MESSAGE FOR JUNE 13, 1999 FROM ROMANS 7:13-25
The past two weeks, as we have studied verses 7-12 of Romans chapter seven, we have seen that Paul, as he writes of his own experience with the Old Testament, moral law of God, reveals two purposes of that law. In his own spiritual journey, Paul discovered that the law, instead of blunting or weakening his own sin, in fact did just the opposite in two ways. First, we saw that the law revealed to Paul that, instead of being “alive to God,” (that is, in some way right with God,) the law plainly showed him he was instead a sinful, covetous person. The light of the law revealed to him that instead of being “alive to God” he was in fact, dead in his sin. But beyond merely revealing the fact that Paul was not right with God, the law also actually intensified Paul’s sinful desires. Paul says that sin uses the law against covetousness, to “produce[d] in me every kind of covetous desire.” Sin used the law to enflame and energize Paul’s sin. We said the law is to sin, what oxygen is to a fire. It ignited into a blazing inferno the hot coals of sin which had, before the law, gone unnoticed within Paul’s heart. We said the law has this effect, not only on Paul, but also on all people who live under the law. That is, those people who, on their own merit or effort seek to be pleasing to God apart from the grace of God shown through Jesus Christ.
Having revealed this stunning truth that sin actually uses the law to reveal and even ignite sin within people, Paul, in verses 13-25 moves quickly to dispel a possible misunderstanding. He has shown that the law does NOT, as most people think, help a person fight against the sin in their life but on the contrary, it reveals and enflames that sin. That leaves open the possibility people will think the holy, good law of God is evil and has had an evil effect on people. Our next section of scripture, which is controversial and a bit difficult to understand at points, is much easier to follow if we make sure we keep at the front of our minds Paul’s purpose in writing it. That is, he wants to vindicate the goodness of the law by emphasizing, by the use of his own experience, that the evil in him is found in the power of sin, not the law. Let’s look at verses 13-25.
Speaking of the law, Paul writes, “Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. 14We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Paul wants to clarify that the law is not sinful. The enemy here is not God’s holy law, but the power of sin itself. The law merely shines the light on the sin and shows sin for what it is, a wicked, enslaving power. He goes to some length in this text to support the truth that sin has seemingly overwhelming power to enslave a person. He does that by taking the better part of nine verses to testify of his own agonizing experience that illustrates the fact that the power of sin is greater than any effort he could exert in his own strength to fight against it. It without fail flattens him, humiliating even his most sincere efforts to serve God apart from supernatural empowering. No matter how hard he tries in his own strength to serve God, the power of sin overwhelms him and causes him to fail in misery and frustration. This text is so powerful because it relates Paul’s own personal experience against the power of sin and every sincere believer can relate to Paul’s experience. The question which remains unanswered for so many in the church is, “WHAT am I supposed to learn from this text and chapter eight which follows?”
The overarching truth of this long text can be summed up this way: The power of sin is so strong, it is impossible for us to fulfill God’s moral law in our own strength. I have divided this treatment into three points. The first point we’ve already stated and it is this: It is ultimately SIN, not the law which spiritually kills people. Paul writes in verse 13, “Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means!” One reason the law is good is the same reason medical diagnostic tests are good. If you go to a doctor with certain symptoms, he will prescribe a diagnostic test to discover what is wrong with you. There are all sorts of these ranging from countless blood tests to mammograms, cardiograms, MRI’s and a host of others. These tests are not pleasant. They are often invasive, uncomfortable and embarrassing. In the same way, the law of God is invasive, uncomfortable and humbling as it brings people, by God’s grace, to an understanding of their sin and their desperate need for a Savior. But the discomfort and humiliation in that process is not evil even though it can be very painful and shocking to discover. It is necessary to expose the sin to the individual steeped in self deception about the state of their soul. Without this experiential knowledge of sin, there is no hope of salvation from sin.
In addition to this, Paul underscores just how repulsively evil sin is in verse 13, “But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good [the law] so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” Paul seems to imply that God has a specific agenda in how he uses the law as it relates to sin. God uses His law to show people how utterly wicked, ugly and destructive sin is. How does He do this? He does this by allowing his holy, good law to be used in connection with the desperately evil power of sin to, in Paul’s words “produce death in me. In other words, Paul implies a truth about evil here and it is this: The pervasive evil of sin is seen in its purest and blackest form when it uses something good [in this case, the law] to accomplish its vile purpose. That’s the principle Paul states here. The evil of sin is seen in this: it uses something personally authored by God, his holy law to, in a sense kill people spiritually.
We see a clear example of this evil in the Old Testament. In Numbers, chapter 21, we find the Jews griping about life in the wilderness and God judges their rebellion by sending snakes to come and bite them and many of them died. This brought the Jews to repent of their sin and they came to Moses and ask him to pray for them. He does that and God tells him to “make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses makes a bronze snake, puts it atop a pole and the people look at the snake and are cured of their otherwise lethal snakebites. This pole is a good thing, an instrument of God’s mercy and healing. When you advance in time 700 years to the reign of King Hezekiah, 1 Kings 18 tells us that Hezekiah, “cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it.” The people had been using an instrument of God’s mercy as an object of idolatry. Here we see the depths to which they had slunk—they were using what God intended for a good, holy purpose as an instrument or vehicle to sin against God. They were using the sacred to commit the profane. That is a horrific and repulsive notion to us. But that illustrates the truth God wants us to understand when He allows his holy law to be used as the murder weapon of the power of sin. And Paul wants us to feel that repulsion so that we can in some way understand the unspeakable darkness and evil of sin. Paul says in effect, “if you want to know how utterly evil sin is, it uses the sacred law of God to perform its profane work in “killing” people.” It is ultimately the unspeakable evil of sin, not God’s law which “kills” people spiritually.
The second point of this text is the issue Paul spends by far the most time on. In verses 15-24, Paul again uses himself as an example and through his own personal testimony about his battle with sin makes this point: Because of the presence of our flesh, even our best efforts in the fight against enslaving sin’s power are doomed to failure. Let me say two things about this text before we begin looking at it. First, there is a lot of debate about whether Paul is describing his experience as a Christian or his experience before he knew Christ. There are strong arguments on both sides and the reason is because Paul’s point is larger than whether his personal experience was as a Christian or a pre-Christian. His point is graphically describe the utter frustration experienced when a person tries to serve God in a manner consistent with the law in your own strength.
He portrays, through his own experience, the frustration found in the repeated attempts and repeated failures to serve God in a manner consistent with God’s holy law his own natural capacities. That is his point and that is why scholars have found proof for both a Christian and pre-Christian experience in this text. The Christian who tries to fulfill the law in his own strength is, on a practical level, just as much a prisoner of the power of sin, as the unregenerate Saul of Tarsus who, when he was trying to fulfill the law in his own strength. Saul of Tarsus was functioning in his own power because that is all he had. He didn’t have the Holy Spirit, so there was no source of supernatural power in him. The frustrated believer, on the other hand, is functioning in his own power because, for whatever reason, he is not walking by faith in God’s power, but is instead trusting in his own strength. The experience for both is similar because both are under the law and that means they are BOTH under the enslaving power of sin.
The text resonates this. We read in verses 15-24 in texts like, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do ….For what I do is not the good I want to do; the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing .” Sin is enslaving this person—it is his master. These verses describe the battle between sin and the flesh (and by “flesh” I mean “our temporal and natural spiritual capacities apart from God’s power and which are rooted in this dark world”). These verses tell the frustrating and humbling fact that when sin and our flesh battle, sin ALWAYS wins, no exceptions. If you, in the strength of your flesh have fought one million fights with sin, the score is: sin-1000000, the flesh—0. When we battle with the power sin in only the strength of our flesh, we will go down in flames every time in some way or another. Let me quickly interject, these verses by no means describe the normal Christian experience. These verses do NOT depict the believer’s relationship to sin as God intends it to be. We have been, and in the future perhaps will again experience this frustration, but Jesus Christ did not vanquish the power of sin on the cross, did not shed his blood so that we could live this kind of defeated, frustrating Christian life with any regularity!
There are scores of believers who, because they have never experienced anything other than what Paul describes here, simply assume that this is what God intends the normal Christian life to look like. If Paul were to hear such a suggestion he would respond, “May it never be!!” And in chapter eight he teaches on how the Christian can live above the seemingly overwhelming power of sin and, as he says in 8:4, “fulfill the law.” If this were not true, then we would be forced to reinterpret what Paul has already said in chapter six in triumphant verses like verse 14, “For sin shall NOT be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” Chapter eight expands on this glorious truth and describes this empowering grace.
Several verses are crucial in understanding Paul’s point. In verse 14 Paul says, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual [literally, “fleshly”] (what does it mean to be “fleshly”?) sold as a slave to sin.” To be fleshly or “unspiritual” means to be a slave to your master, sin. Just as a slave is required to do what his master desires, so too does the flesh do whatever sin wants, no matter how loudly our mind may protest against committing the sin. Paul clarifies what it means to be fleshly in verse 18. “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my “sinful nature” [or, “flesh.”]—the same word, sarx.” For Paul, to be fleshly as a Christian is to have a part or component of his being in which nothing good dwells. And when this part of us, which will be with us until the day we die, is not over-ridden by the power of the Holy Spirit, it will allow sin to bring us to down to defeat every time.
Think of it in terms of swimming. The Christian is called to float on top of the water, above the pull of sin. There is a fight that goes on and the Christian is striving to stay afloat against the relentless, downward pull of sin. Picture the fleshly part of us as 500 pound lead weights tied to us and which are constantly pulling us down to the bottom. No matter how much we may want to get to the surface, no matter how hard we strive and struggle to get to the surface—to stay above the pull of sin, we have only one way to go, down. In fact, the harder we struggle against sin in the strength of our flesh, the MORE frustrated and more utterly disgusted with ourselves we will be. We are simply not strong enough in our own capacity to fight successfully against the pull of sin’s gravity because we have this weight of flesh which increases sin’s pull on us and drags us to the bottom. To peer into chapter eight for just a moment, the Holy Spirit acts in our life like a huge, Styrofoam life preserver. As long as we hang onto it, its supernatural “buoyancy” keeps us afloat above the cold, mirky depths of sin. As we live in the power of the Spirit and NOT our flesh, we stay in the warmth and light of God’s grace, able to prevail against the pull of sin. But at the precise moment we stop leaning on God’s grace and let go of the life preserver, we sink against sin’s pull because, although the pull of sin is no match for the Holy Spirit, it will triumph over us alone every time.
In verses 17 and 20 Paul says that when he acts sinfully contrary to what he wants to do “it is no longer myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” Is Paul giving an excuse for his behavior here? Is he saying, “You can’t blame me, it’ this awful sin in me that’s to blame.” Is he trying to exonerate himself from responsibility here? No. All Paul is saying is this: “I, in my mind--what I want to do (those two are phrases he uses repeatedly) am at cross purposes with the sin in my flesh. So that, when I act in a way contrary to what I want, the problem is this sin in me, not the desire of my mind. What I WANT is in agreement with God’s good [v.16,22] law so we know what I want is not the problem. NO, what is wrong with me is this sin that indwells me and is too strong for me to overcome.”
As anyone who has been through this process knows, this is an incredibly frustrating experience and it fills us with self-indignation. Paul portrays that in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me free from this body of death?” Do you hear the anguish in that? Have we felt that? If we haven’t I daresay its NOT because we have always walked in the power of the Holy Spirit. Its because we have either been ignorant of the life God calls us to and therefore aren’t grieved by our failures, or we have no sincere desire to fulfill the law. The second point is this; because of the presence of our flesh, even our best efforts in the fight against enslaving sin’s power are doomed to failure. After Paul in verse 24 let’s out this anguished cry for mercy, he answers it in verse 25 and that is where we get our third and very brief third point. Verse 25 says, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature [or, flesh] a slave to the law of sin.”
To some people what they hear in this verse is this, “Yes, I have this battle raging all the time between my flesh and my mind and the result is perpetual sin and defeat. But God has provided grace in the person of Jesus Christ so that I wouldn’t have to be troubled by my mediocre spiritual life.” They miss one, very important word in verse 25 and that word is, “Lord.” Yes, God has provided Jesus Christ, but not ONLY as a Forgiver of sins. He is both Lord and Christ. The clear implication is that Jesus gives grace so that we may follow Him as Lord. And we know that is part of what He is saying here because when you move to the next verses in chapter eight, he tells us how we can, by the Spirit “fulfill the law,” submitting to Christ’s Lordship. The point is this: Only Jesus Christ can liberate us from sin’s power so that we may serve Him as the Lord of our lives. That is Paul’s point which he greatly expands upon in chapter eight.
What do we make of all of this? How does fit into our lives? Let me briefly give three points of application. First, we must daily and experientially admit that we are no match for sin’s power apart from the strength of Christ. We must daily plant the white flag of surrender in our flesh as it would seek to vainly battle against the power of sin. In keeping with this mindset, we should never be shocked or surprised or indignant when we, in our own strength, dismally fail God. Why should we be surprised? Sin is a Sequoia tree and our flesh is a dull butter knife. We can’t cut sin down to size. I think it was Brother Lawrence who, when he sinned not only confessed his sin but also told God (paraphrasing), “And Lord, thank you that if it weren’t for your grace, I would sin that sin much more than I do already.” Do you hear that attitude of humility and dependence upon God? That comes from a person, who through years of fleshly failure has learned the indispensable truth that his flesh is no match for the power of sin. We may know this in our heads, but if we do not regularly humble ourselves by expressing it in prayer and confessing it to others, it will not become part of us and if its not part of us, we will fight the futile battle against sin with no firepower to resist it. We will repeatedly sink like a rock into deeper and deeper sin in spite of our most nobles desires and gallant efforts to do otherwise.
A second point of application is this: When we do fall into a fleshly pattern and sin, we must place our focus on Christ and His forgiving and enabling grace, NOT our failure. Notice Paul’s pattern here. He falls in his sin, he comes to the conclusion he can’t defeat sin, confesses his wretched state and his need of a Savior. Then he looks to Christ in thanksgiving. THAT’S the pattern. You’ll notice he doesn’t spend valuable time beating himself up. He doesn’t spend weeks and weeks lamenting what a filthy, rotten sinner he is. That is self evident. No, he sins, sincerely confesses his need of Someone outside himself and immediately looks to Christ. Some Christians have a bad and harmful habit of beating themselves up. That’s not there. He confesses his wretchedness and in the next breath focuses on Christ. There is just no place for piling on. When we sin, we must confess that we have pridefully, self reliantly depended on our pitiful flesh instead of Christ, confess the particular sin or sins, repent of them and look to Christ. There can be a perversely therapeutic feeling which comes from spending time denigrating ourselves, but that feeling does not come from God because God would never bless us in any SELF-centered activity. And when we are beating ourselves up, we have our eyes squarely focussed on ME. Paul shows us we are to look to Christ.
Finally, we must thank God we don’t have to live like this because of what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. Romans 6:14 is true— “…sin shall not be your master.” We don’t have to be held in bondage to the power of sin. As we saw in chapter six, we “died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” There is no promise of perfection in this life, but Jesus Christ died in part so that we could gain more and more victory over sin’s power as we learn to trust in Him and not in our own flesh.
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