The things of the Spirit in Romans 8:1-17 are actually the same sorts of things we find in the four gospels. This is what Paul wants us to be mindful of in our day-to-day life with Christ and his church.
Romans 8 is, by many accounts, one of the most beautiful passages penned by Paul and by some accounts, perhaps the most beautiful passage in Scripture. What has always intrigued me about Romans 8 is Paul’s notion of the Christian life on a moment by moment basis.
Paul describes the Christian life as
- Walking according to the Spirit
- Living according to the Spirit
- Setting the mind on the things of the Spirit
- Putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit
- Being led by the Spirit
But if this is so, then a very important line of questioning must come up. What is the meaning of doing all of these things according to or by the Spirit? What are the things of the Spirit? The common initial reaction is to equate the things of the Spirit with the things of the religious institution of which we are a part or to equate the things of the Spirit with the inner world of emotions and non-rational experiences and behavior. Such a divorce of “the things of the Spirit” from New Testament history has led to sad legalistic abuses (people who think that spirituality is purely about external/denominational ideals) and to sad emotion based Christianity wherein one’s discipleship is always a quest to have a certain feeling (feeling liberated, feeling loved, feeling worshipful, feeling authentic, etc). In both or these errors, one can spend so much time trying to conjure up this or that feeling or denominational distinctive (what if I’m Presbyterian but don’t like tobacco?), that they literally miss the teachings and person of Jesus.
There is an historical lineage to both types of error. Essentially in an effort to deal with the rationalist and empiricist turn in philosophy, many turned to nature and the feelings as a replacement for religion. This became associated with terms like spirit and spirituality. In turn then, many Christian movements began to focus more and more on their own institutional life and continuance as the proper form of spirituality. This is not a perfect sketch, but it is helpful. I recommend the brief article below:
Marie Mansouri and Vafa Keshavarzi, “Spirituality, a Conceptual Break: The Romantic Revolt and the Rise of a New Spirituality,” International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society 4, no. 1 (July 2014): 11–16.
So, when we come with this baggage to Paul, we miss out on what he’s getting at. What does he mean by doing things according to the Spirit, living by the Spirit, etc?
There are some very important tips about this in Romans 8. Read 8:1-17 below and focus upon the bold text:
Rom 8:1-17 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (2) For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (3) For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (4) in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (5) For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (6) For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (7) For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (8) Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (9) You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (10) But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (11) If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (12) So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. (13) For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (14) For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (15) For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (16) The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (17) and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Notice that in the bold text, Paul attributes certain things to the Holy Spirit and all of them are about the life, ministry, teachings, death, resurrection, and present reign of Jesus Christ.
- The Spirit set us free from the law of sin and death in Christ (and from elsewhere in Romans we know that this is from Jesus’ act of obedience (his whole life).
- The Spirit dwells in believers. All four gospels say that this will be the result of his ministry. He will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8), he promises power and the Spirit (John: 6:24, Luke 24:49, Matthew 28:16-20), the living water is equated with the Spirit (John 7:39), and conversion itself (John 3:1-16) is attributed to the work of the Spirit.
- The Spirit is the Spirit of the God who raised Christ from the dead.
- The Spirit given to us helps us to call God ,”Father” when we pray. This is a very important aspect of early Christianity and a central facet of Jesus’ teaching. Paul essentially says here that being led by the Spirit is the same thing as obeying Jesus when he says, “When you pray, pray like this, ‘Our Father…’
So, it appears that “the things of the Spirit” are not merely institutional trappings of this or that church (though those can be good things) and they are not merely emotional experiences and intuitions (though those can be good things). The things of the Spirit are the things revealed by the Spirit in the gospel message.
Minding the Spirit, it would appear, is the crux of walking by the Spirit. It is Paul’s way of saying that living you life based upon Jesus and his teachings is the proper way to live with God’s Spirit as we await God’s renewal of creation.