There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 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, 4 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. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
Romans 8:1-6 | ESV
How is ‘the righteous requirement of the law fulfilled in us’. Some argue it is by Jesus meeting its righteous requirements in his death. Of these, some say it is by his law-keeping life (the law required a perfectly lived life and this Jesus accomplished on our behalf) while others see it in his curse-bearing death (in his death Jesus meets the curse-bearing requirement of the law).
The first view I think is wildly wrong. It is wrong because Christ’s life is not atoning, it is his death, and only his death that atones. A cursory reading of the text shows the focus is on Christ’s death; Christ is sent ‘for sin’ and in him God ‘condemned sin’. Where is sin dealt with in Romans? It is in the death of Jesus exclusively. In the flesh of Jesus on the cross sin is dealt with. He bore ours sins on his own body on the cross.
The second view, that the just requirement of the law is met in his curse-bearing death, is in itself accurate theology. Christ did bear the required penalty of a broken law, however, I do not think it is what Paul is meaning here by ‘the righteous requirement of the law’. I believe he is referring to the life of loving God and neighbour that the law required. Let me explain why.
Various signals in the immediate text point to ‘the righteous requirement of the law’ being Spirit-filled living rather than Christ’s sin-bearing death. In Christ’s death sin was condemned in order that the just requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us. Christ’s sin condemning death is not said to fulfil the just requirement of the law but was necessary for the requirement of the law to be fulfilled in us. Note, it is in us, not in Christ, that the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled. It seems too that it is fulfilled in us because due to Christ’s sin condemning death, we are no longer living in the flesh where sin reigned but in the Spirit where sin has no authority.
In a sense, this text is a compressed version of what Paul has already said in Romans 6, though the difference between the two humanities is now more clearly defined as flesh and Spirit.
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.Slaves to Righteousness. 15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Romans 6:5-18 | ESV
Notice, the death of Christ has so dealt with sin that it no longer has dominion over us; because we are justified from sin we are no longer slaves of sin but have become slaves of righteousness (we are acquitted of sin that we may be free of it). Romans 8 echoes this with its added reference to law and Spirit arising from issues introduced in Romans 7. But more about Romans 7 connection shortly.
Firstly, let me back up my contention that the reference in 8:4 is to fulfilling the righteousness of the Law in our lives by citing similar reasoning from other Scriptures. Romans 13 is a strong parallel.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Romans 13:8-10 | ESV
The parallel is not exact, love, not the Spirit, is the subject. However, this love is only possible through life in the Spirit. Galatians makes a similar point with a more explicit context of two states of humanity, flesh and Spirit, as in Romans 8.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.Walk by the Spirit 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Galatians 5:13-16 | ESV
These parallel texts,and others (James 2:8), demonstrate that the fulfilling of the law in the life of the believer by the Spirit In Romans 8, is a reasonable, even probable, interpretation of ‘ that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit’.
Finally, a comment on the more immediate hinterland to this text from which the issues of 8:1-4 immediately flow.
In Romans 7, Paul demonstrated that being ‘under law’ is a fruitless marriage in terms of righteous living. The reason being, the law addresses man in the flesh and makes demands that the flesh (powerless as it is) cannot meet. Thus the law can only produce death. A new marriage is required, a marriage to Christ, that places us ‘under grace’ (6:14,15) and ‘ in the Spirit‘ (7:6), if we are to produce fruit for God (6:22; 7:4). This change of marriage partners is only possible through death, our death with Christ upon the cross (Roms 7:1-6). The fruit to God the law demanded, ironically can only be realised if we are no longer under law. In a word, we must be delivered from the law before we can fulfil the law.
Against this background we read in 8:1, ‘For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death’. The ‘law of sin and death’ is probably not a reference to the Mosaic Covenant but to ‘the law/principle of sin that dwells in our members’ (7:21-24). Be that as it may, the principal point is that the hopeless slavery to sin and death to which the flesh is captive, is broken by ‘the law/principle of Spirit of life’. In chapter 7, there is only wretchedness, not simply because of the guilt of sin but because of powerlessness in the face of it (7:18-24). Paul finds hope that this slavery to sin and death is broken through Jesus Christ our Lord (7:25).
How? Jesus death in the flesh to sin has dealt with sin and freed us from the flesh ( in his death we died to sin and to the flesh) so that the righteousness the law required will be fulfilled in us as we walk according to the Spirit. Believers do not stand impotent and wretched before the requirement of righteousness, rather, by the Spirit, righteous living becomes the air that they breathe. They are slaves of righteousness. The kingdom of God is not for them food and drink but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Roms 14:17. Cf. 2 Cor 3:7-11). Of course, this righteous living that the law demanded is realised not according to the letter of the old code but to its spirit, to its eschatological fulfilment in a new covenant, in Christ. But this latter point we will not explore now (see previous post).
May God give us the grace to live this Spirit-filled life, a life that: rejoices in the Spirit of sonship that enables us to cry ‘abba’; listens to the Spirit’s illuminating wisdom to guide; searches the Spirit-breathed word for understanding; depends on the power of the Spirit to put to death sinful temptations; is glad that our confused groans are translated into intelligent prayer to the Father; and has Spirit-produced fruit in which God delight.