Checking The Apostle: Paul’s Reckless Promulgation of Unguarded Statements
One of the more remarkable characteristics of Romans 8:1 (“no condemnation ”) is the unqualified nature of Paul’s statement. “No condemnation” is absolute. There are no footnotes or fine print to follow. This omission is central to Paul’s Gospel argument and Sola Fide itself. The absence of condemnation is the logical and theological conclusion of all that has been said up this point in the epistle. To suggest otherwise is to call into question the sufficiency of the death of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice. Only if Christ sufficiently absorbed our condemnation can we be assured we’ll avoid it in the future. Of course, via substitution, this is exactly what Christ did.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
Paul began Romans with the dilemma of God’s wrath (condemnation) and set out to prove its remedy via faith in Christ (Romans 3:21-26) over seven chapters. According to Romans 8:1, which is the crescendo of the Gospel treatise, assurance is the net gain of the Gospel. Certainly, assurance was the ultimate takeaway of the Reformation – which was itself a recovery of Paul’s Gospel. It makes sense that Paul’s treatise (justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone) would conclude this way. No other statement fits and no other conclusion can be reached. There is – “therefore” – no condemnation. “That’s pretty much it folks.” Drops the mic. Walks away. Except that evangelicals always seem to walk up on stage take the mic back up and set out to explain what Paul meant by what he said. “That’s right Paul, and thanks for that, but…”
Interesting that Paul’s unwillingness and deliberate resistance in accommodating our fear of Sola Fide bothers us so much. In a twist of Irony, evangelicals – especially the pietistic branches – have read Romans eight verse one with a footnote under their breath. It goes something like this.
There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus – provided their lives produce enough evidence by which they may be assured that they are in Christ in the first place and may, therefore, enjoy the assurance and peace that comes when we identify in ourselves the traits of those who are not going to be condemned.
As I’ve studied Romans 8:1 and interacted with various perspectives, I’ve been surprised by the number of commentators who go out of their way to provide the footnote Paul intentionally left out. This is expected, but the brazen amendments to the argument of a divinely inspired Apostle of Christ’s church give one pause. This impulse contradicts the very point the Apostle has been triumphantly working towards in Romans.
In my research there existed this very consistent need among evangelical scholars to rein the Apostle in and correct an assumed error in his theology – albeit subtly. There’s a “Let me explain what Paul meant by what he said” sort of tone. Ironically, that group of Christians noted for their defense of literal interpretation (evangelicals) cannot take Paul literally. More remarkable, many of them inadvertently align themselves with Paul’s opponents. (cf. Romans 3:8). Furthermore, they end up qualifying the full benefits of sola fide in Romans 8 even after the Apostle went out of his way to dispel all confusion and misunderstanding. (cf. Romans 6 & 7) At this point there is an obvious contradiction to explicit biblical teaching.
By way of example, and there are many others, consider Thomas Schreiner’s introductory thoughts to Romans 8 in his commentary on the epistle.
Those who are children are also heirs, but this inheritance is also conditioned upon obedience, upon the willingness to suffer. The emphasis upon condition does not detract at all from the main theme of chapter 8, which is assurance belonging to believers. – Schreiner, Romans, p. 393.
This paragraph is hard to process. In contrast, a simple scan of Romans 8 yields no sense of condition, or qualification. This idea comes out of nowhere with Schreiner. Any sense of transactionalism (if this… then that) or conditionality directly contradicts the unqualified assurance set forth in the beginning of the chapter. The two claims cannot co-exist. You cannot have assurance (“no condemnation”) and the absence of assurance (“inheritance conditioned upon obedience”) at the same time. These are logically contradictory ideas.
Theologically Schreiner’s argument for “conditioned assurance” finds no support from Romans 8 or confessional history. Assurance is ours by “faith” and “not by works” and is explicitly taught by the Apostle throughout the letter to the Romans. That’s the point of the epistle. In fact, assurance for Protestants goes in opposite direction – assurance is by “faith” in the “works” of Christ.
Partly, the above inconsistency is the bi-product of not allowing for the analogy of faith within Romans. “Analogy of faith” simply refers to the overarching and unifying theme of the Bible, or those located within individual books. In Romans the unifying theme is obvious – justification by grace through faith. This doctrine creates the greater context for the entire letter. All of Paul’s emphasis throughout the letter – no matter what they are in any given section – rests in this greater context. Therefore, it is inconsistent to argue against the central theme of a book from a chapter within the book. In other words, whatever Paul means by his comments in Romans 8 he cannot me that our assurance (or hope of salvation) is conditioned on our works even if empowered by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, Paul would be contradicting Paul. The argument for justification by grace through faith ended in Romans chapter five. What follows are implications of this truth. We contradict Paul when we interpret him this way.
In Romans 8 Paul transitions and begins to focus on the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of the believer. But, whatever the meaning of the Spirit’s work in in the believer’s life it cannot mean – as Schreiner suggests – that we “meet all the necessary conditions” through the Spirit’s power. This idea comes out of nowhere in the commentary. A biblical chapter that starts with assurance does not suddenly do an about face and present conditions for that assurance. Schreiner’s theology and take on the passage makes very little sense in light of the central argument of Romans – God “justifies the ungodly. ” (Romans 4:5) “Ungodly” people stand just before God as a result of faith alone and not works. Sinners standing just does not mean they were once were sinners, but that they are just before God despite the fact they are sinners as a result of Justification by faith.
It seems to me that the author is subject to that same needling tendency to check the Apostle’s theology in a place the Apostle left his theology unchecked. Such amending is unnecessary. As one minister in the Free Church of Scotland put it,
These expressions of the Apostle have often been shrunk from; dreaded as dangerous; quoted with a guarding clause, or rather cited as seldom as possible, under the secret feeling that unless greatly diluted or properly qualified, they better not be cited at all. But why are these bold utterances there, if they are perilous, if they are not meant to be fearlessly proclaimed now as they were written eighteen centuries ago? What did the Holy Spirit mean by the promulgation of such ‘unguarded’ statements, as some seem disposed to reckon them? It was not for nothing they were so boldly spoken. Timid words would not have served the purpose. The glorious gospel needed statements such as these to disentangle the great question of acceptance; to relieve troubled consciences, and purge them from dead works, yet at the same time to give works their proper place.
Perhaps some of Luther’s statements are too unqualified; yet their very strength show how much he felt the necessity of so speaking of works, as absolutely and peremptorily to exclude them from the office of justifying the sinner. – Horatius Bonar, Everlasting Righteousness