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Snippets: Law (in Christ) and Law (Outside Christ) (Romans 8:2)

  • Romans 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:2 has been interpreted in various ways, the primary issue being the term, ‘law.’ The interpretations of Herman Ridderbos and Matthew Henry seem to make the best sense of the passage (to me):

Then the law that was given unto life becomes unto death, then Christ, in order to be able to give the law its rightful place in the life of his own…must first become the end of the law unto righteousness to everyone who believes…and those who are to belong to God and live for him must first die to the law in Christ an through his body (on the cross)…Here a distinction must clearly be made, therefore, between law and law, between the law as it functions before and outside Christ and the law whose requirement is fulfilled in those who walk after the Spirit (Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 155).

Ridderbos says we distinguish the law (as law and law) depending upon the position of the one who is relating to the law – whether he be in Christ or not. Matthew Henry (in his commentary on the whole Bible) adds:

The law could not do it, Rom 8:3. It could neither justify nor sanctify, neither free us from the guilt nor from the power of sin, having not the promises either of pardon or grace. The law made nothing perfect: It was weak. Some attempt the law made towards these blessed ends, but, alas! it was weak, it could not accomplish them: yet that weakness was not through any defect in the law, but through the flesh, through the corruption of human nature, by which we became incapable either of being justified or sanctified by the law. We had become unable to keep the law, and, in case of failure, the law, as a covenant of works, made no provision, and so left us as it found us. Or understand it of the ceremonial law; that was a plaster not wide enough for the wound, it could never take away sin, Heb 10:4. (2.) The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus does it, Rom 8:2. The covenant of grace made with us in Christ is a treasury of merit and grace, and thence we receive pardon and a new nature, are freed from the law of sin and death, that is, both from the guilt and power of sin – from the curse of the law, and the dominion of the flesh. We are under another covenant, another master, another husband, under the law of the Spirit, the law that gives the Spirit, spiritual life to qualify us for eternal. The foundation of this freedom is laid in Christ’s undertaking for us, of which he speaks Rom 8:3, God sending his own Son. Observe, When the law failed, God provided another method. Christ comes to do that which the law could not do.

Henry seems to see the ‘law of the Spirit of life’ as the law in relation to those in the Covenant of Grace and the ‘law of sin and death’ as the same law (but) in relation to those under the covenant of works.

To summarize, the Law of God, which is summarized in the 10 Commandments, and further summarized, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ can be to you either a ‘law of sin and death’ or ‘the law of the Spirit of life.’ Which of the two it is for you depends upon your relationship to Christ. If you are outside of Christ you are under the law as a covenant of works (as you are ‘in Adam’). It demands from you perfect obedience and sets forth life and death as the consequences of that obedience – life for obedience, death for disobedience. If this is your position, the law will do nothing but bring forth sin and death, for it is rendered powerless on account of your sinful nature, which does not, and indeed cannot, keep it.

However, your relation to the law utterly changes once you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Substitute and Savior. He fulfills the law in your behalf. He earns life through his keeping of the law and yet takes sin and death upon himself. He pleads guilty and takes condemnation upon himself that all those in him might be acquitted, in order that your relationship to God, and relation to the law, might change. In Christ the law is fulfilled as a covenant of works, and now becomes ‘the law of the Spirit of life.’

We are freed from the moral law: freed from it, first, as a covenant, say our divines. It would save a great deal of trouble to say we are freed from the law as that from which life might be expected on the condition that due obedience was rendered (Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, p. 28).

As a result, the Christian looks at the law in a different light:

He looks not to it for life; he rests not in it for hope; he renounces it as a saving covenant, and under the influence of another and a higher obligation- his marriage to Christ- he brings forth fruit unto God. (Ocatavius Winslow)

The law sends us to the gospel for our justification; the gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life (Samuel Bolton).

The ‘righteous requirement of the law’ begins to be fulfilled in us, for we now delight in the law, not as a means of gaining favor with God, but as a means of living out the life of Christ, which, indeed, he is living out in us by the Spirit. We are living now utterly in light of the gospel. The indicative comes before the imperative. We are free, in Christ, from the law as a covenant. It can no longer bring death.

Therefore there are only two options for us:

Either we obey in order to be accepted (in which place we are under the covenant of works, and condemned). Or we are accepted, and obey wholly in the light of this:

The Law commands and makes us know
What duties to our God we owe
But ’tis the Gospel must reveal
Where lies our strength to do His will (Isaac Watts)

Ralph Erskine summarizes it perfectly:

The law says, Do, and life you’ll win;
But grace says, Live, for all is done.

So which is the law to you – the law of sin and death or the law of the Spirit of life? Is it a Covenant of Works or a Covenant of Grace? It all depends on your relationship to Christ. There could therefore be no more important issue – are you in or outside of Christ?

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