The Impotence of the Law, and God's Method of Meeting It
"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 viii. 3.
"For what the law could not do." It is still the moral law of which the apostle speaks. He affirms of that law that it is "weak." The assertion must be received with some qualification. It cannot be denied that the law has power. Divest it of all strength, and of what use would it be? How could it accomplish the design of its enactment? There is a sense, then, and an important one, in which the law has strength. Wherein does its potency lie? The law has power to convict of sin. It mirrors to a man his moral likeness; looking into this law he sees himself to be a sinner. It has power to bring him in guilty before God; to breathe over his head its fearful curse, and to shut him up to its eternal condemnation. With what a tremendous power, then, is this law invested! It wields a mighty arm.
Let the lawless tremble at its strength. Its divinity is not to be denied- its holiness is not to be impugned- its power is not to be trifled with. No man can do violence to this law with impunity. Deem it not a light thing to fall into its iron, merciless grasp. It lays its righteous hand upon you, exclaiming, "Pay me that you owe." And if the demand is not met- amply, fully met- it has authority and power to adjudge you to hell forever. Such is the strength of God's holy law.
But, nevertheless, there is a sense, and a vastly important one, in which the law is impotent- utterly powerless. What is it that the law cannot do? The law has no power to place the sinner in a justified state. In other words, it cannot fulfil its own righteousness. "By him, all who believe are justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses." "Therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight." Nor has it power to give life. "For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law." It pronounces the unjustified sinner dead- his religion dead- his works dead- his faith dead; but with not one breath of spiritual life has it power to inspire the soul. Oh, the infatuation which prompts men to seek spiritual life from a law, powerful only as an instrument of eternal death! Nor has the law power to make anything whatever perfect in the great matter of man's salvation. "For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw near unto God." These things the law fails to achieve. And herein is it weak. Holy in its nature, it is yet incapable of making the sinner holy. Righteous in its precepts, it yet cannot justify the ungodly. Reflecting the Divine image, it yet has no power to transfer that image to the soul. But let us trace this failure to its proper cause. From where, then, does this weakness of the law of God come from? We reply, not from any inherent defect in the law. "The law is holy, just and good," and of itself powerful enough to take the soul to glory. But the Apostle supplies the answer- "weak through the flesh." It was right that he should thus shield the dignity of the law, and maintain that there belonged to it a native force and capacity worthy of Him from whom it emanated, and equal to the accomplishment of the great end for which it was enacted. The weakness of the law, then, is to be traced, not to any inefficiency of the instrument, but to the sinfulness of man; not to the agent, but to the subject. What an impressive view does this give us of the deep depravity, the utter sinfulness of our nature! So great is the corruption of the flesh, that it opposes and thwarts the law in its great work of imprinting its image upon the mind of man. Oh, what must be the character and power of that sinfulness which can thus sever the locks of its strength, and divert it from its sacred purpose! Sincerely would it make us holy, but our depravity foils it. Sincerely would it recall our alienated affections, but our heart is so utterly estranged from God, that its generous effort fails. Thus the law is weak, through the corrupt and sinful flesh. Let us be deeply humbled by this truth. How entirely it stains the pride of all our fleshly glory! Where, now, is our native holiness, and our boasted pride, and our vaunted worthiness? The law, always on the side of purity and love, yearned to bring us beneath its holy and benign influence, but our carnality interposed, and it became weak.
"God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh." Thus has God graciously provided a remedy which exactly meets the necessity of the case. The law, thwarted and impaired by the depravity of the flesh, having failed to effect the salvation of the sinner, proving itself utterly powerless to justify or sanctify the soul, God is represented as devising another, a more stupendous and effective expedient. This was nothing less than placing the work in the hands of his own Son. The source from where this great and precious gift emanates, supplies a tender rebuke to all those defective views we are prone to entertain of the Father's love to us. What a fulness of meaning in these words- "God sending his own Son,"- sending him from the depths of his love, from the center of his bosom. Truly, "in this was manifested the love of God towards us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him." Herein, indeed, is love! Oh, what cold, suspicious thoughts we have cherished of it! How have we lost sight of it in deep trial, and in the bitter anguish of our spirit! How have we forgotten that he must love us- chastise and rebuke us as he will- who sent his own Son to give us life! Behold the grandeur and the fitness of God's expedient. The Father did seem to say to the beloved One reposing in his bosom- "My Son, our law has failed to accomplish the salvation of a single individual of the human race, through the opposing depravity into which it is sunk. Go on this embassy of love, assume the likeness of the sinner, and in Your mightiness to save, bring my many sons unto glory." Contemplate, too, the costliness of the gift. "His own Son." Angels are his sons by creation, and saints are his sons by adoption; but Jesus is pre-eminently and emphatically his OWN Son by eternal generation- co-equal, co-essential, and co-eternal with the Father, ineffably begotten from all eternity in the Divine essence. From the abundant proofs of this doctrine, with which the Scriptures of truth are so rich, one or two citations will suffice. Our Lord on every occasion acknowledged his filial relation to God. How often and how touchingly did the expressive words breathe from his sacred lips- "My Father." "I and my Father are one." "All things are delivered unto me by my Father." "In my Father's house are many mansions." Then, as it regards his being by eternal generation the Son of the Highest, hear what the Scriptures of truth affirm. "I know him," says Christ, "for I am from him, and he has sent me." How was Christ from the Father? Certainly not as it related to his mission mainly, but as it respected his eternal generation by the Father. For, observe in these remarkable words the two things are different and distinct; the being from the Father- and the being sent by the Father. Then, as it regards his Sonship, how conclusive are these words- "The Lord said unto me, You are my Son; this day have I begotten you." Beyond all dispute, Christ is the person spoken of here. Three times is this passage quoted in the New Testament, and on each occasion it is invariably applied to the Lord Jesus. The expression "today," has an obvious reference to the eternity of his generation. Eternity is with God but as one day- an eternal now. "Beloved, do not be ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." Thus clear is it that Christ is God's "own Son," having the same essence and nature with himself; and that he is God's "only Son" by natural and eternal generation- "The only begotten Son of God." Further into the depths of this profound truth it would not be our wisdom to descend. There is much awful mystery connected with this fundamental verity of Christian faith, which forbids a too curious and rash investigation. Although it transcends our reason, it does not contravene our reason. It is propounded, like all cognate mysteries of Divine revelation, for our belief. And what human reason is not able to comprehend, divine faith can meekly and unquestioningly receive.
But what words are these- "God sent his own Son!" A person less exalted, less Divine, could not have accomplished what the divine law failed to do. And since an enactment which was a transcript of Deity, proved too feeble for the purpose, Deity itself undertakes the work. God's own eternal and essential Son embarks in the enterprise, and achieves it. What a Rock of salvation, saint of God, is this! Springing from the lowest depths of your humiliation, see how it towers above your curse- your sin- your condemnation! It is a Rock higher than you. Infinitely removed beyond the reach of condemnation is that soul whose faith is planted upon this Rock. How securely can he rest, and how sweetly can he sing, "In the time of trouble he shall hide me in His pavilion: in the secret of His tabernacle shall He hide me; He shall set me upon a rock. And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me."
"In the likeness of sinful flesh." These words are striking and significant, as placing before us two essential and glorious facts in the history of our Lord- facts interwoven with our holiest experience and most precious hopes. It first places in the clearest possible light the true humanity of the Son of God. It was not human nature in appearance that he took, as some have taught- this was the heretical doctrine of the ancient Docetae, but human nature in reality. There are other declarations of this truth equally as strong: "God sent forth his Son made of a woman." "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." Our blessed Lord has ever been "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence" to the ungodly world. Many are offended with him. His two natures have ever been impugned, opposed, and denied. Some have refused him the glory belonging to his Godhead, while others have attempted to undermine his manhood- thus making him, had it been in the power of his enemies, neither God nor man- a very nothing. But the truth still stands unimpeached and glorious- our Lord assumed real flesh. "My flesh is food indeed." It was, as the Apostle terms it, "the body of his flesh." "Wherefore, when he comes into the world, he says, Sacrifice and offering you would not, but a body have you prepared me." "Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree." It was a perfectly organized body, having all the properties, affinities, and functions belonging to our own. Therefore he is styled "the man Christ Jesus." "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead." "He was made in the likeness of men." "The seed of the woman." "The seed of Abraham." "The seed of David." Such are the words which inscribe this great truth as with a sunbeam- our Lord's perfect human body and soul. The consolation, the sympathy, the strength, which spring from this truth, how great! Bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, made in all points like unto his brethren, O how suitable a Brother is he, born for our every adversity! Now can he, with a feeling of sympathy the most exquisite, be touched with my infirmity; for this nature which I drag about with me, feeble and bruised, jaded and crushed, was the very nature which he took into mysterious union with his Godhead- wore it here below, and wears it still in heaven.
But, secondly, with what care and skill does the Holy Spirit guard the perfect sinlessness of our Lord's humanity! Observe, it was not the reality of sinful flesh that the Son of God assumed, but its 'likeness' only. He took real flesh, but bearing the resemblance only of sinfulness. He was "made like unto his brethren." "Tempted like as we are, yet without sin." And so in the passage before us, "In the likeness of sinful flesh." The words suppose a resemblance to our sinful nature. And, oh! how close that resemblance was!- as like a sinner as one could be, who yet in deed and in truth was not one- "who knew no sin," but was "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." Man is a sinner; our blessed Lord was man- so truly man, that his enemies exclaimed, "We know this man is a sinner." They could not understand how one could be so really human, and yet be untainted with sin! And then, did there not cling to Jesus the infirmities of our fallen nature, which, though sinless in him, were not the less the effects of sin? He hungered- he thirsted- he wept he was wearied- he slept- he was afflicted- he sorrowed- he trembled- he suffered- he died. And as we trace these infirmities of our humanity floating upon the transparent surface of his pure life, how forcible do we feel the words- "Made in the likeness of sinful flesh"! And when we see him traduced as a sinner by man, and- standing beneath his people's transgressions- dealt with as a sinner by God; by man, denounced as "a glutton," "a wine-bibber," "a friend of publicans and sinners," an "impostor," a "deceiver," a "blasphemer" then arraigned, condemned, and executed as a criminal not worthy to live, as an accursed one- by God, charged with all the sins of the elect church, bruised and put to grief, and at last abandoned by him on the cross, then numbered with transgressors, and making his grave with the wicked in his death- oh! how like sinful flesh was the robe of lowliness and suffering which he wore! And yet, "he was without sin." It was the resemblance, not the reality. The human nature of the Son of God was as free from sin as the Deity it enshrined. He was the "Lamb of God without spot." The least taint of moral guilt- a shade of inherent corruption- would have proved fatal to his mission. One leak in the glorious Ark which contained the Church of God, had sunk it to the lowest depths. Oh! this is the glory of his work, and the solace of our hearts, that Christ our Savior "offered himself without spot unto God." And now we may plead his sinless oblation as the ground of our pardon, and the acceptance of our persons. "He has made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." The Lord bless these truths to the comfort and edification of our souls.
"And for sin condemned sin in the flesh;" or, "by a sacrifice for sin." And what was that sacrifice? It was God's own Son- "who gave himself for us." "And when he had by himself purged our sins." "Christ also has loved us, and has given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor." By this sacrifice he "condemned sin in the flesh." The word never implies simply to destroy, or remove. Consequently the present and entire destruction of sin in the believer was not the condemnation secured by the sacrifice of Christ. But in two senses we may understand the word. First, he bore the condemnation and punishment of sin, and thus forever secured our pardon. Secondly, and chiefly, he actually so condemned sin in his own material body, that it lost the power of condemning his spiritual body, the Church. So that neither sin, nor the consequence of sin, can ever lay the believer under condemnation. Thus, while sin condemned Jesus as the Surety, Jesus condemned sin as the Judge, assigning it to its own dark and changeless doom. That, therefore, which itself is condemned, cannot condemn. Thus it is that the last song the believer sings, is his sweetest and most triumphant- "O death! where is your sting?" Sin being condemned, pardoned, and forever put away, death, its consequent and penalty, is but a pleasing trance into which the believer falls, to awake up perfected in God's righteousness.
In conclusion, let us, in deep adoration of soul, admire God's illustrious method of meeting the impotence of the law. How suitable to us, how honoring to himself! Relinquishing all thought of salvation by the works of the law, let us eagerly and gratefully avail ourselves of God's plan of justification. Let our humble and believing hearts cordially embrace his Son. If the law is powerless to save, Christ is "mighty to save." If the law can but terrify and condemn, it is to drive us into Christ, that we might be justified by faith in him. In him there is a full, finished, and free salvation. We have but to believe, and be saved. We have but to look, and live. We have but to come, and be accepted. Disappointed of our hope in the law, and alarmed by its threatenings pealing in our ears louder than seven thunders, let us flee to Jesus, the "Hiding place from the wind, and the covert from the tempest." There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. All is peace, all is rest, all is security there. The instant that a poor trembling sinner gets into Christ, he is safe to all eternity. Nor can he be assured of safety one moment outside of Christ. Repair, then, to the Savior. His declaration is- "Him that comes unto me I will in no wise cast out." None are rejected but those who bring a price in their hands. Salvation is by grace; and not to him that works, but to him that believes, the precious boon is given. The turpitude of your guilt, the number of your transgressions, the depth of your unworthiness, the extent of your poverty, the distance that you have wandered from God, are no valid objections, no insurmountable difficulties, to your being saved. Jesus saves sinners "to the uttermost,"- to the uttermost degree of guilt- to the uttermost limit of unworthiness- to the uttermost extent of time. And not only let us look to Christ for salvation, but also for strength. Is the law weak? "Christ is the power of God." He is prepared to perfect his strength in our weakness. And the felt conviction of that weakness will be the measure of our strength. Without him we can do nothing; but strong in his might, we can do all things. "In the Lord I have righteousness and strength." And "in him shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory."
How should this subject deepen our love! "God is love," and the expression of that love is the sending his own Son into the world, to achieve what the law, in its weakness, could not do. Was ever love like this? "God so loved." And was Jesus willing to engage in the embassy? Did he voluntarily clothe Himself in our rags, stoop to our poverty, consent to be arrested and thrown into prison for us? Was he made a curse that he might deliver us from the curse? Did judgment pass upon him that we might be saved from the wrath to come? O here is infinite, boundless love! Then let him have in return our love. It is the least that he can ask, or we can make. Let it be a hearty, cordial, obedient, increasing love. Alas! it is but a drop, when it should be an ocean. It is but a faint spark, when it should be a vehement flame. O how should our best affection flow out toward him who assumed, and still wears, our nature! What an attractive, winning object is the Incarnate God, the God-man Mediator! Fairer than the children of men, the chief among ten thousand, the altogether lovely One, he is the wonder and admiration, the love and song, of all heaven. O why should he not be equally so of all earth? Did the Son of God take up our rude and suffering nature, and shall we be sluggish to take up his lowly and despised cross, and follow hard after him? Forbid it, Lord! Forbid it, precious Savior! What humiliation, what abasement, can be too much for us, the sinful sons of men, when you, the sinless Son of God, did so abase and humble yourself! O let your love constrain us to stand firm to you, to your truth, and to your cause, when the world despises, and friends forsake, and relatives look cold, and all seem to leave and forsake us. And as you did condescend to be made in the likeness of our human and sinful nature, O conform us to the likeness of your Divine and holy nature. As you were a partaker with us, make us partakers with you. As you were made like unto us, in what was proper to man, make us like you, in what is proper to God. And as you did come down to our sinful and dim earth, lift us to your pure and bright heaven!