Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
I have said many times in years gone by that the only sin we can defeat is a forgiven sin. Let me say it more carefully this morning: the only sin that you can defeat in daily life and replace with righteousness is a sin forgiven for Christ’s sake. I say it carefully because I know there are natural ways to overcome bad habits that aren’t based on Christ at all. But when those changes occur in life without forgiveness from Christ, the result is not God’s righteousness, but self-righteousness – which in God’s eyes is no righteousness. So I say it again and carefully: the only sin that you can defeat in daily life and replace with righteousness is a sin forgiven for Christ’s sake.
Now here’s the point. Forgiveness for our sins through faith in Christ must precede and then empower our battle against sin in our lives. Or to put it another way, God’s declaration that we are forgiven and righteous in Christ must precede and enable our transformation into loving, sacrificial, Christ-exalting people. The divine declaration must precede the human transformation. Or to put it one more way: Justification must precede and uphold sanctification. Being right with God must precede doing right for God.
Now for some of you this may sound like nitpicking. You may say, “I don’t live with these things in mind. So they are not really helpful to me. I just don’t think or act that way. That sounds like theology. And to me nothing is more irrelevant to my life than theology.” Well, that is probably the way a lot of people feel. But, if you are one of them, consider this for a moment.
Suppose that you are on trial in a courtroom for a capital offense. Your life hangs in the balance. A guilty verdict will mean death, and a not-guilty verdict will mean freedom and life. And suppose the judge says to you: “There are two ways we can deal with this. I can acquit you right now, decisively and irrevocably, and release you so that you can go and live a free and joyful and loving life that shows you really are not a rebellious, crime-loving law breaker, though you have been. Or I can postpone the trial and the verdict for several years and assign you a parole officer to watch you all that time, and let you go out and prove yourself to the court by your life, and then have the trial after that, and base the verdict on whether your behavior was satisfactory or not.”
Now does the difference between these two options sound like nitpicking? In one case you are free from condemnation and with gladness live a life that shows the wisdom and mercy of your Judge. In the other case you have the trial always hanging over your head, and the basis of that future verdict will be your own behavior and whether you have measured up. Brothers and sisters, this is not nitpicking. And understanding the difference – call it theology or call it zucchini or call it Biblical truth – is massively important for your life.
If you don’t live your life by reflecting on God and what he has done for you and promises to be for you, you need to change. The book of Romans was not written to be rejected by intuitive personalities. It was written to be understood and applied to daily life for the glory of Christ.
So here is the issue in our text: What is the connection between Romans 8:1 and Romans 8:2? In Romans 8:1 we have a precious statement of justification: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” When we are united to Christ by faith in him, at the very beginning of our Christian life, our condemnation is past. The verdict is rendered: Not guilty; righteous for Christ’s sake. All sins forgiven. All guilt removed. All punishment averted. Because of Christ. That’s verse 1.
But verse 2 is different. In verse 2 we don’t see justification, we see sanctification. Verse 1 is a declaration of no condemnation. Verse 2 is a description of practical transformation. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Let’s make three observations about this verse before we face the all-important connection about its relationship to verse 1.
First, what does the “law of sin and death” refer to? “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”The answer comes from the similar phrase in 7:22-23, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, (23) but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” Here in verse 23 we have the phrase “law of sin”. I think this is the same as the “law of sin and death” in Romans 8:2, and the reason the words “and death” are added is because “the law of sin” leads to death if we don’t take up arms against it and fight in faith and in the power of the Spirit.
So then, what is this “law of sin”? Verse 23 says it is “in my members.” In other words it is a power or an impulse or a principle that is at work in my body to make me at war with myself and to draw me to do evil. It is virtually the same as what Paul calls “indwelling sin” in 7:17 and 20.
Second, notice that the victory over this impulse, or principle, or power of sin – this “law of sin and death” – is given by “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” The measure of victory that we get over sin in our lives is not owing to our own unaided striving. It is owing to the work of God’s Spirit in us (cf. 6:14, 17, 18, 22).
So I think the word “law” in this phrase (“law of the Spirit of life”) has the same meaning as the word “law” in the phrase “law of sin and death.” “Law” means power or principle or impulse or authority. Sin works a certain way with power and authority leading to death, and that’s called “the law of sin and death.” And the Spirit of God works a certain way with power and authority leading to life, and that’s called “the law of the Spirit of life.”
Third, we have this Spirit working in us because we are “in Christ.” In other words every Christian has the Spirit of life at work in him. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” If you are “in Christ Jesus” you have this Spirit of life working in you. And every Christian is “in Christ Jesus.” That’s what being a Christian means: being united to Christ by faith in all that God is for us in Jesus.
You can see this underlined in Romans 8:9. “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ, does not belong to him. We are not Christians if we do not have the Spirit of Christ working in us.
So now we can say two things about being “in Christ” because of the same phrase in verses 1 and 2. Verse 1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Verse 2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” The first thing we can say is that being united to Christ by faith makes his pardon and righteousness ours, so there is no condemnation. The second thing we can say is that being united to Christ by faith makes his power and authority over sin ours, so the law of sin and death can be defeated. In Christ we get pardon from sin and power over sin.
Now that brings us back to where I started and to the crucial question about how justification and sanctification relate to each other. I said at the beginning: The only sin that you can defeat in your life is a forgiven sin. Now what we just saw is that the power to defeat it and the pardon to forgive it are “in Christ Jesus.” Both are freely given in Christ Jesus. All Christians have both of them.
And what I want to argue for now is that there is a necessary order here. There is a necessary priority to pardon before power. There is a necessary priority to justification before sanctification. If you are going to get victory over particular sins you have to have joyful confidence that those sins are forgiven. The confidence of “no condemnation” must precede and empower the radical warfare of transformation. And I do mean “radical warfare” rather than a Lazy-Boy easy-chair salvation. Because it says in verse 13, “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” What the “law of the Spirit of life” enables you to do is make war on forgiven sins, and kill them.
So let’s see now why I am so convinced of this order: justification (pardon) first, and sanctification (power) second. And why it is so crucial for your life.
Notice the connecting link between Romans 8:1 which speaks of no condemnation, and Romans 8:2 which speaks of Spirit-empowered liberation. The verses are connected by the word “for” or “because.” “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Now there are two possible meanings for that word “because”: It can mean that practical sanctification and liberation from sin is the basis for my justification. So I have to defeat my sin in the power of the Spirit first in order to be justified. This is the opposite of what I am arguing for. Or it can mean that the practical sanctification and liberation from sin is the evidence of my justification. So I am justified (forgiven, pardoned) first, and then give evidence of this reality by living it out in practice.
We use the word “for” or “because” in both these ways. We say, “I’m really hungry because my stomach is growling.” And we say, “I’m really hungry because I didn’t have any breakfast.” The growling stomach is evidence that I am hungry, not the basis or cause of my hunger. But not having breakfast is the basis and cause of my hunger. We use the word “for” or “because” in both senses. And so do the Biblical writers.
Now which is the meaning here in Romans 8:2? Is the Spirit’s victory over my sin the prior cause and basis of being free from condemnation? Or is it the evidence that I already have been freed from condemnation?
I am arguing that the “for” or “because” of verse 2 means evidence, not basis and cause. Justification (verse 1) is the foundation for transformation (verse 2) not the other way around. I’ll give you one reason for seeing it this way from the immediate context and one from chapter seven. And there could be numerous others.
Notice the “for” at the beginning of verse 3. What verse 3 tells us is that God sent his Son as a human so that God could condemn our sin in his Son’s death rather than condemning us. Verse 3b: “He condemned sin in the flesh.” In other words the ground of our freedom from condemnation is the work of God for us on the cross, and it is given as the basis of verse 2. “The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death, because God condemned sin in his son’s death.” So the very thing that accomplishes our freedom from condemnation is not given as the result of our triumph over sin by the Spirit (verse 2), but as the foundation of our triumph over sin by the Spirit. No condemnation therefore precedes and supports our liberation and transformation. Not the other way around. This means that verse 2 (our liberation from sin) is the evidence, not the basis or cause, of our justified condition without condemnation in verse 1. That’s my first reason.
The second reason comes from Romans 7:4 and 6. To save time just look at verse 6. Here we see how our freedom from the curse of the condemnation of the law precedes and grounds our practical daily transformation in the service of God. Verse 6:
“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law [here is the decisive removal of guilt and curse and condemnation which we should have borne under the (Mosaic, cf. 7:1-5) law; but we have been released from it because Christ died in our place and became a curse for us, Galatians 3:13], so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
This is exactly what Romans 8:2 is saying. The Spirit is now enabling us to serve God in a new, free, and joyful way. And this is the result of being released from the condemnation of the law (see the phrase “so that” in 7:6b – “released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit”).
So I conclude that the release from condemnation in Romans 8:1 is the cause and foundation of our liberation by the Spirit in Romans 8:2. And Paul refers to this liberating work of the Spirit in our lives as the evidence that we really are without condemnation. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because (look!) the Spirit is at work in them to give them victories over sin!”
This, I say, brothers and sisters – and to all unbelievers who are here – is not nitpicking . . .
- It’s the difference between fighting fearfully to get justified and fighting confidently because we are justified.
- It’s the difference between your heavenly court-trial being behind you with an irrevocable verdict of not guilty, and your trial being in front of you with the verdict up in the air depending on your performance.
- It’s the difference between the freedom of confidence and the bondage of fear.
- It’s the difference between giving Christ the double glory of both being our righteousness as well as working righteousness in us, and giving him only the single glory of helping us become our own righteousness.
O brothers and sisters, pray that you will see and feel that this is not nitpicking. This is Gospel-confirming, freedom-preserving, conscience-cleansing, Christ-exalting truth that the devil wants very much for you not to understand or enjoy. So renounce him and all his ways, and lay hold on your freedom which is freedom indeed. And fight your sin like a victor, not a victim.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.