“The Son Fulfilled the Righteous Requirement of the Law”

Christ “became a curse” to redeem us from the “curse of the law” (Gal 3:13). He was “born under the law” to redeem us who were “under the law” (Gal 4:4-5).

Part 2: Born to Be “Like His Brothers in Every Respect” Download PDF file

Text: Romans 8:3-4 • Readings: Exodus 34:4-7; Romans 8:1-8; HC 12 & 13
November 27, 2011

The darkest—and saddest—scene in C. S. Lewis’s allegory, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, is when Aslan (the Lion), a picture of Christ, dies at the hands of the White Witch, a picture of Satan. Edmund, one of the four Pavensie children who venture into the land of Narnia, betrays his siblings to the White Witch for Turkish Delight. The White Witch tells Aslan that she has the right to take Edmund’s life for being a traitor, but Aslan offers his own life to the Witch to spare the boy. The Witch then executes Aslan on a stone table, but the following morning, Aslan raises himself from death before Edmund’s two sisters, Susan and Lucy. The allusions to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross are striking.

This scenario concerning Christ’s substitutionary atonement was the most popular theory of atonement in the early church. When Adam and Eve fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, the devil gained possession of the fallen human race, and man became slaves of sin and Satan. How would God redeem man from this condition? God had to pay a ransom to Satan, so he tricked the devil into a ransom agreement. But the Devil did not know that Christ would conquer death. In this way, God was able to satisfy his justice and rescue human beings from slavery to sin and Satan. With his resurrection, Christ also was released from Satan’s possession.

What contributed most to this belief were two Biblical texts that spoke of Christ as a ransom for sinners. Jesus declared, “For even the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul also said that Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6). Two things mitigate against this theory. One, while Christ’s death is sometimes called a ransom, the Bible never suggests that the payment was made to Satan. Some might argue that the ransom is paid to God himself, but still, the Bible does not expressly say so. Second, although Satan is called the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2), he had no property rights over fallen humanity.

Various versions of the ransom theory were proposed in the early church fathers such as Origen, Irenaeus and Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. Today, it has very few adherents, C.S. Lewis probably being one of these few, as expressed in his chronicles of Narnia. Moreover, he was vague about the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, only saying, “Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”

During the medieval age, other theories of the atonement were proposed. One of the most brilliant theologians and philosophers of that era was Anselm (ca. 1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury. It was him who first formalized the ontological argument, “We believe that thou [God] art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” He also wrote one of the greatest Christian classics that has influenced the church through the centuries: Cur Deus Homo, which literally means “Why the God-Man?”

In this magnum opus, Anselm set forth the church’s understanding of the satisfaction view of the atonement of Christ. What is this satisfaction view? Anselm argued that man by his grievous sin has dishonored God, and he can restore his honor only in two ways: by satisfaction or by punishment. If by punishment, man would have to be destroyed. So he chose the second option: Christ’s atonement would satisfy the justice of God. The Son of God came down from heaven to assume human flesh and blood and to offer himself as a sacrifice to God, since God’s justice can only be satisfied by punishing the guilty, who are human beings. Anselm also argued that since God is infinitely holy, man’s sin is infinitely heinous. Therefore, since man is a finite creature, he can never repay an infinitely holy God. Only an infinite being could satisfy an infinite God’s requirement of holiness and justice against man’s infinite debt.

The 16th century Protestant Reformers, including John Calvin and Martin Luther, built on and improved Anselm’s satisfaction view. Various Reformed confessions followed Anselm’s view, including the Westminster Confession VIII:5, which speaks of Christ who, “by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself… once offered up to God, has fully satisfied the justice of his Father.” The very first Q&A in the Heidelberg Catechism says that Christ, “who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins.” In Q&A 12-17 (Lord’s Day 5 and 6), we find Anselm’s satisfaction view explained in the simplest terms.

This Advent season, it is then fitting to reflect upon Anselm’s query, “Why did God become man?” from the vantage point of what Scripture says supported by the Heidelberg Catechism (HC). So this year’s Advent sermon series is entitled, “Why the God-Man?” We will wrestle with such questions as: Why is it necessary that the Son of God be incarnated? What is the relationship between the two natures of Christ? How did Christ come in the flesh without being sinful? How could the death of one man save many? Did God suffer and die on the cross? How could sinners be justified before God when they continue to sin in this life?

Today, in the first of this series, we dwell on how Christ fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law.

Why God Sent His Own Son
Most Christians love Christmas because it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus or Savior. This is right and proper. The celebration of Christ’s birth had its beginnings as early as 150 A.D., so contrary to popular teaching, it did not have pagan origins. But why did the Son of God have to come down from heaven to save his people from sin?

"Angel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary" by Bartolomé Murillo, c. 1655
"Angel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary" by Bartolomé Murillo, c. 1655 (click to enlarge)

Paul begins this section of his letter with a triumphant conclusion to his explanation going back to Chapter 3. The “therefore” is based on salvation from sin through faith in Christ in Chapters 3-5, and the new life in the Spirit in Chapter 7. The “now” shows that the new era of redemptive history where salvation is worked in man’s heart by the Spirit, uniting believers in Christ who died and arose from the grave for man’s sin. The condemnation and death that followed mankind in the fall of Adam is now replaced by eternal life in Christ. In verse 2, Paul says that the life-giving Spirit has freed the believer from the Law, which convicted him of sin that resulted in death.

Now we come to our text beginning with verse 3, “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.” The Law that convicts is therefore incapable of rescuing people from sin and death (Rom 3:19, 28; 4:15; 7:22). But God’s Law is not bad (Rom 7:7, 12), because its failure stems from man, who was the one who “weakened” it. And we should not think sin prevented the purpose of the Law, because God never intended for the Law to effect righteousness.

What is the “flesh”? When I was young, probably in college, I thought that “flesh” referred to our physical bodies that were corrupted by sin. I did not know that my idea was Greek dualism. Instead, “flesh” refers to man’s sinful nature, worldly lusts and desires, and rebellion against God.

This is the human problem: he is under the power of his sinful nature that Adam bestowed to all mankind. In fact, Paul says that the law serves to strengthen the power of sin over us (Rom 5:20; 7:5). We try hard to break this power of sin with our own efforts at good works, but we end up sinning more and more. Before he was converted, Martin Luther was a great example of the power of sin over unsaved mankind. He would pray for six hours and fast for days at a time. He lived in a cold, unheated and basic room in a monastery. He went on a pilgrimage to Rome and did many things that were supposed to merit God’s grace, such as climbing stairs on his knees until they bled.

This is why Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 12 says we “daily increase our guilt.” Everyday, our sins outweigh our good works. Besides, without faith in Christ, our good works are as “filthy rags” before God. We are like America, the Philippines and many other nations, whose budget deficit increases annually, because spending always exceed revenues. On a personal level, home mortgage debts also accumulate because those who bought houses pay below the monthly interest payments.

Human beings are hopelessly under the power of their sinful nature daily, and are condemned to eternal death. Is there a remedy? Paul says God sent his own Son in the form of sinful flesh: the Son of God in the form of sinful flesh will break the power of sinful flesh. This is why we celebrate Christmas: it is God’s remedy for man’s helpless and hopeless condition. In our Christmas celebrations, we sing many songs that were written hundreds of years ago. One of these is what we will sing after the sermon. In 1739, almost 300 years ago, Charles Wesley wrote these beloved, well-known words:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell…

Paul focuses on the incarnation, when God came in the flesh. Since he was “born from a woman, born under the Law” (Gal 4:4), the Son of God fully participated in the human condition. What does “form” mean? It is translated sometimes as “likeness,” “resemblance,” or “appearance.” But we must never think that Christ came down from heaven pretending to be a human being. This view is the ancient heresy called docetism, which taught that Jesus was not really a human being, but just a ghost-like appearance of a man.

On the contrary, Christ assumed the fullness of human flesh and blood, and had inward and real participation in in the human condition, experiencing all human emotions, and mental and physical limitations. He was even tempted as we are, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things… Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect… suffered when tempted” (Heb 2:14-18). This is why John 1:14 says, “And the Word [the eternal Logos] became flesh and dwelt among us.” Paul also explains, Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7).

But though like us “in every respect” in his humanity, he is distinct from us in just one thing: he has no sinful nature. Although born from a human mother, he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, without the means of normal human reproductive process, so that “in every respect [he] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). John says that he saw his “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” He possessed divine glory, grace and truth, and therefore had no sin, because one of the divine attributes is perfection in himself.

God sent him down from heaven to assume human flesh and blood “for sin.” His purpose was to become the solution for the human sin problem. In the Old Testament, “for sin” usually means “sin offering.” Therefore, God sent his own Son as a sin offering. And by doing so, he condemned sin, removing man from God’s condemnation. God executed his judgment on sin in the atoning death of his own Son, who offered himself as a sin offering in human flesh and blood in our place.

What Mission the Son Accomplished
Only because of his sin offering that we become righteous before God, justified in his sight. Only his perfect obedience all the way to his death on the cross satisfied the justice and holiness of God (which Anselm taught). Many Christians today focus on God’s love, grace and mercy, and rightly so. But in emphasizing these “positive” attributes, many forget about his holiness, righteousness and justice.

Already in the Garden of Eden, God required perfect righteousness. One man’s one act of disobedience plunged the whole human race into condemnation and death (Rom 5:18). But as he told Moses, while he is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness… forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” he is also righteous and just and “who will by no means clear the guilty” (Exod 34:6, 7). We are personally responsible for our sinful actions, “The soul who sins shall die… the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek 18:20).

Thus on Judgment Day, God will “[inflict] vengeance on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:8). No one can stand before God as righteous in himself, because all have sinned and came short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23). The psalmist saw this inability, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psa 130:3).

If not a single person can be righteous before God because he is under the power of sin, how would anyone be justified before God? The answer is that someone else other than a mere human being will fulfill the righteous requirement of the law. And this someone else would offer himself as a sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice. What is this “righteous requirement”? It is God’s just or legal requirement of perfect obedience to his laws, and what the law demands of his people.

Sometimes, we hear people say that since Christians have the “law written on the heart,” and because the Spirit indwells them, they are able to fulfill God’s demand for righteousness by their own righteous living. While it is true that true faith and conversion include the “fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-24), we still cannot satisfy the righteous requirement of God, which is perfect obedience–sinlessness. We see this also in the passive verb, “might be fulfilled,” which tells us that the fulfill­ment of this righteous requirement is something that someone other than us has done it for us.

This is what Christ has done for us. As our Substitute, he satisfied God’s righteous requirement. In condemning him to death on the cross, God transferred our sin to him, at the same time counting his righteousness to our account. In this “great exchange,” Christ became what we are so we might become what he is as a man. He “became a curse” to redeem us from the “curse of the law” (Gal 3:13). He was “born under the law” to redeem us who were “under the law” (Gal 4:4-5). Paul sums up this “great exchange” in saying, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

What His Satisfaction Accomplished in Us
Christ fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law “in us.” We do not become righteous because the Spirit empowers us to live righteous lives, but because the Spirit united us to Christ by faith, in his death and resurrection. We are therefore dead to sin and alive to righteousness, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). He was crucified “so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). He was raised from the dead so that “we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

This is why the last phrase in our text in verse 4 describes those who have been incorporated into Christ as those “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Verse 4 consists of two parts. The first part tells us that Christ accomplished the righteous requirement of the law in us and for us. The second part is that his work enables us to walk according to the Spirit. The mark of true conversion and union with Christ is righteous living.

How does God accomplish this? After he sent his own Son to deliver us from the power of sin and death, he works faith in our hearts by sending the Spirit to indwell our hearts. The Spirit also enables us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, even how deficient and inadequate this love is in this present age. But we are now able to overcome the flesh, the sinful nature, by the indwelling Spirit.

In the States, the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, because of the horrendous traffic jams and lots of shoplifters taking advantage of the first day of the Christmas shopping season. This last Friday, there was some violence in the mad rush for bargains. A woman pepper-sprayed some people to get hold of an Xbox. A man was shot in the parking lot by robbers as he was carrying his Christmas presents to his car. A fight over cheap towels erupted. A person described the scenes as a “piranha feeding frenzy.”

These Black Friday incidents of violence and chaos are demonstrations of what Paul calls “works of the flesh” listed in Galatians 5:19-21, which include jealousy, fits of anger, and envy. These works are diametrically opposed to the “fruit of the Spirit,” which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this Christmas season, “shop till you drop” at the malls is the least of your priorities. According to 70 percent of Americans, toys and other presents they enjoy during the Christmas season “have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ.” But Christ was born not for our enjoyment, but to fulfill the righteous requirement of God so we might become righteous before God and then walk in the Spirit. Ask yourself: Do you walk according to your sinful nature, the values of this world, according to its desires and passions? Or do you walk according to the Spirit dwelling in you, who enables you to produce the fruits of the righteousness that God has given you in Christ?

Part 2: Born to Be “Like His Brothers in Every Respect”