WHAT THE LAW COULD NOT DO

In Romans 8:1 & 2 Paul taught that for those who are in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation because through Christ we have been set free from the law of sin and death. The sin, death, condemnation principle that bound us no longer applies.

How can this be? How can we be set free from the verdict of God’s law which we consistently fail to obey? How can the just condemnation be removed so that we are released from it both now and forever?

We could not keep the law, and the law could not enable us to keep it. Paul has already told us:

‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin’ (3:19, 20).

According to these verses the law cannot achieve our justification or right legal standing in the presence of God; and it could not enable us to fulfil its righteous requirements mentioned in 8:4. This was because it was weakened by the flesh ...’

Again, Paul has already taught this:

‘... the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. ... We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin ... I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh ... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (7:12, 14, 18, 24)

Romans 8:1 -17 is the Gospel answer to Paul’s agony and despair when he looks at his own inability to keep the law. It is the explanation of his ‘thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (7:25). Having reminded himself that there is no condemnation, and that we have been set free from the law of sin and death, Paul then makes this powerful and amazing explanatory statement: ‘For what the law was powerless to do ... God did ...’

What the law could not do for us, God did.

If we stand on our own two feet in the presence of God we are condemned by the law we have failed to keep and which we cannot keep. This is what Paul calls ‘according to flesh’. Left to ourselves, apart from Christ, we may be clearly morally corrupt, or we may be, to our human eyes, very good, like the Pharisees. But we are still 'flesh'. We are still cut off from and condemned by God. We are still in our rebellion and independence, standing alone with our sin and guilt in the presence of the God from whom we are severed. To live ‘according to flesh’ is to relate to God on the basis of our own performance, instead of relating to him always, only and ever in and through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

Paul has shown us in 5:12-21 and 7:7-25 that in ourselves - in our flesh - we cannot please God. And the law is powerless to change that. But, Paul says, 'what the law was powerless to do ... God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering - he condemned sin in the flesh’ (8:3).

The death of Christ on the cross as our substitute both affirms God’s justice (3:25, 26) and removes the condemnation from those who believe, acquitting them fully and freely (3:24). 'God did' what 'the law was powerless to do'. God, in laying all the condemnation for our sin upon Jesus Christ, removed us from the legal position where the law of sin and death held us under condemnation. The law could never do this for us; it could never gain a legal acquittal for us.

This legal impact of Christ’s substitutionary death is applied to those who believe in him. The result is of this is ‘that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us’ (8:4).

The result of God's action in Christ's death is that we, in Christ our substitute, have fully met the righteous requirements of the law: we are justified, we are declared righteous, we are reckoned to be dead to sin. The just penalty for our sin has been fully paid: it was exacted in full from Christ. It will never again be debited to us because Christ's death has cancelled it. This is a complete, finished, never-to-be-repeated objective fact, with massive subjective ramifications.

We no longer approach God on the basis of our own merit or demerit – we no longer relate to God ‘according to flesh’, according to what we are in ourselves. Rather we live in his presence always and only ‘in Christ’, depending on his righteousness, trusting in him, not in ourselves. Because of what God accomplished in the death of Christ we no longer relate to God as Judge, but as Father, as the Holy Spirit assures us (8:15, 16).

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020