“If the Epistle to the Romans rightly has been called ‘the cathedral of Christian faith’, then surely the eighth chapter may be regarded as its most sacred shrine, or its high altar of worship, of praise, and of prayer. . . . Here, we stand in the full liberty of the children of God, and enjoy a prospect of that glory of God which some day we are to share” (Charles Erdman—20th century Presbyterian minister and theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary).
We approach this “cathedral” from the squalor of Paul’s confessed conflicted (sometimes) Christian life (7:14-25). “So then (he concludes his “divided man” confession), with my mind (that is, the inner man where the Spirit dwells) I am a slave to God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin” (7:25).
Suddenly, out of that inner battle, we see the “most sacred shrine” . . .
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).
Despite this struggle with indwelling sin (7:14-25), Paul has told the church we serve in the new life of the Spirit (7:6). Therefore, “those who are in Christ Jesus” are not condemned for our transgressions (8:1).
Who is “those who are in Christ Jesus”? It’s a vital question, for it’s only those who are not condemned. They are those who are by faith united to Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. “ . . . we are slaves . . . in the new life of the Spirit” (7:6). “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:4,5).
For those (dare I say “us”?) “in Christ Jesus” there is “now no condemnation”. The Greek word is katarkrima—a legal term referring to the punishment decrees of God’s law. Despite sin, those in Christ Jesus are not liable to the judgment of God’s law.
But Paul means more than justification, more than forgiveness and eternal life, more than not liable to God’s judgment . . .
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8:2).
John Owen writes, “The powerful and effectual working of the Spirit and grace of Christ in the hearts of believers is called ‘the law of the Spirit of life.’ And for this reason does the apostle call indwelling sin a law. It is a powerful and effectual indwelling principle, inclining and pressing to actions agreeable and suitable to its nature” (Indwelling Sin in Believers, p.22).
For the same reason Paul calls “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” a “law”. The Spirit of life (to use Owen’s words), is a powerful and effectual indwelling principle (though more than that—he is a person), inclining and pressing to actions agreeable and suitable to its (his) nature.
In other words, Paul is telling the church that we are not condemned, as if shut up in a prison dominated by sin’s power. There is freedom from the conflicted life of 7:14-25. I understand, therefore, 8:1 (“no condemnation”) to refer to our not being sentenced to a life where sin regularly wins. We have been “set free” by our union with Christ to start winning over sin!
Paul is saying not only are we justified, but we are free from the law of sin and death by the law of the Spirit of life. We can progress in holiness (sanctification). We’re not sentenced to the doom of the wretched man! We’ll not attain sinlessness in this life; but we can increasingly win more battles.
Paul now explains why this is so . . .
“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 to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3,4).
God’s law is “holy” and God’s commandment is “holy and just and good” (7:12). But it was “weakened by our sinful nature”. To not covet (commandment #10) is holy, righteous and good conduct. But the “do not covet” command has no power against our sinful nature which “inclines and presses us” to lust after what we don’t have (to covet).
But God has acted. “ . . . by sending his own Son (“own” intensifies the personal cost involved) in the likeness of sinful flesh” (“likeness” meaning the Son became human in every respect except he had no sinful nature) and to deal with sin . . . ”
The NRS translation, “to deal with sin”, is ambiguous at best. The Greek is peri hamartias—literally, “for sin”. God sent his own Son “to deal with sin” by being a sin-offering.
By “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh . . .”. In other words, by his Son God struck the death-blow to sin’s dominion in us. But it won’t fully die until this body is done away with, and we are clothed with our resurrection body. John Owen writes, “Though its rule be broken, it’s strength weakened and impaired, its root mortified (put to death), yet it is a law still of great force and efficacy (Indwelling Sin in Believers, p.23).
Paul points out God’s purpose in sending his Son for sin: “ . . . so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us . . . “. To say it another way: “God sent his own Son for sin, so that what his law requires might be completed in us”. The Greek word is playrothay—“fulfilled, completed, accomplished”. The voice is passive. We, who are in Christ Jesus, are being acted upon. The law’s requirements are done to us and for us.
Now a crucial question: Who is “us” in whom the law “might be fulfilled”? “ . . . in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”. The word “walk” is the Greek peripatouson which literally means “to walk”. Paul uses it figuratively here of how a Christian conducts herself in her daily life–“according to the flesh [or] according to the Spirit”. ” . . . according to” (Greek kata) means “in agreement with, corresponding to, in conformity with”.
I understand Paul uses the word “walk” to refer to action we take in correspondence to what the indwelling Spirit wants. So he explains in 8:12,13 . . .
“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh–for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
How do we do that? Paul explains . . .
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh; but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (8:5).
What are “the things of the flesh”? Galatians helps us here . . .
“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh . . . Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these . . . By contrast the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 6:16-23).
These are the kinds of vices Paul calls “the things of the flesh” and the kinds of virtues he calls “the things of the Spirit”. If we “set [our] minds on the things of the Spirit” we will progressively “live (walk) according to the Spirit”.
” . . . set their minds on” is the NRS’s translation of the Greek verb phronewson–“ponder on, be intent on, keep thinking about”. If we ponder on, are intent on and keep thinking about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control we will live in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Is this just the power of positive thinking? No. It’s bringing our “walk” in line with the Spirit, who now indwells us and empowers us. To return to Owen’s words, the Spirit presses and induces us to actions agreeable and suitable to his nature. This is God, through his Son and by his Spirit, fulfilling the righteous requirements of his law in us.
We will not “set our minds” perfectly on “the things of the Spirit”. Nor will we “walk according to the Spirit” perfectly. But, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus as we learn to walk out what God is working in.
* * *
Coaxing young children to walk. Mommy on one side of the room, Daddy on the other. Mommy helped her precious one to stand, then let go. Daddy and Mommy together: “Come on, another step. You can do it.” Mommy and Daddy wanted her to walk. You could see it on her face: she wanted to make it. But half-way across the room she fell. “Oh, that’s okay.” They picked her up, hugged her close and said, “Let’s try again.”
Maybe I should finish with a military illustration. But this is the image Romans 8:1-5 leaves me with–us learning to walk.