Romans 8:4: About Justification

Taking a Break from Augustine, Calvin, and Myself…

This will be a short post, since I’m currently juggling Augustine’s De Trinitate, Calvin’s Commentary on Hebrews (both on my brand new Nook!), while trying to stay on top of my own reading and writing. I just felt that this post is necessary as I’ve recently come across a nearly heretical interpretation of Romans 8:3-4. What follows, then, is a brief exposition of Romans 8:3-4 which attempts to answer the question: Is Romans 8:4 speaking of justification or sanctification?

Let me know your thoughts.

For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,  that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

The Argument

Understanding that while regeneration is an inward work of the Holy Spirit circumcising our hearts and inscribing His law thereupon, and that sanctification is also an internal work of the Spirit as He daily conforms us to the image of Christ, justification is outside of us, as it the judicial pronouncement of God that a sinner, on the basis of Christ’s merits alone, is now righteous. Therefore, whenever we speak of justification, we are careful to define it as a judicial pronouncement, a declaration given by God that is given only once when the sinner by the instrument of justification (i.e. by faith) lays hold of Jesus Christ’s as His Savior. To confuse justification with sanctification is to, in essence, make salvation by faith and obedience, for if justification is a process, then I can be more or less justified according to the degree to which we have conformed to the image of Christ. And if I, in the long run, am responsible for whether or not I am in good standing with God on the day of judgment, then I am responsible for my salvation.

Obviously, therefore, we want to avoid saying that justification can be called internal. And that is where some hang their hats, light up a cigar, and start puffing away as if that settles the question of whether or not Romans 8:4 is speaking of justification or sanctification. The argument is simplistic:

MP: Justification is external to us.

mp: Paul is speaking of something internal that occurs in the believer.

C: Eo ipso, Paul is not speaking of justification.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

The Problem/Rebuttal

what is problematic about saying that this verse speaks of sanctification is that it does not stand alone in Romans 8, but comes after v.3 which stands in a parallel relationship to it. In other words, if one wants to hold to the position that Paul is speaking about sanctification in this verse because he uses the preposition “in” when speaking of where the righteous requirement of the Law will be fulfilled, then wouldn’t one also have to be consistent when interpreting verse 3 where we read, “…He condemned sin in the flesh [of Jesus Christ]”? You see, the parallel is this: Sin was condemned in the flesh of Christ, so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. Now, again, to separate these two clauses is to do serious damage to the flow of Paul’s writing. What we are seeing in verses 3-4 is a parallel  that must be speaking of imputation, unless we want to make of Christ a sinner, seeing as the obvious parallel to sanctification, being an internal working of the Spirit, would also imply, at the least, an internal reality of sin “in the flesh.”

So, in short, those who hold that Romans 8:4 is speaking of the internal process whereby we become holy, because the context demands a parallel relationship here, must also hold that literally had sin in His flesh, in which it was condemned by God. Is this the route that such interpreters want to take? Not if they are Christians. However, this is where their interpretation naturally leads. It is as if one took hold of 2 Corinthians 5:21 and stated:

We are literally becoming the righteousness of God.

In a very vague sense, yes we are being conformed to the image of Christ and, therefore, are becoming the righteousness of God in Christ. Yet, just as we see in Romans 8:3-4. if one interprets our “becoming the righteousness of God” to be referring to our sanctification, then does not one have to interpret Christ’s becoming sin as literal as well? That is to say: If we are literally made the righteousness of Christ, and this is not merely a way of speaking of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, then Christ, too, was literally made sin, and this is not merely a way of speaking of the imputation of the sins of God’s people to their Divine Substitute.

And this is pure heresy.


I think the obvious conclusion to draw is that Romans 8:3-4 runs parallel to 2 Corinthians 5:21, and is, therefore, speaking not about sanctification, but about justification. Yes, the preposition “in” is used by Paul, but this does not necessarily have to signify an internal work anymore than Christ becoming sin for us has to signify His literally becoming sin. We would do well to think through passages like Romans 8:3-4 and their relation to the entirety of Scripture before we make brash judgments about the meaning of the author. A careful reading of Romans 8:3-4 shows that, and I think pretty clearly, that one cannot interpret v.4 as referencing the Spirit’s work of sanctification in the believer.

Paul is speaking in substitutionary language, indicating that Christ underwent our punishment so that we might receive His righteousness by faith alone. There are other serious problems with thinking that Romans 8:4 is referring to sanctification, viz. (i.)If this is so, then we must throw out all relevant passages of Scripture which emphatically declare that we cannot fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law (esp. James 2:10), (ii.)Our right standing before God would be partially based upon our performance and not solely on the performance of Christ (for Christ alone has fulfilled the Law in all of its detail), and (iii.)We would be making Christ a sinner – and only the devil in Hell would do that.

Sola Fide.



One thought on “Romans 8:4: About Justification

involve yourself

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