NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson IX)
A fellow reformer of Martin Luther’s, John Calvin, more or less echoes what Luther says. For Calvin, it is only by the grace of God that those who have been regenerated by the Spirit strive after purity and holiness. At the same time, they seek consolation from God whenever they do err or fall short, so they do not become obsessed with their many shortcomings and lose heart. The fact is, God has only exempted those who live spiritual lives from the curse of eternal torment. Had He not done so, then how could anyone have hoped to be saved based on their efforts alone, and to remain pure so as to be wholly freed from any sinful tendencies? Paul’s attempt here is to give the faithful greater hope that, although they are still hounded by their evil inclinations, they must not surrender the reins of their lives to corrupt attitudes. Instead. Put those reins in the hands of the Holy Spirit and let Him be their guide.1
British scholar Adam Clarke starts by stating that only they who have been regenerated and born of the Spirit have been redeemed from being controlled by the influence and pressure of the carnal mind. They now relish the things of the Spirit – they are spiritually minded, and as they pass through this temporal world, they safeguard those things which are of the spiritual world. Clarke says that just as in Apostolic times anyone could see the difference between a legalistic Jew and the spiritual believer in Christ, even though they both claimed to serve the same God. Clark believes that this same quality marks the distinction between the nominal Christians and real spiritually active Christians today. For one thing, nominal Christians are worldly-minded, and program their lives to enjoy the here and now. But the spiritually-active Christian follows the advice of their Savior. They don’t stash away treasure for a rainy day down here. It can easily be eaten by moths and corroded by rust or – worse – stolen by burglars! Rather, they stockpile treasure in heaven, there it is safe from waste, decay, and thieves. Treasures in heaven are not something you take with you or send on in advance of your arrival. Such treasures are deposited by God on your behalf in light of your service, obedience, and faithfulness. It’s obvious then, wherever your treasure is, that’s where you’ll want to end up as well2.3
Scottish theologian Robert Haldane points out how the Apostle Paul distinguishes between walking after the flesh, and minding the things of the flesh, and between walking after the Spirit, and minding the things of the Spirit. Earlier Paul proved that union with Christ is necessary to be justified, now here he shows that the certain consequence is sanctification. Meanwhile, those who do not enjoy this oneness with Christ are still under the dominion of sin.4 In other words, after one is joined with Christ through the new birth, they live by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But in some cases, there are those who do not obey the advice of the Spirit.5 In Haldane’s mind, they may still be a child of God, but they are a disobedient and stubborn child of God. Being blessed with new life and help in living according to the leading of the Holy Spirit is the hallmark of the new birth. But listening and obeying what the Spirit says is the trademark of sanctification. So while we are introduced into a spiritual life by way of birth, we are ushered into a sanctified life by means of growth and maturation.
Albert Barnes follows this same line of thinking by saying that Paul uses the contents of verse 5, as an illustration, to show that the purpose of faith in Christ is to produce a person who is just as devout to the service of God as they once were to the pursuit of sinful pleasures. In other words, that they become fully engaged in that which they have devoted themselves to. From Barnes’ point of view, when Christians devote themselves to being anointed for service by the Holy Spirit, and they allow themselves to operate under His influence, this will become their main goal in life. As a result, they will cultivate and care for the fruit the Holy Spirit produced in them.6
Charles Spurgeon preached about “Spiritual joys, spiritual hopes, and spiritual pursuits.” These graces and virtues can only belong to those who are spiritually-minded, spiritually-motivated, and spiritually-moved. This occurs when the Holy Spirit reigns supreme; where spiritual living becomes predominant over heart, mind, and soul. This causes people to direct their lives for something nobler than anything the world has to offer. They are not focused solely on worrying about life, what to eat or drink, about their comfort, what they will wear. Life is more than being fed, and the body more than being kept content.7 That’s what animals and birds care about and search for. The body is a mortal entity, but the soul and spirit are immortal. Things here on earth can only take a person so far, but divine things are also designed for the life-to-come. As Spurgeon sees it, the more we are brought under the influence and anointing of the Holy Spirit the more our soul will ascend to reach its source of strength, and along with the spirit will raise one’s thoughts higher, desires higher, and goals higher. This will certainly be what Isaiah promised to those who wait upon the LORD. They will receive fresh strength; they will spread their spiritual wings and soar like eagles; they will run and not get tired and they will walk and not be left behind8.9
One Jewish writer has some interesting things for us to consider about our being caught up in the things of the flesh. He wonders how we should know what are the things concerning the body, and what are the things concerning the Spirit? He notes that at the time in history when Paul wrote this letter, there was only one source to go to in finding and discovering the will of God for believer’s lives, and that was the Jewish – Tanakh (made up of Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings). As he sees it, this still remains true today. We all accept that the writings of the “New Testament,” were “divinely inspired.” And remarkable enough, they do not contradict what God established with His Torah10.11 As a matter of fact, every place in the New Testament where it refers to “Scripture,” or “the Psalms,” or “the Prophets,” it is quoting from the Old Testament.
Verse 6: If your imagination is controlled by your sinful nature, there is spiritual death. But if your thinking is controlled by the Spirit, there is life and peace.
For Paul, it was paramount that the Roman believer’s understood that God had given them power through the Holy Spirit to hold their sinful nature in check. This was important because sinful desires will lead to spiritual death. Paul graphically described that immoral quagmire to the Galatians, followed by the effects of being guided and motivated by the Spirit.12 So Paul concludes by saying: “If you live to satisfy your sinful self, the harvest you will get from that will be eternal death. But if you live to please the Spirit, your harvest from the Spirit will be eternal life.”13
The Apostle James made a similar point: “Whenever you feel tempted to do something bad, you should not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ Evil cannot tempt God, and God Himself does not tempt anyone. You are tempted by the sinful things you want. Your own desire leads you away and traps you. Your desire grows inside you until it results in sin. Then the sin grows bigger and bigger and finally ends in death.”14 This clearly puts to rest the erroneous perception that believers have no control over their habits and tendencies, that merely telling the Holy Spirit to make them better is all they need to do.
Early church African scholar Marius is straightforward when he notes that if people don’t think things through, they will make unforced errors and live in self-imposed ignorance. As a result, they rebel against everything they know to be true and contradict themselves even when they know they are wrong but don’t have the courage to admit it. There are people whose minds are so set on pleasing the flesh no matter what, that they throw caution to the wind and end up losing everything. This should cause all of us to set our minds set on the Spirit and things above15.16 Another early church writer, Pelagius, notes that Paul says elsewhere that it is human conceit that repays evil for evil.17 Even the Apostle Peter finds such action wrong.18 With faulty human logic like this, they have nothing to expect but punishment because it transgresses the Law.19 But the wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit brings peace of mind because it repays evil with good. We only see this in individuals who know for sure that they have eternal life.20
Ambrosiaster makes the point that taking advice from our sinful nature is not advisable because sinning is a serious thing. Sinning has only one end, and it will never change. It is eternal separation from God and the loss of any hope for salvation. Believe it or not, some think that finding a way to commit sin without getting caught is real smart, even though it is pure foolishness and idiocy. The fact that people spend so much time and go to such extremes trying to follow such stupidity is a wise thing. This only reveals that they don’t yet understand that there is nothing more absurd than sinning against God. Not only that, but there is another type of paralyzed intellect that gets applause from worldly people, and that is the denial of divine miracles. As such, they make fun of the virgin birth and laugh at the prospects of the resurrection. Ambrosiaster goes on to proclaim that the wisdom of the Spirit is true wisdom, it leads to life and peace. He notes that Paul did not say that our sinful nature is hostile to divine wisdom, only that it prefers carnal wisdom. This so-called worldly wisdom, used by our sinful nature, denies any and all arguments about the unknown, preferring to believe only what can be seen and touched.
It is clear from what Paul enumerates and what these early church scholars understand from this verse, is that only faith can get a person beyond the limits of human thinking and the world’s version of wisdom. That means, there is little room in the mankind’s philosophy to go higher into the realm of the Spirit and think godly. No one can get there on their own, it takes the rush of the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit to get us higher and higher in our understanding of who God is and what He has planned through Jesus Christ for us now and in the future.
1 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Matthew 6:19-21
3 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 331
5 See 1 Thessalonians 5:14-19
6 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Matthew 6:25
8 Isaiah 40:31
9 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 See Matthew 5:17-21; Romans 3:31
11 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc cit.
12 Galatians 5:19-23
13 Ibid. 6:8
14 James 1:13-15
15 Romans 8:5-6; Colossians 3:2
16 Marius Victorinus: Against Arius 3.C.1
17 Romans 12:17
18 1 Peter 3:9
19 See Matthew 5:38-48
20 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.