Text: Romans 7:14-25
Opening: For the last two weeks we’ve talked about the war within believers that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 7. We started by considering the difference between being married to the law and married to Christ. God’s law, according to Paul, is perfectly righteous and good but unfortunately it sets a standard that none of us can live up to. So we end up feeling guilty and condemned by it. On the other hand, Christ accepts us on the basis of our faith in His sacrifice on the cross. And He does not make His acceptance of us conditional, pending our ability to do something to please Him. Instead He comes to Christians with unconditional and lavish love that so touches our lives that we want to please Him. It’s clear that this is a far more appealing option for us than trying to keep the commandments. That’s why, as God nudged us along, we repented of our sin and turned in faith to Christ in the first place. So what is Paul saying about the law? Is it sinful? No — it is God’s holy standard for how we’re to live in this world. However, the law does have a certain kind of relationship with sin that can be understood in at least three ways: First, it reveals sin in us (Romans 7:7 — had it not been for the law, I would not have known sin); second, it provokes sin in us (Romans 7:8 — But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness). This is our response as the law exercises authority over us — which in our fallen human condition makes us want to rebel against it; and last, it condemns sin in us (Romans 7:11 — For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me) so that we all face physical death (the separation of the body and soul) and spiritual death (our separation from God).
Verses 14-24 are painful for us to consider because we understand that they speak to our daily struggles. They describe the Christian life as we actually experience it with all the ups and downs. Now, to be fair about our interpretation of this passage, there are some who believe Paul is talking about his former life as an unbeliever living under the law rather than in submission to Christ. In my opinion, these people might have an argument except that he writes in the present tense as though these struggles were a part of his life after he met the Lord (“I do…I do not do”). Also we have to ask…why would a non-believer whose mind is hostile to God’s law according to Romans 8:7 call it good as Paul does in verse 16? It seems more realistic to me that he is not addressing life before and after Christ, but simply describing the Christian life now as it happens to all who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. In fact, one pastor calls it an autobiography of the Apostle’s own journey with Christ. He is sharing the path down which God led him for our benefit because the same struggle is also a necessary part of our growth in Christ. Some argue that we need it as much as an Albatross, which has the longest wingspan of any bird (up to 11 feet), needs strong wind currents to get airborne and stay aloft. If it doesn’t have that kind of powerful resistance during its takeoff, it will not fly at all. Now, let’s look together at the struggle Paul had with sin and how the same spiritual wrestling match we engage in every day impacts us.
We struggle with our actions (Romans 7:15-17 — I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me). I suspect that all of us can relate to Paul’s words here. We commit a sin which we know is wrong and then, upon further reflection, can’t even figure out why we did it in the first place! Listen…I wouldn’t even attempt to count the number of times I’ve opened my mouth and said something that was mean or unkind to hurt someone I love. On most of these occasions, only later did I think to myself…”Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut? Why couldn’t I control my tongue?” It was as if I had no ability to resist the sinful impulse! Now, of course, that’s not true. As Christians we always have the choice of yielding to the Holy Spirit and demonstrating godly character in any situation. God never places us in a situation where our only option is to sin. But when it comes to my old fleshly nature, I have to admit that it too frequently gets the best of me. Paul felt the same way about his battle to resist certain sinful impulses. And like us, he occasionally gave into them. That’s when his guilty conscience began convicting him that he’d fallen short of God’s standard yet again. This is what Paul means when he says, “If I do not do what I want, I agree with the law, that it is good.” The law is good because it calls us to love God and others. What could be better than that? Clearly Paul is not blaming the law for his sin, but his own fallen human nature which always acts contrary to the will of God. Application: It’s a difficult process that we engage in when we come to admit that we are morally depraved, that left to our own devices, we always seem to make the wrong decision, but it’s a necessary one. Otherwise, we will be tempted to think we can overcome evil desires on our own. Illustration: I suspect this is a little bit of what actor Bill Murray was thinking about when he was asked about his current eligible bachelor status. (Murray went through a painful divorce in 2009.) He said it would be nice to have a female companion for special events, but he also admitted that he needs to work on himself first. Murray said, “There’s a lot that I am not doing that I need to do.” When asked what, specifically, he felt was missing from his life, Murray replied: Just something like working on yourself or self-development or something … I don’t have a problem connecting with people. My [issue] is connecting with myself. If I am not really committing myself to that, then it’s better that I don’t have a different person [in my life]. Then Murray reflected on what stops us from looking into our own issues: “What stops us,” he said, “is we’re kind of really ugly if we look really hard. We’re not who we think we are. We’re not as wonderful as we think we are. It’s a little bit of a shock … it’s hard.”(Adapted from Julie Miller, “Bill Murray Explains Why He Doesn’t Have a Girlfriend,” Vanity Fair (10-8-14)). Of course, the Bible would agree! That’s why we struggle so much with our actions. We always seem to be fighting the urge to sin.
We struggle with repeated failure (Romans 7:18-20 — For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me). Unfortunately, our carnal nature makes us so weak in resisting sin! That’s what Paul means when he says in verse 19 … the evil he does not want to do is the very thing he keeps on doing. When he wrote these words he was serving as an apostle of Jesus Christ. We would be hard pressed to find another human being in the history of the church who was more committed to our Lord than Paul. And still he struggled with repeated failures (I keep on doing..). For those of us who have been followers of Christ for more than a short time, we totally understand what he’s saying. We can relate to his experience because we also do battle with certain sins over and over again. It’s not as if, by the way, that we find joy in giving into temptation. In fact, I would argue the exact opposite. The more we grow in our faith, the more we acquire a sincere hatred for sin. There is something else that is equally true. The more we grow in our faith the better our spiritual vision to see the degree to which we’ve been corrupted by sin. In time we come to see that if we do not submit to Christ’s lordship over us by the power of the Holy Spirit we have the potential to commit virtually any sin. It’s just a part of our human nature to do so. Illustration: In 2009, a German scientist named Jan Souman took a group of subjects out to empty parking lots and open fields, blindfolded them, and instructed them to walk in a straight line. Some of them managed to keep to a straight course for ten or twenty paces; a few lasted for 50 or a hundred. But in the end, all of them wound up circling back toward their points of origin. Not many of them. Not most of them. Every last one. “And they have no idea,” Dr. Souman told NPR. “They were thinking that they were walking in a straight line all the time.” Dr. Souman’s research team explored every imaginable explanation. Some people turned to the right while others turned to the left, but the researchers could find no discernible pattern. As a group, neither left-handed nor right-handed subjects demonstrated any predisposition for turning one way more than the other; nor did subjects tested for either right- or left-brain dominance. The team even tried gluing a rubber soul to the bottom of one shoe to make one leg longer than the other. “It didn’t make any difference at all,” explained Dr. Souman. “So again, that is pretty random what people do.” In fact, it isn’t even limited to walking. Ask people to swim blindfolded or drive a car blindfolded and, no matter how determined they may be to go straight, they quickly begin to describe peculiar looping circles in one direction or the other. Yonason Goldson, Proverbial Beauty (Timewise Press, 2015), page 136. Imagine that! People left to their own sense of direction always seem to be headed back to the place they started from. What is true of people as they simply try to move forward in a straight line is also true of believers who are wanting to follow Christ. If at any point, we take our eyes off the Lord and follow our own sense of direction, we’ll end up circling back again to the life we left behind only to relive it all over again. It can happen to anyone…Paul, me, even you.
We struggle admitting the war within (Romans 7:21-25 — So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin). There is an intense ongoing battle that takes place in every believer’s life. We are constantly having to choose between doing right or wrong, obeying or rebelling. Paul views it as a war between our fleshly desires that are only satisfied when we sin and our minds that are being transformed so that we seek to honor the Lord (I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind). Though we can have victory and overcome a sinful temptation by relying on Christ (Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!), we will never come to the place in this life where we will stop doing battle with sin. It’s vital that we understand this. There is no magic formula, no special blessing, no amount of Scripture memory or any other spiritual discipline that will remove us from this warfare altogether. This is just the way it is. You’re going to struggle and so am I. Many of us come to church this morning and we look good. We are well-dressed, smiling and act as if we don’t have a care in the world. But these verses suggest a different reality…that we’ve been battling it out with our sinful desires all week. Sometimes we’ve lost and sometimes we’ve won. Perhaps a more realistic image for us to present to each other is that of dirtied and bloodied soldiers catching a little rest and relaxation in a foxhole, out of the sights of the enemy. In just a little while, we’re all going to reenter the war and take some wounds along the way. So let me encourage you (infuse you with a little courage) to continue to do your battle with sin knowing that, like the rest of us, you’re going to struggle with your actions, repeated failures and at times even recognizing the war within, but don’t give up. The battle has been won. Christ Jesus has secured the victory for everyone of us.
In 1 John 1:8-10, the Apostle John addressed some false teachers who claimed they were without sin. They didn’t struggle with it because they denied it was an issue in the first place. Here’s what John had to say about them and anyone who chooses to deny their sin.
- If you don’t own your sin, you’re probably not a Christian (Verse 8 — If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us). When a person tells me that they’re struggling with a particular sin, I usually respond by saying, “Far better to struggle against sin, then to give into it!” The struggle tells me that you are very likely born again.
- If you don’t own your sin, you’ll never grow as a Christian (1 John 1:9 — If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness). When we admit our sins to God, He not only forgives them but gives us the power to overcome them. This ongoing process is one of maximizing the amount of time we walk with God and minimizing the time we walk in the flesh. I like to describe it as failing upward. Here’s what I mean. As you begin your walk with Christ, you start to grow. At some point you will fall back into sin for a period of time. Then God, in His grace, will give you a repentant heart and you’ll recommit to following Christ once more. Later, you’ll stumble again, eventually you’ll repent and turn back to God. This process will be repeated over and over again…two steps forward and one step back. While all this is taking place, you may be tempted to think you haven’t grown at all in your faith, but if you look back at where you began, you’ll come to see that your life has actually changed a lot. You see, the Christian life is not over when you stumble so long as you get back up again and keep on pursuing Christ. Illustration: From an article in the New York Times (Juliet Macur, “Scott Hamilton Was Demoted as an Olympic Broadcaster. Don’t Feel Sorry for Him.” The New York Times (2-18-18)) we read this about former figure skater Scott Hamilton who won the National and World Championships in 1981 before winning a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic. Hamilton and his wife Tracie have four children, including two children adopted form Haiti. He’s also a committed follower of Christ. While he was pursuing his success as a skater, he once said he dropped out of church involvement and started what he jokingly called “The Church of Scott.” But through the love of his wife and other Christians, he came to a sincere faith in Christ. Rooted in his faith, Hamilton had an interesting take on dealing with personal sin and failure. In a 2018 New York Times interview Hamilton said: “I calculated once how many times I fell during my skating career—41,600 times. But here’s the funny thing: I got up 41,600 times. That’s the muscle you have to build in your psyche—the one that reminds you to just get up.” Don’t forget that lesson Christians! It’s all about getting back up.
- If you don’t own your sin, you’re calling God a liar (1 John 1:10 — If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us). Why are we calling God a liar? Because He says we have sinned and fallen short of His glory (Romans 3:23). That’s why we need a Savior in the first place. Only Jesus can cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Conclusion: Dan and Chip Heath, the team of brothers who wrote the best-selling book Made to St