Romans 8:3-4 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
The law of God seems to have a lot of power in our lives. And that would be good, if the main way we experience that power were to live righteous and holy lives. If you are a believer, you want to live a righteous and holy life, and if the law served to help bring that about, I think you would welcome it. And the law does help in that direction, teaching us what is “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12).
But the power of the law as we experience it in our lives is, for the most part, not helping us to live righteous and holy lives, but the opposite. In fact the law excites the sinful nature of our flesh, and we sin: So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Romans 7:25).
It is not that the law is sin or sinful or evil, no, for (again) the law is holy and righteous and good. But the principle of sin uses the law to bring forth sin in us; and “when sin is conceived,” says James, “it brings forth death” James 1:15). So the law that promised life proves to bring forth death (Romans 7:10).
It can seem like the principle of sin has quite a grip, especially as a conduit for sin to spring up in your life. Every time you sin, you feel that strong grip–and it uses the law to do it. It may seem irresistibly strong but that is not looked upon as a strength of the law by the Apostle Paul. He sees it as a weakness in the law, because of the flesh. He speaks of the law as being weakened, rather than strengthened, by the flesh.
The law promised life: For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them (Romans 10:5). But the law does not bring life, because it is weakened by the flesh; that is, weakened by the principle of sin in you that uses what promised life as an opportunity for sin. The law is holy and righteous and good, but the law is completely powerless to make you holy, righteous, or good. It’s like a mirror that tells you when your face is dirty, but it can’t help you clean the dirt away: For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin Romans 3:20.
At the beginning of episode 213 of The Simpsons (“Homer Vs. Lisa & The 8th Commandment”), eight-year-old Lisa Simpson is in Sunday School. The teacher is explaining the Ten Commandments to the class: “Ten Simple Rules, and if you’ll just follow them all your life, you’ll go to heaven!” The children seem happy to hear it, except for Lisa, who seems troubled. “Just asking, hypothetically,” she said, “What if we do not keep the commandments, where will we go then?”
The teacher became irritated. “You’ll go to hell, Lisa; is that what you wanted to hear? Now stop scaring the other children!”
Lisa was right to be scared, and she was right to scare the other children; for the law of the commandments not only fails to justify anyone, but being energized by the principle of sin, the law condemns everyone as a sinner. And yet, powerless as the law is to save anyone, and powerless as any one of us is save ourselves, Paul declares with confidence and joy in that There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! (Romans 8:1)
But how can it be that you–if you are in Christ Jesus–are not condemned by the law? Perhaps Paul now offers Christ as a loophole in the law, an escape clause by which the law brings no condemnation? Not exactly. Rather, (verse 3), “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”
First of all note that God has done something. He has not sat back, letting nature take its course, so to speak, as the heavy weight of sin drags you down, down, down, finally to hell. Nor is God fuming at you from above, waiting for an opportunity to pounce on you for your sin–if he were, he has no need to wait, he can do that anytime. Rather than pounce, and judge, and destroy, God has taken action to save you from the condemnation of the law.
What action? What has he done? Has he said, in regards to your sin and violation of his commandment, “Oh, that’s okay; I like you, don’t worry about it”?
No! The Apostle Paul would no doubt say to that, “By no means!” (c.f. Romans 3:3-4). It would violate God’s own holy nature to wink and nod at your sin; and certainly most unjust to wink at your sin, but punish the sin of others. No, divine justice must be satisfied; the righteous requirements of the law must be fulfilled.
What then did God do, to satisfy his righteous law and set you free from any and all condemnation? He sent “his own Son…” (3). This is no technicality. This is no loophole. This is God’s love, poured forth in action and sacrifice, that God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son (John 3:16). He sent him “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (3).
The law demands satisfaction through condemnation and judgment for sin. In Christ Jesus, the condemnation due you for your sin, demanded by the law, has been satisfied; the debt has been paid, in and upon the Son of God who came into this world for that purpose: to take upon himself the likeness of sinful flesh and to bear the condemnation for your sins in his own body. Now there is much to say about all of this, and I want to say a bit about this phrase, “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” I think first of all we should understand that phrase in the light of Hebrews 4:15:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
The office of high priest began with Moses’s brother Aaron. Under the old covenant, Aaron the high priest, on the Day of Atonement, was to offer up the blood of bulls and goats as sacrifices for sin. A new covenant was foreshadowed in the rituals of the old, for it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to atone for sin (Heb. 10:4).
That is why under the new covenant, Jesus our great high priest, offered up his own blood as the Lamb of God (John 1:29) to atone, once and for all, for your sins and mine. The Lamb of God could only atone for our sins being “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” His blood of the atonement must be of the same sort as the sinner, that is, human. You do not have the blood of bulls or goats running through your veins, but human blood; and for human sin the atonement must likewise be human.
Hebrews 2:14-18 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
“In the likeness of sinful flesh” means Jesus had a human nature just like ours, fully human, but without sin and without a sinful nature. Don’t think that because Jesus did not have a sinful nature that he could not have sinned. He was tempted, really and truly, in his human nature, and could have sinned, but did not. He stood firm in temptation where our first father, Adam, did not.
Neither should you think that because Jesus did not have a sinful nature, that he could not be a real and true representative of you and me who do have sinful natures. He did not need to have a sinful nature, because man was not created with one. The man who fell in Eden–Adam–did not have the sin nature until after he transgressed. So the saying, “To err is human,” is not entirely true. The sinful nature is not part of what it means to be human. The sinful nature was acquired in the fall, in the corruption of Adam’s nature and all creation when he sinned.
Jesus died to deliver us from every aspect of our sin–from the guilt for our sins, and from our sinful nature. In the resurrection you will be raised with a fully human nature, but without sin or a sinful nature, and glorified to live forever.
(I’ll give you a moment to reflect on that magnificent truth and to glorify God.)
in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled
Little and often-overlooked phrases are like tiny keys to open the understanding of the text. You already might be on the lookout for such key phrases as “therefore” and “but”. I recommend you add this phrase: “in order that”. The underlying Greek word will almost always be hina–indicating purpose. The purpose of Christ’s sacrifice was to satisfy the righteous requirement of the law on your behalf. That is why there is “now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus”: the condemnation required by the law has been satisfied, according to the law, in the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God, who gave himself to suffer that condemnation upon himself in your place.
in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
The last part of verse 4 is not an add-on to the gospel message. Paul is not saying, the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us who are not only in Christ but who, in addition, walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. It is not a separation of Christians into classes of those who walk according to the Spirit and those Christians who walk according to the flesh (i.e., “carnal Christians”). It is not a separation but the definition of a Christian: one who is in Christ Jesus and who walks not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Paul does not here nor anywhere else teach any such thing as “the carnal Christian”.
Paul is simply bringing his teaching together as he moves the argument along. In other words, it is what Paul has said before: justification must be followed by sanctification. Sanctification must flow from justification. They are not the same, but you do not have one without the other. You are justified in the sacrifice of Christ for your sins (v. 3 and the first part of v.4). Your sanctification–the holy life, the life in the Spirit–necessarily follows. And so here Paul is just defining further what a Christian is. If you are a Christian, then by virtue of that fact, you “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”