Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary continues with Paul’s Letter to the Romans. After the interpretive issues that bedevilled the readings of the past few days today’s reading is relatively clear. By now we are used to the ambiguous quality of Paul’s use of νόμος, nómos “law”, as it may refer to the law written on the hearts of all humanity, but especially apparent to Gentiles, or it may refer to the Torah revealed at Sinai, or perhaps earlier commandments given to Adam, Noah, and others. Paul also starts to see living by the Spirit as corresponding to law, much as earlier he saw it as a transfer from slavery to sin to slavery to God.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 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 to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 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. 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. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though 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 from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Paul delights in setting up oppositions between things, particularly life before Christ and life afterwards. It’s one of the reasons that I think Luther saw everything as Law and Gospel, even though I don’t think Paul’s antitheses map the way Luther thinks they do.
The oppositions in today’s readings look like this:
|Law of sin and death||Law of the Spirit in Christ Jesus|
|Flesh – powerless before sin||Christ condemns sin in the flesh|
|Set mind on flesh => death
=> does not submit to God’s law
=> hostile to God
|Set mind on the Spirit => life and peace
[=> submits to God’s law]
[=> pleasing to God]
|Body is dead because of sin||Spirit gives life to mortal body.|
Why is Paul writing about this? As will become clear in Chapters 14 and 15 (which we will not get to in Lent) Paul is aware that the Roman church (actually several congregations meeting in different homes across the Metropolis) is divided into two factions which he describes as “the weak” and “the strong”. Much ink has been spilled over the identity of these groups, but Robert Jewett suggests, and I think he is right, that “the strong” are Gentile believers and liberal-minded Jews like Paul who no longer feel constrained by Torah observance, whereas “the weak” are Torah observing Jewish Christians and probably some Gentiles who were close to the Jewish synagogue prior to receiving Christ. In most of the letter Paul is addressing “the strong” and encouraging them to get along with “the weak”; he wants unity so that he will have a strong support as he passes through Rome on his way to Spain, and he does not want any whiff of division to cause a scandal for him as he preaches the good news there.
Going back to earlier chapters, Paul assumes it depends on faith, and that is true whether one observes aspects of Torah because one is a Jew or one is freed from those commandments through faith in Christ; there is nothing inherently wrong in a Jew observing the Torah, although Paul finds it bizarre and wrong for Gentiles who wish to follow Jesus to believe or be told that they really must become Jewish. That shifts salvation from the grace of God and faith to the adherence to the Torah, which can be emptied of faith.
As Jewett reminds us, the Spirit here is not some abstract concept that we might associate with certain philosophers. Rather, it is something experienced by the believers as something which takes over in them and lives in them, manifesting itself in spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, healing, prophetic utterances, miracles, as well as faith, wisdom, and knowledge (see 1 Corinthians 12). These all have the characteristic of love (1 Corinthians 13), and are a reflection of God’s activity within us. The Spirit is transformative of the whole person, and not just a matter of intellectual assent to propositions.
This is why Paul is so bothered when he encounters Christians arguing and behaving badly – it suggests that the Spirit is somehow impeded by them. It is parallel to the “already/not yet” nature of Christ’s coming – Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom with his itinerant ministry of preaching, healings, and exorcisms, and in his death and resurrection, but the fullness awaits the day of the Lord when he will come in glory as the Son of Man. Likewise, Christians are free from sin and alive in the Spirit, although their bodies look unchanged and awaits the power of the resurrection to be fully activated. So he exhorts them to live by the Spirit.