Completed by the Spirit Part 10: The Law of the Spirit of Life Has Set You Free

Ed Trefzger
Ed Trefzger
This is the 10th part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ology think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.
In Romans 8, Paul pro­vides the solu­tion to the wretched state of the chap­ter 7 man, as he joy­fully pro­claims, “[1] 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.” (Rom 8:1–2). But that does not mean that the law is now harm­less to the regen­er­ate man who nev­er­the­less still has remain­ing sin – and as we noted above – will con­tinue to have remain­ing sin in his flesh until glory. Paul issues this stern warning:

[5] For those who live accord­ing to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live accord­ing to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. [6] For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. [7] For the mind that is set on the flesh is hos­tile to God, for it does not sub­mit to God’s law; indeed, it can­not. [8] Those who are in the flesh can­not please God. (Romans 8:5–8)

Sim­i­larly, in 1 Corinthi­ans, Paul reminds us, “[56] The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. [57] But thanks be to God, who gives us the vic­tory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:56–57).
To focus on the law in our regen­er­ate state is to set our minds on the very thing that pro­vokes sin in the flesh and to set our minds on the very thing that gives sin its power over our flesh. While the Romans 7 man by chap­ter 8 now no longer faces condem­na­tion for sin, the Romans 8 man still has not been glo­ri­fied, and thus he remains sus­cep­ti­ble to the effects of sin. To set his mind on the exter­nal law of let­ters and not the inter­nal law of the Spirit of Christ is to con­demn him in a tem­po­ral sense to a walk beset by sin.
But, says Paul:

[9] You, how­ever, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any­one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. [10] But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of right­eous­ness. [11] If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mor­tal bod­ies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

The same warn­ing was given by Paul to the Gala­tians. Despite those who would char­ac­ter­ize Gala­tians as warn­ing to unbe­liev­ers that they can­not be jus­ti­fied by the law, or who char­ac­ter­ize it as a warn­ing to the Gala­tians not to return to the cer­e­mo­nial prac­tices of Judaism – prac­tices Paul finds indif­fer­ent in Romans 14 – Paul is writ­ing to the church and Paul is mak­ing no tri­par­tite dis­tinc­tion within the law. Thus, Paul’s warn­ing is about the whole law and his warn­ing is to those who are believ­ers. “You were run­ning well,” he exclaims. These are not peo­ple who are not yet jus­ti­fied; these are peo­ple try­ing to walk the Chris­t­ian walk, though some indi­vid­u­als would deny the Gala­tians free­dom and return them to a yoke of slavery.

[7] You were run­ning well. Who hin­dered you from obey­ing the truth? [8] This per­sua­sion is not from him who calls you. [9] A lit­tle leaven leav­ens the whole lump. [10] I have con­fi­dence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is trou­bling you will bear the penalty, who­ever he is. [11] But if I, broth­ers, still preach cir­cum­ci­sion, why am I still being per­se­cuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. [12] I wish those who unset­tle you would emas­cu­late them­selves! (Gal 3:7–12)

Per­haps the most com­pelling pas­sage against the law for sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion is in 2 Corinthi­ans 3. We’ll visit the Spirit/letter antithe­sis in our next installment.

Uphold the law by looking away from it and to Christ

“Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” 
-Romans 3:31, ESV
Romans 3:31 is a proof text and pillar for Covenant Theology’s (CT) insistence for the ‘third use’ of the Law.[1] On the face of it, and within the framework of CT, it is not difficult to see how this verse lends itself to such an understanding. Confessedly, I once saw this verse as a reason to refute the claims of NCT’s view of Mosaic Law. However, three considerations make clear that CT’s view of this verse erroneous.
1. Romans 3:31 cannot oppose what Paul writes elsewhere concerning Mosaic Law & the Christian (e.g. Romans 6-8; 10:4; 2 Cor. 3; Galatians 3-5, Ephesians 2:14-15; Col. 2:14). This is to say nothing of the clear testimony of Hebrews 8-10. To pit Romans 3:31 against the weight and clear teaching of the rest of Scripture is unsound theological method. Paul would not assert one thing in Galatians (namely, freedom from the entire Mosaic legislation) only to contradict himself later in Romans. A high view of Scripture guards against such absurdity since God, the Author of Scripture, is a God of truth. Therefore, since truth by definition is non-contradictory, Paul is not at odds with himself. Romans 3:31 cannot undermine, or fly in the face of, what the apostle writes elsewhere. The veracity of Scripture as a whole is at stake here.
2. The immediate context does not support CT’s confidence. A few verses earlier, in Romans 3:21, Paul states that although justifying righteousness has been manifested apart from the law, the “Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” The next phrase makes it clear; faith in Christ for righteousness is that to which “the Law and Prophets” bear witness. Therefore, in 3:31, the apostle may simply be saying that faith in Christ for righteousness upholds that OT law which calls for faith (cf. John 5:46; Romans 10:6ff; Deut. 30:11ff.). Of course, called into question here is the precise referent of ‘law.’ Does ‘law,’ a word with a wide semantic range, mean the Mosaic Covenant? The Ten Commandments? The Pentateuch? The entire Old Testament?[2] Exegesis, not eisogesis, must rule. To simply read a theological category into this is bad hermeneutical method. Care must be taken to not define the occurrence of a word too narrowly or broadly.
3. But assuming, for argument’s sake, ‘law’ in Romans 3:31 refers to the Mosaic Covenant only, we need not conclude Paul teaches that law remains in force for the one who has faith in Christ. A simple reading of the verse, allowing it to speak in context (3:21-31) makes it clear Paul teaches no such thing. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?” is a question posed in a specific context, one in which the Law, in full force, is brought to bear on Christ. Christ is its satisfaction (3:25). Christ, by His redemption-accomplishing, wrath-appeasing, justice-satisfying death, fulfilled the law with its precepts and punishments. And He did so for us, for everyone who would ever believe in Him for justification. As Douglas Moo once wrote: “Justification takes full account of the law, providing for its complete satisfaction in believers through their incorporation into Christ.”[3] The irony of ironies is this: we uphold the law by looking away from it and to Christ, the One who kept it. The work of Christ, and faith in Him, takes seriously, and into full consideration, the Law. This satisfies the grammar. This satisfies the contexts, both near and far. And that, dear reader, satisfies and cheers my soul!
Romans 3:31 is no obstacle to the position that sees Christ as the fullfilment of all things Old Testament, freeing the New Covenant believer to be led by a new kind of “Law” (i.e. the Law of Christ).
[1] For an influential example, see John Murray’s “Law & Grace.” Available at
[2] For examples of ‘law’ used this way, see Romans 3:19 (?); 1 Cor. 14:21; John 10:34; 15:25.
[3] Douglas J. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View”, in Five Views on Law and Gospel, Greg L. Bahnsen, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Douglas J. Moo, Wayne G. Strickland, and Willem A. VanGemeren; Counterpoint Series, series ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999, 1996), pp. 371-372. The context of this quote bears repeating: ““Romans 8:4 suggests the answer….the passive form of the verb pleroo (“might be fulfilled”) points away from any activity on the part of human beings. What Paul must mean in the context, where he is showing how God in Christ has provided for that which sinful humans could not accomplish (v. 3), is that believers who are “in Christ” and led by the Spirit fully meet the demand of God’s law by having it met for them in Christ. As Calvin recognized, only such a vicarious fulfillment of the law on our behalf by Christ meets God’s demand that the law be fully and completely obeyed. I would suggest, therefore, that in this sense Paul’s teaching of justification by faith “upholds” the law” (3:31). Justification takes full account of the law, providing for its complete satisfaction in believers through their incorporation into Christ. Neither text in Romans suggests the continuing direct application of the Mosaic law to believers.”