What is the “Law” in Romans 8:3?

By sending his Son, God accomplished what the law could not. But to what does the law refer in this Romans 8:3? Law may refer to the Mosaic Law, keeping to the context of Romans 7:1-12 or as a “principle” as in 7:21 (the “sin principle”).

Torah-fingerJames Dunn and N. T. Wright argue Paul is consistently contrasting the Mosaic Law (or at least the boundary markers of the Law) in Romans 7 and it makes sense he should continue to contrast the written code (7:6) and the law of the Spirit. Although the Law promised life to those who kept it perfectly, it was powerless to deal with the real problem facing humanity, the problem of sin.

Colin Kruse argues the second view is preferable since it makes Romans 8:1 a continuation of 7:21-25. There is a principle at work in the people who desire to do what is good, but find themselves doing what they know to be wrong. The person who is in Christ is freed from the sin principle (7:25) and is not able to be punished for that sin principle because it has been fulfilled by Christ.

A problem is Paul’s description of the Law as weak (ἀσθενέω, v. 3). The verb refers to something that is weakened, perhaps by illness. This is often the word-group used in the Gospels for those who are healed by Jesus. But Paul uses the word for any kind of weakness or inability, including the “weak brother” in Romans 14 who is unable to eat meat due to their conscience. In chapter 7 the purpose of the Mosaic Law was to define sin so that humanity could be justly punished and know they are in need of a savior. That is not a weakness or inability, but rather the purpose for which the Law was originally designed.

In either case, this law is powerless to set people free from the power of sin which results in a downward spiral into more sin and finally in death.

6 thoughts on “What is the “Law” in Romans 8:3?

  1. Romans 8:2 specifically states: “the law of sin and death” and the word “law” is not capitalized. In class, Dr. Long stated that when the word “Law” is capitalized it is usually referring to the Mosaic Law. So to me, because in verse 8:2 the word “law” is not capitalized, I do not think that Paul is referring to the Mosaic Law. Moo talks about this issue on page 117, and he also believes that Paul is not referring to the Mosaic Law. Moo suggests that Paul means what he also said in verse 7:23, which is that “the phrase ‘law of sin’ refers to a power or authority exercised by sin” (Moo, 117). Based on what I heard in class about the grammatical rule and what Moo says when talking about this issue, I believe with what Moo says is probably what Paul was saying. When Paul is talking about “the law of sin and death” I believe he is referring to the power sin has over us because we are sinful creatures.

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  2. According to Douglass Moo, “the law of sin and death” in 8:2 is the divine “rule” or “principle” that those who sin must die, and probably then is not referring to the law of Moses since Paul does not present the law as a liberating force. In verse 3 however, he is confident that the law in that verse refers to the law of Moses (Moo). The law of Moses could not rescue humans from sin and death. It is difficult to know for sure since he uses the word “law” in chapter 7 in two different ways with distinct meanings. Moo says that the phrase in verse 3 nicely summarizes the basic message of chapter 7 though (Moo). I tend to agree more with Moo, that it is referring to the mosaic law because the mosaic law was in a certain way “weakened” by human sinfulness. It only brought sin and transgression.

    Moo, Douglass J. Encountering the Book of Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002. Print.

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  3. After reading both Romans 7 and 8:3, it is my belief that Paul is referring to the mosaic law in 8:3. I think it makes the most sense because he is constantly referring to it in other sections. It also talks about the law being powerless to do something and we know, as you pointed out, that the law does not have the power to fix the sin problem. Paul also says it was weakened by the flesh, something the mosaic law also was. Jesus was able to keep the mosaic law perfectly but everyone else, those also weakened by sin, are not able to. I think that the word use of weak would show more favor to the mosaic law rather than the principle.

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  4. In Romans 8:3, it makes sense that Paul is referring to the Mosaic Law. The Law of Moses is unable to save those and give them salvation like the Jews believed. They believed that if they held the law, they would be in heaven. Romans 8:3 makes it clear that “The law was powerless because it was weakened by the flesh.” Essentially, that means that the law cannot save because humans are born into a sin nature. Doug Moo states, “Despite its origin and innate goodness, the law of Moses could not rescue human beings from the nexus of sin and death, because human beings are helpless captives to the power of this world” (Moo, 133). The only human never to sin was Jesus! Since Jesus was the only perfect human, God sent him to die for our sins- to save our sins because the law couldn’t. The law cannot forgive sin, but God can, and God can because of what Christ did on the cross, taking our sins and dying for them.

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  5. Whether the Mosaic law or a principle is used to address sin, as you mentioned in your closing statement, the purpose is to draw the conclusion that we are not able to be justified from our sin by anything. If the law is not able to do so, what else could there be? The law was designed accordingly to cover a multitude of works to earn justification and righteousness, however, sin is something bigger. Sin is not even on the same level as the law is, they are in two different dimensions. It is foolish to think that the law can cover or override our sin- but many of us think this way. Although the law can be used to harm our perceptions of ourselves sometimes (pride by “thinking” they are obtaining the law), it is also the tool to see our brokenness. Paul continues to draw us back to sin and our sin nature and how we cannot overcome it at all. Only Jesus can and did and we receive that through belief. Romans 5:15-16 explains this sin concept in a holistic way.

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