(Delivered Sunday, March 30, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
We began a study last week of the Ten Commandments. And as I said then, I believe it would be wise for us, before beginning to study the commandments themselves, to devote some time to a few preliminary matters from the Scriptures first. I believe that, if we do so, we'll be better equipped to understand the Ten Commandments in the larger context of the Bible's teaching concerning God's law and its application to our lives.
So, we continue our look at these preliminary matters this morning by looking at Romans 8:1-4. The apostle Paul there gives us this important announcement concerning the New Testament believer's relationship toward the law:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has 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 did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-4).
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Based on this passage, I'd like to make what might seem like a startling affirmation. I give praise to God that I stand before you - right now, and from this day onward and forevermore - as a man who is 100% righteous in God's eyes with respect to the Ten Commandments.
Now before anyone stands up to walk out of the building, I hasten to add that I do not stand before you as a man who is 100% obedient to the Ten Commandments. In fact, I must shamefully admit that I fall short of the Ten Commandments at many points, on a multitude of occasions, every single day. When it comes to measuring up to the holy standards of God's commandments, I'm an utter failure; and if I were judged by God strictly on the basis of my own obedience to His commandments, I would deserve nothing less than the wrath of God.
But here is the marvelous truth of God's amazing grace - a truth that seems to our frail minds to be a paradox: Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, there is now "no condemnation" for us with respect to God's law. To say that we experience "no condemnation" is the same thing as to say that we are completely "righteous" in His sight. Through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, God can now declare a sinner like me to be 100% righteous - even though I still fall short of obedience to His commandments.
How can it be that I am "righteous" while still a sinner? There are two separate spiritual issues involved in this seeming paradox. First, there is the matter of "justification". "Justification" is a judicial act of God in which He declares a guilty sinner to be righteous in His sight - that is, not only "no longer guilty", but positively "righteous" - by virtue of the sacrifice and obedience of Jesus on the sinner's behalf. It's an act in which God counts the guilt of the believing sinner to have been atoned for fully on the cross, and credits Jesus' righteousness to his or her account. And it's because of God's gracious act of justifying the sinner that it can be said that God declares that sinner to be perfectly "righteous" - even though that same sinner still sins.
But God doesn't justify us as sinners and declare us to be righteous, only to then leave us in the very sins that once incurred His wrath. This brings us to the second spiritual matter, that of "sanctification". "Sanctification" is a process in which God, through the enabling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, causes the justified sinner to increasingly leave his or her sins behind, and become progressively conformed to God's commandments in the way he or she lives.
It's very important that we keep those two spiritual issues separate in our minds. Much spiritual confusion and many false doctrines have originated from the failure to distinguish those two works of God. But it's also important to remember that both spiritual issues are essential aspects of our salvation. God never "sanctifies" someone that He doesn't first "justify"; but He doesn't "justify" someone without also working to bring about their "sanctification". "Justification" is an act that God performs for us in an instant; while "sanctification" is a process that He takes us through throughout the rest of our earthly lives. "Justification" is an act in which God frees us from the condemnation of the law; while "sanctification" is an act in which God conforms us to the holy standards of His law. They are to be seen as distinct works that are both involved in our salvation.
And I believe we see both of these works of God mentioned in verses 3 and 4. God "condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us" (there describing God's act of justifying the sinner) "who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (and there describing the process of "sanctifying" the sinner). And because both of these spiritual realities are true, a genuinely redeemed man or woman can claim to have been declared by God to be 100% righteous in His sight with respect to His Ten Commandments - while also being made less and less of a sinner against those commandments every day through the work of God.
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The reason I'm drawing your attention to this passage this morning is because of what we discovered concerning God's law last week. Back then, we learned what the Bible says about the purpose of God's commandments - that God did not give His commandments to people so that they could be made righteous by obeying them; but that, rather, so that people would be shown to be helpless sinners who desperately need a Savior. Once people come as condemned sinners to the cross of Jesus to be saved, then the condemning work of the law has done its job. "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24).
But what happens to us now that we have come to Christ? We have to confess, after all, that we still fail miserably to keep God's law - even though we have trusted His Son and have been saved by His grace. Now that we are "in Christ" by faith, does the law continue to condemn us?
The good news is that, because of what God Himself has done for us in Christ, there is now no condemnation from the law for those who are in Christ - in whom God Himself works to bring the righteous requirements of the law to complete fulfillment.
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The Bible tells us of how the scribes and Pharisees once tried to trap Jesus. They brought a woman to Him who had been caught in the act of adultery. They mercilessly brought her before Jesus in order to trap Him in His words and find something to use against Him. So they said, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?" (John 8:3-4). This poor woman was obviously set up for this; because even though they caught her in the act of adultery, they didn't also drag her partner in sin before Jesus.
Now, of course, the scribes and Pharisees - these great advocates of the law - were right in recognizing that the law required the woman's death (Lev. 20:10). But think of the situation they thought they were putting Jesus into. If Jesus had said, "I say, as the law says, 'She should be stoned,'" then He would have appeared to the people to be unmerciful. But if He had instead said, "I say, 'Show her mercy and let her go,'" then He would have appeared to the people to be an opponent to the law of God. But instead, as the Bible tells us, Jesus stooped down to the ground and wrote in the dirt with His finger. After a while, He then stood up and said to the scribes and Pharisees, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first (v. 7);" and then, He stooped back down again and wrote some more. In saying this, Jesus upheld the law. But as Jesus wrote again in the dirt, one by one - beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest - the scribes and Pharisees went away.
You probably already know my theory about this - that Jesus was simply writing down the names of their girlfriends, and probably also jotting down a few dates and locations. I believe He was writing a whole scandal column right there in the dirt! But what's of particular importance is what happened when Jesus and the woman were left alone. Jesus arose and saw that all the woman's accusers had left; and He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?" And when she said, "No one, Lord", Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more" (vv. 10-11).
In a sense, this gives us a picture of what has happened to sinners like us now that we have placed our trust in the blood of Jesus. The law had condemned us - and rightly so. And like those scribes and Pharisees, it was merciless in its condemnation. And if I may say so, it's the condemnation of the law that drug us along and eventually dropped us at the feet of Jesus. But by His blood, He has removed the power of the law to condemn us any further. And now, Jesus - who is both the atoning sacrifice for and the righteous Judge of His own law - looks at us and says, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more." There is now "no condemnation" from the law for those who are in Christ - in whom God Himself works to bring the righteous requirements of the law to fulfillment so that we progressively "go and sin no more".
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Notice how Paul teaches this to us. He first shows us that, in Christ, ...
1. WE'RE IN A NON-CONDEMNING RELATIONSHIP TO THE LAW (v. 1) ...
Paul makes this wonderful assertion when he writes, "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus ..." (By the way; you may be reading from a translation in which the verse stops at that point. This is because many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain the words in verse one that are translated "... who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit." The best New Testament textual scholarship suggests that those closing words were placed at the end of verse one by some ancient copiest who took them from verse four. Verse one actually ends as it does, for example, in the New International Version: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus ...")
Paul is wonderfully precise in his words; and I believe we can take some comfort from that precision. You'll notice that he didn't say, "There is therefore now no further sin in the life of those who are in Christ ..." He didn't say, "There is therefore now no further disobedience to the law from those who are in Christ ..." He didn't say, "There is therefore now nothing but perfect obedience to the law from those who are in Christ ..." Sadly, we still sin against the law; we still disobey the commands of the law; we still fall short of the standards of the law. But what Paul says is that, for us who are in Christ, there is therefore now "no condemnation" from the law. We now stand in a non-condemning relationship to the law. The law cannot condemn us any longer in the sight of God for our failures.
Look at the details. First, notice the word "therefore" - "Therefore, there is now no condemnation ..." The word "therefore" is one that indicates a logical inference from what had proceeded it. And so, what follows after the "therefore" - that is, that there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus - is the logical inference of the things that Paul has said in his letter to the Romans prior to this point.
I believe this "therefore" takes into consideration the things Paul has said from the middle of chapter three of his letter, all the way to the end of chapter seven. In Chapter three, Paul wrote those wonderful words;
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation [that is, as that which satisfies God's wrath for sin] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26).
In chapter four, Paul wrote;
Now to him who works [that is, who seeks to be righteous before God on the basis of obedience to His law], the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (4:4-5).
In chapter five, Paul writes; "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God" (5:1-2). He says that "the law entered that the offenses might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (5:20-21).
And so taking these statements together and believing them firmly, we can see why Paul says, "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus ..."
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I can't help but think of what good news this is to those of us in Christ who struggle and wage war with sin in our lives. Some believers mistakenly think that, because they struggle with sin in their lives so much, then they must not really be saved. But personally, I believe that this very struggle is a strong indication that they truly are children of God. Unsaved people don't struggle with sin in their lives because they don't mind its presence; but someone in whom God is working hates the sin in their lives, and struggles with and wars against it.
That makes me think of the most immediate context of Paul's words. In fact, I don't think we can fully appreciate this affirmation from Paul unless we see it in the context of what he says immediately before it. Who among us doesn't know all too well the struggle Paul expresses in these words? -
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was once alive without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.
If you don't find yourself rejoicing at those closing words, then you obviously haven't much felt the struggle Paul describes in the verses that proceed them!! That word "therefore" is the word which indicates that the despair of condemnation from the law has given way to victory in Christ!!
Notice that word "no" in the phrase "no condemnation". In the original language of Paul's letter, it is the first thing you see - being placed in the emphatic position. Literally, Paul is saying, "NO CONDEMNATION therefore now ..." No matter how intensely you now feel that struggle against sin within; no matter how you may have failed in that struggle in the past; and no matter how you may fail in the future; if you are in Christ, there is therefore now - emphatically - "no condemnation" for you from the law.
And notice also the word "now". There is, therefore "now" no condemnation. It's not just that there will be no condemnation when you finally stand before God's throne in heavenly glory. It's not as though there has been a declaration of "no condemnation" in the past, but no guarantee that such a declaration will always last because you might blow it. Rather, for the believer, "no condemnation" is a fact that exists in an eternal, unending "now" - because it's based, not on the believers performance in the law, but on the reality of the believer being "in Christ Jesus".
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This is great news. But how did it come about? How can it be that we now stand in such a wonderfully non-condemning relationship to the law? What did God do to make this happen? Paul goes on to tell us that we now stand in this new, non-condemning relationship to God's law ...
2. HAVING BEEN SET FREE BY A DIFFERENT PRINCIPLE THAN THE LAW (vv. 2-3) ...
Paul writes, "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has 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 did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin ..."
In these two verses, Paul is using the word "law" in two different ways. One way is, of course, as a reference to the law of God as expressed in the Ten Commandments; that is as in verse three, when he speaks of what "the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh ..." But another way Paul is using the word "law" is as a reference to a "principle of operation"; that is as in verse two, when he says that "the law" [or operating principle] "of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law" [or operating principle] "of sin and death".
We use the word "law" in this second way very often in everyday life. We often speak, for example, of the "law of gravity". By calling it a "law", we don't mean that there is a commandment that states, "Thou shalt not float above the ground"; or that you would be guilty of transgression and worthy of punishment if you somehow violate the "law" of gravity. What we mean is that there is a "principle of operation" that we call "gravity"; and whenever we climb a roof or fly in a plane, we're conscious of the fact that we're operating under the confines of that particular "principle of operation".
In verse two, Paul is saying that we are no longer condemned by the law, because we are now under a different "principle of operation" - a different "law" - than the one we used to be under. Before Christ, we operated under the requirement of strict conformity to the law - which, for us, was a principle of "sin and death". Paul tells us that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). God told Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; "for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). Just as surely as 'what goes up must come down', so also our conduct with respect to the law results in sin, and so also does our sin always lead to death.
And that goes to show you where our problem lies - not in the law, but in us. As soon as we encounter the commandment of God, it causes sin to spring up within us again like a dormant virus deep in our bones; and that sin always eventuates in our death - death in the spiritual sense of a loss of fellowship or relationship with God (as happened to Adam immediately after he ate), and eventually death in a physical sense as well. As Paul has said, "But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me" (Rom. 7:8-11). So long as we try to achieve righteousness before God on the basis of the law, we will fail - because we will be operating under the principle of sin and death.
But in Christ, we have been made to operate on a completely different principle than the one under which we used to operate. Instead of my seeking to be righteous before God on the basis of His law - which always lead to failure, and then to sin and death - God has placed His Holy Spirit in me; and it's the Spirit of God who lives out the life that is pleasing to God in me. This new life of righteousness is a life I live by faith - not by works. Elsewhere, Paul writes,
I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murder, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:16-24).
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In one of my Bible classes at college, Dr. John Mitchell gave us a list titled, "What The Law Can Do And Cannot Do." As I studied in preparation for this message, I found that list tucked away in one of my books. (Pretty impressive filing system, eh?) Dr. Mitchell pointed out that, among the things that the law "can" do is (1) make sin exceedingly sinful (Rom. 7:7, 13; 5:20), (2) bring about wrath (Rom. 4:15), (3) serve in a ministry of death (2 Cor. 3:7-9), (4) serve as the strength of sin (1 Cor. 15:56), (5) bring a curse (Gal. 3:10-13), (6) identify sin as "transgression" (Gal. 3:19), (7) provide the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20), and (8) be the tutor that brings us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). So, the law itself is very good and very powerful - but all it does is point out how sinful and weak we are.
But as good and powerful as it is, there are certain things that the law cannot do for sinners like us: (1) it cannot enable us to live by faith (Gal. 3:12), (2) it cannot justify us in the sight of God (Rom. 3:20), and (3) it cannot give us life (Gal. 3:21). The law cannot do these things because we are weak. The principle of sin that operates in our flesh makes it impossible for the law to do these things in us. Therefore, the good and powerful law of God, in and of itself, cannot bring about in us anything but sin and death.
But Paul goes on in our passage to say, "For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin ..." (v. 3). The law cannot enable us to live by faith. It cannot make us righteous. It cannot impart life to us. But what the law could not do, God did.
Look carefully at the things Paul says God did. First, God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. This doesn't meant that Jesus came into the human family in a sinful state; nor does it mean that He came only in the mere likeness of humanity. As the eternal Son of God, He came to be conceived in the womb of Mary as fully human - but coming as close as He could be to us without Himself being sinful like us.
Second, God sent His Son "on account of sin" - or, as I believe it is rightly translated in the New American Standard Bible - "as an offering for sin". Jesus came into this world as a sinless member of the human family, so that he could take the sins of humanity on Himself and be our sin offering. He was our "substitute", paying the death penalty for sins in our place on His cross.
And third, by the fact that Jesus paid the death penalty for sin, God "condemned sin in the flesh". In doing this, God showed that our sin resulted in the death of His own precious Son on our behalf, and thus demonstrated how sinful and "worthy of condemnation" sin truly is.
But God also "condemned sin in the flesh" by the fact that He united us to the death of Jesus - so that, when He died, we died with Him; and when He rose from death, we rose with Him to a brand new life. And now, the law has no further condemning "jurisdiction" over us; because we died to it's condemning power in Christ.
Paul illustrated this for us in Romans 7:
Or do you not now, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress though she has married another man. Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another - to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter (Rom. 7:1-6).
The condemning power of the law is broken over someone who has died. And through Christ, we have died to the law's condemning power; so that thus through Christ, God has "condemned sin in the flesh" and set us free to live under the principle of the Spirit of life.
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And so, what the law could not do, God did by sending His own Son for us; so that the "operating principle" of the Spirit of life in Christ has now set us free from the "operating principle" of sin and death. That's "how" God brought us to this condition in which there is "now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus".
But that leads us to "why" God did this. Why has God set us free from the principle of sin and death? It was ...
3. SO THAT WE NOW WALK IN A FULFILLMENT OF THE LAW BY THE HOLY SPIRIT (v. 4).
What a remarkable plan!! What a great Savior our God is!! He doesn't just save us part of the way - He saves us all the way!! He has not set the holiness of the law aside in our lives. Rather, He has set us free from the curse of the law, "that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (v. 4).
I sometimes like to think of this through the analogy of a pair of gloves. If I had a pair of gloves, and I set them on the keyboard of the piano, no beautiful music would be played. Nothing at all, in fact, would happen; because the gloves would be powerless to play the piano. But, if someone who had the power to play the piano slipped those gloves on and began to play, then it could be said that the piano was being played by the gloves. The playing of beautiful music would be "fulfilled" in the gloves through the enabling of the skilled hands that wore them.
Similarly, we have no power to perform the righteous requirements of God's law in and of ourselves. Already, we've seen that our attempt to do so in the power of our flesh only leads to sin and death. But God has condemned sin in the flesh so that, now, the righteous requirements of the law can be fulfilled in us who walk by faith in the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Christ lives the perfect life of Christ through us - the life that is in complete fulfillment of the law of God. As Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20; "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
I progressively live the life of righteousness by the law, then - not by my own power, but by the power of another; that is, the indwelling Spirit of life. And if I stumble and fall, there is now "no condemnation" - not because of my own righteousness, but because of the righteousness of another; that is, the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
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And so once again, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I give praise to God today that I stand before you as a man who is 100% righteous in God's eyes with respect to the Ten Commandments. And though I stand as righteous before God while still an imperfect sinner, I trust in the indwelling Holy Spirit who will enable me to grow increasingly and progressively in practical holiness for the rest of my life. He lives a life in me "against which there is no law"; so that the righteous requirements of the law are fulfilled in me.
With Paul, I say, "I thank God - through Jesus Chris our Lord!" (Rom. 7:25). Do you thank Him for this too?
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