Fulfilling the Law

What does Paul mean in Romans 8:4 when he says that the aim of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection is that “the righteous requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”?

Wait a minute! Isn’t Christ the fulfillment of the Law? Why does it say fulfilled in us?! In Appendix 6 to his latest book, The Future of Justification, John Piper sets out to answer this question.

Some take this to mean that Christ fulfilled the law for us when he obeyed it perfectly and died as the perfect sacrifice on our behalf.[1]

Piper agrees that this is true, “but,” he goes on to say:

I don’t think that is the point of verse 4.

Piper goes on to point out that the text does not say that the law is fulfilled for us but in us. He observes that the text indicates this fulfillment will take place by way of walking or doing, by way of living it out. (What, we must ask, is the antecedent of “it”?) In verse 4 it says that the fulfilling will take place in those who walk “according to the Spirit.” We would be remiss, however, not to note that walking in the Spirit is contrasted with walking in the flesh, and the fleshly person is described as one who “does not submit to God’s law.” (verse 7). As opposed, it is clearly inferred, to those who walk in the Spirit and therefore do submit to God’s law.

So Piper sets out to answer the obvious question:

What does it mean to fulfill the requirement of the law? And specifically, how can any of my “walking” by the Spirit—which is always imperfect in this life—be said to fulfill God’s law, which is holy and just and good?[2]

He then sets down 12 theses on the Law in an attempt to answer these questions. His 12 theses follow. I will be engaging each of them in subsequent blogs (they’re pretty good, actually).

1. Fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law in Romans 8:4 refers to a life of real love for people (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-18; Matt. 7:12; 22:37-40).

2. Our fulfilling God’s law in loving others is not the ground of our justification. The ground of justification is the sacrifice and obedience of Christ alone, appropriated through faith alone before any other acts are performed. Our fulfilling the law is the fruit and evidence of being justified by faith (Rom. 3:20-22, 24-25, 28; 4:4-6; 5:19; 8:3; 10:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:21).

3. This fulfilling of God’s law in loving others is rendered not in our own strength but by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:13-16, 22-23).

4. This fulfilling of God’s law in loving others through the Spirit is rendered by faith, that is, by being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ and him crucified-the perseverance of the same faith that justifies (Gal. 3:5; 5:6; 1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 11:6, 24-26; 10:34).

5. This fulfilling of God’s law in loving others through the Spirit by faith is not a perfect love in this life (Rom. 7:15, 19, 23-25; Phil. 3:12).

6. But this fulfilling of God’s law in loving others through the Spirit by faith will become perfect when we die or when Christ returns, and we will live in the perfection of love forever (Rom. 8:30; Phil. 1:6; Heb. 12:22-23).

7. Even though we will one day be perfected in love, the totality of our existence, from conception to eternity, will never be a perfect one, because it will always include the first chapter of our fallen life. We will always be forgiven-that is, we will always be those who have sinned. We will always be in need of an imputed, alien righteousness and a sin-bearing Substitute for our right standing before God. In this way, Christ will be glorified forever in our salvation. We will forever lean on his righteousness and his sacrifice (Heb. 7:25; Rev. 5:9-10; 15:3).

8. Even though imperfect, this Spirit-dependent, Christ-exalting love (which is essentially self-sacrificing gladness in the temporal and eternal good of others, 2 Cor. 8:1-2, 8) is the true and real direction of life that God’s law requires. In this life, we have new direction, not full perfection. This direction is what the law demands on the way to perfection (cf. texts under #1).

9. This fulfilling of the Old Testament law in the loving of others through the Spirit by faith is sometimes called “the law of liberty” (James 1:25; 2:12) and “the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2).

9.1. When the fulfilling of the law is called “the law of liberty,” it means that, in the pursuit of love, Christians are free from law-keeping as the ground of our justification and as the power of our sanctification. Instead, we pursue it by the “law of the Spirit of life . . . in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2). We look to the Spirit of Christ for transformation so that love flows by power from within, not pressure from without. We are dead to law-keeping and therefore at liberty to bear fruit for God in the newness of the Spirit (Rom. 7:4, 6). The law of liberty is the leading of the Spirit, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17) (Jas. 1:25; 2:10-12; Gal. 5:1; Rom. 7:4, 6; 2 Cor. 3:17-18).

9.2. When the fulfilling of the law is called “the law of Christ,” it means that our pursuit of love is guided and enabled by the life, word, and Spirit of Jesus Christ. The law of Christ is not a new list of behaviors on the outside, but a new Treasure, Friend, and Master on the inside. He did give us “a new commandment” (“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also are to love one another,” John 13:34). But this standard of love is the life and power of a person who indwells us by his Spirit (Rom. 7:4; 8:11). We pursue love as “the law of Christ” by looking to Christ as our sin-covering sacrifice, our all-sufficient righteousness, our all-satisfying Treasure, our all-providing Protection and Helper, and our all-wise counselor and guide (Rom. 7:4; 8:9, 12-14; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 2:20; 6:2).

10. The Old Testament law can be understood narrowly as a set of commandments, or more broadly as the entire teaching of the Pentateuch, or even as all the instruction of God in the Old Testament wherever he gives it.

10.1. In the narrow sense, one may think of the law as commanding perfect obedience that, if we could perform it (the way Adam should have) by depending on God’s help, would be our righteousness and the ground of our justification. But, because of our sin, the law does not lead to life in this way (Gal. 3:21), but shuts us up to look away from law-keeping to Christ so that we might be justified through faith in him (Gal. 3:21-25).

10.2. In the broader sense of the whole Pentateuch or the whole Old Testament, we may think of the law not merely as making demands, but also as offering justification through faith by pointing forward to a Redeemer who would provide the ground of that justification, and in whom Jews and Gentiles would be counted righteous because of his blood and righteousness (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Rom. 3:19-22).

11. When the law is understood in its entirety, its aim is that Jesus Christ get the glory as the one who provides the only ground for our imputed righteousness through faith (justification) and the only power for our imparted righteousness through faith (sanctification) (Rom. 5:19; 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 1:11; 3:8-9).

12. Therefore, I give a summarizing three-part answer to the question, “How can our imperfect obedience and love fulfill the perfect law of God?”

12.1. First, our imperfect love is, nevertheless, real, God-dependent, Spirit-enabled, Christ-exalting love that flows from our justification and is not a means to it. And therefore it is the new direction that the law was aiming at and what the new covenant promised. In short, Christ-exalting love as the fruit of faith is what the law was aiming at.

12.2. Second, our imperfect love is the first-fruits of a final perfection that Christ will complete in us at his appearing. Romans 8:4 does not say that the entire fulfillment of the law happens in us now. But our walk by the Spirit begins now, and so does our fulfillment of the righteous requirement of the law.

12.3. Finally, our imperfect love is the fruit of our faith in Jesus who is himself our only justifying perfection before God. In other words, the only law-keeping we depend on as the ground of our justification is Jesus’ law-keeping. His was perfect. Ours is imperfect. And so we will never (even in eternity) have a whole life of perfection to offer God. The acceptability of our lives to all eternity will always depend on the perfection of Jesus offered in our place. Our imperfect love now and our perfect love later will always be the fruit of faith that looks to Jesus as our only complete perfection. In the end, the law is fulfilled in us everlastingly because it was fulfilled in him from everlasting to everlasting. Our imperfection and need is a pointer to his perfection and all-sufficiency; and that pointing-that exaltation of Christ-is the aim of the law.

 The entire book may be read online here.


[1] Piper, John. The Future of Justification. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 215[2] Ibid, 216

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