Read this passage here.
In the early verses of chapter 8 of the book of Romans, Paul presents a dichotomy at play that is life or death. Paul describes the choice between life in the Spirit, as discussed in previous verses, and the death that comes from choosing the flesh. Some have seen this as a discussion of material things versus spiritual things, but there is infinitely more at play in this discussion.
Main Idea of Text
Continuing from the previous section, Romans 8:5-8 discusses the paradox of the forgiven man standing before the judge. The paradox lies in the seemingly cliché choice of life or death, Spirit or flesh. Will the forgiven man continue to act as though he did nothing wrong and “live according to the flesh” (Rom. 8:5, NRSV), or will he adapt his ways to “live according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5, NRSV)?
Before moving further with this important text, there is an initial understanding that must be fully established. John Stott makes it very clear that when Paul is talking about the flesh, he is not using a traditional dichotomy for the Greco-Roman culture. Rather, “by sarx (flesh) Paul means neither the soft muscular tissue which covers our bony skeleton, nor our bodily instincts and appetites, but rather the whole of our humanness viewed as corrupt and unredeemed.”
This is not a discussion of material versus spiritual as many have read it over the years, and likely would have gravitated towards in his own culture. Dualism and Gnosticism, while popular in the Greco-Roman culture of the time, were not Christian practices, despite the early Mosaic influence on Platonic thinking. Here, Paul is remedying the situation and attempting to show flesh as a global concept rather than merely material or nature.
This being said, Paul still uses a dichotomy between the Spiritual and the fleshly things, and urges believers to “live according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5, NRSV), and to “set the mind on the Spirit [which] is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6, NRSV). It is also important to establish the fact that Paul is not merely comparing two things that are similar here. Paul is showing the two concepts in tandem to isolate them from one another.
Tom Westwood explains that “Paul is now indicating … the absolute incompatibility of the flesh and the Spirit. The complex being who is the Christian, must determine for himself what his line of conduct will be.” This fact becomes very clear as Paul finishes this section with the use of strong negatives towards the ability of a flesh-oriented person to follow God’s law- the pinnacle moment of description in the use of the words “hostile” (Rom. 8:7, NRSV), “does not submit” (Rom. 8:7, NRSV), and the double usage of “cannot” (Rom. 8:8, NRSV).
James R. Edwards also highlights this contrast, likening the human caught in this decision to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, characters from the famous book by Robert Louis Stevenson.  In this comparison, he “sets the Spirit in antithesis to the flesh,” and in doing so, shows the extreme differences between the incompatible forces of flesh and Spirit.
In the text, one phrase in particular is repeated around four times: “set their minds” (Rom. 8:5-8, NRSV). This phrase ultimately boils down to the word phroneo in the original Greek text. Bauer, Arndt, Danker and Gingrich explain this word to mean: “set one’s mind on, be intent on…to take someone’s side, espouse someone’s cause.” This word can also mean “way of thinking, mind (-set), in our lit. (only Romans 8) aim, aspiration, striving.”
For Olliver Greene, talk is limited in terms of the previously mentioned idea of setting your minds, but Greene instead focuses on the outcome of having a mind set on the Spirit. Romans 8:6, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6, NRSV). Here, while many look to the repetition of the phrase “set their minds” (Rom. 8:5-8, NRSV), Greene looks at the statement that follows the repeated phrase. The focus on life and peace, given by Greene, comes from his understanding of the Greek word for peace, which means “to bind together that which has been separated.” Peace brings God and humanity back together, but the mind must be on the Spirit for this to happen.
Olliver Greene also makes the important connection between Romans 8:8 and Hebrews 11:9. While it is uncertain as to who the author of the book of Hebrews was, the idea that you cannot submit to God without the setting your mind on the Spirit, carries into the book of Hebrews as a theme as well. Hebrews words this a little differently, and talks about this in terms of faith instead of “setting their mind” (Rom. 8:5-8, NRSV).
Main Application of Text
This text, while short and not extremely practical in nature, has an excellent application to be made. This application stems directly from this idea that Greene supported in highlighting the use of the word “peace” (Rom. 8:6, NRSV) and all that it entails. Peace in terms of this passage seems to indicate the reuniting of two parties: man and God.
In terms of today’s culture, “it is a commonplace in the modern West to regard human nature as basically good, or at least neutral;” this was not at all was Paul was arguing for here. Instead, in this chapter and also in earlier chapters, he makes it very clear that outside of the Spirit of life, humanity is an enemy of God. Two parties have been reunited in peace, and the reunion will be a social event unlike any other. By talking about the peace of God in terms of the salvation of men, Greathouse and Lyons indicate that this is an emphasis on the “social, relational quality of mind of the Spirit… in contrast to individualistic notions of life in the Spirit, where conceived along moralistic or charismatic lines.”
Chapter 8 as a portion of the larger book of Romans holds the key to understanding a crucial part of the theology of Paul. Through the use of a dichotomy, Paul expresses this important spiritual truth: Man must choose life or death. While this discussion has been spun to mean many things over the years, ultimately there a call to action for the believer in this short passage of Romans 8:5-8.
. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 222.
. Tom Westwood, Romans: A Courtroom Drama, (New York, NY: Loizeaux Brothers Inc., 1949), 150.
. James R. Edwards, NIBC: Romans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 204.
. Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 866.
. Oliver B. Greene, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Greenville, SC: The Gospel Hour, 1974), 261.
. Ibid., 262.
. Edwards, 205.
. William M. Greathouse and George Lyons, Romans 1-8: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008) 235.
Read this passage here.
The book of Romans is simply a small part of the larger works of Paul as a teacher and theologian. However, this passage in particular exposes one of the staple aspects of Paul’s theological framework: Old Covenant versus New Covenant. While this is not the only place in which this theology is made known, it is in the book of Romans that it fits into the greater context of the legal position of humanity before the righteous God and Judge.
Main Aspects of the Text
In this section of text, Romans 8:1-4, there are many surface level aspects which the reader can easily identify. This being said, there are also several other layers which are at work. This is not to say that there is hidden wisdom or such foolishness at work, but rather to say that at first glance, the main interaction and outcome of the text can be overlooked. While ultimately both levels will be components of the greater event that is taking place in this pericope of Scripture.
Main Interaction in Passage
Looking at the text, there is a very clear interaction between God and the Law that takes place. It is the work of God the Father through Christ Jesus that gives the freedom from the condemnation of the Law. This is especially clear in verse 2 which states, “Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2, NRSV).
John Stott supports this as a primary interaction which takes place in this passage. He describes this instance saying that “to be liberated from the law of sin and death through Christ is to be no longer ‘under the law.’” This law that God Himself had instituted, a law now seen as death, is to be replaced by the work of Christ in the life of those who live “not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4, NRSV).
This verse brings up a rather interesting occurrence in this passage that should not be overlooked. This is the alternative main interaction in this passage: the law of the Spirit and the law of sin and death. While it still bears the idea that God is interacting with the law, there is more of an indication of Covenantal Theology in the second possibility of the main interaction in this text. Given the Jewish origin of Paul’s faith, and other Jewish references in the book of Romans, this interaction may be seen as a more prominent interaction.
In the passage of Scripture itself, this makes little difference as God is still the active force involved, and the act still takes place on behalf of humanity. Going back to verse 2, which was mentioned earlier in this section, the text says more than Christ alone setting a person free as Stott supported initially. In fact, the text boldly claims that it was the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2, NRSV) which has set free those who would live according to the Spirit.
This interpretation fits better in terms of other passage of Scripture which speak about the law. Matthew 5:17 is a prime example of this, for several reasons. Jesus warns the listeners, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17, NRSV). If it were God directly interacting with the law, it would be easy to omit this verse. However, when the law of the Spirit interacts with the law of sin and death, then it is hard to say that the law has been abolished. Rather, this seems to indicate a replacement, or renewal of the law as the law of the Spirit is a continuation of the plan of God to redeem humanity rather than condemn.
Main Outcome of Romans 8:1-4
The first line of this section of text has a fairly clear description of what the outcome of the work of Christ and the law of the Spirit. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1, NRSV). As a main outcome of this text, this certainly fits the criteria. Especially given the conversation that takes place throughout the book of Romans as a whole.
The drama of the book of Romans speaks to a legal investigation and defense of the guilty party before the offended party and judge. Tom Westwood, who favours the idea of a courtroom drama, points out that this section is the beginning of a new identity process. While the offender began the process as a person of the law of sin and death, this passage is the moment in which they truly are seen as forgiven under the law of the Spirit.
Yet, the question must be asked, was this the outcome that was meant to be highlighted as a thesis statement in this text? Admittedly, this is likely the main outcome that was intended within the passage. It could be said, however, that this passage is also meant to show the depth of the fulfilment of the law that took place in Christ’s death and resurrection. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Rom.8:3, NRSV).
In terms of the salvific effort, it is clearly the work of God that brings about the changes in this passage. This is true both in terms of the restoration of humanity, and in terms of the restoration of the law. There was weakness and inability to escape condemnation, and God provided a way for humanity to seek life. The law was likewise weak and incapable of giving life to humanity because of sin, but God found a way to fulfill the law and give hope and life through the law of the Spirit.
While it is clear that there is an action on the part of man, it is also clear that there is a definitive and much greater act on the part of God. Man must “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4, NRSV). However, it is through the incredible actions of God that this is even possible, for man was bound to the law, and the law was “weakened by the flesh [and] could not do” (Rom.8:3, NRSV) what it had set out to do.
Pauline Logic and Theology
William M. Greathouse and George Lyons agree that “Romans 8:1-17 is the climax of a section that began at 5:12, as well as the conclusion of Paul’s argument up to this point.” Up until this point, Paul has been drawing parallels between the flesh and the Spirit, but here he shows the potential of humanity to truly live according to the ways of the Spirit in Christ. The claim that sin had over men and women has no power over those who live in Christ Jesus.
This theology of Paul, is also seen elsewhere in his writings, and helps to expound upon what he is saying on this particular occasion. Fred O. Francis and J. Paul Sampley indicate that this passage ties into at least four other works of Paul. Of these, Galatians 5:16-26 seems to further his thoughts the most. Here, Paul is seen to describe what he means by living according to the law of the Spirit as opposed to the old law of sin and death. He begins the passage in very similar terms to what is written in Romans 8, and then adds in a practical living section before returning once again to the language of Romans.
Romans 8:1-4 offers a wonderful view of the Pauline theology of the Covenant between God and His people. While this is only one occasion in which this theology is expressed, it is still a place of rich theological depth. Here, Paul shows that life is offered, and possible for humanity, and that it is the work of God to restore the law that has made this possible.
. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 218.
. Tom Westwood, Romans: A Courtroom Drama, (New York, NY: Loizeaux Brothers Inc., 1949), 144-146.
. William M. Greathouse and George Lyons, Romans 1-8: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008) 225.
. Fred O. Francis and J. Paul Sampley, Pauline Parallels, 2nd ed., (USA: Fortress Press, 1984), 29.
As a quick note to this citation, there was no location given for Fortress Press’ printing location aside from USA.
Rev. Olivia Phillips