We become co-heirs with Christ when we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit so that we might become fully obedient sons and daughters of God.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that we are no longer slaves to the flesh but children of God.
Seek to allow the Spirit to lead us continually.
Understand that as children of God, we are heirs to the inheritance that is the Kingdom of God.
Understand that sometimes suffering is a mark of obedience.
Catching up on the Story
Paul has spent the last several chapters of Romans discussing the realities of our new life with Christ. Through baptism, we have died with Christ and been raised to new life with Christ. Because of this, we must consider ourselves dead to sin, not allowing it to exercise authority over our lives.
As Paul’s argument progresses, he begins to use the metaphor of slavery. We are either slaves to sin and death (later on, he will talk about us being slaves to the law), or we are slaves to Christ. Of course, the Law itself was not bad. Sin used the law to its advantage so that we might become slaves to it through the Law. Death comes when sin is allowed to work through what is good.
This causes a deep inner conflict. We know what the good is that we should do, but because we are slaves to sin and death, we cannot do it. What we want to do, we cannot do, and what we don’t want to do, we do. At the end of chapter 7, Paul cries out, wondering who will save him from this conflict. Paul’s cry is rhetorical. He knows who will save him: God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul seemingly cannot begin a paragraph without the words “therefore” or with the question, “What then…?” The beginning of chapter 8 is no different. Because God, through Christ, can rescue us from this inner struggle with sin and death, there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Not only have we died and risen to new life through Jesus, but we also have his Spirit in us. His Spirit sets us free from the law of sin and death because Jesus himself has perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the law. If we allow the Spirit to live within us, he brings us to life, not just in a spiritual sense, but in our bodies too.
Romans 8:12-13 – No Longer Debtors…
The tightness of Paul’s argument compels him again to begin a statement with a connective phrase like “So then….” The opening phrase of verse 12 refers back to the beginning of the chapter and Paul’s declaration that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Because we have been united with Christ, we will not be condemned. Although, as we will see in a bit, our being united with Christ keeps us from condemnation, we have a participatory part to play in staying out of condemnation. Our unification with Christ means we are no longer slaves to the flesh. We are, as the NRSV translates it, “debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.”
A brief word needs to be said here concerning Paul’s use of the word “flesh.” Here Paul is not referring strictly to the body or even the desires we most associate with our bodies, a prime example being sex. Flesh for Paul takes on a more comprehensive meaning. It refers to the natural and typical human desires chronically orientated toward the self. In other words, the flesh is all our desires and actions that cause us to serve, not God or others, but ourselves. Some have taken Paul’s usage of flesh to an extreme and have used it to enslave people to extreme forms of asceticism or self-discipline. In this view, our God-given bodies are usually seen as a liability rather than the gifts that they are. Paul has already made it clear in the previous verse that God will also give life to our mortal bodies. Why would God give life to something which, for some, needs to be completely defeated and escaped?
Paul continues his argument. Since you are now not in the flesh but in the Spirit, you are not debtors to the flesh. The Greek word here for “debtors” could be translated as “under obligation.” Even though this condition of being in the flesh seems to be our natural fallen disposition, we are not obligated now to remain slaves to it. Something has happened (Christ’s life and suffering and resurrection) that frees us from this obligation to live according to the flesh.
Paul states this in negative terms and never lays out the positive side of the argument, but it is implied. We are no longer debtors to the flesh and sin but are now obligated to the Spirit to live according to him. If we do not live according to the Spirit, we will die. Living according to our selfish desires, being dominated by our appetites and ambitions, always brings us death (Dunn, 457).
An important point is being made here, and it is relevant not just to those who have not yet had a transforming encounter with Christ. Paul is speaking even to those who, as he has said in chapter 6, has died and been risen to new life in Christ. The struggle talked about in the previous chapter, the struggle with the flesh could continue even for the believer. One commentator puts it this way, “On the contrary, even those whom he has described confidently as ‘in the Spirit’ (v. 9) may yet live in and for the flesh. And if they do so, if they let that become the dominant force in their living, they are back on the way to death, the mindset of the flesh.” (Dunn, 457). Remaining in the Spirit requires consistent moral effort on our part. If one remains in the Spirit, one’s life does not have to be a continual struggle with the flesh.
We are not condemned to death, nor should we be afraid that our salvation will be lost or that we will revert back to being enslaved to the flesh because by and through the Spirit of God, we can put the deeds of the body to death. Paul’s language is important here: “but if by the Spirit you put to death…” Alone we cannot do this, but we must play our disciplined part in the eradication of the deeds of the body. There must always remain a healthy tension between God’s divine grace and our effort in the processes of salvation and sanctification. Our effort can only be engaged and sustained if it is rooted in the Spirit’s work.
This admonishment parallels the death-life warning found in Deuteronomy 30:15 and following. When writing these words, Paul probably has this in mind (Dunn, 449). In Deuteronomy, Moses calls the people to choose life so they may fully receive the inheritance that God has promised them, namely the Promised Land. As we will see in a bit, Paul wants his readers to choose life through the Spirit so that they, too, might receive their inheritance. This time around, however, the inheritance is not the land but life beginning now and forever with Christ.
What does Paul mean by “deeds of the body?” These deeds are similar in nature to living according to the flesh. They are the fruits of being unduly dependent on merely satisfying human appetites and ambitions. “The deeds of the body we must put to death involve psychological and physical impulses—tendencies of the psyche (to rationalize, overcompensate, etc.) and the instinctual desires and drives of our common humanity.” (Greathouse and Lyons, 248).
Living “according to the flesh” and doing the “deeds of the body” can be hard to define. We tend to establish a set of rules and measure our attitudes and deeds by those rules. We desire a black-and-white benchmark by which to grade our moral lives. Here we find no such set of rules. The flesh and the deeds that result from being enslaved to it are often hard to define, let alone recognize because they do not always lead to the sins everyone recognizes as wrong.
Two points need to be made here. First, our cooperation with the Spirit becomes even more important because of the ambiguous nature of the flesh and its deeds. The Spirit is like water sifting through sand: it gets everywhere, even between the smallest grains. When the sand becomes so saturated, it becomes impossible to distinguish between sand and water. If we are going to live by the Spirit, the Spirit must be allowed to permeate us like the water does the sand.
Together, then with the help of the Spirit, we can expel these deeds of the body. Second, in Paul’s phrase “put to death,” the verb is present, active, and indicative. This means that the action happens in the present but is not yet completed. The action continues moving into the future. If we live by the Spirit, we will be continually empowered, and we must continually be empowered to kill off these deeds of the flesh. This is no one-and-done thing. When we fail to realize this, we come under increased danger of reverting to a state of being obligated or indebted to the flesh.
Romans 8:14-17 – Joint Heirs with Christ
Paul shifts the argument just a bit at the beginning of verse 14. The predominant imagery of slavery fades, giving way to that of adoption. In contrast to those who allow themselves to be led by the flesh, finding death as their end, those who allow themselves to be led by the Spirit are children of God who will receive an inheritance.
Our inclusion as children of God is through adoption. In the Jewish world, adoption was not practiced. In the Greco-Roman world, however, adoption was commonplace and ensured that a person’s inheritance would go to a legitimate person. Here the distinction between slaves and sons becomes more stark. While slaves could rise far in a house, gaining many responsibilities and respect, they were still beholden to their masters to do as they were told. Sons (and daughters), while they are not totally free to do as they please, do have a significant amount of freedom.
Additionally, those being adopted were expected to conform to the standards set forth by the house adopting them. Adoption is not a blank check to the inheritance. Rather, adoption requires a significant level of continued conformity so that the adoptee might receive the prize. Remember that adoption in the ancient world also usually occurred when the adoptee was grown. Here, again, the Spirit helps us continually conform to our heavenly family's new standards.
So, Paul proclaims that what we received from Jesus was not a spirit of slavery to the flesh, which leads to fear and death; we have received the spirit of adoption. We are now children of God. Along with Jesus we can cry, “Abba! Father!” As the Spirit works in us, he testifies with our spirit to the Father that we are indeed his children. The witness is dual confirming and supporting us in difficult times when we doubt our convictions. (Greathouse and Lyons, 250)
Since part of the point of adoption in the Greco-Roman world was so that a suitable heir could be found, Paul now turns to the inheritance image. If, Paul states, we are children of God, then we are heirs of God too, indeed joint heirs with Christ, our older brother. The idea of inheritance is not foreign to Paul’s Jewish readers, as they would have largely understood their existence as God’s people in terms of inheritance. Additionally, Israel understood itself as God’s inheritance (Dunn, 462).
From the beginning, Abraham was promised that his children would receive that which he had been promised by God, namely a land to call their own. Now, however, Paul also extends the inheritance idea to the Gentiles. The inheritance is no longer the Promised Land but the Kingdom of God (Dunn, 463). In a way, we have already received some of our inheritance because the Kingdom of God has already been established among us in the person of Jesus. Yet, we have not fully received our inheritance and will not until Christ returns.
The Kingdom of God can be hard to define. The simplest way to understand it is to imagine that the Kingdom is the way things were supposed to be, where everything was right and perfect and very good. Our inheritance is a world put right again in the fullness of grace and truth. We will receive our inheritance as we are led by the Spirit and not by the flesh.
What does it mean for us to be co-heirs with Christ? As Christians, we cannot come into our inheritance apart from Christ. We cannot be in Christ and have Christ in us if we have not been, as Paul talks about in chapter 6: bound together with him in his death and resurrection.
Here Paul offers an important caveat: we will only share with Christ in the inheritance of the glory of the full Kingdom of God if we suffer with him. As before, there is an important balance between divine grace and human participation. That God has given us grace beyond measure through the death and resurrection of his Son is not to be doubted. Our continuing obedience to the Spirit is not as sure. We will fully receive our inheritance if we allow the Spirit to help us strive for full obedience. Legalism is not the point here. Paul is actively working against that mindset. Rather, our active participation and obedience are.
Obedience often leads to suffering. It is not that God wants us to suffer; his commands are not meant to cause us pain. We have only to look at Christ’s life to understand that full obedience through the Spirit will often lead one up against the powers and principalities of our world. We will encounter trouble if we are obedient in grace, mercy, righteousness, justice, and steadfast love toward our neighbor. For every person who finds themselves oppressed and taken advantage of, there is another who is benefitting from that oppression. May we be fully obedient, allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit so that we might share in the Kingdom, which is here but not yet fully established!
On Pentecost Sunday, often the emphasis is on that miraculous outpouring of God’s Spirit on those gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are right to focus on that story because it shows us the great power of God’s Spirit to spread the Good News and to draw people to himself.
Yet, it is easy to forget that the Spirit’s work did not stop on the day of Pentecost. It continued to empower and lead those first disciples in the way they should go. It led to Peter and John, Philip and later Paul. The Spirit has continued to lead believers from that day until now. The church universal is alive and well because countless many have allowed themselves to be led by the Spirit of God into obedience. Even now, sitting next to you and I are faithful believers who are seeking the Spirit’s guidance.
So today, let us be reminded and encouraged that we are no longer debtors to the way of the flesh, all of those habits, proclivities, and ambitions that lead us toward sin, but that we are now bound together with Christ. And as we are bound with Christ, we are given his Spirit to work in us, guiding us in the way we should go.
Let us also remember that God will not force us to listen to his Spirit and respond. Even those who have been followers of Christ for a very long time must always remember to seek the Spirit’s guidance continually, daily. We are always participants with the Spirit in our own Sanctification. If we are faithful, even through suffering, we will inherit the Kingdom of God alongside Jesus Christ. So, this Sunday, pray that the Spirit might continually lead you!
Specific Discussion Questions
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
To what does Paul refer when he uses the words “flesh?” What does “live according to the flesh” mean?
Why would we die if we live according to the flesh? What kind of death is Paul talking about here? Spiritual? Physical? Or both?
Paul contrasts “live according to the flesh” with “led by the Spirit.” What does it mean to be led by the Spirit? Keep in mind that the verb “led” has an active and continuous sense to it.
How does being led by the Spirit make us children of God?
In ancient times adult males were adopted by a family so that a suitable heir might be had. If we have been adopted into God’s family, what does that mean for us? How are we adopted? What inheritance do we receive because of our adoption?
At the end of the passage, Paul tells us that we will be joint heirs with Christ if we join in his suffering. Why would suffering be a key to our inheritance? Does God want us to suffer? Is there something about being led by the Spirit and fully obedient that might lead us to suffer? If so, why?
Why would we read this passage on Pentecost Sunday? What does it say about the Spirit’s continued role in our lives?
James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 38A, Romans 1-8 (Dallas, Tex.: Thomas Nelson, 1988).
William M. Greathouse and George Lyons, Romans 1–8: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2008).