The Just Requirement Fulfilled

I can’t get enough of Romans 8.


If I were only allowed to have one chapter in the whole Bible, this would be it: you have here the empowered life given by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, you have a picture of cosmic redemption and therein an affirmation of God’s love for the whole created order; you get signals that our salvation is about participation in the new humanity of those who rule the world on God’s behalf and thereby participate in new creation; you get hope in times of suffering; you get freedom from condemnation; you get our identity as God’s beloved children as we are in the beloved son.

And, of course, you get God’s daring act of giving up of God’s son so that we might live.

Jesus’ death for us comes into play a couple of times in the passage. The one I want to explore a bit right now is the difficult claim in 8:3-4.

3 God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. 4 He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. (CEB)

Here we have, once again, the question of how the Law is related to the saving righteousness of God. And, once again, it stands outside looking in. God did what the Law could not. We are on much the same ground as Rom 3: no flesh is justified by Law before God, so God acts outside the Law, with something new and unexpected.

God acts through giving God’s own son to die. Where the CEB here says “to deal with sin,” the Greek is περὶ ἁμαρτίας (peri hamartias), a likely reference to the Septuagint’s use of the phrase to mean “sin offering.” Once again we’re on the same ground as ch. 3: Jesus as a sin offering as God’s alternative to Law as the means of salvation.

But here’s where I want to explore a bit further: How is “the righteous requirement of the Law fulfilled in us”? What is the requirement and how is it fulfilled?

First, there is nothing in this passage, Paul, or the NT in general to support the claim made by at least one modern commentator that this refers to God’s reckoning of Jesus’ law-keeping to our account. The passage is entirely about Jesus’ death, nowhere does Paul (or any other NT writer) speak of Jesus’ righteousness consisting in keeping the Law. Enough of such speculation.

In Romans, Paul has used this “just requirement” language before.

  • Rom 1:32: They know the “just requirement” of God that those who do such things are worthy of death.
  • Rom 2:26: The uncircumcised keep the “just requirement” of the Law because, as God’s eschatological people who have received the Spirit, they have this Law written on their hearts.
  • Rom 5:16: The many transgressions were the seedbed from which grew out the gift, the transgressions leading to a “just requirement” (this does not mean “justification,” but the just act which would enable one to be justified
  • Rom 5:18: One “just act” lead to “justification”
  • Rom 8:4: God fulfills the “just requirement” in us

I find it fascinating that in three of the previous four occurrences the connotation of dikaioma had to do with death. The just requirement of death is known, in 1:32, and in ch. 5 it is Jesus’ death in particular that is the just action that leads to justification.

So I wonder: is the “just requirement” that is fulfilled in us, what the Law couldn’t do but God did, the just requirement of death for sin?

I have been hesitant to go down this road, in part because Paul speaks immediately afterward of our identity as those who walk, not according to the flesh but, according to the Spirit. So I’ve previously thought of this as our own obedience to what the Law would have us do: the death of Jesus enables us to live obediently to the Law.

But what does the Spirit do in Romans 8?

As the Spirit of freedom, it is the Spirit of adoption–making us God’s children and confirming and conforming us to that identity.

But that “Abba, Father,” cry is the cry of those who are being conformed to the image of Jesus by suffering with him in order to also be glorified with him (8:17). The Spirit’s work in us is to conform us not merely to sonship generally, but to the crucified and then resurrected son.

In other words, the Spirit fulfills in us our dying with Christ, our union with him in death and resurrection, our baptism into his death.

So to be those who “walk according to the Spirit” is precisely to be those who carry about in our body the dying of Jesus–and thus have the just requirement of death fulfilled in us through our realization of our union with Christ.

This finds further corroboration in Rom 3, where the thing that allows God to be just and justifier is the blood of Jesus–and those who are justified are those who are “of the faithfulness of Christ”–united to and defined by Jesus’ own death.

To have the just requirement fulfilled in us is to realize in ourselves the dying of Christ by which we are justified both now and at the end.

15 thoughts on “The Just Requirement Fulfilled”

  1. I am with you, Daniel. Romans 8 is where it’s at. If only most of pop-culture Christianity would adhere to it also. Especially needed, I think, is to embrace verses 9-17 in contrast to a culture that insists in every way possible on living “in the flesh” and “according to the flesh.” If only….

  2. I still find a problem with this to be that Christians seem to be said to be empowered by the Spirit not to continue in sin, as those under Law were not empowered. This empowerment seems to be so that Christians can, in effect, keep the Law (of Christ). So, dying to sin and Law doesn’t seem sufficient as a characterisation of Christians fulfilling the righteous requirement of the Law. As to Jesus’ righteousness, I haven’t at my fingertips everything the NT says about that, but there is insistence that Jesus was sinless. A sinner can fulfil the righteousness of the Law by dying (according to Daniel’s argument), what they can’t do is be raised afterwards! I don’t like how Rom 5.16, 18 and 8.4 are taken.

    1. I hear you, Davey. That’s how I’ve been reading the text for the past several years. I agree that, generally, the text is saying that we can now do what they previously could not. The question is the extent to which Paul’s understanding of “righteousness” as refocused now on the Christ event has carried over into this depiction as well: achieving a righteousness outside the Law, even if it’s fulfilling the Law’s just requirement. Both of those seem to be in play at the same time, which is part of the puzzle.

  3. Daniel,

    If Jesus had broken even one commandment, then how could his death have condemned sin in the flesh? The sinless obedient life that he lived climaxes in his obedient death. One is not good without the other. The law was weakened by sinful flesh, so God sent his son in sinful flesh to fulfill the law for humanity. How else does the logic work?

    Do not the following lines assume Jesus’ obedience to Torah?

    Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

    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.

    He humbled himself,by becoming obedient to the point of death even death on a cross!

    I know you agree that Jesus lived a sinless life, but why? If Jesus only had to agree to die, what was the point of his sinless life?

    Paul doesn’t want to argue in that direction because only Jesus was righteous in that way and under that system. Paul’s point is that Jesus’ death ends that system, and now obedience means trusting in what Jesus did and not trying to do what he did.

    1. Billy, with regard to breaking even one commandment, “Have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?” (Mat 12:5 NRS).

      The way that God “fulfills the law” is specifically tied to Jesus death here, not his life of obedience. How does the logic work? God did something else: law righteousness wouldn’t get it done, so God brought about a qualitatively different kind of righteousness: Christ-death righteousness.

      I don’t know if this assumes obedience to Torah; I guess, but it’s not the point or stated or related to the righteousness God brings about. “Now, apart from the Law…” Paul says in Rom 3.

      Of the verses you cite, the only one from Paul is “Humbled himself…” that is a reference to his death. Jesus was obedient to God throughout his life. But the measure of that obedience isn’t that canon of Torah in Paul. Paul focuses on the “one act” that is Jesus’ death.

      1. “one act” – is it entirely clear that the text (Rom 5) is identifying the one act of the death? Can’t it be referring to the one whole life of Jesus?

  4. The following quotes are taken from Climax of the Covenant 207-214 The Vindication of the Law: Rom 8:1-11

    “God achieves his purpose through the law, since the son and the spirit have come to its aid.”

    The torah has an extremely positive role in the overall structure of thought…”

    “Were this a novel or even a short story the torah would have the place of protagonist struggling against the odds to begin with but eventually having received the necessary help winning through and accomplishing the intended mission.”

    “When (flesh) is removed, as it is apparently by God’s action in the death of Jesus, the law again does happily what is was intended, and rightly intended to do.”

    “If we begin our thinking with this idea of the law, helped by the spirit and son, giving life to God’s people, we find in fact that his is expressed almost exactly in 8.2…”

    “The final sequence has the torah at last enabled to give life but this time clearly to those in Christ who walk according to the spirit.”

    So for Wright, the torah was intended to give life, real life, not just physical blessings. Torah could not deliver life because mankind was sinful and disobedient. This sinfulness was magnified by torah in Israel. But, the torah is ultimately successful in giving life when helped by the son and the spirit. Israel’s representative, and therefore adam’s and the world’s representative takes on that sin and defeats it. So how then does Jesus help the torah succeed to give life to man? My solution is that Jesus kept the law as no other man could even to the point of death. I know Paul doesn’t say it exactly, but I am not sure he wouldn’t have if he were explaining Jesus own relationship to the torah. I am thinking the way to go with this is that Jesus IS the torah in the flesh just like he is the temple.

    1. Billy, I think you’ve given a good reading of Wright. Torah ends up fulfilling its role of “helper” once the Spirit of the resurrected Christ comes along to empower it toward its intended end.

      It’s fine if your solution for this is Jesus’ law-keeping, but no NT writer says so–not even Matthew, who seems to come the closest. I think we do better to wrestle with what Paul actually does say. He has a lot to say about Jesus and the Law and their relationship to each other (especially in Galatians and Romans). Jesus isn’t Torah incarnate for Paul, though there are some ways that he performs the functions that the Law performed for Israel. Similarly, Jesus isn’t the Temple in Paul (or the Synoptics). The community is the Temple, or perhaps the individual (1 Cor 3, 2 Cor 6-7); the community is where the spirit and glory of God dwell and where sacrifices of praise are given.

  5. Okay, fine. So how do we die with Christ?

    P.S. True: Romans 8 rawks! “This chapter has it all…” –Stefon.

  6. “Christ had to come under Law and be cursed by it and through Law die, to redeem those under Law (which four points I just don’t know what to make of), and until they were redeemed blessing couldn’t come to the Gentiles (why couldn’t Christ die for the sins of the world, which would include any done by those under Law without somehow making that special?)”

    Quoting myself! But, what if Paul wasn’t stating something meant as logical causality, but was, rather, pointing out to people so that they would recognise as he had what God had been doing in history culminating in now, simply as apparent fact. So, gentiles were obviously receiving the Spirit, and most of Israel not. This needed comment, especially to those of Israel. Abraham had been called in a sinful world to be the progenitor of people who would be what He wanted, and Israel was later formed under Law (those outside the Abraham line and the Law at least not clearly acceptable to God at that time on some, or any, terms). Israel had not been altogether what God wanted. But Israel’s Messiah came and his sacrificial death began a new era, where he had redeemed Israel’s particular transgressions of Law and indeed all sins so also the gentiles’ sins, the death meaning that wrath for transgressions and sins was finished (for those of faith, who had the Spirit). So, now, clearly gentiles had been shown to be acceptable, having the Spirit, and the era of Law shown to be finished for Israel, the Law having exacted its penalty, both being acceptable to God on equal terms without Law. So, Paul’s use of logical connectives like ‘since’, ‘because’, ‘in order that’ should not be taken logically but in some sort of story sequential sense. However, this leaves a problem of what about when Christians sin. How are they supposed to live out the way God wants. They have the Spirit to help, but do they have anything more. Are they still in something like the position of Israel under Law, and supposed to live a certain way but not quite adequately empowered to do so. And how far can they fail – to fulfil the necessary righteousness.

  7. Daniel

    At one time I would have been with you on this – the just requirement of the law for a sinner is death and this Jesus took upon himself. However, the immediately following text is so forceful I have yielded to its weight; the life of the Spirit fulfils the law’s requirement of love. That is the NC supplies what the OC demnds.

    This aside, I am with you completely in your overall understanding of Law and Romans. A good series.

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