NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XXI)
Messianic Jewish teacher David H. Stern says that while the King James Version of the Bible reads, “mortify the deeds of the body,” this is not a mandate for “self-denial of the flesh” in the sense of asceticism, disfiguring, or long-term fasting. Paul would find no spiritual value in such things.1 Rather, he is only restating what he has been urging since verse 5. The phrase, “practices of the body,” refers to bad habits and addiction which the old-sinful nature has bound the body’s needs and senses to. Paul wrote earlier about physical members of the body which the believer should not use as instruments for sinful deeds.2 Stern says that unless the believer works actively with the power of the Holy Spirit to take control of the body’s bad habits to which it has become accustomed, and conditioned by the old sinful nature, these bad habits will surely find expression. This could end up costing you any hope of having a spiritual or eternal life.3
Verse 14: The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them.
The Psalmist learned this lesson a long time ago when he prayed: “Help me to do Your will, for You are my God. Lead me in the right direction, for Your Spirit is good.”4 And Solomon showed that he too knew this principle well when he has Wisdom say: “I follow the course of righteousness along the paths of justice, to endow with wealth those who love me and fill their treasuries.”5 But Wisdom does not overlook mistakes and errors done while following its words. The Lord had this word of wisdom for the people of Israel: “The LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, says: I am the LORD your God, who disciplines you for your own good and leads you in the direction that you should go.”6
We know that many Bible scholars see Wisdom in the Old Testament as a metaphor for Christ in the New Testament. And God’s message to Isaiah was not lost on the Apostle Paul, for he wrote the Galatians: “Because we are His sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, so now we can rightly speak of God as our dear Father.”7 He goes on to tell them: “I advise you to obey only the Holy Spirit’s instructions. He will tell you where to go and what to do, and then you won’t always be doing the wrong things your evil nature wants you to.”8 And to the Ephesians, he adds: “Because of this light within you, you should do only what is good and right and true.”9 Knowing this, we can certainly say to all believers, including those known as holiness people, that God is more interested in our actions than in our appearance to convince the world that we are His children, whom He freed from the slavery of sin.
Another early church scholar named Constantius clearly sees Paul establishing that it was not our common and natural human death of which he was speaking earlier. The fact is, he was and is speaking about death as a form of everlasting punishment. He is not praising the spirit and condemning the flesh because the spirit is so good and the flesh so bad. Instead, he wants to show that because the flesh is so vulnerable to the lustful passions belonging to human nature, it tends to seek to fulfill those desires, just all animals do. And just as animals produce other animals, so humans produce humans. But it was God who breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life. Therefore, it is our soul which is spiritual, incorporeal, rational, and immortal, something animals do not have.10
Then Pelagius contends that sinful people find it hard to always do what is right. However, once you are born-again and have replaced the works of the flesh with spiritual deeds, then you will live the life God desires for you. Pelagius makes the point that it is the works of the flesh which are condemned, not the substance of the flesh.11 To this, we add Bishop Theodoret’s thoughts that Paul is not saying that we should mortify the body but “the sinful deeds of the body.” That is, the way sinful people think and the way they so easily give in to their passions. Believers have the grace of the Spirit to help them control those sinful tendencies, with eternal life being the fruit of victory.12
Now we have early church scholar Cyprian who states that if we are the children of God, and if we have already begun to serve as His temples,13 because the indwelling Holy Spirit helps us live holy and spiritual lives. It’s then that we must lift up our eyes from the earth toward heaven and raise our hearts fully of God and Christ, to embrace heavenly and divine things. Once we do that, then let us do nothing which is not worthy of the Ones we worship.14
Several other early church scholars have important comments on verse 14. For instance, Pelagius feels that what Paul writes here applies only to those who are worthy to be governed by the Holy Spirit. This is contrasted by those who are moved by the spirit of the devil to sin. After all, he was and is a liar and sinner from the beginning.15 And then we have an early church monk who writes his commentary about God’s grace and the human will. For him, since the Lord influences the freewill of His children, He also touches their hearts with fatherly inspirations so that they might do what’s right. Consequently, we do not think that our freewill is somehow paralyzed by God’s foreknowledge. However, we do not doubt that in each and every decision of man’s freewill God’s will is the stronger force.16 And in another place, this same writer notes that some people try in vain to measure the boundaries of God’s grace and find that it is immeasurable. They do this to see if they can go beyond grace and add any human merits that may qualify them to be included among those who are to be chosen.17 Again, we remind ourselves that it is God who chooses, justifies, and glorifies.
Martin Luther is quite blunt with his interpretation of this verse. For him, to be led by the Spirit of God means to despise and renounce everything that is not God-worthy, even oneself, and to reject the pleasures of this world, especially impure things and those tainted with filth. It means to stop seeking luxury and an easy lifestyle and to openly face and embrace any suffering that comes from being a Christian. Luther recognizes that this is not the work of our weak human nature, but the work of God the Holy Spirit in us.18 In other words, even if a person knows what kind of dedication is required in order to meet God’s standards of holy living, to do it one’s own way and by one’s own strength still does not qualify them. It must be done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit that dwells within. God is not pleased when we come to Him and say, “Look at what I’ve done to please You.” Rather, He is pleased when the Holy Spirit brings us to Him and says, “Look what I’ve been able to do with, and in, this child of Yours.”
John Calvin teaches that only those who are governed by the Holy Spirit are deemed the children of God. It is by His indwelling Spirit that the Father acknowledges that a believer is one of His own. This takes away the empty boasting of hypocrites who by reason of their own works assume the title. Calvin goes on to say that the working of the Holy Spirit takes many forms. There are those efforts that are universal, by which God’s creation is sustained and preserved. Then there are those things that are other-worldly and peculiar to those who are sanctified for God’s service. Calvin points out that the Lord favors none but the ones He has chosen and separated for Himself.19
Robert Haldane remarks that here is proof, through the Spirit, that if those whom the Apostle addressed would put out of commission all wrongful deeds of the body, they are then free to live for God’s glory and purpose. These are those who are led by the Spirit. Haldane notes that in spiritual matters we are all like little children, who, on account of their weakness, have need to be led by the God’s hand so that in case they fall He is there to pick them up. It is, therefore, necessary that believers be led by the Spirit of God. Also, the manner in which the Spirit leads God’s children is not by violence against their will but by encouraging and motivating them to follow His leading.
Haldane then points out that the Apostle Paul shows what the Spirit is leading God’s children to, and that is to become bearers of the Fruit of the Spirit, which is: “Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control.”20 Haldane says that it must be made clear that this leading of the Spirit is not such that it eliminates all imperfections. Notwithstanding the fact that we are being led by the Spirit, there are many times and places when we become less than cooperative.21 Since sanctification is a growing process, we still have within us tendencies that make us unwilling to do all we are asked to do. After all, it is said: “What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.”22 Nevertheless, when we are truly led by the Spirit, it is up to us to reject any enticement by the flesh and go against the tide. In so doing, we take control and disable the sinful tendencies of our sinful nature..23
Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke is equally blunt in his analysis by saying that no one can accidentally find their way to heaven, and then just walk in uninvited. Christ, by His sacrificial offering, opened the door to the kingdom of God for all believers. And as a Mediator presents their concerns and needs so that one day they will live in heaven before the throne of the Father. Meanwhile, the Spirit of God is our agent here on earth, to enlighten, quicken, strengthen, and guide the true disciples of Christ. That’s why all who are wanting to be led and guided by the Spirit must be born of the Spirit. Clarke contends that no one can pretend to be a child of God who is not guided by the Spirit.24 This is so different from other world religions where the followers, under their own power, strive to find and identify the path outlined by religious teachings so they can attain Nirvana25 and find peace and contentment of their own making.
1 Romans 7:5; See 2 Corinthians 2:16-23
2 See Romans 6:12-13, 19; 7:5, 23
3 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Psalm 143:10
5 Proverbs 8:20-21
6 Isaiah 48:17
7 Galatians 4:6
8 Ibid. 5:16
9 Ephesians 5:9
10 Pseudo-Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 See 1 Corinthians 3:16
14 Cyprian: Jealousy and Envy 14
15 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Prosper of Aquitaine: Grace and Free Will 53
17 St. Proper of Aquitaine: The Call of All Nations, Trans. P. De Letter, The Newman Press, Westminster, MD, 1952, Bk. 1, p. 71
18 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 121
19 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Galatians 5:22-23
21 James 3:2
22 Galatians 5:17
23 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 351-352
24 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
25 Nirvana is what Buddhism teaches as the state of perfect happiness where there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the individual is released from the effects of their personal actions in each state of existence throughout the cycles of death and rebirth. It is their final version of heaven.