Galatians 4:1-7; Romans 8:12-17
In the previous notes, we looked at how Paul developed the early Christian idea that the coming of the Spirit upon believers in Christ represented the fulfillment of the Prophetic tradition, regarding the role of the Spirit of God in the restoration of Israel in the New Age. Paul sharpened this concept of a “new covenant” in the Spirit, drawing a clear contrast between the old covenant (of Moses and the Torah) that has now passed away, and the new covenant (of the Gospel and the Spirit) that remains in its place. The experience of believers being “filled” with the Spirit—and of the holy Spirit of God dwelling in them—was compared in terms of God writing with his “finger” (= “Spirit”) upon the hearts of His people.
While these covenantal associations are unmistakable, and fully in accord with the Prophetic traditions regarding the Spirit, for ministers like Paul this role of the Spirit was thoroughly Christian, in the sense of being rooted in the message (the Gospel) of Jesus Christ. It was not merely a matter of the spiritualization of the Old Covenant; the presence and activity of the Spirit was tied directly to the believer’s trust in Jesus, and the salvation brought about by his death and resurrection. Indeed, from the earliest moments of Christianity, the coming of the Spirit was related to a confession of trust in the Gospel message of Christ. This traditionally took place (publicly) in connection with the baptism ritual.
Paul says relatively little in his letters regarding baptism directly; he clearly follows the early Christian tradition, and yet, as he makes use of this tradition, he embues the ritual form and imagery with new theological (and Christological) depth. In these notes on Paul’s understanding of the Spirit, we must examine this baptismal aspect; it can be seen, strikingly, in a pair of passages in Galatians and Romans, which express a similar line of thought.
These verses continue the arguments of chapter 3 on behalf of the central proposition (propositio, 2:15-21) that believers in Christ are freed from the binding obligation to observe the Torah. To illustrate this, in 4:1ff Paul uses the example of the son who is heir to his father’s estate. Though he has a legal right to everything the father possesses, while he is still a minor (or, until a specific time established by the father), the child is under the restrictive guidance of household servants. Though free, the child, during this time, has a practical status very much like a servant or slave (3:23-25; 4:1-2).
This illustration refers to the believer, in the period prior to coming to faith—or, viewed in terms of salvation history, to the time prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus. This period of guardianship is the current Age where humankind is in bondage to the power of sin, and also in bondage under the regulations of the Law (Torah)—Paul views the two aspects together. Through a clever bit of argument, Paul puts non-Jews (Gentiles) under the Law just as much as Jews and Israelites, even though they may be unfamiliar with the specific regulations of the Torah (vv. 3, 8ff, and cf. his more extensive discussion in Romans 2:12-3:20).
The illustration is followed by a Christological statement in vv. 4-5, which may be pre-Pauline in origin—that is, Paul may derive it, in part, from earlier Christian tradition (cp. Rom 1:3-4). Verse 5 more clearly expresses the Pauline application: Christ came to earth to free humankind from bondage under the Law. To this, he adds the emphasis on the identity of believers as “sons” (ui(oi/) of God. The context of the climactic declarations in verses 6-7 is thus profoundly Christological, and involves three key points which Paul develops from early Christian tradition:
- The identity of Jesus as the Son of God.
This is not to be understood from the standpoint of the developed Christology (and trinitarian theology) of later generations, but, rather, in terms of the early Christian belief that located the divine Sonship of Jesus ostensibly at the time of his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. While Paul may evince belief in a rudimentary doctrine of Jesus’ divine pre-existence (Phil 2:6ff, cf. also Col 1:15-17), it does not feature prominently in his letters.
- Jesus as the “seed” of Abraham, the son who inherits the divine promise to Abraham. This is the focus of Paul’s argument in 3:6-14ff (cp. Romans 4), using an over-literal reading of the singular “seed” to identify Jesus as the seed, the only son of the promise (i.e. the Spirit), vv. 14, 16-18.
- Believers are united with Jesus—this is realized at the time of baptism (3:26-27ff), when they/we receive the Spirit.
- The identity of Jesus as the Son of God.
All three points run through the arguments of chapters 3-4, and, indeed, are central to them; however, they are generally emphasized in the reverse order given above, which also accords with the logic of Christian experience and revelatory insight:
- The Galatian believers are united with Jesus and experience the Spirit, as symbolized by the baptism ritual—3:2ff, 26-27ff
- This union with Jesus means that they share in the sonship of Jesus as the promised “seed” of Abraham, and receive the promised blessing (of the Spirit)—3:6-9, 16-18, 29
- The union of sonship further means that believers share in Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and are likewise sons (i.e. children) of God, through the presence of the Spirit—4:4-7
The language whereby this is expressed in 4:6-7 is most significant for an understanding of Paul’s view of the Spirit. Following the Christological statement, identifying Jesus as God’s Son, and drawing upon the traditional idea of our union with Jesus (symbolized in the baptism ritual), and the identity of believers as sons/children of God, Paul states in verse 6:
“And (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God se(n)t out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts crying ‘Abba, Father!'”
The coming (or pouring) of the Spirit into the hearts of believers is a traditional image, adapted by early Christians (Rom 5:5, cf. 2 Cor 3:3; Rom 2:29), part of the wider idea of being “filled” by the Spirit. Normally, however, this is understood as the Spirit of God, but here Paul’s uses the unique expression “Spirit of His Son” (pneu=ma tou= ui(ou= au)tou=). This would identify the holy Spirit (of God) as also being the Spirit of Christ. Indeed, Paul appears to use the expression “Spirit of God” and “Spirit of Christ” interchangeably, though the latter is admittedly rare (Rom 8:9, and “Spirit of Jesus Christ” in Phil 1:19). The theological basis for this is Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, as understood through the early Christological belief regarding Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of God). It was through the resurrection/exaltation that Jesus’ spirit and person was transformed by God’s own Spirit—forever united as one life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 6:17; 15:45). This Christology would eventually develop to include a belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus as the Son of God, however, the exaltational aspect remains at its core in the New Testament (cp. both sides of the portrait in Phil 2:6-11).
Thus, the coming of God’s Spirit upon believers, means that it is also Christ’s Spirit that fills us and empowers us, and through the Spirit we are united with the exalted Jesus, our spirits uniting with his and being similarly transformed (cf. again 1 Cor 6:17; 15:45ff). This means that, as believers, we share in his divine Sonship, receiving all that he does, as co-heirs to God:
“And so (then), not any (more) are you a slave, but a son; and if a son, (then) also (one) receiving the lot [i.e. an heir] through God.” (v. 7)
Paul largely repeats this argument in Romans 8:12-17, developing it, however, in several respects—one of which is the strong ethical emphasis on believers being guided by the Spirit, otherwise found in Galatians in a later section (5:1-6:10). This ethical aspect, utilizing the flesh/Spirit contrast, is clearly present in the Sonship statements of Romans 8:12-17. Note the strong contrast in verse 13:
“for if you live according to the flesh, you are about to die off; but if, in the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Many of the themes and much wording from the instruction in Galatians are present here, and could have been lifted out of the earlier letter:
“For as (many) as are led by (the) Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery again, unto fear, but you received (the) Spirit of placement as a son [ui(oqesi/a], in which we cry ‘Abba, Father’.” (vv. 14-15)
The noun ui(oqesi/a is typically translated as “adoption”, but literally means something like “placement (as) a son”. It refers to a person’s legal status as a son, though one may not be a son by birth. In the New Testament, the word occurs only in the Pauline letters—here further in verse 23, and also 9:4; Gal 4:5, and Eph 1:5. The context of its use in Gal 4:5 is virtually identical (cf. above).
In verses 16-17, Paul expands on the thought in Gal 4:6-7, giving more detail on how he understands the Spirit “crying” out in us, as well as what it means to be a co-heir of God with Jesus:
“The Spirit it(self) gives witness together with our spirit that we are (the) offspring [te/kna] of God. And, if (His) offspring, (then) also (one)s receiving the lot [i.e. heirs]—(on the one hand, one)s receiving the lot of God, but (on the other hand, one)s receiving the lot together (with) (the) Anointed, if indeed we suffer together with him, (so) that also we will be given honor together with (him).”
The Greek syntax makes repeated use of verb and noun forms prefixed with the preposition su/n (“[together] with”), which serves as a powerful emphasis of the believer’s union with Jesus (the Son):
- The Spirit gives witness together with (vb summarture/w) our spirit. The idea is that our own spirit responds to the presence and action of God’s Spirit, and we become aware of our identity as sons (or children) of God. Here Paul uses the term te/kna (“offspring”) which is more common, referring to believers as ‘children’ of God, in the Johannine writings.
- Being united with Jesus (the Son and heir) we also understand our identity as co-heirs (sugklhrono/moi) of God. Literally the compound noun means “(one) receiving/sharing the lot together with (another)”.
- At the heart of our union with Jesus is a pair of verbs:
- “suffer together with” (sumpa/sxw)—i.e. we suffer together with him
- “are honored together with” (sundoca/zw)—we receive honor/glory together with him
This latter point, with its pair of verbs, reflects a uniquely Pauline emphasis, which may be referred to as believers “dying and rising with Christ”. Central to the baptism ritual, as it symbolizes our union with Jesus, is the idea of our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is through the Spirit that the power of both Jesus’ death and resurrection is communicated to us, so that we are able to participate in it. This will be discussed further in the next note.