Romans 8:3–4 says, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” To understand what it meant for Jesus to come “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” we need to define a couple of terms.
When the Bible refers to “the flesh” (John 6:63; Romans 8:8), it usually means the human tendency to sin that we all inherited from Adam (Romans 5:12). When Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God’s commandment, they became “sinful flesh.” At that moment, sin entered God’s perfect world and began to corrupt everything (Genesis 3). Since every human being came from Adam, we have all inherited his fallen nature. So every person is born as a sinner (Romans 3:10, 23).
The word likeness means “resemblance” or “the state of being like something else.” A likeness is not identical in substance or nature, but it is similar in appearance. A likeness is a representation of the original. For example, idols are made in the likeness of birds and beasts and created things (Romans 1:22–23; Exodus 20:4–5). A photograph is a likeness. Philippians 2:6–8 describes Jesus setting aside His divine privileges as God to take on the likeness of the humans He had created (see also John 1:3). However, Jesus did not have an earthly father, so He did not inherit a sin nature as all other human beings do (Luke 1:35). He took on human flesh, yet He retained His full divinity. He lived the life we live, suffered as we suffer, and learned and grew as we learn and grow, but He did it all without sin (Hebrews 4:15; 5:7–8). Because God was His Father, He lived only in the likeness of sinful flesh. Jesus inherited the flesh from His mother, Mary, but not the sin from Joseph.
Jesus became man in order to be our substitute. In His flesh, He had to suffer physical pain, emotional rejection, and spiritual separation from God (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). He lived the life human beings live, but He did so in the way we were meant to live—in perfect fellowship with a holy God (John 8:29). Because He came in the likeness of sinful flesh, He could then present Himself as the final sacrifice sufficient to pay for the sins of all humanity (John 10:18; Hebrews 9:11–15).
In order to receive the gift of a full pardon from God, every person must allow Jesus to be his or her personal substitute. That means we come to Him in faith, recognizing that, because He came in the likeness of sinful flesh, was crucified, and took on the sins of the world, our sin can be paid for in full (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our own sinful flesh is crucified with Him so that we are free to follow the Spirit in total obedience to God (Romans 6:6–11; Galatians 2:20). Christians are those who have Christ’s death and resurrection credited to their account, thus wiping out the debt we owe God (Colossians 2:14). Because of this full pardon, Christians daily reckon themselves dead to their own sinful flesh. Since Christ conquered sin and death in His flesh, we can live by the power of His Spirit, who will conquer sin and death in all who trust in Christ (Galatians 5:16, 25; Romans 8:37).