The Law’s Requirement Fulfilled in Us

John Bowling
6 min readMay 25, 2020

Douglas Moo’s argument for Romans 8:4 is quite good and I’m going to quote it here at length. First, his translation of 8:3-4:

3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did: by sending his own Son in the form of sinful flesh and concerning sin he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. — (The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., p. 494)

His argument for v. 4 (footnotes omitted, though these add to the argument):

What Paul means by this depends on how we interpret the word we have translated “righteous requirement” (dikaiōma). Based on its meaning and use earlier in Romans, it could mean either (1) “just decree,” “ordinance that decrees punishment” (1:32); (2) “righteousness” (see 5:16 and our notes there); or (3) “just requirement,” the reference being either to the behavior required by the law (2:26) or to the righteousness demanded by the law. The first would fit the context very nicely; the sentence of judgment executed on sin in Christ (v. 3) “fulfills” that “decree of the law” which demands death for sin (see 3:19). However, it has against it the positive flavor of Paul’s language in the rest of the verse: “fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” The second is unlikely because the meaning of “righteousness” for this term in 5:16 is dependent on the rhetorical contrast in that context. Probably, then, especially in light of the qualification “of the law,” Paul uses the word with its usual LXX meaning, “right or just requirement.” But what is this “just requirement”? And how is it accomplished?

Since Paul singles out the command to love as the “fulfillment” and “summary” of the law (see 13:8–10 and Gal. 5:14), the “just requirement” or “legal claim” of the law may well be love, and its fulfillment a consistent lifestyle of love on the part of Spirit-led Christians. Besides, however, the fact that Paul has done nothing to prepare his Roman readers for this application, the language “in us” seems a strange way of indicating Christians’ acts of love (contrast the active formulation in 13:8). We must, then, give the phrase its simplest and broadest meaning: the summary (note the singular, as opposed to the plural of 2:26) of what the law demands of God’s people. Through God’s breaking of the power of sin (v. 3), the “right requirement” of the law is accomplished by those who “walk according to the Spirit.” To quote Augustine’s famous formulation, “Law was given that grace might be sought, grace was given that the law might be fulfilled.”

But we still must pin down the nature of this “fulfillment.” Most interpreters think that Christians, participants in the New Covenant, with the “law written on the heart” and 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” (see 6:15–23; 7:4), and that the law cannot be cavalierly dismissed as of no significance to the Christian life, we do not think that this is what Paul is saying here.

Two points may be made. First, the passive verb “might 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 (v. 3a). As we have seen, “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 (see 8:7 and 7:14–25). 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 [v. 4a] 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.”

If, then, the inability of the law is to be overcome without an arbitrary cancellation of the law, it can happen only through a perfect obedience of the law’s demands (see 2:13 and our comments there). This, of course, is exactly what Jesus Christ has done. As our substitute, he satisfied the righteous requirement of the law, living a life of perfect submission to God. In laying upon him the condemnation due all of us (v. 3b; see v. 1), God also made it possible for the righteous obedience that Christ had earned to be transferred to us. Verses 3–4 then fit into a pattern in Paul’s presentation of the work of Christ that has been called an “interchange” — Christ becomes what we are so that we might become what Christ is. In this sense, then, we may interpret “the righteous requirement of the law” to be the demand of the law for perfect obedience, or for righteousness. And the law’s just demand is fulfilled in Christians not through their own acts of obedience but through their incorporation into Christ. He fulfilled the law; and, in him, believers also fulfill the law — perfectly, so that they may be pronounced “righteous,” free from “condemnation” (v. 1). It is in this way that Paul’s stress on faith “establishes the law” (3:31), for, in grasping Christ by faith, people are accounted as really having “done the law.” Indeed, as Paul makes clear in this letter, it is only through faith in Christ that the law can really be accomplished.

If this interpretation of the first part of v. 4 is correct, then 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 is fulfilled as “those who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” The reference to Christian behavior in this phrase shows that 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. Rather, Christian behavior is the necessary mark of those in whom this fulfillment takes place. God not only provides in Christ the full completion of the law’s demands for the believer, but he also sends the Spirit into the hearts of believers to empower a new obedience to his demands. — (ibid, pp. 504–508)

P.S. For those interested in how this relates to the third use of the law cf. footnote 940.

For all posts on Douglas Moo’s Romans commentary see the following:



John Bowling

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.