What’s the magic word in studying Scripture, the one word which I’ve harped on over and over and over, the one word that will save from a host of errors and dangers and half-truths? Context, context, context. We’ve meditated on the glorious truth of verse 1: If we've placed our faith in Christ and have demonstrated this faith by committing ourselves to doing things his way instead of our own, then there is no condemnation for us. But Paul goes on from there.
Why is there no condemnation for us? Because of what Christ did and because of what the Spirit has done and is doing. Let’s look at it more closely, because this is very important.
There is no condemnation. . . because Christ Jesus died on the cross and rose again and ascended into Heaven. He paid the penalty for my sin, taking my sin upon his back along with the attendant wrath from the Father. He rose from the dead, to (among other things) display God’s “stamp of approval” on his work. And he left this earth. . . why? So that he could send the Spirit back down to us.
Now the Spirit, sent by Jesus, is applying Christ’s work in us. He’s God’s instrument (so to speak) in bringing people to faith in Christ. He grants us both the desire and the power to be obedient and pleasing to the Father. When we turn away from his ways, he moves us back into fellowship with himself. All of this is summed up in verse 2. Through Christ “the law of the Spirit”—referring to his power—“has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Sin has completely lost its power to condemn us, and through the ongoing work of the Spirit it loses its power to control us as well.
Then Paul sort of backtracks a bit to what Christ did, or to be more precise to what the Father did through Christ. As was his habit, he presents a “before and after” picture. Before Christ, the Law was all we had. It was a wonderful set of rules; in fact, it was the best set of rules humanity had ever had up to that point. Paul already confessed that the law was (and is) “holy, righteous and good.”
But here he says that the law was “powerless” to save us. Now, we need to be very careful here. Paul is crystal clear that the problem was not the law. As Pogo once famously declared, “We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.” He says that the law was powerless to save us because it was “weakened by the flesh,” or “sinful nature” as other translations put it. The problem was not the rules; the problem turned out to be the rule keepers, or more precisely the rule breakers.
But what the Law could not do, what we could not do because of the love of evil in our hearts. . . God did. He sent his Son in the likeness of sinful humanity in order to be the ultimate sin offering. Paul later says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” No, Jesus never sinned. But he came in the likeness of sinful humanity to be our sin substitute.
What does it mean that God “condemned sin in the flesh”? When Jesus was on the cross, he experienced the full condemnation of the Father. All the wrath that was due us was poured out on him, and nothing was spared. His righteous anger against our sin was completely satisfied, which is why our Savior could proclaim that “It is finished,” or "paid in full."
And what’s the result? What’s the ultimate purpose here? This was done “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Here, in this short sentence, we have both our position in Christ and our condition in Christ. As far as God’s court is concerned, the righteous requirements of the law are fully met in me. In other words, as far as God’s court is concerned, I'm fully meeting the righteous requirements of the law. My righteousness is Christ, who not only never sinned but who perfectly fulfilled the Father’s will and always did what pleased him.
But there’s another half to this verse, which talks about our condition. At first glance, it might seem to contradict what Paul has been saying about salvation through grace. Just four verses above he says flatly that there is no condemnation for anyone who’s in Christ Jesus. But here he says that the righteous requirements of the law are fully met in us, “who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” We need to think clearly here. This is not saying that if you don’t walk according to the Spirit that God will “unforgive” you; otherwise, verse one makes no sense. It means that one characteristic of God’s true children is that—in the main course of their lives—they will walk in the Spirit. Remember: Your position in Christ will affect your condition. If there’s no evidence that you’re living in the Spirit then you have no right to assurance that you belong to Christ.
Whew! Do you see why I’ve been just a tad reluctant to tackle this chapter?