“Who will rescue me from this body of death?” To preach Romans 8, you have to back up a few verses to see what question Paul is attempting to answer. He ends chapter 7 with what sounds like a personal outburst of his own sinfulness. “For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). This final passage from chapter 7 is one that redeems the person of Paul in many people’s eyes. To be so brutally honest, to admit to his own failings, to confess his own wrestling with sin in his own body and life, makes him more human, more like us; and we can sympathize. More than that, we can feel a little bit, or maybe even a lot, better about our own inadequacies. If even Paul can struggle, we think that maybe our struggles aren’t so bad.
Except that isn’t why Paul ended chapter 7 that way. He wasn’t going for solidarity with us poor sinners. He might not have even been talking about himself. Most of the letter to the Romans is written in a dialogic style, where Paul takes on a dual persona to debate and argue and present his ideas. So, this might have been a technique that he was using to wrap up the first section of the epistle and introduce the second section.
However, Paul wasn’t averse to using his own life to make his point. And he was well aware of his own shortcomings. So, why not allow this moment of personal privilege – or personal shame – to set up what he intends to say? Phillips Brooks famously said that “preaching is bringing truth through personality.” So, here is Paul bringing this truth through the personality of his own life.
Except that it isn’t about Paul. Or rather, it is about Paul, but not only Paul. It is about Paul as a representative of all of us. It is about the human condition—a human condition of ultimate helplessness to bring about our own salvation; or, in Paul’s words, to rescue us from a body of death.
Thankfully, we don’t have to rescue ourselves. We have been rescued already. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” There is much to unpack here, more than any one sermon can handle, frankly. But before getting into all of that, pause here a moment. Stand in the grace and the freedom that these verses share. Celebrate the gift; taste the life that is on offer here. Revel in it, as Paul does, before attempting to understand it.
Realize how countercultural this faith thing is. We nod along and mumble, “Thank you, Jesus” without grasping the depth of the gift, the radical nature of grace. Our culture is a “can-do” culture, with a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” kind of faith. To begin with the proclamation that there is something you can’t do is to swim against that tide. To admit that you are helpless in the face of your own sin is a shame and an embarrassment in the climate of our culture. Yet, that is the crux of Paul’s argument. To skip over this makes everything that follows empty and powerless. It is only by diving into the depths of Paul’s plea, “Who will rescue me…?” that we can begin to experience the glory of what Christ has done for us and in us.
And what is that? How do we describe this gift? “No condemnation” is how Paul describes it. No judgment. Freedom, freed from a law whose only purpose was to burden, to condemn. The freedom to live. Really live. That’s the gift. Yes, it is life eternal, but that life begins now, in the freedom of the grace of Jesus Christ, the Resurrected one. And this Christ will “give life to your mortal bodies” (8:11). meaning we don’t have to wait, meaning that this isn’t just about someday, but about this day, right now, here. The gift is yours.
Conditions? Well, yes; to live this life, to claim this freedom, there is an invitation to which we need to respond. “There is now no condemnation,” writes Paul, “for those who are in Christ.” “In Christ.” What might Paul mean by “in Christ”? Keep reading.
Later he contrasts “in the flesh” with “in the Spirit.” And we have to be careful here. Flesh doesn’t mean flesh; it doesn’t mean just bodily things. Paul doesn’t argue that bodies are bad and anything done in the body is to be avoided. Many have gone astray with this interpretation. Yes, when he lists “works of the flesh” there are bodily sins on that list, but there are also spiritual sins like idolatry included. Paul wouldn’t argue that bodies are bad if he wants to argue that this gift of life comes to our mortal bodies!
Perhaps one way to translate this duality would be to talk about self-directed and spirit-directed. Living guided only by self leads to death, Paul argues, but guided by the Spirit is to know the fullness of life. Living by the Spirit takes at the outset, Paul argues, a surrender of self. It takes an admission that you are powerless in the face of your own sin. Too often, we want to use our faith, we want to use Jesus, as an add on, as a “spiritual booster,” as commentator Blair Alison Pogue calls it (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.3, p.231). It is something extra to get us over the hump.
But we are the hump. The very thing that needs to be moved out of the way for the Spirit to take up residence in us, so that we can be “in Christ” is ourselves. Notice it says, “in Christ,” not Christ in us. We are subsumed in Christ; it is not our wills, but Christ’s will that guides us.
Our fear here is that somehow we will be less ourselves when we surrender to Christ. But, in fact, the opposite is true. We become more of ourselves. This is what Paul means when he says this Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies. We are more fully ourselves when we set our minds on the things of the Spirit. When we set aside what this culture calls “looking out for number one,” then we become more truly alive.
That’s the invitation. Set your mind on Christ. Set your mind on the things of the Spirit. Then live out the salvation that is ours in Christ, every day and today.