The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:9-11

By Shawn Paul Sauve

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Imagine that you are driving in your car and listening to Dr. Norman Geisler who is a guest on a national Christian radio program. Geisler says that when the Bible speaks of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it is not talking about location but relationship. Geisler explains:

"…people speak in spatial terms instead of relational terms. The Holy Spirit is not located inside of anything--like pouring water in a jar or something--the Holy Spirit is first of all infinite. You cannot get an ‘infinite’ into finite space. Secondly, the Holy Spirit is a spirit; he doesn't have molecules where you can put molecules here and molecules there. So people are thinking in materialistic terms and they simply don't know theology. The doctrine of the ‘omnipresence’ of God is that God is everywhere present--not that He's ‘in it’ but He is ‘at it;’ not that He's contained in it, but He's present to it. If they knew basic theology they wouldn't make these mistakes…. In the Bible it refers to the Holy Spirit being ‘in’ us. Solomon prayed, ‘Lord, the heavens can't contain you, how much this temple?’ If you can't get God in the Solomonic temple, you are certainly not going to get Him contained in a human body." (1) You may be thinking, "Wow! Dr. Geisler doesn’t believe that the Holy Spirit indwells believers?" As you continue listening, a man named "Dan from Westminster, MD" calls the show and asks Geisler the question you have been asking, "In regards to your comments on the Holy Spirit being ‘in’ us, I was wondering how that would relate to the verse that says, ‘If we abide in Him, and He abides in us...’" To which Geisler responds: "There is no question that He abides in us and we abide in Him, the question is what the ‘in’ means. Is that ‘in’ a spatial term or a relational term? I don't think the point is getting across clearly because we are not denying that the Holy Spirit is in us, or that we are in Christ or that Christ is in us or that my wife is in me and I am in my wife, spiritually... We use those as relational terms. When I say my wife is in my heart--I carry her in my heart and she carries me in her heart--I am not spatially located inside her heart, nor she in mine. It is a relational term." (2) At this point you may be wondering whether Dr. Geisler is equivocating over the plain meaning of words. After all, "in" mean in, doesn’t it? In the next few minutes let’s look at one of the principle Scriptures that discusses the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:9-11 reads:
9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.

10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.
11 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 through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Interestingly, Paul begins this chapter with a statement about believers being "in Christ Jesus." In Romans he makes this same statement three other times in 6:11, 6:23, 12:5. Is Paul saying that we as believers are physically located spatially in Christ Jesus? No, Paul is employing a figure of speech here that indicates that we have a relationship with Jesus. He then uses that same figure of speech in verses 9-11 to indicate our relationship with the Holy Spirit. That Paul is employing a figure of speech is more obvious in the NASB than the NIV because verses 8 and 9 in the Greek also use a similar figurative phrase "in the flesh" to indicate our relationship to the sin nature. Douglas Moo of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School concurs that Paul is using metaphorical speech here. (3) Concerning the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Ernest Käsemann describes Paul's phraseology as "obviously rhetorical." He says that for the believer to say that he or she "possess[es] the heavenly" is a "gross misunderstanding." Rather, the opposite is true, "Christ possesses them." (4)

Paul and other New Testament writers utilize these same figures of speech in other writings (cf. 1Cor 3:12-17, 6:15-20; 2Tim 1:13-14; John 14:16-21). The use of the word "in" to indicate relationship is particularly striking in John 14 where Jesus says that, "I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you." Given the context of their use they should be interpreted as indicating relationship.

Now, having determined that Paul is speaking of relationship in Romans 8:9-11, what is the point of what Paul is trying to say? Romans 8:9-11 must be viewed within Paul's over-arching purpose for the epistle to the Romans. This purpose is to present the gospel message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ and the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the believer's life. In the epistle Paul builds on the theme of righteousness (dikaiosyne) from a righteousness that is imputed to the believer through faith in Christ to a righteousness that is realized in the life of the believer. Romans 8:9-11 represents this realization of righteousness in the practice of righteousness through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

The subject matter of Romans 8:9-11 must be considered in light of the context of chapters 5-8. Chapter 5 addresses the predicament of the nonbeliever and the resolution to the problem of sin and death through the sacrifice of Christ. In chapter 6 Paul makes it clear that the gospel of grace is not a license for sin, but the response of the believer to the free gift of salvation is a life that pursues holiness. Lest he be misunderstood to be saying that a believer is fully and completely sanctified in this life, Paul indicates in chapter 7 that sin is something with which a believer continues to struggle.

Chapter 8 is then a culmination for Paul of the concepts he has presented in the preceding three chapters. The believer is not controlled by the sin nature, but is controlled by the Holy Spirit who lives in the believer. To have the Holy Spirit is equated with belonging to Christ and to not have the Holy Spirit is equated with not belonging to Christ. The body of the believer is dead (or in a state of dying) because of sin but at the same time the Holy Spirit produces righteousness in the believer.

Paul sets forth the antithesis of Holy Spirit control in verse 8, which states, "Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God." In this context Romans 8:9-11 responds to the antithesis of Holy Spirit control by saying of believers, "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit" (Vs. 9). Paul's statement that the Holy Spirit controls the believer is a statement that is based on the conditional prerequisite, "if the Spirit of God lives in you" (Vs. 9). Thus, the believer is not only "in Christ" (Vs. 1) but the Holy Spirit is also "in you." This is not a unilateral relationship that the believer has with God, but it is a bilateral relationship where the believer gives his/her all to God and God infuses the believer with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul's choice of words that describe the believer's relationship with the Holy Spirit by saying that the Holy Spirit "lives in you" (Vs. 9, 11) is particularly interesting given Paul's emphasis on the manner in which the believer should live in this chapter. It is as though Paul is saying that the believer can live a life "according to the Spirit" rather than "according to the sinful nature" (Vs. 4), but that this can only be done if the Holy Spirit is the One who is living that life through the believer. Paul indicates that the Holy Spirit in believers, "give[s] life to your mortal bodies" (Vs. 11), and Paul continues this thought in verse 12 by saying that this life giving power of the Holy Spirit gives believers "an obligation" to not live according to the sinful nature.

Despite Paul's emphasis on the present work of the Holy Spirit, he also indicates a future bodily resurrection and glorification in which the Holy Spirit will "give life to your mortal bodies" (vs. 11). The believer’s ultimate hope is that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so shall we also rise in the future. At the same time, our justification before God is not simply a forensic legal justification, but the Holy Spirit is actively sanctifying us and making us alive at this present time.

Now, we’ve taken a look at Romans 8:9-11 and we’ve talked about what it means and what it doesn’t mean. And that brings us to the really critical question, so what? What does this mean for me today? Well, Paul makes it clear that the believer is a person who is not controlled by the sin nature, and while they do continue to sin they do not sin like they did before they entered a relationship with Christ. C.K. Barrett notes, "Christians are men whose lives are directed from a source outside themselves." (5) James Dunn states that the believer has a "change in orientation and motive centers." (6) The sin nature becomes less influential as the work of the Holy Spirit becomes more influential. Since the believer is controlled by the Holy Spirit there must be evidence of increasingly righteousness behavior in someone that is truly a believer. The absence of such evidence would cause us to question whether someone was a believer in name only and in mere self-profession.

Romans 8 is a chapter that speaks to the assurance of salvation and offers comfort and security, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (vs. 1). However, this assurance does not suggest untested presumption. The assurance is based on belonging to Christ and possessing the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Before claiming the assurance presented by Paul, we need to make sure that we exhibit the character traits of those who meet the condition for this assurance. To claim the assurance of Romans 8 without demonstrating the control of the Holy Spirit in our lives is presumption. To trust in the sacrificial death of Christ and see the character of the Holy Spirit displayed in our lives allows us to appropriately place assurance in our status as "not condemned."

However, while we do need to examine ourselves for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s control, we need to be cautious when making comparisons between different people. C.S. Lewis was once asked a question, "Are there any unmistakable outward signs in a person surrendered to God? Would he be cantankerous? Would he smoke?" Lewis’ response to the question is an instructive restraint against unfettered comparisons between people:

"Take the case of a sour old maid, who is a Christian, but cantankerous. On the other hand, take some pleasant and popular fellow, but who has never been to Church. Who knows how much more cantankerous the old maid might be if she were not a Christian, and how much more likeable the nice fellow might be if he were a Christian? You can't judge Christianity simply by comparing the product in those two people; you would need to know what kind of raw material Christ was working on in both cases." (7) Further, even though as believers the Holy Spirit is making us more righteous, at the same time our bodies are in the process of dying. The effects of sin are not wholly eradicated in this life, and from the moment of birth our bodies begin the process of dying (vs. 10). Thus, this life is not ultimately the final hope of the believer. The Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is living in us as a guarantee of our future hope. That hope is that these mortal bodies that we sow in death will be raised immortal and imperishable. Just as Christ rose from the dead, we too shall rise.


(1) Bible Answer Man Radio Broadcast. January 22, 1997.

(2) Bible Answer Man Radio Broadcast. January 24, 1997.

(3) Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 490.

(4) Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans. Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 224.

(5) C.K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper, 1956), 158-159.

(6) James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary on Romans 1-8: Volume 38 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 428.

(7) C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 59. (emphasis original)

© 1999 -- Shawn Paul Sauve