Romans 8:9

A friend of mine recently asked me how I understand Romans 8:9 in light of the good news of humanity’s adoption into the Trinity through Jesus Christ. In case you don’t have a Bible handy, Romans 8:9 reads:

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.

First of all, I believe we all have to stop trying to interpret Jesus in the light of the Bible and start interpreting the Bible in the light of Jesus. At the most practical level this means that clear, Christological passages such as Colossians 1, Ephesians 1, John 1, Hebrews 1, and Romans 5 take hermeneutical precedence over less clear or less directly Christological passages such as Romans 8:9.

Since Romans 5:18 says that all are forgiven in Jesus and Colossians 1:20 says that everything is reconciled in him, then it is not right to interpret Romans 8:9 in a way that contradicts these clear Christological passages. If we come up with an interpretation of Romans 8:9 that contradicts Romans 5:18 then we have the wrong interpretation of 8:9 and we have to go back to the drawing board.

All scripture is inspired and useful but not all scripture is equal. “Come, let us be going” (John 14:31) is not as important as “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16.) And in the context of our conversation, “those who do not have the Spirit of Christ do not belong to him” is not as important as “while we were utterly helpless Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6.)

Secondly, I think we need to listen to what we are saying – I know when I started listening to myself I was shocked at what I was saying! Many of us Christians will acknowledge that “God is the King over all of His creation and nothing, not even ‘hell’ is outside of His presence and authority.” But then we will quickly move on from this as though it were nothing, or only incidental to the discussion. I used to do this all the time and then one day it hit me like a ton of bricks “I don’t really believe that Jesus is Lord of All! I sing a song with those words but I don’t believe it!”

We have all been guilty of, in essence, saying:

Oh yeah, Jesus is Lord, everything is under his control – but forget all that mumbo-jumbo, let me tell you what really matters: WE really matter, it’s our work, it’s our decision that makes everything happen. We adopt ourselves into the Trinity. We make ourselves into children of the eternal Father. We summon the Holy Spirit from heaven by our words and compel him to pour himself out on us because we prayed the right prayer, got dunked in the right water, or tarried at the right all night meeting.

Or, let me put it this way: if unbelievers don’t belong to the Father then who do they belong to? Satan? Does Satan sustain them by his powerful word the same way Jesus does? (Heb. 1:3) Are Jesus and Satan co-equal gods and part of humanity lives and moves and has its being in Jesus and part of humanity lives and moves and has its being in Satan? (Acts 17:28)

What I’m getting so worked up about is this: it is highly significant and foundationally important that we begin all our thinking about everything in the universe from the reality that nothing is outside of Jesus’ presence and authority. This is not a fact to pay lip service to and then move on from. This is the fundamental nature of reality. This is the basis of existence in the universe. It’s so important that John’s gospel, and the epistles to Colosse, Ephesus, and the Hebrews all begin with this point before they talk about anything else.

So, Romans 8:9 has to be interpreted in light of two foundational truths on which we will never compromise: everything exists in Jesus and everything is reconciled in Jesus. Therefore, whatever else Paul means when he says “does not belong to Christ” he cannot mean “is not adopted, is not forgiven, or does not exist in Jesus.”

Paul says that whoever has the Spirit of Christ belongs to Christ. Therefore, it is not possible to have the Spirit and not belong to Christ nor is it possible to belong to Christ and not have the Spirit. Why? Because the Spirit comes from the Father, through the Son (John 14:16.)

There is no part of Jesus disconnected from the Spirit. There is no humanity disconnected from Jesus. Therefore, there is no humanity that does not have the Spirit of Jesus.

This reality is, in fact, reinforced in the Greek where Paul uses the word “eiper” in the first clause of the verse. “Eiper” means “since” or “if it is true that” and therefore that first half of the verse could – and, I think, should – be translated “since the Spirit of God lives in you.” Since all people live and move and have their being in Jesus, all people have the Spirit of God.

But, as Paul knows, and we can all see, there are billions of people who don’t walk in step with the Spirit.

That’s what he means when he says “don’t belong to Christ.” He means they are living as thought they don’t belong, even though – in fact – they do belong. They are adopted children of the Father in Jesus and don’t know it and don’t live like it. In fact, even those of us who know it forget it all the time and often indulge the sinful nature instead of walking with the Spirit. As Paul has already established in Romans 1-3, there is no one who lives a good enough life to earn his place in the Triune Life. If we think that belonging to Christ, and having his Spirit, is something that we do by our right belief and right behavior then we are all up the creek without a paddle because none of us are ever able to believe correctly or behave correctly 100% of the time.

So, Romans 8:9 cannot be saying “if you do the right thing then you can make yourself into someone who belongs to Christ and compel the Spirit to come down from heaven and make himself your personal property.” Romans 8:9 has to be saying “since you have the Spirit of Christ, because of who Christ is for humanity and what he has done for humanity, start believing and living this truth.”

In the light of who Jesus is, what Paul means in Romans 8 is that there are two ways human beings can live: we can live as the children of the Father that we really are in Christ by keeping in step with the Spirit or we can live a lie.

We can live out of step with the Spirit, living like we don’t belong to Christ (even though we really do) and living like we aren’t the Father’s children (even though we really are). Paul is saying “live the truth of your real identity as those who belong to Christ.” This message applies to us as much as it applied to the ancient Romans because we all belong to Jesus and it applies to the whole world – this is why we give Bibles to everyone, not just believers – because the whole world belongs to Jesus.

~ Jonathan Stepp

5 comments so far

  1. Joel Frederick on

    Thank you… There is a lot of great content here…

    I especially liked your statement: “First of all, I believe we all have to stop trying to interpret Jesus in the light of the Bible and start interpreting the Bible in the light of Jesus.”

  2. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Joel, glad you’re finding it interesting!

  3. Ted Johnston on

    Well said Jonathan.

    The essence of Paul’s ethics (as in the Romans passage you cite), is simply (and profoundly) this:

    “Be who you are!”

    Sadly, in the weakness of our “sinful nature” (our fallen humanity), our doing is often out of sync with our being. In short, we often act as other than who we, in Jesus, truly are.

    But as we walk with Jesus, in the Spirit, (as the Spirit “has us”) our doing and being are progressively united with that of the God-man Jesus, who is our life and thus our true identity.

    In this journey, we progress with Jesus, through the Spirit, from *union* with God, into the experiencing of a deepening *communion* with him.

  4. Jason on

    I agree that “Be who you are!” is the ethic that we are called to. This is what we’ve been trying to proclaim at our church for years. All the imperatives of the Scripture (Old Testament and New Testament) are based on the indicatives of Scripture. The only way that we can “please God”, if I can put it that way, is to “Be Who We Are”–children of the Father in the Son by the Spirit. We don’t please God simply by following a bunch of rules. Anyone with enough motivation (whatever that motivation is) can “follow rules”. But we are called to simply live…to live in the reality of who we are as children of our Father. When we live this way, our lives will be governed by love–the ethic of the Kingdom.

    My difficulty is that I’ve been distinguishing between Christians and “the world” (non-christians) so that in my mind the encouragement to simply “Be who you are” has always been directed solely toward Christians (because non-christians, of course, needed to become Christians first). I’ve been teaching that Christians aren’t to just follow rules but to live out the reality of who they are as God’s children in Christ.

    I’m learning, however, that because of Jesus’ vicarious humanity all people have been “born again” (so-to-speak) to new life because everyone has been taken up in Jesus. Therefore, the directive to “Be who you are” is not simply directed to “Christians”, but is actually extended to all mankind. This is why, as I’m learning, our “apologetic” is to tell people who they are in Christ. All of Humanity shares in the New Creation that has come in Christ and we need to be told who we are in Christ.

    I still struggle with many passages, but I’m learning to see Christ’s work as universally applicable to all of humanity…not just those who happen to “believe”.

    Thanks Jonathan, et al.


  5. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Ted, for that succinct summary of Paul’s ethic: “be who you are!” I think that sums it up nicely.
    Jason, I share your journey! I’ve come to see all people adopted in Christ as children of the Father and to see that those who believe this truth about humanity can be called “Christians.” To me, Paul’s message to the world is “You belong to the Father in Christ (good news)! Believe this truth about who you are (faith)! And behave like the child that you are (ethics)!” Christians are those who are saying to Jesus “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

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