Not only can the law not justify,
but it cannot sanctify either.
In other words, it is futile to turn to the law to have our condemnation lifted, and it is futile to turn to the law to have our rebellion against God and our love affair with everything but God taken away. Everyone of us has two deep problems – much deeper than our financial problems or our relational problems or our health problems. We are guilty before God and deserve condemnation, and we are rebellious against God and love his creation more than we love him. And my point last week, based on Romans 8:3-4, is that neither of these problems can be fixed by the law of God – by the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai.
But they must be fixed or we perish. To fix the first one God turns us away from the law to Christ. Verse 3:
“What the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.”
God took away our condemnation by condemning Christ in our place. Now what did God do to fix the second problem: our rebellion against God and the addiction we have to crave God’s creation more than we crave God?
Did he turn us away from the law for justification and then send us back to it for sanctification? Is the law the first and chief and decisive focus of our lives if we want to triumph over our rebellion and our craving for God’s creation over God? If we want to love our enemies and not return evil for evil, and have patience and kindness, and be bold and courageous in the cause of righteousness, and endure hardship joyfully in service of the gospel, and spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, then where shall we turn for help? How do we become holy, loving, and Christ-like after we are justified by faith alone?
What do you do? Where do you turn? What is your focus and passion? How do you fight for holiness and love and Christ-likeness? You must fight. The alternative of pursuing holiness is to perish (Hebrews 12:14). How do you fight?
Is law the key that unlocks a life of love?
The Law Is not the Key to Unlock a Life of Love
Paul says that the key won’t work. The law cannot do what needs to be done. There are at least three reasons why it cannot.
1. The Law Cannot Remove Our Condemnation
The first one we have spoken of enough, so we will pass over it quickly: the great ground of transformation is the removal of condemnation; the law cannot remove it; and so the law cannot provide the basis for our transformation. If we want to be changed into the image of Jesus, we must first have the verdict of guilty reversed – and the law cannot do that, only God can because of Christ. And we receive it by faith alone.
2. The Law Cannot Conquer the Flesh
But there is a second reason why the law cannot sanctify or transform: It cannot conquer the flesh. That is, it cannot change us at the root of our nature: our fallenness and rebellion against God. It cannot take away our reluctance to love God and our treasonous preference for God’s gifts above God (Romans 1:23). On the contrary, Paul teaches us that the law aggravates our sin and stirs up our rebellion.
Let’s review a few of those places where Paul says this, so that we arm ourselves from thinking that the law can get anywhere with our deep rebellion, which Paul calls our “flesh” in Romans 8:3 – “what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh.”
3. The Law Came to Increase Transgressions
Let’s look at Romans 5:19-21. Paul closes his contrast of Adam and Christ like this:
“For as through the one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One [Christ] the many will be made righteous.”
Now this raises the question: “Well, if righteousness comes to us through the obedience of Christ, and not through our own obedience, then why the law? Isn’t the law given to provide righteousness?” Paul answers in verse 20,
“The Law came in so that the transgression would increase.”
In other words the law is not the remedy for our condemnation or our rebellion. In fact, it is given to turn our inner rebellion into more blatant and visible transgressions. We see this again in Romans 7:5,
“While we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.”
In other words, the law does not conquer the flesh, it rouses the flesh. The law plays into the hands of our own sinful passions and stirs them up. We see the same thing in Romans 7:8,
“But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind.”
The law does not conquer the flesh, on the contrary, it gives the flesh another base of operation. Another place to show its rebellion.
Please note: The above content is but a small portion of a larger sermon manuscript.
The complete Text and Audio available at Desiring God
About John Piper
John Piper is pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and studied at Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary (B.D.), and the University of Munich (D.theol.). For six years he taught Biblical Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1980 accepted the call to serve as pastor at Bethlehem. John is the author of more than 40 books and more than 30 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at desiringGod.org. John and his wife, Noel, have four sons, one daughter, and twelve grandchildren.