Romans 8: Emancipated!

“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” – Romans 8:12

Paul’s general argument so far has been to delineate between what is essentially the only two kinds of people there are in this fallen world: those who are in the flesh (i.e., unbelievers, in Adam, spiritually dead) and those who are in the Spirit (i.e., believers, in Christ, spiritually alive). All Christians, he argues, have the Holy Spirit within them and the consequences of that reality is that we are spiritually alive, free from the power of sin, and recipients of divine resurrection power, both now in a spiritual sense (vs. 10) and later when we transcend and overcome physical death.[1] As he said in verse 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.”

Now, with Paul’s characteristic use of inferential application (the “so then” at the beginning of verse 11), he addresses Christians with what this means for us now. Think about that for a second. There are serious implications for how we live now based on the truth that Christians will overcome death because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. If you were writing the book of Romans, what would you say the implications of that theological truth would be? You will overcome death, therefore live life recklessly for the Gospel? You will overcome death, therefore live bravely? These are all good implications, but it’s not where the apostle Paul, inspired by the Spirit, goes in his thinking. His reason says, “Ok, because the presence of God’s Spirit within me will culminate in my resurrection I must therefore make sure I am not a debtor to the flesh.”

It’s a stunning connection. He’s saying that we are no longer bound to follow the commands of the flesh. We’re not obligated anymore to work for the flesh, or to be enslaved and indebted to the demands of the flesh. Because of the divine power of the Spirit – a power, mind you, which will raise you up to new life out of the grave! – we are now empowered to live according to the Spirit.

I’m reminded of a powerful analogy one of my seminary professors gave concerning this principle. Before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 most Southern black Americans lived as slaves underneath the ownership of a Plantation landowner. Everything about their lives was under the cruel control of the slave master. But after President Lincoln’s Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and later the Thirteenth Amendment, legally speaking all black Americans were free. Many indeed left the plantations they worked on, and left the South, all in order to find a new life in their newfound freedom. But interestingly, many also stayed and worked on the same Plantation. As one first-hand account put it, “Every time a bunch of Northern soldiers would come through, they would tell us we were free, and we’d begin celebrating. But before we would get through that, somebody else would tell us to go back to work, and we would go.”[2] In other words, all they had known their entire lives was obeying the command of the slave owner and so even though they were legally free, psychologically and emotionally they were still very much bound to their old way of life; they still obeyed the demands of their old master.

My seminary professor made the point that many Christians sadly still operate in much the same way, still listening to and giving in to the demands of our old master: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Legally, we’re free – Paul says, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), and “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!’ (Romans 8:15). But nonetheless so many Christians, whenever the flesh calls for our obedience, or whenever Satan stirs up an old temptation, we scurry back to our old habits, living as debtors, not to the Spirit who has freed us, but to the flesh who is our old slave master.

But Paul is reminding us here, he’s standing up and giving us our greater Emancipation Proclamation. “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” We are free! “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Octavius Winslow is so good on this point: “Do we owe anything to sin, the parent of all our woe? Nothing. To Satan – who plotted our temptation and accomplished our downfall? Nothing. To the world – ensnaring, deceitful, and ruinous? Nothing. No; to these, the auxiliaries and allies of the flesh, we owe nothing but the deepest hatred, and the most determined opposition.”[3]

But I want you to notice one crucial little detail. Paul is speaking here to whom? The verse tells us clearly, he’s speaking to his “brothers.” He’s speaking here to Christians. Which means two very important things. First, Christians are in constant need of being reminded that they are no longer in debt to live according to the flesh. Paul deems it necessary to write and remind us that sin is no longer master over our lives, which means, Christians still struggle with sin. We are continually facing temptation from our own flesh, the world, and Satan. There is no perfectionism in the Christian life, we will always be in a battle against the flesh. This is why Paul writes this here. If sin was no longer an issue for Christians, then this verse would make no sense. But as it is, Christians do struggle with sin, and so Paul wisely encourages us and reminds us of the truth of the power of the Spirit which we have. Though sin still yells out and demands our obedience, Paul tells us we no longer serve that old slave master. We are now servants of a better Master, Christ himself!

Secondly, freedom from the demands of the flesh is only possible in Christ. Paul is speaking here to “brothers”, that is, to Christians. Which means, if you are not a believer then there is no freedom for you from sin. Try as you might, without the power of the Spirit you are not and cannot get free from sin’s grip. As we’ll see in the next few verses, this is crucial to get, since without the freeing power of the Spirit of Christ we cannot put to death the deeds of the flesh. And as the Puritan John Owen famously put it, “we must be killing sin or else sin will be killing us.” In fact, says Owen, “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.”[4] This is the new life Christians are not only called to but are enabled to live out by the power of God’s Spirit.

If you’ve not yet gained freedom from sin, friends, I implore you, go to Jesus Christ and give your life wholly to him. There is freedom and there is power – resurrection power! – over sin and death. “If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (Romans 8:10-12).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Douglas Moo, Romans 1-8 (Moody Press, 1991), p. 526

[3] Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation In Christ Jesus (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 147

[4] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), p. 3


Stephen Unthank