No Condemnation Here
When you go to the doctor, whether it’s for an annual physical or because you’re sick, they always weigh you, don’t they? How many of us dread that moment? It’s like, “How many cheeseburgers have I eaten in the last year?” They do the same thing for children and teenagers too, along with checking their height. And then, for kids, they plot their height and weight on a growth curve. Kind of shows you where your baby or child or teenager’s growth falls on the normal growth curve for others of their same age and sex. And you find out what percentile they fall in for height and weight. So if your kid is in the 97th percentile for height, they’re unusually tall, right? They’re taller than all but 3 percent of the other kids of their age and sex. Most of the time, the doctor doesn’t get too concerned about where they fall on the scale, because there’s really a wide range of normal. But if their weight falls lower than the third percentile, meaning they’re in the bottom three percent in weight, or if they fall 20 percent below the ideal weight for their height, and there’s no other identifiable cause for this, they may be diagnosed with FTT – failure to thrive. It’s a diagnosis given to children, and sometimes adolescents, whose growth and development rate is well below that of other kids of their same age and sex. Like way below. The initials FTT go on the chart of an infant or child who, usually for unknown reasons, is unable to gain weight or grow. In adolescents, it can show up in extremely short stature or a lack of the usual changes that occur in puberty.
Failure to thrive. Sometimes, they guess, it happens when a parent or care-giver is depressed, and the depression seems to get passed down. Sometimes something seems to be off in an infant’s metabolism for reasons no one can understand, so FTT is one of those mysterious phrases that sounds like an explanation but explains nothing.
Failure to thrive. It strikes me as an unspeakably sad condition. Not growing, and we don’t really know why. Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines is a book that has had a huge impact on me. In addition to being a significant author and ordained minister in the Christian world, Dallas was also a professor and at one time director of the school of philosophy at the University of Southern California, so his books aren’t light reading, but they’re excellent. He had a brilliant mind. In fact, his work laid the foundation for James Bryan Smith’s Apprentice series on being an apprentice of Jesus which we offer here at Christ Church.
Well, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas writes that although we have tended to think of the word salvation as the forgiveness of sins or the escape from punishment, it actually has a much more robust meaning for the writers of Scripture: “the simple and wholly adequate word for salvation in the New Testament is ‘life.’ ‘I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.’ ‘He that hath the Son hath life.’ ‘Even when we were dead through our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ.’”
This is the human condition. FTT. Failure to thrive. Thrive is a life word; a word full of shalom. Thriving is what life was intended to do, like a flower stubbornly pushing through a crack in the sidewalk. It is why we pause in wonder at a human being’s first step, or first word; and why we ought to wonder at every step, and every word. Thriving is what God saw when he made life and saw that it was good. “Thrive” was the first command: be fruitful, and multiply.[i] We even sing a song about thriving here during worship sometimes, but what do we mean when we sing “We were meant to thrive”? That’s an incredibly true statement. But it can be really misunderstood. Does it mean that God’s plan for my life is to be always healthy and incredibly wealthy? That’s the understanding of those who hold to a prosperity type of gospel. Does it mean that life is always good, never difficult? There are a lot of people in church sanctuaries every Sunday who think that, and wonder why life is so hard sometimes. Like, has God turned his back on me or something? Have I done something wrong?
What does it mean to thrive in the Kingdom of God? Is it financial prosperity? A good job? The ability to adequately support my family? A nice house, nice car, and a boat? Is it relatively smooth sailing on life’s journey? Or is it something else? In Philippians 4:12-13, St. Paul writes, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” If anyone knew what thriving in God’s Kingdom looks like, it was Paul. So thriving can include plenty and abundance. But it can also include hunger and need. So there’s something deeper to thriving in God’s kingdom than what we typically associate with thriving, doing well, success. And as we turn now to Romans 8 in our journey through Romans, Paul begins to describe exactly what real thriving in God’s kingdom entails. Turn to Romans 8:1-4.
Romans 8 has been called the inner sanctuary within the cathedral of Christian faith. It’s the heart of the gospel and one of the most beautiful descriptions of grace found in Scripture. It’s words are profound. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In the modern world, the word “condemned” has two major uses. Two meanings. The first is that of a criminal being sentenced to a particular punishment, usually death. They’re convicted of a crime by a jury and then condemned, or sentenced to death, by a judge. It can also mean being declared unfit for use, as in “that house has been condemned.” In other words, it needs to be torn down. In the Bible, the word translated here as condemned only appears 3 times, and all 3 are in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and again it has the sense of a sentence handed down by a judge after due process, after guilt has been established.
So Paul has spent most of the first 7 or so chapters of Romans laying out for us in painstaking and depressing detail the reality of the human condition. Seven chapters that hammer home the truth he proclaims in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s the theme of the first part of Romans, and understanding that truth is absolutely crucial to seeing and experiencing the amazing grace of God for what it is. We as human beings, collectively and as individuals, have a problem, and it isn’t just a brokenness, imperfection problem. Yes, we are flawed. We make mistakes. We mess up. But the problem runs deeper than that. We have a moral problem. We have a sin problem. The goodness we can muster, and some of us can muster quite a bit, still falls far short of the standard of righteousness that God’s nature establishes – absolute moral perfection. “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” The great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” And if we’re going to grasp the beauty of the gospel, if we’re going to see the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as truly good news, we have to understand that truth. “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”
And no matter how hard we try, on our own, in our own strength, we cannot keep God’s moral law. We can keep parts of it, and we all do. God’s law exposes and condemns our sin, but it doesn’t save us. And no one, not one of us, can keep it perfectly. We just can’t. Paul has laid out God’s case against humanity in painstaking detail. We stand convicted of sin. All that’s left is the sentence. We expect to be condemned. But then Paul throws a curve ball at us.
Look again at V. 1. The word “therefore” always indicates that what is now being said grows from and is built on the case that has already been made. “Therefore,” because of everything that has been said to this point, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Notice that he doesn’t say there is no condemnation. He says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Condemnation is the expected result of conviction, and it comes to all, unless. Unless they are in Christ Jesus. Convicted of sin, but not condemned to death. Why? Because of Jesus. Because we are “in Christ.”
What does “in Christ” mean. Look at V. 3. Here Paul means two things. First, he means through the work of Christ. Because of the birth of Christ, and the life of Christ, and the death of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Paul is incredibly specific here. If he had said, “Christ came in sinful flesh,” he would have been saying that Christ was fallen and sinful just as we are. But if he had said, “Christ came in the likeness of flesh,” he would have been saying, “Christ wasn’t REALLY human. He APPEARED to be human, but wasn’t really.” But in saying, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” he validates the authenticity of Christ’s human body while still indicating that his flesh wasn’t sinful.
But Paul also has another meaning in mind in using the words “in Christ.” Look at V. 4. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ – through the work of Christ, and IN UNION WITH Christ. The righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled IN US. How? We can’t keep God’s moral law. Not all of it, all of the time. Not perfectly. So how is the righteous requirement of the law fulfilled in us? In our union with Christ. One of my favorite phrases is, “When we place our faith in Christ, his life becomes our life, his death becomes our death, and his resurrection becomes our resurrection.” He takes our just condemnation on himself, and gives us his just reward for his righteousness. Notice that the word “requirement” is singular. That’s intentional. In Christ, God has fulfilled the entirety of his own moral law’s demand on our behalf. United with Christ, we have fulfilled the righteous requirement of God’s law.
So I just have to be united to Christ, right? I’ve just gotta unite myself to Christ. Okay, so how do I do that? I don’t. I can’t. That is something God does through the Holy Spirit. Look at V. 2. And again at V. 4. “The Spirit of life.” “According to the Spirit.” As followers of Christ, we no longer live according to the flesh. Flesh here doesn’t mean body, or skin and bone and muscle. It means our “this-world orientation,” our orientation toward sin and rebellion against God. As followers of Christ, we now live according to the Holy Spirit. We live productive, fruitful lives in the Kingdom of God. We obey God, not because we’ve become masters at doing right, determined to obey, but because the Holy Spirit is alive in us. So what does that look like? We become super-spiritual, right? No. We become perfect, right? No. Not this side of death. We become super-evangelists, right? Not necessarily. No, it’s more like the Holy Spirit quietly produces his fruit, his product, in our lives. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” So our ability to love God, others, and ourselves grows. Our joy grows. Our peace grows. Our patience grows. Our kindness grows. Our goodness grows. Our ability to be faithful to God and people of our word grows. Our gentleness grows. Our self-control grows. A group of people like that will transform the world around them. People will be drawn to Christ in them like moths to a flame.
In the first 7 chapters of Romans, the word “Spirit” appears twice. In Romans 8, it appears 20 times. We begin to thrive in Christ as the Holy Spirit flows through us, empowering us, transforming us. He doesn’t take control of us like a puppeteer or the programmer of a robot. No, he transforms us from the inside out until our desires and wills themselves begin to show the likeness of Christ. And we begin to thrive. We may never have a lot of money, or we might have more than enough. We might never be completely physically healthy, or we might be incredible physical specimens. We might be successful in this world’s eyes, or we might have nothing. We might sail smoothly through life, or have lives filled with obstacles and pain. But we will be thriving in the Kingdom of God.
Dr. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ tells this story of a famous oil field called Yates Pool:
During the depression this field was a sheep ranch owned by a man named Yates. Yates wasn’t able to make enough on his ranching operation to pay the principal and interest on the mortgage, so he was in danger of losing his ranch. With little money for clothes or food, his family (like many others) had to live on government subsidy. Day after day, as he grazed his sheep over those rolling West Texas hills, he was no doubt greatly troubled about how he would pay his bills. Then a seismographic crew from an oil company came into the area and told him there might be oil on his land. They asked permission to drill a wildcat well, and he signed a lease contract. At 1,115 feet they struck a huge oil reserve. The first well came in at 80,000 barrels a day. Many subsequent wells were more than twice as large. In fact, 30 years after the discovery, a government test of one of the wells showed it still had the potential flow of 125,000 barrels of oil a day.
And Mr. Yates owned it all. The day he purchased the land he had received the oil and mineral rights. Yet, he’d been living on relief. A multimillionaire living in poverty. The problem? He didn’t know the oil was there even though he owned it.
Many Christians live in spiritual poverty. They are entitled to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and his energizing power, but they are not aware of their birthright.[ii] By death Christ fulfills the law for us. By the Holy Spirit, we fulfill the law in union with Jesus, and begin to live according to the Spirit. No condemnation. Life. Let us pray.
[i] John Ortberg, “Ministry and FTT,” LeadershipJournal.net (June 2008)
[ii] Bill Bright, “How to Be Filled with the Spirit” (Campus Crusade publication)