paul and the power of the spirit

by robert brow

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).


This new look at Paul's Epistle to the Romans is written at the end of the Century of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal movement began about 1905. And by the end of the century Pentecostal congregations were still mushrooming in many parts of the world. In the sixties the charismatic movement began to touch our mainline denominations. Instead of a one male ministry, we now accept the idea, at least in theory, that a local church consists of members with many different gifts of the Spirit. In Britain the house church movement was based on the rediscovery of this pattern of congregational life.

As the century ended people flew in from all over the world to catch a new openness to the Holy Spirit from the Toronto Airport Fellowship. And hundreds of thousands of people of all ages are now attending the very intensive Alpha courses on the Holy Spirit. We do not have to approve of every detail of what has occurred in each of these movements, but the huge interest in the work of the Holy Spirit is a fact of this century.

So we begin with a question. If the Holy Spirit is so important for vital congregational life, why did Paul say so little about the subject in his major theological treatise? One answer might be that a theology of the Holy Spirit was not Paul's agenda for this epistle. Apart from chapter 8, we have only ten obvious references to the Holy Spirit (or the Spirit) scattered here and there in the rest of the epistle. But if we look at the structure of the argument a different picture begins to emerge.

paul had a model in mind

That Paul had a logical progression in mind is suggested by a series of transitions which we might translate as: "Therefore God handed them over" (1:24); "Therefore, you have no excuse" (2:1); "What therefore is the advantage of being a Jew?" (3:1); "Where therefore is the reason to boast?" (3:27); "What therefore can we say about Abraham?" (4:1); "Is this blessing therefore on the circumcised only?" (4:9); "Therefore, since we are put right by faith" (5:1); "Therefore, just as wrongness came into the world by one person" (5:12); "Therefore, just as all of us have a sense of condemnation as Adam did" (5:18); "What therefore should we say about sin?" (6:1); "Therefore, there is no reason for wrongness to reign" (6:12); "Should we say therefore that the law is sin?" (7:7); "Did the good therefore become dead to me" (7:13); "I therefore with my mind serve the law of God" (7:25); "Therefore, there is no reason for Christians to feel condemned" (8:1); "Therefore, we are not obligated to live according our instincts" (8:12); "What then can we say?" (8:31); "What then can we say ?" (9:14); "It is not therefore the one who wills" (9:16); "Therefore, he has mercy" (9:18); "Therefore will you say to me?" (9:19); "What then should we say about the nations?" (9:30); "How therefore can they call?" (10:14); "Do I therefore say?" (11:1); "Have they therefore stumbled so as to fall?" (11:11); "See therefore the kindness" (11:22); and, "Therefore, present your bodies" (12:1).

Such closely argued interconnections is evidence that Paul's logic consciously or unconsciously hangs together in a model. We cannot ask Paul face to face about the model he had in mind, and it would take a massive commentary to set out all the explanations which have been offered. Most commentators believe that Paul's logic emerges by working at the Greek text in the light of the Mediterranean background that impacted on Paul's life and thinking. We come to the epistle from a quite different direction with a model suggested by our own experience. "We have experienced the Holy Spirit as a spirit of worship, prayer, fruit and gifts. We have been made alive and creative in new ways, and the love of God has unexpectedly been poured into our hearts. We wonder, Paul, how you thought about the Spirit and how that relates to your epistle?"

a charismatic model of the church

We also come to the letter to the Romans having read Paul's earlier epistles. It was from them that we learned much of what we have experienced. 1 Corinthians has five key chapters about the Holy Spirit. In that epistle the early Christians were described as being baptized into the Holy Spirit, and their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit. For them membership in the church community was not defined by being placed on a list but by exercising a gift of the Spirit in the community. So we note that Paul had a similar model of a charismatic community in mind as he wrote the Epistle to the Romans. He referred to membership in the local church as a body , and lists seven of the same kinds of gift, and he follows this exactly as he did in the previous letter with "let love be genuine" (Romans 12:3, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31- 13:7).

the galatian disaster

It seems certain that the Epistle to the Galatians preceded the letter to the Romans. To Paul's horror the Galatians had abandoned their life in the Spirit, and gone back into the legalism of self-effort and rules. "Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (Galatians 3:2-3). In the commentary we will see how this contrast between the flesh and the Spirit is carefully explained in Romans 7:14 - 8:13.

Could it be that the trauma of the Galatian disaster prompted Paul to write Romans? Was it written to prevent other churches falling back into the heresy of merely human effort? As we proceed with the commentary we will see how many key words are treated in the same way in both epistles. In addition to the Spirit, we can list faith, law, love, hope, Abraham, circumcision, works of the flesh, crucifixion by the cross of Christ. The difference seems to be that Galatians was written in the heat of the moment. We will suggest that Romans was a very carefully thought out explanation of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit for all the churches.

We will also note the words "The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (14:17). If we take righteousness as loving the way God loves, then Romans has picked up the first three fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22. And this suggests that our empowerment for ethical behaviour is totally dependent on the Holy Spirit. The text will also throw light on problems of different lifestyles when Christians worship together. Although Paul does not mention the Holy Spirit at every point in the Epistle to the Romans, the model he used was certainly the diametric opposite of legalistic self-improvement.

the power of the spirit

Next we notice the pivotal importance of Romans 8. In the commentary we will see how the fourteen references to the Holy Spirit in that one chapter are designed to explain the power of the Spirit to overcome the flesh, give life from spiritual death in our present body, resurrection life after death, adopt us into the family of God, cope with the suffering of a creation in labour pains, pray in the Spirit, be transformed into the image of the Son of God, etc. This detailed explanation again suggests that the power of the Spirit was in Paul's mind when he structured the logic of the epistle.

It seems that the Epistle for general distribution ended in the middle of chapter 15. We can therefore omit from the logic of the argument both the covering letter that went with the epistle to Rome (15:14 -32) and the covering letter to another church (16:1-24). The logical explanation in the epistle therefore ends with Paul's blessing : "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (15:13). This concluding blessing further encourages us to view Paul's good news as the astonishing fact that God has a way for humans to be righted by grace alone for the perfect love of heaven by the Holy Spirit.

faith as looking to the power of the spirit

But surely it is faith that is the main thrust of the Epistle to the Romans ? Certainly. But we will see how for Paul faith is a direction of looking like Abraham. The supreme example of faith is his looking to God to do the impossible in his life (Romans 4:18-22, as in Hebrews 11:11)

In Galatians Paul explained that "the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit" (Galatians 4:29). That means that Ishmael was born according to the natural processes of our human life, but Isaac was conceived by the agency of the Spirit. As Mary was also told "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy" (Luke 1:35). Similarly it seems that for Paul faith is in Christ, but the power that effects change in us is the Holy Spirit.

Here we are using the single word power as a shorthand for the hundreds of different ways in which the Holy Spirit intervenes and influences our lives. He is wind filling our sails, sap producing fruit in a branch (John 15:1-5), oil in a lamp (Matthew 25:1-4), the life principle in the church as a body (1 Cor. 12:4-13), and we will see in Romans 8 how each of these activities is done very personally by the third Person of the eternal Trinity.

>From our human side inspiration is experienced by artists, composers, writers, and creative persons in many ways. For a leader there is a supernatural empowering, as with Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9) and the Old Testament Judges. A prophet finds he or she can interpret a message in tongues or a vision . A preacher is inspired to prepare a message, and the hearers find they can understand. Ordinary Christians have their minds changed, they experience the unexpected fruit of love, joy and peace, and they receive one or more gifts of the Spirit. As members of the Church as a body they on the one hand become more and more different from each other, and at the same time by the Spirit they find themselves drawn into a loving oneness.

It is not necessary to understand how the Spirit does his work, or even to name him or her correctly. In the Old Testament Abraham may not have known how the Holy Spirit would do the creative work in his own and Sarah's body. And when people do try to explain, they may use another name, as did the Greeks who pictured their creative inspiration as coming from the nine Muses. But whatever name we give, Paul will identify all holy empowerment as the power of the Holy Spirit who raised Christ's dead body from the grave.

the model applied in other sections of the epistle

The sustained argument of Paul about the power of the Spirit encourages us to see how Romans 1-3 functions as the foundation on which Paul builds the epistle. What Paul preaches is very good news (1:16). It is good news for the Greek world because they are conscious of all that has gone wrong in their civilization since the philosophers persuaded them to put God out of their mind. In the Golden Age they had hoped to attain perfection by the pursuit of wisdom, but they had experienced the bad consequences (wrath never means eternal damnation in the Old Testament) which took them down step by step into the mire of a debased mind, filled with every kind of evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, etc (1:21-32). The way out into the hope offered by Paul was by the power of God, which Paul seems to identify later in the epistle as the power of the Holy Spirit.

There is also good news for the Jews who had tried to attain perfection by legalism, and they knew how the result turned out to be a miserable hypocrisy. "While you preach against Greek stealing, adultery, and idolatry, you dishonor God by breaking the ten commandments" (2:21-24). Jesus himself had pointed out that the Pharisee pursuit of legalism had been a total failure (Matthew 23). They should have known that true circumcision for a Jew was "a matter of the heart, in the Spirit not the letter of the law" (2:1-28). As Paul had previously explained, "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything" (Galatians 6:15, see Colossians 2:11-12).

This again serves to confirm our model of early Christian faith not only as believing certain things about Jesus but looking to the mighty power of the resurrection. If this is correct, the contradiction that bothered Martin Luther is dissolved. He complained that the Epistle of James denied the doctrine of justification by faith alone with the words "Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead" (James 2:26). Without seeing a contradiction, Paul might have preferred to say that faith in Jesus without accepting the power of the Holy Spirit to work in us is as dead as a branch that is closed off to sap from a tree.

We cannot prove that Paul was thinking of the parable of the Vine and the branches. But this model will often help us through the Epistle to the Romans. Faith requires both abiding in the Vine and allowing the sap to do its work in our branch. And there is also the Father's loving agency by tending and pruning (John 15:1-5). We can imagine some people first turning to God as Father, some begin with Jesus the Son, and these days many come to faith by looking to the Holy Spirit for change in their life. The Trinitarian definition of the Nicene Creed did not emerge for three hundred years, but if our model is correct it seems Paul would have had no great difficulty with it.

The epistle to the Romans goes on to explain that the law can only show us how we are not right. But the crucifixion of Jesus and consequent outpouring of the Spirit offers a way for both Greeks and Jews, and in fact people of all nations, to receive the good news of being righted by the Spirit for the perfect love of heaven. We will see how Paul quotes the good news of this outpouring in the Old Testament prophets through the Messiah from the line of David.

Romans 9 to 11 has often been discussed as a problematic insertion that has no connection with the doctrine of justification by faith. Our model will help us see how Paul's concern for his own Jewish people fits into the logical progression of the epistle. A key text will explain what went wrong . "Being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4,5). This exactly sums up the theme of the epistle. The opposite of seeking to put ourselves right by our own efforts is the faith to allow God to put us right by the power of the Spirit.

commitment to a model

A good model should have an inner logical consistency. Scientists also say a model should be elegant, and it will have heuristic power to guide us into new insights. Then if a new model solves more problems than other models, we may come to a point of conversion when we decide to adopt and live by it. Meanwhile nothing is lost by exploration, and even if we prefer our previous model it can be illuminated by looking at another from a radically different point of view.

But whatever model we use in the arts and sciences, and most of all in theology, we know it can never capture the full complexity of what it pictures. New York for example can be pictured by a map of the subway system, an elevated plaster model of Manhattan, or a tourist guide to all the sights. Each of these will give us new insights, but none can pick up the faith, and life and loves of any one of its people.

So we proceed to an exploration of the Epistle to the Romans with our model very consciously in mind. That will give us a rather narrow focus, and the reader should not expect detailed exegetical explanations, for example of how Paul's alluded to Old Testament texts. A critical commentary such as James D.G.Dunn's two volume Word Biblical Commentary on Romans, 1988, required 976 pages! Our more limited aim is to see how Paul's letter could be illuminated by looking at it in the light of our century's experience of the power of the Holy Spirit.

chapter 1...

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