March 21: Romans 8:15

Romans 8:15

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery again, unto fear; but (rather), you received (the) Spirit of placement as sons, in which we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!'”

This verse builds upon the statement in v. 14 (discussed in the previous note), emphasizing that all believers, led and guided by the Spirit, are sons (ui(oi/) of God. Two key points of Paul’s thought are brought together here: (1) the association of the Spirit with freedom, and (2) the contrast between sonship and slavery. This means, of course, that there is also a close connection between sonship and the Spirit.

Paul dealt with both points extensively in Galatians, and treats them again in the probatio of Romans (esp. chapters 58). The sonship/slavery contrast—whereby the son is understood as the heir of a free person—is central to the illustrations Paul uses in Galatians 4. The Spirit/freedom association is more general, and fundamental, to Christian identity. The Spirit characterizes the new covenant in Christ, and is set in stark contrast with the bondage experienced by humankind under the old covenant. The bondage is, first, to the power of sin (and death); and then, secondly, to the binding authority of the Torah regulations. The believer in Christ is freed from both kinds of bondage, which Paul combines in the expression “the law of sin and of death” in Rom 8:2, to which is contrasted “the law of the Spirit of life”.

The association of the Law (Torah) with sin and death is a complex (and controversial) aspect of Paul’s theology. He deals with it in Galatians 3-4 (esp. chapter 3), but more extensively here in Romans 5-8 (esp. chapter 7). In Galatians (and also in 2 Corinthians 3) Paul emphasizes freedom from the Law, while in Romans his focus is on freedom from bondage to the power of sin. The Spirit-freedom connection features prominently in 2 Corinthians 3 (cf. the earlier article), especially the climactic declarations in vv. 17-18.

Let us see how Paul utilizes these themes here. The first statement in v. 15 is:

“You did not receive a spirit of slavery again”
ou) e)la/bete pneu=ma doulei/a$ pa/lin

The expression “spirit of slavery” (pneu=ma doulei/a$) seems something of an oxymoron, since, as noted above, the Spirit is associated with freedom (e)leuqeri/a), the exact opposite of slavery. Paul is, of course, here referring to a very different kind of “spirit”, one which is altogether opposite of the freedom believers have in the Spirit. The use of the expression “spirit of slavery” was doubtless intended to strike the reader’s attention in this regard, much like the different ways he makes use of the term “law” (no/mo$) in verse 2. The qualifying expression “unto fear” (ei)$ fo/bon), emphasizes the effect of being a slave: it leads to a pervasive sense of fear. The person who is free does not live under this fear.

The verb lamba/nw (“receive”) alludes to the fact that believers received the Spirit, upon coming to trust in Jesus (symbolized by the baptism rite). It is the Spirit of freedom, and shows that believers have been set free from bondage, both to the power of sin and to the Law (cf. above). The implication is that we, as believers, ought not to think and act as though we are still in bondage, nor allow ourselves, in any way, to come under such bondage again. The latter point, in particular, is emphasized here by Paul, with his use of the qualifying adverb pa/lin (“again”).

As mentioned above, Paul is focusing primarily in Romans on bondage to the power of sin, and this is the principal context here. In this regard, verse 15 echoes his exhortation in vv. 12-13, which is worth examining again briefly:

“So then, brothers, we are not (one)s owing [i.e. debtors] to the flesh, (so as) to live according to the flesh” (v. 12)

Here bondage is defined in terms of debt, of something one owes (vb o)fei/lw) to another. Paul uses the noun o)feile/th$, “one who owes, debtor”, which would characterize the condition of believers prior to faith in Jesus—i.e., as ones in bondage to the power of sin. The debt-motif suggests, in some respects, a softer form of bondage, and this may be intentional. For Paul is referring, not to bondage under sin, but to believer’s relationship to the flesh (sa/rc).

The “flesh” concept in Paul’s thought is multifaceted and complex. Even though believers are set free from bondage to sin, we are not entirely freed from the negative influence of the flesh. We still must grapple with the flesh, as a source of temptation, of an impulse toward sin. It is as though the “flesh” of a person retains the ‘muscle memory’ of what it was like to be in bondage to sin, of being compelled to serve it (as a slave). In verse 12, Paul makes clear that we, as believers, do not owe anything to the “flesh”, and are not obligated to follow its impulses toward sin. However, it is only by being “in the Spirit,” of ‘walking’ by it, and allowing the Spirit to lead us (v. 15), that the “flesh” ceases to have any effective influence on us. Paul emphasizes the volitional side of this dynamic, of the need for believers to be willing to follow the Spirit, rather than the flesh, in v. 13:

“If you live according to (the) flesh, you are about to [i.e. you will] die away; but if, in (the) Spirit, you put to death the deeds of body, you will live.”

The inflected noun pneu/mati (dative case), being without a governing preposition, could also be translated “by the Spirit”, or even “through the Spirit”. Paul says very much the same thing in Gal 5:16:

“Walk about in the Spirit [pneu/mati], and (the) impulse [e)piqumi/a] of (the) flesh you shall not complete”

The noun e)piqumi/a essentially means an impulse (qu/mo$) toward something; in English idiom, we would describe this in terms of setting our heart/mind “upon” (e)pi/) something. Here, in this religious-ethical context, it clearly refers to an impulse toward sin. The expression “deeds of the body” in Rom 8:13 is more or less synonymous with “works of the flesh” in Gal 5:19ff.

However, in Galatians, Paul also warns his readers specifically against allowing themselves to be put under bondage to the Law (i.e., the Torah regulations of the old covenant). He states this most clearly in Gal 5:1, and the wording “yoke of slavery again” (pa/lin zugo/$ doulei/a$) is similar enough to Rom 8:15, that we can assume that Paul would include the idea of bondage to the Law as part of the “slavery” (doulei/a) referenced there. This is also confirmed by the entire line of argument in chapter 8.

In the next daily note, we will discuss the second part of verse 15.