How is the Righteous Requirement of the Law Fulfilled in us?
Notice Romans 8:3-4 are connected by the words “in order that”:
"For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."
We are counted righteous in Christ because God has condemned our sin in Jesus’ flesh. “In order that” in verse 4 indicates that the goal or purpose or result of that verdict of acquittal in God’s courtroom is that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.
How so? What does Paul mean when he says that the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us? There are a couple of possibilities. Several commentators suggest that this refers to Christ’s righteousness that is credited (or, imputed) to us when we are united to Jesus. Paul speaks of this extensively in Romans 5, and the idea is summarized in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
So these commentators suggest that in condemning our sin in Jesus’ flesh, we also receive Christ’s perfect record of righteousness, and thus the requirement of God’s law is fulfilled in us, because we are united to Jesus, who completely fulfilled the requirements of God’s law. That is how they understand the words, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us,” from Romans 8:4. In Christ, we are fulfillers of the law’s requirement, because Jesus fulfilled the law for us.
Theologically this is true (and is glorious good news, the very foundation of our righteous standing with God!), I don’t think that is what Paul is referring to here in Romans 8:4. Rather, I believe that the fulfilling of “the righteous requirement of the law” Paul is speaking of is a real life of love for God and others. Here are five reasons why I’m persuaded of this:
1. Paul says that the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us, not “for us” or “in our behalf”, which Paul could have said very clearly had that been what he meant. This fulfillment is something happening in us, not just something happening to us or for us by someone else (as Paul says of our justification in Romans 5:19 or 2 Corinthians 5:21).
2. The next clause in the verse, and the verses that follow, trace out the real life “walk” of Christian believers who wage war against sin in the power of the Spirit. The righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us “who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” The word “walk” indicates that the activity and obedience of believers is in view. And the following verses show why those “in the flesh” cannot live this way, but how in Christ, by the Spirit, we can.
3. When Paul speaks of the fulfillment of the law later in Romans, he clearly has in view the believer’s real life of love:
"Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”" (Romans 13:8-9)
This is not a call merely to rest in Jesus, who has fulfilled the law on our behalf (though in one sense, He certainly has! That’s what Romans 5 is concerned with). It is a call to practically, tangibly, love others, and thus fulfill the law.
4. Paul seems to reason this same way (a Spirit-empowered walk giving birth to love which fulfills the law) in Galatians 5:
"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh." (Galatians 5:13-16)
It is in the power of the Spirit that we are able to overcome the flesh and serve others in love, which is the fulfillment of the whole law.
5. Jesus Himself speaks of the fulfillment of the law happening in the lives of believers as they love God and others:
"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12)
"“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:36-39).
For these reasons I understand that the law of God -- that is, the commandments of God, coming through the filter of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, summed up in a life of love for God and others -- are not negligible because we are under grace and saved by the Christ’s sacrifice. They are doable because we are saved by grace and counted righteous in Christ.
In Christ, we are freed from the law (Romans 7:6), to fulfill the law. This is part of what Christ bought for us on the cross. The New Covenant gift of the Spirit is the power to obey God’s commands (see Jeremiah 31:31ff, Ezekiel 36:26ff). This obedience is imperfect in this life (see Philippians 1:6, 3:12, but is genuine nevertheless. Romans 8:4 does not say that the entire fulfillment of the law happens in us now. But our walk by the Spirit begins now, and so does our fulfillment of the law.
It also must be stressed that this law-fulfilling is done in the Spirit’s power and energy. The passive verb, “be fulfilled” (meaning this is something being done to us, and not the work of the believer in his own strength) and the next phrase, "who...walk according to the Spirit" make this clear. We who walk according to the Spirit really can fulfill the requirement of the law by loving God and others. This is what the Holy Spirit has come to do in our lives.
But how exactly does He do it? What does this “walk according to the Spirit” look and feel like? How do we live this out? We’ll consider this in another blog post.