"There Is No Condemination" (Romans 8:1): But Why Not?

Article excerpt

Why is there no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom 8:1)? For card-carrying evangelicals the reflexive response is: because Christ died in their place and for their sins.

Justification through the substitutionary atonement of Christ is one of the first precepts drummed into new believers, and Romans 8:1 is often the prooftext employed to establish the point.1 Yet while the meaning of this verse may seem self-evident, commentators have considerable trouble with it.

The crux of the problem is that 8:1-2 appears to ground escape from condemnation not in the death of Christ as a substitute for sinners, but in the work of the Spirit in transforming sinners: "for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus freed you from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2).2 At first blush, this seems to suggest that justification depends on sanctification. Basically one of three approaches is taken to harmonize this passage with traditional Protestant doctrine.3 One interprets 8:2 as a reference to the death of Christ for sinners io that condemnation is averted through justification rather than through sanctification.4 The second solution accepts 8:2 as a reference to sanctification, but suggests that "condemnation" in 8:1 refers not to a judicial verdict but to "penal servitude."5 The third approach accepts what is probably the most natural reading of the two clauses but reconfigures the relationship between them: the most popular suggestion is that sanctification is the consequence-rather than the grounds-of justification. 6

Theologically, each of these propositions is flawless: that is what makes them feasible. Justification is grounded in the substitutionary atonement of Christ, not in transformational righteousness (Rom 3:21-26). Sin does lead to servitude (Rom 6:16). Sanctification is the outgrowth and evidence of justification (Rom 6:5-8). But that very theological legitimacy raises the specter of eisegesis: do these solutions arise from the text or do they impose the clarities of dogmatics onto the text?

Both the truth and the centrality of each of these tenets is assumed in what follows. But reading these doctrines into Romans 8:1-2 is an unnecessary and unhelpful expedient. The apparent meaning of this text must be sustained: "no condemnation" (8:1) retains its usual forensic sense; the liberation of 8:2 refers to transformational, rather than alien, righteousness; and, gar ("because" [NIV]; 8:2) grounds the former in the latter.7 According to 8:1-2, Christians escape condemnation because they have been transformed by the Spirit; that is, because they now live in such a way that condemnation is no longer warranted. All the same, this passage is amenable to historic Protestant theology.

I. THE REFERENT ON "NO CONDEMNATION"

There are several exegetical ambiguities in 8:1, but most are peripheral to present purposes and may be passed over with little comment. Of paramount concern here is the referent of "no condemnation." Does "condemnation" refer to the eschatological judgment due sin or to the enslavement in sin experienced in this age? Is it averted by the alien righteousness of Christ, or by transformational righteousness in union with Christ? The obvious place to begin the search for answers is with the other occurrences of the term katakrima ("condemnation") and its cognate katakrino ("condemn").8

1. Sin, Judgment and Atonement. The verb katakrino first appears in the lengthy discussion of sin and judgment from 1:18-3:20. Specifically, Paul warns those who criticize the sins of others while overlooking their own: "For in what you judge another, you condemn yourself, for you who stand in judgment do the same things" (2:1; emphasis added).

The condemnation in view here relates to the eschatological judgment of God: "the day of wrath and the revelation of the just judgment of God" (2:5). God will judge sin without favoritism (2:2-6). Those who have done good will receive eternal life, as well as glory, honor and peace; those who did evil will face death, as well as wrath and anger, affliction and distress (1:32; 2:6-11). …