A Terrible Presumption
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
Paul’s marvellous proclamation is most often terribly misunderstood. I have been guilty of misunderstanding it myself. Romans 8 is not grounded in justification but sanctification. (If you would rather not follow this technical language then skip down to paragraph three). To be sure Paul lays down the glorious truth of our justification by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone in Romans 3:24-5:21, illustrating it with the life of Abraham, leading him to write, ‘Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5:1). He goes on from there to teach the imputation of Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12-14), comparing and contrasting the first and last Adam (Rom. 5:15-19). And Paul concludes this section by writing, ‘And the law came in that the transgression might increase, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Rom. 5:20). Paul, the great teacher and apostle, anticipates the two objections which so many have voiced since then. It goes like this, ‘Paul, if this is true, then it sounds like the more we sin then the more God’s grace is given to us. So why shouldn’t we continue to sin as much as we want?’ And the second objection is this, ‘Paul, this sounds like the law is a terrible thing, accomplishing the very opposite of God’s intention. Instead of it making me holy it incites me to sin’ (Rom. 7:5, 8, 11). Paul addresses the first issue in Romans 6 saying, ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it’ (Rom. 6:1-2). And he takes up the issue of the law in Romans 7 saying that while the law is good it nonetheless incites us to sin because of the inward corruption of indwelling sin. ‘For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin . . . But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good . . . For the good that I wish, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me’ (Rom. 7:14, 16, 19-20). Paul clearly is addressing sanctification, not justification, in Romans 6-7.
So when Paul asks the question, ‘Who will set me free from the body of this death?’ He answers, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Rom. 7:24-25). From there he announces that there is therefore (summarizing what he has just said in Romans 6-7) now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. What does Paul mean by condemnation? Both John Murray and William Hendriksen suggest Paul goes beyond justification, that his emphasis here is sanctification.1 But how do we know we are in Christ Jesus? How can we be sure we no longer are under condemnation? Very important questions indeed! Paul goes on in verses 2-11 to say that the true believer has the Holy Spirit indwelling him. He no longer walks according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. He proves this by saying that those who are in the flesh, unbelievers, set their minds on the flesh and they live according to the flesh. Then those who are of the Spirit, true believers, set their minds on the things of the Spirit. In other words, a true believer is one who has the Holy Spirit indwelling him, giving him the ability to overcome sin, to make progress in holiness.
Here’s the bottom line in this admittedly lengthy and complicated statement “” one proves he is no longer under condemnation for his sin when he walks in a manner worthy of his calling (Eph. 4:1, 1 Thess. 2:12, Col. 1:21-23). In other words, if you obey God then your assurance of salvation is made stronger. Your indwelling sin is so strong, as is the temptation of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that you cannot walk in holiness without the indwelling Holy Spirit. You need to be filled with the Spirit daily. If you have the Holy Spirit indwelling you, then according to Romans 8:2-11 your life will change. You will grow in likeness to Christ. Without this growth in holiness no one should have assurance that he has escaped condemnation. You have every reason to believe, if you walk in gospel holiness, that there is no condemnation for you. You have every reason to believe that you are in Christ Jesus. If, however, you do not walk in obedience, if you continue to presume upon God’s grace, then you may be making a terrible presumption.
What does this mean practically? We ought to put away, once and for all, the terrible presumption of claiming Christ as our Saviour while still living in abject disobedience to his commands. A true believer has the Holy Spirit indwelling him. He has newness of life. He is no longer under the dominion of the devil or flesh. He ought to be making progress in gospel holiness. If he is not, if he is content to languish in disobedience, then he may be making a terrible presumption. He may be applying no condemnation to his frivolous, carnal, and flippant behaviour, while failing to realize that if anyone is in Christ, then he is a new creation. The old has passed away, and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). This is why we cannot say someone is a Christian fornicator, a Christian homosexual, a Christian thief, a Christian drug dealer, or a Christian liar. These terms are mutually exclusive.
It’s like this – we all need a balanced diet of lean animal proteins, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and non-fat dairy products. Too much, too little, or anything unhealthy can prove harmful. We also need a balanced diet in the Christian life. We need the proper balance between the indicatives and imperatives of Scripture.2 The indicatives are the glorious proclamation of all God has done for us in Christ Jesus (see Romans 1-11 and Ephesians 1-3 as just two examples of the benefits of our salvation). And we certainly ought to rejoice and glory in our union with Christ, his electing love, and his propitiating and expiating death, to name just a few wonderful indicatives. But coming from the indicatives are the imperatives “” commands we must obey, directives we must follow, duties we must accomplish. The good can be the enemy of the best. It is good to bask in the glory of all we have in Christ, but it is bad if this does not translate into spirituality or piety. A man who glories in Christ’s atoning death yet who also beats his wife is not giving evidence of no condemnation. A true believer has the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus in his soul. He will get better. He will make progress. I am calling you to a balanced Christian life “” love the indicatives but obey the imperatives. Living only the indicatives can lead to sluggishness, lethargy, like eating too many carbohydrates and falling asleep at your desk after lunch. Living only the imperatives can lead to harshness and pride, gaining a false sense of spirituality because you are dutiful, like eating too many proteins and having liver problems.3
You most certainly can rejoice in no condemnation as long as you are walking in the Spirit. A continued failure to obey God’s law will rob you of joy, peace, and power and may very well give evidence that you really had no true spiritual life in the first place.
- Murray says, ‘No condemnation is not only freedom from the guilt but also freedom from the enslaving power of sin’ (The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, page 275). Hendriksen says, ‘For Paul, no condemnation means freedom not only from sin’s guilt but also from its enslaving power‘ (New Testament Commentary: Romans, page 245.)
- These terms are taken from Greek grammar and they refer to the indicative and imperative mood. The indicative mood is the mood of certainty, declarations of certain straightforward facts. The imperative mood, on the other hand, is the commands, the duties, the obligations God puts upon his people. The imperatives generally follow the indicatives in Paul’s letters.
- Article on ‘Hepatic Encephalopathy’, the National Library of Medicine www.nlm.nih.gov.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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