By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,
he condemned sin in the flesh,
4 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.
Verse 3 opens with a succinct summary of the truth Paul drove home with rhetorical force in 7:7–25. No matter how hard people try to obey the Mosaic law (or any set of well-intentioned rules), their “flesh” renders the law powerless. Flesh here stands for the sin-principle that leads unredeemed people to disobey and rebel against God. Douglas Moo specifies it as humanity’s “this-worldly” orientation.
Law cannot break or tame the power of sin, and as we saw in 7:8–11 and 7:12–13, sin even uses the law to further condemn the lawbreaker. Only God could free people from the prison of sin; this he did by sending his Son.
Beyond this lucid beginning, the remaining phrases of verse 3 and verse 4 are a minefield of interpretive challenges, several having to do with the meanings of “flesh.” For brevity, even though it’s one of my longer messages, I will concentrate on the most important issues. (Douglas Moo, Colin Kruse, Richard Longenecker, Everett Harrison, and Charles Cranfield—read together—are good sources to explore the issues in depth.)“Likeness of sinful flesh”
This statement is important for Christology not only for what it says but also for what it does not say. Paul must maintain Christ’s identity as fully human without saying Christ was too closely identified with “sinful flesh.” We saw that the first use of “flesh” in the verse is negative, even without the modifier “sinful.” But this phrase describes Christ, and Paul goes only so far as to say that Christ’s “flesh” was “in the likeness of sinful.” So “flesh” is neutral, standing simply for Christ’s “manhood.” Christ took on the flesh of a man without “living in the flesh” (see 7:5).
Moo expresses the fine line Paul must walk with his phrasing. Although Christ “fully entered into the human condition” and “exposed himself to the power of sin,” he avoided becoming captive to sin. See my comments, drawing on Moo, on how Christ came under the dominion of sin and by means of the cross “died to sin” at 6:8–10.
We do not know the extent of Christ’s struggle with temptation having to do with his “flesh.” But he is, as Hebrews says, a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and he must have struggled to some degree in order to have been tempted in every way as we are (Hebrews 4:15). In fact, speaking of degrees of temptation, Jesus Christ is the only human being who resisted every temptation to the fullest extent, because every other human succumbs along the way. In this sense, Jesus knew more about temptation than we do.
Kruse suggests “we should think of Christ (by virtue of his virgin birth and having been conceived by the Holy Spirit) being like the primeval couple in their original state” and so take this phrase “to imply that Christ identified with humanity in his incarnation but did not share their sinful flesh.” Marvin Vincent quotes William Dickson: “Christ appeared in a body which was like that of other men in so far as it consisted of flesh, and was unlike in so far as the flesh was not flesh of sin.”“For sin”
Paul is describing Christ’s mission. The phrase may have a general meaning: Christ came to deal with sin. Or more specifically: Christ came as a sin offering. The latter meaning of this abbreviated Greek phrase is found frequently in the LXX, so it may be preferable.
“He condemned sin in the flesh”
Here is the main point of these two verses, and it is a landmine waiting to explode under the unwary interpreter. Context is critical. The reason there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (verse 1) is that God condemned sin in the flesh of his Son. Yes, that is the meaning of “flesh” in this statement. The word stands for Jesus’ body.
Christ’s flesh is, as Kruse says, “the place where sin was condemned.” Compare Peter’s statement: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24; also see Colossians 1:22).Harrison quotes John Murray: “The battle was joined and the triumph secured in that same flesh which in us is the seat and agent of sin.” Note Moo’s delightful phrasing:
Note regarding “flesh.” As we’ve seen, this word can mean different things depending on context, and even experts can get it wrong. The 2011 revision of the NIV corrected its original mistranslation of this passage as “he condemned sin in sinful man.” Now, as with ESV and other good translations, NIV reads, “he condemned sin in the flesh.” Sinful man was already under condemnation, so sin had to be condemned in the flesh of Christ for human sin to be atoned.
The verb “condemned” includes both (1) God’s execution of judgment for humanity’s sin through the atoning sacrifice of Christ and (2) the breaking of sin’s power over people who are in Christ. The condemnation we deserved fell instead on Christ. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).Fulfilling the law
Paul now states in verse 4 God’s purpose for condemning sin in Christ’s flesh. It was to fulfill the just requirement of the law “in us”—his people. Do we do the fulfilling? Well, not actively so, because the verb translated “might be fulfilled” is passive, suggesting the work of God. The process involves both the Holy Spirit and us, and it is carried out “as we walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
The Spirit’s role is vital, and maybe we catch another bit of Paul’s wordplay with “law.” The “law” (“power-principle”) of the Spirit of life (verse 2) empowers fulfillment of the Mosaic law’s requirement as we live according to the Spirit. Harrison: “Divine aid is needed to meet the divine requirement.”
Moo quotes Augustine’s famous formulation, “Law was given that grace might be sought, grace was given that the law might be fulfilled.”
Kruse notes the close parallels between verse 4 and Galatians 5:13–16 and suggests that Paul regards love for one’s neighbor as the fulfillment of the law. Later in this epistle (see 13:8 and 13:9–10), Paul makes this point explicit. If love is the focal point here, then as Kruse says, “in us” (or “among us”) would convey both corporate and individual fulfillment as we love one another.