integration or harmony. 

3. Our mindset concerns our attitude toward God (7-8) 

The reason the mind of the flesh is death is that it *is hostile to God*, cherishing a deep-seated animosity against him. It is antagonistic to his name, kingdom and will, to his people and his Word, to his Son, his Spirit and his glory. In particular, Paul singles out the issue of moral standards. In contrast to the regenerate who, in the Spirit, 'delight' in God's law (Rom. 7:22), the unregenerate mind *does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so* (7), which explains why those who live according to the flesh cannot fulfill the law's righteous requirement (4), which is love.  Finally, *those* who are *controlled by the sinful nature (sarx)*, literally those who are 'in flesh' (*en sarki*) or unregenerate, lacking the Spirit of God, *cannot please God* (8), whereas, it is implied, those who are in the Spirit set themselves to please him in everything, even to do so 'more and more' (1 Thess. 4:1).

A new identity 

Romans 8:9-15

Next Paul discusses several aspects of the blessing of a new identity, which is ours through the indwelling Spirit.

1. We belong to Christ (9)

In verse 9 Paul applies to his readers personally the truths he has so far been expounding in general. *You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit*. 'You are controlled by' is too strong a translation of the straightforward 'you are in' the flesh or the Spirit, for Paul immediately clarifies what he means by adding *if the Spirit of God lives in you* (9a). Thus you are in the Spirit if the Spirit is in you, for the same truth can be expressed in terms either of our personal relationship to the Spirit or of his dwelling in us. This also means, Paul continues, that *if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ* (9b).

2. We have life in the Spirit (10-11)

Because we have the Spirit, and thus belong to Christ, our spirit (human spirit/personality) is *alive because of righteousness*—because of Christ’s righteousness credited to us through justification (10).  At the same time, our physical body continues to be mortal—subject to death. Yet, because we have the Spirit, the ultimate destiny of our body is not death, but resurrection (11), which we eagerly await. How can we be sure of that resurrection? Because of the nature of the indwelling Spirit. He is not only 'the Spirit of life' (2), but the Spirit of resurrection—*the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead*. Therefore God *who raised Christ from the dead, will also give life to your mortal bodies*, and will do it *through his Spirit, who lives in you* (11). This resurrection will be the raising and changing of our body into a new and glorious vehicle of our spirit (personality), and its liberation from all frailty, disease, pain, decay and death. It is not that the spirit is to be freed from the body - as many, under the influence of the Greek way of thinking have held - but rather that the Holy Spirit will give life to the body.  In Christ, the body is seen to be something far different from a prison, or chrysalis of the soul (spirit). Rather it is the soul’s destined implement for the life of glory. The resurrection body will be, for all eternity, the perfect vehicle of our redeemed personality.

3. We mortify the flesh (12-13)

And so through the Spirit we are granted full and complete life. *Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation* (12), to live accordingly, which Paul states negatively: We have no obligation *to the sinful nature (sarx) to live according to it* (12).  Because we are alive through the Spirit, the flesh no longer has a claim on us. We owe it nothing. Our obligation is rather (he implies) to the Spirit, to live according to his desires and his dictates. Paul's argument seems to be this: if the indwelling Spirit has given us life, which he has (*your spirit is alive*, 10), we cannot possibly continue to live according to the flesh, since that way is the way of death. How can we possess life and court death simultaneously? We can’t—rather we are indebted to the indwelling Spirit of life to live out our God-given life and to put to death everything which threatens it.  

Verse 13 sets this obligation as a solemn life-and-death alternative, which is made the more impressive by Paul's renewed resort to direct address. *For if you live according to the sinful nature* (which he has just declared in verse 12 not to be a Christian obligation), *you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live* (13). That is, there is a kind of life which leads to death, and there is a kind of death which leads to life. Verse 13 addresses the what, how and why of this putting to death, which has classically been referred to as ‘mortification’:

a. What.  Mortification is neither masochism (taking pleasure in self-afflicted pain), nor asceticism (resenting and rejecting the fact that we have bodies and natural bodily appetites). It is rather a clear-sighted recognition of evil as evil, leading to such a decisive and radical repudiation of it that no imagery can do it justice except 'putting to death' (e.g. Lk. 21:16). Elsewhere the apostle has called it a crucifixion of our fallen nature, with all its passions and desires (Gal.5:24). And this teaching is Paul's elaboration of Jesus' own summons: 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me' (Mk. 8:34). Since the Romans compelled a condemned criminal to carry his cross to the site of crucifixion, to carry our cross is symbolic of following Jesus to the place of execution. And what we are to *put to death* there, Paul explains, is *the misdeeds of the body*, that is, every use of our body (our eyes, ears, mouth, hands or feet) which serves ourselves instead of God and other people. 

b.  How.  Mortification is our active partnership with the indwelling Spirit. We are enabled *by the Spirit*—by his power and his energy, to *put to death the misdeeds of the body*.  Only he can give us the desire, determination and discipline to reject evil—the law can not do this; nor can our human will.  Nevertheless, we are exhorted to take the initiative to act.  Negatively, we must totally repudiate everything we know to be wrong, and not even 'think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature' (Rom. 13:14). This is not pretending that evil does not exist in us and refusing to face it. It is the opposite. We have to face it and deal with it—as Jesus graphically expressed it, we must gouge out our offending eye and cut off our offending hand or foot (Mt. 5:29f.) That is, if temptation comes to us through what we see, handle or visit, then we must be ruthless in not looking, not touching, not going, and so in controlling the very approaches of sin. Positively, we are to set our minds on the things the Spirit desires (5), set our hearts on things above (Col. 3:1f.), and occupy our thoughts with what is noble, right, pure and lovely (Phil. 4:8). In this way mortification (putting to death) and aspiration (hungering and thirsting for what is good) are counterparts. Both verbs (verse 5, 'set their minds', and verse 13, 'put to death') are in the present tense, for they describe attitudes and activities which should be continuous, involving taking up the cross every day (Lk. 9:23) and setting our minds on things of the Spirit every day.

c.  Why.  Mortification runs counter to our natural tendency to self-indulgence. If we are to engage in it, we shall need strong motives. One is, as we have seen, that *we have an obligation* (12) to the indwelling Spirit of life. Another, on which Paul now insists, is that mortification is the only road to life. Verse 13 contains the most marvelous promise, which is expressed in the phrase (a single word in Greek): *you will live*.  Paul is not contradicting himself. Having called eternal life a free and undeserved gift (Rom. 6:23), he is not now making it a reward for self-denial. Nor by 'life' does he seem to be referring to the life of the world to come. As he goes on to note (14ff.), a rich, abundant, satisfying life in the Spirit now is enjoyed only by those who put their misdeeds to death. Even the pain of mortification is worthwhile if it opens the door to this fullness of life.

Comment on mortification: The mortification of the misdeeds of the body through the indwelling Spirit is one of several ways in which the radical principle of 'life through death' lies at the heart of the gospel. According to Romans 6 it is only by dying with Christ to sin, its penalty thereby paid, that we rise to a new life of forgiveness and freedom. According to Romans 8 it is only by putting our evil deeds to death that we experience the full life of God's children. So we need to redefine both life and death. What the world calls life (a desirable self-indulgence) leads to alienation from God which in reality is death; whereas the putting to death of all perceived evil within us, which the world sees as an undesirable self-abnegation, is in reality the way to authentic life.

4.  We have assurance that we are God’s children (14-17)

Our new identity in Christ, through the Spirit, is described as being God's *children* (or *sons*, which includes 'daughters'). It is the Spirit himself who *testifies* to this glorious and comforting identity. He gives this testimony in four interrelated ways: 

a. The Spirit leads us into holiness (14).  Verse 14 continues the thought from verse 13. The children (sons) of God are those who mortify the body's misdeeds (13b) as they are *led by the Spirit* (14a). This ‘leading’ involves being directed, impelled and controlled by the Spirit. However, though the impulses toward holiness he gives us are very strong, he never coerces us—rather he is gentle, though very persuasive.  And if we fail to be responsive to his leading, he is personally ‘grieved’ (Eph. 4:30).

b.   The Spirit replaces fear with freedom (15a).   The Spirit replaces fear with freedom in our relationship to God (15). This Paul attributes to the nature of the Spirit we received at conversion: *For you did not receive a Spirit* (or probably 'the Spirit') *that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship*. Both here and in Galatians 4:1ff, Paul uses the imagery of slavery and freedom with which to contrast the ages of the Old Covenant and the New, and likewise our pre- and post-conversion situation. The slavery of the old age led to fear, especially of God as our judge; the freedom of the new age gives us boldness to approach God as our Father. So everything has changed. True, we are still slaves of Christ (Rom. 1:1), of God (Rom. 6:22) and of righteousness (Rom. 6:18f.), but these slaveries, far from being incompatible with freedom, are its essence. Freedom, not fear, now rules our lives. 

c. The Spirit prompts us in our prayers to call God 'Father' (15b-16).  The preservation side by side of the Aramaic (*abba*) and Greek (*pater*) words for 'father', seems to go back to Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane, when he is recorded as having prayed '*Abba*, Father' (Mk. 14:36; cf. Gal 4:6). *Abba* was an everyday, homely and affectionate family-word and no Jew would have dared to address God by that name. Yet Jesus did it always and taught us to do likewise. In such prayers to the Father we experience the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. For 'when we cry, "Abba! Father!"' taking on our lips the very words which Jesus used, 'it is the Spirit himself bearing witness to our spirit that we are children of God' (15b-16, RSV). This witness is similar to what Paul wrote about in Rom. 5:5 where God through the Holy Spirit 'has poured out his love into our hearts'. According to 8:16 the Holy Spirit 'affirms to our spirit that we are God's children' (REB).  Each verse speaks of the Holy Spirit's ministry of inward assurance, as he convinces us of the reality of God's love on the one hand and of God's fatherhood on the other. Indeed, it would be hard to separate these, since God's love has been conspicuously lavished upon us in making us his children (1 Jn. 3:1f.). Although we have no liberty to circumscribe God's activity in any way, it seems that God gives these experiences to his people chiefly when they pray in private and together in worship.

d. The Spirit is the first fruits of our heavenly inheritance (17, 23).  *Now if we are children, then we are heirs* as well - *heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ* (17a; cf. Gal.4:7). At first sight this seems to refer to our heavenly inheritance, which 'can never perish, spoil or fade', which God is keeping in heaven for us (1 Pet.1:4). It is possible however, that the inheritance Paul has in mind is not something God intends to bestow on us but God himself.  This notion was not unfamiliar to Israel in the Old Testament days. The Levites, for example, knew that they had been given no inheritance among their brothers because the Lord himself was their inheritance (Deut. 18:2; 32:9). And Godly individual Israelites could confidently affirm that God was their portion. For example, 'Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever' (Ps. 73:25). Moreover, the day is coming when God will be 'all in all' (1 Cor.15:28), or 'everything to every one' (RSV). As for the further astonishing statement that God's heirs are also co-heirs with Christ, we recall how Jesus himself had prayed that his own might be with him, and might see his glory and share his love (Jn.17:24ff.). And although it is still future, our inheritance is certain, since the Holy Spirit is himself the first fruit (23), guaranteeing that the harvest will follow in due course. Thus the same indwelling Spirit who assures us that we are God's children also assures us that we are his heirs. 

There is a qualification, however: *if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory* (17a). Scripture lays a strong emphasis on the principle that suffering is the path to glory. It was so for the Messiah ('did not Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' (Lk.24:26; cf. Mk.8:31). It is so for the Messianic community also (Rom. 5:2f.). Peter teaches this as clearly as Paul: 'Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed' (1 Peter.4:13). For the essence of discipleship is union with Christ, and this means identification with him in both his sufferings and his glory.


Looking back now over the first half of Romans 8, we have seen the multiple blessings that come through the Holy Spirit’s ministry in our lives. He has liberated us from the bondage of the law (2), while at the same time he empowers us to fulfill its just requirements (4). We now live each day according to the Spirit and set our minds on his desires (5). He lives in us (9), gives life to our spirits (10), and will one day give life to our bodies too (11). His indwelling obliges us to live his way (12), and his power enables us to put to death our bodies misdeeds (13). He leads us as God's children (14) and bears witness to our spirit that this is what we are (15-16). He himself is also the foretaste of our inheritance in glory (17, 23).


Note: to read more about life in the Spirit, go to