Charles Hodge On Romans 8:4

Verse 4. That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, &c. This verse expresses the design of God in sending his Son, and in condemning sin in the flesh. He did thus condemn it, ἵνα, in order that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled. The meaning, therefore, of this passage is determined by the view taken of ver. 3. If that verse means, that God, by sending his Son, destroyed sin in us, then of course this verse must mean, ‘He destroyed sin, in order that we should fulfil the law;’ i.e. that we should be holy. But if ver. 3 is understood of the sacrificial death of Christ, and of the condemnation of sin in him as the substitute of sinners, then this verse must be understood of justification, and not of sanctification. He condemned sin, in order that the demands of the law might be satisfied. This is the view of the passage given even by the majority of the early Fathers, and by almost all evangelical interpreters, including the Reformers. “Qui intelligunt Spiritu Christi renovatos legem implere, commentum a sensu Pauli penitus alienum afferunt; neque enim eo usque proficiunt fideles, quamdia peregrinantur in mundo, ut justificatio legis in illis plena sit, vel integra. Ergo hoc ad veniam referre necesse est; quia, dum nobis accepta fertur Christi obedientia, legi satisfactum est, ut pro justis censeamur.” That this is the true meaning of the passage appears not only from the connection and the course of the argument, but also from the following considerations: 1. It is consistent with the strict and natural meaning of the words. The word δικαίωμα, here used, means, first, something righteous, and then, second, something declared to be righteous and obligatory, an ordinance or precept; and, third, a righteous decision, a just judgment, as when in Rom. 1:29, the heathen are said to know the δικαίωμα, the righteous judgment of God; and, fourth, the act of declaring righteous, justification. In this sense δικαίωμα is antithetical to κατάκριμα. The δικαίωμα τοῦ νόμου, therefore, may mean, the righteous requirement of the law, that which satisfies its demands. In strict accordance therefore with the sense of the words, we may explain the passage to mean, ‘that the demands of the law might be satisfied in us.’ That is, that we might be justified. Christ was condemned, that to us there might be no condemnation. He was made sin, that we might be made righteousness, 2 Cor. 5:21. Or, if we take δικαίωμα in the sense of (Rechtfertigungsurtheil) a declaration of righteousness, an act of justification, the same idea is expressed: ‘Sin was condemned in Christ, in order that the sentence of justification might be fulfilled, or carried into effect in us.’ This is the explanation which Eckermann, Köllner, Philippi, and other modern interpreters adopt. 2. The analogy of Scripture. To make this passage teach the doctrine of subjective justification, that we are freed from condemnation or delivered from the law by our inward sanctification, is to contradict the plain teaching of the Bible, and the whole drift and argument of this epistle. 3. The concluding clause of the verse, (who walk not after the flesh, &c.) demands the interpretation given above. In the other view of the passage, the latter clause is altogether unnecessary. Why should Paul say, that Christ died in order that they should be holy who are holy, i.e. those who walk not after the flesh? On the other hand, the second clause of the verse is specially pertinent, if the first treats of justification. The benefits of Christ’s death are experienced only by those who walk not after the flesh. The gospel is not antinomian. Those only are justified who are also sanctified. Holiness is the fruit and evidence of reconciliation with God. There is no condemnation to those who walk after the Spirit; and the righteousness of the law is fulfilled by those who walk after the Spirit. In both cases, the latter clause is designed to describe the class of persons who are entitled to appropriate to themselves the promise of justification in Christ. 4. Finally, as intimated in the above quotation from Calvin, it is not true that the righteousness of the law, in the sense of complete obedience, is fulfilled in believers. The interpretation which makes the apostle say, that we are delivered from the law by the work of Christ, in order that the complete obedience which the law demands might be rendered by us, supposes what all Scripture and experience contradicts. For an exposition of the last clause of the verse, see ver. 1.

—Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. New Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Louis Kregel, 1882), 399–400.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this excellent post from Hodge on Romans 8:4. You’ve hit a bullseye here. Off hand, three of the ‘obedience boys’ have referenced Romans 8:4 as though it is under the auspices of our sanctification. When Paul, through the Holy Spirit pens Scriptures and our covenant Lord intends this to bring comfort to us, it is a shame what certain individuals are doing to the people of God by mishandling His Word. Our Lord intended this for our comfort because it is about Christ’s atonement for us, and yet some attempt to take this comfort away from the people of God with voice and clanking keyboards.

  2. On the other hand, Hodge may just be wrong here. See the helpful discussion in the final two sermons in D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Law: Its Function and Limits” (Exposition of Romans 7:1-8:4), pp. 332-356 (esp. 341-342.).

    John Murray on Romans 8:4: “Since it is deliverance from the power of sin that is in the forefront and since ‘the law of the Spirit’ (vs. 2) is the regulating and controlling power of the Holy Spirit, verse 4 will have to be regarded as the designated effect in us of the judgment executed upon the power of sin in the cross of Christ and of the inwardly operative power of the Holy Spirit based upon and emanating from the once-for-all accomplishment in the cross of Christ . . . It is eloquent of the apostle’s view of the place of the law of God in the life of the believer that he should conceive of the holiness, which is the end promoted by the redemptive work of Christ, as the fulfilment of the ordinance of God’s law. . . . The term ‘fulfilled’ expresses the plenary character of the fulfilment which the law receives and it indicates that the goal contemplated in the sanctifying process is nothing short of the perfection which the law of God requires. The description given of those who are the partakers of this grace is one consonant with the tenor of the passage – they ‘walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.’ The Spirit is the Holy Spirit (vs. 2) and the contrast means the directing power in their lives is not the flesh but the Holy Spirit. It is by the indwelling and directions of the Holy Spirit that the ordinance of the law comes to its fulfilment in the believer, and by the operations of grace there is no antinomy between the law as demanding and the Holy Spirit as energizing – ‘the law is Spiritual’ (7:14)” (Commentary on Romans, pp, 282-284). Murray’s entire passage, which I have excerpted, is most instructive.

    Let no one say that to view Romans 8:4 as speaking of the inward operations of the Spirit in the life of the believer is an “attempt to take this comfort [of Christ’s atonement for us] away from the people of God.” This borders on slander.

  3. Calvin on Romans 8:4

    4. That the justification of the law might be fulfilled, etc. They who understand that the renewed, by the Spirit of Christ, fulfil the law, introduce a gloss wholly alien to the meaning of Paul; for the faithful, while they sojourn in this world, never make such a proficiency, as that the justification of the law becomes in them full or complete. This then must be applied to forgiveness; for when the obedience of Christ is accepted for us, the law is satisfied, so that we are counted just. For the perfection which the law demands was exhibited in our flesh, and for this reason — that its rigor should no longer have the power to condemn us. But as Christ communicates his righteousness to none but to those whom he joins to himself by the bond of his Spirit, the work of renewal is again mentioned, lest Christ should be thought to be the minister of sin: for it is the inclination of many so to apply whatever is taught respecting the paternal kindness of God, as to encourage the lasciviousness of the flesh; and some malignantly slander this doctrine, as though it extinquished the desire to live uprightly.

  4. Quoting Robert Haldane in part on Romans 8:4.

    The end, then, of Christ’s mission was, that the right of the law might be fulfilled in His people. Here we see the ground on which believers are saved. It is in a way consistent with the law, a way in which all that it has a right to demand is fulfilled in them. The mercy, then, which saves sinners does not interfere with justice. They who are saved by mercy have that very righteousness which the law demands. In Christ they have paid the penalty of their disobedience, and in Christ they have yielded obedience to every precept of the law. This fulfillment of the law cannot signify, as some commentators erroneously explain it, that obedience which believers are enabled to yield by the Holy Spirit in their regenerate state; for it is obvious that this is not the righteousness of the law. The very best of all their actions and thoughts come short of the perfection which the law
    demands; besides, its penalty would in this way be unfulfilled. They are indeed sanctified, but their sanctification is far from being commensurate with the claims of the holy law, either as to its penalty or its precept. Here, then, is solid consolation for the believer in Jesus. For, divested as he is of righteousness in himself, he enjoys the blessedness of having the righteousness of God — the righteousness of his Lord and Savior — imputed to Him, so that the law which had been broken is fulfilled in him in all its precepts, and in its full penalty.

    Robert Haldane, p. 442

  5. Doug Moo, though he wavers more in his two other commentaries on Romans (and perhaps even more now that he endorses a not-yet justification in his new commentary on Galatians) did write the following on Romans 8:4 in NICNT, p 482

    —”Some think that Christians, with the Spirit empowering within, fulfill the demand of the law by righteous living. However, while it is true that God’s act in Christ has as one of its intents that we produce fruit, we do not think that this is what Paul is saying here.

    First, the passive verb “be fulfilled” points not to something that we are to do but to something that is done in and for us. Second, the always imperfect obedience of the law by Christians does not satisfy what is demanded by the logic of this text. The fulfilling of the “just decree of the law” must answer to that inability of the law with which Paul began this sentence. “What the law could not do” is to free people from “the law of sin and death”–to procure righteousness and life. And it could not do this because the “flesh” prevented people from obeying its precepts.

    The removal of this barrier consists not in the actions of believers, for our obedience always falls short of that perfect obedience required by the law. As Calvin puts it, “the faithful, while they sojourn in this world, never make such a proficiency, as that the justification of the law becomes in them full or complete. This must be applied to forgiveness; for when the obedience of Christ is accepted for us, the law is satisfied, so that we are counted just.”

    If then the inability of the law is to be overcome without an arbitrary cancellation of the law, it can only happen through a perfect obedience of the law’s demands. See Romans 2:13 and our comments there. In the last part of Romans 8:4, the participial clause modifying “us” is not instrumental—”the just decree of the law is fulfilled in us BY our walking not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”–but descriptive, characterizing those in whom the just decree of the law as ‘those WHO walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

    Paul does not separate the “fulfillment” of the law from the lifestyle of Christians. But this does not mean that Christian behavior is how the law is fulfilled….”

  6. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 16.3 (“Of Good Works”):

    III. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of His good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.

    One of the Scripture references for the first sentence of WCF 16.3 is Romans 8:4-14. This seems to indicate (though I haven’t studied it in depth) that the Westminster Divines thought of verse 4 as prospective and introductory to the discussion of sanctification – sanctification in its progressive sense – that follows in verses 5-14.

    • Frank,
      I haven’t done a study of Rom. 8:4 and how the Divines used it in relation to WCF 16.3, but if vs. 5-14 are about progressive sanctification, then vs. 4 would serve as the antecedent of justification, especially as the commentary by Calvin and repeated by Hodge was the traditional Reformed understanding of 8:4. In other words, progressive good works flow from the justification of the believer – sanctification from the forensic.

      In short, I affirm, that not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified; and that the justification of works [sanctification] depends on the justification [forensic] of the person , as the effect on the cause. (John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote)

  7. Smeaton, Apostles Doctrine of the Atonement, p 178–”Romans 8:4–That the righteousness of the law would be fulfilled in us. That is so like another expression of the same apostle, that the two passages might fitly be compared for mutual elucidation (II Cor 5:21). This expression cannot be referred to any inward work of renovation; for no work or attainment of ours can with any propriety of language be designated a “fulfillment of the righteousness of the law”.

    The words, “the righteousness of the law,” are descriptive of Christ’s obedience as the work of one for many (Romans 5:18). This result is delineated as the end contemplated by Christ’s incarnation and atonement, and intimates that as He was made a sin-offering, so are we regarded as full-fillers of the law…”

  8. Romans 8:2 is NOT about the interior work of the Spirit on the heart, as in Jeremiah 31, or Romans 2:29. Romans 8: 2 is NOT about the letter/spirit contrast found in II Corinthians 3:6 (who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life).

    Octavius Winslow explains what Romans 8:2 DOES mean— “A simple examination of the words, taken in their connection, will remove the obscurity which may be supposed to veil them. The evident design of the Apostle is, to furnish an argument in support of the leading proposition he had just laid down, namely, the believer’s deliverance from condemnation. There is clearly a connection between that declaration and the passage under consideration. “For the law of the Spirit of life.”

    By some expositors, the “law of the Spirit of life” is interpreted of the influence or control exerted by the Spirit of God over the minds of the regenerate, emancipating them from the curse and tyranny of sin, and supplying them with a new authoritative enactment for their obedience and regulation,\ as those whose course is guided by the Spirit. “The law of sin and death,” is by the same authority interpreted of the contesting power of sin having its throne in the heart, and from its governing and despotic power, maintaining a supreme and dire sway over the whole moral man. The freedom, therefore, which the law of the Spirit of life confers upon those who are bound by the law of sin and death, is just the supremacy of one principle over the force of another principle: the triumph of an opposing law over an antagonist law.

    But the interpretation which we propose for the adoption of the reader, is that which regards the “law of the Spirit of life,” as describing the Gospel of Christ, frequently denominated a “law”- and emphatically so in this instance- because of the emancipation which it confers from the “law of sin and death,” as by the law is the knowledge of sin, and through the law death is threatened as the penalty of its transgression.

    In what sense is the believer “free from the law of sin and death?” How clear and impressive is the reasoning of the Apostle on this point! “Know you not, brethren, (for I speak to those who know the law) how that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband, so long as he lives ; but if the husband is dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.”

    The believer looks not to the law for life; the believer rests not in the law for hope; the believer renounces the law as a saving covenant, and-in his marriage to Christ- he brings forth fruit unto God. Not a single precept of that law, from whose covenant and curse he is released by this act of freedom, is compromised… The obedience of the Lawgiver enhanced the luster of the law. (1 of 4) [05/05/2006 11:07:31 p.m.]Freedom from the Law of Sin and Death

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