Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 26, 2024

Romans 8:12-17 Commentary

This is not an easy text for preachers who regularly follow the Revised Common Lectionary to preach on. After all, each year the Lectionary cycle includes at least part of it. What’s more, on what we call Trinity Sunday, Romans 8:12-17 doesn’t mention the word “Trinity.” In fact, its readers are left to deduce that its reference to God is a reference to whom we think of as the first Person of the Trinity, God the Father. On top of all that, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson at least arguably pays more attention to the Holy Spirit than the other members of the Trinity.

My colleagues Scott Hoezee and Stan Mast  have written wonderful commentaries that pay thoughtful attention to what Romans 8:12-17 says about the God’s Trinitarian character. Preachers who wish to focus on the “Trinity” in “Trinity Sunday” will benefit richly from consulting those works.

But preachers who wish to take a slightly different approach to Romans 8:12-17 might pay close attention to what it says about the Spirit’s interaction and work with Jesus’ friends’ spirits. That’s certainly an appropriate focus during the season of Pentecost that the Church has just entered.

The Spirit inspires Paul to use the term we translate as “Spirit” three times in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson and the term we translate as “spirit” twice. However, the Greek word we translate as “Spirit” in verses 13, 14, 15, and 16 is the same one we translate in verse 15 as “spirit” [pneuma]*.”

Just beyond our text’s edges, the apostle writes extensively about “spirits.” In verse 9-11 Paul writes, “You are controlled not by the sinful nature, but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”

Two verses of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson also refer to both the Holy Spirit and Christians’ spirits. In verse 15 the apostle tells his Roman readers, “you did not receive a spirit [pneuma] that makes you a slave [douleias] again to fear [phobon], but we received the Spirit [pneuma] of sonship [huiothesias].”

Paul introduces this assertion with the word “for [gar].” That links his assertion about our reception of the Spirit of sonship to what he has just written. In verse 13 the apostle basically insists that the sign that the Spirit leads God’s dearly beloved people is our dying to the sin that otherwise eventually would destroy us. Those who let the Spirit lead us are God’s “sons” (and daughters!).

We are, as the biblical scholar Audrey West notes, people whom God graciously raises to life with Jesus Christ. In fact, as she goes on to write, “No one is so dead in sin that the power of God cannot bring that person back to fullness of life.”

That Spirit who raises Christians to life makes us not slaves of fear, but reminds of our status as children of God. In asserting that. Paul seems to link disobedience to fear. In Romans 7:15 he says that disobedience plagues even God’s godliest people. There the apostle grieves how “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

The apostle doesn’t explain the link between such persistent sinfulness and fear. However, he may be suggesting that fear is part of what motivates disobedience. Paul may be implying that our fear of the loss of our power, or independence, or pride fuels our disobedience. We naturally live as slaves to our “sinful nature” [tas praxeis tous somatos] because the alternative that is living as God’s obedient servants scares us to death.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that the Holy Spirit is not a Spirit who leads us to the disobedience that arises from fear. Instead, the Spirit ignites in Jesus’ followers a sense of our divine adoption. In verse 15b the apostle insists “You have received [elabete] the Spirit [pneuma] of sonship [huiothesias].” We are not slaves, but adopted children. God’s dearly beloved people don’t submit to sin’s power, but to God’s parental care.

The Spirit who confirms in us our divine adoption equips us to “cry [krazomen] ‘Abba, Father’.” The Spirit moves Christians not to cry out in terror, but in trust. The Spirit empowers Jesus’ friends to cry out not to a cruel slave master, but to the One who for Jesus’ sake graciously declares himself to be our Father, or perhaps most accurately, “Daddy.”

In fact, the Spirit is so committed to Jesus’ friends’ wellness that Paul can insist, “The Spirit himself [autou to Pneuma] testifies with [symmartyrei] our spirit [pneumati hemon] that we are God’s children [tekna]” (16). The Message lyrically paraphrases this as “God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are.”

So much tries to make Christians question our status as God’s dearly beloved children. In the face of all that and more, the Spirit so graciously works in our spirits that the Spirit teams up, as it were, with our spirit to quell our fears and doubts about who and whose we are. Together the Spirit and our spirit testify that God has graciously adopted us as God’s beloved sons and daughters.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In his reflections on the movie Tender Mercies, Roy Anker alludes to the cooperation between the Holy Spirit and the spirit of Mac Sledge (portrayed by Robert Duvall). Sledge is what Anker calls “an angry, boozed-out onetime country music star.” Sledge’s ex-wife Dixie Scott has kept him from contact with their eighteen-year old daughter, Sue Ellen.

Sledge and Scott’s world is a messy one. Loss, grief and loneliness fill it. They are what Anker further calls “creatures of what life has done to them and they to themselves, as is particularly the case with Sledge, who … has drowned in a bottle his talent, wealth and family.”

Sledge, however, eventually falls in love with and marries a young, widowed woman by the name of Rosa Lee. She owns and runs a little motel and gas station in a remote part of Texas. Together Lee and Sledge run her business and care for Rosa Lee’s ten-year old son.

But, seemingly out of nowhere, Sledge’s daughter Sue Ellen shows up. She asks her dad if he remembers a song he sang to her when she was young. While she says she remembers only part of it, he claims to remember none of it. Yet as Sledge watches his daughter drive away, he sings the song he’d sung to her but claimed he’d forgotten. He sings the song, writes Anker, “as petition and blessing and doxology and cry of his long-battered heart.”

“On the wings of a snow-white dove,/ He sends his pure sweet love/ A sign from above/ On the wings of the dove./ When Jesus went down to the river/ He was baptized in the usual way/ And when it was done/God blessed his Son/ He sent him his love/ On the wings of a dove.”

“If anyone can sing it from down-deep,” writes Anker, “it is the broken-down but now restored Sledge. For it is a sign of something he did not think possible, first Rosa Lee loving him against all odds and sense, and now the return of his child, though troubled she is … Doves come in countless ways to heal the heart and bind the soul.”


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