Well, yes and no.
Romans 8 contains a treasure trove of opportunities for bad hermeneutics. If there were an island of misfit Christian merchandise, Romans 8 would have a neighborhood of its own. We’ll start right at the top, but for more see “It’s All Good” and “Christian Superpowers”.
There is a phrase in Romans – “no condemnation” – that has taken on a life of its own. It sounds almost as if we’re off the hook. Nothing can touch us. We are not condemned and nothing can be held against us. In a sense that is true, but it is a limited sense. At least it is more limited than the sense we get from reading the t-shirts.
The book of Romans is something of a textbook of theology. Paul wrote this book in the middle of his third missionary journey. After his conversion on the road to Damascus he covered an extraordinary amount of ground. He started some churches and visited with a number of other churches already in existence. We have a number of the letters he wrote to these churches, though undoubtedly there were more. Romans stands out as a letter written to a church he had not visited yet, and it is unclear whether he ever had the opportunity to see them. Perhaps it is due to this fact that Paul wrote a more complete treatment of Christianity than he did to the other churches. Since he had not visited with them, it seems that he made the extra effort to cover the most important topics rather than focus on individual issues of special interest as he did in many other writings.
Crash Course: Romans 1-7
Paul leads off with God’s wrath against humanity because of their sin. He says that no one can plead ignorance because God has made his existence evident in creation itself. ((Romans 1-2)) So we do not delude ourselves, he adds that even at our best we all fall short of God’s standard ((Romans 3:23)). And even if we could, this standard would not save us anyway. The only thing that can save us is faith – and not faith itself, but the object of that faith, Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus is what is necessary to overcome the penalty of sin and be justified (made in right standing) with God. Those who truly believe can consider themselves to be “dead to sin, but alive to God” ((Romans 6:11)) Being released from the law, we are now bound to Christ. And yet, we still find ourselves doing what we don’t want to do and not doing the things we know that we ought to. Paul says, “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” ((Romans 7:25)) Paul considers himself wretched for this behavior and despairs wondering who will save him from that predicament. He then answers his own question by thanking God for providing Jesus to deliver him.
Then we arrive at our verse.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 8:1
Some people say, “when you read ‘therefore’, you need to figure out what it is there for.” Cute saying, and it’s a good rule of thumb. So what is the therefore there for? It refers to the first 7 chapters that we just reviewed.
Why “now”? What was “then”?
“Then” was the time when the Jews lived under the law. “Then” is the time that Gentiles did not have immediate access to God. “Then” is over.
“Now” is the time since Christ came and died and rose and ended the old system. “Now”, Jews are free from the curse of the law. “Now”, everyone has access to God.
In context, this principle makes perfect sense. We are wretched creatures because we continue to sin even though our minds pursue Christ, yet there is no condemnation. Why? Because Christ atoned for our sins. Because he took the blame. He reconciled us to God. We no longer stand condemned, but reconciled.
So We’re Totally Free?
Free from the consequences of sin, absolutely!
Here’s the reason I opened with “yes, and no”. We’re off the hook when it comes to spending an eternity separated from God, and that is the best news ever. But that doesn’t mean our life here is free from consequence. Sometimes we do have to pay for our actions, and sometimes that is unpleasant. Often in relationships we wrong one another, and God has instructed our fellow Christians to point this out in order to bring restoration. Some of us fall into false teaching and the church is to lovingly rebuke and correct us at these times. And there is also the matter of the Holy Spirit who comes alongside us to convict us of wrong. None of these is condemnation – they are simply examples of the body of Christ (and God himself) functioning properly.
The condemnation Paul speaks of is the condemnation that leads us to eternal separation from God. Those in Christ are free from this. Others are not. But all still live in this fallen world where we bears one another’s burdens and accept correction from God, often through others, that we might glorify him and also share in his glory. ((Romans 8:17))
(For more on this, read the book of Romans itself, and check out the links at the top of this post.)