NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson IV)
Verse 3: The law was without power because it was made ineffective by our sinful nature. But God did what the law could not do: He sent His own Son to earth, clothed with the same human form as everyone else who used it to sin. God sent Him to be an offering to pay for that sin. So God sacrificed a human life to destroy Sin.
For so long Paul sought freedom through the Law from the death sentence brought on by sin – meaning loss of all hope for salvation in this world and the world-to-come, – but it eluded him. Only after his revelation on the road to Damascus, he was able to comprehend this new way. This is what he told the people of Antioch in Pisidia: “Brothers and sisters, understand what we are telling you. You can have forgiveness of your sins through this Jesus. The Law of Moses could not free you from your sins. But you can be made right with God if you believe in Jesus.”1 And when the Judaizers came to the churches throughout Galatia trying to convince them to keep the Law as a safety-net to grace, Paul wrote them: “The law was never God’s way of giving new life to people. If it were, then we could be made right with God by following the law… the only way for people to get what God promised would be through faith in Jesus Christ. It is given to those who believe in Him.”2
The writer of Hebrews drew the same conclusion. He wrote: “The old rules are now ended because they were weak and worthless. The Law of Moses could not make anything perfect. But now a better hope has been given to us. And with that hope, we can come near to God.”3 When we read the first ten verses of Chapter 10 in the Book of Hebrews, the writer lays this out clearly. He concludes by saying: “With one sacrifice Christ made His people perfect forever. They are the ones who are being made holy.”4 This holiness, of which Paul speaks here, means that like vessels lying damaged on the trash heap of broken laws, we were rescued by Christ in order to be cleansed, healed, and dedicated as vessels for God’s use only.
This was not man’s plan because he would have been forced to devise it by using the Law. But the Law could only condemn, not correct; the Law I could only expose the dirty heart, not make it clean and white as snow.5 The plan Paul was talking about was designed by God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It offered not only grace but liberty and reconciliation with the Father. Paul explained this to the Galatians: “When the appointed time came, God sent His Son… God did this so that He could buy the freedom of those who were under the law. God’s purpose was to make us His children.”6 For the Apostle John, this was, without doubt, the greatest expression of God’s love.7
But it came at a high price. The pure and spotless Lamb of God, who committed no sin, was made a sinner by taking our sins on Himself. This required Him to suffer death on the cross. Even the Jewish leaders called Jesus a sinner.8 As a result, He died between two criminals.9 Paul says, this was necessary so that He could identify with those who were sinners.10 He even told the Galatians: “The law says we are under a curse for not always obeying it. But Christ took away that curse. He changed places with us and put Himself under that curse.”11 The Apostle Peter saw it similarly: “Christ carried our sins in His body on the cross. He did this so that we would stop living for sin and live for what is right. By His wounds, you were made whole.”12
Early church scholar Tertullian wrote to a critic and explained to him that since the Father sent His Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh,”13 it cannot be claimed that the flesh in which He appeared was illusory. It was necessary for Christ to come in the likeness of sinful flesh so that He could redeem those living in sinful flesh. It could not be done by some celestial lookalike or with an imitation covering. It must be actual human flesh and bone, even though it was free of sinful tendencies.14
Then Church historian Eusebius opposed Origen’s idea that the Law of Moses was divided into two parts, one to deal with the sinful tendencies of the flesh, and the other to deal with mankind’s spirituality. In Eusebius’ view, God did what the Law could not do, so there is no reason to go back to the Law looking for answers. It is on this same basis that Christians reject having to follow Jewish customs on the grounds that they add nothing to what Christ did for us, and nor will it help us to better express our faith in Him15.16
Then Pelagius gives us his analogy of what Paul is saying and points out that, as he sees it, the Law of God was strong, but the spirit of man was weak.17 In declaring that God sent His only Son, Pelagius counters Bishop Photinus,18 who denied the Son’s existence before the incarnation. The truth is, the Son became flesh just like the rest of humanity. That allowed Him to be condemned to death in the flesh like all others. But He was victorious over that condemnation of death through His resurrection. In other words, Christ was not a Spirit trying to die for physical beings. As Pelagius sees it, Christ overcame death for us because He was like us. He then compares this to the Jewish system and points out that sacrificial birds and animals, which the Jews offered under the law, were offered in the name of sin, although they had no sin in themselves. In the same way, the Lamb of God which was offered for our sins, took the name of sin, even though they could find no fault in Him. Therefore, Christ was able to conquer sin by never sinning Himself. He arrived at the cross sinless, and was buried in the tomb sinless, and rose from the grave sinless. He did this while in the flesh in order to carry out the death sentence on sin, that sin had placed upon mankind. In reality, it was our Lord’s will that was on trial19.20
Then Bishop Theodoret confirms that Christ was incarnated in what we know as sinful flesh. It was on purpose that He took on human nature. However, He did not assume human sinfulness. Even though He had the same human nature we have, He was not of the same character and same mind as we sinful human beings. Theodoret goes on to point out that since the Law was unable to accomplish its purpose due to the weakness of those to whom it was given, the only begotten Son of God broke the power of sin. He did so by taking on human flesh and then doing everything that was right according to the Law, never once giving in to the temptations of sin in any way21.22 Another early church scholar, named Caesarius, adds that by taking upon Himself corrupted human flesh while remaining without sin, Christ fulfilled all the righteousness required by God while condemning sin in the body. This He proved by His temptations in the desert, all of which pertained to the flesh – hunger, pride, and greed. It was a reminder of the commandments and the power of the Word23.24
The great Reformer Martin Luther had a lot to say on this verse. First, he challenges those who speculate that by our own natural powers we can awaken in us acts of love for God so that by our will we love God above all things. It is quite clear, that to do so requires following every letter of the Law with complete perfection. But Paul says here that the Law is incapable of doing such a thing since it is impossible to fulfill the Law because of the weakness of the flesh. In fact, even trying to do what is good is a bad thing because human reason seeks its own benefit, not that of God’s. So as far as Luther is concerned, if faith does not enlighten a person and love does not make them free, then they are incapable of willing into existence anything that is good on their own.25
Fellow Reformer, John Calvin, agrees with Luther. Calvin notes that Paul clearly declares that our sins were paid for by the death of Christ. It had to be this way because it was impossible for the law to confer righteousness upon us. This revealed one thing to mankind: The more that is required by the law than what we can perform, the more we will need to look for an alternative way to remedy this dilemma. Why should human endurance by challenged and measured by the precepts of the law? God is not interested in demanding of mankind more than they are capable of giving. God knew what His creation was competent of, and that’s all He requires. It was mankind’s sinful tendencies that let them down, just as it did Adam and Eve.26 In other words, Christ Himself could not have fulfill God’s demands any other way than through the Law. That’s why He said He had not come to destroy the Law.27
But Calvin does not leave it there. He sees Paul revealing the method used by our heavenly Father in restoring righteousness to mankind through His Son. By condemning sin in the very flesh of Christ, our Lord wrote a new covenant that was able to abolished the authority of sin which held us bound as prisoners before God. This then freed us from its demands because Christ met all those demands so that we could have righteousness through Him. Once our sins are blotted out and we are absolved because Christ paid the price, God can then counts us as justified. Calvin notes that Paul first declares that Christ was sent to remind us that there is no righteousness in us. That’s why any righteousness we seek must be found in Him.28 Therefore, anyone who depends upon their own merits to gain this justified status, do so in vain. They can only be justified by the grace of the Forgiver. It all comes from that atonement which Christ accomplished in His own flesh.29 To put this another way, Calvin is saying that there are some who believe that if they act like Christ, that alone will be enough to justify them before God. But this is an illusion. We all must be punished for our sins. God in His mercy allowed His Son to suffer that punishment for us. So it is Christ living in us that causes us to live and act righteously.
1 Acts of the Apostles 13:38-39
2 Galatians 3:21-22
3 Hebrews 7:18-19
4 Ibid. 10:14
5 Isaiah 1:18
6 Galatians 4:4-5
7 1 John 4:10
8 John 9:24
9 Mark 15:27
10 2 Corinthians 5:21
11 Galatians 3:13
12 1 Peter 2:24
13 Romans 8:3
14 Tertullian: Against Marcion 5.14
15 See Acts of the Apostles 15:5-21
16 Eusebius of Caesarea: Proof of the Gospel 1.7
17 Cf., Matthew 26:41
18 Photinus was bishop of Sirmium in Pannonia Secunda (today the town of Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia) who was best known for denying the incarnation of Christ.
19 Luke 22:42
20 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 See Hebrews 4:15
22 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
23 See Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13
24 Caesarius of Arles: op. cit., loc. cit., Sermon 11.3
25 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 120
26 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
27 Matthew 5:17
28 Philippians 3:9