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The ‘Ultracharismatics’ of Corinth and the Pentecostals of Latin America as the Religion of the Disaffected

Originally published as: “The ‘Ultracharismatics’ of Corinth and the Pentecostals of Latin America as the religion of the disaffected.” Tyndale Bulletin 56.2 (2005): 91-110. This is a detailed exegetical study, more technical than most of what I post on this blog.

To download the article as a pdf, click here Ultracharismatics in Corinth and in Latin America. La versión en español AQUI.

Summary

This paper arises from research on 1 Corinthians within a Latin American milieu. It shows the value of studying God’s word from non-First World perspectives, particularly with regard to the themes of societal status and the charismata in the first century church. The majority opinion is that 1 Corinthians was written to correct a ‘pneumatic enthusiasm’, with such diverse components as the denial of the resurrection, egalitarianism and triumphalism. It would follow that the teaching about the charismata in chapters 12–14 is directed against that same outlook. We will argue that the majority of the letter is addressed to Christians who dabbled in philosophy as a sign of their upward mobility. But then, using sociological insights from Roman Corinth and from the contemporary Latin American church, we will propose that chapters 12–14 speak to the marginalized of the church. They had turned to the showier charismata as a means of creating an identity for themselves in a church where the elitists received all the attention…as well as invitations to the table of other rich Christians. Thus while the bulk of the letter is a harsh rebuke to the arrogant elitists, chapters 12–14 are directed to the marginalized ultracharismatics, showing them that all of God’s gifts must be used in the loving service of the body.

1. Introduction: 1 Corinthians 12-14 in the scope of the letter

In 12:1 Paul responds to a written question regarding the gifts of the Spirit.[1] The main issue was that some were ignoring apostolic custom, which the apostle reaffirms in chapter 14. For want of a better label, we will refer to them as ‘ultracharismatics’. Given Paul’s response, we will argue further down that tongues were causing some – whether it was their intention or no – to withdraw inwardly from the group dynamic of the assembly. What is more readily obvious from the text is that their noise and unintelligibility tended to overwhelm those who wanted to unite the group with teaching, song, or prophetic revelation (14:26). John Hurd is not quite on the mark, therefore, that chapters 12-14 are ‘one long attack upon the notion that speaking in tongues was the single or the best manifestation of the Spirit at work in the Church’.[2] This may have been the specific issue in the letter from Corinth, but Paul’s larger criticism has to do with using any charism without due care to the church’s need for corporate edification.

Much confusion has been caused at this juncture by the introduction of the word ‘ecstatic’, a term of slippery definition. Nothing in chapter 14 necessarily demands the experience of higher consciousness. Nor do we see evidence that the Corinthians were taking their cue from the frenzied behaviour of pagan prophecy.[3]

Glossolalia in Corinth dated rather from the founding of the church, Paul himself being an energetic practitioner of that charism (14:18). But what was the source of this new ultracharismatic wave that arose in the three or so years since his first work in that city, and how did that relate to the other Corinthian failings? And how do chapters 12-14 fit in with the rest of Paul’s letter?

1.1 Was one of the parties of 1 Corinthians 1:12 ultracharismatic?

It would be neatest to hypothesize a single cause for all the Corinthian problems if that were deemed feasible. In that case, the ultracharismatics would be a manifestation of a root theological aberration.

One approach is to see them as a theological party. A century and a half ago, F. C. Baur’s ‘Tübingen theory’ or Tendenz criticism saw in the four names of 1:12 a proof of his understanding of the epistle and indeed of all of early Christianity.[4] He used Hegelian philosophy to pit the reactionary judaizing devotees of Peter against the forward-looking universalistic adherents of Paul. That is, the historical struggle of thesis and antithesis in Corinth and elsewhere was consciously doctrinal. Since Baur there have been plenty of theories, although typically with a rejection of his Hegelian grid, as to what doctrine these two, three or four theological groups promoted and which might have been the party of the ultracharismatics.[5]

Another view, one that sometimes bleeds into today’s majority view (see below) is that Corinth was infected with a single competitor to the Pauline gospel, the Tendenz of Gnosticism.[6] This assumes that Gnosticism was – at least in seed form – contemporary with nascent Christianity, not just a later heresy. Hence, the Corinthians rejected the bodily resurrection of the saints and were devoted seekers after γνωσις/gnōsis (see 1:5, 8:1, 13:8). Walter Schmithals has been the key proponent of this viewpoint, but his attempt to correlate a Corinthian heresy with what is known of Gnosticism raises serious methodological questions about the existence of Gnosticism in the first century and about evidence from the epistle that does not fit a Gnostic model.[7] This is why some today prefer to link this γνωσις/gnōsis with a mystical wisdom tradition derived from Judaism.[8]

1.2 Was ultracharismaticism related to realised eschatology?

That this is now the conventional explanation is indicated when Jerome Neyrey could make the offhanded comment: ‘As everyone knows, some members of the Corinthian church claimed to share already in the power of Jesus’ resurrection’.[9] These analyses discern in Corinth a wave of ‘charismatic enthusiasm’, ‘over-realized eschatology’ or ‘pneumaticism’.[10] Gordon Fee gives a clear example:

  • To begin, ‘the key issue between [Paul and the Corinthians] is a basic theological problem, what it means to be pneumatikos’. (Fee: 10)
  • Thus the Corinthians claim that we reign as kings now; we should not suffer now: ‘Paul sees their present boasting [in 4:8] as tantamount to their supposing the final reign of God already to have begun’. (173)
  • Holiness has to do with the inner person, not with the physical body: the Corinthians excused their visits to prostitutes because they ‘looked for a “spiritual” salvation that would finally be divested of the body’. (257)
  • Marriage is an anachronism: ‘they are above the merely earthly existence of others; marriage belongs to this age that is passing away’ (269)
  • Gender distinctions no longer apply; women should put aside the veil: ‘their spiritualised eschatology also involved some kind of breakdown in the distinction between the sexes’ (498)
  • They claim to speak in the tongues of angels with a full eschatological endowment of the Spirit: ‘they believed that they had already entered into some expression of angelic existence’ (631)
  • There is no (future) resurrection, but the resurrection is spiritual or is realized eschatology: ‘In their view, by the reception of the Spirit, and especially the gift of tongues, they had already entered the true “spirituality” that is to be (4:8); already they had begun a form of angelic existence…in which the body was unnecessary and unwanted, and would finally be destroyed’. (715)

That is, the Corinthians had overblown Paul’s own teaching on realized eschatology and charismatic gifts, and this explains their triumphalism and their peculiar use of glossolalia. Those who disrupted the meetings with tongues were the same individuals who gloried in their wisdom, boasted of being kings and thought themselves beyond normal sexual purity. Paul controverts them by underscoring the ‘not yet’ of his eschatological message (especially in 4:8; 13:8-12; 15:23-28).

A unified theory such as the Gnosticism and/or enthusiasm views has the attractiveness of simplicity. But this cannot in itself incite us to oversimplification or the selective use of evidence, the weakness that many see in Walter Schmithals’ approach. I find even the ‘pneumatic-enthusiastic’ theory unconvincing, no more so than when we come to chapters 12-14, where there is little evidence of doctrinal disagreement between Paul and the ultracharismatics. His objection as found in the text is social and doxological: it has to do with the practice of the charismata within worship. Thus of late there has arisen the explanation that the abuse of glossolalia is not the fruit of a different eschatology, but of sociological factors, especially status competition within the house churches.

1.3 Were the factions in 1 Corinthians 1:12 part of a quest for social status?

a) The quest for status in Roman Corinth

We are rich in new sociological insights into Roman Corinth, nourished by a century of archaeological work that has only grown more fruitful in the last few decades.[11] Corinth was a city of relatively easy upward mobility. The acquisition and conspicuous display of knowledge was a powerful status indicator. If ‘not many were wise’ (1:26) when they were converted, this did not prevent them from social climbing through (as the apostle saw it) pseudo-intellectual show.

Amusingly, this insight corroborates an older interpretation (see John Chrysostom, the Introduction to his Hom. 1 Cor.; also 4.4): that the Corinthians had gone awry through a craving for philosophical wisdom. They sought through rationalist speculation a deeper truth than was offered in the cross, and from that a higher status. They competed in courting powerful friends by inviting them to banquets and in sponsoring popular teachers as clients. These Christians were open to the influence of prevailing philosophical trends, such as Stoicism, leading them to reject the resurrection of the saints while at the same time confessing the resurrection of Jesus. Their attraction to Apollos, Cephas and Paul (and to a Christ-party?) was based on the status their persons communicated. And Paul’s unease at receiving financial support stemmed from his unwillingness to be adopted by a patron on the make for a famous apostle as a client.[12]

b) Paul ‘theologises’ problems that the Corinthians don’t necessarily view as theological

We may go one step further: it is not evident from the text that there was consciously doctrinal factionalism in Corinth. Paul takes issue with the partisans of 1:12, not for any peculiar doctrinal slant, but because of the partisanship itself. He resolves the problem by showing all partisans in chapters 1-4 that they misunderstand the newly revealed (and by its very nature, unifying) cross-gospel. He thus theologises something that they did not understand to be a doctrinal issue.[13]

c. What does this have to do with the ultracharismatics?

Let us explore whether the abuse of glossolalia was primarily a sociological phenomenon.

  1. Were tongues a quest of the social elite?

What if ‘social climbing’ is the key to their pseudo-philosophising, their disdain of conventional morality, and their banquets? Some scholars wonder if a display of tongues was also part of this same bag of tricks to accrue status. In this reading, the ultracharismatics would tend to have come from the ‘haves’ of the church. John K. Chow states that ‘speaking in tongues could have been used by the powerful to denigrate the less spiritual people in the church’.[14] Richard A. Horsley (‘Spiritual elitism’) wishes to pin the blame on Apollos for introducing Philonic thought into Corinth, making their elitism, denial of the resurrection, and the pursuit of prophecy and tongues a product of Sophia devotion. Dale B. Martin[15] goes to the greatest lengths by arguing that tongues were already an accepted status symbol for society’s powerful, in or out of the Christian church. He writes that ‘in the absence of the critical perspective provided by modern “rationality” glossolalia in Greco-Roman culture – like esoteric speech in other premodern cultures – would generally have been perceived as connoting high status’ (‘Tongues’: 558). It ‘seems almost always to be the property of leaders within groups’ (561). Thus, Martin moves away from the modern assumption that tongues are associated with the lower class, to some debatable data that they may have been acceptable within the elite, and then to the conclusion that tongues were a status indicator. However, this is precipitously a priori reasoning that turns out to be ill-supported by the data. The single conceivable Jewish parallel occurs in Testament of Job 48-50, where Job’s daughters speak in angelic tongues. The Greco-Roman parallels suggest an altogether different interpretation.

Faced with such meagre data, some scholars, particularly Martin, collapse glossolalia and prophecy into the single category of ecstatic speech. That is, if prophecy gave status, then tongues produced the same status. But as Christopher Forbes makes clear in his meticulous study Prophecy and inspired speech in early Christianity and its Hellenistic environment (released the same year as Martin’s The Corinthian body, 1995), the sign of spirituality, especially in Judaism, was prophecy, and not glossolalia; in fact, glossolalia was almost certainly not a known category.[16] This harmonizes with Paul’s analysis in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 where he clearly distinguishes between the two charismata.

  1. Did tongues convey an apostolic aura?

Again, we turn to Chrysostom for insigt: he traces the fascination with glossolalia not to Judaism or Greco-Roman society but rather to apostolic precedent. Since it was the original Pentecostal charism, and was practiced by Paul himself (as the Corinthians were well aware, 14:18), then tongues anoint one as more authentically apostolic.[17] This turns up two centuries earlier in Irenaeus, Haer. 5.6.1:

For this reason does the apostle declare, ‘We speak wisdom among them that are perfect’, terming those persons ‘perfect’ who have received the Spirit of God, and who through the Spirit of God do speak in all languages, as Paul used himself also to speak.[18]

This passage is cited by Martin (Corinthian body: 90-91), who draws the conclusion that tongues were associated with the elite of Greco-Roman society. But this is absolutely unconnected with Irenaeus’ point, which is to show that spirituality has to do with possessing the Spirit, not in denying the fleshly body.

If the apostle has earlier urged the power elite to seek true wisdom from the Spirit, not from philosophy, then who better than ultracharismatics to plumb the divine mysteries (cp. the use of μυστηριον/mustērion in 2:1 NA-27, 2:7 and 4:1 with 13:2 and 14:2)? The ultracharismatics might seek status in what they perceived to be an apostolic, not a societal, value.

  1. Did tongues allow some members to retreat into themselves in the cultus?

Paul underscores that while the ultracharismatics were being built up as individuals, this could not be the purpose of any charism. By definition the church is corporate (12:19), and no one body part can function alone in God’s administration.

The main sin of some Corinthians was acting in the cultus as if ‘I have no need of you’ (12:21) and ‘I am not responsible for your edification’ (cf. 12:7, 14:3-6, 12, 17-19, 26, 31). They may not have declared this aloud or developed it theologically; but de facto they worshipped as if they could interact with God (14:2) apart from interacting with the body – and their feeling of personal psychological exhilaration only confirmed their instincts. The apostle sees their reliance on tongues for status as boastful in 12:15-21, but it would be typically Pauline if this were his own analysis of what their self-sufficiency meant rather than a literal reporting of what they were actually doing.[19] We may, however, legitimately apply the category of ‘status’ to this phenomenon – the ultracharismatics knew themselves to be independent agents while other Christians were not, and their resulting speech was loud and confusing.

Let us look back from the 20th and 21st centuries to see who might have been attracted to glossolalia in Corinth.

 

2. Proposal from the perspective of Latin American Pentecostalism

            2.1 Class friction is one factor in the Corinthians’ problems

Once we cast doubt on the theory that glossolalia’s appeal was for the upwardly mobile or elite class, another possibility suggests itself, one that has had strong echoes in Latin American Christianity (not to mention in other global Christian subcultures) since the second half of the 20th century. That is, that the ultracharismatic wave in Corinth was a by-product of the gap between rich and poor, between strong and weak, between the informed and the superstitious hoi polloi.

It is probable that there existed socio-economic tension in Corinth, as is shown in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.[20] Paul has heard about what is going on prior to the Lord’s Supper; he speaks to the elite, but on behalf of the disenfranchised of the church, represented perhaps by ‘Chloe’s people’. In a landmark work, Gerd Theissen forcibly argued that ‘the conflict over the Lord’s Supper is a conflict between poor and rich Christians’ (151). Corinthians with pretensions to society were holding private dinners before the Christian meeting in order to impress their powerful friends; later in the afternoon, ‘…the Lord’s Supper, instead of providing a basis for the unity of the body of Christ, is in danger of becoming the occasion for demonstrating social differences (160)’.[21] The other believers were made to wait outside while the elite enjoyed a leisurely dinner in the triclinium and received the flattery of inclusion.[22] In another age, Prince Hamlet would joke about that same old axiom: ‘Why should the poor be flatter’d?’ (Hamlet, Act III, scene 2). For his part, Paul theologises their dining pattern and shows that the gospel must be applied even to dinner parties. With prophetic insight he links the high death rate in the church with the shaming of the have-nots.

2.2 Class divisions may explain the existence of an ultracharismatic group

It is a feature of the Latin American church that Pentecostal fervour may be correlated with low social and economic status. When in the mid-20th century it became a grass-roots movement rather than an import from the North, Pentecostalism exploded among the poor.[23] Among other blessings it gave them the sense of identity that they badly lacked. Juan Sepúlvada writes of the Brazilian church that whereas in society and in church they were marginalised, ‘in pentecostalism every believer is a direct and legitimate producer of his or her religious world. They thus defy not only the traditional way of doing religion, but the very structure of a classist society’, though in non-political ways.[24]

Bryan Wilson in his paradigmatic study Magic and the millennium describes some American (and other) tribal sects as ‘isolationist’, that is, leading to ‘the establishment of a separated community preoccupied with its own holiness and its means of insulation from the wider society’.[25] We must not take this too far, since Pentecostals congregate with like-minded Christians and form churches, denominations and quasi-denominations. Yet Wilson does provide us with a legitimate half of the picture: ‘In adopting the denominational model of the Protestant missions, the thaumaturgical movements have transformed the Protestant demand for “every man a priest” to “every man a thaumaturge”…[however] the individual’s charisma must be validated in a charismatic community, in which the gifts are manifested in some sense for the corporate benefit’ (170). We must add to this the other truth, that within such communities, individuals might practice their charismata in isolation one from the other.

In Latin America, socio-economic class is only relatively static: conversion to the gospel, for example, has provable benefits for the marginalised. These come almost immediately when there is freedom from alcohol abuse and family disintegration and the introduction of a new work ethic. In the next generation there may be university education and rising social status. This can lead to a shift, not only in status, but also in theology, as extreme Pentecostalism appears less and less relevant to second- and third-generation believers.[26]

Besides upward mobility for Christians, there is an intramural rearrangement of status. After decades of growth Latin American Pentecostalism has developed its own hierarchy, often at odds with prior status arrangements.[27] But here we must remember that Corinth is far from this situation. The ultracharismatics of Corinth are redefining status but have no opportunity – perhaps no desire – to seize power. We will be wary of referring to their activity as direct subversion. Their aim is to affirm to themselves and to others their own value, thereby undermining the values of the higher class through a mystical inside track with God.[28]

In Corinth, the poor and disconnected stood no chance of impressing others with books and hired philosophers and clever banquet conversation. Instead, these Christians would excel in areas where worldly status did not matter, in fact, was an impediment: they were ‘speaking not to human beings but to God’ and ‘uttering mysteries in the Spirit’ (14:2). Within the cultus, the ultracharismatic not only experienced direct contact with God, but also was released from dependence upon his or her ‘betters’ for teaching and administration.

2.3 1 Corinthians 11 and 12-14 as two sides of one issue

The περι δε/peri de in 12:1 (‘now concerning’) makes it likely that the Corinthians had asked about the πνευματικα/pneumatika.[29] Despite the absence of περι δε/peri de in 11:2-16, it is likely that the Corinthians had also written about veils for women. 11:17-34 deals with the Lord’s Supper: had the Corinthians questioned Paul about it, which the apostle also does not bother to mark with περὶ δε/peri de? In this case, no. It was more likely that his information had arrived unofficially, from the alienated. No-one was abusing the rite itself (contra Conzelmann: 14; Meggitt: 190), but a crime does comes to light if one examines it, as Paul does, in connection with the feast given beforehand (so Lietzmann; Thiselton; Garland). Thus, he interrupts his responses to the official questions and responds to the unauthorized one:

  • The Corinthians had written: Concerning meetings of the church (no περι δε/peri de) – How serious were you when you said that women had to wear veils in the meeting?
  • Paul answers that he had been quite serious. 11:2-16
  • Paul then interjects, drawing from other sources of information from Corinth (again, no περι δε/peri de) – And by the way, while we’re speaking about your meetings: don’t you know that the Lord’s Supper should show the church at its most unified in love? 11:17-34
  • The Corinthians had written: Concerning (περι δε/peri de) the spiritual gifts – Is it really true that this new manner of speaking in tongues is a sign of spiritual depth? 12:1-14:39

In other words, the apostle himself chose 11:17 as the location for his teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Yet readers may well wonder why this section does not follow immediately on chapter 10, which after all had had to do with sacramental meals, the unity of the body of Christ, the principle of surrendering one’s ἐξουσια/exousia to build up ones fellow Christian, and the crime of giving offence to the church of God (10:32). Remove 11:2-16 and with some minor smoothing the text would flow very well.

It could be that 11:17-34 is here simply to provide balance for the epideictic ‘I praise you in X, I do not praise you in Y’ formula. But we propose instead that section is intentionally placed here, and that there is a stronger connection between 11:17-34 and chapters 12-14 than is obvious from the surface. The section ends with the elite and the marginalised eating apart. It is at this point Paul turns to their question about spiritual gifts. He goes into a long discussion where once again he touches on the unity of the body and the supreme value of love. He finally makes plain in chapter 14 what is in hindsight hinted at in 12:28-31, that it is the charism of glossolalia that some had been misusing.

Is it possible that 12:1 follows 11:34 because they are two sides of one and the same issue, that is, flaws in the assembly that follow from class tension at Corinth? On the one hand, an elitist group divided the church with its exclusive dinner invitations, a minor social convention that would have gone unquestioned by most. Yet Paul sees it by extension as a violation of the Lord’s Supper and punishable by sickness or even death (11:30). On the other hand, some were overusing tongues in the assembly and withdrawing into themselves. Although they too were in error, the ultracharismatics at least shared Paul’s appreciation of the centrality of the Spirit. The apostle merely channels their energy toward a higher value, that the true person of the Spirit uses his/her charism for others. They erred only in being ‘childish’ (14:20; cp. this with the stiffer language in 3:17, 4:8, 4:21; or 11:18-19, which I take to be ironic and addressed to the elistists[30]), but no one would be struck dead for using glossolalia too much.

2.4 Abuse of tongues was an ‘anti-status status symbol’ and means of withdrawal

The factions in 1:12 were fighting each other for status. At the same time, tongues came to be a symbol – better, an anti-status symbol – a reaction against the ongoing status contest. These ultracharismatics were perhaps not partisans of any of the spokesmen of 1:12; they were excluded or withdrew from that competition, and perhaps found it disgustingly opposed to the gospel they had been taught.

Is it plausible, as we will now ask, that while the whole epistle is directed to the entire church, certain portions are for particular individuals or groups? Naturally, any such theory must be tentative: one might think, for example, of the notion that the two Thessalonian letters were written, one to Jews and one to gentiles. Yet in 1 Corinthians especially, there are strong internal indicators that Paul is addressing now one, now another group. First, he points out that some Corinthians were following the Greek error of seeking ‘wisdom’ (1:22); presumably others were not, but all Corinthians will hear chapters 1-4. Some built wisely on the apostolic foundation of the church, but all ‘construction workers’ will listen to the warning to the reckless builders in 3:10-15. One person sued a brother, but now everyone will have to sit through the lecture (6:1-8). Some went to prostitutes, but all will be warned (6:15-20). The whole church hears in chapter 7 teachings given to people of specific civil status; the ‘knowledgeable’, the weak, and those in-between all attend to all the teaching of chapters 8-10. In chapter 14, he speaks now to women, now to the whole church; he mainly corrects those who abused tongues, but also to those who might abuse prophecy, or (chapter 12) any charism. Later, ‘some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead’, but all of them will hear the proofs for the apostolic doctrine. Thus there is precedent for a hypothesis that a sub-group addressed in one section of the letter is not identical to one addressed elsewhere.

1:10-4:21 and 11:17-34 reproach the upwardly mobile. But in chapters 12-14 Paul points out that others too are trying to compete, albeit in a backhanded way. It was only in the church meeting that they could break out and be special: no one could forbid them from being either self-focused or the noisy centre of attention, as this was the Spirit’s work. And at last it would be the elitist, the one least likely to want to look odd or foolish, who would feel like a ‘foreigner’ (βαρβαρος/barbaros, 14:11). Paul, for his part, throws all members of the church into that reprehensible social category – for whether a member is gifted with tongues or not, all members are hearing other members speaking strange languages; ironically, even the ultracharismatics are at some level being alienated by the charism. But in the end, we must modify the thought of Thiselton, who says that ‘the “gifted” seem hardly to care if less “gifted” believers somehow feel estranged or second-class’.[31] This is to read it backwards: rather, the gifted were misusing their gifts because they had already been made to feel second-class, not least in being held off from the triclinium.

There are parallels of this throughout church history, although our examples have to do with prophecy rather than glossolalia:

  1. Status and hierarchy: Montanus provides some useful comparisons to the Corinthians. He was regarded as evil partly because he bypassed the church hierarchy of Phrygia, continued prophesying after being excommunicated and relied on his prophetic gift and magnetic personality to command his followers.[32] There also existed a tradition that he was a recent convert (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.16) and that had been a pagan priest before his conversion (Didymus Caecus, Trin. 3.41). His charismatic gifts probably helped him to make the lateral leap from priest to prophet without a loss of status.
  2. Urban status: Since Montanism was a primarily rural movement, it suffered from the prejudice of city-dwellers. Besides, it did not fit easily within the orbit of church hierarchy, whose bishops were situated in cities.[33]
  3. Status and gender: Irenaeus was no enemy of charismatic utterance by men or women (Haer. 3.11.9; see also Justin Martyr, Dial. 87-88). Still, he was entirely willing to shelve his egalitarianism when his opponents found support among women, whom he thought gullible and emotionalistic. In 1.13.1-3 he complains of a certain Marcus, who ‘devotes himself especially to women’; he gets a woman to prophesy by playing on her emotions, ‘her heart beating violently’. The polemicists Hippolytus (3rd century) and Epiphanius (4th) also objected to women charismatics…but again, only when they prophesied for the opposition.[34]

Thus new converts, rustics, women, and the generally disenfranchised found new status and self-affirmation by sidestepping the ecclesiastical structure and engaging in untraditional, marginal charismatic activity. Likewise, the ultracharismatics in Corinth were rebuffing the Roman system of status that had fascinated some of the church. So what if the arrivistes in Corinth valued the ability to teach with rhetorical skill? The poor could retreat into glossolalia, worshiping God in the Spirit and at the same time hiding their lack of sophistication behind the cloak of indecipherable speech.

2.5 Paul’s response concerning the charismata

Paul’s rebuttal runs as follows:

  1. Yes, glossolalia is a true charism. Yet, isolationist and untranslated glossolalia in no way builds up the church; in some ways it harms it.
  2. The aim of any charism is to build up the church, not the gifted individual. Anyone who is spiritual will also – primarily – excel in agapē and thus have edification as his/her goal. Besides, individual prayer can be done at another time and place.
  3. Therefore: speakers in tongues should pray for an additional charism, for example interpretation or prophecy.

This all clarifies how key is the paean to Christian love in the middle of this three-chapter complex.[35] Rhetorically, Paul steps back and dictates an egressio, a generalizing exhortation. He shows in chapter 13 as he did in 8:1-3 that their root problem is a lack of agapē.

There are pastoral implications to Paul’s method in the epistle. He strips the elitists of their worldly baubles; but he also takes from the marginalised their sole status chip, which likewise is distracting them from true service. For the sake of Christian love, they are told to cease ‘stepping out’ of the body of Christ into an individualistic experience. Their glossolalia is community property, and must be translated for all; or they are to prophesy and to submit their message to the discernment of the others; or perhaps they are to teach, but be limited to their rude, unmannered style – but all this and more is possible with the Spirit’s power.[36] The gospel’s solution is not retreat, nor flight, nor subversion, nor acquiescence to the existing order established by the ‘strong’, but intentional, voluntary, spiritual (Spiritual) service in agapē.

3. Summary

The ultracharismatics were drawn from the socially disaffected of the Corinthian church. They latched on to glossolalia as a means of turning inward to God but away from Christ’s body, especially during meetings. In so doing they snubbed the values of their social ‘betters’ by emphasizing their connection with God’s Spirit and their disconnection from the foolishness of worldly wisdom, flattery and status.

Latin America has had decades of development from a similar starting point. Today one may point to other features that have grown out from that matrix:

  • The rejection of ‘worldly’ values may take the form of anti-intellectualism. While on the one hand many Christians value education or see it as a divine blessing, others view it dualistically as a tool of evil. They contrast the charismatic power of Pentecostalism with the supposed sterility of groups that (also) value intellect.[37]
  • Battles regularly break out between Pentecostal individuals, leaders and groups about who is more charismatically endowed.
  • Charismatic leadership by women or the chronically poor, while formally affirmed, is in practice discouraged by an emerging hierarchical structure. In the case of poverty, it may be tacitly assumed that a true person of the Spirit would have left poverty behind.
  • Material prosperity is reinterpreted not as a sign of worldly class status (elitism) but as a sign of spiritual status (unusual faith that leads to prosperity).

Perhaps we see in Latin America what a Pauline church might have looked like had the ultracharismatics not gone unchecked. But let us be wary of reading a developed situation into a Corinthian church that had had only a handful of years to evolve.

NOTES:

[1] The referent of πνευματικων/pneumatikōn, if taken as the neuter gender, as in the NRSV, most English, German, French and Spanish versions, most commentaries. The neuter is indicated by the parallel in 1 Cor. 14:1.

[2] John C. Hurd, Jr., The origin of 1 Corinthians (2nd edn; Macon, GA: Mercer, 1983): 192. Hurd correctly rejects (186-87) that the church had asked about the discernment of spiritual manifestations, as thinks Chrysostom, Hom. 1 Cor. 29.1-3; also Wolfgang Schrage, Der erste Brief an die Korinther (EKKNT 7/3; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1991-2001): 3.117-26.

[3] See the full and convincing treatment by Christopher Forbes, Prophecy and inspired speech in early Christianity and its Hellenistic environment (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997). For a different view see Luke Timothy Johnson, ‘Tongues, Gift of’ in Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 6.596-600. As an example of the modern confusing of prophecy, glossolalia and ecstatic speech, see Richard A. Horsley, ‘Spiritual elitism in Corinth’, NovT 20 (1978): 203-312. On 228 he sets out to prove that ‘prophetic ecstasy is a climactic experience, perhaps the highest spiritual experience in Philo’s religion’. To be sure, in Heir 264-65, Philo does represent Abraham as being in a trance in Gen. 15:12: ‘[A] trance, which proceeds from inspiration, takes violent hold of us, and madness seizes upon us, for when the divine light sets this other rises and shines, and this very frequently happens to the race of prophets’ (Yonge version). But in the literary and religious context this has nothing to do with glossolalia, as Horsley would wish.

[4] See Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986 (2nd edn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988): 23-30.

[5] See the attempts of Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (ICC; 2nd edn; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914): 11-13; Otto Kuss, Die Briefe an die Römer, Korinther und Galater (RNT; Regensburg: Pustet, 1940): 114, 120-21; T. W. Manson, ‘The Corinthian correspondence (I) [1941]’ in Studies in the Gospels and Epistles, ed. M. Black (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1962): 190-209; C. K. Barrett, ‘Christianity at Corinth [1964]’ in Essays on Paul (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1982): 1-27 at defining precisely the penchants of each of the four groups. We applaud that recent studies have tended to be wary of over-confident reconstructions of history, especially in cases like this, where the evidence is slim or nonexistent.

[6] Walter Schmithals, Gnosticism in Corinth: an investigation of the letters to the Corinthians, tr. J. E. Steely (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1971).

[7] See for example the response by R. McLachlan Wilson, ‘How Gnostic were the Corinthians?’ NTS 19 (1972-73): 65-74.

[8] E.g. Birger Pearson, ‘Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom Speculation and Paul’ in R. L. Wilken, ed., Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1975): 43-66.

[9] Jerome H. Neyrey, Paul, in other words: a cultural reading of his letters (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1990): 34. Note especially the major new commentaries by Wolfgang Schrage; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000); Thiselton’s seminal article, ‘Realized eschatology at Corinth’, NTS 24 (1978): 510-26. See also Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987); Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, tr. James W. Leitch (Hermeneia; Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1975): 14-16; D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: a theological exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987): 16-17.

[10] There is a confusion of tongues concerning these labels. Some proponents of the ‘enthusiasm’ view perceive it as a rejection of Schmithals’ Gnostic theory; others understand it to be the same theory; others still a modification of it. An important parallel between Gnostic, ‘pneumatic’, ‘charismatic’ or whatever models is that they tend to emphasize the same data and interpret those data in similar directions: for example, that ‘you reign already’ in 1 Cor. 4:8 is a theological-eschatological statement and not primarily sociological or attitudinal. We think that the ‘charismatic enthusiasm’ proponents should go back even further to examine what lies behind the exegetical conclusions of the ‘Gnostic’ school and see whether there are not better explanations of the specific texts.

[11] See especially Gerd Theissen, The social setting of Pauline Christianity: essays on Corinth, tr. J. H. Schütz (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1982); Andrew D. Clarke, Secular and Christian leadership in Corinth: a socio-historical and exegetical study of 1 Corinthians 1-6 (AGJU, 18; Leiden: Brill, 1993); Ben Witherington III, Conflict and community in Corinth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995); Bruce W. Winter, After Paul left Corinth: the influence of secular ethics and social change (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001); the commentaries by Anthony C. Thiselton and Wolfgang Schrage. Special mention should go to the regular articles in the Tyndale Bulletin, particularly – David W. J Gill, ‘The importance of Roman portraiture for head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16’, TynBul 41 (1990): 245-60; ‘The meat market at Corinth (1 Corinthians 10:25)’, TynBul 43.2 (1992): 389-93; Dirk Jongkind, Dirk, ‘Corinth in the first century AD: the search for another class’, TynBul 52.1 (2001): 139-48; G. W. Peterman, ‘Marriage and sexual fidelity in the papyri, Plutarch and Paul’, TynBul 50.2 (1999): 163-72; David Instone-Brewer, ‘1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Graeco-Roman marriage and divorce papyri’, TynBul 52.1 (2001): 101-15; ‘1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Jewish Greek and Aramaic marriage and divorce papyri’, TynBul 52.2 (2001): 225-43.

[12] See the nice summary of patronage by Janet M. Everts, ‘Financial support’ in Dictionary of Paul and his letters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993): 295-300.

[13] Some other examples of this ‘theologising of the social’ may be found in 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Phil. 4:2 within the context of the letter; 2 Thess. 3:6-12; Jas. 2:1-26; 3 John 9-11. We do not even begin to catalogue the examples in the gospels, Acts and Revelation.

[14] John K. Chow, Patronage and power: a study of social networks in Corinth (JSNTSS, 75; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992): 184-85.

[15] Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian body (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995): 88-92; but especially his article, ‘Tongues of angels and other status indicators’, JAAR 59 (1991): 547-89. Along this line see too Roy A. Harrisville, ‘Speaking in tongues: a lexicographical study’, CBQ 38 (1976): 35-48; David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (BEC; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003): 586.

[16] Forbes: 262-63. See especially, Philo, Giants 61: Philo allegorizes Gen. 6:4 to mean that there are three types of human: those born of the earth (the carnal), those born of heaven (the intellectuals), and those born of God (priests and prophets). The prophets are not ecstatics, but intellectuals who have fixed their minds on incorporeal ideas. In this Philo is echoed by Origen, Cels. 7.4-7, who contrasts the true prophet with the Pythian – the true prophet is learned, the Pythian ‘unlettered;’ the prophet is a righteous man, the Pythian a sinful woman; when illuminated, the prophet receives a clear mind (7.4), the Pythian, a clouded mind.

[17]  Chrysostom, Hom. 1 Cor. 29.5, brings up the Corinthian view in order to refute it – ‘Now it was supposed that this gift [of tongues] was a great one: in the first place because the apostles received it, and also because many Corinthians obtained it. But such is not the teaching of the Word’. Unless otherwise noted, we will use the ANF and NPNF translation; the NPNF translation being garbled in this passage, we offer our own translation. Our view of Chrysostom is supported by Forbes: 12; Hurd: 281; Wayne A. Meeks, The first urban Christians: the social world of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984): 119 – ‘[One] means of gaining and using prestige and influence’ was ‘by behavior that the Pauline Christians recognized as directly manifesting the Spirit of God’; also Margaret M. Mitchell, The heavenly trumpet: John Chrysostom and the art of Pauline interpretation (HUT, 40; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002): 295 n. 451. For the sake of completeness, we must mention in passing the proposal of Antoinette C. Wire, The Corinthian women prophets: a reconstruction through Paul’s rhetoric (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1990) – through their greater participation in worship the women were gaining status, provoking Paul to restrict their freedom.

[18] We have amended with the italicized words the ANF translation, which apparently regards the last clause as a reference to the Spirit: ‘as he used Himself also to speak’. The section is extant only in Latin (PG 7.1137) – ‘Propter quod et Apostolus ait: “Sapientiam loquimur inter perfectos;” perfectos dicens eos qui perceperunt Spiritum Dei, et omnibus linguis loquuntur per Spiritum Dei, quemadmodum et ipse loquebatur’. That Paul is the subject is equally allowed by the Latin and better suited to the context. The early church made much of Paul’s charism of tongues; see John Chrysostom, In principium Actorum apostolorum 3.4 [PG 51.93; this is not the same as his better-known sermon series Homiliae in Acta apostolorum, PG 60], who argues that Paul spoke not with one charismatic tongue, but with many: ‘tongues more than you all’ (1 Cor. 14:18) taken as ‘more tongues than you all’.

[19] Thus we do not persuaded by the orientation of Theodoret of Cyr, cited in G. Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, VII: 1-2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999): 117 – ‘…they did not use the gifts as they should have done. They were more interested in showing off than in using them for the edification of the church’.

[20] We must acknowledge the fresh viewpoint of Justin Meggitt, Paul, poverty, and survival (SNTW; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998), that there were very few middle- or upper-class Christians in the Pauline churches. He argues that Paul’s statements ‘Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?’ (1 Cor. 11:22) and ‘If you are hungry, eat at home’ (11:34) do not demand that his addressees own their own lavish peristyle homes. This may be so, but we counter that Paul’s references to people such as Phoebe, Philemon, and Aquila and Priscilla necessitated that at least some of the disciples possessed property. See too the interaction with Meggitt by Dale B. Martin, ‘Review Essay: Justin J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival’, JSNT 24 (2001): 51-64; Gerd Theissen, ‘The social structure of Pauline communities: some critical remarks on J.J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival’, JSNT 24 (2001): 65-84; David L. Balch, ‘Rich Pompeiian houses, shops for rent, and the huge apartment building in Herculaneum as typical spaces for Pauline house churches’, JSNT 27.1 (2004): 27-46.

[21] This from the essay ‘Social integration and sacramental activity: an analysis of 1 Cor. 11:17-34’ chapter 4 in Gerd Theissen, The social setting of Pauline Christianity. See too his ‘The strong and the weak in Corinth: a sociological analysis of a theological quarrel’, chapter 3 in the same volume. Meggitt’s case (190) is weak here, that the eating is of the sacrament itself: ‘The community treated the elements of the Lord’s Supper (v. 20) as though they were constituents of a normal meal (v. 21) with the consequence that when the church came together to eat (vv. 20, 33) some consumed all the bread and wine quickly (v. 33), leaving others, who were less fast on the uptake, with nothing (v. 22)’. Meggitt has to concede that the gorging of food and the drunkenness with which Paul charges them is grossly hyperbolic. He argues that unless this was a love feast gone to extremes, then the only explanation is that it is the sacrament itself.

[22] Theissen (‘The strong and the weak in Corinth’: 125-29) has also reminded us that the poor of Corinth would have eaten meat only rarely, and perhaps only in conjunction with pagan feast-days. That hints that the strong who eat meat without scrupling in chapters 8-10 overlap with those who give feasts in chapter 11, where meat, fowl and fish delicacies would be served. This approach may likewise help us understand the weak brothers: they were outside the loop of the educated and did not share the ‘knowledge’ that the demons infecting the meat wouldn’t harm them. This has neat parallels in Latin American Pentecostalism, which tends to foster a Manichean dualism between God and the demonic. See Juan Sepúlveda, ‘Pentecostal theology in the context of the struggle for life’ in Faith born in the struggle for life, ed. D. Kirkpatrick (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988): 298-318, who attributes this dualism to ‘a real experience of the negativity and brutality of the world’.

[23] This is the same observation that Celsus made, albeit sarcastically, against Christians in general in the mid-second century, that its supposed nonsensicality made it appealing only to the uneducated classes. See Origen, Cels. 3.44; 7.4-7 and the careful analysis of Celsus’ view by Thomas W. Gillespie, ‘A pattern of prophetic speech in First Corinthians’, JBL 97/1 (1978): 74-95.

[24] Juan Sepúlveda, ‘Religion and poverty in Brazil: a comparison of Catholic and Pentecostal communities’ in New face of the Church in Latin America: between tradition and change, ed. G. Cook (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994): 72.

[25] Bryan R. Wilson, Magic and the millennium: a sociological study of religious movements of protest among tribal and third-world peoples (New York: Harper & Row, 1973): 24.

[26]J José Míguez Bonino, ‘The Pentecostal face of Latin American Protestantism’ in Faces of Latin American Protestantism, tr. E. L. Stockwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997): 69, states that ‘it may be that many Pentecostals are poor or marginalized, but as a whole they represent now a social and political force’. He wonders whether Pentecostalism is now ‘threatened by the same social factors that made its development possible’. See too Manuel J. Gaxiola, ‘The Pentecostal Ministry’, International Review of Missions 66 (1977): 57. For a useful overview of what happens when the formerly-marginalized become part of the elite, see W. J. Hollenweger, ‘The Pentecostal elites and the Pentecostal poor: a missed dialogue?’ chapter 9 in Charismatic Christianity as a global culture, ed. Karla Poewe (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994); also Paul Freston, ‘Charismatic Evangelicals in Latin America: mission and politics on the frontiers of Protestant growth’ in Charismatic Christianity: sociological perspectives, ed. S. Hunt, M. Hamilton and T. Walter (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1997), who charts the growth of middle-class Pentecostalism.

[27] André Droogers, Algo más que opio (San José, CR: DEI, 1991; also available in English as More than opium [Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield]): 26; R. Andrew Chesnut, Born again in Brazil: the Pentecostal boom and the pathogens of poverty (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1997), particularly Chapter 6: ‘Authoritarian assembly: Church organization’. Chesnut shows how a Pentecostal church (in this case, the Assembly of God in Brazil) may move toward a highly authoritarian leadership structure. Those who obey the head receive favors, and those who do not fail to advance. ‘In reality, the head of the church decides on important matters behind closed doors with a cabal of pastors’. (130) This has a historical parallel in Montanism. If Tertullian (Jejun. 11) touts a more democratic version of Christianity with his ‘[we] are all priests of one only God the Creator and of His Christ’, then his movement was swiftly moving toward a hierarchy as rigid as any: see William Tabbernee, ‘Montanist regional bishops: new evidence from ancient inscriptions’, JECS 1 (1993): 249-80. To take one example: although Montanism and some contemporary Pentecostals formally advocate a place for charismatic females in the leadership structure, with ongoing organization they may once more leave women and other marginalized groups on the sidelines.

[28] Wayne Meeks (120) speculates that there were two ‘different modes of power’ at work in Corinth. Thus, ‘conflict between possessed behavior [glossolalia] and more structured forms of power would not be surprising’.

[29] Contra Margaret M. Mitchell, ‘Concerning PERI DE in 1 Corinthians’, NovT 31, 3 (1989): 229-56.

[30] As does Richard A. Horsley, 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998): 159.

[31] Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: 799.

[32] Martin, Corinthian body: 89, uses Montanus to prove that glossolalia bestowed higher status in the movement, and that lower-status Montanists were such because they lacked the gift. We respond that glossolalia was not part of a uniquely Montanist experience, and that any assumption about what charismata the lower-class Montanists possessed is pure speculation.

[33] See D. H. Williams, ‘The origins of the Montanist movement: a sociological analysis’, Religion 19 (1989): 331-51.

[34] Cf. Hippolytus, Haer. 7.26; 8.12; Epiphanius, Pan. 49. See Gary S. Shogren, ‘Christian prophecy and canon in the second century: A response to B. B. Warfield’, JETS 40/4 (Dec. 1997): 609-26. See also Christine Trevett, Montanism – gender, authority and the new prophecy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), who in my opinion leaves insufficiently explored some of the fascinating gender issues hinted at in the title.

[35] See James Patrick, ‘Insights from Cicero on Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 12-14: love sandwich or five course meal?’ TynBul 55.1 (2004): 43-64.

[36] So Calvin’s commentary on 1 Cor. 14:1.

[37] Concerning the challenge of theological education within the anti-education milieu of Pentecostal Chile, see Juan Sepúlveda, ‘El desafío de la educación teológica desde una perspectiva Pentecostal’, Ministerial Formation 87 (Oct. 1999): 35-41.

“The ‘Ultracharismatics’ of Corinth and the Pentecostals of Latin America as the Religion of the Disaffected,” by Gary S. Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Romans Commentary, Romans 6:1-8:39

This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren

To download the first half of the commentary as a pdf, click here Shogren_Romans 1-8 Commentary

 

IV. The Miraculous New Life in Christ (6:1-8:39)

Ask citizens of the Majority World, “What is the main human dilemma?” and they might respond with legitimate concerns: economic inequality, or perhaps corruption, political oppression, lack of education, destruction of the environment. But according to Romans 1-5, our most basic and universal and intractable predicament is that we all, Jew or Gentile, are cut off from God through deliberate or even unconscious rebellion, meriting his anger. The only solution is forgiveness and reconciliation, freely offered through Christ. All other issues are secondary, all further discussion mere commentary.

“While Romans 5 speaks of this new life as a life of peace with God, Romans 6 speaks of it as a life free from the dominion of sin” (Cevallos y Zorzolli, p. 114, our translation). Paul begins with the question of whether Christians should go on enjoying sin, since God is going to forgive them anyway. Of course not, he retorts: God demands righteousness of his people, and Christ died to destroy sin, not simply conceal it. But Paul does not simply tell them to drop their old behavior. Rather he shows how they are transformed into a new breed of humanity, freed from sin, death and the law of God.

The reader of Romans may be helped by using the word “Torah” instead of “law”; some Jews prefer to translate it with the less negative term, “instruction”. Judaism affirmed that God had graciously redeemed Israel and then handed down his Torah from the mountain. Like the Hellenistic Jews, Paul translated Torah as nomos, which is usually rendered in English as “law”. It has always said that the law was not a burden, but a delight: “the law of the Lord is perfect…by [it’s rules] your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Ps 19:7, 11). But Paul has already proved that not even Israel was helped by the Torah. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10); “all have sinned” and for that reason “fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

The Jews believed in God’s grace, but they minimized its role, placing much confidence in their membership in the covenant and their ability to follow the instructions of the Torah. “It is not that anyone [in Judaism] said, ‘Righteousness is by law and not by grace’; no one posed grace and law as alternatives; rather they saw law as the gift of grace. It was Paul who posed them as alternatives…” (Dunn, p. 1.326). For his part, Paul teaches that salvation is wholly by God’s grace by faith, apart from Torah observance. If not wholly by grace, salvation is not by grace at all; if it is not equally available to a non-Torah observant Christian, then the gospel is not powerful to save anyone, and we should be ashamed to believe in it (Rom 1:16).

Practical Thought: People, in and of themselves, cannot live according to God’s will. We must be changed from the inside out, as we see in this parable:

“God wants you to fly!” you say to a fish. He races to the surface, but at best he might leap out of the water by a few centimeters. “But, but…God’s Book says you must do it!” you implore. “Simply flap, quickly, and don’t stop!” The fish can only stare back at you, befuddled. It is not in his nature to fly, and it doesn’t matter whether he attends weekly lessons or even memorizes verses about the importance of air travel.

This illustrates why Paul had little patience for those who looked to the law of Moses to make people spiritually successful. What matters is having the Spirit and being one with Christ.

People apart from Christ have the old self or old nature (6:6), which is also called life in “the flesh”. When a person comes to faith in Christ, he or she is not simply forgiven, but identified with Jesus so much so that they are a new creation in their way of feeling, thinking and acting. To extend our metaphor further, instead of teaching a fish to fly, God takes a fish and transforms it into a bird. We may still look the same; in fact, I have known a Christian whose unsaved twin brother looked just like him, but inside the men were entirely different beings.

A. In Christ we are dead to sin, to death, to the Torah (6:1-7:6)

6:1-10

Shall we keep sinning, since “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (5:20)? No! In 6:2, the apostle uses the phrase “By no means!” or “absolutely not!” (in Greek, mē genoito; in this section see 6:15, 7:7, 7:13). There have always been those who want to obtain forgiveness from God and go on living any way they pleased; such a “gospel” is an abomination (see too 2 Pet 2:1-3). In fact, the Christian has had the power and the responsibility to refuse to sin since the moment of the new birth. In other passages, Paul uses the word “sanctify”; in his vocabulary it usually means a once and for all experience when we received Christ: already “you were sanctified” (1 Cor 6:11). If we are united with Christ, and if he died, was buried, and lives again, then we too in an instant died to the old life and were resurrected to the new one. Paul does not say we should “act as if” or “pretend” that this is true. It is a fact that in our deepest beings we are dead to sin’s power and enabled to live in righteousness, to the extent, of course, that we depend on God in faith.

When we are baptized (vv. 3-4), we are told that we have died to sin and are raised to a new life. But the baptism that transforms us is not just the contact of our bodies with water; rather, it is the invisible inner baptism or immersion of our beings into Christ by the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion, even before we approach the water of baptism (Cranfield, pp. 1.301-302; contra Stott). As Paul says elsewhere, “we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Cor 12:13a). And baptism reminds of that we have the hope of the future resurrection when Christ returns (Rom 6:5; see v. 8).

The majority of Roman Christians were slaves or had been slaves, and so beginning in v. 6 the apostle gives an illustration that tapped into their life experience. Before Christ, sin was our slave master, and we had to do whatever he demandeds. But in real life, some slaves receive freedom: some because their masters set them free, but others – and this is relevant here – because once a slave died the master no longer had authority over him. Thus, a Christian is no longer the slave to sin, since he or she has on a fundamental level escaped its authority. When sin issues his commands, the believer can hold his ground and say No.

But this is only the first half of the truth, since if we are united to Christ we are alive before God (vv. 4, 10). “…the Apostle does not simply exhort us to imitate Christ, as though he had said that the death of Christ is a pattern which all Christians are to follow; for no doubt he ascends higher… [Rather, Paul teaches that] the death of Christ is efficacious to destroy and demolish the depravity of our flesh” (Calvin, p. 221). For his part, Jesus used the term “born again” (John 3:3) and “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5; see 1 Pet 1:3); in another place Paul says that the believer is a “new creation” or creature (2 Cor 5:17). Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and this we will experience only when he returns again to earth: we will live (future tense) with him (Rom 6:8; also 8:11; 1 Cor 15:22; see 2 Tim 2:11 – “If we died with him, we will also live with him”; all of these refer to the End Times). Meanwhile in this life we will be sick, grow old, die; and also wrestle daily against sin.

Some theologians believe that Paul borrowed this idea of union with Christ from the “mystery religions” of his day. These were cults that promised that the initiate would die and be reborn with some pagan deity. But these groups did not believe in resurrection in the Bible sense and probably did not affect Paul’s language of union with Christ (see especially Cranfield, p. 1.301).

Special Note: the Victorious Life. It is typical of false sects that they ignore some part or another of passage, and so they fail to live the life that God expects. The legalist believes that we need more, stricter rules in order to live a victorious life. But we know that this doesn’t happen, that mountains of laws don’t make our citizens better people, just as a command to fly does not transform a fish into a bird. In the country where I live there is a fine if people throw trash on the street – but just yesterday I saw a man open a package and throw the plastic wrapper on the ground: the law instructed him and there was a slight possibility that he might receive a fine, but the law did not – could not – transform him. In the gospel, the believer must start with the facts of his new nature and only then through daily faith in Christ begin to taste spiritual victory.

Other groups have gone astray by focusing too much on the new nature and forgetting that life is still a battle against sin. They say that they are resurrected to a new life and therefore they are perfect (see 1 John 1:8-10; perhaps also 2 Tim 2:18). So taught the heresy Gnosticism in the 2nd century and beyond, a movement that is again popular in Europe and in South America. They believed that the spiritual resurrection at the point of conversion was the single and final event, and thus all Gnostics are already made perfect. But not even Paul had reached this stage! “So, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal” (Phil 3:11-12). One theologian reminds us that “it would be a bad misinterpretation of Paul to think that the believer is thereby removed from all contact of influence with the old realm of sin. While belonging to a new realm, the believer brings with him into it many of the impulses, habits, and tendencies of the old life…” (Moo, p. 352).

6:11-14

But the story is not finished; Christians must act on the truth! Paul now uses imperative verbs, “commands”. The phrase “count yourselves” (v. 11) must be handled with great care. The verb logizomai (“consider, reckon, count”) appears 19 times in this epistle. It was critically important in Romans 4:3, where God considered Abraham righteous because of his faith. Paul does not ask the Romans to pretend that they are dead to sin, or act as if this pleasing narrative were so; his point is that believers must remember, take into account, and act upon what is already true, that already they are “dead to sin to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).

What are our new abilities? The believer is able, with God’s power, to say no to sin. Sin still orders us to obey its “desires” (6:12), and scowls and shouts and persuades, but he is a pretender and has no right or power to tell us how to live. Paul speaks of our body parts as instruments (or tools or weapons; the word is used in 13:12, but with a different sense). Christians might surrender their mouth, or hands, or feet or other parts for sin to use, but they don’t have to do so; and they must take decisive steps not to. This is why Paul later issues commands to the Romans that they live in righteousness: beginning in Romans 12:1-2 he will show how the Christian must engage in specific behaviors.

Paul then concludes in v. 14 with an idea that he had hinted at earlier in the epistle, that by faith in Christ one may be totally acceptable before God without obeying the Torah, since “you are not under the law” (see comments on 7:6). Abraham not only had no law, but he was an uncircumcised Gentile when he was declared right with God! The same is true for Gentile Christians, whether in 1st-century Rome or elsewhere.

One school of thought is that Paul is speaking in this section only about certain ritual laws, such as circumcision and food regulations. That cannot be so; firstly, because the Scripture does not distinguish between moral and ritual law; nor for that matter, does it distinguish between the law of God and the law of Moses. “Law” means any and every commandment. Secondly, in Romans the apostle cites six of the Ten Commandments as examples of the law: stealing, murder, idolatry (2:21-24), adultery (2:22, 7:7-11), Sabbath (14:5), plus provoking others to take God’s name in vain (2:24).

The believer can and must live righteously, not because he focuses on the law, but because in his new nature – and through the Spirit enlightening him in his reading of the Scriptures – he will know what is God’s true path: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Rom 2:14-15). They will love others because God has taught them to do so from within his being, a supernatural fulfillment of what is written in the Word (Rom 12:9-21; 13:8-10; especially 1 Thess 4:9-10).

Torah-observant legalists come in many forms. One might say, You have to obey the laws of Moses in order to become right with God. And oh, yes, you have to believe in Jesus too. Such words should leave us aghast. Believe in Jesus too? May we be delivered from such a weak and watery gospel. It is salvation is by Jesus, period, or it is not the true gospel.

Another might insist that even Gentile believers obey the 613 commands of the Torah, which include rules about the sowing of two plants in a garden (Deut 22:9); blended fabrics (Deut 22:11); and putting tassels on the fringe of one’s robes (Deut 22:12); among many others. Or someone will say that, You don’t have to obey rules such as this, but you do have to obey the Sabbath and other Jewish feasts and you have to adopt Hebrew names – as if some 21st century “rabbi” had the power to add to or take away from how we might obey God’s Torah! An especially pernicious form of legalism says, Of course you cannot earn salvation by works; nevertheless, the truly committed follow of Jesus will gain sanctification only if he or she follows the hundreds of laws of Moses.

“Saved by grace, sanctified by works” is a heresy, a silly attempt to get good credit before God or to obtain his power through good deeds, which are, after all, works of the flesh. Our continuing growth in the Lord is, like justification, an act of faith.

Yet, Paul did not teach that we should have faith in Jesus and then do nothing. He said that we should take decisive, righteous action, seeking the power of God to make right choices, weed out bad attitudes, curb wrong behavior.

Some Christians state their philosophy thus: “Well, we shouldn’t be too legalistic; and of course, we shouldn’t be unprincipled. No, the middle of the road is where we should walk!” This “balanced” viewpoint too is alien to the gospel. Submitting ourselves to God is an absolute command, akin to Jesus saying that “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39) or to take up one’s cross to follow him (Matt 10:38). It is nothing less than a full daily surrender, a life of faith and repentance (Rom 2:4).

6:15-23

Paul regularly heard this attack from his theological enemies: Isn’t it true that once you tell Gentiles that they are free from the law, then they will run amok in idolatry, sex and cruelty? And now he asks a similar question of the Romans (v. 15): Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Not at all! For life under God’s gracious rule is a life of justice.

On the other side, he warns that a Christian, who in fact is free from sin and Torah, could make a choice to obey sin (vv. 16-22). And by that act of voluntary submission, the Christian in effect makes sin his master once again, since you are slaves of the one you obey. Turn back and follow sin, and you will place yourself on the road to death. But Paul reiterates that this is a choice that goes against nature, since they truly are liberated from sin and slaves of righteousness. The believer must decisively follow one path or another, since he can serve only one of two masters (Luke 16:13a). The believer must surrender herself as the slave of God (v. 22). This surrender is not a once-and-for-all decision (see our comments on Rom 12:1); it is a way of life which must be daily embraced.

The life of sin leads to predictable “wages”, eternal death (v. 23), which is the resurrection unto judgment. If a person, transformed by God, lives in righteousness, he receives eternal life, not as a payment, but as a “gift”.

Eternal life in the language of John’s gospel is a gift that a person receives in this life (“whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” that is, has it already; John 3:36). Yet the phrase in other authors, including Paul, means the eternal life we will receive when Jesus returns; it is the “life of the final resurrection” (Rom 2:7; 5:21; 6:22-23). Christians are being led to that future life. We can paraphrase the end of 6:23 that God’s gift to us, purely of grace, is that he will include us in the resurrection at Jesus’ return.

Every believer, at some time, even frequently, follows temptation into sin, even though technically he does not have to do so. One who falls regularly becomes what the Bible calls a person of “double-minded” or “indecisive or inconstant” (James 1:8; 4:8). Christians who do not repent might even fall into addictive sin.

7:1-6

Paul now develops the theme that he began in 6:14 but then left to one side: believers in Jesus are no longer obligated to obey the law. This was a supremely controversial position to take. In fact, we will see in 7:7-25 that Paul had to defend himself against the charge of apostasy from the Torah.

He speaks to his brothers and sisters. The underlying Greek term, adelphoi, is grammatically masculine, but means “brothers and sisters” (in this section 7:4, 8:12; see also 8:29). The apostle sometimes uses it to attract the attention of his hearers after a long section and to take them into fresh territory. “Those who know the law” might be all his Roman readers, but perhaps he is hinting that he will once again speak to an imaginary synagogue audience, as he did in 1:18ff.

“The law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives.” People who have died to sin and to death have also died to the Torah. In vv. 2-3, he uses the example of a husband and wife to show that death severs the authority of the law, once one party is dead.

While I was working on this commentary, there was a bad accident in front of my office – a man illegally ran across a busy highway, was hit by a truck and killed instantly. I went outside and saw that the victim lay on the street under a covering. For two grisly hours he remained there as the police arrived and closed the road; took the testimony of witnesses; interrogated the truck driver; and finally cleaned up. I noticed that one thing they did not do was issue a ticket to the pedestrian, even though he had broken the law. Dead to all, he was “free” from the law, no longer obligated to it.

In Judaism, once an Israelite died, he no longer had to concern himself with the Torah’s instructions on dress, food, sacred days. And those who have died to the law are free to be “married to” or in allegiance with a new master, Christ (7:4). And it is only through union with the dead and resurrected Christ that we are able to bear righteous fruit, fruit we cannot begin to manufacture on our own “in the flesh.”

Paul contrasts the flesh and the Spirit frequently in Romans, and even more in Galatians. Great care must be taken to define the word “flesh” (Greek sarx) in 7:5 and throughout the following chapters. Sometimes Paul uses the word to refer to the physical aspect of our being (1 Cor 15:39; 2 Cor 7:1). Now, if Paul had been a Greek philosopher, a Platonist, he might have believed that the physical body was morally weak and mortal, but that the inner spirit was good. Lust and anger and jealousy come about because we are bodily creatures. In that case, death would be a relief, since the pure spirit would ascend to the heavens and leave its physical vessel behind. But Paul was no Platonist; he had been trained in the truth of Genesis, which says that God created human beings to have a physical body and that it was “very good” (Gen 1:31).

A better understanding of “flesh” is that Paul is thinking of human nature since the fall of Adam (Rom 5:12). Two descriptors characterize the human race in this age, apart from the grace of God: first, it is sinful, and the NVI translates sarx as “sinful nature”. Second, it is powerless to do righteousness; for that reason, the Spanish version, the TLA renders 7:5 (“when we were in the realm of the flesh”) as “vivíamos sin poder” – “we lived without power.” “Flesh” in this sense could be expressed thus: humanity that by its nature consistently and willfully rebels against God, and that couldn’t obey God even if it wanted to. This latter half is the key truth in Romans 7-8 – people can serve God only because God transforms them by the Spirit. Still, Christians must ever wrestle against the “flesh” while in this life: “If ‘flesh’ means unregenerate human nature, the believer still possesses this nature, even though she or he has received the Spirit” (Ladd, p. 515).

In Christ, the believer is not subject to the law (7:1 NIV has it as “the law has authority over someone”), and not called to obey it (v. 6). For some, this verse makes no sense, and one pseudo-“messianic” translation (the Spanish language Versión Israelita Nazarena) adds words in brackets that completely distort Paul’s meaning: “but now that we have died from [the condemnation of] the law” (our rendering in English). This same version alters the Bible in the same way in 6:14-15, and completely rewrites the point of 7:5. But Paul is not speaking of condemnation, but of the obligation to obey Torah. Another (the Código Real New Testament, our rendering in English) states that we have died to the “legalistic obedience of the law”, as if Paul were saying we must obey the law but only with a sweeter attitude. This of course makes nonsense of the text. Others will say that even though you are not saved by the law or oppressed or condemned by it, you should still obey God by following the ancient code. Or, as this same “messianic rabbi” expresses it:

The impossibility of the law is due to the fact that [the law] is not functioning in that person who is not tied to it in a covenant relationship, like the marriage covenant, for example, which is the figure that Paul uses in this context. In order for the law to be functioning, the sinful nature, here represented as a cruel and despotic master and husband, has to be taken away, so that the inner man, the divine soul that is spiritual, might be united to the divine law that is likewise spiritual. (El Código Real, p. 301, our rendering into English).

To paraphrase, the author is saying that it is impossible to obey the law unless you are fully committed to do so by accepting the covenant of Moses in the inner person and trying hard to obey. But this is nothing but double-talk, reading a Bible text that says no-one can obey the Torah, no matter how hard they try, and explaining it to mean that, Oh but, yes you can, so long as you try really, really hard.

Paul will have none of that: his point is that, if you try to serve God through Torah-piety, you will find yourself growing more weak within and less righteous in deed. His point goes against intuition, which says that having more rules and putting forth more effort to obey those rules will make you a better person. In fact, it makes you a worse person! The Torah does not kill “sinful passions” (7:5); it awakens and arouses them, and the more we try the more we fail. To the extent that Christians make themselves servants of the Torah or some other set of rules, to that extent does fleshly religion push grace out of their lives.

The Christian life is by the Spirit, and not by the written law of Moses (v. 6b); the NIV is right to capitalize the word Spirit here, since it is the Holy Spirit he speaks of, not some inner part of the person. He has said something similar in 2:29, that the true circumcision is “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” A related verse is the famous 2 Cor 3:6 – “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” This last verse has been terribly twisted in our day to mean something like “Don’t quote Bible verses at me, I will do what I feel the Spirit is telling me!” In none of these verses is this the idea: rather, they all deal with the New Covenant and the victory we have over sin by the Spirit, not by Torah-observance.

Legalists love to compose lists of rules. An always popular category is women’s clothing; one North American website has a long list – this kind of blouse, yes; this kind of swimsuit, no; this many inches here, this many there, a bit less of this, a bit more of that. Oh and, of course, these lists are always labeled with the warning, “Now we’re not being legalistic!” Some Latina friends of mine have been refused communion because the usher who was distributing it saw that they were wearing nail polish and were thus clearly not in fellowship with God. The clothing from the men’s wardrobe, of course, rarely comes under such close scrutiny.

Legalists also love to believe that their rules are universal; to go back to clothing again, I once saw one pastor who had his wife stand in front of the congregation; at that point he implied that her outfit from the (I am relatively sure) 1980s was God’s style for all women in every time and place. By nature, the legalists tend to be inflexible; confident in self; competitive; condemning of others; but to their great surprise, also frustrated at the paltry harvest of their own spiritual growth. In short, they are just what Paul meant by the word “carnal.”

Carnal behavior cannot be limited to, for example, sexual sins or permissive attitudes. For believers living “by the flesh” are those who may be making a massive effort to please God, but doing it their own way and in their own power. Thus, a Christian who, let us say, commits fornication is “fleshly,” but so is the Christian who makes every effort to obey the Torah, following his or her own strength. This is what was happening in Galatia, and that is why Paul says that the legalists themselves were producing works of the flesh and not fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:19-23 as read in its context).

Woe to us if we water down the words “dead to the law”, turning them into something that Paul never intended. There are people who say, Yes, we’re dead to the Torah, but we still have to obey it. That is not what the apostle wrote, but rather, given that we are released from Torah, we do not have to obey it. What could be clearer? And so while believers should carefully study the Old Testament, through the guidance of the Spirit, they are not obligated to follow its hundreds of laws; if they try to do so, they are guaranteed to make themselves ever more feeble and discouraged.

A Spirit believer focuses on love for God and love for others. This doesn’t mean we are warm and childlike personalities who go out and do whatever feels right. It does mean that love is the supreme judge of all rules, behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, goals. We will deal with this in detail in Romans 13.

Study Questions:

  1. What is the most important thing that God wants for your life in Christ?
  2. Believers are dead to sin’s power, but they can still yield themselves to its mastery. What are some ways you are returning to King Sin to obey him?
  3. Who in your life is giving you rules to follow that are not warranted by the Bible? How have they affected your standard of living in Christ – are you more successful or less? And why?

B. Paul is not an Apostate! (7:7-25)

7:7-13

Some take this paragraph to be a description of Paul’s own experience at his Bar Mitzvah, when he was recognized as an adult in Israel, personally responsible to follow the Torah. Nevertheless, it better to take it, along with 7:14-25, as a general description of life in the Old Covenant. Paul shows that even if a person knows the law, it makes no difference in their behavior.

In v. 7b he uses the 10th commandment as an example: “You shall not covet”. What effect does that law have? The hearer understands that coveting is wrong before God. But that is all the positive help it can give; the person remains the same.

But let’s go further, says the apostle. That commandment not only does not help, it makes matters worse. It awakes in the hearer all kinds of coveting (v. 8). For example: if I tell you not to think of a giraffe, you know that it will be impossible not to picture one. Likewise, tell an unregenerate to not covet, and all of a sudden that’s what they think of doing. So, Paul says, I was doing well before I heard the 10th commandment (v. 10), but when someone reads it to me “I died” spiritually.

How can the perfect law leave a person spiritually dead? Paul does not want the reader to think that he finds fault with the law, even thought he believes that “the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” (v. 10). The problem is with the sinful human nature.

Paul has already said in 5:12 that when Adam fell, it left the human race estranged from God and unable to obey him. Despite the differences between them, Calvinists, Arminians, Roman Catholics and some other theologies (but not Pelagianism) parts company with Judaism on this point. The rabbis for over 2000 years have taught that Adam’s Fall affected only him; he gave us a bad example to follow, but we are still free to choose to obey God’s commands, if we try really hard. An example from the 1st century AD –

And not only over the fiery passion of sexual desire does reason evidently exercise control, but over all desire. For the Law says, You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or anything that is your neighbor’s. Surely then, since the Law tells us not to covet, I should the much more readily persuade you that reason has the power to control the desires. (4 Mac 2:4-6a [Charlesworth], emphasis added).

Sometimes the apostles are in agreement with rabbinic teaching (as in Rom 1:18-32), sometimes no. In this case, Paul firmly rejects his background: Judaism says that you can obey God if you want, so the Jews should just go ahead and do so; in Paul’s gospel, you cannot obey God, even if you know his law, and so we need God to transform us by the new birth.

7:14-25

One of the most controversial passages in Paul’s letters is this section about the Wretched Man (see the overview in Cranfield, pp. 1.342-47). Some say that it is about the regenerate person’s struggles (Augustine, Calvin, Hodge, Barth, Cranfield, Dunn, Cevallos y Zorzolli; some take it as the struggles specifically of an immature Christian). Others that it is about the life of the unregenerate (Wesley, Käsemann, Wilckens, Fitzmyer, Moo). Within these two camps are further divisions, for example, that this is autobiographical and describes Paul’s struggles, either before he met Christ or after.

In favor of the “regenerate” viewpoint, the man delights in the law and wants to do the good; and “not so does Paul describe the unregenerate man” (Cranfield, p. 1.346). But Paul in fact already has said that the Israelite apart from Christ delights to find God’s will in the Torah (2:17-20), that he wants to obey it, but does not (see 2:21-24). Word for word, this is precisely the dilemma of the Wretched Man.

Great care must be taken, because many read the passage and exclaim, “This describes me exactly!” and decide that it is a narrative of the Christian life, similar to Galatians 5:16-18, this despite the fact that Galatians assumes we can obey God, while Romans 7 leaves zero hope for victory. So, what was the original intention of this story?

  1. He is a slave to sin (v. 14), literally, “sold as a slave to sin.” Many commentators state that this is an appropriate label for a Christian; they are mistaken. This enslavement is not simply the possibility of sin; rather, traditionally it was a label for an unbeliever and apostate. 1 Kings 21:20 (the Greek form Paul uses is found in 3 Kingdoms 21:20 LXX; see 1 Mac 1:15, below): “you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Remember that apart from Christ, people are slaves of sin (6:13-14) and set free when they come to Christ (6:11). Thus, it means: “I am an unbeliever, apart from God, a slave to sin!”
  2. He loves the Torah (7:14, 16, 22, 25). While this might seem to describe a believer in Christ, in fact Paul has already shown that Israel would like to obey the law but cannot (2:17-24); contrast the positive outcome of the Christian life: “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us” (8:4).
  3. He hopes in vain for victory (7:15-20); not that, he doesn’t always have victory over sin, but rather he never has victory. Spiritually he is 100% a loser.
  4. He is by nature completely “carnal” (7:14) or as the NIV has it, “unspiritual”. This too is the language of an unsaved person, see under 7:5.
  5. He makes no reference to the Spirit in his life. This silence is significant, since life in Christ is fundamentally life in the Spirit (8:3b-4).
  6. 25a is an interruption of this man’s lament; it is as if Paul could not stop himself from pointing to Christ as the solution of his problems, the answer he will develop in 8:2, that “the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” But in the end, he goes back to the dark, hopeless conclusion. The experience seems to be that of an Israelite apart from Christ, similar to what Paul has already shown in Romans 2 that they will be defeated by sin if they do not receive the gospel.

Beginning in 8:1 Paul will give a description of the Christian life, which is a life of victory in the Spirit. So, what is he trying to prove in 7:7-25?

First, this is the sort of material that he might have preached in a synagogue, to those who “know the law” (7:1). His point would be that Jews as well as Gentiles needed to turn to Christ in faith if they want to live in righteousness.

Second, he is demonstrating to the Roman church once again that the gospel is a universal message. Just as Gentiles cannot live apart from Christ, so the Jews cannot. Paul is trying to create excitement for his mission to Spain, where he will evangelize all people. May no Roman claim that the gospel of Christ is for Gentiles only!

Third, he is defending himself against possible charges that he is an apostate from Israel. In fact, just months after writing this epistle, he would go to Jerusalem and be charged, “you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs” (Acts 21:21). For a Jew, this was the gravest possible sin. After all, two centuries earlier the Maccabees had fought against the apostate Jews who “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (1 Mac 1:14-15 NRSV; the festival of Hanukkah commemorates this Maccabean revolt). The rabbis taught that the one who denies that the Torah comes down from heaven “has no share in the world to come” (m. San 10.1 [Neusner]).

Stephen had been killed because of the accusation of defection from Israel (Acts 6:11-14). Is Paul a possible apostate too, one who teaches that the law is sinful (7:7)? Absolutely not! His point is that the law of God cannot transform people into obedient children, and thus Judaism is mistaken about human nature when it optimistically states that people can obey if they really want to and they study the Scriptures.

For these reasons, I take the Wretched Man first and foremost as a description of a Jew apart from Christ and without the power of the Spirit; that it is not about Paul’s own experience but a sort of parable, in which he shows that utter defeat awaits those who reject the gospel.

Next, in Romans 8, Paul will turn a corner and show how the person who is dead to sin, the law and death can live in obedience, if he or she is in Christ and has the Spirit.

Practical Thought. Because of sin, good instructions might lead to my death. I remember a television series on the eating disorder known as bulimia. People, usually young women, believe that they are badly overweight. And so, they consume mass quantities of food, and then “purge” themselves through vomiting, laxatives or excessive exercise. The producers of this program had the best intentions: We must inform the public about bulimia, show how dangerous it is, and then tell them not to do it! The problem is that it produced mixed results. I have known some women who have seen such presentations, and they tell me that only then did it occurred to them: Wait! You mean I can lose weight simply by vomiting after meals? So, what was meant to be a helpful warning turned out to be an invitation for wrongdoing.

Although the Wretched Man has to do with life apart from Christ, we can read a subtle warning for the Christian life, which is: If you, a Christian, turn your focus away from the power of the Spirit; if you follow the invitation to Torah observance, mixing the law with the Spirit; then the result will be spiritual failure (so Stott, pp. 232-40). To the extent that a Christian tries to live the Torah by his own efforts, to that extent the Spirit will withdraw from his life and all him to fall back into misery. Greater effort on our part means even more shocking failure.

A final application, and an important one. People cannot use this text as excuse for their own spiritual failure. “Well, I try and try,” they say, “but you know what Romans 7 says – I can’t do the thing I want to do.” Certainly not! would have been Paul’s response. Don’t you know that you can achieve victory through the Spirit? (8:4). In this age, perfection is not a possible outcome, but regular victory certainly is.

Study Questions:

  1. How have you tried to excuse your continuing sinful behavior?
  2. If someone says that you are being unfaithful to the laws of the Old Testament, how would you respond?

C. The Spirit gives us victory in this life and into eternity (8:1-39)

Paul now invites the reader to gaze in amazement at the miraculous new life we have in Christ Jesus, expanding upon what he said in 6:22 – “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” Is it really possible, he now explores, that a Gentile can not only be saved from condemnation but even live a holy life apart from Torah observance? Indeed it is true!

  1. The Spirit gives a fresh start to the Christian (8:1-13)

8:1-4

Let us place the emphasis where the apostle wants it: there is one group and one only who will in the end escape God’s condemnation: “those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Some manuscripts – the 5th century Codex A is the oldest – add “who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit,” see the KJV; it was probably accidentally “borrowed” from v. 4 in transcription). This condemnation is the very wrath of God that has been hanging like a sword of Damocles over our heads ever since 1:18. We used to be in bondage to “the law of sin and death”; here “law” may refer to a general principle, as in 7:23 – it is the principle that no human effort, whether oriented to Torah or no, can yield anything but eternal death (see Moo, pp. 476-79). But a new law or “principle” has freed us – the coming of the Spirit. Neither Jew nor Gentile had access to this level of Spirit power before the day of Pentecost; everyone lived according to the flesh, the sinful and weak nature apart from Christ (see the definition of sarx in our section on 7:1-6). But with the death of Christ for sin, as Paul announces in 3:25a, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith.” On that basis, for we who walk by faith, in the Spirit, the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us (v. 4; see also 5:18). Does God want people to be devoted to him? He gave Moses a Torah that said so, but only the Spirit enables us to do so. To love other people? Again, people who live “according to the Spirit” can do this, not by vainly trying to internalize the rules of the Old Testament plus a long list of rabbinic traditions, but because the Spirit teaches them on the inside to live by righteousness.

Although Paul did not consider himself obligated to the law of Moses, he lived according to certain statutes in order to be a fruitful evangelist to other Jews (1 Cor 9:20b). But Paul has no illusions about the Torah: not only is it unhelpful, it can damage the Christian life if one tries to mix grace and law. Any effort in our own power is of the “flesh” and automatically offends God. To illustrate, some medications have a warning: “Don’t take this pill if you are already taking this or that medication, because it may cause bad side effects.” So too, once a person tries to mix a religion of Torah, even a microscopic amount, with the gracious gift of the Spirit, he or she will have a severe reaction, a failed life of holiness.

8:5-13

Every Christian, by definition, has the Spirit (v. 9); see also 1 Corinthians 12:13a, “we were all baptized by one Spirit.” To be sure, some are more full of the Spirit than others, some are more gifted. Nevertheless anyone who is a true believer in Christ has the Spirit since the first moment. A person is a temple of the Spirit or not; there is no gray area. Thus, for Paul, there are Christians-with-the-Spirit and everybody else, people of the “flesh”.

In Judaism and early Christianity, writers used the trope of the Two Ways: the way of evil and the way of holiness. Paul does something similar here. For him the two ways are not legalism versus flexibility; not Gentile versus Jew; but people who walk by the flesh versus those who walk by the Spirit. The latter group has righteousness and life (Rom 8:5-7). The “mind set on what the flesh desires”, is literally “the mind of the flesh”, including “its outlook, assumptions, values, desires and purposes” (Cranfield, p. 1.386).

In v. 7 Paul states that the carnal person “does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so”. One might have expected that he would go on to say that the spiritual person is able to submit to God’s law, but he does not (see v. 10b). Only the Spirit will give eternal life, the resurrection, to those who live by God’s grace (6:23); and since the Spirit has already raised Jesus from the dead, clearly he can give life “your mortal bodies” (v. 11). There is much confusion over the words mortal, immortal, and “the immortal soul”. Mortal is the proper word to describe human beings before the resurrection, that is, they are subject to death; compared with people only God is truly immortal (1 Tim 1:17). At Christ’s coming he will give us the gift of immortality, “when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Cor 15:54a).

Special Note: The Holy Spirit is a Person. Until recent times the Latin American church understood the Spirit’s personhood, but in recent days even that truth has come under attack. The Jehovah’s Witnesses describe the Spirit as a force like electricity. Others have played strange language games, based on the fact that the Hebrew word for spirit (Ruach) is feminine, whereas the Greek uses a neuter noun pneuma, and Latin languages such as Spanish a masculine one. This notion is rooted in a confusing of sex with grammatical gender.

What does the Bible say? First, the person who is the Spirit “distributes” spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:11); in other words, he makes choices about who receives which gift. We would never say that “the electricity chose to power the lamp.” Second, in John 14-16 the Spirit teaches, reminds (14:26), testifies (15:26), guides, speaks, declares (16:13-14) – these are all activities of a person, not a blind force. Third, in verses such as John 16:14, despite the fact that Jesus uses the neuter noun pneuma to refer to the Spirit, he uses the masculine pronoun “he” (ekeinos) to speak of the Spirit, not “she” (ekeinē) or “it” (ekeino); this is a clear indication that the Spirit is a person and is “he”.

Paul ends this section with a call to action. The person who has died to sin has an obligation: he or she must not live according to the flesh, neither in Gentile wickedness nor in the form of Torah observance.

The miracle is that in the Spirit, and only by him, a believer may “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (v. 13). This is not an ascetic lifestyle, or starving the passions by fasting, vigils, or vows and resolutions and an ever-increasing list of rules. Paul believes those things have no power to control wrong desires (see especially Col 2:23). God’s plan is simple, but not simplistic. He gives victory to the spiritual (or better “Spiritual” or “person of the Spirit”) person, and we receive his power simply by asking: “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

  1. The Spirit helps us through the trials of this present age (8:14-27)

8:14-25

Believers in Jesus have the Spirit (v. 14), through whom God adopts them as children (v. 15). This is the same paradigm that Paul used in Galatians, where both Jews and Gentiles are liberated from slavery and made adopted children of God and also of Abraham (Gal 3:23-5:1), free to live in true holiness: free from licentiousness and free from a set of rules.

Only the person who has the Spirit can truly call God his “father”. Abba (v. 15) is not Hebrew, but Aramaic, the language of the pagans and the Jews of the eastern Mediterranean, and also the language of the rabbis for many centuries. All the evidence indicates that Jesus taught in Aramaic: some examples are Talitha cumi (Mark 5:41); Ephphatha (Mark 7:34). Nor did he hesitate to use Aramaic as his prayer language, calling his Father Abba (Mark 14:36). It was the language of many early Christians, which is why some words passed directly to the Greek, e.g., Maranatha (“Our Lord come!”; 1 Cor 16:22) and the word Abba here and in Galatians 4:6. It has become fashionable to translate Abba as Daddy or Papa. In fact it means simply “father”: that’s how it translates Abba here in the Greek, and among the Jews it was the word that both children and adults would use to address their fathers. In both 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, the indwelling Spirit teaches us regard God as our Father and to address him as such, just as Jesus did when he used to pray (see also “Our Father,” Matt 6:9; that prayer too was probably taught in Aramaic).

Practical Thought: We now live with the tensions of an in-between time: experiencing the blessings of the age to come but living in the present evil age (see Gal 1:4). Even the cosmos experiences anxiety and is frustrated (Rom 8:19-20). It is not entirely clear what this means in scientific terms, but at least we can say that creation is waiting for the time when God will put it in order, according to the way it was meant to be in the beginning. Not only has the primeval sin harmed the cosmos, but people since the beginning have abused their environment. In the first century “imperial ambitions, military conflicts, and economic exploitation had led to the erosion of the natural environment throughout the Mediterranean world, leaving ruined cities, depleted fields, deforested mountains, and polluted streams as evidence of this universal human vanity” (Jewett, p. 513). In particular, the country of Spain today shows how the Romans denuded the forests, which led to the catastrophic loss of topsoil. So, just as Christ’s people will be raised from the dead, so nature too will be renewed as an answer to the prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Of course, that does not give us an excuse to degrade the planet that God prepared for us.

If we are one with Christ in his death and resurrection, we will also reign with him in his future kingdom (vv. 17, 19). Paul even says, “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:12a; see also Matt 19:28; Rev 1:6, 3:21). Although the believers are en route to eternal glory at Jesus’ second coming, they suffer during this present age. The apostle commonly taught that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Within a short while, Christians would be accused of setting Rome afire, and Nero would torture and burn many Christians, probably including Paul and Peter and many of the original recipients of this epistle. The Roman historian Tacitus records in his Annals 15.44.4 [Jackson] –

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians…First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.

When will things change, so that believers can pass from suffering into glory? It is at the point of their future resurrection at Christ’s coming, which Paul calls “the freedom and glory of the children of God” (v. 21) and “the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23). Before that time, life for the child of God is often harsh: the reader might go through 8:18-27 and underline the hard words: frustration, decay, sufferings, corruption, groaning, weakness, not knowing what to ask for (see also 8:35). And the apostle was not speaking in hypothetical terms: Priscilla and Aquila had risked their lives for Paul (16:4); some had been in prison for their faith (16:7); others undertook hard labor (16:12). And within months Paul would be arrested and spend years in jail. But even the harshest suffering cannot compare with the future glory at Christ’s coming (v. 18; see 9:23).

To use another metaphor, we enjoy the “firstfruits” of the Spirit during this age (v. 23; compare with Eph 1:13); this symbolizes that there will be a bountiful harvest in the end of time, when we possess the complete fullness of the Spirit.

Practical Thought. Too many Christians accept the notion that their eternal destiny consists in dying and going to be with the Lord and that is that. This leads to questions such as, But will we recognize each other in heaven? The New Testament is unanimous in teaching that our ultimate goal is the resurrection, when we become like Christ in his glorious new body and spend eternity in that form. We will live in a state where you will be you and I will be I, as recognizable individuals. That is our final hope and goal (vv. 24-25).

8:26-27

Prayer is not only giving thanks or asking forgiveness: it is also a militant, disciplined petitioning of God by his people, the church. During this age, the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, beginning with the very first cry of “Abba, Father” (v. 15). In the confusion and difficulty of life, we don’t know what to ask God for, we don’t know how to fill in the blank of “your will be done” (Matt 6:10). But the Spirit knows, and he groans within us, in the temple where he dwells. What this means is not immediately clear; since these groans cannot be expressed in words, Paul isn’t speaking about the gift of tongues, which are spoken out loud. The likely meaning is that the Spirit intercedes for us above and beyond what we can possibly do; he knows what we would want and even better what is God’s plan for us.

Practical Thought, Suffering Today. The Voice of the Martyrs (http://www.persecution.org/) is an excellent online resource to become aware of how Christians are suffering around the world. While persecution is highest in a handful of countries, without doubt, there are believers who are suffering privation in your country and your city. In many cases, this is due to oppressive work conditions, and ironically their suffering might be caused in part by wealthier believers. Instead of praying just for the small sufferings in our own lives, we must include other believers in our intercessions, and decisive action in our economic choices.

Many Christians believe that the church cannot go through the Tribulation but that the rapture of the church happens beforehand. Since I once held this viewpoint, I know and can follow the arguments for it. But now it strikes me that a main reason for a pretribulational rapture doctrine is that people who are not suffering now cannot imagine that the church is destined to suffer tribulation, period. But here, right in this beloved chapter, it says that if we are not suffering physically, socially, and emotionally for the name of Christ, then our experience is abnormal.

  1. Christians are assured that they are part of God’s eternal plan (8:28-39)

8:28-30

“In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (see Cranfield, pp. 1.425-28 for the textual and translation difficulties). This text is precious to many; yet it is often misunderstood. Paul is not saying, Well, don’t worry, everything will work out; things will be better tomorrow; behind every cloud is a silver lining.

Rather, Paul is taking the long look at God’s “purpose”, from where we are in the world today, all the way to the day of our resurrection at the coming of Jesus when we will be glorified (compare v. 30 with vv. 17, 18, 21). His promise is that God will take us to a glorious end, no matter what we have to pass through in the interval.

For the rest of the chapter, Paul develops God’s “purpose” that he mentioned in 8:28. It is a common Jewish and Christian teaching that God has a plan that cannot be stopped: Proverbs 19:21 – “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails”; and Romans 9:11, concerning Rebecca’s twins, refers to “God’s purpose in election”. Paul takes us step by step through God’s plan who love him. It is crucial to see the connections Paul is forging: there is a group of people, the “foreknown”; and “those who” God foreknew, that is, the very same group, he also predestined. There is a principle of mathematics called the transitive property. It says that, if A = B, and B = C, then A = C. Paul is using the same logic when he says that those who were foreknown in v. 29a will be the very same group, no more and no less, as those who will be glorified in v. 30b.

What can it mean that God “foreknew” people? This is language of the Hebrew Scriptures. When used of God’s actions, to foreknow does not just mean that he foresaw the future. It is synonymous here to “select” or “elect,” and means that God chose to form a relationship with people, even before they were born. This was so of the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart…” (Jer 1:5). God knew the nation of Israel before their existence (Rom 11:2), and likewise the church (see 1 Pet 1:2). We might translate the phrase in v. 29 as “God long ago decided to establish a relationship with them.”

People today place great value on their right to make their own decisions; they stiffen when they see the words election or predestination in the Bible. They feel the need to respond that, But, I know that I chose to follow Christ! In fact, Paul affirms that intuition in verses such as 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. So, when I myself became a Christian I was conscious of the Lord inviting me to faith. But I later learned that my choice of Christ, while a genuine decision, was part of a much larger picture: before I heard the gospel, long before I existed, God chose to establish a relationship with me and planned for my glorious future with him. My decision and God’s decision are both authentic, but God’s choice of me is from eternity and prior to me being called to believe – it is the more significant of the two choices.

Those whom he foreknew, “he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”. And God planned for me to be like Christ, during this life, but perfectly in the future resurrection. In this way Christ is our older “brother” or prototype. What he is as a human being – perfectly holy and loving and with an immortal body – so we will be.

Next, he “called” the predestined; this echoes “called according to his purpose” (v. 28). The New Testament uses “call” in two ways. First, God calls upon everyone to repent and believe the gospel (Rom 1:5; John 12:32). No-one is to go around trying to guess, I wonder if this person is predestined to glory and will be called? We preach the gospel to all and devote ourselves to prayer that all will respond (e.g., Rom 10:1; also Col 4:3).

Special Note: God’s special call. Apart from the general call, the gospel includes a special call to salvation or to blessing. For example, Abram received a special invitation – he was “called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance” (Heb 11:8). This was, as the Greek dictionary BDAG says, “to choose for receipt of a special benefit or experience.” In this sense, God called Abram only from among people of his generation. So too, there is a group of people who have received a special call in which God enables them to have faith and to call upon the name of the Lord (see Rom 1:7; John 6:44; 1 Cor 1:9; Rev 17:14). This is the doctrine of special calling or vocation. That call was not in vain – each called one went on to be justified, saved of sin, and no-one goes missing along the way. As in Pisidian Antioch, “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). This means that “the history and composition of the Church is not due to chance nor to human decisions (Cevallos y Zorzolli, p. 155, our translation). But of course, human decision also has a critical role in salvation. God illuminates the person so that he may believe, but also “effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace” (Westminster Confession of Faith 10.1). The reader can and should wrestle with what election, predestination and vocation mean, but there is no way to cut them out of the New Testament. Still, Paul shows no interest in luring us into an abstract discussion of free will, fatalism, election. The question Am I of the elect? is known ultimately only by God. The question that should preoccupy us is, Am I in Christ? And a positive answer is what should satisfy all of the soul’s doubts.

We return to a main theme of the letter, that God “justified” his people. He has already proven from 1:16 onward that they are justified by faith, whether Jews or Gentiles (1:17). The saints have been declared righteous at the moment of their faith; they will also be finally declared righteous at the final judgment.

The timing of “he also glorified” is not immediately clear. The verb is in the past tense, as if believers were already in glory; but this doesn’t accord with 8:17, where they suffer now and are glorified in the future (see also 9:23). It is better to take it in this sense: the glorification of the saints in the final resurrection is so certain that it as good as done, making it appropriate to use the past tense.

And thus Paul has traced God’s redemptive plan from eternity past to eternity future. He has not done so simply to satisfy the curiosity of his readers. Rather, he writes to prove that God has always had his people in mind; that is, “God is for us” (8:31). No-one should lose hope during the tribulations of this age – they are temporary and will be soon replaced by the future glory.

8:31-39

Paul finishes this section with the language of the heart. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things?” Much may be said! Since “God is for us”, no-one can be against us in any serious sense. To be sure, Satan fights us, and so do the enemies of God (vv. 35-36) and hostile forces of nature, but in the end they will not matter.

In v. 32, as in Romans 5:8-9, Paul uses a figure of speech called an a fortiori argument; the Jewish rabbis called it qal wahomer, “light and heavy.” It is an argument from the lesser to the greater: if A is true, how much more is B true. If God gave the most precious gift, his Son, than how much more is it true that we will inherit all things? By “all things” Paul is not saying that God will guarantee us with prosperity in this age, but that in the age to come we will be co-heirs with Christ (see 8:17). And we will inherit not just a small tract of land in the Middle East, but the whole renewed cosmos.

Vv. 33-34 offers a reflection upon many of the themes of this chapter. “Bring a charge”/“condemn” are the opposites of “justify”. The one God is almighty; if he has chosen us, and if he says that we are in a right relation with him, then who is powerful enough to contradict him? Paul is probably thinking of the story of Job; Satan was given permission to harm, but not to destroy him. We too will face combat, but God will not allow his elect to be wiped out (see too Matt 24:22). There is a translation issue with these verses, since “it is God who justifies” (NIV and other versions) could be translated as a rhetorical question “Is it God, who justifies us?” with the implied answer, Of course not. Both versions lead to the exact same truth; as one translation puts it, “No one – for God himself has given us right standing with himself” (v. 33, NLT).

V. 34 has the same structure, and the a fortiori focuses our attention on the work of Christ: Christ died; even more, he was resurrected; what’s more, he intercedes for us at God’s right hand (see also 1 John 2:1 – “we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One”). Christ’s intercession and prayer for us is, sadly, a neglected doctrine. A beautiful expression of it is found in the The Book of Common Prayer (1928 version):

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.

Our meager prayers are taken up and made powerful, since the Spirit helps us pray and intercedes for us when we do not know how (8:26-27), and at the same time the Son is in heaven, constantly speaking of us to the Father.

As in the NIV of v. 35 the original text is literally “the love of Christ”. The phrase could be taken in two ways: as the love we have for Christ, or as the love he has for us. The same translation issue shows up at the end of v. 39, which is literally “the love of God”. In both of these cases, the context (see v. 37) shows that it is God or Christ’s love toward us; as in “God demonstrates his own love for us” (see also 5:8). In these nine verses then, the emphasis is not on our faith in God or our love for him (as it is in 8:28); rather God and Christ are the protagonists of this section, and their love for us is Paul’s theme.

The perils that the apostle mentions are taken from real life; with one exception he had already suffered all these things, and the threat of the “sword” was not far in the future. History tells us that he was likely beheaded for his faith: Nero “was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself” (Eusebius, History of the Church 2.25.5 [NPNF]). Try as he might, Paul cannot think of anything that will break our relationship with God.

In v. 36 he quotes Psalm 44:22 in order to show why even death is no threat (also v. 38). The psalm refers to the love that God has for his people Israel and how he decrees victory for them (Ps 44:3-4). But then in 44:9-16 the author complains that God has turned them over to defeat and exile. All this, “though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant” (Ps 44:17). As in so many psalms, the author states that on the one hand, God is just and protects the righteous; but then the righteous find themselves battered by the world and, why does God take no notice? Within that context is the reference to the slaughter of sheep. Paul must have seen in his own experience the same tension: I am serving God, yet God does not spare me from hardship. In fact, my life is much worse than if I hadn’t been called to be an apostle! The psalmist concludes (44:26), “Rise up and help us; rescue us because of your unfailing love.” Paul used to pray to escape from persecution (see 2 Thess 3:1-3; 1 Tim 2:2), but here he goes further and shows that God’s final answer will come only in the future, when he vindicates his people. V. 37 is a gem of a statement: in God we do not merely survive; we are not conquerors; we are – and here Paul strains to find the right words – “more than conquerors”.

Only by stopping to praise God can Paul lead us to grasp the gospel truth (vv. 38-39; see also 11:33-36). He gives a long and breathless sentence, in which he touches upon so many aspects of the cosmos: life and death; angels and demons; present and future; height, depth, “nor anything else in all creation.” Nothing can stand between us and God, and if we need proof of our salvation, all we have to do is look at the cross of Christ. For the believer there will be no eternal separation from God (see 2 Thess 1:9).

The apostle launched his epistle with the bold statement that God was understandably furious with us and planning our judgment (1:18). In the conclusion of the section he rushes to tell us the good news: in Christ, God loves you so much that words cannot describe it, and he promises that from now on there is no cause for anxiety.

Paul’s teaching in this section is not, What happens to a backslider or even someone who comes to deny the faith? The Bible states that people do go astray; for example, Paul would come to lament that “Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim 4:10; see especially Matt 13:22). Like the other voices of the New Testament Paul affirms that a true believer is known by visible behavior, not just words (Rom 2:28-29; also Matt 7:16-20). This is why it is so bewildering when someone says that you can deny Christ entirely but still be saved in the end. The Bible says nothing like this. In fact, one of the evidences of being one of God’s elect is that you will persevere: “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13). Therefore, Romans 8 gives great comfort that salvation is secure; but it gives no comfort to those who grow cold in their faith or deny Christ. Such people must “make every effort to confirm your calling and election” (2 Pet 1:10).

Special Note: Prosperity Teaching. Perhaps the greatest enemy of the true gospel today is the prosperity teaching, also known as the Word of Faith or the Rhema doctrine. The idea arose in the North America, but in Latin America in particular, there is a tendency to equate suffering with the Catholic church, one more ancient notion to be rejected. And so the doctrine “rescues” the believer with its doctrine that, just as God created the universe with a “word” (in Greek, rhēma), so we can create our own reality by voicing it aloud; or alternately, create negative circumstances by our words. Its non-Christian parallel is the popular book The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. If someone starts from that framework, Romans 8:28 seems to fit right in: “all things God works for the good.” Are you sick? God is obligated to heal you. Are you poor? God has to prosper you. Everything will work out if you have faith!

The difficulty of course is how to explain why there was so much suffering in the early church and why most or all of the apostles endured horrible deaths. Logically one would have to say that, Well, in olden times the apostles were called to suffer, but they were special cases (this by the way directly contradicts 1 Thess 1:6, and also Rom 8:35-39). Or perhaps the early believers must not have had the same quality of faith that modern “faith preachers” do, who live well, jet in and out of meetings, and collect large sums of money.

Paul says nothing about speaking an alternate reality into being; he tells us we should pray, that is, address our concerns to God, not to the cosmos or to air; Christ speaks to the Father about us, and the Spirit helps us to know what to ask for (8:26). And we are not told to dissolve away our tribulations by uttering a rhema, but to remember that already we are more than conquerors, whether in hard times or easy.

Study Questions:

  1. Paul warns us not to mix God’s grace with legalistic rules. It what ways does the church rely on such rules to keep its members living correctly?
  2. How can your future destiny with Christ help you through the trials of your daily life in this world?
  3. Have you ever wandered away from Christ, reasoning that he will save you even if you let him go? Or on the other hand, do you live in terror that God will abandon you and you will be lost? Give details about how this chapter should correct your thinking.

“Romans Commentary, Romans 6:1-8:39,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica