The Cross of Christ Declares that Jesus is the Fulfillment of the Law for Me


Wearing Masks to be Accepted

When my son Jonathan was around 18 months old, he discovered Batman. I have never witnessed such an obsession in my life! I will never forget the way he would scuttle around the house, saying “I ‘Batam’. I ‘Batam’.” Day and night, weekdays, weekends, holidays, all the time for more than ten years, he was completely absorbed. I can’t even count the number of Batman costumes he wore out, or the ocean of batman figures spread through every crevice of the house. Who knows how many times we watched the animated series, or the movies? When my youngest child was born at home, five or ten minutes after the birth we invited the boys in to meet their new brother. After a few minutes of hushed and reverent silence, Jonathan looked up at me and said, “Dad?” I responded (knowing it was coming), “Yes, Jonathan?” “Does he like Batman?” I said, “I’m sure he’ll learn!” Jonathan was not satisfied with being a mere boy; he wanted to be something more. He wanted to be accepted as a hero. He wanted to be Batman! What he did not want to acknowledge is that he was precious and beautiful and richly important to me whatever he decided to wear, despite his weakness and faults. He is my child whom I dearly love.

Jesus Fulfills the Law — For Me

In the last post, we looked at how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets because the central principles, practices and prognostications of the Old Testament were fulfilled by Jesus. In this post, we are going to look at the idea of fulfillment in more personal and present terms. I may not fulfill the Law, but in Christ the law is fulfilled for me.

How does this work? At first blush this sounds like a lot of theological hooie. I’ve heard people say that justification means that God looks at me “just-as-if-I’d” always obeyed — somehow because of Jesus’ obedience, when God looks at me He sees only Jesus’ obedience. That sounds very holy and theologically wonderful until you reflect on it a bit. It leaves this lurking suspicion that God may love Jesus, but He rejects the real me. While I am in actuality a sinner, He only accepts me because I wear a fake Jesus mask. He has rejected the real me, the sinning me. In this sense I am not only presenting a fake persona to other people around me in order to be accepted, I am instructed to present a fake persona to God in order to be accepted. In the end this is a substitution, but it is a bloodless and crossless substitution.

True Acceptance Requires Justification

The message of the cross of Christ shows forth a much stronger grace. It sees our sin. I do not come wearing a fake Jesus mask. It is most liberating that while God may deal with me just as if I’d never sinned, he does not see a fake me. He sees and loves the weak and sinful me (Romans 5:8). My sins have not simply been forgotten or overlooked, and He does not simply pretend that they never happened. In Christ I have been definitively and authoritatively forgiven. In Christ I can face the fact that the obedience and righteousness of Jesus is a condemning example. In Christ I can acknowledge how grandly and consistently I have fallen short of glory (Romans 3:23). The cross acknowledges that I have truly sinned, and that God has seen it all the way to its root; there is no pretense whatsoever. He has loved me knowing the depth and persistence and richness and evil of my sin. The justice for my sins has actually been executed, and a strong vengeance and wrath has been delivered upon my choice to obey my selfish and harmful lusts. I don’t have to act like I am OK or pretend like I am righteous. Justice has truly been executed against our most secret and feared past deeds.

So for each of us, the fact is, we are not righteous. The righteousness of God stands as a condemnation, not as a comfort. You may have given your body to feed the poor, but if you did it to prove your worth instead of from love, you are a selfish clanging cymbal. We think we can change if we want, but we really cannot. Even our best righteousness is filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We are very bad at fulfilling the law. We have to be willing to face the fact that if the law is going to be fulfilled for us, if justice is to be upheld, it is not a matter of future obedience. There is going to have to be a penalty for the law to be fulfilled. We are tempted to think that the fulfillment of the law involves obedience from now on; we are often foolish enough to think that from here on we will be sufficiently successful at our righteousness that it will surely make up for our past mistakes. We want to promise that we have “repented”. If you have murdered someone, simply refraining from murder for the rest of your life does not bring back the life of the one you killed. Similarly, even if you were completely successful at your repentance, you cannot possibly make up for your past. Also, what you think is 100% successful reform and what is actually 100% successful reform are two separate things. You won’t be able to do it, and if you did it wouldn’t be enough. You do not need reform, you need redemption.

Penal Substitution — The Worst Case Scenario

There is a certain vein of thought that says that the “penal substitution” theory of the cross of Christ is an archaic and medieval notion. The thought is that it is unkind and some kind of nonsense to say that when we err, we ought to expect some kind of punishment. It may be important to demonstrate punishment as deterrence, but even this would seem to some to be archaic nonsense. Such people would have to say that we don’t require punishment, we require reform. It may seem kinder and gentler, but this leads inevitably to the false gospel of salvation by personal transformation. In this sense, the only thing the cross of Christ could represent would be an example of endurance despite injustice. However, we don’t really think that future reform is enough, no one does. When there is no penalty, there is no clarity of conscience. Where there is no penalty, no consequence, the hearts of men are given over fully to do evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Where there is no penalty, there is no justice, because the suffering of the one unjustly harmed is marginalized. In our day-to-day affairs, we deeply understand this. If our boss lets the slacker get away with their laziness, we seethe. If the parent lets their child get away with their petulance, we at their bad parenting. If someone in our house makes a mess and leaves it, we are outraged that we have to clean up after them again. When the bad guy gets what is coming to them in the movie, we rejoice. We don’t want to see them getting a chance to reform! We want consequences, we want justice, we want perfection, all the time. If the gospel does not speak to these daily situations, it speaks to nothing at all.

Faith says that the blood of Jesus satisfies justice for every little thing we do wrong, all the time. Faith says that I always feel inadequate because I really am inadequate, but that I am saved through His cross from all of these judgements that daily accuse me. My thoughts are no longer bound up in the fear that I am inadequate and sinful and unworthy, but instead my thought is constantly that I am worthy of God’s death. The cross declares that the law, which speaks so powerfully to my conscience, has been fulfilled — not because I obeyed it, but because Jesus has more than sufficiently borne its penalty. The cross says that even if I take the dumbest and most medieval notion of justice possible, even then I am OK, because it is all satisfied. It embraces penal substitution because the fear of raw and dumb penalty is the worst case scenario for us, and the cross takes this fear out of the way. That way, even if you are only partly reformed or you relapse, you are still justified, because it is not your reform which saves you. It is Christ who saves you. Vive le penal substitution!

Paul gives us this very powerful phrase in Romans 3:26, that God is “just and the justifier” of the one who has faith in Jesus. He does not simply pretend that we always obeyed. That would not be just, because we in fact did not always obey. He is just. The Father would be wrong to look at our sin, and say that Jesus’ public death on the cross was not sufficient penalty. The cross of Christ says that the penalty which the law demands for our sin has been more than carried out; He would be unjust to hold me accountable for my sins when I claim faith in Christ. The cross of Christ declares that law has been fulfilled on my behalf — it is indeed finished. I do not need to wear a fake Jesus mask for God to accept me; I am accepted and justified in Christ as myself.

Posted in The Cross of Christ and tagged .


  1. So good. I can be who I am. Such freedom! I don’t have to try to talk God into loving me. He wants to be with me…the *real* me. Aaaahhhh. So refreshing.

  2. Romans 8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for 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

    Smeaton, Apostles Doctrine of the Atonement, p178–”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…”

    Moo writes on romans 8:4 in NICNT, p482—”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….”

  3. Steele and Thomas, Romans: an interpretative outline: “In order to free believers from the guilt or condemnation of sin, God sent His own Son into the world (in a nature like man’s sinful nature, but not itself sinful. See Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15). Christ gave Himself as a sacrifice for sin, and thereby legally put sin away and thus freed His people from its guilt. As a result of Christ’s sacrificial work, the just requirement (demand) of the law has been fulfilled (fully met) in those who are joined to Him. This of course is because of the fact that what Christ did, He did as their substitute or representative, and it is therefore counted (imputed) to them as if they themselves did it. (8:4)

    Charles Hodge: one’s interpretation of Romans 8 verse 4 is determined by the view taken of Romans 8:3. 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 fulfill the law” — that is, so that we should be holy (sanctification). But if Romans 8:3 refers to the sacrificial death of Christ and to the condemnation of sin in Him as the sinners’ substitute, then this verse must refer to justification and not sanctification.”

    John Gill: “internal holiness can never be reckoned the whole righteousness of the law: and though it is a fruit of Christ’s death, it is the work of the Spirit, and is neither the whole, nor any part of our justification: but this is to be understood of the righteousness of the law fulfilled by Christ, and imputed to us; Christ has fulfilled the whole righteousness of the law, all the requirements of it; this he has done in the room and stead of his people; and is imputed to them, by virtue of a federal union between him and them, he being the head, and they his members; and the law being fulfilled by him, it is reckoned all one as it was fulfilled in, or if by them; and hence they are personally, perfectly, and legally justified; and this is the end of Christ’s being sent, of sin being laid on him, and condemned in him. The descriptive character of the persons in Roman 8:4 is the same with that in Romans 8:1.”

  4. Mark,

    Thanks for your comments, you are always thoughtful, erudite, and profound. I confess that I am still unconvinced by this statement: “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.” It is the kind of thing you hear a lot, and it is probably strange to take issue with it. I’m not taking a strong stance like, “if you say that you’re a heretic”, I’m taking a “I don’t know enough to agree with that yet” kind of stance. I think that the law and the prophets are mainly fulfilled in Jesus (see the prior post.) I think the law is fulfilled for us, but I don’t know about “in” us. I think it is more important to note that the law is NOT fulfilled in me. There is great and proper and righteous wrath against my lack of fulfillment, and Jesus died for that lack. So the law is fulfilled by Jesus for me, but I am still in one way or another still in need of walking in the light and of confession. I am declared justified, and He is just on account of Jesus to save me, but my sins are still very true and very sinful.

    Be encouraged as well, because I read your posts and welcome them, and you raise important issues, thanks!

  5. Though we don’t agree about election, we do agree that it’s not Christians who fulfill the law by our doing or by what’s in us. So that raises the question (for both of us). What about Romans 8:4. The majority of evangelicals think this is about God changing us and causing us to be less bad. But we both agree ( I think) that this would NOT fulfill the requirement of the law. So read again the quotations from the exegetes of Romans 8:4, because they are supporting what you are saying. Legal imputation of what Christ did outside us is the ONLY way that God the requirement of the law can or is satisfied “in” anybody.

    We are not the one who make the imputation (the constitutive act). Our faith is not that which imputes. ”Faith, by which righteousness is imputed”. I understand this to mean that God waits to impute, until the Holy Spirit gives faith. . But how can God be justifying the ungodly, if God only imputes righteousness to persons who are already effectually called and who are now believing the gospel?

    The effectual call is not the same as “justification”, and we should not use the word “salvation” in an undefined way so as to confuse calling and justification. But the tradition has not proven that God’s calling must precede God’s imputation.

    ave you thought though the distinction between imputation and justification? There are not two kinds of justification. There are different kinds of imputation, but no imputation is the same as justification. Some imputations result in condemnations (from Adam to humans, from the elect to Christ). God’s imputation of Christ’s death to the elect results in their justification.

  6. Many evangelicals” pay lip-service to “imputation”, but they brag about being “real relational” with Christ the “person” and think that’s more important than any dull “algorithm” about imputation. They are glad that they themselves are “relevant” when it comes to their “sanctification”. To them, the “Lordship of Christ” means “sanctification” by works, so they think they have an “opportunity” to succeed or fail (and thus to be rewarded or punished).

    One Sanctification By Works writer— “When the preponderance of my thoughts about my daily life with God are only seen from the perspective of Christ’s substitution and my unworthiness to merit his favor, not only do I miss the joy and motivation of knowing my deeds today can actually please God, but I can be left with a distant, abstract, academic view of my relationship with him.”

    Mark responds: Like the Galatian false teachers, the sanctification by works teacher does not deny justification by imputation. But he does minimize justification as only one “perspective” Notice the emphasis on “my thoughts”. No longer is the question about what “sanctification” means. Nor is the writer making biblical distinctions between sanctification by Christ’s blood and sanctification by Christ’s Spirit.

    Instead, he wants us to think about what we are thinking. In his pietistic disregard for that which is “academic” (“distant” he writes), he wants to get to what is “actual”.He doesn’t say that justification is not actual but he wants us to be thinking less about imputation and penal satisfaction and more about what’s not virtual but “real”–our sinning less, I suppose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *