The First Fruits of the Spirit
(Sermon 8 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley)
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1
There is no condemnation for those who live by grace as a part of the Body of Christ. (Romans 8:1). This is such good news, yet frequently misunderstood. This knowledge of grace can create a lazy attitude about our relationship with God, as if it doesn’t matter what we do because God is gracious anyway. To counter this delusion, we must ask, “what does life in Christ look like?” And in this context ask, “what does it mean to say there is no condemnation for those who live by grace?”
To be in Christ means to be found in him, not by our own righteousness, or our own justification, or our own goodness, but to be joined in the Lord by God’s grace. This grace, however, is much more than a legal judgement of forgiveness or a gift of inclusion without any worry about how we live. That understanding is a delusion. To be in Christ, as the scripture said, is “to walk in the Spirit” rather than to “walk in the flesh.” The word “flesh,” in Paul’s writings, signifies our corrupt nature. (See Gal 5:16-19). Those who are in Christ have “crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.” They live by a vision that calls them to abstain from all the works of the flesh – from idolatry, hatred, strife, envy, indeed from every word and work that flows from the corruption of God’s intent. With every fresh assault, which comes to those who are in Christ, there is also given a fresh occasion to praise and to cry out, “Thanks be to God who gives us victory through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
To be in Christ is to walk by the Spirit in heart and life, and to grow in the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, humility, temperance – and whatever else is worthy of praise. (Gal 5:22-23; Phil 4:8). Those who walk in the Spirit cultivate this fruit daily and do all things to the glory of God. On this journey we are transformed by the Spirit, from one degree to another, in the ways of love -- that “well of water springing up to eternal life.” (2 Cor 3:18; John 4:14).
That’s what it means to be “in Christ” and to “walk by the Spirit.” There is no semblance of grace being cheap or leading to lazy faith. The free grace of God comes as a high and holy calling, to become all that God created us to be.
And here is good news. As we make this journey there is no condemnation. That is the second point we want to explore. At the first level, there is no condemnation for past sins. It is as if all past sins were stones thrown into the deepest sea. To be in Christ is to be free from all guilt. In Christ, we have the peace of God ruling in our heart, flowing from a continual sense of God’s pardoning mercy. The chains have been lifted; bondage is no more; we are free.
But what if a follower of Christ loses sight of this mercy, and strays into darkness. My answer is this: to not stand in the mercy of God is to not believe. Faith implies light. To lose the light is to lose faith. This happens, even to true believers. It is possible to lose the light of faith and fall again, for a time, into bondage, but this does not mean that God abandons us. When we are “in Christ,” and believe in his name, there is no condemnation. As we walk in the Spirit of grace and mercy, we are not lost, even amid great trials and temptations. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).
Likewise, there is no condemnation from any present sin or inward sin. If the seed of God’s love remains, we cannot sin or be separated from God. The seeds of pride and vanity, anger and lust, may still be present, especially in those who are “babes in Christ,” but they are not subject to the law. Although they may feel the evil nature within them, with hearts of deceitfulness, if they do not yield or shut themselves off to the mercy of God, and remain in continual war with all sin -- with pride, anger, and all selfish desire, there is no condemnation. God is well pleased with our continuous, sincere, though imperfect, obedience and desire to be transformed.
Although they are continually convicted of sin, although they know they do not love God with all their being, although they feel pride or self-will, mixing with their best desires, although wandering thoughts still come as they pour out their hearts to God, yet still there is no condemnation. As we walk by the Spirit, the acknowledgement of these manifold defects only gives them a deeper sense of the love of God and this becomes, even more, the desire of their hearts. This acknowledgement, and continual spiritual work, empowers growth in love. This is the fruit that comes on this journey “in Christ.”
Lastly, there is no condemnation for anything whatever which is not in their power to help; whether it be of an inward or outward nature. For example, if the Lord’s Supper is to be administered in worship and you are not able to participate because of sickness, then there is no need for guilt. God’s mercy and understanding rest over our frail natures. A believer indeed sometimes may be grieved, because she or he cannot do what the soul longs to do. One may cry out if detained from worshipping. But in this omission, God is not displeased in any way.
If there is no condemnation for those who walk in the Spirit, why are we fearful? Even if one sins again, and the heart is moved to repent, that faith, once again, cancels all that is past and there is no condemnation. From every moment that you trust in Christ, all sins vanish away as the morning dew and “life and peace” come. As the Apostle Paul says, in Christ, we are set free and we did not receive this freedom to fall back into fear and bondage. (Romans 8: 1-14).
At the same time, this good news does not diminish the fact that committing sin is to stray from the life-giving way. Do not deceive yourself. Do not say “peace when there is no peace.” Do not fall into the trap of trying to justify yourselves. It is a good thing to face what is going on inside you and submit ourselves to the transforming grace of God. As you walk in the Spirit, pour out your heart to God. Cry out as one in need of healing. Pray for strength to fall no more. Trust in God to heal your back-sliding and to fill you again with the faith that works by love.
On this journey, Christ is our guide. We can rely on him. We will be transformed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another, as we walk in the Spirit. Wait in peace for that hour, when you are fully transformed in the kingdom of God and, in that moment, are able to recognize yourself and give thanks for all the graceful growth that came along the way. Amen.