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.