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22 October. Romans chapters 8-10
In yesterday’s post I pointed out Paul’s brief reference to the Holy Spirit in chapter 5. He returns to the subject more extensively in chapter 8. If Romans is at the heart of Christian theology, then this chapter is at the heart of the letter.
It was the experience of Jesus that Paul (formerly Saul) had on the Damascus Road that transformed him from being a legalistic Jew to an ardent Christian believer in God’s offer of salvation to all people – as we shall see when we get to the book of Acts. This understanding that we are reconciled to God, not by ‘doing good’ nor even just by confessing our faults, but by trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is behind Paul’s writing to the Romans. And a sudden understanding of it through reading this book, or a commentary on it, was instrumental for two of the great men of Protestant Christianity – Luther and Wesley – in their own spiritual lives. Their understanding of this doctrine of ‘salvation by faith’ sparked both the Reformation in 16th century Europe (the 500th anniversary of Luther’s ‘conversion’ is being celebrated this month across the world), and the Methodist revival in 18th century Britain.
Paul points out in this chapter three things that the Holy Spirit does in our lives. She* brings a sense of peace to our lives as we turn from a self-focussed worldview (“the flesh”) to a spiritual one (8:6); she creates within us a sense of being children of God (8:16); and she helps us to pray, even without words (8:27). Each one of these statements deserves a sermon in itself!
For Paul, the Spirit is always “the Spirit of Christ” – never working on her own but always with him. For that reason the Catholic church and its derivatives say in the creed that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”, although the Orthodox church still uses the simpler statement “proceeds from the Father”. Fortunately, wars are no longer started over such a small difference in theology. The important thing is to be open to the working of the Spirit so that you too may have the revelation that changed the lives of Saul, Luther and Wesley: that having Christ and his Spirit within you, giving you faith in them, is all that you need to be right with God. Nothing you can do by your own goodness can bring that about, nor can any sin, once confessed, prevent it.
* Lest anyone question my use of “she” and “her” to refer to the Spirit, let me explain. Conventionally all the persons of God, Creator, Redeemer and Spirit, are referred to by male pronouns. But a God who created man and woman in God’s own image, and who calls both men and women equally to be part of his family, cannot be restricted to one gender. Personally I experience the presence of God, on the occasions that I do, as more of a feminine presence than a masculine one. And given that the Hebrew word used for the spirit is feminine (so I am told), that is my preference when writing about her. The Spirit can, of course, equally be seen as having masculine qualities of power and strength. But please never say “it” for this most personal manifestation of God.