Paul begins his Epistle to the Romans with a summary statement of the gospel he wished to proclaim in Rome:
The gospel of God…concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead. (Romans 1:3& 4.)
Paul sets before us the broken symmetry of the life Jesus Christ who was “born according to the flesh” and “declared to be the Son of God with power”. The great transitional event in these two phases of the history of Jesus Christ is his resurrection from the dead.
For Paul “flesh” is synonymous with human life in a fallen world. To be born “according to the flesh” is to be born weak. God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). To be sure, Jesus Christ “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Yet he came as flesh, without the trappings of kingly majesty.
But this man, Jesus Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power”. This, at any rate is how the New King James Version translates the text. Scholars are divided on how exactly we are to translate the participle “declared” in question. In usage elsewhere in the New Testament, the verb can mean to “delineate” or “demarcate”. This meaning is apparent when regional boundaries or borders are described, “in the regions of…” (Matthew 4:13), (8:34.) In this sense, Jesus was “marked out” or “delineated” as the Son of God.
Another use of the verb is “to determine” in God’s purpose (Luke 22:22), (Acts 2:23). The word is also used to describe Jesus being appointed or ordained by God as judge of all mankind, (10:43), (17:31).
But if we take the word here to mean “appointed”, in what meaningful sense could Jesus Christ be “appointed” as the Son of God? Orthodox Christology has always insisted that Jesus Christ ever was the Son of God. Our text itself suggests that it was “his Son” that was “born according to the flesh”. Paul, in Galatians 4:4 certainly believed in the pre-existence of Jesus as the Son of God, “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman”. He did not become God’s Son at birth, it was as God’s Son he was sent to be born.
Evangelical expositors will want to avoid any suggestion that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection. This would be to fall into the heresy of adoptionism – the notion that Jesus was adopted as God’s Son, rather than being God’s Son from eternity.
Because of this difficulty, with Jesus being “appointed” as the Son of God by his resurrection, some scholars prefer the translation that Jesus was “declared or “marked out” to be the Son of God”. Dr. Robert Reymond argues for this point of view (Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Nelson, 1998, p. 240-245). He takes the words “in power” as qualifying the participle “declared” or “marked out”. Jesus was thus “powerfully marked out as the Son of God …by the resurrection of the dead.” (Reymond, 1998: 242.) Reymond, understands the phrase “by the Spirit of holiness” to mean Jesus’ divine nature, that stands contrast to his human nature as “flesh”. Thus Reymond, paraphrases the text, “who was powerfully marked out as the Son of God in accordance with his divine nature by his resurrection from the dead.” (Reymond, 1998: 243.)
But is this necessarily the best interpretation of the text? Reymond has avoided any suggestion that Christ became the Son of God by his resurrection. But his exegesis is not shared by other Reformed scholars who prefer the translation that “Jesus…was appointed [not simply marked out as] the Son of God with power ...”
At least as far back as Geerhardus Vos, conservative scholars have argued that, “The reference is not [as Reymond suggests] to two coexisting states in the make-up of the Saviour - his divine and human natures - but to two successive stages in his life.” (Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, P & R, 1930, p. 155.) The contrast in the text is between Jesus Christ being born according to the flesh by incarnation and appointed the Son of God with power by resurrection. The words “with power” qualify the new resurrected state of the “Son of God”. In the flesh, Jesus was the Son of God in weakness, but after his resurrection he was appointed the Son of God with power.
The apostle is dealing with some particular event in the history of the Son of God incarnate by which he was instated in a position of sovereignty and invested with power, an event which in respect of investiture with power surpassed everything that could be ascribed to him in his incarnate state. (John Murray, Romans, Eerdmans, 1987, p. 11.)
The “spirit of holiness” need not be taken to mean the Son’s divine nature as Reymond suggests. Paul’s intention is not to reflect on the relative natures, divine and human than constitute the person of the Son of God. He is describing the Son’s incarnate state before and after his resurrection from the dead. “Spirit of holiness” is a unique designation of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. However, as Barrett points out, it was a common way of referring to the Holy Spirit in Hebrew and Aramaic writing. (C. K. Barrett, Paul, Geofferey Chapman, 1994, p. 24.) If, as Barrett suggests, Paul is using a pre-existing creedal formula here, this unusual way of describing the Spirit makes perfect sense.
Thus when we come back to the expression “according to the Spirit of holiness”, our inference is that it refers to that stage of pneumatic endowment upon which Jesus entered through his resurrection. (Murray, 1987: 11.)
Post-resurrection, the incarnate life of the Son of God was transformed and endued with new power by the Spirit. Paul can write that, “The last Adam became a life-giving Spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45.) Christ was conceived by the Spirit according to his human nature and endued with the Spirit at his baptism. But on his resurrection, the Son was lifted to an unprecedented plane of Holy Spirit dynamism. The time of incarnated weakness is over. Jesus is now the Son of God with power.
This interpretation, that Jesus was appointed as the Son of God with power by his resurrection, avoids the danger of adoptionist Christology, while doing justice to the meaning of the text.
It was because Jesus Christ was God’s Son and the messianic seed of David, born according to the flesh, who did for sinners, that he was appointed the Son of God with power. “He was raised because of what he was. He did not become Son by being raised: he was raised because he was Son.” (Donald McLeod, The Person of Christ, IVP, 1998, p. 91.)