“Therefore, did what is good cause my death? Absolutely not! On the contrary, sin, in order to be recognized as sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment, sin might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am made out of flesh, sold into sin’s power. For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree with the law that it is good. So now I am no longer the one doing it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do. Now if I do what I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me. So I discover this principle: When I want to do what is good, evil is with me. For in my inner self I joyfully agree with God’s law. But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body.” (Romans 7:13-23 HCSB)
I am truly not a theologian, but I am a student of theology. If you’re unfamiliar with that word it simply means, the study of or thinking about God, and describes those of us who seek and want to know God more, and better. As a student, I am constantly in need of learning more on the subject. Simply put, I never arrive at the point of possessing all knowledge on this subject. There’s always more to discover, more to learn, more to know about our infinite, matchless, incomprehensible and glorious God. Ever the student, never the master. In fact, I think those who would actually deserve the title theologian would be the first to acknowledge they don’t deserve it for they are still students of God, themselves. Perhaps the term, believer, is a better and more accurate term to apply. That’s why I often choose to use that term to describe followers of Christ. I am a believer in the Messiah, a follower of the Truth, a student of The Master Teacher, and a sheep of the Great Shepherd. I often fail to believe and act in faith. I am prone to misstate the truth or misunderstand a principle I was taught. I wander away from the Good Shepherd, far too often. But in my years of experience as a follower of Christ (52+ years) and as a pastor (40+ years), I’ve come to realize that I’m not alone in these struggles. Do you find yourself doing these same things? Do my words describe your own experience? I suspect they do…
When “so-called” theologians study these words in Romans 7, they often struggle to comprehend and recognize the universal truths in Paul’s words. As mentioned last week, Paul switches from third person (verses 1-7a) to the first person nouns/subjects and past tense verbs (verses 7b-13). In verse 14, he switches once again from first person, past tense (sin was producing death in me) to first person, present tense (I am made out of flesh, sold into sin’s power). The struggle that most theologians face in these verses is the difficulty in ascribing these words to Paul as a self-description or as autobiographical. Surely, the struggle described in Romans 7:14-25 cannot describe the great Apostle. That’s where I think they are wrong and why I believe this chapter prepares us for the rest of the book. Paul personally acknowledges the struggle all believers feel deep down in their soul, and one that I’m certain you recognize in your own soul but described by Paul’s words – “I do not understand what I am doing…”
Last week, we talked about how Paul describes the understanding that begins to envelope believers regarding the deceptive nature and destructive tendencies of sin in our lives. Paul describes how the Law not only made him aware of the sinfulness of coveting but also made him aware of how deeply that desire embedded itself in his own desires, thoughts and actions. Was that the only sin that Paul struggled with? No, not really. It was an example. In this week’s focal passage, Paul goes into more detail of just how deeply those tendencies are embedded in him and the fight they put up as he attempts to “kill them.” Let’s take a look.
Let me start by stating emphatically, our understanding of the destructive nature of sin and the power of the saving grace of Christ is not the result of some self-awareness, human understanding or even human “enlightenment” through knowledge or self-realization that results in an enhanced spiritual state wherein we find god within us (sounds a bit new-age, doesn’t it – that’s intentional). Our awareness of sin and its destructive nature can come only through the divine work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot know God until we are drawn to Him by His Spirit – “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…” (John 6:44a HCSB)
Therein, lies the struggle of the human spirit and will and we see the evidence lying around us in the hurting and broken lives of our family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. We hear it each morning or evening on the news or it flashes across the screens of our mobile devices with “alerts” of breaking news. We know there’s something wrong, our human nature tells us that things are not like they OUGHT to be. We recognize that this struggle and pain, though universal in its scope, is not what life is supposed to be like. There lies within us, in our collective memory as creatures made in the image of the eternal God, a memory of a time and place when we knew deep and abiding joy, experienced transcendent peace, relished our walk with Him. It reveals itself as an unrealized spiritual hunger that we seek to satiate with worship activities and spiritual exercises.
That’s the very issue that Paul is trying to address. These holy things cannot be realized and the spiritual hunger cannot be satisfied with religious activity, spiritual piety or external “obedience” to the Law. The Law only reveals how sinful we truly are, as our spiritual insight and understanding is enabled through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a difficult lesson to grasp, but the more holy we truly become the less holy we actually feel. Developing holiness leads to a greater awareness of our own sin and our need for even greater obedience and holiness. The more light that is cast into the darkness of your soul the more you recognize how dark, how broken, how unholy and unlike God you really are. So, Paul asks.. did the law (that which is good) cause my death? Of course, not! It simply cast a brighter light on and helped me recognize how truly sinful I am – “sinful beyond measure.” How? Why? “Because I am human (made out of flesh) and sold into sin’s power.” You simply cannot satisfy God’s demands with human (fleshly) efforts because every effort is infected by our sin. Perhaps an illustration will help.
We are currently living in the midst of a global pandemic, as if that is news to any of you. But it presents us with a great way to illustrate this problem. If a person is infected with the Coronavirus then every time they breathe, sneeze, cough or touch they are releasing the virus to possibly infect someone else. Simply put, every breath is a potential infection point for someone nearby. The newest variants, those from the UK, Brazil and South Africa, have changed slightly and are now even more infectious than the previous strains. This is due to a change or mutation on the tip of the virus “spike”. The spike tip is where it attempts to attach itself to the human cells and, thus, infect the person with the virus. This mutation on the spike makes it “fit” the shape of the human cell better which makes it more successful at infecting the cell, or more infectious. The virus has adapted to be able to infect more people.
Now, here’s my point… so pay attention. Once you are infected with the virus then everything you touch, breathe on, or come into contact with carries the potential of infecting someone else. Sin acts just like this virus – especially the new variants. Because all of us are infected with the SIN virus, everything we do, think, say, or feel has the potential of being sinful because of our infection with sin. Hold on, it gets worse, much worse. As Paul says, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh (my physical, human nature).” Even when we are able to scrub those external things clean, our hearts are still infected and we have no ability to “disinfect” ourselves. It takes someone outside of ourselves, outside of this sin-infected human race, to step in and bring a cure. That someone is JESUS. The only cure for our sin-infection is the Son of God.
Now, Paul takes a slightly different direction and this is the one that causes many theologians to question the biographical nature of these words. Paul describes an internal conflict between his fleshly desires and his spiritual desires – a civil war, of sorts. The very thing I don’t want to do (fleshly/ungodly desires) are the things I keep on doing and the things I want most to do (the spiritual/godly desires) are the things I fail to do. They think that words like that can’t describe Paul’s personal feelings. I think it describes him and each of us, more than we care to admit. As I stated earlier, the more holy we become the more aware of our own sin we become. Thus, I believe it describes Paul very well. In his letter to Timothy, Paul says: “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” — and I am the worst of them.” (1 Timothy 1:15 HCSB) I am the worst of them… Sounds like the Paul who is writing to Rome was the same one who wrote to young Timothy.
Just for a minute, let’s talk about you and me. While I think that Paul’s words are self-descriptive and autobiographical, the application is much broader and includes you and me. Listen to Paul’s words and see if they don’t describe your own feelings… “I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do.” Do you find yourself having a similar internal discussion? I do. “Gary, what are you doing? You know that’s not what you should be doing. You know that’s not right. Stop. Now! Why did you do that? You know what’s going to happen. You know what the result will be. You know how much that will hurt, them. Why? Why did you do that? Why did you say that?” Generally speaking, I know the outcome of my choices before I make them. I know how people will react. I know how they will be hurt by my choices, but I still make them. The very thing I want, the joy God promises, the peace He offers, the blessings I seek are not the things that drive me as I make these sinful decisions. What I want to do, I don’t do. What I despise, that’s what I do.
Do you make similar choices and have similar conversations? Two possible answers, 1) That describes me perfectly, I do that all the time; 2) Nope, not me at all. I have no idea what you’re talking about. So, two responses…
If the first response describes you, thanks for being honest and spiritually vulnerable. Honesty about your sin is the first step in finding a way past it. What is that way? Faith, confession, grace and forgiveness. Paul doesn’t describe this condition so that we can simply languish in our failure. He presents the hard, cold truth about his own struggle with sin in order to lead us into the truth and to find God’s grace. Also, awareness of your sin is a sign of God’s Spirit working in your heart to lead you into God’s grace through faith (see Eph. 2:8-9). Here’s the hard part, we always expect to need to “do something” in order to get God to forgive us. That’s the human nature in us trying to be independent and in charge – to be god, even in this situation. But the very nature of grace is that it is undeserved, unmerited. You CAN’T earn grace, you can only receive it as a gift through faith. As Paul told us in a previous chapter, the wage you earn because of your sin is death, but the gift I offer you is grace and salvation in Jesus Christ (my paraphrase, see Romans 6:23). If you want to try and earn grace, you get what you earn – death. If you’re willing to receive God’s gift, you get what He lovingly offers – grace.
If the second response describes you, listen up… right now, you are spiritually blind. You are walking around in a desert without a way out and without a water bottle. You’re in trouble, and you don’t even know it. You’re thinking, I got this. I’m good. I know what I want and I know where I’m going. Good luck, my friend. I wish you well, but I fear for your life. But, before you go let me share a story with you…
When I was a kid in Junior High School – now called Middle School – I used to walk back and forth to school from our house and the school. The path to school was either down a busy street or along an area with multiple sets of railroad tracks leading into the main railroad yard. Most of the time, I would walk with friends down those railroad tracks. The more I walked them, the more familiar they became and the more comfortable I was around the trains that frequently traveled along them. In fact, we became so comfortable with those conditions that we lost all fear of the trains. We rode on them, we climbed over them, through them and even under them while they were moving. Yes, you read that correctly. We even climbed under them while they were moving. Were we stupid? Yes, young and stupid. We had become so comfortable with these monstrous machine-beasts that we had lost all fear around them and we made stupid, dangerous, life-threatening choices – every day. One day while riding a train on the way home from school, I rode it all the way to the road where I had to jump off and walk the few remaining blocks to our house. As I hopped off the train, I turned and looked straight into the face of my parents as they sat at the railroad crossing waiting for the train to go by. Let me simply say, my education regarding trains was greatly enhanced that day. Somewhat painfully.
What’s the point of my story? We’ve all made stupid, dangerous choices in our lives because of a lack of knowledge, inexperience or just plain rebellious disobedience. We often make some of the same stupid, dangerous choices regarding sin in our lives. We have become so comfortable with its presence, walking alongside it, feeling its rumble without any pain or death so that we no longer fear its effects. We no longer consider it deadly. Like a 12 year old boy who has lost his fear of trains and rolls under the rumbling, slow-moving beast, we jump up and run off laughing at the idea that sin can kill us. Did my parent’s discipline stop my disobedience? No. It simply made me more careful at hiding my disobedience. Sin unseen, is still sin. Sin embraced as normal, is still sin. You can ignore it, you can hide it, you can act like it is normal but God still holds you accountable. I’ve told this story about the trains to my older grandchildren. I did so because I wanted them to learn from my stupidity. I haven’t told this story to my five-year-old grandson, yet. I won’t for many more years. Why? He’s not capable of grasping the stupidity of my actions and I fear it would simply encourage him to make similar, stupid choices while he’s still too young to recognize the cost of those choices. But, what about you?
I shared scripture earlier that indicated that you cannot find God until God begins the process of drawing you to Himself. Let me be very blunt and direct, here. If any of what I’ve said makes sense to you then God is already at work drawing you to Himself. Don’t wait. Don’t walk. Run to Him, you’ll discover He’s running towards you. How? Trust Him. Trust who He is, what He’s done and what He’s doing. Jesus said that He will give you a new beginning, a new birth through His Spirit. As you trust Him, ask Him to give you that new start and confess your failures, your sin and your need for His forgiveness. Be specific and don’t leave out those sins you’ve grown comfortable with. Jesus died to cover each of them with His blood. Accept His gift of grace and forgiveness and remember, you can’t earn it. Then, begin to seek Him through prayer and through reading His Word – the Scriptures, learn to love Him, seek to obey Him, join in worshiping Him, and strive to live for Him day by day, day after day. Oh, one last thing… well, two really. Tell someone else and find a church that teaches the Scriptures and join them to worship and serve. If you live near Shawnee, we would love to have you join us.