Big Idea: What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? He removes all condemnation.
Skye Jethani relates a story about holding a series of meetings with college-aged students. The topics ranged across the spectrum—doctrine, hell, dating—but each conversation had three rules: be honest, be gracious, and be present.
On one night the students wanted to discuss habitual sins. Although they struggled with a variety of sinful behaviors, they all agreed on one thing: God was extremely disappointed with them. One student said, “My parents were students at a Christian college in the early ’90s when a revival broke out …. They were on fire for God. And here I am consumed by sin day after day.” Often through tears, many other students shared similar stories about how they believed God must be disappointed with them.
After listening to their stories, Jethani asked, “How many of you were raised in a Christian home?” They all raised their hands. “How many of you grew up in a Bible-centered church?” All hands stayed up. And all of them agreed that God was extremely disappointed with them. Maybe you can relate.
I want to ask a question tonight: What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? Or to put it differently: What does God think of you today? Not the cleaned up, airbrushed version of you, but the real you. I wonder if I asked you, “Do you feel that God is disappointed in you?” how you would answer.
Because the reality is: We have to answer this question. All of us here today are strugglers, every single one of us. So the question is a legitimate one: What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing?
To answer this question, I want to look at a great passage of Scripture: Romans 8. It’s such an important passage. Ray Ortlund, Jr. Says, “Paul’s letter to the Romans has the potential to transform the church in our generation, as it has in the past,” and I agree. In the book of Romans, we find one of the most profound presentations of the gospel message, or what God has done in Jesus to make us right with him. Someone else said:
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).
We’re going to spend some time leading up to Easter looking at this great chapter in the book of Romans as we wrap up our series on our identity in Christ. But here’s the thing: Paul begins Romans 8 with the very dilemma we’re talking about. What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? In chapter 7, he gives a profound description of what it feels like to be fighting but failing:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:15, 18-19, 24-25)
There’s been a ton of debate about what Paul is talking about here. Is he talking about his experience before he was a Christian, his experience as a Christian, or is he speaking about Israel’s experience? We can’t be sure, but we can say this: this is, to some extent, the experience of every Christian. Anyone who has seriously followed Christ has known something of wanting to obey Christ, but feeling frustrated, and feeling like a failure. We want to do good, but we end up doing the very thing we did’t want to do. We want to please God, but the power to do so is out of our grasp. I know that I can relate.
Given this struggle, Paul says two things. First, he says the answer to this dilemma is Jesus. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25) When we come to the end of ourselves, and realize our need of Christ, we are in a very good position indeed. We’re exactly where we need to be. Notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Wretched man that I am! What must I do?” He says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?” The answer has to come from outside of ourselves, and that answer is Jesus. If you feel like you don’t measure up, then the answer isn’t to try harder. The answer is to look outside of yourself to Jesus and all that he brings us. We’re going to talk about this in the coming weeks.
But Paul also says a second thing, and it’s what I want to look at today. In Romans 8:1-2, Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? He removes all condemnation. Is God disappointed in you because you struggle? No. He has provided a Savior, and he has removed all condemnation.
Let’s ask a few questions about this passage. What does it mean? On what basis? And what difference does this make?
First: What does it mean?
It’s important to understand what Paul means, because this is one of the most important truths of the Christian faith. To really understand this, we have to understand the what, who, and when.
What — Here’s what Paul means. It’s a legal term. Paul doesn’t only mean that we aren’t condemned. It’s stronger than that. It means that we are completely free from any debt or penalty. Not only are we not under condemnation, but it doesn’t even exist anymore. It is gone forever and cannot exist for us. No charge against us can stand; no one can condemn us.
Now, it’s not because we don’t deserve to be condemned. Paul has just built a case that we’re all guilty before a holy God. There’s not one person — religious or not — who escapes. Nobody measures up to God’s standard. Nobody can stand before God boldly with our record exposed. We’re all in big trouble on our own, and should be concerned with God’s condemnation — except that Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Here’s what it means: “If you are in Christ Jesus, there is no valid reason why you should ever again experience fear or apprehension about your relationship with God or your eternal destiny” (Sam Storms). This is amazing! As the hymn says:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine…
That’s the what. You deserve condemnation, but that condemnation doesn’t even exist for you anymore. It’s gone.
Who — Who does it apply to? Paul does not say Christians are free from condemnation because they are sinless, but because they are in Christ. This is not for everyone; it is for sinners who are in Jesus Christ. When we are in Christ Jesus, everything changes. To be in Christ means that we are in an actual relationship with Jesus Christ in which all the benefits of his life and obedience are ours, because we’re united with him. Paul says that once we are united in Christ, in this relationship with him, then there is no longer any condemnation for us. It’s gone, and it can never come back.
When — And here’s the when. It’s present tense. It’s not later when we get our act together. It’s right now in the middle of the struggle.
Not when we get older. Not when we get more mature. Not when we overcome all sinful habits. Not when we get past being hurt by others. Not when all our bills are paid. Not when we get a new job. Not when we learn more of the Bible. Not when people start treating us nicely and with respect. Not when we get the praise and public adulation we think we deserve. Not when our enemies stop persecuting us. Not when the wrongs against us have been put right. Not when we’ve been vindicated. Not when we stop making fools of ourselves in public. Now! (Sam Storms)
I hope you can see how important this is. In fact, Dr. Marytn Lloyd-Jones said, “If you have got hold of this idea you will have discovered the most glorious truth you will ever know in your life.” In fact, he says, “Most of our troubles are due to our failure to realize the truth of this verse.” The problem for a lot of us is that we live a lot like the students I mentioned at the start of this sermon. We assume that our standing with God is based on our performance. To put it in theological terms, we base our justification (our standing before God) on our sanctification (our growth in holiness). This puts us in a precarious position. Lloyd-Jones describes what it looks like if we don’t get this truth:
They seem to think of the Christian as a man who, if he confesses his sin and asks for forgiveness, is forgiven. At that moment he is not under condemnation. But then if he should sin again he is back once more under condemnation. Then he repents and confesses his sin again, and asks for pardon, and he is cleansed once more. So to them the Christian is a man who is constantly passing from one state to the other; back and forth; condemned, not condemned. Now that, according to the Apostle, is a wholly mistaken notion, and a complete failure to understand the position. The Christian is a man who can never be condemned; he can never come into a state of condemnation again. ‘No condemnation!’ The Apostle is not talking about his experience, but about his position, his standing, his status; he is in a position in which, being justified, he can never again come under condemnation. That is the meaning of this word ‘no’. It means ‘Never’.
You don’t have to be perfect. Jesus was perfect for you. If you are in Christ, there is no condemnation, even though you continue to struggle. This is a truth that can change your life as you grasp it. You can personalize it. “There is therefore now no condemnation for _______.” Fill in your name and live in light of this reality.
But that’s not all. We need to understand Paul’s reasoning behind this declaration.
On what basis?
On what basis is there no condemnation? The answer may surprise you. Look at verse 2:
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)
You could read that over a few times and not understand that completely, so let’s try to understand what he’s saying.
Paul contrasts two laws: the law of the Spirit of life, and the law of sin and death. We used to live in a way that was controlled by sin and death. You know what that’s like: controlled and dominated by sin, and unable to change despite your best intentions. Here’s the thing: we think that we control our choices, but Paul is saying that apart from Christ we’re actually not in control. We’re under the law and domination of sin and death. The problem with sin and death is that it’s deadly. It produces all the wrong things in our lives. As long as we continue to live under the domination of sin and death, we’re in trouble. We’re condemned.
But Paul says that when we came to Jesus, something happened. Now, “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus.” You’ve been liberated through the Holy Spirit. You’re under new management now. Sin has been kicked out as your boss, and the Holy Spirit has taken over. “It is God’s Spirit, coming to the believer with power and authority, who brings liberation from the powers of the old age and from the condemnation that is the lot of all who are imprisoned by those powers” (Douglas Moo). This is great news. Not only have you been forgiven, but God himself has taken over management of your life so that you are no longer controlled by sin and death. The Spirit has liberated you, and you are not under the control of sin like you used to be.
I walked by a store the other day. It had a sign outside that said “Under New Management.” If you are in Christ Jesus, you could put that sign on your life as well. You are not condemned, and the reason is because God has not only dealt with the penalty of your sin, but he has also broken the power of sin and taken over your life. It is the Spirit of God who provides victory, and that Spirit is the possession of every true child of God. Even when you struggle — and you will — you are still under new management. You’re no longer condemned, and you’re no longer under the power of sin. We forget this sometimes, but this is our new reality, and it changes everything. Talk about encouraging. You no longer have to fight sin on your own. You’re now under the control of the Holy Spirit, who is changing you from the inside out.
In other words, the basis of verse 1 is not us. It’s not about our worthiness or sinlessness. The basis of verse 1 is what God has done for us. What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? He removes all condemnation. Not only that, but he sets us free from the power of sin, and puts us under the control of the Holy Spirit. If you are in Jesus Christ, this is true of you. It’s an astounding truth.
But I want to make this practical. So let’s close by asking:
As we close this sermon, we have to ask what this means for us today. There’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. So what? Because of this truth, there are two things that are true of us, and both of them are amazing.
First, this can be yours. The great news about the gospel is that it’s available to anyone who’s desperate enough to want it. You don’t have to get your act together. God’s grace is available to you now. “All you need, to qualify for all that blessing, is to be a sinner in Christ, not a rehabilitated sinner, not a tidied-up sinner, but the sinner you are in Christ. Jesus said he came not to call the righteous but sinners (Matthew 9:13). He has no interest in good people. He attracts bad people. We are bad people. But if we are in Christ, we have God’s grace right now while we are bad” (Ray Ortlund). So take this today. Jesus will welcome you and take away all condemnation. This can be yours today.
Second, the pressure is off. You can relax. You can rest assured that you are accepted before God with nothing to prove.
Remember those students I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon? Every one of them agreed with one thing: God was extremely disappointed with them. The person who led the group reflected on the experience and wrote:
I did not blame the students for their failure. Somewhere in their spiritual formation they were taught, either explicitly or implicitly, that what mattered was not God’s love for them, but how much they could accomplish for him. (Skye Jethani)
The great news is that we can be freed from the feeling that God is disappointed with us. There is no condemnation. What matters is not how much you can accomplish for God, but how much God loves you in Jesus Christ, and that is secure. Don’t be surprised when you struggle. But in the middle of that, don’t doubt God’s love for you. One of my friends posted on Facebook this week: “List of things that can separate you from God’s love:” and then nothing. The list is empty. If you are in Christ, you are secure. There is no condemnation. It doesn’t even exist anymore. You are secure.
This means we don’t have to prove ourselves. We don’t have to be sensitive to criticism. We don’t need to lack confidence and joy in our prayer and worship. I meet people all the time who don’t feel good enough, that they measure up. The truth is that we don’t measure up, but we don’t have to feel condemned. Because the objective reality is that there is no condemnation, we can make that our subjective reality as well.
Nobody says this better than Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
Would you like to be rid of this spiritual depression? The first thing you have to do is to say farewell now once and forever to your past. . . . Never look back at your sins again. Say, “It is finished, it is covered by the blood of Christ.” That is your first step. Take that and finish with yourself and all this talk about goodness, and look to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only then that true happiness and joy are possible for you. What you need is not to make resolutions and to live a better life, to start fasting and sweating and praying. No! You just begin to say, “I rest my faith on him alone, who died for my transgressions to atone. (Lloyd-Jones)
Here’s a test for if you get this passage. Matt Chandler says:
The litmus test of whether or not you understand the gospel is what you do when you fail. Do you run from God and go try to clean yourself up a bit before you come back into the throne room, or do you approach the throne of grace with confidence? If you don’t approach the throne of grace with confidence, you don’t understand the gospel. You are most offensive to God when you come to him with all of your efforts, when you’re still trying to earn what’s freely given.
As Ray Ortlund says, if you are in Christ, you are a righteous sinner. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Even as you struggle, there is no condemnation. Let this truth sink deep into your soul.
Finally: This truth frees us to serve. We’re not just set free from condemnation. We’re set free to serve. It’s not just freedom from condemnation; it’s also freedom to live in a new way. We’re going to look at this in coming weeks. We’ve been set free, and it’s a glorious freedom.
You may think that this truth may cause us to sin more. If there’s no condemnation, then why not do whatever you want? It’s actually the opposite. Sam Storms points out that nothing paralyzes us like guilt and shame. If you want a recipe for living in bondage, that’s it right there. This passage sets us free from all of that. It helps raise us beyond self-help. It’s a much better way than formulas or willpower. I love what Storms says: “When you feel beautiful before God, you feel powerful before sin.” If you want to be set free from sin, lean into the truth of this verse. See how God sees you in Christ. Grasp what he’s done for you, and you’ll experience freedom.
I want to close by talking about a scene from the 2011 movie Moneyball. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland As, trying to assemble a winning team. Ultimately during the 2002 season, the Athletics win an unprecedented 20 consecutive games, setting the American League record. Despite all their success, the A’s lose in the first round of the postseason.
As Beane sits alone in the clubhouse, the general manager attempts to convince him that he “won pretty big.” Seeing that he is unconvinced, his GM invites Beane to the video room. Brand has cued up a segment of tape for Beane to watch—a clip about a player named Jeremy Brown, a catcher from their minor league baseball team, the Visalia Oaks.
Here’s what happens in that video. The catcher is at bat. He hits a fast ball and and sends it deep into the center. The catcher rounds first, and is about to do what he’s never done before. He’s going to round first and head to second. But he stops. He stops and crawls back to the security of first base. He clings to first base like a frightened child clings to a teddy bear. It’s his nightmare. “They’re laughing at him,” says Beane. And they were laughing at him.
But the general manager explains why they’re laughing at him. “Jeremy’s about to find out why; Jeremy’s about to realize that the ball went 60-feet over the fence. He hit a home run, and he didn’t even realize it.” Beane stares at the screen as Jeremy finally discovers that the ball went out of the park and then jubilantly rounds the bases for home.
This is a picture of what Romans 8:1-2 tells us. We don’t have to cling to first base. Christ has already hit the home run that brings us home. His righteousness has been credited to our account, and we are now at peace with God. We don’t have to live in fear, carefully crawling back to and then clinging to first base. Instead, we can jubilantly run the race as we head confidently toward home. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).