Romans 8:1-3 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.”
Is there any better news for those men and women to hear who feel their shame and failure than the words of our text? The living God, our Creator, is not condemning them. Yes, I do condemn myself for my folly. Others, even those who love me, condemn me for what I have done, but the only one who eternally matters is not condemning me. This is the message of the gospel, the good news. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We have looked back and seen that the ‘Therefore’ with which our chapter begins is pointing back to our union with Christ and his great achievement in delivering us from the guilt and power of sin, but now Paul moves on. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus because . . . and now he gives another specific reason for our justification: “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (v.2). You have known true emancipation because through Jesus and his Spirit you have been set free. Let’s find out how . . .
- THERE IS THE LAW OF SIN AND DEATH.
It exists. It is a reality. Our whole sick civilization is operating in terms of this law, the brutality, the violence, the abuse, the full prisons are all proof of men living under the law of sin and death. It is so real that Paul simply takes it for granted without any explanation as though all the congregation in Rome were only too familiar with its existence with their Coliseum and ‘games’ with wild beasts tearing one another apart to entertain the crowds, Christians thrown to the lions, the gladiators, the crucifxions, “Ah, yes, the law of sin and death. We’d better hear about it for a moment though it sends shivers down our spines.” Most of us in this congregation today know about it too, but perhaps not in that precise phrase Certainly all of us have been made aware in our own experience that there’s a law of sin and death. Let me explain it to you, but first of all by making one proviso.
i] Paul does not believe or teach that the only function of the law is negative. He has been very positive about some of the uses of the law of God in the previous chapter. Consider Romans 7 and verse 7, “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law.” The law of God has a valuable educational purpose. It tells me what is right and wrong. It tells the cannibal that it is sin to kill and eat other men. It tells the Hindu that it is wrong to burn the widow of a dead man on his funeral pyre. It tells the man who takes your lap-top that it’s a sin to steal. It says the same to the con man who cheats you out of your savings by selling you worthless shares. The law tells us to respect the private property of others. But the law is also positive. It tells the man who thinks it is wicked to have a blood transfusion, “That’s not sin.” It tells a man who thinks it is wrong to eat meat, “That’s not sin. That’s simply a choice you personally make to become a vegetarian.” It is not a sin to burn fossil fuels or go fox hunting, or to affirm that homosexual activity is wrong. That is not wrong. The world has been educated by the good and wise law of God. It delivers men from bondage.
Then go on to verse 16 of Romans 7 and Paul underlines that when he says, “I agree that the law is good.” Imagine the anarchy that there’d be in our town if there were no law and people drove on any side of the road they felt like, and they carried guns and if they felt like it would shoot someone dead. “I agree that the law is good.” Then go on to verse 22 in chapter 7 of Romans and we read, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law” and so he is obviously excited with the benefits that the law of God has brought into his life as a Christian. So Paul is not anti-law. Let me go on . . .
ii] There is a law of sin and death. Just glance again at the previous chapter, and the very last words with which the chapter end (v. 25 of Romans 7). Paul says, “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” Sin is in me and in every natural man, and it is there as a power, energetically at work night and day, never taking a holiday, 24/7 the law of sin is at work in everybody’s life. It lays down its laws, “Do what you think is right . . . do what you please . . . ignore the Bible . . . don’t think about Jesus Christ . . . change the subject when people talk to you about salvation . . . don’t think about your death . . . don’t think about the living God . . . if it feels good then it’s right . . . you’ve only got one life and so go with the flow . . . it will be crippling to become a Christian . . . remember it’s a joyless life to follow Jesus Christ.” That is what the law of sin says to every person all the time. And everybody obeys! Everyone is like Paul “a slave to the law of sin.” There is this unforgettable indictment of the world in Galatians 3 and verse 22, “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” This is a universal law. There are no exceptions at all. What do you think of my words? Do you understand them? Am I making it clear? Are you insulted? You went to church one Sunday for inspiration, and what did the preacher tell you? That you were a slave to sin, and that the whole world was a virtualprison camp and all the prisoners did what sin told them to do. So even at this moment sin is busy in you telling you, “Be offended . . . be indignant . . . who is he to tell you that you’re a slave?” But he’s merely quoting the Bible. “But who is Paul to tell me that? I follow Jesus.” The Lord Jesus will tell you that you are of your father the devil and you do what your father tells you to do. Wherever you look in the Bible you discover this appaling verdict that you are not free. You may boast of your freedom . . . that you are not like those poor suckers who have to go to church on Sundays and believe the Bible, and are afraid of doing what they want to do. You are really free, so you say, but the Bible says you’re wrong, that you’re a slave to the law of sin. Indwelling sin is your master and you are doing what it says. Men have tried to change and they have failed abysmally.
Derek Thomas reminded m of how one of the early Christian preach
ers tried to overcome the law of sin by his own grit and determination, that for a brief period in his life, Jerome (ca. AD 347-420), the translator of the Bible into Latin, tried to weaken the voice of the law of sin by getting away from the city. He did not see the law as something internal but as something structural. Change your environment and be liberated! Jerome decided to become a hermit, an ascetic. He walked away, far from everyone, into the desert, living in a cave among wild animals and scorpions. He became virtually anorexic, emaciated because of his extreme methods of fasting. He was determined to live by the standards of God’s law as he understood it. He tells us that even as he was trying to conform himself to keep God’s good law, he found that his mind – even in the middle of the desert, while his body was wasting away – was full of the thoughts of the young girls who’d surrounded him back in the greatest city in the world, Rome. He found he was as much a slave to the law of sin by himself in a cave in the wilderness as he was when surrounded by the fleshpots of city life. Of course we have three introductory words to counsel Jerome and misguided men like him; “Get a wife!” It is better to marry, Jerome, than to burn. The unreformed Roman church with its rule of celibacy would have saved itself millions of pounds in paying victims of child abuse if it had a biblical view of the honourable state of the clergy marrying. But then we also have some theological truths of the psychology of the heart to offer Jerome. Three words again. Know your enemy! That is the first lesson in learning about the Christian warfare.
The law of sin and death is so cruel. It says to you, “Go for it! Do it! It can’t be wrong when it feels so right,” And then when you do it says, “What have you been doing? What a wicked man you are!” It encourages you to sin and then it condemns you for sinning. That is the wonderful so-called ‘freedom’ that the people of the world know. Freedom? That sounds to us all like a terrible form of slavery. If they don’t do it they feel frustrated and unhappy; it they do it they feel guilty and condemned. That is the law of sin in every person.
It is called the law of sin “and death” because it results in spiritual death. I mean that in two ways, firstly that you are a stranger to real inner life, that the life of God in your heart and soul is non-existent. Jesus once said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they [and they alone] shall see God,” but your heart has not been purified by grace and you have never seen God with the eyes of faith. You are dead in trespasses and sins. Paul gives a very sober word to Timothy, “the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives” (I Tim. 5:6). You see her, she must always have the TV on when she’s home, or she is down the pub or in the club. She goes from one ‘relationship’ to another, and she likes her drink and needs some drugs to get her out of her depression. She’s dead even while she lives. The wheels of the law of sin and death have inevitably come into operation in her life and she is knowing inward death. Sin is always lethal; inner death. Then secondly you are heading for an eternity of spiritual death. The Bible refers to it as “the second death.” And that is the logic of locking God out of your life, of living as though no God existed. You are condemned always to be without him. Inward death leads to eternal death. The wages of sin is death, and that is the law of sin and death. The soul that sins shall surely die. It is not merely a metaphor or a figure of speech. It is a frightening reality. That is how it is for mankind in sin. It stares every man in the face unless he is out of his sin and in Christ Jesus.
- THERE IS THE LAW OF THE SPIRIT OF LIFE.
There is another law and this law comes from the Holy Spirit. You see the contrast? There is the Spirit and there is sin. The Spirit’s law is commands forth life; sin’s law commands forth death. What fearful alternatives! Let us see the law of the Spirit in operation producing life.
i] In the Valley of the Dry Bones. In Ezekiel chapter 37 the prophet is brought out by the Spirit of the Lord to the middle of a vast valley. He moves up and down the terrain and all he sees everywhere are thousands and thousands of dry bones. It seems that there’s been a terrifying battle on these killing fields and an army has been wiped out. Their bodies have been left to lie where they were killed. No one has buried them and they have rotted there with the jackals and the vultures picking their bones clean. The bones are white and wind-blown scattered without order all over the valley. It is a picture of Israel, the people of God, destroyed by their ungodliness and their unrighteousness.
Is that the end? Is the death that has come to these sinning people the final chapter. The wages of sin is death and that is it. So God asks the prophet a question: “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ez. 37:3). Ezekiel doesn’t know. He is flummoxed. If it were a man asking the question then he would say, “Dead is dead,” but it is the living God who is asking him, the God with whom everything is possible. He doesn’t know how to answer him, but he knows God knows the answer. So God approves of his words and tells him to prophesy to the bones, “Hear the word of the Lord!” Now there is a fine book of P.B.Power entitled The ‘I Will’s’ of the Psalms, and in that book the author gathers the various promises that God makes in the Psalms. “I will do this . . . I will do that.” Whatever he says that he does. That is the law of the Spirit of Life. So here we read, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: ‘I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’" (Ez. 37:5&6). So that is exactly what Ezekiel does. We are told, “So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army. Then he said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” Therefore prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you wil
l know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD’" (Ez. 37:7-14). Do you see the operation of the law of the Spirit of life? Without him all is death through the law of sin and death, and then another and better law comes into operation, the law of the Spirit of life, and the dead live. Where else do we hear of the light and freedom it gives?
ii] In the light that refuses to go out in Zechariah’s solid gold lampstand in the fourth chapter of his prophecy. The prophet is awakened out of sleep and sees this huge lampstand, and at the top there is a great reservoir and seven lamps come out from the lampstand all burning brightly, and the darkness is driven away. The level of oil in the reservoir never goes down and the light never stops shining away. How can this be? Two vast olive trees stand each side of it and the oil from their olives falls into the reservoir day after day without failing. What does the symbolism mean? The messenger of God explains it to the prophet in these famous words, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zech. 4:6). God designs the lampstand, and God sustains the light so that it never goes out. The Lord says to ys, “You are the light of the world!” Imagine it, in our sin-loving town we are the light! Ordinary folk like ourselves who are in Christ. How can we possibly drive back the darkness, and continue to shine the beams of the light of Christ into the darkness of a sinner’s heart? Is it by the law of might? No! Is it by the law of power? No. Not by numbers and superior armaments. It is by the law of the Spirit of life. The conception of illuminating dark hearts is by the Holy Spirit. The continuance of illuminating dark lives is by the Holy Spirit. The consummation of illuminating dark lives is by the Holy Spirit. God promises the Holy Spirit. God provides the Holy Spirit. God maintains us by the Holy Spirit. That is the unbreakable law of the Spirit of life. Freedom from ignorance and freedom from exhaustion comes from the supplies of the Spirit.
iii] The Coming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost demonstrates the law of the Spirit of life. What are the disciples told? One thing. Don’t leave Jerusalem. They are not told to agonize, or lay all on the altar, or confess all their sins. None of those things are laid down as the preconditions that have to be fulfilled for the coming of the Spirit upon them. They are told simply, “Don’t leave Jerusalem because in a few days you’ll receive the gift of the Spirit that the Father has promised.” And so it happened as the law of Christ laid down. Very, very suddenly there was the noise, the rushing wind, the cloven tongues of fire and the languages coming upon them all without exception, just as God’s law said. It was fulfilled and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. And that is what has happened to all the church from that day onwards. The superior delivering law of the Spirit of life! Not kings and prophets and judges and priests alone will henceforth be filled with the Spirit, but all flesh, that is every kind of man and woman who hears the gospel and looks to God, men-servants and maid-servants, young and old, they will all without exception come under the operation of the law of the Spirit of life. So Paul writes to the church in Ephesus and he explains the law of the Spirit of life to that congregation. “Do you understand what happened to you, what gave you life and set you free when you were dead in trespasses and sins? I will tell you; ‘God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved’ (Ephs 2:4&5). That’s how the law of the Spirit of life works in every single Christian. The life giving Spirit is sent by Jesus into your life. He opens your heart, convicts your conscience, subdues the reign of sin over you, illuminates your understanding, gives you a new birth, and begins the life of heaven within you. There is a stirring inside you, gentle and quiet and mysterious, planting new attitudes, and new desires and new appetites, and new griefs, new understanding and new longings for Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection! It is far more powerful than the law of sin and death. It set you free from the working of that old killing law.
- THIS COMES TO US THROUGH CHRIST JESUS.
Don’t miss this because it is the first thing that this verse tells us; “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free” (v.2). He explains this firstly negatively and then he goes on to explain positively how we get true freedom. Negatively he describes how no man will ever be set free by his own wits, and he will get assistance from the law for; “What the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature” (v.3) God had to do; God alone could do. So this is what he first says:
I] Man’s sinful natures have made the law of God helpless to set us free. This was the root of Jerome’s great mistake. He did not grasp the mighty problem of his own heart. He thought that if he could change his environment he could be set free. But in the wilderness far from down town Rome he discovered that he still wasn’t strong enough to overcome the law of sin and death at work in his heart. He lacked the desire to motivate himself to change his imagination and the lusts of his flesh and mind. His problem, he discovered in his cave in the desert, was not city life in Rome. It was not a structural problem. It was not a problem of ignorance, of not knowing what was right and wrong. He knew what was the good life as well as the folly of the sinful life. So what was the problem? It was the personal inward problem of his heart. He lacked love for the law-giver himself. He was not captivated by the glorious mercy and grace of God in sending his Son to die for his sins. He did not survey Christ’s wondrous cross and cry, “Love so amazing so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.” And the law of God alone was no substitute for a passionate awareness of the Lamb of God loving him and dying for him.
I have talked to you about the usefulness of having laws. The alternative to rules is anarchy, but the law of God all alone is impotent to change us.
A] The Ten Commandment all by themselves are helpless to inspire people to change their lives. Look at the clay that the divine Potter has to deal with. It is adulterated clay. Every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually. That Scripture is not saying that man is as bad as he can be, or as bad as he will be, but that sin has touched every part of man, every imagination of the thoughts of his heart, so that he can never claim, “this thought that I’ve just had was 100% pure.” No part of man has been a no-go area as far as the law of sin and death is concerned. Our corruption gets everywhere. That’s the clay that the law of God has to deal with. Even a painter as great as Rembrandt couldn’t produce a masterpiece painting on tissue paper. The law of God has to deal with hostile and impure mat
erial, a heart of enmity against God and against his law. “You won’t find me bowing down under the control of the law” says the natural man. That is inbuilt weakness to a perfect law.
The law is just, but the law cannot justify, in other words the law of God cannot declare a sinner righteous. The law is holy but it cannot make a man Christ-like. The law can tell me I’m a sinner and it can define to me what saintliness is, but it cannot make me a saint. A mirror can show me my dirt but it can’t cleanse me. That’s the status of the law of God
B] A rule book can only prescribe good conduct and warn of the dangers of defiance, it cannot redeem. It can condemn; it can never save. It can say, “Do this . . . do that,” but it cannot motivate anyone to do those things. It cannot change the “want to” because the “want to” is nowhere present in the pages of a rule book. The weakness of the law is the weakness of man’s heart. The law is like a two metre pole. You can set a two metre pole in a parade ground and say to it, “Now go ahead. You make all the soldiers in the regiment two metres high.” No. It can certainly set the standard for two metres, and it can measure every soldier, showing each one how far he comes short of two metres, but it has no power to lengthen a soldier who is even one metre 95 centimetres so that he becomes 2 metres. So the law of God tells us what the standard is and how far short we come of the glory of God, but it cannot raise us up to the standard we should be. “By the works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Roms. 3:20).
Let me change the metaphor to capture you with the truth of what I am telling you about the weakness of God’s law by one picture or another. The law of God is like a mighty anchor. It is strong enough to hold the heaviest ship against the most powerful of tides and storms, but when the anchor is lowered into soft mud and it has nothing solid and stable to hook into, then the most perfect anchor can’t even hold a coracle. That was the weakness of the flesh. The trouble has never been with the law but God’s law was made weak by our sinful natures. The law could point out what was right, and it could condemn what was wrong but it could not change our hearts and prevent us doing what is wrong. It could not produce a righteousness which God would accept. So freedom does not come to us through the law. How then are we saved? What makes Christianity different from every other religion in the world? All other religions say to their followers, “Do this! Keep this day! Eat these foods and don’t eat those foods! Don’t drink these drinks! These animals are holy and those animals are unclean! Do not touch them. Meditate and repeat your prayers five times a day.” Do, do, do, do, they all say. It is all law in every other religion, but in Christianity it is all grace. God so loves the world that he gives his only begotten Son, the One who kept the law of perfectly, the moral law, the ceremonial law and the civil law. Liberty comes to us not through ticking the boxes of rule books but “through Christ Jesus.” Then what happened positively?
II] God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering (v.3).What shall we say?
i] It was “his own Son” whom God sent. God took the initiative. It was not that Jesus made a decision and slipped out or persuaded his Father to agree to him going, The planning and decision was God the Father’s and the sent one, Jesus, wholly agreed. God did not decide to send an arch-angel, not Michael and not Gabriel. He had just one Son, the beloved one. There was never anyone the Father loved as much as the Son. God sent him! The one who was co-equal, co-essential and co-eternal with the Father, ineffably loving, immeasurably full of love, joy and peace. This was his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. There was no greater sacrifice that God had ever made in sending his own Son. It was no sacrifice for God to speak to Moses on Sinai and give him the law, but the giving of the Son was a costly coming.
What does it tell us? That no other creature in heaven or earth could free us except God the Son. Anyone less exalted, less divine could not do what the law had failed to do. All would be too feeble. Divinity itself must accomplish the work. Can we not trust in him, and trust in the work that he has done as it was God the Son who did it. Can’t we be at peae about this? I rest in the work that Jesus Christ the Son of God did.
ii] It was by coming in the likeness of sinful flesh that he did it. In other words he did not visit the earth in his eternal spirit form And Paul does not say that he came “in the likeness of flesh,” but he came in true flesh, the Son taking bone or our bones and flesh of our flesh via the womb of Mary. He took true humanity. It was not in human nature in appearance that he came but in human nature in reality. “God sent forth his Son made of a woman . . . the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us . . . a body hast thou prepared me . . . who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” It was a perfectly ordinary, organized boy with all the properties, affinities and functions that belong to our bodies as men. It was the seed of the woman, and the seed of Abraham, and the seed of David who was this man Christ Jesus. Through incarnation he became our brother filled with the feelings of sympathy and understanding.
Paul’s words are that he came in the likeness of sinful flesh. He did not come in sinful flesh, but its ‘likeness.’ He was indistinguishable from the other boys in Nazareth, even from his own half brothers. No light poured out from his pores. No halo hovered over his head. He sweated and spat and bled and needed food and drink. He went to the toilet – he was real flesh in this fallen world, not like Adam before he fell living in Paradise. There was sin and death everywhere in the valley where Jesus pitched his tent. Tempted like us, but always overcoming and resisting so that he was holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners. But it was not something incredible and even laughable to denounce him as a glutton, a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners, an imposter, a deceiver and a blasphemer. It wouldn’t be easy to say that of a holy angel bright, seraphim or an archangel, but it came more readily to make such accusations of Jesus, because he came into the closest identity with sinners it was possible for him to come without himself becoming a sinner. Paul is saved from blasphemy by his use of the word ‘likeness’. Jesus did not add to his divine nature sinful flesh; he added just its resemblance, not the reality. The least taint of moral guilt, a shadow of inner corruption and then his mission would have failed. He would have needed a Saviour to save him. So God’s Son came in the likeness of sinful flesh.
iii] It was to be made a sin offering that he came.
The incarnation was not enough, and living a blameless life amongst us was not enough to set us free. He must die a sacrificial death. He must make atonement. He must by himself purge our sins. He must give himself for us as a sin offering and a sacrifice to God. This is an exact and admirable translation. This is exactly what Paul is saying. God the Son came to do what the law could not do. It could condemn but the law could not be condemned in itself. He came to take the law’s condemnation in his own body. The doom of sin must fall on flesh and Jesus identifies himself with us. He takes frail flesh, our God does, contracted to the span of a cross and there bleeds and dies – the one who himself was without spot and blemish.
Who came to free us? God’s own eternal Son, he who said, “I and my Father are one.” He came as God to us, and then he had to go as man on our behalf to God. “Why?” you ask. “Why such extravagance? This is the eternal Son of God, infinite, righteous, omnipotent, adding to his divinity a human body, one made in the likeness of sinful flesh? Why? Why such prodigality? Why was it necessary? You have to consider what a fiendish mighty power is remaining sin, what a curse hangs over the cosmos, and what a mighty enemy is Satan.
How else could God’s just detestation of all that is mean and tawdry and cruel and filthy and fiendish and monstrous be propitiated? He will by no means clear the guilty. What sort of God would that be – to shrug in indifference to what we do, who are made in his likeness and are sustained in his goodness moment by moment and yet men like us crucified Jesus! All that enmity must be dealt with and condemned in a cosmic sin offering. God the Son lovingly takes all that guilt and shame and willingly bears in his own body God’s just sentence of death. Jesus enters the anathema as the definitive sin offering, not as another type but the reality and as a result, “The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do.” Why? “My Saviour’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.” There is therefore now no condemnation to them who were in Christ Jesus when he hung and suffered on the tree. Another condemnation of us when those sins have already all been dealt with on Golgotha. Have you come away from your confidence in what you have done to keep the law to hide in Christ? Have you prayed, “Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee”? Keep praying it until you know he has answered you.
12th February 2012 Geoff Thomas