In Romans 8.1, Paul recorded an exhilarating thought:
"There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit."
Remarkably, these 26 words (there are only 15 in Greek) soundly refute at least three prominent religious errors.
First, this passage conflicts with the doctrine known as "unconditional salvation," which alleges that everyone will be saved ultimately, regardless of the choices we make in this life.
The word, "condemnation" (katakrima), has to do with a "damnatory sentence" (Thayer, 332) pronounced against the guilty, "with a suggestion of punishment following" (Vine, 119).
Hence, there will be no punishment. But for whom? Not for everyone unconditionally.
According to the passage, the promise of no-condemnation is available to those:
(1) who are in Christ Jesus (for more on this point, see my article, Salvation In Christ);
(2) who do not walk according to the flesh; and
(3) who walk according to the Spirit.
Thus, consistent with the teaching of the New Testament at large, Paul views condemnation as the rule for humanity (cf. 3.10ff), while non-condemnation (which is the exception, cf. Lk. 13.5; Jn. 3.3, 5; Mt. 18.3-9) is confined to those who meet these three essential criteria.
Sadly, according to Jesus, there will be "many" who fail to honor these conditions, instead choosing a path which "leads to destruction" and "everlasting fire" (Mt. 7.13; 18.8), while only "few" will humbly accept these terms, so as to avoid eternal condemnation.
Accordingly, salvation is conditional and limited to those who "walk" righteously "in Christ Jesus," contrary to the claims of the universalist.
Second, the verse contradicts the belief that "once we are saved, we are always saved" (also casually known as the "impossibility of apostasy"). Advocates of this view are correct when they oppose the teaching of the universalist (addressed previously), but these sectarians nonetheless believe that once a person is placed "in Christ," he will then be saved unconditionally. To them, being "in Christ" is the only condition necessary to avoid condemnation. So long as you were saved previously, they claim, you can never again be in spiritual jeopardy.
To be clear, the Bible teaches the conditional impossibility of apostasy — that is, if we are faithful to God, it is utterly impossible for us to so fall as to be eternally condemned (cf. 2 Pet. 1.5-11; 1 Jn. 3.6-9). Indeed, even in this life, it is possible to make our salvation "sure" (i.e., secure, 2 Pet. 1.10), making eternal condemnation not possible. How?
According to this passage, one must not only be "in Christ Jesus" to avoid condemnation, but one must also walk "according to the Spirit" (in faithful compliance with the Spirit's instructions, vv. 2ff), and not "according to the flesh" (transgression against the Spirit's law, vv. 2ff). Contrary to the once-saved-always-saved crowd, being in Christ is not enough. The saved individual must continue to "walk" righteously, else he return to a state of condemnation once more.
This, too, is consistent with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament.
For instance, Peter — a saved individual — "stood condemned" (ASV) for walking according to the flesh on one occasion (Gal. 2.11).
Simon the sorcerer also is illustrative of this point (cf. Acts 8.13, 20-24). Indeed, if a child of God should return to walking "according to the flesh," he will ultimately be lost, even though he was, at one time, saved (cf. 2 Pet. 2.1ff; Heb. 10.29; Jms. 5.19-20).
The only sure-fire way to make our own condemnation impossible is by (1) living a righteous life (2) in Christ.
Third, Romans 8.1 clashes with "faith alone."
It is true that faith is essential to salvation (cf. Heb. 11.6; Jn. 8.24). In this very same document, Paul contends that we are "justified by faith," which, in turn, furnishes "peace with God" to the believer (Rm. 5.1).
Yet, faith must be operational. It must express itself in action. Faith, by itself, cannot justify the sinner (cf. Jms. 2.19ff).
Again, according to this passage, one must "walk…according to the Spirit" in order to avoid condemnation. It is not enough to believe according to the Spirit. There is something we must be doing. Those who fail to so "walk," cannot experience non-condemnation.
(1) if you are not in Christ, you stand condemned (contra universalism);
(2) if you are in Christ, but are walking according to the flesh, you stand condemned (contra once saved always saved); and
(3) if you are in Christ, are not walking according to the flesh, but, through faith alone, are not walking according to the Spirit, you also stand condemned.
In order to avoid condemnation, one must be in Christ; one must not walk according to the flesh; and one must walk according the Spirit.
It is exciting to know that, though we are all guilty of sin (cf. Rm. 3.10ff), God has provided a way to avoid condemnation. May we learn humbly to take advantage of this precious gift.
Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book Company, 1889. Vine, W.E. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985.