Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 31, 2015
Romans 8:12-17 Commentary
Comments and Observations
Not many of our congregants will get excited about Trinity Sunday, because most of them think of the Trinity as an impenetrable mystery. The Trinity is a set of ideas that have befuddled theologians for centuries and, thus, leave ordinary Christians cold. With tongue firmly in cheek, one theologian put it this way. “The Trinity is a matter of five notions or properties, four relations, three persons, two processions, one substance or nature, and no understanding.”
But our text for today shows us that the doctrine of the Trinity is a matter of life. Focusing particularly on the work of the Holy Spirit Romans 8:12-17 demonstrates how the Triune God is involved in the practical issues of human life: how can we possibly live a vital and fruitful life, how can we discover who we really are, how can we relate to a holy God, how can we deal with the sufferings of life, and how can we face an uncertain future? In other words, our text describes not the inner workings of the Trinity (the Trinity ad intra, as theologians put it), but the outer workings of the Trinity (the Trinity ad extra, the economic Trinity). As is always the case with the doctrinal teaching of the New Testament, this doctrine of the Trinity is not abstract theology; it is “task theology,” theology in the service of everyday Christian living life. That doesn’t mean we can’t develop abstract theology from these teachings; it only means that Paul’s original intention was to motivate us to Christian living.
Paul’s opening “therefore” is a familiar tell tale sign that he is turning from some indicative to an imperative. As I said above, the particular indicative is the work of the Spirit. For eleven complex verses, Paul has been describing how the Spirit is active in the beginning and at the end of the believer’s life and everywhere in between. The Spirit transforms us from helpless prisoners (“Oh wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”) into liberated people in whom “the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met….” And we can look forward to the great day when “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.”
That life changing work of the Spirit is what Paul was thinking of when he said, “therefore.” Because of all that work in us and for us, we have an obligation. The Spirit is the Actor; we are the re-Actors. But, interestingly, Paul doesn’t say that we have an obligation to the Spirit. That is surely his implication, but that’s not what he says. Instead, he focuses on the opposite, on the sinful nature. Perhaps that’s because we so often act as though we were obligated to our old sinful self. We hear people talk that way all the time. “I have to be true to myself. I have to be who I am. ‘I gotta be me, I gotta be me.’ That’s the only way I know how to live.”
No, says Paul, there’s another way to live, a better way to live, because the old you, the old desires, the old habits, the familiar ways of living have been superseded by the work of the Spirit of God. Indeed, he says earlier in Romans 6, that “old you” has actually died with Christ. So why would you go back to a dead way of life. That was you, but it’s not anymore. You have no obligation to that old self. And, I’ll tell you a terrible secret, a secret as old as the Garden of Eden. If you live in those old ways, you will surely die. That’s the God’s honest truth for all sinners.
But it’s not God’s truth for you, because you live by the Spirit. And “if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live….” Note the cooperative interaction between the Holy Spirit and us. We must be active in killing off the sins we commit in the body, and we can do that by the Spirit’s power. Paul does not say that we must kill off the body (soma, here, as opposed to sarx in the previous verses). Paul is not anti-body; he is anti-sin. It’s just that our bodies provide the occasion and the location in which we commit sin. Paul is perhaps thinking along the lines of James 1:14 and 15: “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.” We don’t have to kill off the body or its desires, but we must put to death the misdeeds that can grow out of our desires. Absolutely the only way to do that hard work is “by the Spirit.”
As we become more and more like Christ, we will more and more “live.” That is, arguably, the central promise of salvation. In place of the death that sin brings, Jesus brings life, life that is quantitatively different (it never ends) and qualitatively different (it is life indeed). I think that Paul is focused on the latter dimension of life when he writes, “because those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God.” At first, the connection between verse 13 and 14 is not all that obvious. I mean, why even add verse 14? Paul has just said that we will live if by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body. Why talk next about being led by the Spirit and being children of God?
I think it has to do with the difficulty of killing off the sin in our lives. We need assurance that we can really do it. So Paul assures us that the Spirit will lead us each step of the way. And he assures us that we already are children of God. We’re not just miserable sinners dragging ourselves along in the battle against sin, like Mark Wahlberg, the “Lone Survivor” singlehandedly battling Afghani terrorists in the movie by that name. No, we are already children of God, who will surely win the victory over sin. We don’t have to live in fear of defeat in this battle, fear of falling back into the hands of the terrorist named sin. “For you did not receive a spirit of fear that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.”
At this point our text becomes thick with Trinitarian connections. We are children of God because we have received the Spirit of sonship. That last word really means adoption. But Ephesians 1:5 says that we are adopted through Jesus Christ. “In love [God] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ….” Galatians 4:4 describes the historical circumstances surrounding our adoption. We had been little more than slaves under the law, living under constraint as if in an orphanage. “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Now in Romans 8 Paul says that the Spirit was active in our adoption. So we have God the Father sending the Son to accomplish our adoption, and the Father and the Son sending the Spirit to finish our adoption. Our adoption, and our life as God’s children, is the work of the Triune God.
How are we to think of all that? Well, first of all, we must remember that the human race had orphaned itself by disobeying God’s commands. Though we have all been created by God and are thus his children in a general sense, all of us are aliens and exiles because of our rebellion. We live in the far country of sin under the sentence of death, for the “soul that sins shall die.” In his great love for the world, God sent his Son to do the legal work necessary to bring rebels back home and make them children again. Even as no human adoption can be done without all the proper legal work, so Jesus had to satisfy the laws demands in order to set us free. It is only through Jesus Christ that we can become God’s adopted children. Now all “who receive him, who believe in his name have the right to be called children of God.” (John 1:12)
But it’s one thing to be adopted, to be released from the confines of the orphanage and welcomed into the Father’s house where one of the many rooms has my name on it. It is quite another to feel at home there. At the heart of feeling at home in the Father’s house is feeling at home with a holy God whom we formerly experienced as distant and threatening. This is where the work of the Spirit comes in. If Jesus did the legal work, the Holy Spirit does the social work in our adoption. Or better, the Spirit is the Counselor who produces trust and love toward God in our hearts. We know that we are God’s beloved children because we believe that Jesus died for us. We feel that we are God’s beloved children because the Spirit mysteriously works in and with our spirits until we are actually able to call almighty God, “Abba, Father.”
Here’s how Paul puts it in verses 15 and 16. “And by the Spirit we cry ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Note the intricate cooperation between the Spirit and our spirit. The Spirit doesn’t exactly put words in our mouths/spirits. But without his work, those words and the feelings behind them will never be ours. As the old Presbyterian divine, John Murray, said in commenting on this entire pericope, “The activity of the believer is the evidence of the Spirit’s activity and the activity of the Spirit is the cause of the believer’s activity.”
It is fascinating that Paul uses that word, “Abba,” which is the Aramaic word for father. It was the word that Jewish children used when addressing their fathers at hearth and board. But the Jews would never have referred to the thrice holy God with that word. Yes, God is spoken of as Father in the Old Testament on occasion, but no one ever dared to use the familiar, family oriented word, “Abba,” when addressing the One whose name is so holy it cannot be uttered. No one, that is, until Jesus. He could do that, of course, because the Almighty really was his Abba. At the risk of sounding like a social analogy Trinitarian, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit were family. No wonder Jesus, at his most vulnerable moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, cried out, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” That’s as pure and tender an insight into the inner workings of the Trinity as you will find anywhere in Scripture. Now here in Romans 8, we are told that the Spirit puts Jesus’ name for his Father into our spirits. We adopted children are as near and dear to God the Father as his only begotten Son is.
In the rich language of verse 17, Paul goes on to elucidate just how near and dear we are. It’s conceivable that adopted children would not be treated the same as natural born children. Blood can be thicker than legal papers. We’ve all heard of adoptions that never work, that go bad and are terminated because adoptee and adopted parents cannot bond. Then the adoptee is cut off from all the rights and privileges of being part of that family. That cannot happen to followers of Christ, says Paul. The adopting work of the Triune God is effective and permanent.
So, if we are children of God, we are heirs, heirs of God. What can that possibly mean? Paul tells us in the first of three Greek words with a sum prefix. We are sugkleronoumei, joint heirs with Christ. All that the Father will ever give his only begotten Son will also be given to us, his adopted children. No matter what our situation in life may be, we have a guaranteed future so glorious that we can’t imagine it.
Indeed, that is another of those Greek words with a sum prefix, sumdoxasthomen, which means to be glorified with. What is the inheritance we have with Christ? It is to be glorified with him, to actually share the glory of the very Son of God. What a difference that makes in our daily life if we actually believe it! It will transform the way we deal with our suffering. Suffering will surely come; it is our lot in a fallen world. But if we are children of God, inseparably united to the Father through the work of the Son and the Spirit, our suffering takes on a different character. Now it is part of our union with Christ.
That’s what the third sum word points to. The word is sumpaschomen, to suffer with him. Though the NIV translation of verse 17 says, “if indeed we share in his suffering, in order that we may also share in his glory,” that isn’t really a conditional sentence. Paul is not suggesting that if we don’t suffer with Christ, we won’t have his glory, as though our suffering somehow earns us that glory. He is simply saying that our union with Christ by the work of the Spirit will always involve us in suffering as well as in glory. That transforms our suffering. We are not alone in a hard world. We are the children of God, and even our suffering is part of the family’s heritage and destiny. We are co-heirs, co-sufferers, and co-glorified ones. Knowing that we are united with the Triune God changes the way we live our lives. That should be the point of this Trinity Sunday sermon.
A recent issue of Sports Illustrated featured a story about an illegitimate son of the 7’ 1” basketball legend, Wilt Chamberlain. In his 1991 memoir, A View From Above, Chamberlain famously boasted that he had slept with 20,000 women. But he had never, he claimed, fathered “any little Wilts.” Then along came Aaron Levi, biracial, very tall, and lost. Though he had been adopted by a very lovely and loving white family, Levi always wanted to know his birth parents. From an early age, he began to search for their identities. He finally found his birth mother and learned that Chamberlain (now deceased) was his father. But it wasn’t good enough for him. His aunt Victoria, a Boston area psychiatrist, said Levi’s essential questions are, “Who does he belong to? Where are you in the world? Who are you? Who claims you as theirs?” Those questions aren’t unique to Aaron Levi. They are the questions answered once and for all by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of what the Triune God has done to bring lost children home.
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