It’s true that all Scripture is “God-breathed.” (2 Tim. 3:16) Every line of the Bible is a manifestation of the mind of God, and is there to give us a glimpse of who he really is. Every word is “profitable” and infused with divine beauty. But sometimes the beauty transcends from the heavenly down to even the mere literary level. And, I contend, there’s not a more beautiful book ever penned than that of the Epistle to the Romans, a work written by the “chief of sinners” himself (1 Tim. 1:15), the apostle Paul. The Book of Romans has been called by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “the most profound writing that exists,” and “the premier example of epistolary writing” — not just of the Pauline letters, nor of the New Testament, “but also in all of ancient literature.” (Zuck and Walvoord, 435) Indeed, Paul’s letter to the Roman believers has a unique historical significance, being the trigger and harbinger of the Protestant Reformation. It was Martin Luther, whose study and survey of the book, that launched the most sweeping religious reform Christianity has ever seen (the Reformation), most of whose tenets are largely held and upheld today. Luther went on to say of Romans:
The Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes. (xiii)
Indeed, there’s no sweeter gospel than that which is expounded and expressed in the Book of Romans.
A Gospel Explosion
Chapter 8 of Paul’s magnum opus, his masterpiece, has rightly been labeled “the high-water mark of the New Testament.” Romans 8 is certainly the bright star of a discourse in the vast canopy of the Scriptures. Of all the passages that are parsed and studied and exegeted, none is more sweepingly magnificent nor overwhelmingly awe-inducing than that of Romans 8. “If holy Scripture was a ring, and the Epistle to the Romans its precious stone, chapter 8 would be the sparkling point of the jewel.” (Spener, quoted in Godet, 295) This chapter encapsulates the entire gospel and surely stands as the basis of our “firm foundation” and “solid rock” of faith. “It would, perhaps, be impossible to select from the Bible a single chapter in which were crowded so much sublime, evangelical, and sanctifying truth as this eighth of Romans,” writes Octavius Winslow. “It is not only all gospel, but it may be said to contain the whole gospel.” (i) The entire epistle is like an atom bomb, just waiting to explode, upon both the believing and unbelieving soul. And, undoubtedly, chapter 8 is that explosion — a gospel-explosion!
Context! Context! Context!
When the Scriptures were originally written, there were no such things as chapter and verse breaks. It was simply continuous, flowing text. So, as much as we’ve acquired an affinity for preaching upon “a verse,” that was surely never the original intent of the author. The writers of your Bible meant for you to sit and read the entire discourse, beginning to end, thus making it easier for you to grasp the intent and purpose for which he is writing. So easy is it — and so dangerous and jeopardizing, also — to take verses by themselves and preach them as if they contain “whole truth.” Each verse is true, divinely so, but to verifiably know “whole truth,” we must remember the three most crucial words when embarking on any sort of hermeneutical endeavor: Context! Context! Context!
Context is key, and, indeed, context is king when venturing to know why something was written and how it applies to me. Therefore, when the apostle begins Romans 8 with, “There is therefore” we have to know and recall what he’s hearkening back to. To honestly understand the weight and gravity and beauty and transcendence of this chapter we have to glance at the previous chapters (and, as we’ll see, especially chapter 7). Romans can essentially be divided into three parts: Diagnosis, in chapters 1–3; Deliverance, in chapters 4–11; and Description, in chapters 12-15. (That outline’s not original to me.) Paul begins by analyzing his readers and pronouncing them all sinners. (Rom. 3:23) He levels the playing field, knowing that he was delivering this message to both Judaizers and Antinomians, Jew and Gentiles — a very diverse and tense audience — by declaring: “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one . . . no one does good, not even one.’” (Rom. 3:9–18)
Affirming, then, that we all have no chance of saving and rescuing ourselves, the apostle turns next to bring them the glorious deliverance of the wondrous gospel of Christ, in such breathtaking expressions as “but God show his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8) “The free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” (Rom. 5:15) “Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.” (Rom. 5:20) “You are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14) “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23) All this he tells them, in a word, that the redeemed in Christ are eternally loved in Christ with an unshakable, unflappable love. The Christian opens his eyes every morning to something far more joyous than a “clean slate” — he wakes up being perfectly and infinitely loved, forgiven, and accepted by God the Father, on the merits of the Son, despite our woeful, sinful hearts.
Already vs. Not-Yet
And then we come the controversy that arises in Romans 7, where Paul shows the true reality of the sanctified life — that being, a life of struggle. To understand the glory and majesty of the eighth, we must feel and wade through the doldrums of the seventh. When you get saved and accept the white robe of spotless righteousness that Jesus offers to all (Rev. 7:13–17), you’re immediately thrust into conflict, into tension, into war. This war is being waged in your heart and soul, between that which your old nature desires and that which your new nature desires. We’re commanded throughout the New Testament to “put off the old self” and “put on the new.” (Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:9-10; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 6:6) This battle of the old against the new is the sum of our responsibility in sanctification, and the sum of the apostle’s struggle in the text before us. “For I do not do the good I want [to do], but the evil I do not want [to do] is what I keep on doing.” (Rom. 7:19)
The imputation of Christ’s righteousness and imparting of his grace in your heart also implants new desires and wants and affections in your soul, so that you have new inclinations and appetites for holiness. God desires that all those who’ve been redeemed and adopted by grace into his Kingdom become worthy of their calling. (Eph. 4:1–3; 1 Thess. 2:11–12) These new, holy passions war against our former passions. (1 Pet. 1:14; Col. 3:5–8) “These two natures will never cease to struggle so long as we are in this world,” writes Charles Spurgeon. “The old nature will never give up; it will never cry truce.” You and I are in a battle, between the “already” and the “not-yet” of our salvation. You’ve already been justified (that is, freed from the penalty of sin), but you’ve not yet been glorified (that is, freed from the presence of sin). This means that the old lusts and cravings still lurk within, and always they seek to make us useless for God.
The Simul & Sanctification
We have to see that sanctification isn’t a checklist. It’s not some sort of divinely sent to-do list, that, if followed, will automatically render our lives holy. Likewise, it’s not you “working” and “doing” and “striving” to somehow gain a more right and better standing before God. Because what kind of better standing is there than the one Jesus has already secured for you? A standing of perpetual pardon, free grace, and everlasting forgiveness; what could possibly be more comforting than this? Nothing.
Sanctification is a struggle; it’s a battle for belief. (Rom. 3:22; John 6:29) It’s engaging in the war for your heart. Sanctification — that to which all God’s children have been called — is continually and consistently recognizing and remembering the “now-power” of the gospel, which is the truth that declares us as God’s heirs even while we’re his enemies. (Rom. 5:8) It’s “that act of God whereby he declares an ungodly man to be perfect while he is still ungodly.” (Barnhouse, 1) It’s preaching to ourselves that which Luther coined, simul justus et peccator, “simultaneously justified and a sinner.”
This means that in and of ourselves we’re still sinners; there’s no amount of goodness in us. (Jer. 17:9) But by imputation and by faith and by grace, Jesus’s righteousness has been transferred to us, so that we’re now considered and seen as just and righteous in the eyes of God. This is the heart of the gospel and the foundation of our faith. The life and “work” (Phil. 2:12) of the believing soul is not something of your own doing, of your own strength — it’s all of God, and of grace. (Phil. 2:13) The “work” you’re called to do in this fight of sanctification is to wage war against the old nature’s temptations and taunts that say, “Give up,” and to continue “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb. 12:2)
So, when Paul begins, “There is there now no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1), he’s making a colossal gospel-declaration and theological statement. Christians are liberated, freed, and emboldened, by Jesus’s grace, to own their failures, because their salvation, their standing, their lives don’t depend or rest or rely on them, but on God! In the words of Tenth Avenue North, “we are free to struggle. We’re not struggling to be free.”
You’ve Already Won
You’re not engaged in the fight to somehow gain or win your salvation (your freedom), you’ve already been freed, so therefore you fight to prove your salvation (your freedom). Combating sin isn’t a means of salvation, but it does prove and show and evidence that you are saved. The struggle is a sign of redemption — the fact that you’re battling sin proves the Holy Spirit’s presence in you. The unsaved person will never battle sin; the unregenerate soul is “dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13) But if you’re at war with your old nature, if you hate that blot of sin which still resides in you, then you’ve proven who you really are: a believer caught in the midst of his own sanctification, in the midst of the struggle between the old and the new.
The gospel means you’ve been found out. It eradicates fear and shame and gives you the freedom and boldness to say, “I’m not okay, and that’s okay; but by grace, I’m not going to stay this way.” Therefore, as Paul Tripp asserts, “you don’t have to be afraid of what is in your heart, and you don’t have to fear being exposed, because there is nothing in you that could ever be exposed that hasn’t already been covered by the precious blood of your Savior king, Jesus.” (28)
So, the truth holds firm: As Christians, we’re liberated to own up to our weaknesses and imperfections because we know our justification and salvation don’t rest on us and our performance, but on the perfect performance of Christ. We stand before a Holy and Righteous God and Judge with the title “No Condemnation,” not because of anything we’ve done or merited, but solely because of Christ! “No condemnation” is the glorious benefit of the gospel, in which the Judge views us, not in the blackness and darkness of our sin, but in the light of his Son’s perfection and substitution, which has eternally secured our redemption.
The debt has been canceled and the pardon paid in full. (Col. 3:14) “The propitiation has already been provided, offered, and accepted.” (Barnhouse, 3) Our Attorney has graciously interceded for us and transacted the glorious exchange, putting our guilt on himself and his grace on us. We have “no condemnation” because we’re hid with Christ based on what he did and secured for us on the cross. (Col. 3:3) This is the ground and motivation of our whole lives — our full and free justification is what fuels our grace-driven sanctification. “The heart of sanctification,” says G. C. Berkouwer, “is the life which feeds on justification.” (93) Living sanctified isn’t about achieving some sort of “realized perfection”; it’s all about remembering how you’ve been justified and pardoned and forgiven. And then responding with absolute surrender and humble gratitude to the declaration, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:1)
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. 3, Part 3 (Philadelphia: The Evangelical Foundation, 1963).
G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification, translated by John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1952).
Frédéric Godet, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883).
Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954).
Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus: As Unfolded in the Eighth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991).
Roy Zuck and John Walvoord, Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2002).