Understanding Romans 8:1

Pastor John, I am confused. Romans 8:1 tells me that the one in Christ Jesus is no longer under condemnation and yet when I read the King James Version, that is not the case. My heart sinks to think that I have to live a life pleasing to God “in the Spirit” before I can be certain of my standing with God. I can never look at my life for even a day and say I am fully walking “after the Spirit.” I have anxious thoughts and sin is sadly a daily reality in my life. I can really identify with Paul’s struggle against sin in Romans chapter 7. Yet it would seem that Paul’s whole message of justification by faith alone would be destroyed if the King James Version rendering of the Romans 8:1 verse is correct. What is going on? Can you provide any insight here?

Your question is a very important one. Yes, I do believe I can help.

You are right. If the King James Version rendering of Romans 8:1 is correct, then our standing with God is based upon our performance rather than by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The King James Version is an excellent translation normally, but in this particular verse, it gets it wrong and the consequences can indeed be tragic.

One would have thought that his error would have been corrected when the New King James Bible was introduced some years back. However, this is not the case. A marginal note does explain the issue but the text itself remains unchanged from the King James’ rendering.

Without getting too technical, the King James Version and New King James Version are excellent translations of an inferior Greek text. Scholarship has advanced dramatically in the last 400 years (since the KJV was produced) and the newer translations such as the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version (and others) eliminate the problem by using a much more reliable Greek text as a source.

The issue at Romans 8:1 is well known and documented by scholars. It is not so well known generally. The vast majority of Christians and sadly, many pastors and teachers are not informed when it comes to Greek manuscripts and the issues involved in textual variants. I would highly recommend Dr. James White’s book “the King James Only Controversy” (especially the first three chapters of the book) for an overview. Though the field can be a complicated and technical, requiring a great deal of study, certain basic issues are easily understood and it is not beyond most of us to grasp the main concepts.

I have a number of commentaries on Romans and every one of them address the issue correctly regarding the very well known textual issue at Romans 8:1. Let me quote just one, that being Dr. James Montgomery Boice’s, from volume 2 of his 4 volume series on Romans:

Here I must deal with a manuscript problem. Those who use the Authorized or King James text will notice the addition of the words “who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit” following the words “Christ Jesus” in verse 1. This is certainly an error, as even the famous Schofield Bible, which uses the King James text, acknowledges in a footnote. It is worth pointing this out because, if the clause is retained, it suggests exactly the opposite of what the text actually says.

In its corrupt form the text reads, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit” (KJV), which seems to be saying that if we continue to lead a godly life “in the Spirit” we will not be condemned, but that if we fail to lead a godly life we will be.

How did such a serious textual error come about? We do not know exactly, but it is not hard to imagine how this might have happened. For centuries before the invention of the printing press just prior to the Reformation, Bible manuscripts were copied by hand, and from time to time the copyists made errors, as we would have done ourselves. In the vast majority of cases the copyists were accurate. That is why we have such accurate texts today. Even when there are errors, we can correct them by comparing the errant copy with the multiplicity of other more perfect manuscripts. Still, mistakes were made, and this seems to have been the case here.

We can imagine a weary monk working his way through the Book of Romans, perhaps early in the morning when he was still sleepy or else late at night. He has finished chapter 7 and begins chapter 8, writing, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…” But at this point he either dozes off or perhaps, weary with the arduous work of copying, looks ahead to the end of the book to see how much more there is to do (he is only halfway through!). When he returns to his work his eye falls not on verse 2, where he should pick up, but on the latter half of verse 4, where he copies “who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.” This is a mistake, of course, a serious one, but it sounds right to him. It flows grammatically. So he continues by copying verse 2 and the verses after it.

Does this mean that we cannot trust the Bible? No! There are only a handful of such problems, and besides, they are well known to those who work with Bible texts. They have been corrected. Nevertheless, in this case the problem existed a long time.

What I am saying is that these words do not belong. If they did, our escape from condemnation would last only as long as our next faltering step or sin; then we would be back under condemnation again. Thank God, salvation is not like that! Salvation is from God. It is by God. What the text says is that there is no condemnation for those who have been joined to Jesus Christ by God the Father through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit.

As I have hopefully made clear, more modern translations such as the English Standard Version have corrected the error found in the KJV and NKJB. The ESV text reads:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 1

You will notice a small numerical number 1 after the verse. When we go to the margin to seek an explanation, under note (1) it reads, “Some manuscripts add who walk not according to the flesh (but according to the Spirit)

I believe this is the perfect way to handle the verse. The correct translation of the most authoritative Greek text is cited, with a marginal note to say that other texts contain an additional phrase, and yet these texts are not authoritative enough to warrant being part of the biblical text.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Romans 8:1

  1. hey!, even if romans 8:1 is correct in the kjv’s … romans 8:9 seems to show that if the Spirit of God is in you, are not condemned, even if your making errors.

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