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, 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. 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.
The question today is very practical and tremendously important. What does Paul mean in verse 4 when he says that the aim of Christ’s death is “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 mentioned last week that some take this to mean that Christ fulfilled the law for us when he obeyed it perfectly and died as the perfect sacrifice on our behalf. In him, we are perfect with his perfection and in him we are pardoned by his blood. Now I believe that is true. And it is foundational for everything. But I don’t think that is the point of verse 4. And the reason I don’t is that it won’t fit the wording of the text.
Verse 4 says the aim is “that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us.” It does not say that the law is to be fulfilled for us. That is true, I would say, from Romans 5:19. But that’s not the point here. And then he focuses specifically on our walking, that is, our living, as the way the fulfillment will happen: “that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk . . . according to the Spirit.”
So my question is: How do we fulfill the requirement of the law? And specifically, how can any of my “walking” by the Spirit — which is always imperfect in this life — be said to fulfill God’s law which is holy and just and good. Since when does God’s holy law and divine standard say, “Pretty good will do”?
Twelve Theses on the Christian and the Law
What I would like to do is answer this question with a far-reaching summary of the relationship of the Christian to the Law in twelve theses so that we can clarify our overall position and then move ahead into Romans 8 without having to rebuild these things over and over.
Thesis 1: Fulfilling the requirement of the law in Romans 8:4 refers to a life of real love for people.
Romans 13:8–10: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Galatians 5:13–18: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. . . . If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” (Compare Romans 7:4, 6.)
Matthew 7:12: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Matthew 22:37–40: “And he said to him, ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’”
Thesis 2: Our fulfilling the law in loving others is not the ground of our justification. The ground of justification is the obedience and blood-shedding of Christ alone, appropriated through faith alone before any other acts are performed. Our fulfilling the law is the fruit and evidence of being justified by faith.
Romans 3:24–25: “Being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed.”
“The ground of justification is the obedience and blood-shedding of Christ alone.”
Romans 5:19: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”
Romans 8:3: “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.
2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Romans 3:20–22: “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.”
Romans 3:28: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Romans 4:4–5: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Thesis 3: This fulfilling of the law in loving others is rendered not in our own strength but by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 8:4: “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.”
Galatians 5:22: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Galatians 5:13–16: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . .’ But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”
Thesis 4: This fulfilling of the law in loving others through the Spirit is rendered by faith, that is, by being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ — the perseverance of the same faith that justifies.
Galatians 3:5: “So then, does he who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?”
Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.”
1 Timothy 1:5: “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
Thesis 5: This fulfilling of the law in loving others through the Spirit by faith is not a perfect love in this life.
Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Romans 7:19: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
Romans 7:23–25: “I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”
Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”
Thesis 6: But my fulfilling of the law in loving others through the Spirit by faith will become perfect when I die or when Christ comes, and I will live in perfection of love forever.
Romans 8:30: “These whom he predestined, he also called; and these whom he called, he also justified; and these whom he justified, he also glorified.
Philippians 1:6: “For I am confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Hebrews 12:22–23: “But you have come to Mount Zion . . . and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”
“Christ will be glorified forever in our salvation. We’ll forever lean on his righteousness.”
Thesis 7: Even though I will one day be perfected in love, the totality of my existence will never be a perfect one because it will always include the first chapter of my fallenness. I will always be a forgiven sinner and will always be in need of an imputed, alien righteousness and a sin-bearing Substitute for my right standing before God. In this way, Christ will be glorified forever in my salvation. I will forever lean on his righteousness and his sacrifice.
Thesis 8: Even though imperfect, this Spirit-dependent, Christ-exalting love (which is essentially self-sacrificing gladness in the temporal and eternal good of others, 2 Corinthians 8:1–2, 8) is the true and real direction of life the law required. In this life, we have new direction, not full perfection. This direction is what the law demands on the way to perfection.
(See the texts under thesis 1.)
Thesis 9: This fulfilling of the Old Testament Law in the loving others through the Spirit by faith is sometimes called the “law of liberty” and the “law of Christ.”
First, when the fulfilling of the Law it is called the “law of liberty” it means that as Christians we pursue love in liberty from law-keeping as the ground of our justification or the power of our sanctification. Instead, we pursue it by the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2). We look to the Spirit of Christ for transformation so that love flows by power from within, not pressure from without. The law of liberty is the leading of the Spirit, and “where the Spirit is there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
James 1:25: “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”
James 2:10–12: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, ‘do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.
Galatians 5:1: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”
2 Corinthians 3:17–18: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
Second, when the fulfilling of the Law is called “the law of Christ,” it means that our pursuit of love is guided and enabled by the life, word, and Spirit of Jesus Christ. The law of Christ is not a new list of behaviors without but a new Treasure and Master within. He did give us a “new commandment” (“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another,” John 13:34). But this standard of love is the life and power of a person who indwells us by his Spirit. We pursue love as “the law of Christ” by looking to Christ as our all-sufficient righteousness, our all-satisfying Treasure, our all-providing Protection and Helper, and our all-wise counselor and guide.
1 Corinthians 9:21: “To those who are without law, [I became] as without law, though not being without the law of God but [in, not under] the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.”
Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.”
Thesis 10: The Old Testament Law can be understood narrowly as a set of commandments, or more broadly as the entire teaching of the Pentateuch, or even all the instruction of God wherever he gives it.
First, in the narrow sense one may think of the law as commanding perfect obedience which, if we could perform it by faith, would be our righteousness and our justification. But, because of our sin, the law does not impart life in this way (Galatians 3:21), but shuts us up to look away from law-keeping to Christ so that we might be justified by faith in him.
Galatians 3:21–25: “If a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”
Second, in the broader sense of the whole Pentateuch or the whole Old Testament, we may think of the law not merely as making demands, but as also providing a way for sinners to be justified by faith apart from works, and to please him by walking in love (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6).
“When the law is understood in its entirety, its aim is that Jesus Christ gets the glory.”
Romans 3:19–22: “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.”
Thesis 11: When the law is understood in its entirety its aim is that Jesus Christ gets the glory as the one who provides the only ground for our imputed righteousness through faith (justification), and the only power for our imparted righteousness (that is, love which fulfills the law) through faith (sanctification).
Romans 5:19: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one the many will be made righteous.”
Romans 10:4: “The goal of the law is Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes” (my translation).
2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Philippians 3:8–9: “More than that, I count all things to be loss . . . so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”
Philippians 1:11: “Having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Thesis 12: Therefore, I give a summary, three-part answer to the question, “How can my imperfect obedience and love fulfill the perfect law of God?”
First, my imperfect love is, nevertheless, real God-dependent, Spirit-enabled, Christ-exalting love that is based on my justification and not a means to it. And therefore it is the new direction that the law was aiming at and what the new covenant promised. In short, love as the fruit of faith, which exalts Christ, is what the law was aiming at.
Second, my imperfect love is the first fruits of a final perfection that Christ will complete in me at his appearing. Romans 8:4 does not say that the entire fulfillment of the law happens in us now. But our walk by the Spirit begins now and so does our fulfillment of the law.
Third, my imperfect love is the fruit of my faith in Jesus who is my justifying perfection before God. In other words, the only law-keeping I depend on as the ground of my justification is Jesus’s law-keeping. His was perfect. Mine is imperfect. And so I will never have a whole life of perfection to offer God — not to all eternity. The acceptability of my life to all eternity will always depend on the perfection of Jesus offered in my place. My imperfect love now and my perfect love later will always be the fruit of faith that looks to Jesus, my only perfection. In the end, the law is fulfilled in me imperfectly because it was fulfilled in him perfectly. And my imperfection is a pointer to his perfection, and that pointing is the aim of the law.
Look to Jesus
Wherever you look in Scripture, look to Jesus. Let every passage tell you something of his Father and his Spirit and thus himself. Make it your aim in all your use of the Scriptures to see and savor more of Christ. Be on a treasure hunt to satisfy your soul more and more in him. In this way the Spirit of Christ will be at work to transform you into his image. The aim of the law will be fulfilled more and more in your life. And you will magnify Christ in your life until he comes to complete the work he has begun.