In this week’s lectionary epistle reading, Paul writes that “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh, so that the justice of the law could be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the spirit” (Romans 8:3-4). Many evangelical Christians presume that for God to “condemn sin in the flesh” refers to the condemnation of Jesus by His Father on the cross as a replacement punishment for our sin. Richard Rohr offers an alternative interpretation which seems quite reasonable to me in which our sin is condemned by being exposed in the crucifixion of Jesus.
Here is Richard Rohr’s account of how God “condemned sin in the flesh” on Jesus’ cross (thanks to Diana Trautwein for sharing this in a Facebook status update today):
The significance of Jesus’ wounded body is his deliberate and conscious holding of the pain of the world and refusing to send it elsewhere. The wounds were not necessary to convince God that we were lovable; the wounds are to convince us of the path and the price of transformation. They are what will happen to you if you face and hold sin in compassion instead of projecting it in hatred.
Jesus’ wounded body is an icon for what we are all doing to one another and to the world. Jesus’ resurrected body is an icon of God’s response to our crucifixions. The two images contain the whole message of the Gospel.
A naked, bleeding, wounded, crucified man is the most unlikely image for God, a most illogical image for Omnipotence (which is most peoples’ natural image of God). Apparently, we have got God all wrong! Jesus is revealing a very central problem for religion, by coming into the world in this most unexpected and even unwanted way. The cross of Jesus was a mirror held up to history, so we could utterly change our normal image of God. [Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer,
pp. 73, 76-78]
I think this is a very compelling way of understanding the cross. God uses the cross to call out our sin and thus destroy the power that Satan has over us when our sin is kept in the dark. Obviously the Bible also uses the language of “payment” in describing what Jesus’ blood does for our sin, but in every place that I’ve encountered where this concept of “payment” is fleshed out, it’s a ransom payment to a slave-master (Satan) rather than a debt payment to a moral banker (God). In Romans 6, Paul talks about our emancipation from our slavery to sin as a change of masters in which righteousness becomes our new master (Romans 6:16-19).
Another component of this passage in which the mainstream interpretation needs to be challenged is in verse 4. The NIV and NRSV both refer to the “just requirement” of the law that is supposed to be “fulfilled in us.” The phrase “just requirement” gives the impression that there are two words in the Greek, but there aren’t. The one Greek word that gets translated this way is dikaioma, which is a variation on the root word dikaio that means “justice” but can just as readily mean a “judicial decision” as it can mean “a righteous act or deed.”
In NT Wright’s commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter’s Bible series, he contends that this word dikaioma should be understood as the promised result of living according to Torah, the eternal life that is God’s “righteous decree or verdict” (c.f. Romans 10:5, Leviticus 18:5), rather than the impossible expectation of successfully following every single individual rule of Torah (works righteousness) or some kind of divine self-deception by which God creates the judicial fiction that we have followed every single rule perfectly when we haven’t (bad neo-reformed theology).
So through Christ’s condemnation of sin in the flesh, God creates a more perfect means for us to gain the same eternal life that he promised to those who keep his law in the original covenant in Leviticus. The reason for the law is not to give God a merit-based system for evaluating humanity and damning all of us to hell without Jesus’ blood as a substitute punishment that compensates for our lack of measuring up. The reason for the law is to provide us with spiritual practices that will grant us access to the amazing divine eternal life of God, the only problem being that the law cannot provide access to this life on its own because of the “weakness of our flesh” (Romans 8:3).
Our weakened flesh is what gets addressed by Jesus’ cross and resurrection, which give us a “law of the Spirit” that “sets us free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Though our modern sensibilities project a legalistic culture of punishment and reward onto the word “law,” I really don’t think it has that connotation to Paul’s Jewish mind. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several years in the psalms, particularly Psalm 119, which is an ode to God’s law. As I’ve read through the way that the psalmists delight and marvel in the law, it makes me conclude that “the law” refers to the beautiful harmony with which God has designed the universe. The psalmists aren’t delighting in the brownie points that they would earn with God by obeying his rules; they really do find awesomeness in the perfection with which God orders his universe. When God gives us commands, he is inviting us to live in harmony with him, because that’s what it means to really live. Life in disharmony with God is a living death.
So it’s not so much about trying to figure out what we can do to get our heavenly hand-stamp from God and substituting a modernist propositional “belief” in Jesus’ sacrifice for a much more stringent set of “just requirements” of the law. It’s about recognizing that Jesus’ cross and resurrection have provided us with the basic resource by which the Holy Spirit can kill the sin that’s killing us and write a “law of the Spirit” (harmonious order) into our hearts that gives us the communion with God that is eternal life. Jesus’ cross shows me what I’m doing to God every time that I sin. It also shows me that God has absorbed and put to death my sin so that Satan can’t hold it over my head and make me a slave. I am free to repent and move forward. Every single moment is the first day of the rest of my life because of what Jesus did. Since God has condemned my sin in the flesh through his cross, I can walk according to the spirit instead of the flesh and gain the life that God promises through his law.