Posted by: Johnold J. Strey | April 1, 2014

Sermon on Romans 8:1-4


Text: Romans 8:1-4


“Free at Last!” When you hear that phrase, what comes to mind? If you are at all in tune with American history, the phrase “Free at last!” brings to mind the conclusion of the famous “I Have a Dream” civil rights speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. If you are in tune with the African-American music tradition, you know that “Free at Last” is an old spiritual. If you enter “free at last” in a web search engine, you will see that phrase used to promote an addiction treatment support group, to describe a particular political action committee, and to advertise a bail bonds company.

“Free at Last” could just as easily be the theme of the opening verses in today’s Second Lesson. In that reading from Romans chapter eight, the apostle Paul gives a spiritual “Free at Last” speech. But it’s kind of an ironic “Free at Last” speech, because these words follow a chapter where Paul sounds like he is anything but spiritually free. Romans chapter seven could be called the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” chapter of the Bible, because Paul laments the ongoing spiritual struggle inside him between his old sinful nature and his new Christian nature. Just a couple of verses before the start of today’s Second Lesson, at the end of that “Jekyll and Hyde” chapter, Paul wrote, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” So how can Paul go from that to a spiritual “Free at Last” speech in just two verses?

That question isn’t just a theology question. It is a very real and practical question. Is there anyone here who has never struggled with guilt? Aren’t Lutherans supposed to be the ones all about grace and forgiveness and salvation! Then why should the power of sin and the pangs of guilt still plague my heart? Perhaps that is why Paul’s “Free at Last” speech deserves our attention—if for no other reason than that we ought to understand how Paul could make such a bold claim about his spiritual freedom when earlier, in the same breath, he acknowledged his ongoing struggles with sin.


Today’s Second Lesson begins: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Let me get this straight. Two verses earlier, Paul called himself “a wretched man.” Now he boldly and emphatically says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The word “condemnation” focuses on the punishment that comes from a verdict or judgment. To those who believe in Jesus Christ, Paul says there is no future punishment coming because of the guilty verdict we deserve for our sin. That’s great, but doesn’t that contract Paul’s own words two chapters earlier when he said, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a)? How can Paul say that, and then say two chapters later that there is no condemnation? How can we talk about grace and love and forgiveness when my life’s story and your life’s story are not very worthy of grace and love and forgiveness from God? 

Paul has made a bold statement, but he also explains that bold statement. “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.” Lutherans are used to talking about two main teachings of the Bible: law and gospel. The law shows us our sin; the gospel shows us our Savior, Jesus. Those two teachings are important because every verse of the Bible is going to fit into one of those two teachings. It is a great strength of Lutheranism that we teach and distinguish between law and gospel so clearly. But our clear (and proper!) distinction of those two terms might lead us into a bit of confusion in a few select verses of Scripture. That’s because the word “law” in the Bible can sometimes mean something other than the teaching of the law in contrast to the gospel.

When the Bible talks about the law, we usually think about God’s holy standards, the law we are supposed to follow perfectly but that we have never fully obeyed. But the word “law” can also mean a rule or a principle. For example, we can talk about the laws of science. The laws of science don’t tell us how to live or what to do. Those are “laws” in the sense that they are facts or principles that govern our lives. The law of gravity is a fact or a principle that governs my life because it keeps me from floating out into space. But the law of gravity doesn’t make me feel guilty or show me that I’m a sinner. It’s the same word, “law,” but with another definition.

Paul is using another definition of law in verse two. “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” This is the reason why he could make the bold statement he did in verse one. There is a new ruling principle in our hearts and lives. The Holy Spirit has planted spiritual life into the hearts of those he has brought to faith in Jesus. In this way, the Holy Spirit is the new ruling principle in our hearts that has taken over the previous ruling principle of sin and its partner, death.

“Okay, Paul. You’ve explained to us that there is a new sheriff in town. But that doesn’t solve my problem with guilt. That doesn’t erase my struggle with sin. I still don’t see how you can say that there is no condemnation anymore.”

If you’re wondering that, Paul goes on to explain what he means in verse three. “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.” We know that God’s law is powerful. It is powerful to point out our shortcomings! But the law is also powerless. It could not fix our shortcomings. The law of God tells us to be perfect, but it can’t make us perfect. All it can do is rub guilty-feeling salt into the guilty-verdict wounds of our heart.

That’s why Paul says the law was powerless. It can’t get us to do what it tells us to do! It can only get us into trouble—big trouble—eternal trouble! And we know this by human experience. What is your particular struggle or addiction or “pet sin”? I’d be very surprised if any one of us wouldn’t think of something. You know your heart. Think of whatever that struggle is. Now imagine that someone tells you, “Well, just do better next time. Try harder. Be godlier.” How well does that work? It just adds to the guilt. It doesn’t provide the solution.

So God provided the solution. “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.” Here is the teaching we typically call the gospel. But it is interesting to see how Paul describes the gospel. God did what the law couldn’t do. He sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful man.” Jesus was not a sinful man. He was the holy Son of God who became just like sinful human beings, but with one key exception—he was fully human, but he had no sin! And in this sinless man, God did this: “He condemned sin in sinful man,” or more literally, “He condemned sin in the flesh.” Our printed translation might be a bit unclear. Instead of “sinful man,” Paul uses the term, “flesh.” Sometimes the Greek word “flesh” was Paul’s term to talk about our sinful nature, but here it is a term to emphasize that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human being like us. When Jesus died on the cross, when he endured hell as his Father turned his back on him and poured out his wrath for our sin on him, God was condemning sin “in the flesh.” Jesus, a real flesh-and-blood human being, could pay the price for the sins of all humanity because he is fully human just like us.

Maybe that sounds cruel. But God wasn’t doing this to be cruel. God did this to change our eternal situation. Paul wrote, “And so [God] 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.” When God condemned Jesus for us, something happened that could never have happened under God’s law. The guilty verdict we deserved was placed on Jesus on the cross. He endured sin’s punishment in our place. The innocent verdict Jesus deserved was accomplished for all people and is now applied to us who believe in Jesus.

Don’t believe it? Look at Paul’s inspired words again! “[God] 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.” Paul didn’t forget what he said about his (and our) ongoing struggles against sin a half dozen verses earlier. But our identity in Jesus is different. In a slightly more literal translation of verse four, Paul calls us those “who do not walk according to the [sinful] flesh but according to the spirit[ual nature].” This is how the Holy Spirit now describes us! Because Jesus has made us this in God’s eyes, there is now no condemnation! You are spiritually free at last!


If you have ever listened to the NPR weekend radio program called A Prairie Home Companion, you are familiar with host Garrison Keillor telling his famous fictitious stories about life in Lake Woebegone, Minnesota. There are two churches in Lake Woebegone that Keillor often talks about—Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, and then the simply-named Lake Wobegone Lutheran Church. Despite the more sarcastic name for the Roman Catholic Church, Keillor also knows how to make fun of Lutherans, and much of his humor isn’t off the mark. But you’ll notice that it wasn’t the Lutheran Church in town that got the guilt-inducing nickname. Even in the humorous world of A Prairie Home Companion, everyone knows that Lutherans aren’t about guilt. They’re about grace and redemption and salvation and forgiveness.

I guess that means that people sitting in a Lutheran church shouldn’t struggle with guilt. We should only expect that in those other “flavors” of Christianity, right? I’m quite certain that if I took a poll this morning about how many of you never experience guilty feelings, there wouldn’t be too many raised hands, and if I saw a raised hand, I’d probably think you were lying! The Paul who is frustrated with his battles against sin in Romans chapter seven and who is left asking, “Who will rescue me?” is a Paul that we can relate to!

Do you want freedom from guilt? Then listen to God’s declaration! “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” There are no strings attached to that statement! God simply proclaims that his Son and your Savior became just like you, that he endured hell’s punishment for you, and that he hands his perfect record over to you. You have a new ruling principle—not the guilt that comes from the law’s “do’s” and “don’ts,” but the peace that comes from the Savior’s “done” and “It is finished!” and “Free at last!” declaration.

There is a big difference between guilty feelings and a guilty status before God. On this side of heaven, there will be times when we struggle with guilty feelings. God says in the Bible that he “remembers [our] sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34), but we can struggle with the memory of those sins in our minds despite his sure and unfailing promise. But the good news you and I can take home today is that the emotion of guilt cannot undo the verdict of “innocent” Jesus won for you at the cross and that the Holy Spirit gave to you at the baptismal font. That is why the death of Jesus is so necessary. That is why the cross of Jesus is so important. That is why the blood of Jesus is so precious. That is why the familiar yet never-tiresome words of Paul bring good news to our ears and great peace to our souls: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That is a fact for you and all believers no matter how you feel yesterday or today or tomorrow. We are free at last! Believe it! Rejoice in it! Live in it! Amen.




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