The argument about the status of the Law of Moses in this critical period of eschatological crisis continues. Paul speaks to “those who know the Law,” but now he seems to be addressing Jewish believers, who “have died to the Law through the body of Christ” (7:4).
The deadly self-consciousness induced by the Law
The analogy with marriage is not well constructed, but the basic point seems clear: a Jew is at liberty to enter into a new relationship only if he or she has been released from the obligations of a prior legal relationship. In Paul’s understanding it has become impossible for Jews to act rightly or righteously under that old régime. So they must be discharged from the Law, identify with Jesus’ crucifixion under the Law, etc., in order to “serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6). What we have in the rest of the chapter is some sort of attempt to explain how the destructive axis of Law, flesh, “sinful passions,” and death operated.
The Law is good, Paul says, but by naming sins, such as “covetousness,” it has brought about a type of deadly self-consciousness that cannot engender and nourish life. The profound Jewish understanding of the nature of sin, given to them in the Law, came at an immense cost.
We have to be careful about psychologising his argument here, but it is almost as though the former Pharisee Paul regretted the loss of the innocence that humanity had or has apart from the self-consciousness introduced by the Law: “apart from the Law sin is dead…. I was once alive apart from the Law” (7:8-9). Whether he is speaking figuratively or autobiographically is uncertain. It’s conceivable that either the fall of Adam or the “fall of Israel” at Sinai lies behind the passage, or both, but I’m not sure it’s as evident as Wright thinks.1
The process by which the Law intensified sin (cf. 7:13) is then described in psychological terms. At one level, this intensification will culminate in wrath against Jew and Greek and a superabundant grace which will transform the ancient world. But Paul struggles with the same mechanism internally. The Law is good, but it produces only a sense of moral failure, it intensifies the experience of sin:
For I delight in the Law of God according to the inner man, but I see another law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner at spear point to the law of sin which is in my members. (7:22-23*)
In the likeness of sinful flesh
This dilemma, which was both personal and eschatological, has at last been resolved by the action of God, by a controversial turn of events. Jesus was sent to Israel, to those under the Law—not “into the world”—“in the likeness of sinful flesh” (8:3; cf. Gal. 4:4). That is, Jesus was “in the likeness” specifically of the sinfulness that was identified and condemned by the Law of Moses. The phrase “sinful flesh” recalls the earlier contention that while Jewish believers were “in the flesh, the passions of the sins that are through the Law were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (7:5*).
The argument is not anthropological, it is historical. Jesus was judged by Torah-based Judaism to have broken the Law and was given over to Rome for execution as a blasphemer, false prophet, and false messiah. That he was also sent “concerning sin” (peri hamartias) may simply add a sacrificial or atoning aspect to this (cf. 3:25).
Here we have the deeply paradoxical and disorienting heart of Paul’s christology: a cursed Jew hanging on a tree (cf. Gal. 3:13-14) has become Israel’s judge and future ruler of the nations.
The Spirit of Christ
The other, more immediate outcome is that the demands of the Law—the right moral-religious behaviour of God’s people—would be practically fulfilled in those Jews who walked not according to the failed Law-flesh-sin-death syndrome but according to the Spirit (8:4-8). When Paul says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” he is thinking principally of the Jews and only secondarily of those Gentiles who are now deemed to have obtained a share in the promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the world.
The expectation is that a reformed diaspora people is emerging which will provide the credible and sustainable benchmark of righteousness by which the pagan world will be judged.
The Spirit of righteousness, however, by which the requirement of the Jewish Law will be fulfilled, is the “Spirit of Christ” (8:9), and this bears certain critical connotations. The shocking story of Jesus is the template for the experience of at least some believers.
We are reminded, first, of the argument about baptism from chapter 6: by the Spirit they have “put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13), just as they have “died with Christ” (6:8). By this Spirit also, they will live—the Spirit of the God who raised Jesus from the dead. They can expect God to “make alive your mortal bodies through his indwelling Spirit in you” (8:11*).
That much we know already. But this becomes the basis for addressing fear in a very specific sense. If they are led by the Spirit, they are “sons of God,” they have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (8:14-15), which means that they identify with Jesus in his moment of greatest weakness and fear, in the garden of Gethsemane, when he cries out, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk. 14:36).
When believers in Jesus are faced with the same terror and the Spirit of Jesus inspires the cry, “Abba! Father!”, at just that moment, under just those extreme circumstances, the Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (8:15-16).
We have the same line of thought in Galatians:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)
But in Romans, Paul takes it a step further. They are no longer slaves to fear, they have received the Spirit of sonship, they cry, “Abba! Father!”, they have become heirs of God or perhaps heirs of the eschatological promise (cf. Rom. 4:13). But the prospect is also held out to them of becoming “fellow heirs with Christ”—on one condition: “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).
He makes a distinction, I think, between the living churches which will eventually inherit the age to come, in history, as a priesthood in the midst of formerly idolatrous nations which now serve the creator God, and those believers who will suffer and die—in effect, the martyrs of the early church—and share in the glory of the heavenly Christ, reigning alongside him throughout the coming ages.
The subjection of the creature to the futility of idolatry
In the next section, Paul adds a “creation” dimension to the passage from suffering to glory. Traditionally, this has been understood in general terms: the whole of creation has been subjected to futility and looks forward to the revelation of the sons of God, when it will also be set free from its bondage to decay (8:19-22). I think this needs to be subjected to a contextual grid.
The eschatological premise for the whole letter is that the God of Israel intends to judge and annex the pagan world encompassed by Paul’s apostolic mission, from Jerusalem to Spain. This will be wrath against the Greek. The fundamental reason for God’s displeasure is given in Romans 1:9-25: the Greeks chose to worship the “created thing” (ktisis) rather than the “creator” (ktisas) who made all things.
I have argued in an article which should appear soon the Bulletin of Biblical Research (“The Subjection of the Creature to the Futility of Idolatry: The Scope and Application of Romans 8:19–22”) that the distinction between ktisis as created thing or “creature” and ktisis as “creation” more broadly carries over into Romans 8:19-22, which I translate thus:
For the eager expectation of the created thing awaits the revelation of the sons of God (for the created thing was subjected to the futility—not willingly but because of the one who subjected it) in hope that the created thing itself will be liberated from the slavery of corruption to the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans together and is in travail together until now.
Briefly, the “created thing” is the idol subjected to futility by the Greeks, who had become “futile in their thinking” (1:21). The idol, made against its will, so to speak, from the stuff of God’s good creation, looks forward to the “revelation of the sons of God”—the moment in time when persecuted believers will be vindicated—because it will then also be liberated from its “slavery to corruption.” On the day of God’s wrath, the peoples of the Greek-Roman world will abandon their idols and turn to serve the living God who made the heavens and the earth (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10).
The “created thing” is then differentiated from the “whole creation” (pasa hē ktisis), which has been groaning in solidarity with the “created thing” until now, in the way that frequently in the Old Testament the land or earth mourns over the unrighteous behaviour of its inhabitants.
The deep desire of the apostles, therefore, is not for the renewal of all creation at this point but for that day when both the stuff of creation will no longer be used to make idols, in keeping with a well attested Jewish polemic, and they themselves will experience the redemption of their afflicted mortal bodies (8:23-25).
But as long as they are weak and suffering, the Spirit of Jesus, who was weak and who suffered, sustains them, giving utterance to their deepest groaning and yearning.
The predestination of the martyrs
Paul is convinced that under these conditions “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). This is not an indiscriminate promise; it is aimed at those who will suffer in imitation of Jesus who suffered. To be “conformed to the image of his Son” is not for all believers, not for all who are “heirs of God.” It is for that group of people which has been foreknown and predestined to suffer and die as he did and be glorified with him. So in the end, Jesus will not be alone in this, he will be the “firstborn among many brothers” (8:28-29).
Nothing will separate the suffering churches from the love of God
Again, this final paragraph is not to be generalised for the benefit of all believers. The scope of the assurance is quite clear. The “elect” are those who stand opposed and condemned, counted unworthy, whether by the synagogues or by the pagan authorities, but in the end they will be justified, found to have been in the right, vindicated for their radical and far-sighted faith.
Paul is convinced that nothing will separate them from the love of Christ, “who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us”—not least for the apostles as they go about their dangerous business (8:34-35). He lists the hardships and hazards that they have faced: tribulation, distress, destitution, danger, the sword.
He then quotes the lament of the psalmist. The apostles have not been false to their vocation, they have not turned back, they have not departed from God’s way, they have not forgotten the name of their God, they have not spread their hands out to a foreign god, yet “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36; cf. Ps. 44:17-22; 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 1:8-9).
Paul concludes emphatically: “in all these things we super-conquer (hypernikōmen) through the one who loved us” (8:37*). Nothing in the cosmos can separate them “from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
- 1N. T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans (2002), 563.