Live and Let Die (Romans 8:13)
by René Lopez
Live and Let Die is the title of one of the most famous James Bond (007) movies. As every Bond-enthusiast knows, those movies are filled with espionage, international intrigue, death, and of course ultimate victory for the good guy, James Bond, who always lives to fight crime another day.
At the beginning of the movie the British Intelligence challenges Bond to accept a risky mission. If completed successfully, it will bring a better quality of life. But if he fails, death will come to many. Bond has a choice, which will dramatically change his life forever.
In much the same way, Paul issues a challenge in Rom 8:13, “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.”
Undoubtedly this concept is important to Paul for he discusses it in 6:9-10, 16 and 8:2, 6.
Commentators, almost unanimously, see death and life as dependent on one’s choice to “put to death the deeds of the body.” But, what exactly does Paul mean by death and life in Rom 8:13? Does one have to “put to death the deeds of the body” (i.e., live a sanctified life) to have eternal life?
The Common Understanding:
You Will Die Spiritually
Most in the Reformed tradition view one who lives according to the flesh as unregenerate. While believers may commit fleshly acts, they cannot be governed by a lifestyle of sin.1 This only proves such a person was never saved. Thus he will die spiritually instead of living eternally. Douglas Moo acknowledges the problem: “This problem is basic to Reformed theology.” But, he still believes that “Paul insists that what God has done for us in Christ is the sole and final grounds for our eternal life at the same time as he insists on the indispensability of holy living as the precondition for attaining that life.”2
Arminians view it as follows: Paul’s exhortation to live according to the flesh expresses a real warning to believers to live holy by putting to death the desires and inclinations of Adam’s nature. Otherwise, a believer will not remain a son and will die eternally.3
In both views works play a significant role in one’s eternal destiny.4
An Alternative Understanding:
You Will Die Physically
There are numerous arguments against both of the former views.
First, both of the previous views ignore the context which describes the believer’s victory over sin through the power of the Spirit.
Second, Paul’s plural pronoun you refers to the preceding noun brethren in v 12, who, according to the use of the term in the Epistle (except 9:3), are clearly believers.
Third, 7:7-24 and 8:1-12 demonstrate the possibility of a regenerate person living after the flesh. Not once does Paul imply that the one who lives according to the flesh will not get into the kingdom.
Fourth, the verb translated “put to death” involves an ongoing work to mortify the deeds of the body (i.e., sinful inclinations, cf. 6:6). Elsewhere Paul shows how believers ought to continuously “present” (imperative, 6:12, 16) themselves as those who have been set free from the bondage of their evil inclinations (cf. 6:11, 13; 12:1; 13:14). Logically, since these acts involve works, Paul cannot contradict himself (cf. 3:21–4:25; Eph 2:8-9) and Scripture (John’s Gospel; Acts 16:31) which both teach that justification/eternal life results from faith alone in Christ alone.
Fifth, Paul’s use of the terms die and live convey temporal (rather than eternal) truths which result from sin and obedience respectively. For example, sin produces various forms of death here and now. Believers can experience physical death due to sin (1 Cor 11:30; 1 John 5:16; Jas 5:19-20). Sin can bring upon mental distress and guilt (psychological death, 1 Sam 15–16; Ps 51:2-9). Also, fellowship with others (1 Cor 5–6:12) and Christ (1 John 1:5-10) can be lost (social death) on account of sin. On the other hand, obedient acts of honesty and fidelity can produce various blessings:
- Physical longevity (Ps 119:144; Prov 4:4; 7:2; 15:27; Eph 6:3; Jas 1:21).
- Psychological wellness (Ps 69:32).
- An abundant quality of a life of fellowship (John 10:10; 15:11).
Sixth, and most importantly, both the Reformed and Arminian views are antithetical to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone (Rom 3:21–4:25).
Paul urges Christians to seek the best in life through obedience and the power of a Spirit-led life.
The issue in Rom 8:13 is not assurance of eternal life, but sanctification and well being. If you long for a life overflowing with meaning and significance, live according to the Spirit. To really live you must put your old self to death over and over again.
Do you long for an abundant life? It is yours for the taking—just live and let die!
1Douglass Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 494.
3Robert L. Shank, Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1960), 112, 144.
4Grant R. Osborne, Romans (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 203; Moo, 494-95.