In verses 12-13 Paul is talking about our obligation to do the right thing as Christian people, and he is implying as Christians, we not only have an obligation to live a holy life, doing the right things, but also the ability to live rightly. In fact, the obligation and the ability are both grounded in the fact that we are Christians. So, what is the proper approach to sanctification (to be set apart)? How are Christians to achieve victory over sin and grow in holiness? Paul gives the one and only adequate answer in these verses.
In some ways the most important word in verses 12 and 13 is the first, the word “therefore.” It points to what the apostle has just said. Paul is arguing that Christians “have an obligation” to live according to the Holy Spirit, rather than according to the sinful nature. And the reason for this, which he has just stated, is that the Holy Spirit has joined them to Jesus Christ so that: (1) they have been delivered from the wrath of God against them for their sin and been brought into an entirely new realm, the sphere of God’s rule in Christ; (2) they have been given a new nature, being made alive to spiritual things to which they were previously dead; and (3) they have been assured of an entirely new destiny in which not only will they live with God forever, but even their physical bodies will be resurrected. These are things God has done (or will do) for us. We have not done them for ourselves; indeed, we could not have. But, says Paul, because God has done them for us, “we have an obligation” to live like God has lived. We must – it is imperative – live for Him.
Everything that we have seen in Romans 8 up to this point has been a general description of the Christian: his status, present experience, character, and future expectation. Now for the first time, Paul draws a specific conclusion, saying that the work of God for us and in us presents us with a serious obligation. It is to live for God and not according to our sinful natures.
Again, what Paul is saying here in verses 12-13 is that if you live like a non-Christian, dominated by your sinful nature rather than living according to the Holy Spirit, you will perish like a non-Christian – because you are a non-Christian. “If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die.” On the other hand, if you really are a Christian, you will not live according to the sinful nature. Instead you will acknowledge what you actually are in Jesus Christ and live accordingly.
We have seen that as we work our way through Romans 8, Paul isn’t teaching anything new here but instead reinforcing what he already stated. The general theme is assurance of salvation, but that doctrine was laid out in chapter 5, and chapters 6 and 7 were a digression to answer several important questions growing out of chapter 5, after which the apostle picked up where he left off earlier. But now we find something new when we come to Romans 8:14. This verse tells us that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” and here the idea that we are “sons of God” appears in Romans for the first time. Verse 14 is one of those amazing verses, found often in the Bible, which is literally loaded with important teachings. We will study five of them.
The first point is a negative one: Not everyone is a member of God’s family. When Paul writes of “those who are led by the Spirit of God,” he is distinguishing between those who are led by the Spirit and those who are not led by the Spirit, which means that only a portion of humanity are God’s spiritual children. The clearest statement of this important truth is from the mouth of Jesus Christ in John 8:31-47. In those words Jesus made clear that there are two families and two fatherhoods, and that only those who love and serve God are God’s children.
This leads to the second important teaching of this verse. In fact, it is the main one: All Christians are members of God’s family. This involves a change that is radical, supernatural, and far-reaching. To become a child of God means that the individual has experienced the most radical or profound change possible. This is because, before a person becomes a child of God, he or she is not a member of God’s family but is a member of the devil’s family. It means to be delivered from sin and its judgment, to be growing in holiness, and to possess eternal life. The change is radical as passing from a state of slavery to freedom or from death to life. This change is not only radical; it’s supernatural too, which means that it is done for us from above by God. The point that it is far-reaching will be developed more as we proceed through this section, but it is important to say here that the end of this spiritual rebirth is not only deliverance from sin’s judgment – or, as many in our day seem to think, happiness now – but glorification.
So what is the practical result of this important change that has happened to us? What does being a Christian mean in one’s daily life? Here is where verse 14 provides us a third important doctrine: To be a Christian means to be led by God’s Spirit. Because our change of status has been accomplished by the Holy Spirit, who lives within every genuine Christian, being a Christian also means that we will be led by that same Spirit. In other words, it means that we will be growing in holiness increasingly. This is the way verse 14 is tied to verse 13.
The fourth important teaching in this verse tells us how we can know we are in God’s family. We are in God’s family if the Spirit of God is leading us in our daily lives. This is another way of saying that those who are Christians will necessarily live accordingly. They are on the path of discipleship. Therefore, although they may fall while walking along that path, they also inevitably get up again and go forward. They grow in holiness.
The big question still remains: How does the Holy Spirit lead us? The place to start is by recognizing that the Holy Spirit works within us or, as we might say, “internally.” Everything in the passage indicates this. So what does the Holy Spirit do internally in Christians to lead them? Let’s review three things: (1) He renews our minds. This first area in which the Holy Spirit works is the intellect, and He does this by what Paul will later call “the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12). The person who discovers, tests, and approves what God’s pleasing and perfect will is obviously is being led by God, is the mind’s renewal. How, then, are our minds to be renewed? There is only one way. It is by our reading and being taught by the Spirit from the Bible. (2) He stirs the heart. Figuratively, the heart is the seat of the emotions, and the Holy Spirit works upon it by stirring or quickening the heart to love God. Ask yourself: Do you try to please God? Do you want to spend time with Him through studying the Bible and praying? Do you seek His favor? Are you concerned for His glory? (3) He directs our wills. Just as the Spirit leads us by renewing our minds and stirring our hearts or affections, so also He leads us by redirecting and strengthening our wills. Paul speaks of this in Philippians 2:12-13. God gives us a singleness of purpose – to do His will. It is the way God works. Has your will been redirected in that way? When you look deep inside, do you find that you really want to serve God and act accordingly to His good purpose? God does not force you to be godly against your will. He changes your will by the new birth so that what you despised before you now love, and what you were indifferent to before you now find desirable.
There is one more important teaching in this potent verse, and it comes from the fact that the words we are dealing with are plural: “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Therefore: Those led by the Spirit of God are our true brothers and sisters. We are part of the same divine family. There are many differences between believers within the church of Jesus Christ. They have led to divisions in the church, for not all divisions are doctrinal. This should not be, for the text teaches that what makes other believers our brothers or sisters in Christ is not what denomination or movement they belong to, but whether or not they are being led by God’s Spirit. Anyone for whom that is true is our brother or sister in Christ, and we should recognize it and be willing to work with that person to fulfill God’s purposes.
Romans 8:12-14 Reflection Questions:
One of the most terrible things about debt is that it dominates your mind. Whatever else you might be going to think of, or plan or hope for, the fact that you’re in debt determines the way you see the world. So, why does Paul so dramatically begin by saying that we have an obligation or are in debt?
What are the privileges of being “led by the Spirit”?
How has the Holy Spirit spoken to you through this study so far?