Years ago, I heard a pithy little saying that stuck with me. It was attributed to John Bunyan, though he may never have said it. The saying goes like this, “Run, John, run, the law commands, but gives you neither feet nor hands. Better news the gospel brings: it bids you fly and gives you wings.” This saying helped solidify the difference between law and gospel in my understanding. It also highlighted for me the all-encompassing problem of sin. Let’s look at how God dealt with the problem of sin and the powerlessness of the law with some help from the Understanding the Bible Commentary Series.

Romans 8:3–4

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

The Inability of the Law and the Weakness of the Flesh

Verse 3 is a classic formulation of redemption. The beginning of the verse lacks a verb in Greek and is somewhat defective, reading literally, “For the inability of the law because of the weakness of the flesh.” But there is no doubt of its meaning: the law was rendered ineffective because of the “flesh.” Paul does not say the law was unable to condemn sin; that it could do because it was “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12). The law is not bad, but its good counsels are undermined by a bentness and gravitational pull in human nature toward evil. The law offers a proper diagnosis of the disease, but no cure.

God Did by Sending His Own Son

To accomplish what neither the law nor human will could carry out, God entered decisively and historically by sending his own Son. God had, of course, dispatched messengers and prophets to Israel in the past. But the sending of the Son is something entirely different. In the Son, God comes in person. His own Son emphasizes the filial intimacy between Jesus and the Father. In Jesus, God takes the problem of sin into his own hands. In Jesus, God takes personal responsibility for humanity’s salvation.

“God sent his Son” was a heavily freighted expression in the early church (John 3:16; Gal. 4:4; Phil 2:6f.; 1 John 4:9). It was both a theological and liturgical capsule of the mystery of the incarnation: the preexistent Son of God had been sent for the salvation of the world. The yeast of this truth continues its redemptive fermentation in the world. Pop religion tells us we can do something for God; sociology, that we can do something for others; and psychology, that we can do something for ourselves. But the gospel says that God has done something for us, apart from which we are caught in a tailspin of futility (vv. 18ff.).

This brief phrase rearranges the axis of the world. “God sent his Son” means that God—not humanity or the world—is the source and center of reality; it means that where there was no help within creation, God intervened from outside it; and it means that God’s help is not a pious intuition, but a historical manifestation in first-century Palestine. “God sent his Son” is salvation in four words: enacted from the fullness of divine love, evoked by the fallenness of the world, and effected by the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

God Sent His Son in the Likeness of Sinful Flesh

Of special importance is the meaning of the likeness of sinful man. On the one hand, Paul doubtlessly wants to avoid saying that Christ became as “sinful man.” Moreover, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul states that Christ “had no sin.”

On the other hand, Paul does not use likeness abstractly, as did the Docetists when they taught that Christ only appeared human (from Gk. dokein, “to seem or appear”). Docetism characteristically taught that Jesus could not have been tempted, nor could he have sinned, nor did he really suffer. It was, however, fallen humanity which needed redeeming, not an ideal or apparent humanity, and Christ had to become fully human if he were to condemn sin in sinful man (v. 3). If human flesh is the stage of sin, that same flesh must become the stage of redemption. Likeness, therefore, means that Christ did not take on any nature other than our nature, though apart from sin.

The critical difference between Christ’s humanity and ours is that whereas we yielded to sin’s dominion, he rendered perfect obedience (Phil 2:8; Heb. 5:8). In the likeness of sinful man almost certainly recalls the Adam typology of chapter 5. This offers an explanation why Christ obeyed, whereas all other humanity disobeyed. The answer is that the Son entered humanity with a nature like Adam’s before the Fall. It was possible for him not to sin, though for all others it was not possible not to sin. As a human being he was tempted by sin, and he could have sinned, but he was not subject to sin as was humanity after Adam. Where the first Adam disobeyed, the last Adam obeyed. And whereas our yielding to sin brought our condemnation, Christ’s obedience to God brings sin’s condemnation!

God Sent His Son to be a Sin Offering

The mission and goal of the incarnation were to be a sin offering. God did not send the Son primarily as a moral reformer. The essential aspect of the incarnation is not ethical but sacerdotal: He condemned sin in sinful man (v. 3). Before humanity can live it must be freed from death. It is a delusion to think that humanity needs only a better model for life. Its plight is more desperate. It needs a savior from bondage to sin, and the price of deliverance was the suffering and death of a sacrificial victim. In the old covenant God had established the practice of animal sacrifice in anticipation of the future and ultimate sin offering of the new covenant, the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The death which had until Christ’s advent been sin’s ally became in Christ’s death sin’s defeat.

God Enables Us to Meet the Righteous Requirements of the Law by the Spirit

Understanding the progression of thought in verses 2–4 is essential. Paul begins with the Spirit who brings liberation from “the law of sin and death.” The Spirit, however, is not a free agent. The Spirit attends to Jesus Christ and is the divine auxiliary who makes Christ’s redemption efficacious.

Moreover, the Spirit salvages the law as a moral standard, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit (v. 4). Paul does not say “righteousness of the law,” for he has argued that righteousness comes by faith. Rather he speaks of the righteous requirements of the law (see 2:26), meaning that which the law demands, even if the law cannot provide it. Those who live in the Spirit are for the first time enabled to acknowledge the true intent of the law, and they are empowered to begin fulfilling it. This is the first positive role of the law in Romans so far.

The Spirit is the supernatural reinforcement of God’s grace who empowers Christians to fulfill the intent and requirements of the law. Paul does not say that one must keep the law in order to be saved but that one must be saved in order to keep the law!

The reader familiar with the OT cannot resist the allusion here to Jeremiah 31:31ff. and Ezekiel 36:26ff. Both prophets agonized over the fatal flaw in Israel which thwarted Israel from fulfilling the law and pleasing God. Both foresaw the need for a new covenant and new spirit, not coercing Israel by external dictates but moving Israel from within to fulfill God’s righteous will. And the longing and anticipation of both are fulfilled in Christ.

God Causes Us to Live by the Spirit

Does not Paul’s confidence in fulfilling the law in verse 4 (that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us) contradict his frustration in not fulfilling it in chapter 7? According to verse 4, the Spirit reveals the essence of the law and enables Christians to conform to its fundamental intent, even if not to its every detail. The Christian is like a man who has the right tune in his head but cannot remember all the words.

Accordingly, when Paul says that love fulfills the law (13:8; also Gal. 5:14), that is not to assert that Christians are perfect, but that they live … according to the Spirit. The present tense of the Greek peripatein, “to walk” or live, connotes continued action, forward progress, a pattern of behavior under the Spirit’s leading. The idea is one of direction, not perfection; orientation toward a goal, if not yet attainment of it. Otto Michel correctly notes that the willingness and strength to resist sin is the unmistakable sign of the Spirit. “The claim to possess the Spirit of God is justified only where it is accompanied by the battle against the flesh.”

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The Understanding the Bible Commentary Series is a great bridge between a devotional commentary and an academic commentary. It covers all the books in the Bible section-by-section and includes notes for those wanting to dig a little deeper. Visit our store today and add this resource to your Olive Tree Library!

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