Romans 7 presents the portion in Paul’s great epistle where he complains that Israel, himself included, cannot live in accordance with the Law. The good he and his fellow Jews want goes undone. Instead, the undesired, evil thing gets done in the face of the good Law. The struggle in the pursuit of righteousness, life, and goodness cannot be won through the Law. The Law and the Commandments only expose sin and sin does its work of death. Finally, in exasperation, the Apostle cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (7:24)?
This passage has given rise to a great misunderstanding for preachers, leading to the derailing of countless sermons. Paul, speaking for himself but also an interlocutor for a much wider group, hates this mortal body. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He has got to escape physicality if there is to be any hope, or so it is claimed. Despising the body ties in with a great misconception that has plagued the entire history of Christianity: Gnosticism. This is the view that physical things, the matter the world is composed of, is corrupt and bad. In particular, the human body consists of nothing more than a degenerate cage for souls. The physical body, then, is something to be regretted, something from which the spirit must escape. Body bad, spirit good. Such teaching represents something quite at home in Greek philosophy but not Biblical anthropology. Parishioners should be disabused from this falsehood, lest the truth of the resurrection and Christian sanctification in this life, in this body, be derailed, too.
Romans 8:12-17 allows preachers to set the record straight. Saint Paul did not hate his body and neither did the Jews of Israel. Look at what they have to say about the human body. Genesis 1-2 declares how God created bodies “very good” with Paul affirming, “Everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:4). When God sent His Son to redeem embodied persons, how did the Son of God appear to carry out that loving work? In a human body, of course, “Being born in the likeness of men… being born of a woman” (Philippians 2:7; Galatians 4:4). When Jesus conquered death on the cross, he did not discard His body, but it underwent the transformation of resurrection. That body has now, in the ascension, been taken into the midmost mysteries of the Holy Trinity: Hence the great value God places upon the body. Since the body with the spirit comprises the soul, the totality of humanity must be redeemed.
When Jesus conquered death on the cross, he did not discard His body, but it underwent the transformation of resurrection.
So, even on this side of the resurrection of the body on the Last Day, the Holy Spirit deigns to inhabit human beings. The apostle asks in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” There was an answer to Paul’s desperate cry in Romans 7:24, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” It was, “Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (7:25). But it turns out Paul was not to be delivered from his body, but in his body, indeed, with his body. The same truth holds for all the faithful baptized into Christ Jesus.
So far from hating the body, Paul celebrates the Divine image-bearing, Spirit indwelling, eternally living, God’s Son sharing, redeemable, wonderful, intricate, beautiful thing that is the human frame. We must get this straight.
On the opposite end of the spectrum stands the equally dangerous idea of materialism. This is the concept that human beings consist of nothing but matter, only to disintegrate.
Our passage from Romans steers us between these two dangerous misconceptions: The mythical monster Scylla of believing the body to be evil on the one shore, and the beast Charybdis of believing the body constitutes all there is on the other.
Paul offers clarity. First, the body does not oppose the spirit, but the flesh does. “Flesh” should be differentiated from the “body.” Flesh stands for corruption and mortality in the total person and is a theological referent, not a physiological one. In this chapter, Paul uses the word “flesh” twelve times. He means something particular by it, not the material substance of the human person, but rather a way of living or human nature. “If you live according to the flesh you will die” (8:13), we hear. That is the outcome of this way of living. It is, in fact, not a way of living but a way of dying. By contrast, to live by the Spirit of God is the path of life (8:13). “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh,” he says. “But those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (8:5).
Surely, Christians must choose to live by the Spirit and avoid all the sinful appetites that belong to the flesh. Is this not the whole point of the passage? But all Christians fail… constantly. Christians just do not make that choice. That is the point. Thinking the believer could make that choice comprises the final and fatal delusion of the flesh: Hence the onus of this text. Living by the Spirit means the Spirit of God dwells within the believer and through the believer (8:9). To believe one can choose the way of life presents the ultimate act of the flesh. Because, in this illusion, the proud flesh tells the believer they can make life for themselves when in reality, life is God’s gracious gift in Christ. This letter has a particular way to express that. It is for Paul, an abuse of God’s Law (8:7). There one finds condemnation, but in Christ Jesus, there is therefore now no condemnation (8:1).
To believe one can choose the way of life presents the ultimate act of the flesh.
The more the Christian imagines that the Law of God provides a way to life (that is, by obeying God’s commands we can run clear of death), the more distant from life in the Spirit he becomes. So, Paul says, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the Law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the Law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (7:5-6). The Spirit testifies that the baptized are “sons” and “heirs” because holy baptism is itself an adoption ceremony, as well as a birth, the new birth. The Spirit takes one’s eyes off the Law for life and fixes them on God in Christ, who alone saves from sin and death. Only by this Spirit do the adopted sons cry, “Abba! Father” (8:15)!
Complicated? Well, it does all sound a bit technical, but it is very simple. Out of love King Jesus has fought, died, and rose for mankind. Now, the Holy Spirit of Jesus lives within the baptized. Christ Jesus makes each believer free, free from the flesh, and free from the burden of the Law. Jesus gives life to body and soul, rendering them no longer enslaved to the flesh or even to self-aggrandizing delusions that, “We got this.” No, we do not. Instead, we got Him who saves to the uttermost.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Romans 8:12-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 8:12-17.
God’s Greater Story-Check out this wonderful sermon series on Romans 6-14 by our own David Schmitt.