April 21 – Suffering for Sins

For what the law could not do in that it was weakthrough the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin.

Romans 8:3

When we as believers suffer persecution, criticism, or even death, we are sinners suffering because of the sins of others. Our pain may come from the sins of hatred, anger, envy, or murder.

Christ also suffered for sins, but as the sinless One. First Peter 2:22 says He “committed no sin.” He never thought, said, or did anything evil. Rather, everything He thought, said, and did was perfectly holy. The sins of others placed Him on the cross: of those who mocked Him and those who nailed Him to the cross. He died because of the sins of the whole world.

Today’s verse says that Jesus died “on account of sin.” He suffered as a sin offering because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Just as in the Old Testament God required an animal sacrifice to symbolize the need for our atonement for sin, the New Testament presents Christ as the sacrifice who provided not a symbol, but the reality of our eternal atonement for sin.[1]

The Route to Freedom-Substitution

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, (8:3)

This verse is perhaps the most definitive and succinct statement of the substitutionary atonement to be found in Scripture. It expresses the heart of the gospel message, the wondrous truth that Jesus Christ paid the penalty on behalf of every person who would turn from sin and trust in Him as Lord and Savior.

As in the previous verse, the conjunction for carries the meaning of because and gives an explanation for what has just been stated. Believers are set free from the law of sin and death and are made alive by the law of the Spirit of life because of what Jesus Christ has done for them.

The Law can provoke sin in men and condemn them for it, but it cannot save them from its penalty. “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse,” Paul explained to the Galatians, “for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them’ ” (Gal 3:10). Later in that same chapter he says: “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law” (3:21). God’s holy law can only set forth the standards of His righteousness and show men how utterly incapable they are in themselves of fulfilling those standards.

Paul has already explained that “this commandment [i.e., the law, v. 9], which was to result in life [if obeyed], proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me” (Rom. 7:10–11). When God created man, sin had no place in His creation. But when man fell, the alien power of sin corrupted his very being and condemned him to death, both physical and spiritual. The whole human race was placed under the curse of God. Sin consigned fallen mankind to a divine debtor’s prison, as it were, and the law became his jailer. The law, given as the standard for living under divine blessing and joy, became a killer.

Although it is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12), the Law could not save men from sin because it was weak … through the flesh. The sinful corruption of the flesh made the Law powerless to save men. The law cannot make men righteous but can only expose their unrighteousness and condemn them for it. The law cannot make men perfect but can only reveal their great imperfection. As Paul explained in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia, through Jesus Christ “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be treed through the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39).

During His incarnation, Jesus was the embodiment of the law of Moses. He alone of all men who have ever lived or will ever live perfectly fulfilled the law of God. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” He said; “I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). During one of His discourses in the Temple, Jesus exposed the sinfulness of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, who, by their failure to throw stones at the woman taken in adultery, admitted they were not without sin (John 8:7–9). Later on that same occasion Jesus challenged His enemies to convict Him of any sin, and no one could do so or even tried (v. 46).

Some people, including many professing Christians, believe that they can achieve moral and spiritual perfection by living up to God’s standards by their own power. But James reminds us that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). In other words, even a single sin, no matter how small and no matter when committed, is sufficient to disqualify a person for heaven.

On one occasion a young man came to Jesus and said to Him,

“Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved; for he was one who owned much property. (Matt. 19:16–22)

This man was extremely religious. But he demonstrated that, despite his diligence in obeying the commandments, he failed to keep the two greatest commandments-to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “ ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments,” Jesus went on to say, “depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40). The young man who came to Jesus was self-centered, selfish, and materialistic. His love for himself surpassed his love for God and for his fellow man. Consequently, his meticulous religious living counted for absolutely nothing before God.

God’s law commands righteousness, but it cannot provide the means to achieve that righteousness. Therefore, what the law was unable to do for fallen man, God Himself did. The law can condemn the sinner, but only God can condemn and destroy sin, and that is what He has done on behalf of those who trust in His Son-by His coming to earth in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin.

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:51). In His incarnation Jesus was completely a man, fully incarnated. But He was only in the likeness of, in the outward appearance of, sinful flesh. Although Paul does not here specifically mention Jesus’ sinlessness, his phrasing carefully guards that profound truth.

Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). If He had not been both fully human and fully sinless, He could not have offered an acceptable sacrifice to God for the sins of the world. If Jesus had not Himself been without sin, He not only could not have made a sacrifice for fallen mankind but would have needed to have a sacrifice made on His own behalf. Jesus resisted every temptation of Satan and denied sin any part in His earthly life. Sin was compelled to yield its supremacy in the flesh to the Victor, whereby Jesus Christ became sovereign over sin and its consequence, death.

Those who trust in Christ not only are saved from the penalty of sin but also are able for the first time to fulfill God’s righteous standards. The flesh of a believer is still weak and subject to sin, but the inner person is remade in the image of Christ and has the power through His Spirit to resist and overcome sin. No Christian will be perfected during his earthly life, but he has no excuse for sinning, because he has God’s own power to resist sin. John assures believers that “greater is He [the Holy Spirit] who is in you than he [Satan] who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). As Paul has already declared, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life,” that is, be kept saved and protected from sin’s domination (Rom. 5:10).

Speaking of His impending crucifixion, Jesus said, “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out” (John 12:31). In other words, by His death on the cross Christ condemned and conquered both sin and Satan. He bore the fury of God’s wrath on all sin, and in doing so broke sin’s power over those whose trust is in His giving of Himself as an offering for sin on their behalf. By trusting in Jesus Christ, those who formerly were children of Satan become children of God, those who were targets of God’s wrath become recipients of His grace. On the cross Jesus broke sin’s power and assigned sin to its final destruction. God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28).

Jesus’ teaching, miracles, and sinless life were of great importance in His earthly ministry. But His supreme purpose in coming to earth was to be an offering for sin. Without the sacrifice of Himself for the sins of the world, everything else Jesus did would have left men in their sins, still separated from God.

To teach that men can live a good life by following Jesus’ example is patronizing foolishness. To try to follow Jesus’ perfect example without having His own life and Spirit within us is even more impossible and frustrating than trying to fulfill the Mosaic law. Jesus’ example cannot save us but instead further demonstrates the impossibility of saving ourselves by our own efforts at righteousness.

The only hope men have for salvation from their sin is in their trust in the offering for sin that Christ Himself made at Calvary. And when He became that offering, He took upon Himself the penalty of death for the sins of all mankind. In his commentary on Romans, the nineteenth-century Scottish evangelist Robert Haldane wrote, “We see the Father assume the place of judge against His Son, in order to become the Father of those who were His enemies. The Father condemns the Son of His love, that He may absolve the children of wrath” (Exposition of Romans, p. 324).

Jesus Christ condemned sin in the flesh. Whereas sin once condemned the believer, now Christ his Savior condemns sin, delivering the believer from sires power and penalty. The law condemns sin in the sense of exposing it for what it really is and in the sense of declaring its penalty of death. But the law is unable to condemn sin in the sense of delivering a sinner from his sinfulness or in the sense of overpowering sin and consigning it to its ultimate destruction. Only the Lord Jesus Christ was able to do that, and it is that amazing truth that inspired Paul to exult, “ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55–57).

The prophet Isaiah eloquently predicted the sacrifice of the incarnate Christ, saying,

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? (Isa. 53:4–8)[2]

8:3 The law could never get people to fulfill its sacred requirements, but grace has succeeded where law failed. Let us see how!

The law could not produce holy living because it was weak through the flesh. The trouble was not with the law but with fallen human nature. The law spoke to men who were already sinners and who were without strength to obey. But God intervened by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Take careful notice that the Lord Jesus did not come in sinful flesh itself but in “the likeness of” sinful flesh. He did no sin (1 Pet. 2:22), He knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21), and there was no sin in Him (1 Jn. 3:5). But by coming into the world in human form, He resembled sinful humanity. As a sacrifice for sin, Christ condemned sin in the flesh. He died not only for the sins which we commit (1 Pet. 3:18) but also for our sin nature. In other words, He died for what we are just as much as for what we have done. In so doing, He condemned sin in the flesh. Our sin nature is never said to be forgiven; it is condemned. It is the sins that we have committed that are forgiven.[3]

3 But how was this freedom gained? The opening statement here about the powerlessness of the law because of the weakness of the sinful nature to which its commands are addressed is an obvious reminder of the major thrust of ch. 7. The problem is not caused by something intrinsic to the law but is rather the result of the flesh and sin. The law makes demands, and it condemns when those demands are not met, but it cannot overcome sin. This inability of the law necessitated another solution, namely, the personal action of God in Christ. God thus sent “his own Son.” The mission could not be entrusted to anyone else or anyone less than his Son. While the preexistence of the Son is not formally taught here, it is implied (as it is in the gospel of John, where the sending of the Son is often mentioned; cf. e.g., Jn 3:17; 7:33; 17:18; 20:21; also Gal 4:4; 1 Jn 4:14). Taken together, vv. 2–3 can be seen to contain Trinitarian implications and bear a close resemblance to Galatians 4:4–6, where Father, Son, and Spirit are also pictured as involved in the mission of Christ.

The Son was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (en homoiōmati sarkos hamartias, NASB). Paul exercises great care in the choice of words here. He does not say “in sinful flesh,” lest the Son’s sinlessness (cf. 2 Co 5:21) be compromised, nor “in the likeness of flesh,” which would convey a docetic idea and thereby deny the reality of the humanity of Jesus, making it only an appearance of corporeality.

So much for Christ’s person. What about his work? “To be a sin offering” (NIV; NASB, “as an offering for sin”) expresses the purpose of his coming. The proper translation of the phrase peri hamartias (lit., “for sin”) is a matter of some controversy. Since the phrase is used regularly in the LXX for “sin offering,” the NIV’s “sin offering” is a possible rendering (cf. the similar point made in the language of 2 Co 5:21: “made him … to be sin”). But this may not be what Paul intends to say, since he does not surround the expression with sacrificial language. And if it were his intent to stress expiation, we might expect the use of the word “offering” or “sacrifice.” If we translate literally, “for sin,” we can conclude that Paul is simply stating broadly that the mission of Christ was to deal effectively with sin, thereby making possible among his people the type of life presented in the following verse. This includes expiation but also goes beyond it.

Possibly the words “he condemned sin in the flesh” (NASB) are to be correlated with “through the flesh” (NASB; NIV, “by the sinful nature”) at the beginning of the verse, so that what is in view is the judgment of sinful humanity (cf. NIV. “so he condemned sin in sinful man”). However, since “flesh” can be used of Christ apart from any sinful connotation (e.g., Col 1:22), it is also possible to refer the phrase to the corporeality of Jesus (so Schweizer, TDNT 7:133) and in particular his sacrificial death on the cross. Stuhlmacher, 120, observes, “As a result, with the condemnation of Jesus, sin brought God’s judgment upon itself in its most inherent sphere of power, the flesh.” This brings the teaching in line with 6:5–11. The viewpoint is well expressed by Murray, 282:

In that same nature which in all others was dominated and directed by sin, God condemned sin and overthrew its power. Jesus not only blotted out sin’s guilt and brought us nigh to God. He also vanquished sin as power and set us free from its enslaving dominion. And this could not have been done except in the “flesh.” The battle was joined and the triumph secured in that same flesh which in us is the seat and agent of sin.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 126). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 405–409). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1708–1709). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 129–130). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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