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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”).
James 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.
Having described the wretched condition of people who know what the law demands but cannot keep it (7:21-24), Paul now declares that those who are in Christ have been set free from the Law of sin and Death (8:1-4)
Condemnation refers to a “the punishment following sentence” (BDAG). This is a rare word, only used in the New Testament here and Romans 5:16 and 5:18. In Romans 5, condemnation was the result of the first Adam’s rebellion against God. In that case, God acts as judge, finds Adam guilty and gives him the appropriate (and promised) punishment for his rebellion, death. Those who were under the law were also under the condemnation of the Law.
In Wisdom literature, this word can have the sense of people getting what they deserve. For example, in Wisdom 4:16, “The righteous who have died will condemn (κατακρίνω) the ungodly who are living, and youth that is quickly perfected will condemn (κατακρίνω) the prolonged old age of the unrighteous” (NRSV). Someone who persecutes the righteous will “get their comeuppance” and be persecuted themselves in the final judgment.
But Paul’s use here does not have the idea of recompense “but rather the principle of correspondence of deed and condition” (EDNT 2:260). The result of Adam’s sin was death because that was the natural result of his rebellion. In fact, God promised Adam that he would die if he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The point of Romans 7 is all those under the law fell short of the righteous requirement of the law. Since this is the case, all humans stand condemned by the law and receive the wages of that all of the “in Adam” people receive, death.
But for those who are “in Christ” do not stand condemned since they are no longer “in Adam.” The natural condemnation of the law of sin and death no longer applies to them since they have been raised to new life with Jesus (Romans 6:11). It is important to see here that Paul is saying the “in Christ” person no longer is under the natural condemnation for falling short of the glory of God. They are no longer “walking by flesh” but rather “walking by the Spirit.”
The rest of Romans 8 is going to unpack what this means, but for now I want to focus on the contrast between the “wretched man” who stands condemned (7:24) and the “in Christ” person who is not under condemnation in the least. There is something liberating about this new state in which the Christian exists.
But if we have already been set free from the law of sin and death with oppressed us prior to Christ, why do we so quickly return to that old life which stands condemned?
When Paul talks about the struggle to do what the Law requires in Romans 7, is he reflecting his own experience as a Jew? Alternatively, Paul may be speaking of his post-conversion struggle with sin. It is even possible that Paul speaking hypothetically, not using his own experience as a guide at all.
Cranfield (Romans 1:344) lists 7 possible interpretations of the “I” in chapter 7:14-25:
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own present Christian experience.
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own past Christian experience.
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own pre-conversion experience in the light of his current Christian faith.
- That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen by himself.
- That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen through Christian eyes.
- That it presents the experience of a Christian who is living at the level of the Christian life which can be left behind, who is trying to fight the battle on his own strength.
- That it presents the experience of a Christians generally, including the very best and mature.
Cranfield sets aside the second possibility as impossible in the light of Philippians 3:6b and Gal 1:14. The fourth possibility is rejected because it is contrary to the view of the Jewish “self-complacency” described in chapter 2. The use of the present tense tends to argue against the second and third option. The present tense to too sustained throughout the section for this to be an historical present for vividness. The order of the sentences argues against 2-6. If verse 24 is the cry of an unsaved man, then all of the preceding material ought to be before salvation as well.
There are problems with thinking that the “Wretched Man” is Paul’s pre-Christian experience based recent studies of Judaism by E. P. Sanders and others. This “New Perspective on Paul” argues that Judaism was not a “works for salvation” religion and that “rabbi Saul” would not obsessed about his lack of perfection in following the Law. I suppose it is possible that Paul was a particularly obsessive follower of the Law, but it is also popular scholarship reads Luther’s own struggle into the passage.
The problem, for Cranfield, in accepting either the first or seventh option is that they present a dark view of the Christian life, and one that seems to be incompatible with the concept of the believer’s liberation from sin as presented in 6:6, 14, 17, 22, and 8:2. But it is important to understand that the very fact that there is a struggle indicates that the Spirit of God is present in the writer’s life, for without the Spirit he will never realize that he is in sin and struggle to remove himself from that state. He notes that it is “relatively unimportant” that we choose between the first or seventh option since they are virtually the same thing. If it is autobiographical then Paul, as a very mature Christian struggled with sin. Is that possible? While we might think a mature Christian has risen above the wretched struggle, that is simply not the case.
What is the significance of this passage to the believer? We can learn from this passage, it is clear that if Paul himself struggled with sin, then we should realize that we too will struggle with sin. In fact, I think there is more danger in “not struggling” than being contented in your walk with God.
The sin of complacency is far more dangerous than we might think.
In Romans 5 Paul has concluded that those who are in Christ are declared righteous by the faithful act of Jesus, the second Adam. Although the Law caused sin to increase, those who are in Christ experience an abundance of grace in Christ Jesus. We are freed from the power of sin and death, and are free from the law which brought death (5:20-21). Richard Longenecker argues structures Romans 6:1-7:13 is structured around three potential objections to Paul’s argument so far (Longenecker, Romans, 604-5).
First, if we are in fact saved by grace without obedience to ritual or law, then why should we not “sin that grace may abound”? This appears to have been a problem for Paul since he addresses in in several of his letters. Paul did not teach his followers they were free from all moral restraint. In fact, Paul will include several chapters in Romans on what the Christian life ought to look like. Although someone might accuse Paul’s followers of living as though they had no moral boundaries, this was not the point of his Gospel.
Second, can Christians do things formerly considered “sin” because they are no longer under the law? A Gentile Christian may have thought that since they were free from the Law, they could behave in ways that violate the Law and not consider that behavior a sin. By way of analogy, if a person travels to another country. Some practices might be legal that were illegal in their home country. It would not be illegal for an American teenager to drink alcohol in Germany because the legal drinking age is sixteen. But if the same teenager was in Michigan, they would be breaking the law since the drinking age is 21. Perhaps there are some things the Jewish Law considered sin that are now, in the present age, no longer sinful. Paul argues that one of the functions of the Law was to make sin so clear that the need for salvation is obvious.
Third, if this is the case, someone might object that the law itself is sin since it causes people to sin. If I make a rule that causes people to sin, am I not responsible for their sin? Paul treats this objection in 7:7-13 by anticipating his conclusion in chapter 8; those who are in Christ are in fact free from the law so that we can serve in the new way of the Spirit.
The natural inclination of most people is to abuse freedom. Think of those “pay what you want” snack boxes at work. At least in my experience, even in Christian organizations they always come up short. This seems to be another problem which cropped up for Paul regularly, especially when former pagan Gentiles became part of the church. Some behaviors in the Roman world were out of step with the ethical mandates of Judaism, so Paul’s gospel could be taken as a “license to sin.”
How do these potential objections to Paul’s Gospel of grace come up in contemporary discussions of what it means to be a Christian?
In order to show how justification “works,” Paul alludes to Genesis 3, Adam’s rebellion against God in the Garden. Genesis 3 indicates the penalty for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is death, and Genesis 5 demonstrates that result since all of Adam’s descendants die. This is the only genealogy which includes the phrase “and then he died.”
Sometimes there are discussions of whether Paul was referring to Adam him as a name or the first human. In verse 12 he uses the word for man, in verse 14 he uses the proper name. The current discussion of a “historical Adam in the “misses the point that for Paul Adam existed. He completely accepts the story of genesis 2-3 and would not consider anything other than a real Adam.
Does death come to all because all people sin (or personal, actual sins)? Or do all people die because of Adam’s sin? How is Adam’s sin passed along to his descendants? The difficulty with Romans 5:12 is the meaning of the phrase ἐφʼ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον. How should the preposition ἐφʼ be translated in this context? Fitzmyer has eleven possibilities, Longenecker reduces this to four viable options (Fiztmyer, Romans, 413-17; Longenecker, Romans, 587-8):
- “In whom,” referring Adam.
- “On the basis of which,” referring to sin. The NIV 2011 seems to follow this option, “and in this way death came…”
- “Because of this,” equivalent to a causal conjunction.
- “For this reason” or “so that,” equivalent to a consecutive conjunction, this seems to be what the ESV has done, “so that death spread…” In addition, by translating the verb “spread” the ESV gives the impression sin is like an epidemic spreading throughout the human race.
As a result of Adam’s rebellion, “death spread to all men.” The verb διέρχομαι can refer to crossing through a territory or moving toward a destination. Occasionally it can refer to passing through something like a sword (Luke 2:35). Longenecker points out the word “death” in 5:12 has an article. Paul is personifying death as a malevolent enemy of humanity (Longenecker, Romans, 587). Adam’s rebellion against God unleashed a powerful enemy into the world, one that will overcome all humans.
Paul’s view of the effect of sin on humanity differs from some other voices in Second Temple texts. Sirach 25:24 shifts the blame from Adam to Eve: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” Notice the title of this post refers to one man, Adam. For Paul in Romans 5, only Adam is responsible for sin. 2 Baruch 54:15, for example, connects Adam’s sin and the death of all of his descendants. Yet a few lines later, the writer says Adam is not the cause of our sin, because each person becomes “their own Adam.”
2 Baruch 54:15 For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. And further, each of them has chosen for himself the coming glory.
2 Baruch 54:15 Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam.
Paul’s claim is therefore that all humans somehow participate in the sin of Adam and are therefore destined to die. He does not build a theological statement compatible with later, post-Reformation theology. As a Jewish thinker, Paul understands that all people participated in the sin of Adam without working out the details of the doctrine of imputation.
For Paul, those who are “in Adam” die; those who are “in Christ” will live. All people are “in Adam” by default. The problem is how one becomes “in Christ.”
Since we have access to the Father, we can boast in the “hope of the glory of God” (5:2b). Hope in Paul’s letters tends to be eschatological, looking forward to the future resurrection from the dead. Our hope in this context is in some way present (we are presently boasting in the hope of glory). In the next chapter Paul will describe our salvation as a resurrection from the dead; we were dead in our sin, but we have been crucified with Christ so that we are now alive in him.
Boasting is usually a negative idea for Paul, in chapter 4 one who is justified by works can “boast” about their good works, Ephesians 2:8-9 salvation is by grace through faith so that no one can boast. But here Paul says we can take pride in the certainty we will participate in the future glory of the resurrection.
Our present/future justification means we can rejoice in our suffering (5:3-4). The verb translated “rejoice” is the same as boasting in the previous verse (καυχάομαι). Suffering is typically not something a Roman person would boast about, and a Jewish person might associate suffering with the curse of the law. But Paul says those who are in Christ ought to boast in both our future hope and our present suffering. Why?
Suffering (θλῖψις) produces endurance (ὑπομονή). Suffering can include any kind of oppression or affliction, whether that is natural (from and illness) or from some sort of persecution. What sort of suffering would the Roman church have faced at this point in history? Some were expelled from Rome because of their Christian faith, likely the Jewish Christians were alienated from their families, and the Gentiles appear to have rejected their family gods and the gods who made Rome great, even denying that Caesar is Lord is dangerous.
Endurance produces character (δοκιμή). By enduring suffering, we develop character. The noun refers to the results of testing something, perhaps to discover if it is genuine or to assess its value. Like testing gold in fire, a person’s character as revealed by suffering.
Character produces hope (ἐλπίς). Our developing character produces hope, knowing that the suffering is entirely worthwhile. By way of an analogy, people who train for an athletic context suffer physically from their training. Someone training to run the marathon in the Olympics must change their entire lifestyle in order to compete at that level.
Our hope will not disappoint (καταισχύνω). This verb is sometimes used for disgrace or dishonor, or even humiliate (t.Judah 12:5). If hope refers to our status as justified at a future judgment before God, we can be confident that when we do stand before the judgment seat of Christ, the hope we have in the death of Jesus as payment for our sin will not come up short, leaving us facing a penalty for our sin.
In contrast to being humiliated by an unpaid debt at the final judgment, our debt is fully paid by the death of Jesus so that we can stand before the judgment seat of Christ without the possibility of being ashamed by an unpaid sin debt.
Since we have been justified by faith (like Abraham), we experience peace with God rather than wrath (5:1). The wrath of God has been satisfied in the death of Jesus so that those who are in Christ by faith experience peace, not wrath. Paul uses an aorist passive participle (Δικαιωθέντες) to indicate we did not justify ourselves, but also that this justification is an accomplished fact (Kruse, Romans, 225).
Our experience of peace, however, is a present tense verb (ἔχομεν), having been justified in the past, we are now in a state of peace with God. I should mention the famous textual variant here, some manuscripts read ἔχωμεν, a subjunctive verb rather than indicative. This alternate reading is supported by both Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus, but in both cases a later hand corrected the text to an indicative. In short, Paul appears to be making a statement using the indicative rather than making an encouraging statement using the subjunctive.
The peace Paul has in mind is not inner peace, but rather a cessation of the enmity humans have with God. In Romans 1-3, humans were enemies of God, but now they can be in a state of peace with God. Ephesians 2:11-22 has a similar idea. After he describes Gentile alienation from God, he declares it is the work of Jesus on the cross that “brings close” Jews and Gentiles. This is the idea of reconciliation: Gentiles who were apart from Israel, and the Jews who were apart from the Gentiles, are now made into something new.
Thiselton points out reconciliation was not used in the Jewish writings of the Second Temple period, nor is it found in the Old Testament. He considers this an example of Paul’s genius, using a word for familiar to Gentile readers in order to get make the Gospel clear in terms they would understand (Discovering Romans, 124).
Since we are in a state of peace with God, we have now access to the Father (5:2a). In order to have access to a king, one must have appropriate status. The word translated access (προσαγωγή) is used by Xenophon, for example, to describe those who have access to the Persian king Cyrus (Cyr. 7, 5, 45). The same word appears in Ephesians 2:18 to describe Jews and Gentiles having access to God the Father through the same Spirit.
The one who is in Christ has the appropriate status to enter into the presence of God through the Holy Spirit, later Paul will expand this metaphor by describing us as adopted into the family of God, so that we can call God abba, father. This is in contrast to anyone who tries to obtain salvation through works. Since they are not justified by faith (and adopted into the family of God), they never really do have access to God.
In Second Temple period Judaism, one did not directly approach God. Only the high priest could enter the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, others can only approach so far (court of men, women, gentiles, etc.) In the worship of Greco-Roman gods, one did not approach them directly nor were humans granted access to a god. This access to the Father is a remarkable claim in the ancient world!
In verse 14 Paul makes a radical statement within the world of Second Temple period Judaism: if Abraham’s heirs are the ones who keep the Law, then Abraham’s faith is emptied and God’s promise to him is nullified.
According to verse 15, the Law brings only wrath. This returns to the theme sounded in Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is being revealed. For the Gentiles, the wrath is revealed by creation, but for the Jews it is revealed in the Law. The Law demands God’s people be holy, as God himself is holy. Although there are provisions in the Law for dealing with uncleanliness or sin, ultimately the Law was designed to demonstrate the need for God’s grace and mercy.
The second part of verse 15 may be a problem for some readers. Without the Law, Paul says “there is no transgression.” Potentially this means from Adam until Abraham, there was no Law so people could live any way they chose. If that is the case, God’s judgment in Genesis 6 is not just and fair. There had to be some revealed standard to which people could be held accountable. Or maybe Paul means, “If there is no rule against it, then it is permitted.” But it is not difficult to imagine some sin that is not specifically covered in the Law. People are always finding loopholes in the rules which allow them to get away with bad behavior.
Is it true that “without Law there is no transgression”?
The problem here is taking transgression as equivalent to sin. The word “transgression” (παράβασις) is not the usual word for sin in New Testament, although Paul uses the word in 2:23 and 5:14. Far more common (48 times in Romans alone) is the word ἁμαρτία, usually translated as “sin.” The word Paul chooses in Romans 4:15 refers to “violation of the law given or sanctioned by God” (EDNT 3:14). Paul specifically has the Law in mind, so until the God defined some activity as unclean in the Law, it was not a “transgression of law.”
Abraham could not “transgress the Law” since there was no Law. There is a great deal in the Law that is a breach of ceremonial cleanliness. These things are not inherently evil or immoral. Until the Law said, “mold on your wall is a transgression,” it was not a transgression of Law. Until the Law said, “do not eat shellfish,” eating a lobster was not a transgression of Law.
Paul will pick up on this idea in Romans 7, stating he would not have known sin unless the Law had not defined sin. At this point in the argument of Romans, he is reinforcing the fact Abraham could not have broken or kept the Law because the time of the Law had not yet arrived.
Although this is more clear in Galatians 3, Paul argues the Law was given for a “time and a place” in the history of Salvation. It was a step in God’s plan to redeem humanity from sin, but it is a step that is now past. In the present age, people are able to be declared righteous by faith in Jesus, and they are unable to be declared righteous by keeping the Law.
This is an important observation for how we approach God in the present age. Does Christianity put too much emphasis on believing a set of facts or performing a series of rituals, rather than believing in God’s revelation through Jesus Christ? Is there a danger in emphasizing any practice over belief in Jesus?
Abraham’s faith was demonstrated before the law was given by many hundreds of years, thus he was not saved by the law. Chronologically this seems obvious, but the Second Temple period texts cited above indicate at least some Jews looked to Abraham as a proto-Jew or “first proselyte.” Kruse cites Mekhilta Ex. 22:20 (101a), “Abraham called himself a proselyte (ger), for it is written, I am a stranger (ger) and a sojourner with you (Gen. 23:4) (Romans, 210).
Paul says Abraham was promised his offspring would become “heirs of the world,” although Genesis defines the land promise narrowly. But by the first century, there were several Second Temple texts that expanded that land promise to include the whole world (Sirach 44:21; Jub. 32:19; 1 Enoch 5:7, 4 Ezra 6:55-59). Jesus says “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5), very similar to 1 Enoch 5:7.
Sirach 44:21 (NRSV) Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth.
1 Enoch 5:7 But to the elect there shall be light, joy, and peace, and they shall inherit the earth. To you, wicked ones, on the contrary, there will be a curse.
Jubilees 32:19 And I shall give to your seed all of the land under heaven and they will rule in all nations as they have desired. And after this all of the earth will be gathered together and they will inherit it forever.”
All of these texts are based on the Hebrew Bible Isaiah 2, for example, describes Zion as the exalted mountain to which all the nations will stream. From Zion the Lord himself will reign and the nations will come to Zion to “learn the ways of the Lord.” In Daniel 7:14 the Ancient of Days gives a “son of man” authority to rule over all of the nations in an “everlasting dominion that will never end.” Even a text like Psalm 2 indicates the Lord’s anointed king could potentially receive the nations as an inheritance.
Paul certainly looks forward to a future kingdom (1 Cor 15:20-28, Phil 2:5-11), but in this text the descendants of Abraham are those who are being justified by faith in Jesus. Paul has a Jewish, apocalyptic view of what God will do in the future. But here in Romans 4 he connects the “offspring of Abraham” with those who have faith in Jesus, the “in Christ” people. The nations are the Gentiles who are being justified by faith and not works of the Law.
Imagine how this would sound to Roman Christians who were used to hearing that Rome controlled the world (Jewett, Romans, 325). It is unimaginable that an extremely small group of followers of Jesus would somehow challenge the Roman Empire. From the perspective of the mid-first century, Christianity had no impact on the culture of the Empire. But it was not long at all before Christianity began to challenge the thinking of the Roman world.
Abraham’s saving faith was demonstrated before he was given the sign of circumcision. It was not the physical act of circumcision that saved, but his faith before the act. In Genesis 17 God gives Abraham a sign of his covenant: each male born in his household be circumcised on the eighth day. But Paul has cited Genesis 15:6 to show Abraham believed God, and that faith was “credited to him as righteousness.” This is after the second time God spoke to Abraham and conformed his covenant.
The three repetitions of the covenant are important since the progressively narrow the promised child from Abraham’s heir (Gen 12) to an heir coming from his own body (Gen 15) and then specifically Sarah’s child (Gen 17). At first, Abraham’s heir was an adopted child, Eliezer of Damascus, or perhaps Lot. After the second announcement, Abraham and Hagar have a child, Ishmael. After the third God specifically says the promised heir will be from Sarah and adds circumcision on the eighth day. Ishmael is circumcised (Gen 17:23), but he is thirteen at the time (Gen 16:16, Abraham is 86 when he is born, and Gen 17:1, he is 99 when the covenant is repeated a third time).
Circumcision was a “seal” of the righteous status Abraham had already received (Jewett, 317). Paul’s point is that Abraham was obedient to the sign of the covenant, but it was after his faith had been credited to him as righteousness. “Paul contends that circumcision served as a “seal” (σφραγίς) that confirms the validity of a reality already present, that is, righteousness through faith” (Jewett, 319).
Paul says God gave the sign when he did so that Abraham could be the father of all who believe, both the Jews and Gentiles. It was always possible Gentiles could become part of the people of God, although it was necessary for them to convert to Judaism. By the first century there was some debate whether Gentiles converting to Judaism were required to be circumcised (Galatians, for example, but also the Izates story in Josephus).
Paul’s point here is a radical re-reading of Abraham’s story since he argues Abraham can be the father of faithful Gentiles in their uncircumcision since Abraham himself was declared righteous before he was given the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was a key boundary marker in Second Temple Judaism, for Paul to suggest all Gentiles could be declared righteous like Abraham was without submitting to the sign of the covenant is radical indeed! (See, for example, my comments on Galatians 2 several years ago).
This means Abraham is not first the father of the Jews, but the father of Gentiles who are now being declared righteous by faith in Jesus (Barrett, Romans, 90-91).
In the same way, not ritual can impart any saving grace to a person, only through belief can a person be justified. Christian rituals such as baptism or communion are not intended to make a person right with God.