How the Spirit Does What the Law Could Not Do
For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.
We ended last week on this note: not only can the law not justify, but it cannot sanctify either. In other words, it is futile to turn to the law to have our condemnation lifted, and it is futile to turn to the law to have our rebellion against God and our love affair with everything but God taken away. Everyone of us has two deep problems – much deeper than our financial problems or our relational problems or our health problems. We are guilty before God and deserve condemnation, and we are rebellious against God and love his creation more than we love him. And my point last week, based on Romans 8:3-4, is that neither of these problems can be fixed by the law of God – by the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai.
But they must be fixed or we perish. To fix the first one God turns us away from the law to Christ. Verse 3: "What the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh." God took away our condemnation by condemning Christ in our place. Now what did God do to fix the second problem: our rebellion against God and the addiction we have to crave God's creation more than we crave God?
Did he turn us away from the law for justification and then send us back to it for sanctification? Is the law the first and chief and decisive focus of our lives if we want to triumph over our rebellion and our craving for God's creation over God? If we want to love our enemies and not return evil for evil, and have patience and kindness, and be bold and courageous in the cause of righteousness, and endure hardship joyfully in service of the gospel, and spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, then where shall we turn for help? How do we become holy, loving, and Christ-like after we are justified by faith alone?
What do you do? Where do you turn? What is your focus and passion? How do you fight for holiness and love and Christ-likeness? You must fight. The alternative of pursuing holiness is to perish (Hebrews 12:14). How do you fight? Is law the key that unlocks a life of love?
The Law Is not the Key to Unlock a Life of Love
Paul says that the key won't work. The law cannot do what needs to be done. There are at least three reasons why it cannot.
1. The Law Cannot Remove Our Condemnation
The first one we have spoken of enough, so we will pass over it quickly: the great ground of transformation is the removal of condemnation; the law cannot remove it; and so the law cannot provide the basis for our transformation. If we want to be changed into the image of Jesus, we must first have the verdict of guilty reversed – and the law cannot do that, only God can because of Christ. And we receive it by faith alone.
2. The Law Cannot Conquer the Flesh
But there is a second reason why the law cannot sanctify or transform: It cannot conquer the flesh. That is, it cannot change us at the root of our nature: our fallenness and rebellion against God. It cannot take away our reluctance to love God and our treasonous preference for God's gifts above God (Romans 1:23). On the contrary, Paul teaches us that the law aggravates our sin and stirs up our rebellion.
Let's review a few of those places where Paul says this, so that we arm ourselves from thinking that the law can get anywhere with our deep rebellion, which Paul calls our "flesh" in Romans 8:3 – "what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh."
The Law Came to Increase Transgressions
Let's look at Romans 5:19-21. Paul closes his contrast of Adam and Christ like this: "For as through the one man's [Adam's] disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One [Christ] the many will be made righteous." Now this raises the question: "Well, if righteousness comes to us through the obedience of Christ, and not through our own obedience, then why the law? Isn't the law given to provide righteousness?" Paul answers in verse 20, "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase."
In other words the law is not the remedy for our condemnation or our rebellion. In fact, it is given to turn our inner rebellion into more blatant and visible transgressions. We see this again in Romans 7:5, "While we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death." In other words, the law does not conquer the flesh, it rouses the flesh. The law plays into the hands of our own sinful passions and stirs them up. We see the same thing in Romans 7:8, "But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind." The law does not conquer the flesh, on the contrary, it gives the flesh another base of operation. Another place to show its rebellion.
So Paul asks in Romans 7:13, "Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me?" He answers, "May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good [the law!], so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful." So the function of the law is to make sin more visible in transgressions, more blatant and prevalent in rousing the flesh, and more manifestly vicious in its use of what is good to do its ugly work.
You see this again in Galatians 3. Paul contrasts the inheritance of life promised to Abraham by faith with the idea that it could be secured by law. He says in verse18, "For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. (19) Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made."
Transgressions Increased to Display More Grace and More Glory
So we ask, Why? Why would God design redemptive history like that? Why would he add the law to increase the trespass? Back to Romans 5:20. Verse 20 begins, "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase." Then, to show where God is really going in his purpose, Paul immediately adds: "But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." God's purpose to increase the transgression by introducing the law was not an end in itself. It was an occasion for displaying more grace.
And the ultimate purpose is seen in verse 21: "So that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." The ultimate aim is to make sure that Jesus Christ gets the glory for the triumph of righteousness in the world – both in justification and sanctification.
That leads us to the last reason the law can't sanctify us. But before we turn there, make sure you see this second point: the law can't remedy our rebellious reluctance to treasure God because it stirs it up. Our sinful love of independence and control and self-exaltation simply makes the law into a new theater for revolt. The law gets taken captive by the flesh and made a servant of sin. If we turn to the law to fix our rebellion and the our adulterous indifference to God, it will not work. We will only become worse.
3. The Law Couldn't Give the Son the Glory for Justification & Sanctification
The last reason the law cannot sanctify we just saw at the end of Romans 5: God's purpose is to sanctify us in a way that the credit and the glory for our liberation and transformation go to Jesus Christ, not to ourselves and not to the law. Therefore God calls us not to turn to the law for transformation – for love and holiness and Christ-likeness – but to turn to the living Christ, who worked for us in history and works in us now by his Spirit.
The law cannot magnify the Son of God as more glorious and more valuable and more desirable than the pleasures of sin. Only when Christ himself wins our affections over all contestants will he get the glory God means for him to have. Even if you did turn to the law and experience some measure of success in becoming a law-abiding person (as the Pharisees certainly did, including Saul of Tarsus) Christ would get no honor from that. But God's whole purpose in the plan of redemption is that his Son get the glory not only for our justification, but also for our sanctification. And this the law could not do.
The Key to Sanctification: Walking by the Spirit
What then is the key to sanctification – holiness, love, Christlikeness? Verse 4 says the key is to walk by the Spirit. "God condemned sin in the flesh (4) so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." I'm going to argue in the weeks to come (from Romans 13:8 and Galatians 5:14) that the "fulfillment of the law" is a life of Christ-exalting love. But for now just focus on the means appointed by God to get there: "Walking by the Spirit."
Whose Spirit? Romans 8:9-10 tells us: "However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness." The "Spirit of God" and the "Spirit of Christ" and "Christ" appear to be inseparable and almost interchangeable ways of describing the life-changing presence of God in the life of the believer.
But the point I want to make is simply this: it is not by turning to the law that we fulfill the law and lead lives of love, it is by turning to the living Christ. The power of sanctification is not the law, but the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ. And the instrument of our appropriation of this power is not to turn to the law but to fix our gaze and our faith on the glory of Christ crucified and risen, reigning and indwelling. The key is Christ, seen and savored above all things. That is the power that sanctifies. And this is the method of holiness that glorifies him, not the law and not us.
Let's look at a few confirmations of this.
The parallel between Romans 7:4 and 7:6 show the same thing as Romans 8:4 and 9. "Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God." This is the clearest statement of all that the looking to the law is not the first or chief or decisive means of bearing fruit for God. If you want to bear fruit for God you must die to the law. If you want to live a life of love you must die to the law. If you want to fulfill the law you must die to the law. That is you must not turn to law-keeping as your first or chief or decisive way to defeat your rebellion and become a loving and holy person. To keep the law the way God wants it kept in this age you must turn away from it to "be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead." Then you will "bear fruit for God." And the fruit is love. Love is the fruit of turning to the living Christ and finding him more to be desired than everything that hinders love.
And you can see in the parallel with verse 6 that what Paul has in view here is the same Spirit that he does on Romans 8:4. "But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter." Serving in the newness of the Spirit in verse 6 parallels bearing fruit for God by being joined to Christ in verse 4. Serving in the Spirit and bearing fruit from union with Jesus are the same thing. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.
The Law Cannot Make You a Loving Person
The point is this: The law simply can't make you a loving person. It can't overcome your rebellion. It can't conquer your addiction to the praise of men. It is letter. And letter kills. Only the Spirit – the living, indwelling Jesus Christ – gives life. He changes us to the core. He writes the law on our heart. He wins from us our deepest delight and admiration and trust. And thus he breaks the power of cancelled sin.
The aim of God is that Jesus get the exaltation and that you get the liberation. In Romans 15:18 Paul says, "I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles." Where did our obedience come from? It came from Jesus Christ and what he has done through the gospel.
And why is that important? Because unless you pursue obedience through seeing and savoring him, you won't get the transformation and he won't get the glorification. You stay in bondage, and he is dishonored.
How to Pray If You Are Dead to the Law & Love to Bear Fruit for God
How then should we pray and move forward? Let's bow and I will lead you in a prayer built on this truth:
O Lord Jesus, I am by nature a rebel and find more pleasure in what you made than in you. I am sick and corrupt. O Christ, how plain it is to me now that I need something so much deeper and more powerful and more personal than the law. I know your law is good. But I am flesh, and powerless to obey. And so, Lord Jesus, I turn away from the law, to you. You are my only hope. I turn away from my own resources and bank on your blood and righteousness for acceptance, and on your help for holiness. I turn away from all earthly pleasures and take you, and you alone, as the all-satisfying joy of my life. I renounce Satan and all his ways and all his works. I repent of all the sins I know, and those you know and I don't.
And, O Lord, I pray that you would have mercy on me, and open the eyes of my heart to see you as you really are in all of your surpassing beauty. I pray that you would display your glory to me in the gospel. What I see and know of you now, I embrace with all my heart. I receive you as my Savior and Lord and Treasure. And ask you to dwell mightily in me and make yourself the Victor in my life so that when I love my brothers and my enemies – as I intend to do with all my heart – the glory will go to you.
©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org