Commentary on Romans 8:1-4

This is a short commentary I wrote after doing some exegetical work on Romans 8:1-4. That detailed work can be found on my “Bible & Creed Translations” page. This is not a terse, exegetical commentary. It has been deliberately written for normal people, but it is based on some thorough exegetical work.

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1

Therefore, [there is] now no punishment to those in union with Christ Jesus,

Paul begins the passage by drawing an overarching conclusion (“therefore”) from everything which has come before. In light of:

  1. the fact that “since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Rom 5:1),
  2. the fact that through Jesus “we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand,” (Rom 5:2),
  3. the fact that “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us,” (Rom 5:5),
  4. the fact that “God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Rom 5:8),
  5. God reconciled sinners to Himself despite the fact “we were enemies,” (Rom 5:10),
  6. the fact that those who have repented and believed the Gospel have been reconciled to God (Rom 5:11),
  7. the fact that, just as sin entered the world by one single transgression, “so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people, for just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous,” (Rom 5:18-19),
  8. the fact that those in union with Christ have been freed from slavery to sin, and have been made slaves for righteousness (Rom 6:17-18),
  9. and despite the fact that every single Christian who has ever lived still struggles with sin every day of his life (Rom 7),

something fundamental has forever changed in a person’s life once they become an adopted son or daughter of God. Maybe the best way to understand “therefore” here is to understand Paul writing something like, “therefore, the conclusion of the whole matter is this!”

This is the sum of the matter – “there is now no punishment to those in union with Christ Jesus.” Something has changed. There used to be punishment in store for you, but now there is not. There used to be the promise from the Lord that He would mete out flaming fire upon you, who refused to obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Thess 1:8), but now there is not.

If you are a Christian, it means your name was written in the Lamb’s book of life from before the foundation of the world. You were elected, selected and chosen by God, for reasons only He knows, to be a recipient of His great mercy, love, grace and kindness.  You have been united to Him by repentance and faith in Christ. You are in union with Christ, and therefore there is now no punishment for you.

Why not?

2

Because the law of the life-giving Spirit, in union with Christ Jesus, has liberated you from the law of sin and death.

This “law of the life-giving Spirit” is a rule of life which governs your heart and mind. It is the divine influence and help from on high, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, who rules in a Christian’s heart and mind now that the kingdom of darkness has been banished from within you (cf. 2 Cor 4:3-4).

This is in complete contrast to the “law of sin and death” which used to rule and war in your body, controlling your thoughts and actions, motivating and impelling you to do nothing but seek after your own lusts and desires. You used to present your body to sin as an instrument to be used for unrighteousness (Rom 6:13); now that has all been changed and flipped on its head.

For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (Rom 6:19).

Your entire being has changed. You have changed. You have been given spiritual life. You have God’s Holy Spirit within you, and your heart of unyielding stone has been replaced by a soft heart of flesh (Eze 36:24ff); a heart sensitive to the things of God, motivated and impelled by His holiness and driven by a thirst for righteousness. You love God, and therefore seek to keep His commandments (Jn 14:15).

This rule of life comes from the “life-giving Spirit.” It is He who brings life to the spiritually dead. But, He does not do it alone. He does it “in union with Christ Jesus.” All three Divine Persons of the Trinity work together to accomplish a sinner’s salvation, sanctification and eternal glorification. It is the Apostle Peter who proclaimed to the crowds on Pentecost that Christ dispenses the Spirit to His brethren;

 This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it. So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear (Acts 2:32-33).

Think about the word “liberation.” It implies that you were enslaved to someone or something. You were powerless to fight against it. It dominated you. It controlled you. It consumed you. It exercised unrelenting control and mastery over your heart, soul and mind. Now, Paul is not speaking about actual slavery in a worldly sense. But, if you go one step further to the spiritual sphere, things are suddenly very clear.

People are born enslaved to their lusts, desires and wickedness impulses. People are, by nature, children of wrath (Eph 2:3). People belong to the kingdom of darkness, and must be transferred to the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Col 1:13). When a sinner repents and believes the Gospel, he does so only because the life-giving Spirit, in union with Christ Jesus, has liberated him from the law or rule of sin and death in his life.

The Spirit is the One who performed the action here. He liberated you. You did nothing. It is an act which was accomplished at a specific point in time, and as a result, you entered into a new state. There is now no punishment for you. You have been liberated from the law of sin and death. The Spirit did this, dispensed by the Son, according to the good pleasure of the Father’s will. The Spirit and the Son did it all, because it was predestined by the Father. Salvation is liberation from the domain of darkness.

How have Christians been set free?

3

For [God did what] the law could not ever do, because it was weakened by the flesh. God sent His own Son as like a sinful man and, regarding sin, He imposed judgment against the sin while He was in the flesh,

Because God acted while we were helpless. Because God had determined to act in eternity past, despite knowing every wicked and sinful thing you have done, are doing, or ever will do.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:4-7).

In short, “[God did what] the law could not ever do, because it was weakened by the flesh.” The law could never perfect anybody; it could only prove our own weakness. The law could never atone for sins; it could only forgive, as it were, on credit in light of the coming Messiah who would taste death for every man (Heb 2:9). As Paul wrote elsewhere,

 I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing! (Gal 2:21).

The law, while inherently holy and good, was weakened by our sinful flesh. Therefore, God acted. He sent His own Son in the state or condition of being like a sinful man. Christ was not a sinful man, but He was made in the form or likeness of one. He was conceived by a miracle of the Holy Spirit specifically so He would not be contaminated by the curse of sin.

As the chief angel Gabriel told Mary, “Therefore [that is, in light of Jesus’ miraculous conception] the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God,” (Lk 1:35). Jesus is holy precisely because He is not tainted by sin, yet the Scriptures still affirm “for we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin,” (Heb 4:15).

It should also go without saying that, if God sent Jesus in the form or likeness of sinful flesh, to be as like sinful flesh and identify with all the frailties and limitations of wicked men, that the Son was pre-existent. He did not spring into being at His birth in Bethlehem.

What did Jesus do? Simple. “[R]egarding sin, He imposed judgment against the sin while He was in the flesh.” While He was in the flesh; that is, while Jesus was incarnate on this earth as the God-Man, He imposed judgment against “the sin.” He defeated sin. He conquered sin. “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God,” (2 Cor 5:21).

What is “the sin”? Many English translations do not translate the article “the,” because many times it is not necessary to do so. In this case, however, it is important. In this case, “the sin” is basically a synonym for “the curse.” Jesus imposed judgment against “the curse” of sin and death, against the penalty of the fall, against the sentence which God imposed on all humanity in the Garden of Eden so long ago. That curse has been broken, rent in two, and shattered into thousands of pieces. Jesus imposed judgment against the very curse, against the very “sin” which has bound men, women, boys and girls from all over the globe into slavery to the law of sin and death since the events from Genesis 3.

Jesus did this. You did nothing, you do nothing and you cannot do anything. He performed the action of this verb, and He did it at a particular point in time in the past. He did it during the incarnation, through His perfect and holy obedience to the law and His voluntary and willing torture and death for His people’s sake. This is what theologians call the active and passive obedience of Christ. He actively obeyed the law and fulfilled God’s perfect standards of righteousness and holiness for His elect. He also passively allowed Himself to be arrested, tried, tortured and then executed for His children’s crimes, in their place, as their true substitute.

Jesus did this. He imposed judgment against “the sin” while He was in the flesh. Praise the Lord for the Son’s faithfulness! But, why did He do it? What was the purpose?

4

so that the requirement of the law would be fulfilled among us who are not living according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

Jesus did this for a very specific reason; “so that the requirement would be fulfilled . . .” What requirement is Paul talking about? He’s talking about the requirement that Christ be perfect and holy in our place, as our substitute. Remember, if righteousness could come by the law, then Christ died for nothing. Paul also wrote:

 yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:16).

So, Jesus, the Son of God, fulfilled the requirement of the law perfectly, and He did it for all the ones whom God has given to Him. If you are a Christian, then Jesus did this for you. If you are not a Christian, but you repent of your sins and believe the Good News He suffered and bled and died to bring to you, then He did it for you, too.

This requirement is not fulfilled among everybody. It is only “fulfilled among us who are not living according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Paul is not saying that we fulfill the requirement by living our lives according to the Spirit, as if this was a statement about a Christian’s obligation.[1] He is stating a fact, not a condition. Here is what Paul is saying:

  1. if you have repented of your sins and believed the Gospel,
  2. then there is now no punishment in your future, because you are in union with Christ Jesus
  3. this is because the law of the life-giving Spirit, together with Christ Jesus, has liberated you from the law or rule of sin and death in your heart, soul and mind. How is this possible?
  4. It is possible because God did what the law could never do, because its usefulness was weakened by the flesh. Therefore, God sent His own Son in the very likeness of sinful man and, concerning sin, His Son imposed judgment against the curse of sin and death while He was in the flesh!
  5. Jesus did this so the requirement of the law would be fulfilled among those who live according to the Spirit – but what does it mean to be living according to the Spirit?
  6. It means to be controlled, governed by, ruled over by and influenced by God Almighty, who sent Jesus to live a perfect life, die a sacrificial death, and rise again to defeat and impose judgment on the curses of sin and death, and who then sent the Spirit to give you new life.

In short, Paul is saying Jesus fulfilled the requirement of the law for those who are controlled and governed by the Spirit, who are Christians. This is a statement about status; “those who are living according to the Spirit” = those who are saved. Jesus did this for the elect; for those whom God has given to Him.[2]

The verb is passive here, which in this instance means the action is done to the recipient. The recipient does nothing at all. The recipients of this grace are “us . . . who are living according to the Spirit.”

Notes

[1] For example, William Hendrickson wrote, “The purpose and result of Christ’s work of redemption was that His people, by means of the operation of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and lives, should strive, are striving, to fulfill the law’s righteous requirement. Out of gratitude for and in response to, the outpouring of God’s love, they now love God and their neighbor,” (Romans 1-8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980], 248).

See also Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 303-304. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 404-405 also seems to take this view.

[2] John Calvin observed, “They who understand that the renewed, by the Spirit of Christ, fulfil the law, introduce a gloss wholly alien to the meaning of Paul; for the faithful, while they sojourn in this world, never make such a proficiency, as that the justification of the law becomes in them full or complete. This then must be applied to forgiveness; for when the obedience of Christ is accepted for us, the law is satisfied, so that we are counted just,” (Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans [Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010], 283).

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