Thursday, August 10, 2023

Romans 8:12-17

Romans 8:12–17 (ESV)✞: Heirs With Christ


In the last passage Paul talked about the fact that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ, and that, through the Spirit, we can do something that was otherwise impossible: please God.

The whole passage had been a contrast between living in the flesh and living in the Spirit, and in this passage he is still on that topic:

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.

Romans 8:12 (ESV)✞

Quick side note: The Greek word for “brothers” isn’t male-centric, so it’s more like “brothers and sisters.” Or maybe “siblings” would be better, if it wasn’t so awkward.

Because Christ has done what we could never have done ourselves, and the Spirit is with us at all times helping us to be more like Him, we should consider ourselves to be in God’s debt. Which is probably obvious, especially in light of all Paul has been saying in the last passage, but again, Paul is still on his theme of living in the flesh contrasted with living in the Spirit.

In fact, he now reiterates a main point he’s been making: living in the flesh leads to death, while living in the Spirit leads to life:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:13 (ESV)✞

The first part is something Paul has already covered quite a bit in Romans: sin leads to death. But what does he mean by putting to death the deeds of the body? I think he means two things:

  1. A day-by-day, moment-by-moment battle with sin. When we’re tempted to sin we must “kill” that temptation. And, frankly, when we fail in our task and fall into sin, and are hesitant to ask God for forgiveness we must “kill” that temptation, too!
  2. A final mastery over death, whereby we will have eternal life with God – the Spirit putting death to death!

Of course, #2 is all up to God, not us, but it is how we will live. (See below for more thoughts on “live” vs. “die” in this context.)

And the rest of the passage is more reassurance from Paul to his fellow Christians:

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:14–17 (ESV)✞

In this case, when Paul says “sons,” he actually means “sons,” not just “sons and daughters” – but he means it in a good way, not in a sexist or chauvinistic way. In Paul’s day daughters didn’t have the same rights of inheritance that sons had, but in Christ, Paul is saying, that’s no longer the case – the “daughters” inherit just like the “sons.” Or, as he’s putting it here, the daughters are treated as if they were sons under the laws of the day – they are adopted into God’s family as sons.

I mentioned in the previous post that those who are saved have the Spirit and those who have the Spirit are saved; it’s one-to-one. There are no exceptions to that rule, with someone who isn’t saved but somehow has the Spirit, or someone who is a child of God, but God somehow forgot to send the Holy Spirit. When he talked about this in the last passage it was to reassure his readers, and he’s writing verses 14–17 for the same reason: we don’t need to fall back into fear; we are now God’s adopted children and have a kind of access to His presence that His children in the Old Testament could only dream about. (Except, of course, for Adam and Eve before the fall…)

The Spirit Himself bears witness to that. That doesn’t mean we won’t have moments of doubt—I think all Christians have moments when we wonder if we’re really saved, given how sinful we continue to be—but it does mean that there is evidence in our lives that we’re becoming more like God and bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

And if we’re God’s children then that makes us heirs, right alongside our “brother” Jesus! Jesus is God’s Son, we’re God’s adopted children, but we’re all heirs.

Paul ends this section of the letter with what sounds like a caveat: “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” That sounds like a proviso—“I’ll agree to save you, and I’ll send my Son to take the punishment for your sins, and I’ll send you My Spirit, but if you refuse to suffer I’m taking it all back!”—but in light of all Paul has already written in this letter I don’t think we can read it that way.

So, again, I think he’s just making a simple statement of fact: if you’re Christian you will suffer with Christ. There’s no such thing as a Christian who doesn’t have the Holy Spirit, and there’s no such thing as a Christian who doesn’t suffer for Christ.

To Paul, suffering for Christ—and the willingness to suffer for Him—is another piece of evidence that you are saved, just as the presence of the Spirit is. Though… again, see below for some additional thoughts on this topic.


This might be as good a place as any to talk about “life” vs. life, as well as the concept of suffering.

“Life” vs. Life

When it comes to the topic of “life,” and even of “death,” we can be somewhat reductionist compared to how the Bible uses those terms. Yes, it is a real and evident fact that humans are born, live for a certain period of time, and then die, but when the Bible talks about life—especially the New Testament, I think, though I think we’d find the concept in the Old as well, in a more subtle manner—it means more than just that.

In fact, it’s pretty clear from the way that Jesus, Paul, and others talk about “life” in the New Testament that they must be talking about more than just what happens between the moment we’re born and the moment we die. See verse 13 of this passage, for example:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:13 (ESV)✞

Paul can’t just be talking about the normal definition of “life” we all use; if we are to compare the lifespans of Christians to the lifespans of non-Christians we’ll see that they’re pretty comparable; it’s not like Christians live for many, many years and non-Christians don’t. (In fact, there are many, many cases where people live long past a “normal” lifespan but aren’t Christians.) So what does he mean that people who live according to the flesh will “die,” and people who put the deeds of the body to death (by the Spirit) will “live?”

A partial answer is to say that Paul and other New Testament writers are talking about eternal life: what happens after you “die” from your “natural” life? Do you “live” with God, or “die” in your sin? (The next passage, verses 18–30✞, will talk about this.) But the way my thought process works even this is not a full answer, because, if we’re being very, very literal, both God’s children and those who are not will continue to exist forever. So even if we’re considering the afterlife, these loose terms of “life” and “death” mean more than just whether we continue to exist.

No, I think it’s more fruitful to think in terms of real life as opposed to a kind of partial, or substandard life. Not to put too fine a point on it, we were created to worship and have fellowship with God, but our sin makes us unable to do so. Our lives will never be as full as they should be while that is missing; very often, on this blog, when I talk about “eternal life,” what I actually say is eternal life “with God,” because, to me, that’s the point. Are you just “existing,” or do you have the fellowship with God that you were created for?

This is more than just a question of the next life, however: for the Christian, this fellowship with God starts in this life. Not fully and not perfectly—I’m still too sinful for that, and any amount of sin would prevent fellowship with God—but because of the fact that I’m already justified in His sight thanks to Jesus’ work on the cross, and thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, I already have a taste of that eternal life with God.

If it sometimes seems weird how Paul is talking about “life” and “death,” because it’s not clear whether he’s talking about this life or the next, it’s because he’s talking about both. Real “life” for the Christian starts now, and is perfected when we shed our sin later.


This is also, by the way, why Paul speaks in such harsh terms sometimes about death; just in the first seventeen verses of this passage he’s said:

Verse Mention
2 The Law is “the law of sin and death”
6 Setting our minds on the flesh is “death”
10 “the body is dead because of sin”
11 Jesus was raised from the (literal) dead, and the Spirit will give us life (implying we were dead)
13 “if you live according to the flesh you will die”
13 We have to “put to death the deeds of the body”

Partially this is a matter of emphasis; sin is serious—even for the Christian, who has been saved from its consequences—and therefore we have to treat it as such. We don’t just “resist” sin, we put it to death. We kill it, before it kills us, essentially. Again, we know that it can’t, Jesus has ensured that, but it’s so malevolently embedded in our souls that we have to treat it that way.

But this is also, in light of what I said above about “life” vs. life, literal. We are spiritually dead to God, unless and until we put our faith in Christ; we have “life” but we don’t have full “eternal life with God” until that moment.

It’s easy to see why we can get reductionist when we see the Bible talking about “life” vs. “death,” even Nicodemus did in John 3:1–15✞. I don’t, for a second, think we’re supposed to read that passage and think to ourselves, “what a dummy Nicodemus was!” We’re to see ourselves in him, because we have the same questions; if I’d never read the Bible, met Jesus, and he told me that I had to be “born again,” I’d be asking the same kinds of questions as Nicodemus (except more sarcastically and less respectfully).

What Jesus has accomplished for me is more than just avoidance of Hell, it’s life. Real life, in fellowship with God. It’s something I’m already experiencing, right here and now, and will experience much better when I’m rid of the sin that plagues me.


Finally, a note on suffering, because Paul seems to take it for granted that we’ll suffer for Jesus.

As a person who lives in North America in the 20th/21st Centuries, suffering for Jesus isn’t something I’ve seen a lot of! There are no laws against Christianity here; there are no consequences for going to church every Sunday (except that I get a tax credit for any money I give); there are no jobs I’m prevented from holding or government services I’m disqualified for or benefits I’m denied. There aren’t any formal consequences for being a Christian! Christian preachers sometimes talk about Christianity being under attack, but frankly they’re being hyperbolic (or, in some cases, disingenuous).

Which is great, but also, I think, causes some Christians to get nervous. The Bible, especially the New Testament, takes it for granted that we will suffer for Jesus. Does that mean that we in North America in the 21st Century aren’t real Christians? For me personally, are there things I should be doing that I’m not, which would have caused me to suffer, and for which I need to repent?

I think these are valid questions for us to explore, honestly, though I’ll get to a big caveat in a moment. Are ways in which the Church in my part of the world has strayed from the Gospel and/or our obligations? Are there sins I personally commit because I’m trying to avoid suffering that I should actually be enduring? It’s always a good idea for the Christian to ask such questions – and act on any answers we come up with!

That being said, it’s also worth noting the reason Paul writes to his readers that they’re going to suffer: as I said above, he’s writing to comfort them. It’s not, as I said earlier, a proviso, it’s to reassure his fellow believers that their suffering is a sign of the Spirit, not a sign of God abandoning them. So while I think it’s good for us to ask ourselves hard questions, I also think it would be twisting the Scriptures to take a passage in which Paul is comforting Christians and use it to make Christians feel worse!

And this is important because I don’t think Paul is saying that the only way you can be a Christian is to be one in a time and place where you are going to suffer for it. If that were true, around the time Christianity became the dominant religion in North America it would then have become impossible to be a real Christian here! To be clear, Paul is not writing that being born in a time and place where Christians don’t suffer means that you can’t be a Christian.

I do think, however, that Paul is saying that a true Christian will be willing to suffer for Christ. So, as a Christian, if my job requires me to go against the Word, or if my family is pressuring me to do something that goes against the Word, I might face consequences by going against them, and I’ll be willing to do so. It won’t be the kind of suffering Paul’s original readers were facing, but the point is that the true Christian is more interested in eternal life with God than with what happens to us in this life.

And, of course, many of us will also fail in this respect. There will be times when Christians go against the Word in order to avoid suffering. When that happens it doesn’t disqualify them for eternal life with God; it’s a sin like any other, and will be forgiven as such. Because, again, one of Paul’s wider points across this and previous passages is that we have life through the work of Christ and of the Spirit in our lives; it’s not up to us, it’s up to God, and He solved the problem – perfectly and absolutely.

Let’s not take a passage that Paul wrote to reassure his readers and turn it into something that goes against the message of the Gospel, as if we could somehow do something so bad that it would overcome the power of what Jesus has accomplished. By all means, we should question ourselves and interrogate whether there are ways we should be improving or sins we should be repenting of, but we should do so in light of all that Paul has written in Romans, assured that we are children of God, fellow heirs with Christ, already experiencing life – not in panic. As Paul says in verse 15:

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

Romans 8:15 (ESV)✞

There may be need for repentance but there is never need for the Christian to fear their Father.

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