18 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Twice in Romans 6 (verses 1 and 15) we hear Paul’s critic asking whether Paul meant that we may go on sinning so that God’s grace may go on forgiving. Both times Paul responds with an outraged ‘God forbid!’ For Christians to ask such a question shows that they have never understood the meaning of either their baptism (1-14) or their conversion (15-23). Did they not know that their baptism signified union with Christ in his death, that his death was a death ‘unto sin’ (meeting its demand, paying its penalty), and that they shared in his resurrection too? By union with Christ they were themselves ‘dead unto sin and alive unto God’. How then could they go on living in what they had died to? It was similar with their conversion. Had they not decisively offered themselves to God as his slaves? Then how could they contemplate lapsing into their old slavery to sin? Our baptism and conversion have both closed the door on to our old life, and opened the door on to a new life. It is not impossible for us to go back, but it is inconceivable that we should. Far from encouraging sin, grace prohibits it.
Paul’s critics were also disturbed by his teaching on the law. So he clarifies it in Romans 7. He makes three points. First (1-6), Christians have ‘died to the law’ in Christ, just as they have ‘died to sin’. Consequently, they are ‘released’ from the law, that is, from its condemnation, and are free now not to sin but to serve in the new way of the Spirit. Secondly, writing (I believe) out of his own past (7-13), Paul argues that, although the law reveals, provokes and condemns sin, it is not responsible for sin or death. No, the law is holy. Paul exonerates the law.
Thirdly (14-25), Paul describes in vivid terms a painful, continuing inner moral struggle. Whether the ‘wretched man’ who cries for deliverance is a regenerate Christian or unregenerate (I take a third position), and whether he is Paul himself or somebody Paul is impersonating, his purpose in this paragraph is to demonstrate the weakness of the law. His defeat is due neither to the law (which is holy), nor even to his true self, but to ‘sin living in me’ (17,20), and this the law has no power to control. But now (8:1-4) God has done through his Son and Spirit what the law, weakened by our sinful nature, was unable to do. In particular the remedy for indwelling sin is the indwelling Spirit (8:9), who has not been mentioned in chapter 7, apart from verse 6. Thus for both justification and sanctification we are ‘not under law but under grace’.
As Romans 7 is full of the law, so Romans 8 is full of the Spirit. During the first half of the chapter Paul describes some of the very varied ministries of the Holy Spirit – liberating us, indwelling us, giving us life, leading us into self-control, witnessing with our Spirit that we are God’s children, and interceding for us. The fact that we are God’s children reminds Paul that we are therefore also his heirs, and that suffering is the only road to glory. He then draws a parallel between the sufferings and glory of God’s creation and the sufferings and glory of God’s children. The creation has been subjected to frustration, he writes. But one day it will be liberated from its bondage. Meanwhile the creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth, and we groan with it. We also wait with eager yet patient expectation for the final redemption of the universe, including our bodies.
In the last twelve verses of Romans 8 the apostle rises to sublime heights of Christian confidence. He expresses five convictions about God at work for our good, that is, for our final salvation (28). He outlines five stages of God’s purpose from a past to a future eternity (29-30). And he flings out five defiant questions to which there is no answer. He thus fortifies us with fifteen assurances of God’s steadfast love, from which nothing can ever separate us.