(Rom 8:1-2 ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
This the heart of it all! After Paul’s powerful description of abject failure and futility, he declares — shockingly! — that despite his inability to obey as he wishes, there is “therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”!
“Therefore“? Because we fail so miserably? Exactly. That’s why God — knowing us better than we know ourselves — gave us the Spirit and gave us a grace system, not a law system.
What is the “law of sin and death”? It’s the law of sin referenced in —
(Rom 7:23 ESV) 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
It’s my human inability to obey as I wish — and the damnation that follows from the law.
What, then, is the “law of the Spirit of life”? Well, it’s Ezekiel. And Psalms. And Deuteronomy. It’s the whole story of the Spirit and God’s promise to change our hearts himself.
But Paul says “law“! Doesn’t that mean “rules that must be obeyed to go to heaven”? Well, only if you’ve not bothered to read chapters 1 through 7. For that matter, how could you so quickly forget —
(Rom 7:6 ESV) 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
So if “law” is about a written code, what does Paul mean by “the “law of the Spirit of life”? Well, it’s not mere irony. Rather, as N. T. Wright explains in the The New Interpreter’s Bible : Acts – First Corinthians (Volume 10),
Can it really be that “the law of the spirit of life” is a further reference to Torah, introducing now a new facet to Torah not visible in chap. 7? … The explanation of v. 2, after all, is found in vv. 3-4; and there, as the heart of the chapter so far, we find that “righteous verdict of the law” […] is now fulfilled “in us who walk … according to the Spirit.” We then find, by implication, that whereas “the mind of the flesh” does not submit to God’s law, the mind of the Spirit actually does (v. 7), and that by the Spirit God will do what the law wanted to do but, through no fault of its own, was unable to do (8:3; 10-11; cf. 7:10). …
He has spent a whole chapter arguing that, despite appearances (and despite many commentators!), the Torah remains God’s law, holy and just and good, and that it is not guilty of causing the death that comes to those who embrace it. Now he takes a step further: When God acts in Christ and by the Spirit the Torah is somehow involved as well, somehow present and active. Speaking of Torah, after all, was a thoroughly Jewish way of speaking of God’s saving action. …
The Torah, then — why, after all, should we be surprised at being surprised by Paul? — is the hidden agent of what God has achieved, which is the life of which the Spirit is the personal giver.
Hmm … This is tough. But maybe things will get clearer —
(Rom 8:3-4 ESV) 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, 4 in order that the righteous [decree] of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Remember, the prophets said that God would reshape our hearts, by the Spirit, so that we would obey his law — the Torah. Indeed, these passages often paraphrase passages from Deuteronomy 30 as indicating what our obedience will be like once God, through his Spirit, circumcises our hearts!
Therefore, when Paul declares that God sent Jesus “in order that the righteous [decree] of the law might be fulfilled in us,” he is quite plainly saying that the prophecies will come true! But how? Surely not by returning us to circumcision and Sabbath observance!
The Torah of the Spirit of life
This is a tough concept, and one that few commentators have dealt with, but we have to read the texts honestly and accept what they say.
Paul builds a large part of Romans on Deuteronomy 30. We miss it because we aren’t familiar with the passage or the story of Israel, but it’s central to Paul. As previously mentioned, this chapter prophesies that after an exile, God will restore Israel and circumcise their hearts —
(Deu 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
The promise is “you may live”! This parallels Paul’s many references to “life” and “living” throughout Romans. How do we, as God’s restored people, now live and not die? By the power of the resurrection, of course, but also by the power of God’s indwelling Spirit.
What’s the prophesied result? That we honor the Greatest Command — that we honor Torah!
(Jer 31:33 ESV) 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Jeremiah speaks of the Spirit but he also speak of Torah. God’s Torah will be written on our hearts and in our minds!
(Eze 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Ezekiel promises not only the Spirit but a Spirit that causes us to obey “my statutes” and “my rules.”
(Jer 24:7 ESV) 7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
(Psa 51:10-11 NIV) 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
But, we see, as in Deuteronomy 30:6, this law of the Spirit is fundamentally about the heart of God’s reformed and restored people.
Therefore, to Paul, it makes perfect sense to speak of “the Torah of the Spirit of life.” What is this Torah? Well, it’s whatever God writes on our hearts. It’s whatever he accomplishes in us by the Spirit.
And here’s the key: That’s all the Torah of the Spirit of life is. It’s the Torah as read through the lens of Jesus and the Spirit and implanted in our hearts by God himself.
When I first read Hebrews 8 — which quotes Jeremiah 31 — many years ago, my first reaction was that this was utter nonsense. God most certainly does not write his laws on my heart and in my mind! I get those from studying necessary inferences from silences. I get those from Bible class. They come from teachings that, quite frankly, I never would have come up on my own.
Indeed, at the time, I saw Christianity as being about Five Acts and a plurality of elders and the right name on the building. It was a discrete set of plain rules that defined the saved in contrast to all others — and which God had not written on my heart. They’d come from my preachers and teachers and tract writers. And I was struggling with whether they even were right — but if not, I had no idea what might be right.
So Jeremiah 31, quoted in Hebrews 8 as the foundation for the climax of Hebrews, made no sense to me at all. Not until I remembered —
(Gal 5:14 ESV) 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
(Rom 13:8 ESV) 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
(Rom 13:10 ESV) 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
What if, I thought, the “law” of Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 is “love your neighbor”? That God has indeed written on my heart. Love is a command that can only be honored if written on the heart!
That, of course, immediately led to —
(Mat 22:37-40 ESV) 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
And I didn’t know it at the time, but the command to love God — the Greatest Command — is the subject of Deuteronomy 30:6! It all fits.
Obviously, Paul is not, by referring to the Torah of the Spirit of life, urging us to take up circumcision and kosher. Nor is he saying that the Torah has been repealed and replaced with a new, similar Torah but with different rules.
Rather, he’s saying that the Torah survives — but as filtered through Jesus and the Spirit — which allow us to see how the Torah should be read in the new covenant. And the first step is to recognize the heart-nature of the fulfilled, Christ-transformed Torah.
Paul will explain this further in Romans 12 – 15 (and in 9 -11, where he deals extensively with Deuteronomy 30, but that’s for another day). But before we can fully get the end of Romans, we have to sort through the rest of Romans 8. And then we’ll cover Paul’s conclusions about what the Torah of the Spirit of life really is in Romans 12 – 15.