As we mark and celebrate the great work of the Spirit that we call the Protestant Reformation, we need to be mindful of remembering two things. The first is that we must recall the gospel of liberating grace, the gospel that is perennial good news, always good news. Sinners always need to able to hear the message of “no condemnation.” Secondly, we need to take care that we do not turn that glorious doctrine into a museum piece. The gospel is a message of forgiveness for any sin, and it is consequently therefore a message of truth that answers every lie—especially the lie that is current in our day.
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:1–4).
Summary of the Text
Given the sweep of Paul’s argument in Romans thus far, we see that those who have looked to Christ Jesus in faith are therefore in Christ Jesus by faith. And if they are in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation for them (v. 1). Walking by the Spirit, they find themselves liberated from the law of sin and death (v. 2). The law could not bring no condemnation, because of the weakness of our flesh, the law could only bring condemnation (v. 3). But what the law could not do, God did by sending His incarnate Son who was then condemned in the flesh (v. 3). There is now no condemnation for us in Christ because in Christ the condemnation is already past and accomplished (v. 3). The condemnation is completed, over, done. This means that we can walk in righteousness without fear, in the Spirit (v. 4).
What This Meant Five Centuries Ago
The gospel really is good news. It means release for the captives (Luke 4:18). It means life from the dead (Eph. 2:1). It means sight for the blind (Luke 4:18). It means the sleeper awakes (Eph. 5:14). It means a binding up of the brokenhearted (Is. 61:1). It means the downtrodden are set free (Luke 4:18). It means the dungeon doors swing open (Rom. 6:14).
C.S. Lewis described this wonderfully:
“All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all will continue to be free, unbounded grace. His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place. Fortunately they need not. Bliss is not for sale, cannot be earned. ‘Works’ have no ‘merit’, though of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once. He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love because he is saved. It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 33).
This Means the Same Thing Today
The errors against which our Reformation fathers protested were ancient errors. The merit-mongering of Rome was the great-granddaughter of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and so for those steeped in the Scriptures, it was a familiar foe. All of it was a deadly mixture of truth, hypocrisy, and poisonous lies, but we were on familiar territory.
Sin is still sin, guilt is still guilt, the cross is still the cross, and gospel preaching still brings liberation to sinners, one at a time. That is all still the case, but we are also into some new territory. The rebellion against God among our ruling elites is far advanced, and so we must learn to apply the doctrine of free grace in the ways that the sons of Issachar would (1 Chron. 12:32). This gospel of free grace means no less than it did five centuries ago, but our opportunities to apply and extend the goodness of God are much greater than before. What do I mean?
Why did so many refuse to condemn the recent atrocities committed by Hamas? They were trying to apply their counterfeit doctrine of justification. They were trying to say no condemnation, regardless of what the terrorists may have done. This is a ten-cent knock off of the Christian gospel, but at least they were attempting it. This is the source of what we see as the double standards of the left. They say that they can do certain things and we cannot because they are justified, and we are not justified. It is their version of no condemnation.
So Compare and Contrast
The potency of the Christian gospel of no condemnation is anchored in three basic truths. One, it is a word from outside human history. Our salvation has a transcendental foundation. The Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Our salvation is grounded in a transcendental election. Second, this word of no condemnation was purchased for us through the precious blood of Christ, the blood of the everlasting covenant (1 Pet. 1:18-19). This salvation was purchased for us, and we own it free and clear. Our salvation was not loaned to us. And third, this salvation of sinners was accomplished by a Savior who remained absolutely just. He is the one who justifies, but He is also just (Rom. 3:26). This salvation of the unholy is actually a holy salvation.
Compare this to the spurious justification offered by the world. They promise us a no condemnation, but terms and conditions may apply. First, everything they offer arises from inside the world. They have nothing else to offer. But without an infinite reference point, everything within the world is simply absurd. This includes all justifications and condemnations. Secondly, they have no efficacious sacrifice. The only blood they can provide is the blood of others, which they do abundantly. The Lord taught believers to say “my life for yours.” But theirs is the way of “your life for mine.” And last, those who devise humanistic ways of salvation are not holy themselves, and so all they can do is rearrange the furniture of their unholiness. Water cannot rise above its own level, and this applies to their fetid swamps as much as any other water.
I have often reminded you that it is Christ or chaos. But we should expand it a bit. It is Christ and no condemnation, on the one hand, or the chaos of bitter and rancid guilt on the other. So come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.