This review of Romans 8 is provided by Seth, an active Mormon
People sometimes gripe that a chapter-by-chapter treatment of a book like Romans cannot possibly do justice to the full message of the work taken-together. On this I completely agree. You simply cannot read a single chapter of Romans in isolation and get a real sense of what Paul is talking about. I think many casual students of the Bible – both in Mormon and Protestant contexts – do themselves a real disservice in their studies in their tendency toward the “chapter-a-day” method of scripture study. However, we need these artificial divisions to keep life and discussion manageable, so an approach like this is probably unavoidable. But I’d still like to provide a quick overview of where we are, and where we’ve come from when we arrive at Romans chapter 8. I think focusing mainly on chapters 6 and 7 (with reference to other scripture passages), will be sufficient for this purpose in a bare-bones sort of way.
The first eight chapters of Romans might be broken down in this fashion:
- Man’s sin and need for justification – Chapters 1-3
- The nature of justification: its basis and its benefits – Chapters 3-5
- Justification and the goal of righteousness – Chapters 6-8
I am only focusing in this intro on #3 – Justification and the goal of righteousness. This run of three chapters in 6-8 has often been popularly referred to by Protestant scholars and speakers as “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” We go through the impossible dilemma and “agony” of the problem facing Paul in chapters 6 and 7, and then in chapter 8 are treated to the “ecstasy” of the glorious vision and promise of chapter 8.
Paul first argues the necessity of personal righteousness in Romans 6:1 to 7:6. He makes it absolutely clear that righteousness is required and expected of us. There is a strain of “libertine” sort of thinking in some corners of Protestantism that tries to argue that all righteousness is corrupt or that we don’t need to be bothered with it. This is to completely misread Paul. He always speaks approvingly of righteousness, and considers it to be necessary in Christian life. But what Paul is seeking for is not just isolated good behavior, but rather an “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) – an obedience that inevitably accompanies saving faith. His argument is that justification must always result in good works.
Specifically in Romans 6:1-2, Paul rhetorically asks “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Paul has no sympathy for the self-esteem-obsessed libertine who wishes to simply use his words to feel comfortable with “the way I am.” Similarly, in Romans 3:31 Paul makes it clear that his intent has never been to nullify the Law through exercise of faith. Many misread Paul in this respect and craft a distorted narrative where it is the Law of Moses that was corrupt (and not just its followers), and Jesus’ ministry was somehow supposed to nullify the Law of Moses and allow us all to be saved – regardless of whether we are really any good or not. Paul condemns this line of thought, and makes it clear that the Law of God is not evil, but “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Paul’s argument is not that righteousness is worthless, but rather that we of humanity are utterly inadequate to the task of obtaining it. Thus Paul’s lament in Romans 6:24 “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” Paul is not trivializing righteous works, but pointing out how impossible it is for us to actually do them. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. In the last 7 chapters of Romans, Paul has set up the impossibility of the situation we find ourselves in, and consequently the dilemma facing God our Father.
We desire to become righteous, but we cannot. God desires to glorify us, but the task seems impossible. How can either we or God live with this state of affairs? This is the “agony” of the Epistle to the Romans.
In chapters 3-5, Paul outlines justification and how we may be forgiven of our sins. He has spoken of a justification through faith, rather than the old performances of the Law of Moses (Romans 3:28). He has spoken of the saving faith of Abraham that allowed God to gift Abraham with that which Abraham could not obtain on his own in chapter 4. And he has spoken of the crucifying of our old and sinful selves with Christ in the first portion of Chapter 6. As such, we followers of Christ can be forgiven for our sins.
A wonderful message, but it doesn’t go far enough. Justification is merely the forgiveness of sin, not the eradication of it. It deals with the penalties associated with sin, but does not deal with the power sin holds over our world. If we end Romans here, we merely forgive the world, but do not save it.
God’s promise was not to merely forgive his people – but to make them holy. If the only point of the Gospel of Jesus were to forgive people, it would have been a wasted effort. Where is the holy nation of Israel? Where is the realization of Zion? Where is the end of iniquity? Are we not merely back to square one? What is the use of producing a world full of useless degenerates who have been forgiven, but essentially unchanged? This is where we come to chapter 8 of Romans – where the other shoe drops. This is where we learn of the work not of Jesus Christ, but of the Holy Spirit. Not of Justification, but of Sanctification.
We can divide Romans 8 into three sections: verses 1-27 describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer; verse 28-30 emphasize the sovereignty of God in obtaining a holy people; and verses 31-39 contain a joyous outburst of praise from Paul at the realization that God most certainly will ensure the fulfillment of all his glorious promises to Israel – and by extension, to all of us.
The Ministry of the Holy Spirit and Sanctification of the Saints
In Romans 8 verses 1-3, Paul reiterates that the penalty of sin has been met and we have been set free. Christ was sent to accomplish what the Law alone could not. But in verse 4, Paul takes us to the conclusion – how we are to become holy “according to the Spirit.” Verses 6-8 outline the problem that STILL faces us – even after the work of Christ’s forgiveness. For we may have been forgiven, but we are still no better than we were. Not only is the sinful mind of man hostile to God, but it is not capable of being otherwise (Romans 8:7, 2 Nephi 26:11). There is no way in this situation to please God (Romans 8:8).
But in verse 9, Paul presents us an out. Through Christ’s work in justifying us – we have been given access to the Holy Spirit. We are no longer controlled by the restrictions of the flesh which we stood helpless before, but we are now controlled by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9). It is this being who now works upon us and means to make saints of us all.
Romans chapter 8, incidentally, is the most concentrated teaching on the Holy Spirit (for Evangelicals) or “Holy Ghost” (for Mormons) in the Book of Romans. The term “spirit” has only occurred four times in Romans in the chapters leading up to 8, and more than half of those meant instead the spirit of man. The term spirit however occurs no less than 18 or 19 times in Romans 8 – depending which translation you are using. It is definitely the star character of the entire chapter, and rarely do you see this member of the Godhead in such prominent place in the Bible. Just as the Holy Ghost raised Christ from the dead, that same Holy Spirit means to raise us from the grave of sin in glory (Romans 8:10-11).
But now Paul speaks of an obligation put upon us to live in that new Spirit (Romans 8:12). But let us be clear, he is not calling us to merit God’s approval – of ourselves. Paul has made it clear that we are powerless slaves before the circumstances we find ourselves in. We have no freedom to forge our own course in the world. We have one freedom, and one freedom only – to choose which power we will be controlled by. Shall we be controlled by the sinful nature? Or by the Spirit? This is the question of Romans 8:9. It is also the choice presented by uniquely LDS scripture such as Mosiah 3:19 (see also Mosiah 27:25).
So where do we go from here? How is the Spirit going to bring this about? In verse 13 – after Paul speaks of our new “obligation” – it is mentioned that we must put to death the sins of the flesh. But it is through the intervention of the Holy Spirit that we do this. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are sanctified and made truly righteous before God (see also D&C 84:33 for additional LDS context on the work of sanctification). The crowning achievement of this work of sanctification is that we are adopted as God’s own children. We become the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:14-17). This obviously has a lot of additional meaning for LDS notions if theosis, but this is not a topic I want to detour into here (for more on this see D&C 76:51-62).
In any case, it is a glorious vision. The impossible situation we found ourselves in has been unlocked, and the way to freedom lies open before us. Not only have we been forgiven in Christ (Justification), but we have also been given the means to actually become good through the Spirit (Sanctification). God promised a holy people in times of old, and he means to have it. God was not a mere boasting liar promising the impossible. When he made the covenant, he prepared a way for it to actually happen.
And let us not forget that the dilemma was not just our dilemma – it was God’s dilemma as well. In fact, I would suggest that Romans is actually more about God’s dilemma than ours. He promised big with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And for a long time, it looked like he wasn’t going to be able to make good on those boasts. The very integrity of God was at stake. But here we see that he is certainly going to pull through for us if we will have him as our Father.
Neither was it only God’s dilemma and ours. Paul notes that all creation itself was in bondage waiting for this moment (Romans 8:19-21) – the moment when God would redeem his children, and end the suffering both of humanity, and the creation that surrounds them. The planet itself and all that fills it will be liberated as well (see also D&C 63:20-21). As a woman in labor (Romans 8:22), the suffering of the earth has been great, but the end is in sight when we ourselves are revealed reborn as the children of God (Romans 8:23). This is a work in progress and not yet completed however – as Romans 8:24-25 make quite clear (for additional context on the idea of hope in Christ, see also Moroni 7:40-44 and Ether 12:3-9). Patience is called for here before our final revelation as the children of God. LDS scripture terms this “enduring to the end’ (1 Nephi 13:37; 2 Nephi 31:15; Omni 1:26; Alma 5:13; Alma 32:13; 3 Nephi 27:6; Moroni 3:3; D&C 14:7; D&C 63:20), but the meaning is the same. After the moment of forgiveness, come the fruits of conversion that must continue.
At this point, we can hardly blame Paul for getting a bit carried away in the moment and bursting into praise. First we have praise for the foresight and knowledge of God in bringing this about (Romans 8:28-30). [Note: I also don’t want to get sidetracked here on a debate about predestination (for an example of how LDS deal with this notion, see D&C 121:34-36).] Then comes a declaration of confidence in God’s triumph in which we share (Romans 8:31), and then astonishment that God would go so far for us – even sending his own son to death on our behalf (Romans 8:32), and finally the love of the Son himself for us – a love which triumphs over all adversity and has made all God’s promises possible (Romans 8:33-39; D&C 34:3). As I have often maintained – LOVE is the key defining attribute of divinity and of God. This love was thwarted by our estrangement from God in the Fall of Adam and Eve (see also 3 Nephi 19:20-23). But it finds its solution in the Atonement – not just in the event of Justification from God the Son – but in the process of Sanctification in God the Spirit. Indeed the love of God finds its clearest expression in these two aspects of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Deeply moved at the realization, Paul exclaims in verses 38-39:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God found a way to bring us back, and to make us into something we ourselves will scarcely recognize.
Thoughts for LDS-Evangelical Dialogue
The nature of the Atonement is one of the most hotly contested doctrines in scripture between Mormons and Evangelicals. And frankly, I think we both share the blame in that. Neither of us accurately express the full depth and scope of Christ’s Atonement when speaking to each other. We BOTH fall short of doing the doctrine justice, and Romans 8 provides part of the key.
The problem is that we both wade into these debates expecting a fight with people who “just don’t get it.” Both of us are already convinced from the first that the other is deeply misguided and ready to try and undermine our own precious faith and deny our own treasured promises. As a result, we craft our arguments and our testimonials not from a desire to convey the truth of Paul’s message, but from a desire to defend turf, score points, and trounce opponents.
We Mormons are as guilty of this as anyone. We are so convinced that Evangelicals are just a bunch of lazy layabouts more interested in shallow self-esteem seminars than in serving God, that we overcompensate and craft ALL our discussion of the Atonement toward the need for righteous works. Many of us even go so far as distort our OWN doctrine of the Atonement and twist it into a doctrine of “salvation by works.” I’ll admit it – many Mormons do preach salvation by works. We have cut off our own nose to spite our own face so to speak. We’ve presented a false representation of our own Gospel to the world in order to appear more fierce in debate with our opponents. But this is not in line with the LDS canon of scripture.
Other factors are at work here. Much of the focus of the Restored Gospel deals with the work of Sanctification mentioned here in Romans 8. The program of the LDS Church is geared toward that life in the Spirit – which aims to perfect us. But we’ve lost our way here. In our focus on the work of Sanctification, we have either forgotten, or trivialized the work of Justification. We take for granted the work of Christ, and hurry on to the work of the Holy Ghost without really appreciating what got us here in the first place (or indeed – if we have even arrived at all yet). I saw this in full evidence during a class on the Fall of Adam taught in an LDS Elders Quorum meeting. Many in attendance seemed to be cavalier if not outright dismissive of the full weight and evil that the Fall brought about. They shifted uncomfortably when I mentioned some of the evils that we have the Fall to thank for – rape, murder, genocide, holocaust, warfare, theft of entire nations livelihoods. These evils were dismissively waved away in favor of blithe explanations of how “God solved all that.”
Let me be blunt – we Mormons often fail to appreciate the full weight and gravity of the terrible situation we are in. And since we do not appreciate the problem, we will not really appreciate the solution. You can’t skip steps. You can’t ignore the problem and skip straight to the solution just because it’s more cheerful. But I think many of us have inadvertently done exactly this.
Now the other hand….
Evangelicals have screwed this debate up just as badly as the Mormons have. And like the Mormons, it arises from the same combative stances, and the same distortion of your own Gospel heritage. If Mormons have skipped the problem outlined in Paul’s doctrine of Justification and run straight ahead to Sanctification, many Evangelicals have done the opposite and parked their Gospel buses in the Justification parking lot and are refusing to move ahead to Sanctification. So much of Evangelical argument with Mormons consists of telling Mormons how filthy human beings are, and how great being forgiven is, that Mormons might well be forgiven for thinking that this is really all Evangelicalism has to offer:
“You’re ugly! You’re filthy! You’re going to hell! But God will forgive you – The End.”
I don’t think it takes too much reflection to see that this is not exactly an attractive message. It offers very little – and it’s only motivation is one of fear of punishment (always one of the weakest forms of motivation). Besides which, it is not true to Paul’s message at all. It ignores the crucial message of Romans 8 that God intends to do much, much more with us than merely forgive us. He has a plan and a purpose for us. Evangelical outreach to Mormons often never reaches this glorious conclusion, nor does it often attempt to understand how Mormons themselves may already be pursuing it.
In short, I think both of our sides could stand to offer a little more to the other side. Mormons need to do a better job of demonstrating that they appreciate the real depth of the problems Christ’s ministry meant to solve. Mormons could perhaps do with a bit more of the feelings that drove Paul (and Nephi) to cry out “oh, wretched man that I am!” On the other side, Evangelical really need to do a better job of selling their product. A lot more work needs to be done to correct the perception that Evangelicalism is a Gospel of “forgive and forget about it” – that once you hit the point of forgiveness, your religious observance is more or less over. More needs to be done to bring it out of the clouds and down to earth where the Gospel really impacts the saints. Mormons need to know that the Gospel offers more than just mere forgiveness, but a way to become holy before God as well. As long as Evangelicals focus only on the forgiveness and nothing else, they will always fail to reach this desperate need within those they teach. And they will fail to realize the full scope of Paul’s teachings.
The crucial message that Mormons and Evangelicals alike need to be discussing and unitedly proclaiming to the world is that not only did God forgive the world, but he prepared a way to actually redeem it too. Romans chapter 8 is, I think, the key passage in making this connection.