Formations 05.27.2018: Live by the Spirit

Romans 8:1-17

A Russian icon showing the apostle Paul.

Unlike many friends and most of my family, I don’t consider myself a news junkie. Mostly, I limit my news intake to one podcast each morning. I trust it to tell me what I need to know, and many days it confirms reasons I often hear for not keeping up with the news: It focuses more on the bad than the good. It elevates acts of greed rather than acts of generosity. It brings our attention to suffering more than joy.

In this week’s passage, Paul acknowledges pain as a present reality in our world. He cites “sinful flesh” and a “law of sin and death” (vv. 2-3). And he tries to hold these in tension with a Spirit of “life and peace” (v. 6).

It’s easy for me to get caught up in explaining his distinctions, but he simply tells the church in Rome that “you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit” (v. 9). Such an affirmation seems to demand as much as it describes, because the Spirit calls us to share news of life and liberation, not violence and death.

Recently I learned that death rates for women and children in childbirth are significantly higher for black mothers and black babies. After controlling for prenatal care and education, black mothers are 2-3 times more likely than white mothers to die or nearly die in childbirth. At the same time, black babies are 2.2 times more likely to die than white babies. And it seems that white supremacy, in daily life and in the medical field, is largely responsible for this. Everyday effects from racism create much higher levels of stress for black women. At the same time, a history of racism results in worse care for black mothers.

This trend, I heard one morning, testifies to the sinful flesh that Paul identifies in our world. It testifies to laws that have treated some as disposable and others as superior. And when I, a white man, consider my own inheritance of these systems, Paul’s description of the church in Rome raises another question. Have we sought to be people of God in ways that extend the life and peace of the Spirit? Or have we sought to extend our own power and privilege?

To this question, we may have different answers. These different answers may take us down different roads to the shared joy promised by God’s adoption. But as Paul demands, describes, and asks how we are being people of the Spirit, we must recognize the works of the flesh and of the Spirit present in our world, and we must respond.

Michael Barbaro, “A Life-or-Death Crisis for Black Mothers,” The Daily, May 11, 2018.


• What recent events in the world have brought to your attention the laws of death and violence and sin at work in our world?
• How is your story connected to these events? What responses do they demand of you?
• In light of the suffering around you, how can you embrace your status as “joint heirs with Christ”?

Reference Shelf

Flesh and Spirit

In the NT the apostle Paul gives an ethical sense to flesh. People, as flesh, are contrasted with Spirit and are sinful. They cannot please God without the help of the Spirit. Rom 8 is the classic text in which Paul contrasts life “in the flesh” and life “in the Spirit.” Verse 8 says “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Verse 9 is evidence that to be “in the flesh” is equivalent to not having God’s Spirit dwelling in one. Flesh in this sense refers to the whole person in his or her distance from God the atempt to live one’s life independently of God. When Paul says in Rom 7:18, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh,” he is not referring to the physical body. Flesh here has the ethical sense of his unregenerate nature. Gal 5:19-21 lists the “works of the flesh.” Only five of the fifteen are basically sensual (fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, drunkenness, and carousing); the other ten include idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, anger, divisions, and envyings.

Just as flesh can refer to the total person apart from God, so spirit may describe the total person in relation to God.

Roger L. Omanson, “Flesh and Spirit,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 302–303.

Inheritance and Suffering

The language of “inheritance” (klēronomia) is extensive in the New Testament (see Acts 7:5; 20:32; Gal 3:18, 29; 4:1, 7, 30; 5:21; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:50; Titus 3:7; Eph 1:14, 18; 5:5; Heb 1:2; 6:17; 9:15; 11:7-8; Jas 2:5; 1 Pet 1:4; Rev 21:7), not least because the issue posed by the Gentile mission was precisely how this messianic movement might stake a claim to the heritage of Israel from which it had originated. The solution offered throughout the New Testament, not least in Paul, was by way of redefining the nature of the “inheritance,” identifying it not with the possession of the land but specifically with the gift of the Holy Spirit (see, e.g., Acts 3:37-42). Once this slight (!) adjustment is made, then it follows that everyone who has the Holy Spirit is also an heir of the promise made to Abraham. There is no need to elaborate, I think, on the obvious objection that other Jews would have to this redefinition, which had the effect of “localizing” and relativizing their own claims to be heirs of Abraham. It was fine with the Christians if they continued to claim to be heirs of Abraham “according to the flesh,” for the Christians’ redefinition of terms had now made that claim religiously irrelevant. Without accepting the gift of God in Christ and receiving the “Spirit of Christ,” they could not claim to be “sons of God according to the Spirit” in the way the messianists could. As with Paul’s use of Adam, we see in this redefined “inheritance” language what a radically new beginning Paul sees occurring in the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul attaches a rider to the affirmation in 8:17: “if indeed we suffer with him in order that we might be glorified with him.” The statement provides a transition to the next “work of the Spirit” in human freedom, the deepest possible imprinting in the freedom of believers with the identity of the crucified and raised messiah. The balanced statement finds a partial parallel in 2 Tim 2:11: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” The statement in Romans, however, connects not simply to the pattern of death and resurrection, but specifically to the experience of suffering. We find here perhaps the deepest paradox of the Christian conviction: that the Spirit of power that gives new life to humans finds its most proper expression not in ecstatic speech or healings but in weakness, sharing the suffering of the messiah (see L. T. Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996]). It is this aspect of the Spirit’s work among believers that Paul now develops.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 134–35.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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  1. Bruce Quick says

    This is not the same topic as what we find in Formations for Sunday, 05/27/2018, which is drawn from Romans 8:1-17.