Alexander Maclaren

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"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 the first verse of this chapter we read that "There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.' The reason of that is, that they are set free from the terrible sequence of cause and effect which constitutes 'the law of sin and death'; and the reason why they are freed from that awful sequence by the power of Christ is because He has 'condemned sin in the flesh.' The occurrence of the two words 'condemnation' (ver. 1) and 'condemned' (ver. 3) should be noted. Sin is personified as dwelling in the flesh, which expression here means, not merely the body, but unregenerate human nature. He has made his fortress there and rules over it all. The strong man keeps his house and his goods are in peace. He laughs to scorn the attempts of laws and moralities of all sorts to cast him out. His dominion is death to the human nature over which he tyrannizes. Condemnation is inevitable to the men over whom he rules. They or he must perish. If he escape they die. If he could be slain they might live. Christ comes, condemns the tyrant, and casts him out. So, he being condemned, we are acquitted; and he being slain there is no death for us. Let us try to elucidate a little further this great metaphor by just pondering the two points prominent in it--[1] Sin tyrannizing over human nature and resisting all attempts to overcome it, and [2] Christ's condemnation and casting out of the tyrant.

1. Sin tyrannizing over human nature, and resisting all attempts to overcome it.

Paul is generalizing his own experience when he speaks of the condemnation of an intrusive alien force that holds unregenerate human nature in bondage. He is writing a page of his own autobiography, and he is sure that all the rest of us have like pages in ours. Heart answers unto heart as in a mirror. If each man is a unity, the poison must run through all his veins and affect his whole nature. Will, understanding, heart, must all be affected and each in its own way by the intruder; and if men are a collective whole, each man's experience is repeated in his brother's.

The Apostle is equally transcribing his own experience when in the text he sadly admits the futility of all efforts to shake the dominion of sin. He has found in his own case that even the loftiest revelation in the Mosaic law utterly fails in the attempt to condemn sin. This is true not only in regard to the Mosaic law but in regard to the law of conscience, and to moral teachings of any kind. It is obvious that all such laws do condemn sin in the sense that they solemnly declare God's judgment about it and His sentence on it; but in the sense of real condemnation, or casting out, and depriving sin of its power, they all are impotent. The law may deter from overt acts or lead to isolated acts of obedience, it may stir up antagonism to sin's tyranny; but after that it has no more that it can do. It cannot give the purity which it proclaims to be necessary, nor create the obedience which it enjoins. Its thunders roll terrors, and no fruitful rain follows them to soften the barren soil. There always remains an unbridged gulf between the man and the law.

And this is what Paul points to in saying that it 'was weak through the flesh.' It is good in itself, but it has to work through the sinful nature. The only powers to which it can appeal are those which are already in rebellion. A discrowned king whose only forces to conquer his rebellious subjects are the rebels themselves is not likely to regain his crown. Because law brings no new element into our humanity, its appeal to our humanity has little more effect than that of the wind whistling through an archway. It appeals to conscience and reason by a plain declaration of what is right, to will and understanding by an exhibition of authority, to fears and prudence by plainly setting forth consequences. But what is to be done with men who know what is right but have no wish to do it, who believe that they ought but will not, who know the consequences but 'choose rather the pleasures of sin for a season,' and shuffle the future out of their minds altogether? This is the essential weakness of all law. The tyrant is not afraid so long as there is no one threatening his reign but the unarmed herald of a discrowned king. His citadel will not surrender to the blast of the trumpet blown from Sinai.

2. Christ's condemnation and casting out of the tyrant.

The Apostle points to a triple condemnation. 'In the likeness of sinful flesh' Jesus condemns sin by His own perfect life. That phrase, 'the likeness of the flesh of sin,' implies the real humanity of Jesus and His perfect sinlessness, and suggests the first way in which He condemns sin in the flesh. In His life He repeats the law in a higher fashion. What the one spoke in words the other realized in 'loveliness of perfect deeds'; and all men own [the fact] that example is the mightiest preacher of righteousness, and that active goodness draws to itself reverence and sways men to imitate. But that life lived in human nature gives a new hope of the possibilities of that nature even in us. The dream of perfect beauty 'in the flesh' has been realized. What the Man Christ Jesus was, He was that we may become. In the very flesh in which the tyrant rules, Jesus shows the possibility and the loveliness of a holy life.

But this, much as it is, is not all. There is another way in which Christ condemns sin in the flesh, and that is by His perfect sacrifice. To this also Paul points in the phrase, 'the flesh of sin.' The example of which we have been speaking is much, but it is weak for the very same reason for which law is weak--that it operates only through our nature as it is; and that is not enough. Sin's hold on man is twofold: one, that it has perverted his relation to God; and another, that it has corrupted his nature. Hence there is in him a sense of separation from God and a sense of guilt. Both of these not only lead to misery, but positively tend to strengthen the dominion of sin. The leader of the mutineers keeps them true to him by reminding them that the mutiny laws decree death without mercy.

Guilt felt may drive to desperation and hopeless continuance in wrong. The cry, 'I am so bad that it is useless to try to be better,' is often heard. Guilt stifled leads to hardening of heart, and sometimes to desire and riot. Guilt slurred over by some easy process of absolution may lead to further sin. Similarly separation from God is the root of all evil, and thoughts of Him as [being] hard and an enemy always lead to sin. So if the power of sin in the past must be cancelled, the sense of guilt must be removed, and the wall of partition between man and God thrown down. What can law answer to such a demand? It is silent; it can only say, 'What is written is written.' It has no word to speak that promises 'the blotting out of the handwriting that is against us'; and through its silence one can hear the mocking laugh of the tyrant that keeps his castle.

But Christ has come 'for sin'; that is to say, His Incarnation and Death had relation to, and had it for their object to remove, human sin. He comes to blot out the evil, to bring God's pardon. The recognition of His sacrifice supplies the adequate motive to copy His example; and they who see in His death God's sacrifice for man's sin cannot but yield themselves to Him, and find in obedience a delight. Love kindled at His love makes likeness and transmutes the outward law into an inward 'spirit of life in Christ Jesus.'

Still another way by which God 'condemns sin in the flesh' is pointed to by the remaining phrase of our text, 'sending His own Son.' In the beginning of this epistle Jesus is spoken of as 'being declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness'; and we must connect that saying with our text, and so think of Christ's bestowal of His perfect gift to humanity of the Spirit which sanctifies as being part of His condemnation of sin in the flesh. Into the very region where the tyrant rules, the Son of God communicates a new nature which constitutes a real new power. The Spirit operates on all our faculties, and redeems them from the bondage of corruption. All the springs in the land are poisoned; but a new one, limpid and pure, is opened. By the entrance of the Spirit of holiness into a human spirit, the usurper is driven from the central fortress; and though he may linger in the outworks and keep up a guerilla warfare, that is all that he can do.

We never truly apprehend Christ's gift to man until we recognize that He not merely 'died for our sins,' but lives to impart the principle of holiness in the gift of His Spirit. The dominion of that imparted Spirit is gradual and progressive. The Canaanite may still be in the land, but a growing power, working in and through us, is warring against all in us that still owns allegiance to that alien power, and there can be no end to the victorious struggle until the whole body, soul, and spirit be wholly under the influence of the Spirit that dwells in us, and nothing shall hurt or destroy in what shall then be all God's holy mountain.

Such is, in the most general terms, the statement of what Christ does 'for us.' And the question comes to be the all-important one for each: Do I let Him do it for me? Remember the alternative. There must either be condemnation for us or for the sin that dwells in us. There is no condemnation for them who are in Christ Jesus, because there is condemnation for the sin that dwells in them. It must be slain, or it will slay us. It must be cast out, or it will cast us out from God. It must be separated from us, or it will separate us from Him. We need not be condemned; but if it be not condemned, then we shall be.

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