Life in the New Covenant, according to Romans

[The following thoughts are taken from my new commentary on Romans in the Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo, to be published in 2015 by Ediciones Kairós. It is also available in pdf forms as a small book, How to Live the Christian Life – in the right-hand column look under “Four of my books”.]

A “paradigm shift” is not simply coming up with new answers to the same old problems; rather, it involves reworking one’s assumptions and attempting to reframe the questions. For example, the apostle Paul grew up under one paradigm, that the people of God was constituted by the covenant God made with Abraham and the Law given to Moses. That meant that the Israelite was automatically one of God’s own, unless he or she came to reject God’s Law; and that non-Israelites could be saved if only they converted to Judaism. They believed that the Holy Spirit would come upon Israel, but only in the future kingdom, when God would establish a New Covenant with his people.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul offers sweeping paradigm shifts: one of them appears in Rom 5:5 – “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” This means that one cannot begin to understand the gospel without taking the New Covenant and the gift of the Spirit as the basis for the Christian life. He had hinted at this new element somewhat abstractly in Rom 2:14-15, that Gentiles could do what the Torah requires – that is, the life of love that is the goal of the Torah (Rom 13:10).

The new element is the gift of the Spirit in the New Covenant, predicted in the prophets and now brought to fruition in this age. Jesus said that by shedding his blood he was initiating that covenant (1 Cor 11:24-25), and Paul self-identifies as a minister of that same covenant (2 Cor 3:6). It is the basis for transformation of believers in this age (1 Thess 4:9-10).

new covenant image

All this to say that in place of the old paradigm, which divided the world into Israelites and non-Israelites, the gospel places everyone in “those in Christ, who by definition have the Spirit” and those who are not: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Rom 8:9). We are not “saved by faith, sanctified by works”; far from it! Rather, those with the Spirit find themselves not only enabled but also propelled to walk in holiness, beginning with the power to love truly.

All of this shifting of paradigms might escape the attention of today’s Christian reader of Romans, who is accustomed to see references to the Spirit and his transforming power in the Bible and in life. But for people in the first century, the ancient prophecies about the New Covenant in the Spirit were end-time events, not for life in the here and now. Yes, Paul can still say that this same New Covenant will bring about the eschatological transformation of “all Israel” at the end of the age: “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (Rom 11:27).

But at the same time, all Christians are in the now time experiencing this covenant as predicted in the prophets: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31:33, quoted in Heb 8:8). Ezekiel 36:22-28 contains a reference to the gift of God’s Spirit and also the sprinkling of purifying water; these are the two elements that underlie Jesus’ teaching that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Jesus also taught that “the hour is coming, and is now here (!), when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (or better, “in the Spirit and in truth” or “truly, that is, through the Spirit”; see John 4:23-24). Thus, another important prediction (Joel 2:28-32) is now fulfilled on Pentecost, and the falls upon all believers in Jesus (Acts 2:16-21).

What is lacking from the prophetic passages above is any thought that Gentile believers would experience the New Covenant, the forgiveness of their sins, the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit of prophecy, the guidance of God in righteousness. That provided an opening for some opponents of Paul, the Judaizers, to argue that non-Jewish believers could not simply declare their trust in Jesus and be saved; rather, they had to in effect convert to Judaism, taking the rite of circumcision and pledging themselves to obey the 613 rules of the Law.

This is why it is important for Paul to demonstrate that the gift of the Spirit stands prior to anything else in the Christian walk (see Gal 3:1-6). Galatians 5 and Romans 8 show that the Christian life is a life in the Spirit, and that if anyone tries to blend the Spirit and the Torah for power to live the holy life, the whole affair will fall to pieces: a Torah or ethics directed Christian, no matter what the brand of legalism, is inevitably a spiritual failure. If God himself promised that “you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezek 36:25) – the very evils the Gentiles inevitably fall into (Rom 1:23, 24) – then it becomes ridiculous to argue that they would be better if only they would follow the hundreds of statutes of Torah in order to keep them on the narrow path.

But no – step by step it became clear to the apostles that non-Israelites could be saved through faith, manifested when they received the Spirit of holiness – “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:8-9). This leaves us with the power of God, and also the serious yet joyful responsibility to carry out his wishes: “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom 8:12-14).

“Life in the New Covenant, according to Romans,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

6 thoughts on “Life in the New Covenant, according to Romans

  1. I have shared this piece on the Spirit with virtually all my email list. Simple point but profound, obvious (or ought to be) but so often missed or not fully appreciated. Thank you. Those who have the Spirit and those who do not — the great divide. Thank you.

    1. Thanks David, many blessings! It is also available in pdf forms as a small book, How to Live the Christian Life – in the right-hand column look under “Four of my books”.

  2. How much time do you have?, I don’t want to abuse you and take up your time.

    If you have the time and the interest I want to ask you what you think about Jeremiah, chapters 50 and 51. What do you think?

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