A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 8:2-4 a). The freedom of the Spirit.
The second privilege of salvation is expressed in the next statement: *because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death* (2). Thus a certain ‘liberation’ joins ‘no condemnation’ as the two great blessings which are ours if we are ‘in Christ Jesus’ (a clause which is applied to both in the Greek of verses 1 and 2). Moreover, these two blessings are linked by the conjunction *because*, indicating that our liberation is the basis of our justification. It is because we have been liberated that no condemnation can overtake us.
From what, then, have we been set free? Paul replies: *from the law of sin and death*. The context seems to demand that this is a description of God’s law, of Torah. For a major emphasis of Romans 7 has been on the relation between the law on the one hand and sin and death on the other. True, Paul was at pains to stress that the law is not itself sinful, yet he added that it reveals, provokes and condemns sin (7:7-9). True again, he stressed that the law does not ‘become death’ to people; yet it had ‘produced death’ in him (7:13). So, shocking as it may sound, God’s holy law could be called *the law of sin and death* because it occasioned both. In this case, to be liberated from the law of sin and death through Christ is to be no longer ‘under the law’, that is, to give up looking to the law for either justification or sanctification.
This liberation has been Paul’s own experience. It is noteworthy that verse 2 contains the only use in Romans 8 of the first person singular (*set me free*), which has been such a prominent feature of Romans 7. By this Paul is indicating that he has himself been delivered, in Christ and through the Spirit, from the law and so from the humiliating situation with which he identified himself at the end of Romans 7.
The means of our liberation Paul calls *the law of the Spirit of life* (2) or ‘the life-giving law of the Spirit’ (REB). At first sight it seems strange that law should liberate us from law, especially when commentators are determined to give ‘law’ the same meaning in both expressions. Some take ‘law’ as meaning ‘principle’ or ‘power’, and translate ‘the power of the Spirit of life’ which frees us from ‘the power of sin and death’, but both expressions are then too imprecise to be meaningful. Professor Dunn argues that in both cases the law is Torah, and that Paul is reaffirming ‘the two-sidedness of the law’ as a law of both death and life, that is, of sin and death belonging to the old epoch, and of Spirit and life belonging to the new. But it is questionable whether the Romans would have grasped this subtlety.
The alternative is to understand ‘the law of the Spirit of life’ as describing the gospel, just as Paul calls it elsewhere ‘the ministry of the Spirit’ (2 Cor. 3:8). This makes the best sense, as it is certainly the gospel which has freed us from the law and its curse, and the message of life in the Spirit from the slavery of sin and death.
How the gospel liberates us from the law is elaborated in verses 3-4. The first and fundamental truth which Paul declares is that God has taken the initiative to do *what the law* (even though it was his own law) *was powerless to do*. The law could neither justify nor sanctify. Why not? Because *it was weakened by the sinful nature* (3a), or ‘because human weakness robbed it of all potency’ (REB). That is, the law’s impotence is not intrinsic. It is not in itself but in us, in our flesh (*sarx*), our fallen selfish nature (cf. 7:14-20). So then, what the sin-weakened law could not do, *God did*. He made provision for both our justification and our sanctification. First, he sent his Son, whose incarnation and atonement are alluded to in verse 3, and then he gave us his Spirit through whose indwelling power we are enabled to fulfil the law’s requirement, which is mentioned in verse 4 and expanded in the following paragraph. Thus God justifies us through his Son and sanctifies us through his Spirit (cf. Gal. 4:4, 6). The plan of salvation is essentially trinitarian. For God’s way of justification is not law but grace (through the death of Christ), and his way of sanctification is not law but the Spirit (through his indwelling).
What God *did* Paul unfolds in five expressions. First, came the *sending of his own Son*. The word ‘sending’ does not necessarily imply the Son’s pre-existence, since God is also said to have ‘sent’ his prophets in the Old Testament and his apostles in the New, who of course were not pre-existent. Nevertheless, the statement that it was *his own Son* whom he sent may well be intended to indicate that he had enjoyed a prior life of intimacy with the Father; it certainly expresses the Father’s sacrificial love in sending him (cf. 5;8, 10 and 8:32).
Tomorrow: Romans 8:2-4. a). The freedom of the Spirit (continued).