Romans 8 is a powerful affirmation of the way in which God is on our side. The Rev’d Dr Ivan Head seeks to make plain some of its depths. Rev Head was a member of the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission for about ten years. He is a parishioner of St Jude’s Bowral NSW.
Romans chapter 8 from beginning to end affirms that God is for us—from our beginning to our end. I use the phrase God’s ‘for-us-ness’. William Tyndale, the Bible scholar and a primary translator of the Bible into English as it then was, coined the phrase ‘at-one-ment’ (atonement) to better translate Paul’s Greek language into an English New Testament (1526). His translations made a significant, creative change to the English language, both then and now.
In Romans 8, we discover that God is for us, and for us irrevocably. Paul exclaims that ‘It is God who justifies’ (8:33b). God puts right, and God is for us (8:3b), acting fully on our behalf, as one who would be our Father. Human salvation in Christ emerges, unshakeably, from deep within God’s time, from where God has anticipated and foreseen our core need that is now addressed and met in Christ (8:29-30). This provision consists not only of the death of Jesus as ‘God’s Son in the likeness of sinful man’ (8:3b) but most importantly by means of an unbreakable relationship established between the believer and the Spirit of Christ (by the Spirit of Christ) which Spirit indwells at the centre of the human person (8:11). Metaphors for closeness (inter-personal, spatial, and built), only take us so far at this point. For instance, if the Spirit of Christ dwells within us it may be more accurate to speak of an intrapersonal relationship.
Twice in verse 11 Paul refers to indwelling, to place double stress on this remarkable claim. Indwelling follows the raising of Jesus from the dead by the same Spirit of God, which is a pre-condition for the new relationship, and the new mind-set in the believer. It is remarkable to consider that the agent of the resurrection dwells within each human person awakened to faith.
At the beginning of this chapter (8:1-2), Paul tells us that God has provided for us in Christ. We read that God has removed us from the zone of negativity and penalty: ‘There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus set us free from the law of sin and death.’ At the end of the chapter (8:38-39), Paul exclaims: ‘I am convinced that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ This inseparability is remarkable and demonstrates the for-us-ness I refer to. Having said that the Spirit of Christ dwells in the believer,
Paul writes what may be considered one of the most profound statements in the whole of the New Testament. At 8:16 he writes: ‘The Spirit himself co-witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God’. John Wesley said that this testimony of the Spirit was immediate and direct. This aligns with the modern philosopher Alvin Plantinga where he asserts that ‘we are right to take belief in God as basic’. Belief in God can properly be the move the mind makes prior to all other moves—neither inferred nor deduced but given; and this is neither a prejudice nor a refusal to think.
Romans 8 is saturated with the word Spirit. The Spirit is both the agent of Christ’s resurrection and the agent and matrix of Christ’s unbreakable relationship with the human person. Paul uses the word Spirit more than twenty times in this chapter. A very specific renewal of the human person is outlined. The renewal exchanges one human mind-set for another (8:5- 9). One mind-set is purely human and closed in on its own resources. It may even be hostile to the very idea that there is a God. The new mind-set is informed by the Spirit of Christ which begins to co-form us. The indwelling Spirit literally informs us (8:29). The person in Christ is said to be conformed to, or co-formed to the image of God’s Son. Paul uses the word symmorphy which could pass untranslated into English, as has the word synergy.
Paul believes that men and women in Christ share a new destination that is achieved by God’s seamless intervention through Christ and the Spirit. This destination is not a goal or set of achievements in the modern sense of a better future made by human endeavour alone, a kind of utopia created by adopting self-help points, programs, or political policies. This destination involves an end to death itself. He makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 15:26 where death is ‘the last enemy to be destroyed’. This challenges our imagination. For Paul, raising Jesus from the dead cannot stay confined to raising Jesus from the dead. This act is inherently an act of for-us-ness.
That death is said to be destroyed is profound. For us now, it is a reality at the limit. Death sits on our life-horizon. It is not something we have mastered or can master even with our best thoughts. We ponder it from this side of our own death, and daily we move closer to it. We know that the destination Paul hopes for and trusts in is not yet seen (8:25): ‘But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’ Paul is hoping for a renewed human existence in a glorified creation where death is no more.
I offer three translations from the Greek text for Romans 8:17, where this claim is made.
King James: ‘And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together.’
RSV: ‘and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him, in order that we also may be glorified with him.’
NIV: ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’
We can also translate this verse by picking up one element of the NIV in its use of ‘co’ in co-heir. Thus: ‘And if children of God, we are also heirs, heirs of God, and co-heirs of Christ if indeed we co-suffer that we may be co-glorified.’ I am using the prefix co- in the translations to stress the closeness of the Spirit which is sent to indwell (8:11) the human person. We must be careful not to self-isolate at this point. The Spirit minutely achieves our salvation from within us. However transcendent and mysterious, the closeness of the Spirit is real and as much internal to the human person as transcendent. Closeness and internality do not blend the identities of Christ and the believer, but neither does it leave the identity of the believer alone.
Paul wrote (Galatians 2:20): ‘I have been crucified with Christ, so it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.’ The Greek verb has the same co- prefix (sunestauromai) which could be translated ‘co-crucified’ as much as crucified with. Using co- really focuses on the closeness that Paul says holds between Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the believer. There is an inclusion that claims to be real. Paul stresses that closeness again in the challenging passage at Colossians 1:24 where he says ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, which is the church.’ Romans 8 invites a longer study of the working out of the Spirit’s indwelling.
Paul’s trajectory across Romans 8 heads to the moment when ‘the children of God will be revealed.’ Believers will be revealed in a resurrection glory already seen in Jesus. The resurrection of all the dead is as important to Paul as the one-off resurrection of Jesus. This can be difficult for the modern Christian to realise but Paul says explicitly at 1 Cor 15:16: ‘For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.’ For Paul, neither makes sense without the other, however much the resurrection of Jesus is the core of all his content. At 1 Cor 15:17 Paul says: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain (empty, futile), and you are still in your sins.’
The NIV (picking up a specific phrase from the Septuagint Greek Bible) says that God’s own Son dies in the flesh ‘as a sin offering’ (8:3). From the moment of resurrection and our receipt of the resurrecting Spirit, God establishes a new, unbreakable relational bond with us. The Spirit makes us children of God and siblings of Jesus. Paul says that as a result, each person in Christ becomes ‘more than victorious’ (8:37). At 8:32 he asks: ‘will he not give us all things with him?’ This statement is focused entirely on an unbreakable personal relationship with God that holds throughout all the circumstances of life. Paul notes these extreme highs and lows in the last two verses of chapter 8 which once again stresses the unbreakable relationship with God. ‘For I am sure that not death, not life, not angels, not principalities not things present not things to come, not powers not height not depth not anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
The inseparability in the Spirit of Christ and the believer may be the main point of Romans 8. In all these ‘nots’, those things that cannot break the bond of God’s love in Christ, we also hear God’s unequivocal ‘Yes’ as Paul said at 2 Cor 1:20: ‘All the promises of God are Yes in him’.