'There is therefore now no guilty verdict, no judgement sentence for those in the family of Jesus the Messiah.'
I’ve come up with a different translation to a verse that most will be know of in a more familiar form, 'Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.'
I admit that my translation of this text cannot match the rhetorical power of the original King James Bible, which is the basis for most versions since then and which has such deep resonance for many. So some explanation is due as to why I felt another translation would be helpful even if it hardly rolls off the tongue like the much-loved version. This especially so as there is much to be said in favour of saying it the way we all know. Most of us have struggled to fight off a sense of inner condemnation within us, an inner voice that doesn’t just seem to accuse us but to belittle us and demean us; it’s the finger jabbing nastiness of that voice that is so destructive.
It’s just as nasty when the voice comes from outside of us. Most of us know what it is like if we get something wrong, or at least some one thinks we have done something wrong, and then we find people getting nasty with us and having a go at us about it. It’s not just that they want to tell us we have done something wrong; it feels like they are really wanting to do us down and to make us feel we’re no good at all as a person. We’ve all heard people saying something like “he treated me like I was a piece of dirt” or perhaps we’ve been unfortunate enough to experience this ourselves. Satan is called the accuser and he seems to be on a mission not just to accuse, but to belittle and demean us.
It is certainly true that Christ came to rescue us from all this so in the face of such condemnation, whether it’s voices within us or outside us, it’s a very good thing to be able to say to ourselves strongly and firmly 'there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus'. It is possible Paul may have been thinking, in part, of such things when he wrote this verse; even if he wasn’t, I am sure he would approve of the sentiment.
However, there is a down-side to the standard translation. Whatever else he may have had in mind, Paul was almost certainly referring to some kind of judgement from God that is lifted from us when we come to Him through Jesus. Is it helpful to think of this as condemnation? Is God in the business of condemning people? The trouble with using that word is that the Greek word Paul uses here, 'katakrima', has an objective, judicial sense to it, whereas our word condemnation is a heavily loaded word with all kind of strong emotional overtones that are not pleasant to say the least. Being condemned has the feeling of being told, not just that we’ve got it badly wrong, but that we are being written off as person. When I hear the word being banded about, particularly in the context of political dispute, I can’t help feeling that the person using it is not just wanting to express their moral aversion to something (or wanting to get some one else to express to it), but they feel they are in a position to stand in judgement over someone and write them off as basically no good. In that sense, I would stick my neck out and say that God never condemns anyone for anything, and never will, because, although he is the only true just judge, he would never do anything in the kind of judgemental spirit that is so commonly found in us as fallen people; it is not a part of his character.
We have other more objective ways of expressing what happens when some one has committed a crime and is taken to court; we say they are found guilty and, when the verdict of the jury is confirmed and a punishment meted out, we say that the judge passes sentence. So while it is right to say that God doesn’t condemn, he does pronounce humanity guilty and he does pass sentence on it and, outside of Christ, this is something that to seems to hang over us like “a continuous low-laying black cloud” (as The Message puts it). What is that fundamentally all about? Why does it just not go away? Is it that, when we sin, one sin follows on to another so it’s a continuous problem, like a never-ending parade of guilty verdicts that merge into one overall guilty verdict? Is it like it was explained to me as a young Christian - that God expects 100% in the exam and even 99% is a failure, whilst most of us can barely manage a measly 15%? Is it that God is so holy that even to commit one sin is just too much for Him and He could never just forgive us for even that because he is too Holy to look on sin? Is it that the more Holy you are the more difficult you find it to forgive a wrongdoing? The trouble with these ways of trying to explain the problem is that they are addressing themselves to the symptoms of the problem rather than getting down to the root cause of it. The root cause of the problem is the break down of a relationship between God and humanity. We are told that this is something that started out as a flagrant act of wilful distrust and turning against God but that doesn’t mean that everyone since then has taken a conscious decision to defy God or ignore him. Paul talks about people who sin but not in the manner of Adam’s transgression; for Adam it was a clear conscious up-front decision that got the ball rolling but people living in the wake of that decision seem to confirm that decision usually in terms of an unconscious automatic assumption. There is plenty of evidence to challenge that assumption and God sends other things our way to try and shake us out of it, but nonetheless we start out with it as a natural inbuilt default position like its just part of our mental DNA. We are not responsible in the way Adam was but we all have the wherewithal to take responsibility for it and recognise the truth when it is put to us. We can all add two and two together and, if someone shows us, we can all see that two plus two equals four. However, if this is something we would rather not think about, will we be open to listening to some one who points it out? So often people are not open and that takes us towards the heart of the problem and gives us some clues as to the nature of this inbuilt mistrust, which is what really lies behind the broken relationship. Another thing that shows up the nature of our problem is just how difficult people find it to respond constructively when it’s clear they’ve gone badly wrong.
How then is God’s guilty verdict bound up with the breakdown of trust between humanity and God? You may have some thoughts of you own on this - click here to read my thoughts in part 2.