When we consider the opening of the eighth chapter of Romans, we are eventually and necessarily forced to make a regression into chapter seven, as the letter is a continuous narrative and flow of interconnected thoughts. In the first verse of the eighth chapter, and in his highly important continuation of the narrative construct of the letter, Paul picks up on that which effectively closes out the movement of the fifth chapter (5:18-19), while also folding in the union with Christ theme that can be seen in the sixth chapter and writes “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). With what comes in verses three and four, Paul emphasizes the contrast between the old age (flesh) and the new age (spirit)---the old age prior to the Christ-event in which Jew and Gentile were separated by covenant boundaries (law) and the new age after the Christ-event in which Jew and Gentile are joined together as the family of God and in union with Christ, writing “For God achieved what the law could not do” (8:3a).
What could the law not do? It could not generate a covenant family of divine image-bearers to represent the Creator God throughout the whole of His creation. Why could it not do this? Because it had enemies and adversaries. “Because it was weakened through the flesh” (8:3b). It was weakened by that which marked the old age, which was sin and death.
Indeed, relying on chapter seven of Romans, it was weakened through distinctly non-divine-image-bearing characteristics such as covetousness (7:9). Certainly, if one is consumed by covetousness, one can hardly be in a position to embody the cross of Christ in and for the world through self-sacrifice and preference of others. The law and its commandments, which Paul believes to be “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12b), when placed in human hands, were simply overwhelmed by the powers at work in the world, that had not yet been conquered by the cross and the Resurrection. Their application led to the division of humanity in a way that was far afield of God’s intentions for those created in His image and those that were tasked to carry His covenant. In Jesus, and in God’s covenant faithfulness therein represented, this division is dismissed. As a new Adam, Jesus marks a new beginning for a new type of people---those that are animated by the Spirit, which is the power of the Resurrection in the world in which the kingdom of God is a reality.
This struggle in the old age, even with the law and its commandments as a guide to proper image-bearing, which was perhaps intended to be a sign-post (much like the ministry of Jesus and His church following Him) of the in-breaking of the always-expected age of God’s proper rule over creation, is well-articulated by Paul’s famous and much-debated words in chapter seven of Romans. He writes “For we know that the law is spiritual” (7:14a). That is, the law is related to the new age and expectation of God’s kingdom and God’s rule (age of the empowering Spirit), “but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin” (7:14b).
Paul, speaking on behalf of and embodying all those that had failed to rightly bear the covenant (from Adam to Israel), indicates that the law is wholly unsuited to the people of the old age (people of the flesh). This, of course, is a component of Paul’s ongoing insistence that the law has been put aside by the grace of God, especially in light of the use of the law to create boundaries around covenant participation, in a manner that was antithetical to God’s ultimate purposes, which was the redemption of all of humanity and all of His creation, rather than just one particular group of privileged people. Whatever stands in the way of creating a single family of God---a new humanity, must be set aside, with the life of Jesus, as He represents and acts out God’s covenant faithfulness, the new law of life. Those who believe in Jesus are to be like Him as they take up the command to “present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness” (6:13b). As Jesus was (and is), so is His church called to be and to do.