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Romans 8 and the Conception of Chinese Shame and Guilt

Author: Yi-Sang Patrick Chan
Published: 2020

MD 11

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

The Chinese conception of shame and guilt is different from the traditional Western understanding. Olwen Bedford and Kwang-Kuo Hwang argue that Chinese shame and guilt are not clearly distinguished and can co-exist. In light of their cultural insight, Robert Jewett’s honor-shame reading of Romans can be characterized as a dichotomous view of shame and guilt—a view that does not adequately address the Chinese experience of shame. This paper focuses on Rom 8:1–17 and presents a multifaceted salvation message to Chinese shame. I contend that a believer’s new life in the Spirit involves a three-fold transformation: personal forgiveness of sin, communal adoption into God’s family, and participation in Christ’s eschatological era. This salvific message builds on the truth of forensic realities and invites the believers to experience the Spirit’s work within the broader community. This multifaceted message calls the Chinese people to a fuller understanding of the Christian gospel.1

According to Philip Jenkins, during the third millennium Christianity will change from a predominantly Western religion to a global religion.2 Theologians should therefore seek to construct theologies that are able to address the needs of a local setting. Chinese theologian Simon Chan contends that theology that responds to the needs of the local community should be reflective of the experiences of grassroots communities and the primal cultural worldviews.3 Psychologist Phillip R. Shaver et al. found that shame emerged as a distinctive basic-level emotion for Chinese people when compared to the psychological data collected from American participants.4 Since shame is one of the core emotions for the Chinese people, there is a need to deepen our understanding of Chinese shame so that we can effectively communicate the gospel message to them.

Western and Eastern understandings of shame and guilt are different. According to the traditional Western understanding, guilt is associated with violating a moral responsibility, and shame describes an inner sense of unworthiness, which is related to one’s identity.5 Guilt and shame are clearly separated. However, in Chinese culture, shame and guilt are not easily distinguished from each other. By analyzing the vocabulary used by the Chinese people to describe shame, Bedford and Hwang point out that in Chinese culture, shame includes both the inner sense of unworthiness and the responsibility to achieve a moral standard.6 Shame is even considered beneficial for maintaining social harmony.

Biblical scholar Robert Jewett has read the New Testament within an honor-shame framework.7 He argues that Paul’s idea of the gospel has relativized the first-century Mediterranean cultural understanding of honor-shame and that believers are honorably adopted as the sons and daughters of God. However, it seems that Jewett’s argument is based on a traditional Western dichotomous view of shame and guilt. Thus, Jewett’s conceptualization of honor and shame does not adequately address the issue of shame in the Chinese context.

Building upon a non-dichotomous view of Chinese shame and guilt, the purpose of this paper is to offer a contextual re-reading of Rom 8 for the shame-based Chinese people. This paper argues that according to Rom 8:1–17, new life in the Spirit involves a three-fold transformation that effectively addresses the issue of shame in a Chinese context. The three-fold transformation includes personal forgiveness of sin, communal adoption into God’s family, and participation in Christ’s resurrection life and the eschatological era. In contrast to Jewett’s argument, I argue that the answer to Chinese shame is not to relativize the cultural understanding of honor-shame. Rather, the description of salvation in Rom 8 points to a broader understanding of believers’ new life in the Spirit—an experience that includes both the forgiveness of sins and participation in the eschatological era.

Traditional Western Understanding of Shame and Guilt

Traditional Western understanding of guilt is associated with the feeling of wrongdoing or violation of moral responsibility that may result in negative consequences.8 In the West, moral guidelines are based on an objective standard, and a person is judged when he or she falls below the standard.9 Western ethics then focus on negative duties, such as “do not steal” and “do not cheat.”10 Following the relationship between guilt and moral responsibility, guilt includes three necessary elements: recognition of the possibility to have acted otherwise, acceptance of punishment, and hope for atonement.11

Shame in this Western framework is thus a feeling resulting from transgression against one’s identity, such as the feelings of exposure, inward anger, and alienation. Shame is experienced when one fails to live up to community expectations, in which case, shame entails the feeling of losing status before significant others, such as family members.12 Shame also results when one fails to live up to the ego ideal, that is, the conviction that an individual is not as good as the individual ought to be.13 Different theologians further support the claim that shame is a relational concept with God. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains that “shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.”14 Thus, in the traditional Western understanding, shame is primarily associated with feelings related to one’s self-identity and has no necessary connection with moral responsibility. In experiences of guilt, the major concern is one’s violation of objective moral standards, yet one’s self-image remains intact.

Shame, Guilt, Identity Formation, and Moral View for the Chinese

The above Western understanding of shame and guilt may be different from the experience for Chinese people. In China, group-oriented behavior is highly valued over individuality. Confucian culture defines a person’s identity in terms of the system of relationships in which he or she is involved. These relationships are conceptualized as the “great self” (da wo), and people are obligated to protect this “great self” against any threat from the outside. Additionally, expectations will be placed on the person to impart the values of the community to the next generation. When the person fails to meet these expectations, his or her communal status is adversely affected.15

In particular, participants in traditional Chinese culture are required to take on positive duties, which aim at maintaining a harmonious relationship with other group members. For example, Confucius emphasized the importance of mutual respect and avoiding confrontation.16 Harmony is thus an important element for the Chinese relational identity, and harmony becomes the basis for evaluation of proper behaviors and the conceptualization of individual rights. Proper behaviors vary with different situations and are dependent upon the relationships involved. People are expected to act according to different behavioral codes. Personal identity also depends on the continuing relationship with the group.

The above identity formation and moral view largely affect how shame and guilt function in the traditional Chinese culture. Shame becomes an effective means for maintaining harmonious relationships in a society. Shame is associated with one’s fear of inadequately fulfilling one’s expected moral responsibility within the community, which may result in expulsion from the community.17 As a result, participants in Chinese culture tend to be deeply concerned about what others might think should their misdeeds be exposed. Thus, the relational identity of Chinese people is connected to situational morality, and shame is used as means for maintaining harmonious relationships. Furthermore, the relational nature of the Chinese conceptualization of the self makes it difficult to confer guilt according to any objective standard. This is because a person’s identity is not contained within a person; rather, it is extended beyond the individual to the relationships in which he or she is involved.18 As a result, one’s ethical obligation is determined by the context of a situation and the relationships that are involved. Right and wrong are not objectively defined in Chinese contexts, and they vary with different situations.

Thus, in contrast to the traditional Western view of shame and guilt, shame is not only concerned with one’s self-identity in Chinese contexts but also entails one’s moral responsibility. There is no objective moral standard to confer guilt, and one’s understanding of moral transgression can vary in different contexts. A further analysis of Chinese terminology helps illustrate the distinctive features of Chinese shame.

Ethnographic Research: Vocabulary Used to Describe Chinese Shame and Guilt

Bedford and Hwang have conducted an ethnographic study to identify the Chinese vocabulary used to describe shame and guilt.19 Their purpose in doing so was to study the elements associated with these expressions, including values highlighted by these emotions, patterns of behaviors, and the conception of self. They have identified three words for guilt (nei jiu, zui e gan, and fan zui gan) and four terms for shame (diu lian, can kui, xiu kui, and xiu chi). Regarding the terms for guilt, nei jiu refers to the failure to fulfill the positive duties that one imposes on oneself. It happens regardless of whether other people consider a failure to have occurred or not. It should be noted that nei jiu originates from self-demands and self-expectation, which varies with different people. It is felt when one fails to uphold the obligations to other people, and it happens even if one does not have the capacity to fulfill the obligation.

Second, zui e gan arises from the violation of negative moral duties. It involves the feeling of having done something that leads to a disastrous effect, leading one to take personal responsibility for the result. However, the central concern for zui e gan is not the harm that has been done to the other person, but the harm that has been done to oneself. Thus, the central focus is transgression against one’s personal identity.

Last, fan zui gan is the Chinese conceptualization of the feeling associated with breaking the law. It is similar to the traditional Western understanding of guilt when one commits crime, breaks a rule, or violates a negative moral duty. Thus, while nei jiu is experienced in relation to internal feelings of obligation, the experience of fan zui gan is related to externally and objectively defined obligations.

Regarding the terms for shame, diu lian can be literally translated as “loss of face.” Diu lian entails the feeling of not having lived up to the standards of one’s community. It is related to the moral responsibilities that have been placed on a person, which are directly dependent on the relationships in which a person is involved. Diu lian may also be experienced when the reputation of one’s family member or friend is affected.

Second, can kui results from the failure to attain one’s ideal standard. Can kui is comparatively not a strong feeling because it is about a lack of action rather than the actual transgression of a standard. Can kui happens when one does not have enough time or resources to attain the best standard. It should be noted that the feeling of can kui does not necessarily call one’s identity into question. It is only when can kui happens too often that a greater shame will be experienced.

Third, xiu kui is a stronger feeling of shame and is related to self-identity. It happens when one has discovered a negative aspect of oneself, which has caused harm to other people. In this case, there will be a heavy weight brought upon a person. It is not just the feeling of oneself, but also the recognition that one has harmed another person.

Finally, xiu chi is the strongest emotion of shame in Chinese cultural contexts. Xiu chi is tied to the fear of how other people will evaluate oneself, and xiu chi can reach a point at which one feels inadequate as a human being. As a result, when experiencing xiu chi, a Chinese person avoids contact with other people. Xiu chi is thus directly related to transgression of one’s self-identity and is similar to the traditional Western understanding of shame.

Shame / Guilt


Transgression Issue


Nei jiu 内疚

Obligation to fulfill positive duties


Zui e gan 罪惡感

Violation of negative duties or self-identity


Fan zui gan 犯罪感

Violation of a law or rule


Diu lian 丟臉

Obligation to fulfill community responsibility or community reputation


Can kui 慚愧

Failure to attain one’s ideal standard


Xiu kui 羞愧

Personal identity


Xiu chi 羞恥

Personal and shared identity

Table 1. Summary of Different Chinese Terms for Shame and Guilt

The Distinctive Features for Chinese Shame

Outlining the various terms used to describe Chinese conceptualizations of shame and guilt illuminates four primary ways to understand Chinese notions of shame and guilt, as well as how they differ from the traditional Western view.

First, similar to the Western traditional framework, all three types of Chinese guilt include a sense of moral responsibility, though the sources of feeling may differ. Nei jiu originates from internal feelings of obligation, whereas both zui e gan and fan zui gan are related to the external, objectively defined obligations. However, nei jiu is aroused irrespective of one’s capacity to achieve moral responsibility. This is different from the traditional Western understanding, in which guilt does not arise when one is considered as not having the necessary moral capabilities.

Second, for the traditional Western view of guilt, one’s self-image remains intact even when a violation of the moral standard occurs. However, nei jiu is a feeling of failure experienced when a person has failed to uphold one’s responsibility for other people. Similarly, in the case of zui e gan, the concern is focused on what the self has done to the other person. Thus, both nei jiu and zui e gan will result in a transgression of self-image.

Third, similar to the traditional Western view of shame, the central issue of shame is self-identity: shame is experienced when one’s self-identity is threatened. However, unlike the traditional Western view, Chinese shame is closely connected to the moral responsibility to fulfill positive duties. For example, both diu lian and can kui relate to one’s inability to live up to the moral standards of one’s community.

Fourth, it seems that in some situations, Chinese shame would be labeled as guilt by the traditional Western view. Bedford helpfully argues that shame is an egocentric emotion focusing on self-image, whereas guilt is an allocentric emotion focusing on other people.20 Can kui, which is related to one’s failure to attain one’s ideal standard, could then be easily mislabeled as guilt. It is because unlike other forms of shame, can kui entails a sense of personal responsibility to resolve issues for the others.21

To summarize, the actual experience of the emotion differs between Chinese and Westerners. In the Chinese experience of guilt, there is no objective standard. One’s feeling of violating the moral standard depends on the context and the relationships that are involved. Also, Chinese guilt is not only concerned with wrongdoing but also entails the transgression of one’s identity. In the Chinese experience of shame, it is not only about one’s self-identity. It is also about the moral responsibility to fulfill positive duties. Chinese shame may even be mislabeled as guilt by the traditional Western view and vice versa. As a result, shame and guilt co-exist within Chinese people, and they may not be easily distinguished from each other, as in the traditional Western experience.

Robert Jewett’s Reading of Romans

According to Jewett, a culture of honor and shame dominates the ancient Mediterranean context in which Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans. Thus, for Jewett, the overarching aim of Romans is to repudiate dominant conceptions of honor and shame and to elicit support for Paul’s mission to the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain). Paul’s purpose in Romans is “to gain support for a mission to the barbarians in Spain, which requires that the gospel of impartial, divine righteousness revealed in Christ be clarified to rid it of prejudicial elements that are currently dividing the congregations in Rome.”22 Jewett’s reading of Romans therefore focuses on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Rome’s congregations.23 Jewett argues that Romans emphasizes the universal reach of the gospel and the impartiality of God’s righteousness that is revealed in Jesus Christ.

Four primary features provide an adequate outline of Jewett’s reading of Romans. First, Jewett argues that competition for honor was ubiquitous in the ancient Mediterranean world and that cultural competition played a crucial role in Paul’s writing. According to Jewett, honor and shame language is prominent in Romans, and this is evidenced by the image of the arrogant Jews (2:17), Paul’s defending of the weak (8:35), and the emphasis on sharing needs (12:13).24 For Jewett, correctly conceptualizing the honor and shame culture of Paul’s context “is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end.”25

Second, Paul declares that the power of the gospel has relativized believers’ understanding of honor and shame. By using the word “all” (1:18), Paul contends that both Jews and Gentiles are held responsible for their sins.26 Thus, no one can claim to be more honorable than others. Instead of appealing to the privileged and the honorable members of the society, the gospel appeals more to the powerless, despised, and shamed members of society. Thus, the salvific power of the gospel relativizes believers’ understanding of honor and shame.

Third, Paul’s indebtedness “to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1:14) led Paul to proclaim that God alone is merciful to all people. God would not abandon God’s own people even if they reject God (10:2–3). God would evoke harmony and reconciliation in a world that was torn by competition and exploitation (5:10–11; 15:5–6). This boundless mercy of God, then, becomes the basis for Paul’s mission to the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain). God would not abandon the Spanish who were considered to be shameful barbarians by the Roman people (11:32).27 The climax of the letter is located at the exhortation, where Paul encourages mutual welcoming between those who are in competition with one another (15:7).

Finally, Jewett redefines several key terms in Romans. Specifically, he defines the “works of the law” as “achieving superior status through performance,” which he frames as a universal phenomenon for human beings.28 Jewett’s focus is not on one’s failure to perform the law, but on the competition that aims at status acquisition and the deprivation of such status for others. Furthermore, “being justified” for Jewett is described as “being set right” with God, which entails the “restoration of honor.”29 To be “righteous through faith,” then, means to accept the gospel of Jesus’s shameful death, in which all people are equally honored. The “righteousness of God” is thus the power of God to overcome cultural enmity, to dispose of the unjust system of honor and shame, and to proclaim that God equally loves all people.30 To conclude, for Jewett, Romans’s central thesis is to provide an alternative for the Ancient Mediterranean honor-shame social system, in which people try to secure superior status through competition of honor.

Evaluation of Jewett’s Reading in Relation to Chinese Notions of Shame and Guilt

The strength of Jewett’s reading lies in his sociological focus. Jewett attempts to interpret Romans in its first-century honor-shame cultural context, illumining Jewett’s sensitivity towards the context of Paul’s argument. Furthermore, Jewett reminds us that God is holy, righteous, and impartial. God has power to overturn the unjust system of honor and shame, including discrimination and cultural imperialism. Indeed, to be set right with God entails the responsibility of mutual acceptance of others. Thus, the gospel offers “tolerant co-existence” and a “new relationship in communal settings to all on precisely the same terms.”31

At the same time, however, Jewett’s reading cannot adequately address Chinese conceptualizations of shame and guilt. Three primary issues demonstrate that this is the case. First, the underlying problem of applying Jewett’s reading of honor-shame is that he follows the traditional Western dichotomous view of shame and guilt, which is different from the Chinese understanding. For Jewett, shame is the antithesis to honor and is understood in the context of competition for superior status or the claiming of ethnic status. For him, shame is about self-castigation and is not directly related to the violation of moral responsibility. In fact, Jewett even argues that Romans has nothing to do with the Augustinian idea, which focuses on justification by faith and the forgiveness of sin.32 However, in China, shame includes both the violation of moral responsibility and transgression of one’s identity. Shame is not only the result of competition for superior status but is also highly correlated with one’s moral responsibility to fulfill positive duties. As a result, Jewett’s description of shame in Paul’s first-century context and contemporary Chinese understandings of shame are fundamentally different.

Second, Jewett’s conceptualization of sin cannot adequately describe the problem of sin in Chinese contexts. In his reading of Rom 7, Jewett offers a redefinition of sin as zealous competition that aims at status acquisition and deprives others of honor.33 However, his redefinition turns sin from an act into an attitude: from the failure to obey God to a motivation to deprive others of honor. Indeed, Paul’s conception of sin illuminates a bigger issue—that both Jews and Gentiles are incapable of keeping God’s commandments because they are under the cosmic power of “Sin.”34 This cosmic understanding of sin is in fact essential for Chinese people. Among Chinese, sin should be understood in this much broader conception, which includes structural and social problems.

Finally, Jewett’s description of the gospel message in the book of Romans narrowly focuses on the restoration of one’s honorable status. Jewett argues that God’s grace transforms the unjust honor system of Paul’s world and creates a new basis for honor in Christian communities.35 His interpretation of the gospel message thus focuses on status changes for humanity in the contexts of their social relationships but ignores other dimensions of the power of the gospel (1:16). In particular, believers can have “newness of life” (6:4), in which there will be a new, enabling moral capacity through the Spirit (8:4). If it is to adequately address Chinese notions of shame and guilt, the message of salvation must focus on both the honorable restoration of one’s status and radical freedom from guilt. As John Barclay rightly argues, “[If] one has a broader sense of the corruptive and destructive power of Sin, it is not sufficiently good news if God merely ‘honors sinners of every culture in an impartial manner through Christ.’”36 Jewett’s idea of the gospel message thus addresses some aspects of Chinese shame, but not all.

In summary, Jewett follows the traditional Western dichotomous view of shame and guilt—a view that is different from a contemporary Chinese understanding. Stemming from this fundamental difference, Jewett’s analysis of human sin and the gospel message do not adequately address Chinese cultural contexts. While many theologians point out that Chinese people are deeply affected by their shame-based culture, they should beware not to impose Jewett’s readings of honor-shame on Chinese cultural contexts. In what follows, I offer a contextual re-reading of Romans 8:1–17 through a lens that seeks to address a traditional Chinese understanding of shame.

Exegesis of Romans 8: New Life in the Spirit

In the opening section of Romans, Paul reveals his central concerns for writing the letter (1:11–15). Paul’s central purpose in writing Romans is to “share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you,” so that “we [both Paul and believers in Rome] may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (1:15; 1:12).37 This spiritual gift that Paul wishes to share is his understanding of the gospel, which is that in Jesus Christ God has included both the Jews and the Gentiles as the “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” by their faith in Christ apart from the Torah (8:16–17).38 The central theme of Romans, then, is to explain this spiritual gift, the Christ-event, to the readers in Rome.

Romans 8:1–17 is a fuller explanation of the believers’ new life in the Spirit. The new life in the Spirit is brought by the Christ-gift, and it includes personal, relational, and participatory dimensions. The new life includes: (1) the absence of condemnation for those who are in Christ (8:1); (2) the new life that is in Christ Jesus and in the Spirit (8:2–8); (3) the presence of “Christ by his Spirit” in the believers (8:9–11); (4) the leading of the Spirit in ethical matters (8:12–13); and (5) the experience of being adopted by God into God’s family (8:15). This multifaceted understanding of the new life calls believers to understand the Christian gospel in a broader sense, beyond the traditional forensic understanding and Jewett’s reading of Romans. Rather, it is building on the truth of forensic realities, and invites the believers to move forward to experience the work of the Spirit. In what follows, I will explain the personal, relational, and participatory features of Paul’s new life in the Spirit in Romans.

Personal Dimension: The Forgiveness of Guilt

Some commentators place the division of the first eight chapters of Romans at the end of chapter four. Thus, these commentators argue that 1:16–4:25 is about sin and justification, whereas 5:1–8:39 concerns sanctification.39 Some also argue that the first section contains judicial and forensic language, while the second section contains more mystical and participatory language. However, while it is true that in Rom 8, believers can be liberated from the bondage of sin to participate in a new life in the Spirit, this participatory experience is not exclusive to the traditional understanding of justification. In this section, I will argue that believers can experience the forgiveness of sin because of the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus.

Paul begins by introducing the language of God’s judgment (Rom 8:1–4). Paul thus claims that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1). Regarding the word group condemnation (κατάκριμα), the majority of its cognates’ appearances in LXX suggests an idea of penal judgment (Wis 4:2; Esth 2:1 LXX).40 In the New Testament, the use of this word or its cognate suggests that those to whom this word or its cognate applies would either receive the penalty of judgment or be delivered from the judgment.41 Thus, in relation to the just requirement of the law, “condemnation” here means that God has passed judgment on those who violate the precepts of the law.

Following the language of God’s judgment, Paul suggests that Jesus’s death is a penal substitution that satisfies the just requirement of God. Paul explains the reason why there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ by referring to the sacrificial death of Jesus (8:2–3). By using of this phrase περὶ ἁμαρτίας, scholars argue that Paul alludes to the Old Testament’s imagery of a sin offering.42 Schreiner points out that this phrase refers to a sin offering in 44 out of 54 occurrences in the LXX (e.g., Lev 5:6–11, 9:2–3; 23:19).43 Thus by using the phrase περὶ ἁμαρτίας, Paul highlights that Jesus’s death is a penal substitution (8:3). Paul’s judicial language (κατάκριμα, κατακρίνω), as well as Jesus’s death as sin offering (περὶ ἁμαρτίας) suggests that Jesus’s death is a penal sacrifice for the atonement of sin (8:1, 3). These two images combined together align with the instruction in Lev 4:1–35, which states that the sin offering must be offered before God as an atonement for sin. Jesus thus becomes the sacrificial victim by which God condemned the sin. Jesus took upon himself God’s righteous judgment and God’s wrath against those for whom he died.

While some scholars do not endorse the penal substitutionary framework to understand atonement, the penal substitution is still a relevant and effective metaphor in the Chinese cultural context.44 As mentioned before, Chinese shame is not only about the transgression of self-identity but also entails the failure to fulfill moral responsibility. In response to their sense of failure, believers need to be reassured that their sins have been forgiven because of the work of Christ.

Paul’s use of the phrase “in the likeness of sinful flesh” further supports the penal nature of Jesus’s death (8:3). This phrase signifies Jesus’s “full identity and resemblance with the sinful humanity.”45 Jesus’s taking up of sin does not mean that Jesus commits sin but that Jesus functions as a sinner by bearing sin. Jesus fully identifies with sinful humanity by becoming a man, going to the cross, and taking upon himself God’s penalty for human sin. Then, for God to condemn sin in the flesh, Paul connects Jesus’s participation within the realm of sinful humanity with God’s condemnation of sin in Jesus’s death. God sent Jesus in the likeness of sinful humanity and judged Jesus unto his death on the cross. Jesus paid the penalty for human sin. God’s condemnation of sin is actually both God’s judgment of human sin and God’s defeat of the power of Sin. However, unlike Adam, Jesus is sinless, and his death on the cross could deliver those who are in him and fulfill the righteous requirement of the law (8:4).

In conclusion, forensic language is intertwined with Paul’s description of believers’ new life in the Spirit in 8:1–4. Believers’ participation in the new life of the Spirit implies that they can experience the forgiveness of their wrongdoing. Jesus’s death paid the price for those who are in Christ (8:1–4). God could then fulfill the righteous requirement of the law by means of his condemnation of sin in Jesus’s flesh. In speaking to the Chinese people, the solution to shame does not simply lie in the fact that God will honor those who suffer from shame. The salvific message to shame also needs to focus on its forensic aspect, because Chinese shame is not only about the transgression of self-identity but also the failure to fulfill moral responsibility. Chinese people’s moral responsibilities may be implicitly imposed by the society and may exceed their own capacity. Hence the new life in the Spirit ensures that their sins are forgiven because of the sacrificial death of Christ.

Communal Dimension: Participation in the Family of God

In Rom 8, Paul mentions that those who receive the spirit of adoption will cry “Abba! Father!” (8:15). According to Joachim Jeremias, the word abba (father) implies a sense of intimacy with God.46 However, in the NT, the term abba only appears three times (Mark 14:36; Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15). Interpretations for these passages are indeed unduly shaped by Jeremias’s interpretation regarding Jesus’s use of abba in his Gethsemane prayer.47 When people borrow Jeremias’s interpretation and apply it in Rom 8:15, the focus becomes believers’ sense of intimacy in relationship with God. Jesus’s experience in the Gethsemane prayer is also applied to the believers. However, the main reason for using the word “adoption” is that God has made Jews and Gentiles together the “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (8:16–17). Through the Spirit, believers are now adopted into the family of God.

Adoption is one of the major themes of Rom 8. This is evident in the frequent repetition of related terms: υἱός (son) appears twice (vv. 14, 19); τέκνον (child) appears three times (vv. 16, 17, 21); υἱοθεσία (adoption) appears twice (vv. 15, 23).48 In Greco-Roman culture, adopted children are taken out of their previous situations and placed in a new relationship with an adopted father.49 We should thus understand Paul to be borrowing the word υἱοθεσία from the Greco-Roman culture to describe the relationship between God and God’s people (8:15).50 The adopted son would start a new life in the new family and was considered no less significant than other biologically born sons in the family.51 The adopted son would then have a changed status—his old relationship and obligations were canceled, and a new name was given.52 Thus, Paul borrows this Greco-Roman household practice to communicate the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. In contrast to the Jewish understanding that they alone are God’s elected people, Paul’s language of adoption redefines God’s children to include both Gentiles and Jews (8:14). Because the Gentiles have been adopted into God’s family, the Spirit testifies to their status as God’s children (8:16). As the children of God, they belong to the family of God, and enjoy the same eschatological glory as the Jewish people.

Paul then goes on to relate believers’ cry of “Abba, Father” to the work of the Spirit (8:15). The meaning of the word κράζω (cry; NRSV) is highly debated. For Dunn, it refers to the “deeply emotional or enthusiastic character of earliest Christian experience and worship.”53 In contrast, Marianne Meye Thompson argues that the word κράζω may not necessarily refer to the interior emotional state of a believer.54 In the NT, κράζω is only found in Galatians and Romans (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15, 9:27). In Gal 4:6, the subject of the word is the Spirit and not the believer.55 In Rom 9:27, κράζω refers to Isaiah’s Spirit-inspired prophetic speech and is used interchangeably with προλέγω (to predict or foretell; Rom 9:29).56 Based on this analysis of Paul’s use of the word in Gal 4:6 and Rom 9:27, Paul’s use of κράζω in Rom 8 is not so much about an individual believer’s inner sense of intimate relationship with God. Instead, we should understand the work of the Spirit in relation to a larger redemptive plan of God, in which both Jew and Gentile are in the one family of God, so that both can cry out to God with the same word, “Abba, Father!” Three indications further signify that such a communal understanding for Paul’s use of abba should be preferred over an individual inner sense of intimacy for three reasons: (1) most pronouns and verbs in Rom 8 are plural (e.g., the reception of the Spirit in v.15, 23; the indwelling of the Spirit in v. 9, 11; and intercession of the Spirit in v. 26–17); (2) the word υἱοθεσία is family imagery and points to a larger, communal reality; (3) Paul uses communal language to describe believers’ status as God’s children through Christ (8:17).57 Thus, Paul’s use of the word κράζω alludes to the greater fact that God has abolished the division between Jews and Gentiles, so that Gentiles are now adopted into the one family of God.

To summarize, in Rom 8:1–17, Paul’s use of the word υἱοθεσία and description of believers’ calling out to God the Father as “Abba” points to a corporate and communal reality rather than the subjective experience of believers’ sense of intimacy. The evidence that God has adopted Gentiles into God’s family together with Israel lies in the work of the Spirit, by which believers can cry out to God the Father. When Chinese believers are adopted as God’s children, they can begin to understand themselves as belonging to God’s family and as participants in God’s larger redemptive plan. This belonging is the work of the Spirit and is given with no regard to worth. God is the divine Father in this family. Jesus is the “first born of many” and the high priest, who was sacrificed on their behalf so that they may become “holy brothers” (Rom 8:29; Heb 3:1–2). The Holy Spirit is the bond of love between God and Jesus, and between Christ and the church. The Spirit also effects the communion and love among the church. This communion is anticipated in the church’s sacrament, fellowship, liturgy, and mission.

Participatory Dimension: The Eschatological Era

Paul also sets his argument within a larger cosmic framework in Rom 8:1–17. According to Paul’s cosmic framework, God has liberated us from the power of Sin, so that we can participate in the resurrected life of Christ. Beverly Gaventa explains that in Romans, sin can also be interpreted as the uppercase power of “Sin” that enslaves humankind and stands against God.58 Robert Ewusie Moses also helpfully describes “the power of Sin” as the “comprehensive features of reality spanning the whole gamut of existence . . . [which] permeate all aspects of the cosmos and human existence . . . [and] operate across all levels simultaneously—cosmic, personal, political and social.”59 Sin not only entered into the world (5:12–21)—it became an enslaving power (6:6, 17–18), seized a base of operation (7:8), brought death (7:8–14), and even took the law of God into captivity (7:7–25).

Furthermore, by describing the law as the “law of sin and death,” Paul points out that the law is used by Sin as a snare to trap believers (8:2). While the law continues to function as God’s measuring stick for the believers of what God requires of them, it is controlled by the power of Sin and death. Also, in v. 15, the human dilemma is described by using the imagery of the bondage of slavery, and this cannot be isolated from the study of Sin and death. In the first-century Greco-Roman world, slaves had no legal rights and were subject to the absolute control of the master.60 Aristotle defined a slave as “living property,” and the legal status of a slave was that of “a thing.”61 The slaves are bound by the legal code that requires them to remain in servitude. Believers may experience being a slave to their fear and anxiety of failing to fulfill the righteous requirement of the law.

However, by using the words “therefore, now” to introduce his discussion in Rom 8, Paul seems to signal the beginning of a new era (8:1). Through the work of Jesus, God has defeated the power of Sin on the cross and set believers free from their bondage to Sin (8:3). This victory is achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection. Believers can now participate in new life in Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit (8:9–11). Their new conduct is made possible, not only because of their identification with Christ but also by the power of Christ’s resurrection life (8:11). To be in Christ is not simply an abstract concept. In this way, Christ’s death both condemns sin in the flesh and enables us to fulfill the just requirement of the law (8:4).

Furthermore, the freedom for all creation made available by Christ should be understood in the context of eschatological hope. While Paul writes, “we are children of God,” he also mentions the groaning believers’ experience “as we wait for adoption” (8:16, 23). This implies that our present experience of God’s adoption is an anticipation of God’s full adoption in the future. Through the work of the Spirit, believers will participate in God’s liberation of all creation. God’s promise of “the glorious liberty of the children of God” will have its final fulfillment, in which “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay” (8:21).

To conclude, believers’ new life in the Spirit should be understood in a larger cosmic and eschatological framework. The work of Christ has defeated the power of Sin and set us free from its bondage by participating in the life and death of Christ. When believers become part of the one family of God, we also look forward to the eschatological redemption of all creation. Citing Rom 8, Schwartz rightly states that “the consummation of the world . . . is not primarily destruction . . . [but] rather universal incorporation into the creative and transforming act of Christ’s resurrection.”62 In addressing the Chinese conception of shame, the power of Sin in China may include personal sins such as idolatry and love of money. It may also refer to the formation of a punitive self, which happens when a person has repeatedly fallen short of the community standard and the person experiences self-condemnation, self-punishment, and even isolation.63 However, Jesus’s resurrection has defeated the power of Sin and has accomplished a new reality in God for the church. Through the Spirit, God enables us to lead a righteous life. In the words of Jürgen Moltmann, this new reality in Christ is “non-analogous, [and] transcendently new.”64 Our present life is “unfinished,” and serves as a foretaste for the new creation of God’s promised future.65 The death of Jesus also points towards the righteousness of God, who provides our opportunity for new life. As a result, Chinese people can know that their experience of shame will not be the final situation, as there is hope for a future in Christ.


This paper started by arguing that Chinese shame is different from a traditional Western understanding of shame. By employing recent psychological studies and analyzing the vocabulary used by the Chinese people to describe shame, it argued that Chinese shame and guilt are not clearly distinguished and can co-exist. Shame includes both an inner sense of unworthiness and the responsibility to achieve a moral standard. Chinese shame may even be labeled as guilt within the traditional Western framework that tends to dichotomize shame and guilt.

In light of this difference in the understanding of shame, Robert Jewett’s reading of Romans cannot adequately address the Chinese experience of shame. Jewett understands shame in relation to competition for superior status within one’s community. Thus, for Jewett, sin is zealous competition for status and honor, and the impact of the salvation message is its transformation of such an unjust honor system. While it is true that there are sinful competitions among Chinese society, Jewett’s reading is nevertheless insufficient for addressing crucial aspects of the complex Chinese conception of shame.

This paper offered a contextual re-reading of Rom 8:1–17 in light of Chinese shame. When compared to Jewett’s reading, the message of salvation in relation to Chinese shame offered in this paper is more multifaceted. According to this reading, believers’ new life in the Spirit consists of three-dimensional transformation: personal forgiveness of sin, communal incorporation into God’s family, and participation in Christ’s resurrection life and eschatological hope. Based on the fact that Chinese shame includes both the transgression of self-identity and the responsibility to achieve a moral standard, the salvation message offered in this paper calls believers to understand the Christian gospel in a broader sense, beyond the traditional forensic understanding and Jewett’s reading of Romans. This salvation message contains both the forgiveness of sins and participation in the eschatological era. It builds on the truth of forensic realities and invites believers to experience the work of the Spirit.

In explaining the believers’ new life in the Spirit, this paper builds on the conception of sin as both the human act of disobedience (sin) and the cosmic power (Sin). To participate in the eschatological era does not negate the traditional understanding of justification. Communal cooperation in God’s family also alludes to God’s overarching redemption plan to include both Jews and Gentiles in the one family of God.

Chan Yi-Sang Patrick is a PhD (New Testament) candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA).

1 This paper was presented at SBL’s unit of Asian and Asian-American Hermeneutics in 2018.

2 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2.

3 Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 10.

4 Phillip R. Shaver, Judith C. Schwartz and Whelley Wu, “Cross-Cultural Similarities and Differences in Emotion and Its Representation: A Prototype Approach,” Review of Personality and Social Psychology, no. 13 (January 1992): 175–212.

5 Cf. Paul W. Pruyser, “Anxiety, Guilt, and Shame in the Atonement,” Theology Today 21, no. 1 (1964): 15–33; Rebecca Thomas and Stephen Parker, “Toward a Theological Understanding of Shame,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 23, no. 2 (2004): 176–82; Millie R. Creigton, “Revisiting Shame and Guilt Cultures: A Forty-Year Pilgrimage,” Ethos 18, no. 3 (1990): 279–307.

6 I adopt Olwen Bedford and Kwang-Kuo Hwang, “Guilt and Shame in Chinese Culture: A Cross-Cultural Framework from the Perspective of Morality and Identity,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 33, no. 2 (2003): 127–44, as my key reference. Their work is also widely cited by psychologists. See Bongyoung Choi and Gyseog Han, “Commentary: Psychology of Selfhood in China: Where Is the Collective?” Culture and Psychology 15, no. 1 (2009): 73–82.

7 See Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006); Robert Jewett, “Honor and Shame in the Argument of Romans,” in Putting Body & Soul Together: Essays in Honor of Robin Scroggs, ed. Virginia Wiles, Alexandra R. Brown, and Graydon F. Snyder (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).

8 Joseph Derivera, “The Structure of Emotional Relationships,” Review of Personality and Social Psychology 5 (1984): 116–45.

9 Bedford and Hwang, 131.

10 Ibid, 131.

11 Ibid., 127.

12 Creighton, 279–307.

13 Pruyser, 23.

14 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Neville Norton Smith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 24. See also Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 50.

15 Jin Pang Leung, “Emotions and Mental Health in Chinese People,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 7, no. 2 (1998): 123–24.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Bedford and Hwang, 134.

19 The information in this section is from Bedford and Hwang, 127–44.

20 Ibid., 140.

21 Ibid. They also argue that when some Western psychologists mislabel certain types of shame as guilt, this fosters a positive image of guilt.

22 Jewett, Romans, 1.

23 John M. G. Barclay, “Is It Good News that God Is Impartial? A Response to Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31, no. 1 ( 2008): 91, argues that Jewett’s analysis relies too much on the Wiefel hypothesis.

24 See Jewett, Romans, 49, 223, 546, 764–5.

25 Ibid. 49.

26 All Scripture quotations are from the NRSV.

27 Jewett, Romans, 49.

28 Ibid., 49, 296.

29 Robert Jewett, “Honor and Shame in the Argument of Romans,” 270.

30 Jewett, Romans, 275.

31 Ibid., 142, 233.

32 Jewett’s social vision goes beyond the Lutheran focus of individual justification, and carries a new social and political implication. See Jewett, Romans, 450.

33 Ibid., 449.

34 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition,” Interpretation 58, no. 3 (2004): 229–40, 231–37.

35 Jewett, Romans, 614.

36 Barclay, “Is It Good News,” 107.

37 With Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 486–89, I hold that Paul is referring to the divine gift of Jesus Christ, through whom God extended the salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.

38 See John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

39 See C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 151–53; C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Limited, 1975), 341–47.

40 Jarvis J. Williams, “Violent Atonement in Romans: The Foundation of Paul’s Soteriology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53, no. 3 (2010): 592.

41 See Rom 2:1, 8:1, 34, 14:23; Matt 12:41, 20:18, 27:3; Mark 10:33, 14:64; Luke 11:31; 1 Cor 11:32; Heb 11:7; 2 Pet 2:6.

42 See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 220–25; Douglas J. Moo, Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 114.

43 Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 401–3.

44 See Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 41–49.

45 Williams, 594.

46 See Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), 20–24.

47 See Marianne Meye Thompson, “‘Mercy Upon All’: God as Father in the Epistle to the Romans” in Romans and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. Sven K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 204.

48 Cf. vv. 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 29.

49 Richard N. Longenecker, “The Metaphor of Adoption in Paul’s Letters,” The Covenant Quarterly 72, nos. 3–4 (2014): 71–78.

50 Michael Peppard, “Adopted and Begotten Sons of God: Paul and John on Divine Sonship,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73, no. 1 (2011): 94.

51 Peppard, 72.

52 Ibid.

53 James D. G. Dunn, Romans (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988) , 453.

54 See Thompson, 211–15.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid., 213.

58 Gaventa, 231–37.

59 Robert Ewusie Moses, Practices of Power: Revisiting the Principalities and Powers in the Pauline Letters (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 207.

60 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 56.

61 Ibid., 56.

62 Hans Schwarz, Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 389.

63 Ibid., 389.

64 Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 27.

65 Ibid.

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