A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 8:2-4. a). The freedom of the Spirit. (final).
It is this phrase (*who …live…according to the Spirit*) which directs our attention to law-abiding Christian behaviour as the ultimate purpose of God’s action through Christ. In this case the law’s *dikaioma* or ‘just requirement’ (singular, not plural ‘requirements’ as in NIV) refers to the commandments of the moral law viewed as a whole, which God wants to be ‘fulfilled’ (i.e. ‘obeyed’, not ‘satisfied’) in his people. For Jesus had himself spoken of fulfilling the law (Mt. 5:17), and Paul will write later of neighbour love as the chief ‘fulfilment of the law’ (13:8-10, cf. Gal.5:14). Moreover, the law can be fulfilled only in those ‘who walk not according the flesh but according to the Spirit’ (RSV). The flesh renders the law impotent, the Spirit empowers us to obey it. This is not perfectionism; it is simply to say that obedience is a necessary and possible aspect of Christian discipleship. Although the law cannot secure this obedience, the Spirit can.
Some modern scholars find Paul hopelessly confused, even self-contradictory, since he writes of both the abolition and the fulfilment of the law, of our being both released from it and committed to it, our discharge and our obligation being both attributable to Christ’s death (7:4; 8:3-4)! The most outspoken critic of Paul’s supposed inconsistency is Heikki Raisanen. He rejects all eulogies of Paul which depict him as a profound, logical, consistent theologian. Instead, ‘contradictions and tensions have to be *accepted* as *constant* features of Paul’s theology of the law’. In particular, ‘we find two conflicting lines of thought in Paul’s theology of the law. Paul asserts both the abolition of the law and also its permanently normative character’. Indeed, ‘Paul’s thought on the law is full of difficulties and inconsistencies’, for (Dr Raisanen presses the question) how could a divine institution be abolished or abrogated? But I fail to see any inconsistency in Paul’s declarations that, because the law is unable to justify or sanctify us, it has been abolished in those roles, whereas the Spirit can enable us to fulfil or keep the moral law. This was certainly the prophetic expectation. Through Ezekiel God promised, ‘I will put my Spirit in you’, and through Jeremiah, ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts (Ezk. 36:26f.; Je.31:33; cf. 2 Cor. 3:3). These promises are synonymous. When God puts his Spirit in our hearts, he writes his law there.
Verse 4 is of great importance for our understanding of Christian holiness. First, holiness is the ultimate purpose of the incarnation and the atonement. The end God had in view when sending his Son was not our justification only, through freedom from the condemnation of the law, but also our holiness, through obedience to the commandments of the law. Secondly, holiness consists in fulfilling the just requirement of the law. This is the final answer to the antinomians and adherents of the so-called ‘new morality’. The moral law has not been abolished for us; it is to be fulfilled in us. Although law-obedience is not the *ground* of our justification (it is in this sense that we are ‘not under law but under grace’), it is the fruit of it and the very meaning of sanctification. Holiness is Christlikeness, and Christlikeness is fulfilling the righteousness of the law. Thirdly, holiness is the work of the Holy Spirit. Romans 7 insists that we cannot keep the law because of our indwelling ‘flesh’; Romans 8:4 insists that we can and must because of the indwelling Spirit.
Looking back over the whole passage which runs from 7:1 to 8:4, the continuing place of the law in the Christian life should be clear. Our freedom from the law (proclaimed for instance in 7:4, 6 and 8:2) is not freedom to disobey it. On the contrary the law-obedience of the people of God is so important to God that he sent his Son to die for us and his Spirit to live in us, in order to secure it. Holiness is the fruit of trinitarian grace, of the Father sending his Son into the world and his Spirit into our hearts.
Tomorrow: Romans 8:5-8. b) The mind of the Spirit.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.