A sermon on Romans 7:15-25a
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
July 5, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
You may remember that, in the last time that we met together, we explored one of the most controversial texts in the entire Bible. It is the story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. It is a text that has divided scholars—both Jewish and Christian scholars—for centuries. The questions raised in that difficult passage include what exactly happened, what it says about who God is, and what does it say about the nature of faith and providence. There is no clear consensus among scholars and commentators on any of those questions. And I imagine that there won’t be until “we will understand it better by and by”…
In a somewhat similar, but perhaps less dramatic vein, this morning we are going to look at another controversial text over which there has been much discussion and dispute. The conversation over this passage is not as contentious as the one surrounding the Genesis 22 text. But the passage is still one that invites a good deal of reflection and debate for anyone seeking to understand it. I would venture to say that this passage from Romans 7 is historically one of the most debated passages in all of the Apostle Paul’s New Testament writings.
The heart of the discussion begins right at the beginning in verse 15. There Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want to do….” Paul writes about the experience of having the desire to do good—to do what God wants him to do—to follow the way of Jesus—and yet of being powerless to actually carry through with it much of the time. And conversely, the evil that he tries to avoid? Well, that evil is the very thing that he winds up doing anyway in spite of himself.
In order to frame our thinking about this passage, it is important to remember that the Paul who wrote those words in Romans 7 is the very same Paul who wrote these words to be found in other places in the New Testament: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” “Count yourselves as dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ,” “You have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self which is being renewed in the image of its Creator.”1 All of those passages—and others that could be mentioned—seem to say that Paul believes that, once we become followers of Jesus, we are no longer slaves to our sinful desires and that we can break free of them so that we may give ourselves completely to God. That we may follow the direction of the Holy Spirit in our lives without the taint of sin.
11 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:6, and Colossians 3:9b-10.
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But that is not at all what he is saying in Romans 7, is it? NO. In this passage, the Apostle Paul seems to be saying that it is a constant struggle for him to do the things that he knows are right and to avoid doing those things that are sinful. And he is honest enough to confess that sometimes it simply does not happen. Sometimes he falls and he does the very same things that he is striving not to do…and that it happens more times than he would care to admit.
Some scholars have suggested that Paul, in Romans 7, is talking about his pre-Christian life and how trying to obey the Old Testament law could never bring him salvation. There is some merit in that view. After all, throughout the thirteen books in the New Testament that bear his name, Paul does a LOT of talking about how, even though he obeyed the Old Testament law to the letter as well as anyone possibly could, it did not bring him into the relationship with God that he desired2…In that sense, I am sure that the description in Romans 7 looks very much like his struggles before he met the Lord…
Others have suggested that, in this passage, he is describing his life when he first began to follow Jesus. That is, when he first became a Christian, Paul had a lot of old habits to unlearn, a lot of old attitudes to change, a lot of his life that had to be transformed in order to follow Christ more fully. (The truth is that we all do to a greater or lesser degree…) But now that he has been walking with the Lord for several years, he has grown out of that initial phase of his spiritual life and that he no longer struggles with his bent to sinning that he did earlier. The thought is that he is sharing his experience with young Christians in order to inspire them to more Godly living…
Perhaps there is probably some truth to that as well. Hopefully, the longer that we walk with the Lord, and the longer that we do our best to be led by his Spirit, the better that we are able to follow his direction in our lives. Jesus famously told Nicodemus in John 3 that he had to be “born again.” You all know that babies are not born fully grown and developed people. Growth and maturity—be it physical, emotional or cognitive—is a natural process that takes decades to accomplish. There really are no shortcuts to physical growth.
It is the same way in the realm of the Spirit. No one is born into the kingdom of God fully formed as a believer. Nobody. It doesn’t matter who you are. To become what God has created us to be in Christ is a process—a life-long process of growth and change. If you have been walking with the Lord for twenty years, it should be evident in your life that you are more fully able to discern and follow Jesus better than when you first started out. If not, then I would submit to you that something is terribly amiss…
So while there may be some truth in both of those explanations for the passage, I do not think that either one of them is adequate by themselves…
2 See Philippians 3:4-7 for a classic formulation of his thought.
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As you know, last week was my 64th birthday. I met the Lord as a boy who was just a couple months shy of my tenth birthday during a Thursday night revival meeting. During the intervening 54 years since then, I can honestly say that I have often done my best to follow the Lord’s guidance for my life. I would be the first to tell you that I have not always been successful. Sometimes I have been disobedient to the claims of Christ on my life. My life’s journey has taken me down some blind alleys and a few dead ends. I have made plenty of decisions that I would redo if I could go back and make them over again. There have been times when I have experienced the promised “showers of blessing” sent from above…and other times when I have been spiritually as dry as a bone. I certainly would not even pretend to claim that I have followed the Lord all the time as closely as I have should have over the years…
And yet, for all of that, I know that I am further down the road spiritually than I was back when I made my initial profession of faith in 1966. My experiences have caused my trust and faith in God to grow. And I have known the Lord in progressively deeper ways. But in spite of all of that, I find that Romans 7 STILL describes my life from time to time. To be honest, I think that the times when I find myself doing the things that I know are sin are less frequent than they used to be—than they were say, 30 years ago. And I often find it easier to do things that I should than I once did—most of the time anyway. I think that it’s a good sign. And I give all the credit for that to the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit working inside of me…
But I also am quite aware that I still have a long way to go. As a Christian believer, I am still growing and developing. I still am less than I want to be and less than Christ desires me to be. And I am still painfully aware of my shortcomings and that sin is constantly rearing its ugly head in my life. I have noticed that it is usually does that at my most vulnerable moments when I least expect it. And sin desires to lead me off of the narrow way that Christ guides us on…
All of that is to say that Romans 7 may describe the Apostle’s pre-Christian life or his early days of following Jesus. It could very well be. Does the struggle that he describes to do the right thing and to not sin sound familiar to you? The struggle that he describes in that passage is still as real to me in my daily life as it has ever been. In a sense, it is “The Story of My Life.” And if I were to take a poll among you today, I would guess that you all are in the same boat as me…
Here is an important spiritual truth: The closer that we walk with God, the more keenly aware we become of our sin…our failures…our shortcomings…And the converse is true: if we do not see and understand just how much we fall short due to the sin that plagues us, then it may be an indicator of a lack of closeness to God…
It has always been that way. Plenty of examples could be cited of God’s choicest servants who were keenly aware of their own sin. Here are a few examples…
In Isaiah 6, the prophet is in the Temple when he has a vision of the Lord, “seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” He was surrounded by flying angels, the
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doorposts shook, and the room became filled with smoke. Isaiah’s response was not one of joy…or praise…or ecstatic utterances. No—verse 5 tells us that he cried, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” The overwhelming emotion that he experienced in the presence of God was that he was reminded of his sinfulness…
Another biblical example: In Luke 5, the story is told about Jesus calling his first disciples. After our Lord performs a miracle concerning a huge catch of fish, we are told that Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and exclaimed, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” When confronted with the unmistakable presence of the Divine in Jesus, he immediately became keenly aware of his own sinfulness…
Teresa of Avila was a 16th Century church reformer who was a tirelessly worked to transform the church in her day. She was surely a person whose life was one dedicated to God if anyone’s has been. Her books The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle are considered classics of Christian spirituality, still inspiring and guiding followers in the way of Jesus today. Concerning sin and our relationship to God, she wrote, “We always find that those who walk closest to Christ were those who most strongly felt their sins.” Such was true then…and such is true now…
In Romans 7, Paul sums up his frustration and his despair of his constant spiritual struggle in verse 24. There he writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Then he answers his own question by declaring in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Here’s the thing: sin is part of the internal structure of our lives. No special effort is needed to cultivate sin in our lives. Just like you do not have to cultivate weeds in a garden—they just seem to spring up without any cultivation whatsoever—so it is too with sin in our lives. And that includes the life of the follower of Jesus. We may wish to grit our teeth and try to deal with our sin through willpower and determination. We may work hard to overcome the sins which so easily beset us. We can determine to never do it again. We can fight against our sins. We can set our will against them.
But if we think that we can prevail on our own, we are only kidding ourselves. We cannot free ourselves of sin by trying to purify ourselves through exerting our own will. The moment that we think that we can succeed in attaining victory over our sins by dint of our own will, we have lost the battle. We are only fooling ourselves because we then open to the door to our own sense of pride and spiritual accomplishment. You may remember that that is one of the most basic sins of the Pharisees. And we all know how much Jesus thought of their outward righteousness. Our Lord called them “whitewashed tombs, full of dead men’s bones” and “Blind guides leading the blind”…
I think that one of the primary teachings of Romans 7 is this: Sin is complicated. There are no easy answers to the problem of sin in our lives. There are no shortcuts. Sin is deeply ingrained within each of us. That does not cease when we become followers of Jesus. To deny that the sins of self-will,
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unconcern, indifference, and pride are not latent in each one of us is to set ourselves up for failure in the life of the Spirit. Our bent to sinning—both obvious sin and less obvious ones—is ever with us.
But Paul also gives us a roadmap to help guide us out of this dilemma. He simply points to Jesus. The solution to sin is not to be found in trying to understand it. Paul says as much in verse 15. There he writes that he does not understand his own actions. Instead the remedy to sin is to be found in the liberating, life-giving presence of Jesus. A little later on in Romans 12, Paul gives these instructions: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and to approve what God’s will is—his good, and pleasing and complete will…”
We end today with a few lines from the great hymn writer Charles Wesley. May it become the prayer of our hearts today and always until we reach the end of our earthly days:
O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free
A heart that always feels thy blood
So freely shed for me
A heart in every thought renewed
And full of love divine
Perfect and right and pure and good,
A copy Lord of Thine!
To God alone be the glory! Amen.