Our 4 year old granddaughter and 21 month year old grandson live 3000 miles away. So we have to rely on Facebook posts sometimes. Last night’s post from our daughter in law was classic.
“N knocks down M’s block tower.
‘N! Stop doing that!’
Then under her breath, ‘It’s hard having a brother.’”
Have you ever said to yourself: “I don’t know why I did this: I should know better.”
Or have you have done something really dumb and thought: “I could kick myself for that.”
Or “I had it coming. I should have known better.”
Or put a different way: Do you ever feel yourself pulled in two directions? As if two powerful forces were tearing you apart?
Philosophers and theologians through the ages have struggled with this problem. The Stoic philosopher Seneca talked about how men hate their sins and love them at the same time. Ovid, a Roman Poet said, “I see the better things, and I approve them, but I follow the worse.” But no one knew this problem better than the Jews. They had come to the conclusion that every person was created with two natures, two tendencies, and two impulses. Jewish rabbis explained that God had made every person with a split personality, a good side and a bad side. Every person has an “evil twin” living right inside them. It’s like
To the Jews doing good or evil was a matter of choice. It is a free will decision of every person whether she will respond in a right way or a wrong way.
The Apostle Paul not only understand this classic philosophical and religious problem, he got it right here (point to heart). Paul was deeply frustrated with his ability to see what was good, and his inability to do it. He was exasperated with being able to recognize what was wrong, and the inability to refrain from doing it.
Paul wanted to do what was right; but it was a constant struggle. He knew it was wrong, and the last thing he wanted to do was to do the wrong thing. Yet somehow, he did it. And the good that he knew he should do, he couldn’t get himself to do.
So Paul is dealing with a universal human challenge, but, of course he is doing so in a specific context. Remember he has been teaching about the relationship of Law and Grace. Remember Paul was a Pharisee. He learned from an early age the teaching of both the OT law and the traditions of the Jews. The Jews would say that God gave them the law to keep a person from falling prey to the evil impulses. The Jews believed theoretically that it should work to limit the activities of a person in order to limit his evil choices. They would say: “take no more than 100 steps on a Sabbath and you’ll be fine. You will limit your temptation.” Of course following the traditions like that didn’t work then and it doesn’t work today.
Let me illustrate A recent (2013) article in The Wall Street Journal explored the new wave of gadgets that will remind, cajole, pressure, threaten, judge, and nag us about what we’re supposed to do and how to punish ourselves when we fall short.
For instance, a new smart-utensil called the HAP I fork measures how fast you eat while it prods you to slow down and chew. It automatically uploads the data to your iPhone or android device and you now have have a constant nag in your pocket or purse. A company called Automatic offers a device that will chirp when a driver speeds, slams on the brakes, or does other things behind the wheel that your mother wouldn’t approve of. For $50 you can buy a toothbrush that wirelessly tells a phone app how often and how long you brush your teeth. The phone app sends the user rewards and punishments based on brushing behavior. A webcam software program called Posture Track will catch you slouching, and a website called Beeminder will tally fines for undesirable behaviors like not flossing or staying up too late.
One device user said that the digital nagging can “kind of run your life.” Another user said, “It’s now possible to have a device in the background of your life recording everything you do.”
Although these devices may be helpful, they also sound a lot like trying to live by “the law.” These gadgets “change” our external behavior by relying on pressure and threats.
The Apostle Paul says that every attempt to follow the letter of the law is bound to fail at some point. We can try as hard as we want to, but there comes a time when our own good intentions fail us. We cave in to temptation. We say “I can’t help it.” “It’s just a part of who I am.” That’s because in our own strength we are powerless against sin. Religion, following the law, cannot help us.
In our modern world we’ve come up with a different solution. People are aware of the problem of doing the very thing they don’t wish to do, but they don’t think of it as sin. In fact our culture has done an amazing job at downplaying sin. A recent (August 2015) poll from Barna Research group highlighted what’s been called our “new moral code.” Here are the percentages of those who agreed “completely” or “somewhat” with the following statements:
• “The best way to find yourself is to look within yourself”—91 percent of U.S. adults agreed; 76 percent of practicing Christians agreed.
• “People should not criticize someone else’s lifestyle choices”—89 percent agreed; 76 percent of Christians agreed.
• “To be fulfilled in life, you should pursue the things you desire most”—86 percent agreed; 72 percent of Christians agreed.
• “The highest goal in life is to enjoy it as much as possible”—84 percent agreed; 66 percent of Christians agreed.
• “People can believe whatever they want, as long as those beliefs don’t affect society”—79 percent agreed; 61 percent of Christians agreed.
It is no wonder that living in this world, so many Christians have become desensitized to sin. We hardly speak of sin as sin anymore. We explain our sins away by claiming that it was an “honest mistake”. “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that. Besides, it felt good.”
Another strategy is playing the victim card: “I can’t help that I have an attitude problem – my father had an attitude problem.” or, “I can’t help being dishonest – my whole family has a history of stretching the truth.”
Of course, the sins of our fathers and mothers have an effect on our lives. However, if we are to find freedom and peace with God, we have to take responsibility for our actions.
What we actually need is not to fall into the trap of our current culture. Don’t try to explain away our sins, instead realize how deep our problem is. Come to grips with the fact that Sin is much more powerful than all our good intentions. To deal with sin Paul says, we need to realize first that we are in a wretched state, and second that we need to be rescued. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! Or as the hymn puts it: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
Maybe you’ve been a Christian all you’re life. Or maybe you remember the day you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. I do. I remember the day when I knelt down in my fraternity house in Berkeley and said yes to Jesus. I read Romans 7 and a light went off for me. Something more than understanding happened, though. I experienced the wonderful cleansing power of Christ’s blood. It gave me an overwhelming feeling of freedom and release from the bondage of sin and death. But it was more than a feeling. A Great exchange happened, my sins were forgiven and placed on Christ. Everyone experiences this Great exchange differently, but it still has the same effect. We are justified, our sins are forgiven and we are no longer slaves to sin. We are now free to obey God, but we still have to choose to obey every day.
As Paul speaks about his own struggle with sin, he identifies an area in our lives that we need to bring under God’s control. We too struggle with dishonesty, impure thoughts, wrong actions, hurtful actions towards others.
Paul invites us to bring all of it, all the shame, all the excuses, all of it to the cross. Confess your sin! Renew your life with God! Renew your life with your husband, wife, children, parents, your brother and sister in the Church. Christ’s grace is sufficient for us! The good news is that God changes our hearts not through our performance but through his grace.
Paul calls us to die to sin and become alive to God. He calls us to intentionally living the new life in Christ. “If we are in Christ, we are a new creation.” The old is past. The new life is just beginning.
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” is not a signal that he has moved to a new, triumphant kind of life above the battles and losses of Romans 7. Instead this shout of hope is followed by a sober, realistic summary of everything we have seen. Paul tells us that he is both indwelt by the Spirit and harassed by the flesh. He is freed from the dominion of sin and indwelt by remaining corruption. This will be his situation until he dies or until Christ returns. That is the Biblical realism of Romans 7.
So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” What kind of life is Paul describing here? He is not describing a life that only has failure or only has success. His point here is not how successful he is, or how often he is triumphant or defeated. He is only saying that these two realities exist in him and they explain why he and other Christians are not perfect. The culprit is not the law of God. The culprit is the flesh. Or what he calls in verses 17 and 20, “indwelling sin.” Or what he calls in verse 21, the “evil that is present with me.”
Paul is saying is that the life of true Christian freedom comes from recognizing that there is a battle inside, that we are helpless to win the battle, but there is hope through Christ who gives us a promise. We can be renewed by the Holy Spirit each and every day. When Paul fails in thought or feeling or word or act he realizes it is the flesh – the old fallen nature – harassing him and getting the upper hand. But that is not the end of the story. We can break free, and become alive in Christ, you can start today, or start over today. Or put it another way, you are always going to struggle with sin, but God promises to walk with you through the challenges and struggles of life in a broken world. And God also promises that you will be transformed and in the process characters like you and me become limping saints, wounded healers, holy messes.
Anne LaMott sums it up: “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.” I would add, prayer, scripture, confession, corporate and personal worship; the classic means of grace to her list.
Romans 7 is deeply encouraging because it reminded us that we are still sinners and will always battle with sin in our lives because we are inwardly bent towards sin. That is the reason God says in His Word that we need to confess our sins and rely on His promise to cleanse us:
o “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’ – and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5)
o “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
So to summarize, Paul works his way through this problem that the greatest human minds had struggled with for centuries. He explains the struggle powerfully, but instead of throwing up his hands he concludes in verses 24 and 25 with a proclamation of victory: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
You see Jesus was the only human being who could solve this problem. Even though he was fully human and tempted in every way that we are, Jesus fulfilled the law of God. But he was also fully God and his compassion for sinners is boundless. So all our pride, our jealousy, and our need for acceptance can be brought to Christ. Everything that motivates us to choose sin over the will of God can be laid down at the cross. In the next two weeks we will examine chapter 8 of Romans, and learn how the Holy Spirit helps us in this battle against sin. But for now, we can join Paul in thanking God for his salvation and for the knowledge that we are never alone as we struggle against sin and evil.
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