The Role and Function of the Holy Spirit in the book of Romans
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Paul, more than any other New Testament writer links the concept of the Spirit indwelt believer, with the day to day living and empowering of the Christian life. As Paige muses, “Christians who were formerly alienated from God have not simply been entered into the heavenly register of the redeemed; the Spirit indwells and empowers them to live a life pleasing to God.” Furthermore, Paul’s introduction and subsequent explanation of this theme is perhaps best articulated in his Letter to the Romans, and most particularly in his rebuttal to the objections and difficulties raised by the imaginary interlocutor concerning the Problem of Flesh and Death in chapter 8. It is this indwelling and empowering which is at the very heart of all that will be discussed in this paper.
For the purpose of this discussion the following functions of the Spirit will be investigated as they pertain to the outworking of the Christian existence:
As the outpouring of God’s love (5:5)
As the assurance and hope of future glory (8:23)
As the giver of new life (7:6, 8:11)
As the believer’s aid in fulfilling the law (8:4)
As the renewer of our minds (8:5)
As the intercessor for the saints (8:26-27).
Throughout Paul’s writing of Romans it is inherently obvious that he is building a Theological Argument, with each element fitting systematically between those which precede and follow. With this in mind it is important that we initially consider Romans 5:5, as Paul’s first fragment of discourse concerning the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer…
“…and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Here, comments Fitzmyer, “the gift of the Spirit is not only the proof but also the medium of the outpouring of God’s love;” and Stott agrees in stating, “The proof that our hope will not disappoint us in the end is the fact of the amazing generosity of God’s love for us – a fact which we have been enabled to know and understand by the gift of His Spirit to us.” The love the apostle speaks of here is an active love – “it is a love that gives to us and takes possession of us” through Spirit indwelling and possessing our lives.
This statement of guaranteed hope through the outpouring of Divine Love in the Spirit is inexorably connected to the assurance of hope and future glory so clearly laid out in 8:22-23…
22″We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Here, having introduced the role and person of the Spirit by means of a third restatement of his thesis, the apostle digresses in order to reassure his hearers of their present, yet impending glory; and in doing so puts aside all “equivocation and qualification” raised in the objections and difficulties voiced by the imaginary interlocutor of the previous chapters. Paul points out that the same hope giving God of mercy and grace he spoke of so clearly of in 5:5 was indeed at work through His Spirit in the lives of those who were “in Christ Jesus.” Moreover, despite the limitations faced by his hearers, God, through His Spirit, was still at work for their “good;” not only through maintaining them in the present, but also in reassuring them of their hope in an eternal future.
Indeed it is this notion of first-fruits which carries with it the connotation of the already-but-not-yet as it pertains to glory. For as Cranfield postulates, “…the idea conveyed is that of the gift of a part as a pledge of the fuller gift yet to come.” Put simply, the Spirit is forwarded to the Believer as a ‘down payment’ or ‘guarantee’ of future glory. Meanwhile, the reference to groaning is a picture of the believer’s co-suffering with Christ, and results as a direct consequence of the Christian’s new found obedience to the Spirit-led Life. Hence as Dillon points out, “As the Spirit is the goad of their new obedience, so is it the poltergeist of their unrest…In other words, it is as ‘taskmaster’ that the Spirit becomes ‘troublemaker.'”
Not only is the Spirit the outpouring of God’s love and the assurance of future glory, but it is also the giver of new life…
“But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
Here we begin to get a real sense of what it means to receive new life in the Spirit; for as Fitzmyer argues, “The Spirit is the dynamic principle of new life received in baptism.” For while bondage to the law meant that it was impossible to please God and eventually led to destruction, serving in the “new condition created by the Spirit, [is] a condition that brings life and fruit pleasing to God.” For as Moo notes, “Written on stone tablets, the law of God cannot change the human heart; only God’s Spirit can do that.” Hence the new life received by the believer through the power of the Spirit allows the Christian to become one with and in Christ; “thus denoting transfer of Lordship and existential participation in the new reality brought about by Christ.”
Along with this notion of new life, comes the apostle’s assertion that the Spirit is infact the source and means of our adoption and sonship within the Godhead as the giver of this new life…
15″For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a Spirit if adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we also may be glorified with him.”
Fourthly, it is important that we contrast the believer’s new found freedom from the law with the notion that the Spirit actually has the function of fulfilling the law through those who indeed believe…
“…so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Initially it is vital that we define the term “just requirement of the law.” Fitzmyer contends that Paul is referring to the “uprightness that the law required…before God’s tribunal;” Only when we recognise this can we permit Moo’s conclusion that, “The people in whom the law is fulfilled are those who live in the realm of the Spirit.”
However, it is important that we recognise the fact that the indwelling fleshly desires of all Christians still mean that we are unable to practice and keep the law without stumbling. Indeed Paul recognises this, and it is his assertion that the justifying act at Calvary fulfils the “just requirement of the law;” and that the work of the Spirit begets that fulfilling act in all believers. Stott maintains this principle in asserting that, “The moral law has not been abolished for us, it is to be fulfilled in us. Although law-obedience is not the ground for our justification, it is the fruit of it and the very meaning of sanctification.” The law now acts as the believer’s moral and ethical guide; obeyed out of love for God and only by the power that the Spirit provides.
Hence the work of the Spirit is manifested in two functions in this regard: firstly in terms of it’s begetting of the fulfilling act, and secondly in the measure of it’s enabling the believer to actively fulfil the law through Spirit-empowered righteous living.
Fifthly, it is vital that we recognise the role that the Spirit plays in renewing the mind of the believer…
“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.”
Throughout the entire letter thus far Paul has been building his theology to a crescendo; and it is during chapter 8 that all that has gone before reaches its ultimate culmination with his fullest introduction of the person and function of the Spirit. In essence chapter 8 forms the pinnacle of the apostle’s argument; indeed it is this summation which all of his other doctrinal musing hinges upon, and this abridgement which opens the door to his paraclesis for Christian living seen in the exhortations of 12:3-15:13.
Here Paul introduces the importance of the renewed mind as a pre-requisite for Christian living. As Moo assets, “‘Mind’ translates phronema, which can be rendered ‘mind-set;’ it denotes the basic direction of a person’s will…the lifestyle of the Spirit comes from the mind orientated to the Spirit.” Only when we set our minds on things above, on Spiritual things, will we ever be able to fulfil the “just requirement of the law.” Fitzmyer prefers to refer to this Spirit-led existence in terms of the believer being open to the “promptings…inspiration… [and] manifestation” of the Spirit; going on the add that, “Sin may still try to dominate the flesh, but it does not dominate the self, thanks to the indwelling of the Spirit.” Only through the Spirit’s active renewing of the believer’s mind can this victory of the flesh be maintained.
Finally it is essential that we acknowledge the intercessory function of the Spirit in aid of the saints…
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
As we have seen, Paul’s response to the imaginary interlocutor’s question concerning Flesh and Death has resulted in his introduction of the Spirit as: the outpouring of God’s love, the assurance of future glory, the giver of new life, the believer’s aid in fulfilling the law, and the renewer of minds; however, Dillon contends that, “The mainstay of this assurance is the Spirit’s intercession.”
Murray puts it succinctly when he writes, “Prayer covers every aspect of our need, and our weakness is exemplified and laid bare by the fact that we know not what to pray for…” – equally so does Wu in noting that the Spirit “makes up the deficit” by interceding on our behalf. What an assurance to recognise that the Spirit of God Himself comes to our aid; “joining with to help,” and “bearing a burden along with” us! What an encouragement to acknowledge that the prayers being offered on our behalf are in direct accordance with the sovereign will of the Eternal God!
Conclusion I – Summary of Findings
In summary it must be concluded that Paul’s introduction and explanation of the Spirit is the pinnacle of his theologising throughout his letter to the Romans. The systematic flow of his theological argument reaches it climax during his rebuttal of the accusations of the imaginary interlocutor in chapter 8; and it is this carefully constructed expostulation which gives credibility to the paraclesis and exhortations of the following chapters. Ultimately, it is the Spirit which enables the believer to live out the Christian existence; not only in terms of its day to day empowerment and licence, but also through its role in the salvation continuum as the means by which adoption and sanctification are achieved. For as Martin Bucer wrote, it is “the Holy Spirit [which] moves the heart.”
Conclusion II – Contemporary Significance and Application
Fee makes what is a very insightful comment when he asserts, “If we are going to count for much in the post-modern world in which we now live, the Spirit must remain the key to the church’s existence.” It is my proposition that as believers we need to get back to what Fee describes as “Paul’s Understanding of the Spirit;” and in doing so recognise what are Paul’s pillars for understanding the pneuma.
Firstly we must recognise that the Spirit is the Key to Christian Experience. As Evangelical Christians we have often, to our downfall, neglected to duly recognise the work and necessity of the Spirit in the Christian Experience. Ultimately, few would argue that Christ Himself must be central to all that we believe and do, but we must approach this standard in the acknowledgement that Christ is revealed to us through the Spirit as the revealer of all truth.
Secondly, we must be open to allowing God to Break into our Lives, through the dynamic, experiential power of the Spirit. Only when we as Christians accept this all-surpassing power will we ever be truly free of the bondage of sin and open to the new life made available through Spirit. God longs to work out His sovereign plan in us, if only we would be open to His Divine methods.
Finally, it is imperative that believers everywhere depend on the Spirit as their means of true worship. Not only does the pneuma act on our behalf in intercession, but also in our corporate worship. Indeed, it is on the basis of the Spirit at work in their lives that Paul calls for the believers to practice unity in their corporate activities. For as Fee surmises, “The Spirit, who forms the body and creates the temple, is present with unity and diversity, so that all may participate and all may be built up.”
Cranfield, C.E.B. Romans – a Shorter Commentary, Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd.,
(2)Dunn, J.D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd., 1998.
Donfried, Karl.P. The Romans Debate, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1977.
Fee, Gordon.D. Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.
Fitzmyer, Joseph.A. Romans, New York: Doubleday, 1992
Hubbard, David.A. The Holy Spirit in Today’s World, Texas: Word Books Publisher, 1973.
McGrath, Alister.E. Christian Theology – an Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001.
McIntyre, John. The Shape of Pneumatology – Studies in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd., 1997.
(1)Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans, Michigan: Grand Rapids, 1996.
(2)Moo, Douglas. The NIV Application Commentary – Romans, Michigan: Grand Rapids, 2000.
Murray, John. The Epistle to the Romans, Michigan: Grand Rapids, 1968.
Pink, Arthur.W. The Holy Spirit, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978.
Caulley.C.S. ‘Holy Spirit,’ Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, USA: Baker Book House, 1984, 521-527.
Dillon, Richard.J. ‘The Spirit as Taskmaster and Trouble Maker in Romans 8,’ CBQ 60, 1998, 682-702.
(3)Dunn, J.D.G. ‘Spirit, Holy Spirit,’ New Bible Dictionary, Leicester: IVP, 1982, 1125-1129.
(1)Dunn, J.D.G. ‘Romans, Letter to the,’ DPL, IVP, 1993, 838-850.
Kealy, Sean.P. ‘Holy Spirit,’ Dictionary of the Bible,’ Michigan: Grand Rapids, 2000, 601-602.
Packer, J.I. ‘Holy Spirit,’ New Dictionary of Theology,’ Leicester: IVP, 1988, 316-319.
Paige, T. ‘Holy Spirit,’ DPL, Leicester: IVP, 1993, 404-413.
Smith, Geoffrey. ‘The Function of Likewise in Romans 8:26,’ TynBul 49, 1998, 29-38.
Wu, J.L. ‘The Spirit’s Intercession in Romans 8:26-27: An Exegetical Note,’ Expt 105, 1993, 13.
NOTE: All scripture references are extracted from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.