“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Romans 8:1-4
Recall that person, that “I” who is powerless to do the good and just as powerless to avoid doing evil even though he knows better, narrates the lion’s share of chapter 7:
“For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Romans 7:22-23
This unhappy man is not a Christian, but rather a foil. A literary foil is a character whose purpose is to contrast with the protagonist in order highlight his characteristics. The foil used by St. Paul in chapter 7 is meant to highlight the miserable life of any man or woman who seeks to make the Mosaic Law or for that matter any law, any moral code, the instrument by which one is made a member-in-good-standing of God’s New Covenant. Paul asserts that the Law is good and holy but it does not function as God’s instrument to make people righteous and holy:
“Is the Law now against the promise of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.” Galatians 3:21
The point that Paul is driving home over and over again to the Roman Christians is that the Law is powerless to effect real holiness, much less does it effect regeneration nor do you receive the Holy Spirit by the works of the Law. Regeneration, being made a child of God, as well as being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sin, being set free from condemnation come to us through the faith of Jesus Christ. We appropriate those blessings not through the Law of Moses but by being in Jesus, just as St. Paul says:
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:1& 2
Of course there are very few people in our day who are hoping to achieve personal holiness and happiness through the Law of Moses. But a point that I wish to make is that generally speaking what Paul says about hope placed in the Mosaic Law as an instrument to salvation and real joy is applicable to other forms of law and strategies that promise happiness and that would include other religions that hope in some form of pleasing God apart from the faith of Jesus Christ. But I suggest that we are correct go beyond established religions like Judaism and Islam since we are in no short supply of our own home grown strategies of happiness in the self-improvement and moral rearmament movements. Though self-improvement as a way of life was a mere twinkle in Benjamin Franklin’s eye when he published his autobiography in 1791, it has become not just an American obsession, but the American Public Religion. Whether or not one is a practitioner of the gospel of Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, or Tony Robbins, the transcending glory of the salvation they promise is not disputed: the secret laws of highly effective living, to be happy especially with one’s self, and to be rich and powerful. I suppose most of those gurus would claim to be non-religious. But certainly Bill Wilson the founder of AA and Napoleon Hill introduced a so-called spiritual element into self-help and that has led to the quasi-Christian enthusiasm of positive living preachers like Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and today the ever-smiling Joel Osteen. For all of these preachers the problem with the man or the woman in Romans 7 boils down to a bad self-image and the deep need for personal motivation. Positive thinking, learning the secret principles of personal effectiveness and regular use of positive self-affirmations will save you. When you rise up in the morning look at your self in the mirror and enthusiastically declare, “Everyday in every way I am getting better and better.”
But let me be perfectly clear that theses self-improvement messiahs are not worthy to be compared to Moses and I do not mean in any way to suggest that self-help dogma has some likeness to the Mosaic Law. Sad to say that in our day we have fallen so low that we don’t even aspire to the salvation of our souls, we just want to feel good about ourselves and be rich and powerful. Paul is crystal clear that though the Law will never make people holy, if there had been a law given which could have made people holy it would have been the Law of Moses – but of course true happiness comes only by participation in Jesus Christ. That’s all I’m going to say about self-improvement because it is depressing to think about it much, but you do see I hope how men and women desperately need the Gospel of Jesus Christ where true happiness is found. Let’s get back to our text and see how great this salvation is and how God achieved it:
“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Romans 8:4
This is probably the central thought in Paul’s whole life and work – “what the Law could not do… God.” But what is it that the Law could not do? Some people have thought Paul was referring to law-abiding behavior as though his main thought here is ethical. This idea persist down to today that the center of Christianity is the moral life, but that is wrong. Not entirely wrong because to be in Christ is to be led by the Holy Spirit and that means to walk in the Holy Spirit, which means that we live in a way that pleases Jesus Christ our God. But that is a result of being in Jesus Christ and not our reason for being in Christ. The center of the Christian is life is the Incarnation and Cross of Christ and that is exactly what no other religion and certainly no lame self-help program has any understanding of at all:
“For… God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Romans 8:4
Here is the real center of our life: God sent his only Son, the Word of the Father, who was made flesh just like us and in his own flesh he suffered on the Cross and he condemned sin in his own body. Paul understood that the Son of God pre-existed the Incarnation. It means that he understood that the Logos became a real human being – body and all. The phrase “in the likeness of sinful flesh” does not mean that Jesus himself sinned and it certainly doesn’t mean that sinfulness is a necessary characteristic to what it means to be a human being. It means that when the Angel appeared to Mary and told her that God had chosen her to give birth to the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, she opened her heart up to God and by a miracle she conceived a child in her womb that she named Jesus. The Logos received Mary’s humanity, our humanity, fallen humanity and thus Paul says that God’s only son came to us in the likeness of sinful flesh. Thus to say that Jesus was “in the likeness of sinful flesh” means that he became flesh like us, but his humanity was perfected through his union with God the Son. Paul understood Jesus to be truly God and truly man.
One more thing, when Paul refers to “the weakness of the flesh,” or “walking after the flesh,” he does not mean that our corporeal life, our fleshiness is sinful and that our entire problem is connected to our physical bodies. In fact God affirms his solidarity with our human nature and our bodily existence in the Incarnation as well as the resurrection of Christ and our own future bodily resurrection. What he means by such phrases as the weakness or the way of the flesh is this present rebellious state of being that has become the habitation of sin and death.
Now, remember what Paul states at the very beginning of chapter 8:
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…”
We who are in Christ are set free from any condemnation. It is as though the verdict rendered on the Day of Judgment has been brought forward and the judgment rendered concerning us is “No Condemnation, A Righteous Child of God.” This is the center of our joy and the reason for courage and stamina in our pursuit of God’s will. Furthermore, here is something we have been seeing all along, that everything depends upon our being in, our participation in a person. We may now once again apply what we have learned about what it means to be in someone. The upshot of it all is our participation in Christ who while he condemned sin in his flesh, he has also set us free from condemnation. We have talked about being in Adam when he disobeyed God and sin and death came upon this earth and since all humanity participated in Adam we too are “in” sin and death. We have also talked about how God called Abraham to fight back against sin and death not by giving him more commandments, but by making a promise. God promised Abraham that He, God, would somehow use his family to redeem all of creation and that would begin with a son. Abraham believed God and it was “counted unto him for righteousness,” but it was not just reckoned to him as an individual person, it was reckoned to everyone who was “participating in” Abraham. Now the work that God initiated in Abraham to bring an end to sin and death came to fruition in the son of Mary and the New Covenant. As I have said before the promises of the New Covenant are in John 17, which is our Lord’s high priestly prayer in which Jesus prays for all those who are in him and he prays that all the love he knows his Father has for him, his Father also has for all those who are in Jesus Christ. In the prayer of John 17 Jesus also consecrated himself to be the sacrifice for sin.
“For… God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Romans 8:4
This does not mean, as some have taught, that God the Father desired to inflict pain and punishment on Jesus for everyone else. Paul’s idea here is not some kind of judicial exchange of pain, a kind of calculus of grief and agony to be inflicted upon Jesus on behalf of others. It is not pain and agony inflicted upon Jesus to satisfy some notion of justice, what is it? It is important to attend to the text: it is sin that is condemned, not Jesus. What Paul is saying is that a death sentence has been passed and carried out upon sin and death in the flesh of Jesus upon the Cross. This is about the death of death, of sin itself reaping its own death in the flesh of Christ on the Cross.
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” Romans 6:3 & 6
If it is true (and it is) that we were in Adam when he betrayed God, so it is furthermore true that we who are baptized into Christ Jesus were in him when he “condemned sin in the flesh.” Jesus was faithful to his Father and his faith in his Father enabled him to remain faithful even through the betrayals, and the suffering of what anyone else would have seen as the final and hopeless cruelty of the Cross. But by his faith, Jesus established the New Covenant and those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were in Jesus on the Cross participating in his faithfulness to his Father and reversing Adam’s betrayal.