10. From Agony to Ecstasy (Romans 8)
Without a doubt the eighth chapter of Romans is the high-water mark of the New Testament. “Spener is reported to have said that if holy Scripture was a ring, and the Epistle to the Romans its precious stone, chapter 8 would be the sparkling point of the jewel.”31
We gain a clue to the importance of this chapter simply by contrasting the conclusion of chapter 7 with that of chapter 8. Chapter 7 ends in agony, with the apostle describing the constant struggle going on within as he attempts to live a life which is pleasing to God in the power of the flesh. The conclusion of chapter 8 is a victorious shout of praise and confidence, for the apostle has proclaimed the sovereignty of God, not only in his salvation, but in his sanctification. What an exhilarating chapter this is. It begins with the words, ‘no condemnation’ and it concludes with ‘no separation.’ The victory of the Christian is absolutely certain, for the matter is in God’s hands.
In approaching this great chapter I have made the very difficult decision to maintain my present course of expounding one chapter each week. I have, therefore, decided to analyze this chapter by means of the telescope rather than the microscope.32 Both studies have their value. The study of the Book of Romans is something like the man who has purchased a new automobile. On the one hand, he desires to appreciate the car as a whole. He stands back to look at it. He drives it about the neighborhood, delighting in the approving looks of his friends. But on the other hand he desires to carefully inspect every detail of the car. He scrutinizes the engine to look for any loose nuts or leaks. He analyzes the finish for any minute imperfections. The problem is that you can’t very well do both things at once.
So it is with the Book of Romans. There would be great profit in weighing every word, and analyzing every phrase. One could very well spend a lifetime in this book and not come near exhausting its wealth. But our purpose in this study of Romans has been to grasp the flow of the argument of the book. Our goal is to look at the ‘big picture.’ In view of this goal, we shall focus on the argument of the entire chapter as it relates to the rest of the book. We will have to settle for a survey of the highlights in this gold mine of theological treasures.
With this in mind, we will approach this chapter with this question in mind: What do we find in Romans 8 that transformed Paul’s outlook from agony to ecstasy? Verses 1-27 describe the Holy Spirit as the source of sanctification, while verses 28-39 assure us of the certainty of sanctification.
The Source of Sanctification: The Holy Spirit
Paul has already shown that all men fall under the condemnation of God, for all have some revelation which they have rejected (Romans 1-3a). Though man is totally incapable of earning acceptance with God, God has provided righteousness in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, Who died in the sinner’s place, and Who provides the one who trusts in Christ with a God-kind of righteousness. Thus, a man is justified by faith (Romans 3b-5). The position of the man in Christ who has been justified by faith is to be practiced by him, in keeping with his profession at baptism to have died to sin and to have been raised to newness of life in Jesus Christ (Romans 6). Although a godly life is imperative for the Christian, it is also impossible for him in the power of the flesh. Just as man could not please God as an unbeliever by trying to keep the Law, neither can he do so as a Christian. It is not the Law which is evil, but the flesh which is weak and overpowered by sin. What the Christian desperately desires to do, he does not; what he hates, he does (Romans 7).
The liberating message of Romans 8 is that God never intended man to live the Christian life by his own efforts and in his own strength. Provision for Christian living is in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s behalf is described in the first 27 verses of this chapter. We shall view this ministry of the Holy Spirit in four dimensions.
The Spirit of Life and Liberty
The first dimension of the work of the Holy Spirit is found in verses 1-11 where He is described as the Spirit of life and liberty:
For the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law of sin and of death (Romans 8:2).
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you (Romans 8:11).
If I could summarize what Paul is saying in verses 1-11, it would go something like this: What the Lord Jesus Christ acquired by His death, burial and resurrection, the Holy Spirit applies through His indwelling ministry in the life of the Christian. What Christ has won for us positionally, the Holy Spirit works in us practically.
There is no condemnation to be dreaded by the Christian. Why? Because all of our sins, past, present, and future, have been dealt with on the cross of Calvary. Even the sins we commit as Christians are forgiven. But more than the fact that we have been delivered from the penalty of sin, we have also been delivered from its power. Since the Law was incapable of producing righteousness due to the weakness of our flesh, Christ redeemed us from bondage to the Law by His death. As Paul illustrated by the analogy of marriage in chapter 7, we have died to the Law in Christ. It no longer has dominion over us. The claims of the Law and of sin on the Christian have been fully met in the sacrificial death of Christ. This is the negative side. We have died to the Law and to sin’s authority over us.
On the positive side, God has made provision for the Christian to fulfill the requirements of the Law through the Holy Spirit’s power. “In order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). What could never be accomplished in the power of the flesh—the meeting of the righteous standards of the Law—can be achieved in the power of the Spirit.
The flesh cannot please God (verse 8) for several reasons.
(1) First of all, the flesh is hostile toward God. “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the Law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7).
(2) The flesh is incapable of producing righteousness. That is surely the conclusion we must draw from chapter 7.
(3) The flesh can only produce death: “For the mind set on the flesh is death …” (Romans 8:6).
The Christian now has an alternative, for God has placed His Spirit within every Christian, and this Spirit is the source of liberty and of life: “However you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Romans 8:9). One common characteristic of all true Christians is the fact that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We need not talk in these days of ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’ for we have received Him, if indeed we are true Christians. Paul says to the Christian, “If you are a true Christian, then the Holy Spirit indwells you.”
Furthermore, the Holy Spirit Who indwells us is a life-giving spirit. He has power over death. The measure of the power of the Holy Spirit can be seen in the fact that He was the instrument through which the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead (v. 11). So far as our flesh is concerned, it is dead in its ability to produce the fruit of righteousness. But the Holy Spirit has power over death , so that He can give life to our mortal bodies. He can produce in us the righteousness God requires of His saints.
The Spirit of Adoption
When we come to the subject of the ‘adoption’ of the Christian, we come at one and the same time to one of the most crucial, and yet one of the most neglected doctrines of the New Testament. J. I. Packer laments this tragedy when he writes:
It is a strange fact that the truth of adoption has been little regarded in Christian history. Apart from two last-century books, now scarcely known (R. S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, R. A. Webb, The Reformed Doctrine of Adoption), there is no evangelical writing on it, nor has there been at any time since the Reformation any more than there was before.33
Packer also reminds us that although the doctrine of justification is the primary and fundamental blessing for the Christian, it is not the highest blessing, the blessing of adoption.34 In justification, we are declared innocent of sin and righteous through the work of Christ. In adoption we are constituted sons of God. If justification makes us the servants of God, adoption makes us sons.
Let me illustrate it in this way. Suppose that I was an incorrigible criminal, standing guilty before a judge. It would be one thing for the judge to pronounce me innocent in the eyes of the law on the basis that my wrong doings had been paid for. But it would be something far greater for the judge to make me his own son and take me home to be a part of his family. The Holy Spirit is the source of our sanctification in that He is the Spirit of Adoption. This is the thrust of verses 12-17.
Paul informs us that we have absolutely no obligation to relapse into a walk according to the flesh; rather our obligation is to walk in the Spirit. Walking in the flesh produces death; walking in the Spirit, life (v. 13). Not only is the Christian characterized as one who has the Spirit dwelling within (v. 9), but in verse 14 the Christian is also one who is being led by the Spirit. As Warfield points out,35 this leading refers not so much to personal guidance in this context as it does to the process of sanctification. Every Christian is spirit-indwelt and Spirit-led. It is inconceivable for the Christian to continue to live willingly and persistently according to the flesh.
More than this, the Holy Spirit gives us the disposition of a son and not a slave: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit36 of adoption as sons by which we cry out ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15).
The New Testament concept of adoption is somewhat different from that prevalent today:
The term ‘adoption’ may smack somewhat of artificiality in our ears; but in the first century AD an adopted son was a son deliberately chosen by his adoptive father to perpetuate his name and inherit his estate; he was no whit inferior in status to a son born in the ordinary course of nature, and might well enjoy the father’s affection more fully and reproduce the father’s character more worthily.37
The word ‘abba,’38 is the intimate family term for father that a baby would use to address its father. We would probably find its equivalent in the expression ‘daddy.’
The force of Paul’s words here is that the Holy Spirit not only joins us to the family of God, but that He continually assures us and reminds us of this relationship. The Holy Spirit brings to our attention our spiritual ‘roots,’ for who we are has a great deal of bearing upon what we do.
The Holy Spirit assures us of this intimate relationship of sonship in two ways. First, He gives independent testimony to our sonship in a way which is experiential and illusive of description. Second, He corroborates the testimony of our own human spirit, that we are a child of God (v. 16). The conviction of our own spirit would surely be related to the Scriptures, to our devotional life, and to the evidences and the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Needless to say, our realization of this testimony would vary in intensity at different times in our experience.39
The Spirit of Hope
To be a son of God is also to be an heir, and so Paul’s discussion of the Holy Spirit’s ministry relative to our adoption as sons flows easily into the hope of future blessings which we have as the children of God. The Christian life is obviously no bed of roses, no flower-strewn pathway. It is a life of suffering, a life of struggle. These sufferings, Paul tells us, are not to be compared with the glory which is to follow (verse 18). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Hope for He assures us that great glory awaits us.
We are not alone in this struggle and suffering. When Adam fell all of creation suffered in the wake of his sin. All of creation has been subjected to futility and frustration (v. 20). All of creation groans and anxiously awaits the restoration of all things. Certainly here is the explanation to the problem our world faces in the realm of ecology. All creation suffers from the sin of men. We strip away desired minerals and resources without sufficient concern for the effect of our actions on the environment. We pollute the environment with our rubbish. No wonder creation groans.
Though we should strive to express our stewardship over the creation in a more responsible way, total restoration will not occur until God Himself renovates the earth from the rubbish of man’s sinfulness and selfishness. Creation awaits the revelation of the sons of God (v. 19). By this, I understand that day to be when God will restore the earth to its original ‘paradise’ condition, and when the ‘sons of God’ will execute their dominion over the earth as God originally instructed (Genesis 1:26-28).
The struggle of the cosmos is a reflection of the struggle within the Christian. We are all too aware of the struggle of Romans 7, and we will continue to know this agony until we experience our full restoration and sanctification: “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23).
Until we are given transformed or heavenly bodies (1 Corinthians 15:40, 50ff.), we will continue to be plagued by the flesh and its solicitations to sin. The indwelling Holy Spirit is God’s earnest agreement of a future and total restoration, a complete release from not only the power of sin, but from its presence. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the Christian is like an engagement ring40 in that it gives substance to our hopes for better things in the future. Even in the midst of the struggles and suffering of this life, the Holy Spirit assures us of the blessings which are yet to come as the sons of God.
The Spirit of Help
There is a song which I have heard on the radio which goes something like this: “I’m not what I oughta be, And I’m not what I’m gonna be, But thank God I’m not what I used to be.” In the crunch of the Christian’s experience of not being what we ought to be, and not yet being what we are destined to be, the Holy Spirit ministers to us as our helper, coming to our aid at points of weakness and inability.
And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
I understand the help of the Holy Spirit to be far broader than just helping us pray for those things which we cannot put into words. But this is surely a specific example of the helping ministry of the Holy Spirit. Some things simply cannot be put into words—any words (any language, native, foreign, or angelic). At these times when our humanity is stretched beyond the breaking point, the Holy Spirit ministers on our behalf, communicating for us the deepest longings and desires within us.
Here is the source of our sanctification. The Law can never sanctify, due to the weakness of the flesh.
A vine does not produce grapes by Act of Parliament; they are the fruit of the vine’s own life; so the conduct which conforms to the standard of the Kingdom is not produced by any demand, not even God’s, but it is the fruit of that divine nature which God gives as the result of what he has done in and by Christ.41
What the Law could not do through the weakness of the flesh, God has done through the work of His Son on the cross and through the appropriation of the results of that work by the Holy Spirit.
To run and work the law commands,
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;
But better news the gospel brings;
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.42
The Certainty of Sanctification
There is an expression that goes something like this: only two things in this life are certain, death and taxes. Now this may be true for the unbeliever, but for the true believer in Jesus Christ we must add at least one more thing—sanctification. That is the force in these concluding verses of Romans 8. All of the struggles, all of the turmoil, all of the agony, is a part of God’s plan to conform us to Himself.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
Verse 28 stresses that not only are all things for God’s glory, but also for the good of the Christian. Then, also, it is God who is active in all the affairs of our lives, for “It is God who causes all things to work together.” The events of our lives are no accident; they are the handiwork of the sovereign God. We are reminded that it is all things which work for our good. This must include those things which are pleasant as well as the unpleasant, the things we would call good, and those which we think bad. No circumstance fails to contribute to our good and God’s glory. Finally, we should see that all things work together. We cannot look at things in isolation, yet we are incapable of seeing from the beginning to the end, so we must trust in God to accomplish His good and perfect and acceptable will in His own way in our lives.
Verses 29 and 30 remind us that salvation from beginning to the finish is the work of God, and that He loses no one along the way. Those whom God foreknew are those whom God has chosen before the foundation of the world, before they did anything, good or evil. The basis of God’s free choice is grace, and not the merits of the chosen (for indeed we have no merit before God). God did not look down through the corridors of time and choose those whom He knew would come to trust in Him. The expression ‘to know’ often conveys the concept of choice (cf. Genesis 18:19; Jeremiah 1:5). To foreknow here and elsewhere (e.g. Romans 11:2; 1 Peter 1:20) can mean ‘to choose beforehand,’ and such must its meaning be here.43
The sequence of verses 29 and 30 is this: foreknowledge (that is election), predestination, calling, justification, glorification. Foreknowledge determines who God’s children will be; predestination determines what God’s people will be (conformed to the image of Christ); calling is that point in time when the unbelieving elect is irresistibly invited to be a part of God’s family; justification is the sinner’s participation in the benefits of the work of Christ on his behalf; glorification is the full future realization of all that God has purposed us to be. Glorification is spoken of in the past tense because of its certainty of coming to pass. We say to our children sometimes, “If you do thus and so, you’ve had it.” We do not say “You will have it,” but “You’ve had it” because it is a sure thing. So it is with our ultimate and final sanctification. There is no question of its coming to pass.
Do you see that from election to glorification it is entirely in God’s control? Our sanctification does not rely upon our faithfulness, for we would never make it. Our sanctification relies completely upon God, and what God determines will come to pass. Paul has not said that some of those whom God has chosen will be called, nor that some of those who are called will be glorified. From election to sanctification, it is the work of God and it is certain.
Our response to these things (vv. 31-39). The confidence of the Christian in the light of these certainties is expressed in verses 31-39 by a sequence of questions and answers.
(1) “What then shall we say to these things?” (v. 31). If God is on our side, who could be against us? This is not to say that there is no one against us, for Satan is our adversary. But if God is for us, who is Satan to oppose us? I did not have an older brother, but I was an older brother, and there is no greater security than being with big brother. If the sovereign God of the universe is for us, then there is no enemy that can harm us. If God’s power was sufficient to save us, if God’s love was strong enough to send His only Son to the cross, then there is nothing which He will not do for us as His sons (v. 32).
(2) “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” (v. 33). God, the sovereign judge of the universe, has declared us to be righteous through the work of His Son. Who, then, would dare to accuse us before God?
(3) “Who is the one who condemns?” (v. 34). Would anyone dare to condemn us before the God Who has given His only Son to save us. He has borne our sins on the cross. There is no condemnation. Further, He is at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf.
(4) “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (v. 35). Is there anything in this universe greater than God? Is there any one greater than He? No! Indeed not. If this be true, then there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God. Our salvation, our sanctification, is as secure as the God of heaven is strong. It is with this confidence that we may live out our Christian responsibilities, knowing that God is the source of our salvation and our sanctification, and, therefore, it is sure.
(1) We should be thoroughly convinced that the salvation and the sanctification of the saint are fully the work of God. We cannot agree with Charles G. Finney who wrote: “It is self-evident that the entire obedience to God’s law is possible on the ground of natural ability. To deny this is to deny that man is able to do as well as he can. … It is, of course, forever settled, that a state of entire sanctification is attainable in this life, on the ground of natural ability.”44
I am convinced that the reason so many Christians throw in the towel in their spiritual lives is that they have been misguided into thinking that their spiritual life is within their ability. From Romans 6, we must conclude that we are responsible to live godly lives, but we are not able to do so, apart from the work of the cross and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
(2) We must realize that even with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, entire sanctification will not be reached in this life. That redemption of which Paul speaks in verses 18-25 is yet future. Though it be future, it is absolutely certain.
(3) Romans 8 gives us the assurance to live confidently and victoriously. Our confidence rests wholly on the sovereignty of God in salvation and sanctification. “Well did James Denney once observe that whereas assurance is a sin in Romanism, and a duty in much of Protestantism, in the New Testament it is simply a fact.”45 On the basis of this fact of assurance, we may live the Christian life confidently.
32 For a more indepth study on the Book of Romans, see Romans: The Righteousness of God, a 45-lesson series by this author on our web site at www.bible.org.
36 I would agree with the text of the NASB in not capitalizing ‘spirit’ here. Spirit has in some contexts (e.g. Numbers 5:14; 2 Timothy 1:7), the idea of ‘disposition.’ Although the Holy Spirit is the source of this disposition, He is not here identified by the word ‘spirit.’ It is the context which makes this clear.
38 “Abba is an Aramaic word (in the ‘emphatic state’) which came to be used among the Jews (and is used to this day in Hebrew-speaking families) as the familiar term by which children address their father.”
“On Abba, Father Luther says: ‘This is but a little word, and yet notwithstanding it comprehendeth all things. The mouth speaketh not, but the affection of the heart speaketh after this manner. Although I be oppressed with anguish and terror on every side, and seem to be forsaken and utterly cast away from thy presence, yet am I thy child, and thou art my Father for Christ’s sake: I am beloved because of the Beloved. Wherefore this little word, Father, conceived effectually in the heart, passeth all the eloquence of Demosthenes, Cicero, and of the most eloquent rhetoricians that ever were in the world. This matter is not expressed with words, but with groanings, which groanings cannot be uttered with any words or eloquence, for no tongue can express them’ (on Gal. iv. 6, Middleton’s translation).” F. F. Bruce, pp. 166-167.
39 “The witness of our spirit, he writes, becomes a reality as ‘the Holy Spirit enables us to ascertain our sonship, from being conscious of, and discovering in ourselves, the true marks of a renewed state.’ This is inferential assurance, being a conclusion drawn from the fact that one knows the gospel, trusts Christ, brings forth works meet for repentance, and manifests the instincts of a regenerate man.
“But [continues Haldane] to say that this is all that is signified by the Holy Spirit’s testimony, would be to fall short of what is affirmed in this text; for in that case the Holy Spirit would only help the conscience to be a witness, but could not be said to be a witness Himself … The Holy Spirit testifies to our spirit in a concurrent testimony. This testimony, although it cannot be explained, is nevertheless felt by the believer; it is felt by him, too, in its variation, as sometimes stronger and more palpable, and at other times more feeble and less discernible … Its reality is indicated in Scripture by such expressions as those of the Father and the Son coming unto us, and making their abode with us—Christ manifesting Himself to us, and supping with us—His giving us the hidden manna and the white stone, denoting the communication to us of the knowledge of an acquittal from guilt, and a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. ‘The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us’ (Romans, p. 363).” J. I. Packer, Knowing God, pp. 205-206.
43 “As for the words ‘whom he did foreknow,’ they have that connotation of electing grace which is frequently implied by the verb ‘to know’ in the Old Testament. When God takes knowledge of people in this special way, He sets His choice upon them. Cf. Amos iii. 2 (‘you only have I known of all the families of the earth’); Hosea xiii. 5 (‘I did know thee in the wilderness’). We may also compare Paul’s own language in I Corinthians viii. 3 (‘if any man love God, the same is known of him’); Galatians iv. 9 (‘ye have known God, or rather are known of God’).” F. F. Bruce, p. 177.