justification in Romans

POWER LEADING TO LIFE: A SHORT COMMENTARY ON JUSTIFICATION IN ROMANS

“God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5)

The overarching theme of Romans (chapters 1-8) is POWER leading to LIFE. Thus Paul says at Romans 1:16:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”

This POWER flows from Christ’s resurrection:

“[Jesus] who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4).

The general condition of humanity before the Gospel is powerlessness, both for Jew and Gentile. “We have already brought the charge against Jew and Greek alike that they are under the domination of sin” (Romans 3:9). Even compliance with the “works of the law” in the Old Testament economy is insufficient for justification: “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

Our reconciliation and justification comes from faith in Jesus Christ (chapters 4-5). “At the appointed time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us godless men” (Romans 5:6). This justification by faith flows not only from Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death, but also from the power flowing from his resurrection! “Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

Moreover, flowing from this gift of justifying faith is HOLY SPIRIT POWER! “We have gained access by faith to the grace in which we now stand, and we boast of our hope for the glory of God….And this hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Paul then asks: does this grace of justification give us immunity from sin?, to which he essentially answers: HELL NO! “Are we to say, ‘Let us continue in sin that grace may abound?’ Certainly not!” (Romans 6:1-2). Why is this? Because through faith we have been baptized into the sin-forgiving death of Jesus and the new life giving resurrection of Jesus. “Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life” (Romans 6:4). “Do not, therefore, let sin rule your mortal body” (Romans 6:12).

We then come to chapter seven of Romans where we encounter this mysterious, representative man who is struggling so mightily with the power of sin in his flesh. He cries out: “For I do not what I want, but the very thing I hate (7:15), and, “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (7: 21). Is Paul speaking of himself here, or of Israel, or of the “universal plight of all men” (ICSB)? Whichever the case may be, the powerlessness this man feels in the flesh (in his human weakness) has a solution: it is the HOLY SPIRIT who will give him – give us – victory over sin through our new life in the Spirit!

The flesh may be weak, but the Holy Spirit is POWER! And as Paul foreshadowed at Romans 5:5, the Holy Spirit has been given to us! We are not on our own in our fight against sin. We have a most powerful ally: the indwelling Holy Spirit. Here is the solution to the man’s problem in Romans 7: through faith in Jesus Christ, received in baptism, we have access to the Holy Spirit.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:24-25). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (8:1-2).

And if you think Paul is being subtle in pointing out the Holy Spirit as the solution to this man’s problem, think again! In chapter 8 of Romans, Paul makes reference to the Holy Spirit some 18 times! He uses the didactic method of repetition in order to drill into our minds that we have victory over sin in the power of the Holy Spirit! The following verses are representative:

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life  because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of  his Spirit who lives in you.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8: 5-14).

Conclusion: Do you know why St. Paul never allows even a shade of unethical conduct in his Epistles? Because the Holy Spirit empowers you to lead a holy life. Paul is utterly taken up by the reality of the Christian life. He is ablaze to the core with the Holy Spirit. The hero of the Christian life is the Holy Spirit. His full power has been unleashed, as Paul points out, by Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is a radical quality of Christian morality. God has given you the Holy Spirit! This is a supernatural reality made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a reality perceived by faith, and received in baptism. Holiness is a POWER. The Gospel has come to you in POWER! You are justified, you are set right with God, because Jesus has given you access to the full power of the Holy Spirit, who gives you victory over sin, because of His indwelling, sanctifying presence in your soul. The power of the Holy Spirit is the principle of LIFE! The death and resurrection of Jesus is therefore the engine which carries us along to the state of justification. “Romans 8 unveils the solution to the problem laid out in Romans 7. It is a divine solution orchestrated by the Trinity. The Father sent the Son to redeem the world from sin (8:3) and sent the Spirit to raise the world from death to new life (8:9-13)” (ICSB). See the source for this conclusion under References below.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: As you can see, I am relying on the notes in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. But primarily I am relying on notes I typed up years ago from a class on the Epistles of Saint Paul. I don’t even remember the name of the professor, but the entire conclusion above, and the whole theme of power leading to life, and of the Holy Spirit being the hero of the Christian life, comes directly from his lectures, and the notes I took. He was a Jewish convert, teaching at the St. Mary’s Campus in Orchard Lake Village, MI. Finally, I have also relied extensively on Dr. Scott Hahn’s excellent audio series on Romans.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism:

‘But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus’ [Romans 6: 8-11].

Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself:

‘[God] gave himself to us through his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature. . . . For this reason, those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized’ [Saint Athanasius].”   (nos. 1987-1988)

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