What the Law Could Not Do, God Did Sending Christ, Part 2
3 Part Study provided by John Piper
Romans 8:1-4 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 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, 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.
We are picking up in verse 3 where we left off three weeks ago. “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.” We said that it has four statements in it.
God condemned sin in the flesh.
He did this by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin.
The law was not able to do this.
The reason the law could not do this was because of our flesh.
Last time we focused on the first two. Now we focus on the last two.
So what I hope to do this morning is answer two questions: What was it that the law could not do? And, Why couldn’t it do it? The reason I think this is worth a whole message is that the two things that the law could not do are things that are absolutely necessary for us to experience if we are to have eternal life, and, even though the law could not and cannot do them, people still turn to the law to get them done. In other words, it is tremendously relevant to your life to know what the law cannot do for you, lest you go there for the help you can only get from Jesus Christ.
The Law Could not Justify or Sanctify Us
First, then, what is it that the law could not do? The answer is given twice in Romans 8:1-4, once in verses 1-2 and once in verses 3-4. Verse 1 says, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is what we call justification – if we are in Christ Jesus – that is, if we are united to Jesus by faith in him – our condemnation from God because of our sin is taken away. God acquits us. Counts us righteous. Justifies us. He does not look upon us any longer as guilty and condemned, but as forgiven and righteous because of what Jesus did for us.
Then comes verse 2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” This is what we call sanctification. After we are justified, and because we are justified, the Spirit of God is poured out in our lives and begins to free us from the dominion of sin and death. This means that Christians are not only “counted” righteous in justification, but actually transformed by the Spirit of God into more and more actually righteous, loving, holy people. This is the practical evidence that we have trusted Christ and are united to him and are justified in him.
Now my answer to our question is that these two things are what the law could not do. The law could not justify us and the law could not sanctify us. It was powerless to do both of these things. The first sign of this is that verse 3 begins with “for.” You could read it like this: Justification is “in Christ” (verse 1), and sanctification is “in Christ” (verse 2), for the law could not do these things, only Christ could, and so God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. That’s the first answer to the question from verses 1 and 2. Justification and sanctification come to us by union with Christ Jesus (“in Christ”) for the law could not make them happen.
Now the same answer comes in verses 3 and 4 as well. Verse 3 says that what the law could not do is condemn sin in the flesh, that is, it could not deal with sin, absorb its punishment, remove our condemnation. So God did this by sending Jesus into the world to die for us: “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 here we have the same point as verse 1: There is no condemnation because God executed the condemnation for our sin on his Son. That is the basis of our justification. That is what the law could not do. It could not remove the condemnation for our sin. It could identify it and name it and point away from it and stir it up and rub it in. But it could not remove our punishment. God did that in Jesus’ death. So again we see that justification is something the law could not do.
Now verse 4, like verse 2, says that this justification leads to sanctification, which was also something the law could not do – since it could not justify us. Notice verse 4 begins with “so that.” This is a purpose of God’s condemning sin in the flesh. God put our condemnation on Jesus and provided the basis for our justification “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.” Walking according to the Spirit is what we mean by sanctification. So what we see here again, as in verses 1 and 2, is that sanctification is the result or the effect of justification. And that means that both justification and sanctification are what the law could not do.
You can see it most easily if you just say verses 3 and 4 like this: What the law could not do God did, namely two things: he condemned sin by sending his Son to die for us, and because of this basis for justification he enables us to fulfill the essence of the law by giving us the Holy Spirit. That is what the law could not do: justify us and sanctify us. It could not remove our condemnation or bring about our transformation. And yet both of these are absolutely necessary if we are going to be saved in the last day and have eternal life.
The Law Could not Justify Us Because We Were of Flesh
So we need to ask now: Why could the law not do these two things? Because if we can see the reason for this weakness clearly, we will be protected from the deadly mistake of counting on the law for justification and sanctification. And, even better, we will know where to look for the declaration that we are right with God and for the transformation that follows.
And that is so crucial for us all. You may have come today wondering how these Baptists think about salvation and about how to get right with God and have eternal life. Well we think about it the same way Biblical Christians have thought about it for centuries: this is historic Christianity, not just Baptist Christianity. The law – the ten commandments and the other rules that Moses gave the people of Israel – cannot make you right with God and cannot transform you into the kind of righteous and loving persons you want to be.
Why not? Verse 3 answers: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did.” The problem with the law is not that its commandments are evil (Romans 7:12), but that we are evil (Romans 7:14). The word “flesh” does not mean skin, in Paul’s vocabulary. It means our old fallen nature. We will see this next week in the following verses where he contrasts the mind of the flesh and the mind of the Spirit. The flesh is what we are and what life is without God and his gracious, saving work by the Spirit. That is what the law encounters when it comes to us.
So what is the weakness of the law? The weakness of the law is that it was not designed to redeem fallen, condemned, rebellious, selfish people like us.
Think about this first in relation to justification. The reason we need to be justified is that we stand under the condemnation of God because we are fallen. Remember Romans 5:18, “Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men.” Flesh is what we are by human nature, and what we are by human nature is under condemnation. What is the remedy for condemnation? If you are guilty of a capital offense and under the condemnation of a death sentence from God, what will save you?
I’ll tell you what will not save you. Commandments will not save you when your problem is guilt and condemnation. What happens when commandments come? Paul tells us in Romans 7:9, “When the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” The commandments don’t bring about redemption, they bring about wrath. Romans 4:15, “The law brings wrath.” A man who is guilty and under legal condemnation will not be saved by commandments; he will be saved by acquittal. He needs a judge to pardon and forgive. He needs justification by faith and not by works of the law. That’s why Paul comes to the end of his long indictment of the human race in Romans 1-3 by saying, “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
So the law could not do what absolutely has to be done if we are to be rescued from our guilt and condemnation: it could not justify us. It could not set us right with God. It could not take away our guilt. It could not absorb our condemnation. What it did was show us our guilt (Romans 3:20; 7:7) and to make us even more sinful by stirring up the rebellion of our flesh (5:20; 7:5). “Through the commandment sin [becomes] utterly sinful” (Romans 7:13).
Trust Jesus, not Law-Keeping
So this morning, if you want to be set right with God, don’t look to the law. If you want to be acquitted and justified, don’t depend on law-keeping. No amount of law-keeping can turn the verdict of guilty to not-guilty. One thing can change that verdict that hangs over your head: the perfect Son of God living and dying in your place. For his sake alone God counts you to be righteous when you trust him. Hence Romans 3:28, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Trust Jesus, not law-keeping.
So the law cannot justify us because we are in the flesh, meaning we are fallen and condemned. And commandments of the law cannot remove guilt and condemnation. Only Christ can.
Why Is It that the Law Could not Sanctify Us?
Now we turn to sanctification. Why can’t the law sanctify us? Why can’t it make us holy and righteous and loving people? Now here there is so much to say that I think I would do a disservice to the truth if I tried to pack it in here at the end of the message. So let me just tell you where we are going, Lord willing, next week as we take up this question and move with it into verses 4-8.
It is a burning issue today how Christians can live in love and righteousness in the fragile world we have just moved into where fear and anger lie just beneath the surface of our lives. Fear of anthrax and bombs and the collapse of life-sustaining infrastructures we have always taken for granted. And anger at someone or some people and we are not even sure who.
Do you have the resources in you to be confident and fearless and courageous and patient and kind and fair and loving and sacrificial, not returning evil for evil, but blessing those who curse you and praying for those who persecute you (Romans 12:17; Matthew 5:44)? Where will you look for this? Will you look to the law?
It won’t work. Look to Christ. The living, divine, loving, omnipotent Lord who died for you and rose again and promises to be with you and help you and satisfy your longings in life and death. Look to him. The law cannot sanctify you, but Christ can. That is what we will take up next week, if God wills.
Till then, if you need to get right with God this morning, look to Christ, not the law. And if you need help being a loving and righteous person this week – and who doesn’t – look to Christ, not the law. (Part 3 tomorrow)
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.