Sonship, Spiritual Formation, and Eschatology: A Reading of Romans 8:12-17

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The initial basis for looking into Romans 8:12-17 was due to an interest in Paul’s use of “adoption” (huiothesia) in his Christian application of a legal technical term. Paul’s use of the term is not limited to Romans (8:15, 23; 9:4) for it is also found in the letters to the Galatian (4:5) and the Ephesian (1:5) Christians. This is the combined data of Paul’s use of the term in particular and in the New Testament in general.

In Romans 8:15 Paul assures his readers that they had received “a spirit of adoption”; similarly, but with a different nuance, in Galatians 4:5 Paul writes of an “adoption” dependent upon the redemptive work of Jesus as he frees those under the law (4:4). In Ephesians, Paul again establishes the connection between “adoption” and Jesus; specifically, the saints are to understand their “adoption” was preordained and accomplished through Jesus (1:5). However, in Romans 8:23 “adoption” is something yet to come when the body will be delivered. Lastly, Romans 9:4 calls attention to the fact that “adoption” is a possession of the Israelites along with “the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (cf. Exod 4:22).

It appears that “adoption” is an important term in Paul’s argumentation in Romans to explain sonship which belonged to Israel “according to the flesh” (9:5), but belongs also to “the children of the promise” (9:8). Nevertheless, the limited use of huiothesia demonstrates that “adoption” has a specialized context of application and is not widely used by other New Testament authors. Although huiothesia holds a striking image which reflects the full inclusion of the Christian into the family of God with all its benefits, a reading of Romans 8:12-17 demonstrates that “sonship” (huiothesia, huioi theou, tekna theou) requires spiritual formation (8:13) with a view to a joint glorification with Jesus (8:17).

There are many subordinate points to be sure; however, these three generalizations serve as a critical bridge to carry Paul’s argument further from Romans 8:1-11 to 8:18 which continues a discussion about living in the spirit (contra kata sarka 8:5) and anticipating a “glory that is to be revealed to us.” These points will be borne out in the translation and reading prepared below.

Translation of Romans 8:12-17

[12] So then, brothers, we are not debtors to the flesh (namely, to live according to the flesh). [13] For if you live according to the flesh then you are destined to die, but if you put to death, by the Spirit, the deeds of the body, then you will keep yourself alive. [14] For all who are led by God’s Spirit, these are God’s sons. [15] For you have not received again a spirit of slavery towards fearfulness, but you received a spirit of adoption in which we cry out: “Abba-Father!” [16] The Spirit testifies along with our spirit that we are God’s children, [17] and if we are children, then we are heirs as well –on the one hand, God’s heirs, and on the other hand, joint heirs with Christ– if, after all, we suffer together in order that we may share in glory.

Exegesis and Reading of Romans 8:12-17

According to the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland text, Paul begins this with the strengthened phrase Ara oun (“so then”), which is a combination of two “inferential conjunctions”[1] designed to link it with the preceding rhetoric written against living kata sarka. In Romans, Ti oun (3:1, 9; 4:1; 6:1, 15; 7:7, 13; 8:31; 9:14) or oun (5:1; 6:12; 11:1, 11; 12:1) are used to string large sections of questions and rhetoric along;[2] moreover, ara appears in the letter in its basic function as an inferential particle (“So” 7:21; “therefore” 8:1).[3]

Interestingly, Ara oun marks significant shifts to capture both the inference and the transition in the text (5:18; 7:3, 25b; 8:12; 9:16, 18; 14:12, 19).[4] Consequently, Paul is doing two things in 8:12. He is affirming an inference while transitioning his argument forward to oppose living kata sarka: “brothers, we are not debtors to the flesh (namely, to live according to the flesh)” (8:12).[5]

In reading opheiletai esmen ou te sarki Paul’s main point is established; namely, “we are not debtors with reference to the flesh.” Daniel B. Wallace states that opheiletai is a verbal-noun of personal interest formed from its cognate verb opheilo (“I owe”) which requires the dative to complete its thought (te sarki); moreover, te sarki also limits the state of the subject and verb (“we are not debtors”) which suggests this is a Dative of Reference, or Dative of Respect.[6] The next clause tou kata sarka zen is translated parenthetically because it appears best understood epexegetically.

Stanley E. Porter makes two helpful points. First, Porter writes, “when an infinitive is used as part of a prepositional phrase, this syntactical construction must be taken seriously.” Second, when the infinitive follows tou it may function “epexegetical or appositional.”[7] Since the infinitive draws out the meaning of “we are not debtors to with reference to the flesh,” it seems best to regard it epexegetical and parenthetical. This is in complete accord with his argument in Romans 8:5-8.

At this point the reader is directed (gar) to a series of cohesive conditional statements, marked off with ei, which portray the curse of living according to the flesh (8:13a) and the blessing received when led by the Spirit of God (i.e. spiritual formation; 8:13b-15). It is important to rehearse that conditional statements are two clauses which are combined to portray a contingency; they are not necessarily portrayals of reality.[8]

Usually, the first clause contains the contingency under consideration (protasis); meanwhile, the second clause is a statement – the portrayal – about what will happen, or not happen, should the contingent action occur (apodosis). In 8:13a, then, eikata sarka zete, mellete apothneskein, is a portrayal of the contingent curse upon unfaithful Christians: “if you live according to the flesh” (contingent), then “you are destined to die” (portrayal). There exists a cause and effect relationship portrayed in this conditional statement: death will occur if one lives fleshly. Wallace debates the idea of whether this should be viewed exclusively spiritual or literal. Although he is probably right to lean towards a literal view, this is not a grammatical question. Nevertheless, sin is accompanied with both a physical and spiritual curse of death (Gen 3:3; Rom 5:12, 6:23).

In Romans 8:13b, the text reads: ei de pneumati tas praxeis tou somatos[9] thanatoute, zesesthe. The de provides a hint that the forthcoming text is adversative but not so strong it is unrelated to the previous words. This is quite helpful, since the contingency under consideration, “if you put to death, by the Spirit, the deeds of the body,” is designed to counter life kata sarka. The verb thanatoute (“you [pl.] put to death”) is an active verb, which is significant for an understanding of how the dative pneumati functions in the apodosis. Initially, one must consider if the Dative is of Agency or of Means.

There is a key to distinguish between the two, though both, as Porter observes, “label a relationship by which (normally) a thing (and occasionally a person) brings about or enters into an action with respect to something else.”[10] The main key is found in the verb thanatoute, being a present active verb, which places the burden of the action (“I kill”) upon Paul’s readers not upon the Spirit. In order for the dative pneumati to be a “clear” grammatical demonstration of agency, Wallace states the verb must be perfect passive.[11] The protasis reads, then, “if you put to death, by means of the Spirit, the deeds of the body.” As in the previous conditional statement (13a), there is no structural marker establishing the “then” clause (apodosis); however, the semantics of the construction is obvious. The middle verb Zesesthe completes the “if-then” clause, portraying the effect: “you will keep yourself alive.” The reader should understand there is a cause and effect relationship portrayed in this conditional statement: The Christian’s life will be kept, if the Christian employs the instrumentality of the Spirit to kill off the body’s “sinful” actions. Clearly the Christian participates in their spiritual formation when they embrace the life-giving relationship of the Spirit.[12]

The reader is directed (gar) again to a series of cohesive statements (8:14-15) which provide reassurance to Christians regarding their inclusion into the Father’s family. Verse 14 appears to be an implied conditional statement since the grammatical markers are lacking to introduce the contingent clause.[13] If this is the case, there may be an ambiguity which is at play in the text. The verse reads: hosoi gar pneumati theou agontai, houtoi huioi theou eisin (“for all who are led by God’s Spirit, these are God’s sons”). In the assumption of an implied contingency, “If you are all led by God’s Spirit,” is followed by, “then, you are God’s sons.” Or, as Wallace states the converse, “If you are the sons of God, you are led by the Spirit.”[14] In either case, what is at the core in this implied contingency is spiritual formation (as “sons of God”) not conversion.

Moses E. Lard, taking eisin in a durative sense, translates and observes: “these remain sons of God. For the Apostle is not speaking of originally becoming sons, but of continuing such.”[15] The means by which this occurs is stated in the present passive + Dative of Means clause, pneumati theou agontai. The agent of Christian spiritual formation is, then, God’s Spirit – not the deeds of the body (tas praxeis tou somatos) or the flesh (sarka).

In verse 15, then, Paul extends (gar) this argument to further intertwine spiritual formation with the assurance of sonship: ou gar elabete pneuma douleias palin eis phobon alla elabete pneuma huiothesias en ho kradzomen: abba ho pater (“For you have not receive again a spirit of slavery towards fearfulness, but you received a spirit of adoption in which we cry out: Abba-Father”). In both cases of the aorist active elabete, the verb functions in a culminative sense (resultative, perfective, effective aorist), which places a “slight emphasis” upon “the conclusion or the results of the completed action.”[16]

Particularly is this true with verbs having roots which “signify effort or attempt or intention or process, and it indicates the completion or attainment of such things.”[17] In the first instance, elabete is modified by the negative particle ou and the adverb palin; whereas pneuma douleias is the condition (“benefit”) not received.[18] On the contrary (alla), Paul affirms the conclusive nature of what they have received: pneuma huiothesias. This is a statement regarding a status change. Christians are not merely “slaves” who had been freed from the servitude to sin (manumission) but are huioi theou, because they have received pneuma huiothesias. There is a logical connection between pneuma huiothesias and the prepositional phrase (taking the dative) en ho and the governing dynamic of their outcry (kradzomen). Does en ho suggest “within” (Locative), located “within the sphere of influence, control…” (Spherical), or is it manner or cause (Instrumental)?[19]

Despite the overlap in many respects, Dative of Sphere – an extension of the Locative – retains the emphasis of the Spirit’s influence. The result is spectacular for the content of the Christian outcry is: abba ho pater.[20] This is where spiritual formation and sonship/adoption interlock; namely, in affirmation.

The Christian not only affirms sonship, but “the Spirit himself” (auto to pneuma) is involved in affirming the Christian’s status before God. Paul writes: auto to pneuma summarturei to pneumati hemon hoti esmen tekna theou (8:16). The verse emphasizes the Spirit’s identity with the predicate construction auto to pneuma (cf. Rom 8:26).[21] The Spirit is involved in affirming “we are God’s children” (esmen tekna theou). There is no question Whom the subject of the verb is; however, there is a question regarding the relationship between the verb summarturei (“he testifies” to/for) and the dative-genitive construction to pneumati hemon (“to/for our spirit”).[22]

On the one hand, the Spirit’s testimony may be viewed in terms of Dative of Association which renders the reading “the Spirit testifies alongside with our spirit”; on the other hand, maintaining the dative-genitive as the indirect object the reading is “the Spirit testifies to our spirit.” Wallace states that grammatically, Dative of Association is usually based upon verbs compounded with sun but this is not an exhaustive rule. The reason being, sun may also be intensive rather than associative. Wallace, following Cranfield, recoils at the notion of the associative since the Christian spirit “has no right at all to testify” along with the Spirit.[23] This is a theological exacerbation of the grammar. Trevor Burke responds, “the compound verb… with the dative expression would more naturally mean ‘bears witness with our spirit’ as two witnesses linked together indicating that we are God’s sons.”[24] It would seem consistent with the movement of the overall thrust of the passage that the Spirit’s leading crescendos in a united confirmation (“The Spirit itself testifies along with our spirit”).

Adoptive sonship is at the heart of verses 16-17, so much so that Paul transitions from huioi theou (“God’s sons”) to tekna theou (“God’s children”) after assuring his Christian readers they have received pneuma huiothesias (“the spirit of adoption”). The transition is significant and is the basis for the eschatological conclusion of this segment of Romans 8, picked up in verse 18. The text, structured semantically as a conditional sentence,[25] reads: ei de teknakai kleronomoi: kleronomoi men theou, sungkleronomoi de Christou, eiper sumpaschomen hina kai sundoxasthomen. As in verse 13b, de is adversative but not so strong it is unrelated to the previous words. In fact, it further develops the argument from the previous verse with the conditional clause: “if we are children [tekna], then we are heirs as well.” The protasis is evidential not causal, and the apodosis is inferential not effectual; moreover, heirs as children is further explained: “on the one hand, God’s heirs, and on the other hand, joint heirs with Christ.”

Paul concludes this pericope with an intensive form of ei (eiper) meaning “if indeed, if after all, since, if it is true that.”[26] The strength of the closing clause is in its eschatological connection. Spiritual formation through the Spirit, and adoptive sonship with its inheritance, are connected to a joint-glorification through suffering: “if after all we suffer together in order that we will share[27] in glory.”

Concluding Words

Romans 8:12-17 is a tremendous contribution to the Gospel’s appropriation of all those freed from the lordship of sin and redeemed by the blood of Jesus. Where they were once flesh led, now Christians are Spirit led. Where once they were outside of the family of God, they are made adopted sons and confirmed as children with an inheritance. Christians are given the resources through the Spirit to use “death” to kill the deeds of the body in order to have life. The Spirit provides the context for spiritual formation. The model of slavery and emancipation from slavery were probably very vivid the Roman Christians, but perhaps the most eye opening is God taking former slaves and embracing them as members of his own household as sons and children. This is not a token adoption, but a full investment complete with inheritance, making the Christian a joint heir with Christ in suffering and glorification.


  1. Archibald T. Robertson and W. Hersey Davis, A New Short Grammar of the Greek Testament, 10th ed. (1933; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1979), 317.
  2. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 305.
  3. BDAG 103.
  4. BDAG 104; Robertson and Davis, New Short Grammar, 317.
  5. Unless specified the translation used in the body of this paper is that of the author.
  6. James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979), 36; Harvey E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1957), 85.
  7. Porter, Idioms, 198.
  8. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 680-87.
  9. The Nestle-Aland textual apparatus notes the variant reading: tes sarkos. Although there is some antiquity to the variant reading, and some linguistic consistency (sarx); in keeping with the more difficult reading which would require such a scribal adjustment, tou somatos is viewed as the best wording.
  10. Porter, Idioms, 99.
  11. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 163-166. Wallace concedes that a passive verb would be sufficient.
  12. The two conditional sentences portray the outcomes of the two paths of spiritual formation. Living kata sarka leads to death, but living pneumati maintains life by killing sin at its source tas praxeis tou somatos. This is in keeping with Paul’s overall argument in Romans 8: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (ESV).
  13. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 685-86.
  14. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 686.
  15. Moses E. Lard, Commentary on Romans (1875; repr., Delight, AR: Gospel Light, n.d.), 264.
  16. Brooks and Winbery, Syntax, 100.
  17. Brooks and Winbery, Syntax, 100.
  18. This is an adamant declaration: “you are not slaves again for you have been freed from sin” (cf. Rom 6.17-18).
  19. Porter, Idioms, 156-58.
  20. Robertson and Davis, New Short Grammar, 215. Robertson calls this idiomatic construction, “The Articular Nominative as Vocative”; meaning, a “vocative of address” is formed in the nominative yet its case is vocative.
  21. Porter, Idioms, 120; Dana and Mantey, Manual Grammar, 129
  22. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 160
  23. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 159
  24. Trevor J. Burke, “Adoption and the Spirit in Romans 8,” EQ 70.4 (1998): 322.
  25. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 683.
  26. Porter, Idioms, 209; Barclay M. Newman, Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1993), 53; Dana and Mantey, Manual Grammar, 262; Richard J. Goodrich and Albert L. Lukaszewski, A Reader’s Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 344.
  27. Brooks and Winbery, Syntax, 103. The grammatical reading of the passage takes the aorist passive verb as “I am glorified with,” but the hina and the anticipation inherent in the clause would suggest the aorist is functioning as a Futuristic Aorist.