The power of sin condemned
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh. Romans 8:3
In this verse, Paul is cementing the idea that the work of the Spirit in us is only possible because of the work of Christ for us. The “law” in this verse almost certainly means the Law of Moses. Chapter 7 helps us out here: in that chapter, he had been arguing for the impotence of the law to sanctify. The law of God cannot sanctify; it can only increase our bondage to sin. Paul sums up the reason why in the words “weak through the flesh.” In other words, the problem is not with God’s law; the problem is our “flesh.” Flesh is not a reference to our bodies. It is a reference to our sinful nature. This is what explains the powerlessness of the law. Holy as it is, and reasonable as it is, it ought to move every being with any degree of moral consciousness and reason to obedience. Instead, it only produces sin and death. Why? Because apart from the work of the Spirit in us, the law of God is not met with reason and goodness in us but with rebellion and sin. We are not blank slates and our will is not in neutral. We are rebels with a cause, and that cause is our own autonomy and self-sovereignty.
I cannot emphasize this enough. God’s law is perfect. It is reasonable. It is good. It is holy (cf. 7:12). The fault is not in God’s law. So you would think that giving someone the law would bring about reason, and goodness, and holiness. That is not what happens. The opposite happens. The bottom line is that people don’t just need to be educated. They don’t just need the right argument or the right sermon to fall in line. Left to ourselves, flesh will inevitably win the day. We don’t need someone to merely preach the law to us; we need someone to write God’s law in us.
The problem is that we can’t do that because we won’t do that. Flesh determines our desires, and those desires are hostile to God (cf. 8:7). It’s stupid to think that we are going to go against our most fundamental desires. We need our desires to be changed, and that is a work that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.
But this is what God has set out to do through Christ. The Father sent his own Son to condemn sin in the flesh. He suffered the punishment we deserved on the cross so that not only would our sins be forgiven, but also so that the power of sin in us would be broken. He didn’t just come to condemn sin in the sense of speaking against it. The law could do that just fine. Rather, he came to condemn sin in the sense of breaking its power over us in terms of its guilt and bondage. He did this “for us” in our place and as our substitute as a sin offering on the cross, because he came “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” He came as a perfect man, yet without sin (thus the word “likeness”). He came as a true man, suffering all the effects of sin in terms of its toll on the body and soul. He suffered and grieved and wept and hungered and thirsted; in short, he was humiliated in ways that we cannot even imagine – and yet without sin. And so he was the perfect sacrifice for us – he was human so that he could bear the guilt of human sin; and he was God, as the Son of the Father, so that he could bear the weight of divine wrath.
Behold the work of the Trinity in harmony: the Father planning the work of redemption and sending his own Son (who was not sent to become the Son, but who was sent as the eternal Son), the Son coming and accomplishing redemption, condemning sin on the cross, and the Spirit applying the work of Christ to us in the new birth.