In Romans 7, Paul outlined for us by means of his own autobiography just how grave our situation is without Christ. Our circumstance is so pitiable not because we are terrible creatures bent on doing evil. We might say the situation is actually much worse than that. Paul claims that even when we are well intended and seek to do God’s will sin is so powerful that it perverts our attempts to follow God’s law. The result is that rather than adherence to the law producing righteousness and life, it actually produces injustice, sin, and death. In the language of the prophet Habakkuk, “the law is paralyzed and justice goes forth perverted.”
But that is without Christ. That is the realm of Adam’s existence. And Paul has made it clear in chapters 5 and 6 that what God has done in Jesus Christ has transferred us to a new reality in which there are new possibilities for life and righteousness. Paul reiterates this point at the very beginning of chapter 8 when he says “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus set you free from the law of sin and death.” That is, we are no longer enslaved by the law of Adam’s disobedience with the production of sin as our only option. We have now been set free for a new option; that of life, holiness, and righteousness. We have this option because God did in Jesus Christ what the law was never able to do. The law was never able to defeat sin since it did nothing to empower weak human flesh against it. God, on the other hand, sent his son in this same flesh so as to condemn sin.
Paul says that the purpose of God’s actions in all this was “in order that we might fulfill the righteous requirements of the law.” This is the very thing that Paul has been saying was so impossible without Christ! Even in following the law to the last letter, we couldn’t actually produce righteousness. But now, because of God’s actions in Jesus, we can actually fulfill the righteous requirements of the law. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that this is a poignant and concise summary of Paul’s gospel. The reason Jesus is such good news is because he provides the first real possibility of genuine righteousness in this world.
Again, much as in chapter 6, Paul reiterates that this is not all automatic. We must walk according to the Spirit if we are to truly fulfill the law. We can still decide to walk according to the flesh and, by doing so, fail to produce righteousness. But once again the emphasis in on what God has already done. Paul says in v. 9 “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
This is the real crux of the matter for Paul. If the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you (which he says it does), then that Spirit which overcame death can also overcome the power of sin. Everything hinges on this dwelling of God’s own Spirit among us. The pouring out of this resurrecting Spirit is what makes the difference between the realm of Adam and the realm of Christ.
It may be helpful here to think back to Romans 1:18-32 and remember all the nasty things that Paul said about Gentiles. Like most of his fellow Jews, Paul viewed Gentiles as hopelessly blind, entirely ignorant of the ways of God and God’s law, clueless in their perverting the ways of God that should have been evident to them in creation. If Paul’s fellow Jews were enlightened and well-intentioned despite their inability to produce righteousness, the Gentiles couldn’t even claim that. They walked entirely in darkness without the slightest understanding of God’s law or any aim to fulfill it. It is these same clueless, hopeless, lawless Gentiles (along with his own fellows Jews) that Paul now claims can fulfill the righteous requirements of the law merely because of the Spirit’s presence in their lives! This is testament to just what a transforming power Paul understood the Holy Spirit to be in the life of 1st century Christian congregations. Anyone, even Gentiles, could fulfill the righteous requirements of the law if they walked according to the Spirit.
Holiness and righteousness are real possibilities in this life, for Jews and Gentiles, because God’s own Spirit has made its dwelling among us. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!