Text: Romans 8:12-17
“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs- heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (ESV)
The Apostle Paul has been expounding his gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). After Paul explains the core truths of his gospel of justification (chapters 1-5), he moves to questions concerning sin, the law and life in the Spirit due to justification and the grace of God in Christ (chapters 6-8). The Apostle Paul declares that the Christian, the justified one, has a new life, and is not bound by sin and the old life. In Chapter 7:6 the Holy Spirit is brought into Paul’s explanation of this new life and how we now live:
“But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”
There is a new way of living, a new way to live that God has brought about through the redemption in Christ Jesus and the regeneration and presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s death for us actually involves our death with Him. Thus, the condemnation of the Law has been dealt with, we have died with Christ. We are no longer under the Law’s condemning power. Rather, we have a new life in Christ, the Christ who rose from the dead. So, for Paul, it was “out with the old life and in with the new life.” Yes, we still have the old nature, but a new life has begun as we are united to the death, burial and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The new life is life in the Spirit, and we will see some of what that means in the verses we are considering.
Before we focus on the teaching of these verses, I want to make a few comments about this new life in the light of different Christian experiences. If you have been a Christian since your early years, this radical change of “new life” may not be as apparent to you. It may not have been experienced as a radical change at one moment in time. You may have been raised in a context of the truths of God’s Word, and responded to the gospel at an early age. Your “faith-walk” may be one marked by gradual growth including struggles along the way. That experience, which is the experience of many, does not change the radical nature of the new birth and the spiritual life that is yours. But, even for those who may not have had a memorable moment of radical “conversion,” at some point a simple understanding and believing of the Christian gospel transitioned by God’s grace to an inner work of the Spirit and transformation. Faith became your own faith by God’s grace and you became a child of God as you repented and believed and received Christ personally. You may have lived with Christian influences impacting you before, but now the “Influencer,” the Holy Spirit indwells and works within – a new life.
I grew up in a Christian home. I heard the gospel from my earliest days. I remember asking Jesus into my heart at an early age. I had an emotional time of personal surrender to the Lordship of Christ in my early teens. My growth in Christ was a continual and a gradual one, by God’s grace Yes, I did come to the place (by God’s grace) when I had a “reckoning” faith, and a faith that personally embraced the truths of the gospel. My “new life” in Christ became more evident, even though God was gracious to give me the privilege of growing up in a Christian home. I don’t rely on past experienced, I just know that I am saved by God’s grace through faith, and that the Holy Spirit entered my life.
I grew up in New York City. My home church was Calvary Baptist Church, and my father served as pastor there from 1959-1973. I mention this because I witnessed the testimonies of those who had radical adult conversion experiences. People came to Christ from many backgrounds and experiences. I heard people share the profound difference that Christ had made in their lives. Their experience included a radical change, not a gradual one. These testimonies were tremendously encouraging to me as I witnessed the power of God to change lives. These testimonies were a demonstration of “out with the old life and in with the new life.” Even though my experience was different from some of these wonderful new children of God who had adult conversions, they helped me to understand the “new life” in Christ even more.
Now to the teaching of the Apostle Paul:
In 8:1-11, the section before our main text, we see truths concerning the Holy Spirit and the Christian’s liberation or freedom. The Christian has been freed from the condemnation of sin and the consequence of death that follow. The Christian can now live to please God, knowing that one-day even death will not be victorious; this new life will continue beyond the grave. The Apostle has shown clearly that without the Spirit of God, a person cannot truly please God, Life in the flesh, without the Spirit of God, is actually “hostile” to God. Through the gospel, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Christian is liberated from this desperate situation. The absolute necessity of the life-giving Spirit’s presence in the Christian is affirmed clearly and positively. Therefore the mind of the Christian is to be set on, focused on, the things of the Spirit. To be able to do this, the Christian has to experience the liberation that is in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
The next section of Paul’s teaching (8:12-17) deals with certain key aspects of the Christian’s “life in the Spirit.” A good word to use for this section is transformation or sanctification. You could call it the “in-working” of the Spirit. The Apostle speaks of the fact that the Christian is no longer a debtor or is no longer obligated to the flesh. Those outside of Christ are tied to and in that sense debtors to their own flesh (their own sinful nature). In short, they live for themselves, and they have to do so. The old life is lived in obligation to the “flesh.” The Apostle stops just short of saying that the believer (with new life) is “obligated” to the Spirit in the same way. What the Apostle Paul does say is that there must be cooperation with the Holy Spirit, and a responsibility to follow the Spirit’s leading. He starts with a strong statement against “living according to the flesh.” Indeed that will lead to death. Rather than living according to or in the flesh, the believer is to cooperate with the Spirit in ways we will see. The believer now has the capacity by God’s grace to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives. Outside of Christ and the presence of the Spirit, a true heart-felt allegiance to the will of God is not possible. (As we comment on these verses, keep in mind that we are just touching on truths that could receive a much fuller explanation and application.)
In short, our responsibility as Christians is to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This means (to summarize our text) that:
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
This is a call to active cooperation with the Holy Spirit in the work of sanctification, technically mortification: the putting to death of the deeds of the body. This means eliminating sinful practices from the believer’s life. Christians are not “in the flesh,” but we can do “fleshly things.” We can do “practices” that are not of God, not of faith, not in obedience to the Word and will of God. We can do things that are “bad practices of the body” and not the works of the new life within us.
What happened positionally to us in Christ (united to His death, burial, resurrection) needs to happen experientially through the Spirit. What Paul exhorted in Chapter 6 is now linked with the purpose and power of the Holy Spirit. Here in 8:12-13 he emphasizes the negative (the putting to death), but the positive can be understood from his teaching in 8:14-17 and elsewhere. (See also Rom. 13:14, Col. 3:1ff., Eph. 4:24-5:21).
By the Spirit, we are to be experiencing “death,” and “newness” of life. Having died with Christ, we now are to “eliminate” those things that brought condemnation. This experience is both a crisis and a process. It is a crisis as we realize that the convicting work of the Spirit is for the purpose of exposing sin and dealing with sin. Through the Word of God and the Spirit’s illumination and conviction, we are made aware of sins that must be stopped. The wording could not be stronger – “put to death.” We may be reminded of the teaching of Jesus when He spoke radically about dealing with sin and temptation (Matthew 18:8-9, Mark 9:43-48). By ‘crisis’ I mean that we must respond to the “leading” of the Spirit in these matters. We must seek the Spirit’s help to do what is necessary to eliminate specific sins in our lives. These are ‘good’ crisis steps in the Christian life. At the same time, this work of the Spirit is an ongoing process of purification and growth in the believer’s life. The important truths here are that 1) this is the work of the Spirit and that 2) we are to follow the Spirit’s leading in these matters.
The Apostle Paul is showing the completeness of His gospel. God has an answer to our sin problem. Through the work of God’s Son, we are justified, declared righteous, and receive forgiveness for sins. Through the Holy Spirit’s work, we are more and more conformed to the like-ness of Christ. Like a piece of stone being shaped, we receive the work of the Great Sculpture eliminating what is not righteous, what is not like Christ. The work will not be done until we reach “eternity,” but we should be passionate about growing to be more like our Lord daily.
This process of change, transformation or sanctification is not just our attempt to live a good life. It is the work of God Himself, through His Holy Spirit. Yes, we must follow the leading of the Spirit, and obey as the Lord directs. But, we are not on our own. This is an aspect of “life in the Spirit.” We depend upon and cooperate with the Spirit in His renovation project. It certainly is challenging at times, and can be painful. But, the Holy Spirit is also our comforter and encourager. Trust Him to help us grow by elimination.
This leads us to our second consideration.
Sonship speaks of relationship. Sonship speaks of family. Sonship speaks of union with Christ. Sonship speaks of legal standing. Sonship speaks of resources. Sonship speaks of inheritance. Sonship speaks of family resemblance.
Sonship, as we have already seen, involves:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’
The Spirit’s leading results in mortification or elimination, as we have seen (8:13). There is no reason to separate this matter of leading from what we have just considered in the previous point. But, there is more to the Spirit’s leading.
Elsewhere in Paul’s teaching, the Spirit’s leading results in transformation (2 Cor. 3:17-18, Galatians 5:16-25), and ultimately glorification. The Spirit leads us into Christ-likeness. We must follow that leading as we obey the Word and experience the Spirit’s work. We are not to grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30), we are not to quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19), we are to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Following the leading of the Holy Spirit is to walk in the Spirit and to see the Spirit’s fruit in our lives (Gal. 5:22-23).
The leading of the Spirit really relates to all that follows in the next few verses as well. That is because the sons (or children of God) are by definition led by the Spirit. This is a characteristic of the genuine Christian. The Apostle makes this clear by connecting the receiving of the Spirit to the adoption into God’s family. That is why we pray ‘Abba, Father.’ We pray to an intimate Father, because we are indeed His “Sons.” The Holy Spirit does not cause us to be enslaved, which brings fear back into our lives. His sanctifying presence leads us into experiencing Sonship in our relationship with the Father. This is a glorious and deep topic, especially when thinking of God’s gracious adopting of us into His family. But, another important term is used in the next few verses, and I want to relate the rest of our verses to that term: the witness of the Spirit.
Sonship also involves:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs- heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
The Spirit attests to our Sonship, our adoption, our being children of God. This is a work that touches our spirits and confirms our relationship with the Father. This attestation (or witness) is expressed through the act of praying by the Spirit. (8:15). The Spirit gives a sense of intimacy with God and enables us to pray “Abba, Father.” Just as the cry of a newborn babe indicates life, such cries of prayer are the cries of the real child of God, adopted into God’s family. Later Paul will show that the Spirit helps us in prayer as well. (8:26-27).
The witness of the Spirit involves the assurance of God’s promises by the Spirit (8:17). Paul will develop this in the next paragraph, but the confirming work of the Holy Spirit points to the inheritance, the future plans that are set for the child of God. We are heirs, joint-heirs with Christ. Yes, this calls for a willingness to suffer with Him as we await His glory. But, the presence of the Spirit is the assurance that our future is tied to Jesus’ future and the glory and the inheritance that are ours in Him. The Spirit is the firstfruits (8:23), He is the guarantee that there is more to come. Praise the Lord for that!
There is much more to this subject of the “witness” of the Spirit and I do not claim to be have a full grasp of the Apostle Paul’s full meaning in context. But, I share a few comments with you. The witness of the Spirit certainly is to be a personal reality in our lives. But, the witness of the Spirit is not just a feeling. As I understand this truth, the Holy Spirit testifies through His presence in our lives and His work in our lives. He is testifying to our “Sonship,” our being children of God. His leading of us by God’s Word and His illumination, His conviction, His encouragement are a witness to our relationship with the Father. In other words, our knowledge and sense of relationship with the Father is strengthened by the Spirit of God.
By the witness of the Spirit, we do not live in fear of God, no, we now live as children desiring to pray to a loving Father. The Spirit confirms this truth to us. Another aspect of truth confirmed by the Spirit is that as God’s children we are heirs of God and “fellow-heirs” with Christ. So, when we talk about the “witness” of the Spirit, we are talking about a blessed work that assures us of truth at a deep level, not simply a superficial intellectual acceptance. Our spirits are involved in a way beyond my understand, but this is what the Scriptures teach. This ministry of the Spirit is to confirm truth to us in such a way that we have assurance 1) of our relationship to the Father, 2) our access to the Father in prayer, and our future inheritance (as God’s children). This witness of the Spirit gives the child of God assurance and confidence in his/her relationship with a gracious heavenly Father.
There are programs on “day-time” television in America that often deal with a sad but common subject. The subject is, “who is the father of the child?” I can’t say that I am an expert on these programs, but I believe it boils down to DNA testing (or other means) to determine who the real father of a child is. Of course, it is sad that there should be a question in the first place! It is sad that some testing is needed to prove the real father! It is sad that these programs are even on television, but that is another matter! But, I hope you can see where I am going with this strange illustration.
I believe that God wants us, His children, to know that we are “His children.” It is not supposed to be a guessing game. Crazy tests do not need to be administered to prove your spiritual relationship with God. The Holy Spirit is the proof.
A relationship with the One True Living God as Father comes about by God’s gracious will. The relationship is brought about through the redemption in Jesus Christ. The Apostle has made it very clear in the earlier sections of this Epistle that God has justified sinners justly through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. This justifying and saving work involves the coming of the Holy Spirit into the life of the Christian. That is what makes a Christian a children of God. The Christian has new life. He has the life of God through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work continues in the life of the believer until he or she see the Lord face-to-face. That work not only involves liberation from sin and death initially, the work of the Spirit involves a continuing transformation until that day we are glorified to be like Christ eternally.
In our text, we have seen two aspects of that work; “eliminating sins” and “experiencing Sonship.” The leading of the Spirit is an evidence of our relationship with the father through the Son. After all, as children of God, we are being shaped into the image of Christ which involves eliminating or putting to death sins in our lives. At the same time, the Apostle is presenting life in the Spirit, and not just death by the Spirit. Experiencing life, is to experience ‘Sonship’ in its fullness. Paul spells out life in the Spirit in other places (like Galatians), but the whole chapter of Romans 8 needs to be read to get the big picture. In 8:12-17 we get a picture of this new life as sons (children), being led, praying by the Spirit, having the witness and assurance of truth by the Spirit. Also we can anticipate what’s ahead by the presence and working of the Spirit of God.
The Christian does not need to ask the question, “Who is my Father?” You are a child of the One True God. You are His. His life is in you by the Holy Spirit.
The challenge is to join with the Spirit in His work in your life. Let the Word of God feed you by the Spirit. Follow the leading of the Spirit. Pray as God’s child. Constantly allow the Holy Spirit to affirm truth, especially about your relationship to the father through the Son. Also, allow the Holy Spirit to strengthen your hope for a glorious future as God’s children and as fellow-heirs with Christ. Then, serve in the newness of the Spirit.
We have just scratched the surface of the wonder of life in the Spirit. But, praise the Lord for new life in the Spirit of God!