By Ron Halbrook
“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” (Rom. 8:3). In order to understand how God condemned sin in the flesh, we must understand the weakness of Moses’ law as it is set forth in Paul’s argument by the inspiration of God. In what sense is “the law” said to be “weak through the flesh”? And, what is it then that “the law could not do”?
The Weakness of the Law
Three laws are discussed in Romans 7-8. There is the law of Moses, the law of sin and death, and the law of the Spirit (i.e., the gospel of Christ). The sense in which the law of Moses was weak had been set forth in chapter seven as a backdrop to 8:1-4. The law of Moses is explicitly said not to be sinful but is said to be holy, just and good in setting forth the will of God. Romans 7:5 shows that when the Jews t4were in the flesh” (i.e., indulged the desires and passions of the flesh without respect and submission to the will of God), their deeds of indulgence left them under the condemnation or sentence of spiritual death. The law of Moses could only expose and condemn man’s sinful deeds as “exceeding sinful” but could not of itself remove the condemnation of such sin. From that perspective Paul cried out, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24)
Paul showed the Jews that through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and upon our acceptance of this gift by obedience to the gospel, “the body of sin” is destroyed and we no longer live in the oppressive service of sin (6:6). We are delivered from the law of sin and death by receiving God’s gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ (6:23). The Jew must not then make the mistake of returning to the law of Moses, which could only result in renewing the consciousness of sin and impending death. “But now we are delivered from the law” through the gospel of Christ (7:6). Notice the climax to Paul’s argument:
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 (Rom. 8:1-2).
The law was “weak through the flesh” only in the sense that after making men conscious of the exceeding sinfulness of their sins in the flesh and pronouncing judgment upon their sins, it could not offer perfect forgiveness and victory over sin and death.
Since the law of Moses could not provide righteousness to sinners, “God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (8:3-4). Three main things are included in God’s work or plan to make men righteous through the gospel by means of his Son. (1) Jesus Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” that is, he was fully and truly man in a body of flesh with all the same desires, impulses, and temptations which are shared by all other men and which give occasion to sin. (2) God sent his Son to be the perfect sacrifice for sin. (3) God’s Son thoroughly condemned and defeated sin while living in the flesh, leaving sin no quarter, no excuse, no justification, no advantage, and no victory. Therefore, those who are in Christ Jesus obtain the righteousness revealed in the law through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Human Flesh: The Scene of Sin’s Defeat
The Word of God itself is the highest authority that we can study in order to understand God’s plan of salvation. Men sometimes offer comments which help us to reflect and meditate more fully upon the Word of God. Handley C.G. Moule observed that God in his wisdom sent his Son in the flesh, “making man’s earthly conditions the scene of sin’s defeat, for our everlasting encouragement in our ‘life in the flesh… (The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans in the Expositor’s Bible, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll, 1903, pp. 211-212). Yes, by his life in a human body, Jesus Christ not only severely condemned our sins but also provided for our everlasting encouragement as we strive against sin. We must not resign ourselves to defeat with the excuse that, after all, we live in a human body which predestines us to sin.
In discussing the coming of Christ in the likeness of sinful flesh, R.L. Whiteside noted,
Human flesh is not sinful in and of itself; if so the flesh of Jesus was sinful. . . . He, therefore, had in his nature all that the word ‘man’ implies. If his brethren were born sinful and he was not, then he was not like them in all things. But as Jesus was made in all things like his brethren and was without sin, it shows conclusively that sin is not a part of man’s nature. When Adam and Eve were first created, they had all that belongs to human nature. Sin came into their lives as a foreign element. Sin is no more a part of your nature than dust in your eye is a part of the nature of your eye. Because the desires, appetites, and passions of the flesh so often lead to sin, flesh is called sinful. But we should remember always that fleshly desires lead to sin only when the mind, or heart, purposes to gratify the flesh in an unlawful way (A New Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome, 1945, pp. 169-170).
The life of Jesus in a human body proves that our sins are the result of our own choice, the result of our own choice alone, and in no sense are necessitated by the body itself.
The sinless life of Jesus in a body identical to ours teaches us that sin has no inherent claim to the body. God prepared neither Jesus nor us a body which compels sin. Christ offers to forgive our foolish, inexcusable sins and offers to lead us away from the practice of sin by his perfect example. The tragedy is not that we live in a body, but that we are so slow to accept the blessings offered by Christ. J.W. McGarvey and Phillip Y. Pendleton comment, “Jesus, by his sinless life, lived in the flesh, as the son of man, resisted, conquered, condemned, sentenced and destroyed the power of sin in the flesh” (Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians and Romans, n.d., p. 358). A.T. Robertson makes the pungent point that God “condemned the sin of men and the condemnation took place in the flesh of Jesus” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, 1931, p. 372). M.R. Vincent explains that God’s condemnation of sin through his Son deposed sin “from its dominion, a thing impossible to the law, which could pronounce judgment and inflict penalty, but not dethrone. Christ’s holy character was a condemnation of unholiness” (Word Studies in the New Testament, 1886, 1972, pp. 705-706). In other words, the perfect life that Jesus lived and which was essential to his perfect sacrifice defeated every claim which sin could make upon mankind.
His Sinless Life in Our Nature
Because of the work of Christ, we know as it could never be fully known before that sin is not necessary or essential in regard to our nature, our conduct, or our destiny. Following Denney, Kenneth S. Wuest says,
God condemned sin in the flesh, a thing which the law could not do in the sense that ‘Christ by his sinless fife in our nature condemned our sinful lives and left us inexcusable and without hope . . . God’s condemnation of sin is expressed in his sending his Son in our nature, and in connection with sin that he died for it – i.e. took its condemnation upon himself. Christ’s death exhibits God’s condemnation of sin in the flesh. . . . God had pronounced the doom of sin, and brought its claims and authority over man to an end’ (Romans in the Greek New Testament, 1955, pp. 128-129).
J.W. Shepherd argued that God condemned sin in the flesh by sending his Son with “man’s animal nature,” i.e., “the same flesh in substance,” so that he could keep it “in perfect subjection,” proving “that sin was in the flesh only as an unnatural and usurping tyrant.” God furthermore “condemned sin practically and effectually by destroying its power and casting it out. The law could condemn sin only in word and could not make its condemnation effectual. Christ, coming ‘for sin,’ not only died for sin, but, uniting man to himself ‘in newness of life’ (6:4), gave actual effect to the condemnation of sin by destroying its dominion in the flesh” (David Lipscomb, Romans in A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, ed. with add. notes by J.W. Shepherd, 1943, 1964, pp. 143-144).
Bryan Vinson, Sr. comments on the weakness of the law “through the flesh” as being “a weakness identified with the flesh . . . the law partook of this weakness because it had not the capability of freeing them from the sins that through weakness were committed. The law wasn’t competent to recover those who violated its requirements.” Vinson explains that Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” in that he shared man’s liability to sin, but also lived so as to prove that sin is not inevitable in man’s nature. “Whatever nature man has, he has it before he sins, and this nature is such that in its weakness he can sin. Also, Jesus being sent in that likeness and not sinning while here, equally suggests that in the nature of man this weakness is not so pronounced but that man can also sin” (Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome, 1974, pp. 146-147). If sin is inherent and inevitable to the nature of the human body, man is not fully culpable or responsible for his sins. The life of Christ convicts man as fully culpable and the death of Christ provides merciful pardon from the guilt.
Complete Acquittal From Every Sin
Moses E. Lard observed, “Sin once committed must end in death unless remitted.” It was necessary for the gospel of Christ to make us free. “The thing impossible for the law was to free us from the law of sin and death. The highest of human necessities demanded this liberation. Yet the law could not effect it – neither that of Moses, nor any other could. By law it was impossible” (Commentary on Paul’s Letter to Romans, 1875, often reprinted, pp. 248-249). Yes, law alone can only make man conscious of his sin. The weakness of man in sinning, or from another view, the weakness of the law through the flesh, necessitates a system of grace or forgiveness.
Lard discusses in what sense the law was weak through the flesh.
The law was weak relatively; it was weak through the flesh of those under it. In other words, through weakness of the flesh, the law was not kept, not kept by any, and when once broken, it was powerless to deliver. The law could deliver only on condition of being perfectly kept; but as this never happened, its failure was complete. Had either Jew or Gentile ever perfectly kept the law under which he lived, he would of course have been sinless and so uncondemned. This would have been his deliverance. But each alike broke his law; and therefore each was alike condemned. From this, the law provided no escape (p. 249).
Since both Jews and Gentiles sin, since both break God’s law, since no one lives in sinless perfection, all men are wholly dependent on God’s provision for pardon.
Next Lard discusses God’s sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.
. . . God gave his Son a body composed of simply human flesh, and having the form of other bodies of flesh. The flesh of this body was identical with that of all other human bodies. . . . In Christ, however, the flesh did not lead to sin, not because it was better than, or different from common human flesh; but because it was kept in perfect subjection. He controlled it absolutely, and thus kept it from leading to sin. The flesh of Christ was sinful, solely because it possessed the same tendency to sin as other flesh and in the same degree (p. 249).
“The likeness of sinful flesh” means that Christ was subject to all the same passions and temptations as other men, but nothing in human nature compels the body to sin.
Lard raises the question in what sense God condemned sin by sending this Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.
This is condemnation on the principle that he who resists sin in a certain case shows him to be wrong who commits it in the same case. God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. We are in no more. Yet Christ never yielded to the flesh, through tempted in all respects as we are. He thus proved that the flesh can be successfully resisted, and a sinless life maintained. Hereby also he showed that we can resist the flesh, if we will; and consequently that we are inexcusable where we fail, and so are justly condemnable. It was thus in my judgment that God condemned sin in the flesh. He showed that it is not of necessity, but willful, and therefore worthy of condemnation.
But in reply to this it may be said that the cases are not parallel; that Christ was all-mighty, and therefore could resist what we cannot. I grant that Christ was almighty, but deny that he either found it necessary to resist as an almighty being, or that he, in fact, did it . He resisted simply as the “son of man,” and thus showed what man as man is capable of. It was this very circumstance that constituted his resistance a just basis on which to condemn us. Nor is it true that we cannot resist the flesh. We will not, not we can not. For if in any case we can not resist, then in that case we can not sin. Whatever must be is no sin (pp. 250-251).
Since the sins of all men are inexcusable from the standpoint of human nature, and from every other standpoint, all men must stand condemned before God. What hope, then, do we have?
Lard concluded that in Christ Jesus we have what was possible in no other way, that is, justification, righteousness, or “complete acquittal from every sin” (p. 215). In an earlier summary statement, Lard focused on the work of Christ in the flesh as follows, “Moreover in this body he condemned all sin committed under influence of the flesh, by showing that such influence can be resisted. He came as a sinoffering that the justification of the law, remission of sins, might be accomplished in us who live not in obedience to the flesh, but to the spirit” (pp. 245-246).
Verse one begins, -There is therefore now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus,” and Lard comments,
So complete are the provisions of the gospel for those who are in Christ Jesus that there remains no reason why they should be condemned. They are provisionally, at least, secure equally against danger from past sins and from future. But the expression must be taken with discrimination. The apostle does not mean to say that should those in Christ sin, they will not be held responsible for it. For this they will certainly be. But where they sin and repent, they will be forgiven; so that it remains true that there is no ground for condemnation (p. 246).
Blessed words: “no condemnation!” Our ground for boasting is in Christ, not in ourselves. We rejoice in him, not in ourselves. We glory in his perfections and his provisions, not in our own. Yes, Christ perfectly condemned our sins but also provided the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins! His work is perfect in every way to meet our every need.
Sin Condemned, Forgiven and Defeated!
Romans 8:14 beautifully summarizes and sets before us God’s perfect solution for the problem of sin. We need to preach with sincerity and fervor that this is the only solution that the world will ever have. We do not help either sinners or Christians by suggesting that their sins were necessary, unavoidable, and inevitable. All such explanations of why we sin tend invariably, even if unintentionally, to justify and excuse our sins. This opens the door for man to hold on to the yoke of sin under the false impression that it is inescapable in the final analysis. When Christ lives so as to show that sin is not necessary to the nature of man and when he died to provide a perfect sacrifice for the sins of man, he in every sense crushed and destroyed the dominion of sin over us. The sooner lost souls realize that there is no excuse for their sins, the sooner they will come to Christ for deliverance from the dominion of sin. The sooner Christians acknowledge that there is not the least excuse for their sins, the sooner they will repent of them and turn from them with a resolve to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
Dear friend, if you have never obeyed the gospel of Christ, do not receive the good news of forgiveness in vain. Believe in Christ, repent of your sins, confess him as God’s Son, and be immersed in water (Mk. 16:16; Rom. 10:10; Acts 2:38). “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). If you are an erring Christian, repent and pray God’s mercy. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 16, pp. 496-498
August 16, 1990