I have a desire. A pretty simple one, really. I just want people I know to connect one oft-quoted passage of Scripture to another oft-ignored passage of Scripture. The connection between the two is deep and without question. Yet we in our Scriptural ignorance seek to make the first say something it doesn’t, simply because we want it to.
The first. Romans 8:1a, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,”
The second. I John 2:5, “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”
The first is often used to say Christians are saved from God’s wrath because they “accepted Jesus” or “got saved” or whatever other catchphrase is used these days. And “saved from God’s wrath” means from now until eternity something cosmically shifts when we “accept Jesus.” The focus is generally on eternal destiny, with Jesus serving as the “get out of hell free” card. If this was solely and obviously what this passage meant, then fine, we can deal with that. But two things stick out at first reading. First, there is a “Therefore” at the beginning of the passage, which suggests the next stage of an argument. Here’s an example. “I have become aware that many Biblical passages are ripped out of context so we can make them say what we want. Therefore, I resolve to read and interpret Scriptures in context.” Here are the thoughts that go before Romans 8:1a;
“So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
And second, some reading the above Romans passage may have caught the comma at the end of the line. The comma is an indication of a pause in the middle of a larger thought. Here’s how the larger thought moves on,
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”
Central question: “Is Paul addressing the idea of how someone might obtain eternal salvation or freedom from hell in this passage, or is he addressing something entirely different?”
(read the passage again)
I would suggest Paul is addressing something entirely different, and I think it’s pretty obvious in the larger passage. Paul is struggling with the fact that he has met God, has been humbled by God, desires to honor God, wants his actions to follow this desire to honor God, and yet struggles to consistently match his actions to his inner desire.
“How is it that I desire one thing so much yet consistently do something different?” Paul asks.
“It’s because of this struggle between what I was created for and the rebellion which is rooted so deeply in the human heart and actions.”
“What can be done?” he asks.
“Celebrate God’s gift of Jesus, who both mystically gave himself as a sacrifice to unify humanity and God, and gave a piercing example of the kind of life that God desires from his creation.”
“What does God now expect?”
“Living in the Spirit.”
“What does that mean?”
“Desire what God desires.”
“What, practically, does that mean?”
“From the words of John, ‘This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.'”
This is the most powerful truth of the Romans passage. It is not focused on an afterlife, or a magical transaction released by a one-time prayer. It is a rigorous focus on the dual questions:
“Who is the authority?” and
What do I desire?”
The message is this. There is no condemnation in God’s nature directed toward those who commit to walk, speak, act as Jesus did. There is no mystical removal from God’s wrath that happens when we “pray the Jesus prayer” or “get saved” or any of that mess. There is no one-time-salvation-moment. It is about re-learning, embracing, seeking to live as we were created for. To be “in” Jesus is to commit to walk as Jesus walked, which is a lifetime process. This is God’s salvation…day by day. It is a struggle, and time will make some things easier and more natural while exposing other, deeper rebellion within us that must be confronted and striven against.
No more, no less.
How about we let Paul speak for himself, rather than twisting his words to make them fit what we want to see? We just might find a much more fruitful, joyful, challenging humbling message than we ever imagined Christianity to be about.