Living According to the Spirit (Romans 8)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Believers are free from the law, but walking in newness of life is based on a firm moral structure (hence, “the law of the Spirit,” Rom. 8:2). Paul calls this moral structure “living according to the Spirit” or “setting our minds on the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). Both terms refer to the process of moral reasoning that guides us as we walk in newness of life.
This kind of moral compass does not work by listing specific acts that are right or wrong. Instead it consists of following the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that has freed believers “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1–2). The words life and death are the keys. As discussed earlier in Romans 6, Paul understands “sin,” “death,” and the “flesh” as spiritual forces in the world that lead people to act in ways that are contrary to God’s will and produce chaos, despair, conflict, and destruction in their lives and in their communities. By contrast, living according to the Spirit means doing whatever brings life instead of death. “To set the mind on the flesh [our old patterns of judgment] is death but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). Setting the mind on the Spirit means looking for whatever will bring more life to each situation.
For example, the Jewish law taught that “you shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). But living according to the Spirit goes far beyond not literally murdering anyone. It actively seeks opportunities to bring better life to people. It can mean cleaning a hotel room so that guests remain healthy. It can mean clearing the ice from a neighbor’s sidewalk (or pavement) so pedestrians can walk safely. It can mean studying for years to earn a Ph.D. in order to develop new treatments for cancer.
Another way to put it is that living according to the Spirit means living a new quality of life in Christ. This comes from setting aside our judgments of what another person deserves and seeking instead what would bring them a better quality of life, deserved or not. When making assignments, a manager could assign a task that stretches subordinates’ abilities, rather than limiting them to what they are already capable of, then inviting them to check in every day for guidance. When asked to lend a replacement tool, a skilled tradesperson could instead show a junior worker a new technique that will prevent breaking the tool the next time around. When asked “Why did our dog die?” a parent could ask a child “Are you afraid someone you love might die?” instead of only explaining the pet’s immediate cause of death. In each of these situations, the moral goal is to bring a better quality of life to the other person, rather than to fulfill a demand of the law.
Bringing life, rather than fulfilling the law, is the moral compass of those who are being saved by God’s grace. We are free to live according to the Spirit rather than to enslave ourselves to the law because “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
A Habit of Discrimination
As a young man, I worked in a farm supply warehouse in southern Delaware. After a while I realized that all the white workers—including me, the new hire—had the clean, easy job of loading and unloading farm supplies. All the black workers were assigned to backbreaking work in the hot dust-choked seed-bagging room. It didn’t seem like management or the white workers were particularly racist. It was just a fact of life that nobody talked about; black people got the worst jobs. Nobody even seemed to think about it, and after a while I didn’t either.
William Messenger, as told to the TOW Project, January 10, 2014
Paul’s inclusion of “peace” as an aspect of setting our minds on the Spirit (Rom. 13:6, as above) points out the social aspects of living according to the Spirit because peace is a social phenomenon. When we follow Christ, we try to bring a new quality of life to our society, not just to ourselves. This means paying attention to the social conditions that diminish life at work and elsewhere. We do what we can to make life better for people we work among. At the same time, we work to bring justice/righteousness to the social systems that shape the conditions of work and workers.
Christians can be a positive force for improvement—even survival—if we can help our organizations set their minds on the need for a new quality of life. We probably can’t change our organizations much on our own. But if we can build relationships with others, earn people’s trust, listen to the people nobody else listens to, we may help the organization break out of its ruts. Plus, we bring the secret ingredient—our faith that God’s grace can use us to bring life to even the deadest situation.
Conversely, if we do not set our minds on the Spirit at work, we can be arrogant and destructive, whether in our relationships with fellow workers, competitors, clients, or others. Setting our minds on the Spirit requires constantly evaluating the consequences or fruit of our work, always asking whether our work enhances the quality of life for other people. If we are honest in our assessments, no doubt it also requires daily repentance and the grace to change.
Paul contrasts life in the Spirit with life under the Jewish law. Paul says believers have received a “spirit of adoption” as children of God, rather than “a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” (Rom. 8:15). Everyone who “belongs to” Christ (Rom. 8:9–10) is now an adopted child of God. In contrast, those under the law live in slavery to the power of sin and also in fear—presumably fear of the law’s threats of punishment for disobedience. Believers are free of this fear, since there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). When we live faithfully in Christ, we do not face the law’s threats of punishment, even when we get things wrong in our daily life and work. Hardships and failures may still mar our work, but God’s response is not condemnation but redemption. God will bring something worthwhile out of our faithful work, no matter how bad it seems at present.
At least two aspects of these verses inform our approach to work or life in our workplaces. First, as adopted children of God, we are never alone in our work. No matter what our dissatisfaction or frustrations with the people we work among, or the work, or even a lack of support for the work from our families, the Spirit of God in Christ abides with us. God is always looking for an opportunity to redeem our suffering and turn it into something good and satisfying in our lives. As we observed earlier in connection with Romans 5, faithfully enduring hardship and suffering in our work can lead to the formation of our character and ground our hope for the future. (See “Grace Transforms Suffering in Our Life in Christ,” above in Romans 5:1–11.)
Second, at one time or another, most people encounter failures, frustrations, and hardships in their work. Our work places obligations on us that we wouldn’t otherwise have, even obligations as simple as showing up on time every day. Faithfully engaging these challenges can actually make the work more rewarding and satisfying. Over time these experiences give us greater confidence in God’s redeeming presence and greater experience of his motivating and energizing Spirit.
In some situations you may be welcomed and promoted for bringing reconciliation and justice to your place of work. In other situations you may be resisted, threatened, punished, or terminated. For example, bad relationships are an unfortunate feature of many workplaces. One department may habitually sabotage another department’s accomplishments. Strife between managers and workers may have become institutionalized. People may be terrorized by an office bully, an academic clique, a shop floor gang, a racial dividing line, or an abusive boss. If you bring reconciliation in situations like these, productivity may increase, turnover may be reduced, morale may soar, customer service may rebound, and you may be praised or promoted. On the other hand, the bullies, cliques, gangs, racial divides, and abusive bosses are almost certain to oppose you.
Wayne Alderson at Pittron Steel
Wayne Alderson created a cooperative, collegial working environment at Pittron Steel, and the company was rewarded with productivity and quality gains that made it very profitable. It was so successful that it was bought out by another company. The new management reverted to the traditional management vs. labor work environment, firing Wayne and the managers who had created the collegial environment. Workplace strife ensued, and the company’s productivity declined until it went out of business seven years later.
The good work that Wayne and his workforce did at Pittron was extinguished, although his ideas have been copied by others and are still in use in other companies today.
Being “glorified” with Christ (Rom. 8:17) is our hope for the future. But according to Paul that hope is part of a process already underway. We are to engage patiently in it, with the expectation that at some point it will be completed (Rom. 8:18–25). The gift of the Holy Spirit already received as “first fruits” of this process (Rom. 8:23) signifies our adoption as children of God (Rom. 8:14–17, 23). This constitutes proof that the process is underway.
This process culminates in “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). This is not a rescue of our souls out of our physical bodies, but the transformation of our bodies along with the entire creation (Rom. 8:21). This process has already begun, and we experience its “first fruits” (Rom. 8:24) in our life and work today. But far more and better is yet to come, and at present the “whole creation” groans in “labor pains” as it eagerly anticipates being set free from its own “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:19–23). Paul is clearly drawing on imagery from Genesis 2–3, where not only Adam but also creation itself was subjected to decay and death, no longer able to live into what God created them to be. This reminds us to consider the impact of our work on all of God’s creation, not only on people. (For more on this topic, see “Dominion” in Genesis 1:26 and 2:5 at www.theologyofwork.org.)
The process is slow and sometimes painful. We “groan” while we wait for it to be accomplished, Paul says, and not only us individually but “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” (Rom. 8:22–23). This echoes the groaning of Israel while enslaved in Egypt (Exod. 6:5) and reminds us that nearly 30 million people are still enslaved in the world today. We can never be content with merely our own release from the evil forces in the world, but we must serve God faithfully until he completes his salvation in every part of the world.
Nonetheless, the salvation of the world is sure, for “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). God is at work in us now, and the time is coming when God’s salvation will be complete in the world. God’s original verdict “It is very good” (Gen. 1:31) is vindicated by the transformation at work in us now, to be fulfilled in God’s time.
Because the transformation is not yet complete, we have to be prepared for difficulties along the way. Sometimes we do good work, only to see it wasted or destroyed by the evil that is presently in the world. Even if we do good work, our work may be vandalized. Our recommendations may be watered down. We may run out of capital, lose the election to a scoundrel, drown in red tape, fail to engage a student’s interest. Or we may succeed for a time, and then find our results undone by later events. Health workers, for example, have been on the verge of eradicating polio on several occasions, only to face new outbreaks due to political opposition, ignorance, vaccine-related transmission, and the swift pace of modern travel.
God is for us, says Paul, having given his own Son for “all of us” (Rom. 8:31–32). Nothing is able to come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35–39). “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39). Many of these things seem to threaten us in the sphere of work. We face menacing or incompetent bosses (rulers). We get stuck in dead-end jobs (things present). We make sacrifices now—working long hours, taking classes after work, serving in low-paid internships, moving to another country looking for work—that we hope will pay off later but may never pan out (things to come). We lose our jobs because of economic cycles or regulations or unscrupulous actions by powerful people we never even see (powers). We are forced by circumstance, folly, or the crimes of others into degrading or dangerous work. All these things can do us real hurt. But they cannot triumph over us.
Christ’s faithfulness—and ours, by God’s grace—overcomes the worst that life and work can do to us. If career progress, income, or prestige is our highest goal at work, we may end up disappointed. But if salvation—that is, reconciliation with God and people, faithfulness, and justice—is our chief hope, then we will find it amid both the good and bad in work. Paul’s affirmations mean that no matter what the difficulties we encounter with our work, or the complexities and challenges we face with co-workers or superiors in our workplaces, the love of God in Christ always abides with us. The love of God in Christ is the steadying force in the midst of adversity now, as well as our hope for bodily redemption in the future.