The Intense Struggle With Sin, Part 1 (Romans Sermon 45 of 120)
November 11, 2001 | Andrew Davis
I. Armistice Day: November 11, 1918
We are continuing our study in Romans and we come to a challenging passage, but one that I think will bear good fruit in our lives and our hearts as we understand it. Today is Veterans Day, it's November 11th, the year 2001. Veterans Day was designated in honor of the original Armistice at the end of World War I. On November 11th, 1918 World War I came to an end. Now, we tend to know more about and study more about World War II than World War I, but I think that World War I may be the greatest tragedy in the history of the human race. It's something that I just don't understand, how it ever came about, how the assassination of one man and one leader led to the deaths of almost 9 million men on the battlefields of Europe and around the world. That war, World War I, was called "the war to end all wars," but it did not do that, not at all. The ceasefire was set after all that carnage, 8.6 million men died. After all of that death, the ceasefire was set for the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918, November 11th. At a small village in France, Ville-sur-Haine, a Canadian soldier named Private George Price was awaiting, as were millions of other fellow soldiers, the end to the bloodiest and most confusing war in human history up to that point.
It was two minutes to 11. At that moment a German sniper bullet ran out and Price was killed, perhaps the last casualty of World War I. The Central powers that lost the war also lost 3.5 million men, the Allied powers that won the war lost 5.1 million men, and Thomas Hardy wrote a poem to mark the Armistice, and it strikes to the core of the confusion and the mystery of what happened concerning that war. This is what he wrote.
There had been years of passion—scorching, cold
And much Despair, and Anger heaving high
Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold
Among the young, among the weak and old
And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered ‘Why?’
Men had not paused to answer. Foes distraught
Pierced the thinned peoples in brute-like blindness,
Philosophies that sages long had taught,
And Selflessness, were an unknown thought,
And ‘Hell!’ and ‘Shell!’ were yapped at Lovingkindness
Calm fell. From heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered ‘Why?’
Why indeed. Why 8.6 million people died in a war to end all wars, which laid the groundwork for the greatest war this history has ever seen, World War II? Nothing came of it, just millions dead. And as I look at it, I think the root of it all is sin, it's just sin. And it points to a far deeper and a far more significant battle that's going on today, even now. And I don't refer to the military struggle that faces us as a nation, I refer to the struggle inside the hearts of every one of us as Christians, the struggle over sin. And as we struggle with sin, aren't we tempted and aren't we led and don't we even cry out to ask that same question, why? Why after all this? Why after what Jesus Christ did for me on the cross? Why after the indwelling Holy Spirit? Why after the teaching that I've received? Why after even my own experience, for I've already spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do, why do I still sin? Why? And I believe that's the very question that Paul was seeking to answer here in Romans 7:13-25, which Tony read for us. And don't you sense as you listen to Paul wrestling through it for himself that he would ask the same question when he says, "I do not understand what I do." Can't you resonate with that? Isn't that crying out, saying, "Why do I act the way I do?"
Why is it that the very good thing that I want to do I cannot do? And the very evil thing that I've rejected forever that I swore I would never do again, I find myself doing it again? Why is it? What is this thing, this vicious enemy called sin. And Paul is bringing it out for us, it's almost like for a moment the dust, and the steam, and smoke of the battlefield just clears for just a moment and you can look out and for the first time see very clearly the enemy, sin. And as you look through the letters on the page to the reality and then into your own heart, you realize it's the same struggle that you have as well, the struggle with sin.
II. A Very Difficult Passage
Now, as we come to Romans 7:13-25 we come to a very difficult passage, it may be the hardest passage in the Bible, it's hard to interpret and hard to understand. Now, as you read through it you may not see why it's difficult, but the more you think about what's been taught about the Christian life, the more you see that this is a difficult passage.
I've thought a lot about this passage, I've probably studied more about it than any other passage I've ever preached on and I'm still not quite sure what it means. You say, "Well, why are you preaching?" Well, there's some things I am sure about and those things that I am sure I will tell you I'm sure about, but then there are some things I'm not quite sure. Have you ever been driving a car and you have a Coke can rolling around in the backseat and when you turn right the thing rolls over and hits one side of the car, and then when you turn left it rolls over and hits the other side? Do you know what I'm talking about? Are you the kind of person to pull over and get it? Or are you the kind of person that's going to ignore it and just live with it? See, I'm the kind... That kind of stuff drives me crazy. I've got to have things battened down inside the car.
Well, that's the way my mind has been whenever I read a good commentator on Romans 7. I listen to what they say and I roll over and hit that side. And then I listen to the next person, I roll over and hit that side. Now, what are the issues? What makes this difficult? Well, it has to do with the nature of the Christian life and what God has done in us and what we've already learned in Romans compared to the things that Paul says about himself here in Romans 7. That's what makes it difficult.
A Review of the Gospel in Romans
Now, let's understand the context. Paul has been unfolding for us the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Romans 1:16, he says, "I'm not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is from faith to faith, just as it is written the just shall live by faith."
And so there is this Gospel message of a righteousness that comes down from Heaven as a gift from God. It's an imputed righteousness, it's given just as a gift to those who simply believe. And then we've seen in Romans 1, 2 and 3 how Paul unfolds the need that we all have for it. Every last one of us needs this righteousness, because all of us have sinned and lack the glory of God. Every last one of us has exchanged the glory of God for something man-made, something sinful and wicked. And we continue to do this and we continue to live out this sin and we struggle with it, whether Jew or Gentile. Jew and Gentile alike struggle with sin. Everybody's locked under sin and we need a savior. And so God provides a savior in Jesus Christ, and what a salvation it is. And we need that salvation because we are threatened with eternal wrath. We're threatened with punishment because of our sin. "The wages of sin is death," that is eternal wrath under the judgment of God. But God presented Jesus Christ, it says, in Romans 3, as a sacrifice of atonement, a propitiation for us. Jesus stood in our place and absorbed the wrath of God on the cross. That's what was going on when He cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He was absorbing the wrath and punishment of our sins, our crimes against God.
Justification by Faith
Well, how can that righteousness of Jesus Christ be given to me? And how can my sins be given to Him? How does that transfer occur? Well, Romans 4 teaches it's simply by faith, apart from works of the law, apart from anything that you can do, no good works will ever be accepted on your behalf for your sins. Your good works cannot pay for your sins, because as we're going to find out, the more we study on Romans 7, even your best works are tainted deeply with sin. We can never get away from it. And so, how is it we receive this free gift just by faith? Like Abraham, who looked up at the stars and believed the promise from God, "So shall your offspring be," so it is with us. We hear a message, a simple message of freedom from sin through Jesus Christ and we believe it and we are justified. We're declared not guilty by the judge of all the universe. Amen, hallelujah. We're free forever. We are justified by faith. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. I can't wait to preach on that, so I'll do a little this morning.
Romans 8:1, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." What a glorious message. And so, we're justified, but then a question comes. If it's true that we're simply justified by grace, by grace alone and that the law comes in just to increase sin, but where sin increased grace increased all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign even more powerfully in life. If sin can't beat grace and grace always trumps sin and grace is always greater than sin and overwhelms it, if all of that's true, then why don't we just sin all the more? Why don't we just sin and sin and sin? Romans 6:1, "What then shall we say, shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound?"
Our Present Christian Life
So Paul in Romans 6 and 7 is dealing with the question of our present Christian life, now that we're justified and how it relates to sin. That context is very important. And then in Romans 6 we've learned that we are united with Christ, aren't we? By faith. We've become one with Him. Jesus Christ died and we died in Him and Jesus Christ rose and we rose in Him, and water baptism is a picture of that. We were buried with Him through baptism and death, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. So we're united with Jesus Christ and that gives us a complete assurance. And therefore, Romans 6:14 says, "sin shall not be your master, because you're not under law, but under grace." You've come to a whole new realm of existence. You're a new person in Christ and sin cannot rule over that new creation, that new person that you are. Sin is not your master. Sin does not call the shots in your life. You can say no to sin anytime wickedness, but rather present ourselves to God as those who've been brought from death to life and present the parts of your body, your hands, your feet, your eyes, your mouth, all the parts of you to God as instruments of righteousness.
Is There Something Wrong with the Law?
And then in Romans 7 he talks about the problem of the law. Well, is there something wrong with the law, then? Did that which is good produce death in me, he's asking? Is there something broken or wrong with the law? Could God have written a better law? If it only ever seems to produce death everywhere it goes, is there something wrong with the law? He answers that, "May it never be." Rather, he says, in order that sin might become utterly sinful, it produced death in me through what was good. There's nothing wrong with the law, the law is holy and righteous and just and good. It's wonderful, you can't do any better. The problem is me, I'm the problem, and you too. We are the problem. The law's got lousy material to work with. It's us. We're sinners.
Is Paul Speaking as a Christian or as an Unbeliever?
And so Paul is going to delve into that here. Now, what is the mystery about this passage? Well, on the one hand is Paul speaking as a Christian? Paul is using very personal language here, isn't he? He says, "I" and "me" and "my" 46 times in the NASB, 46 times in Romans 7. He says, "I" and "me" and "my." He's talking intensely about himself, it seems. Well, then, Paul, are you speaking as a Christian or are you speaking about your experiences before you were a Christian? That's the issue. Now we get the Coke can rolling from side to side. Is Paul speaking as a Christian? Well, if he is speaking as a Christian and we read it, it resonates. We say, "I understand what he's talking about," don't we? You read it and you say, "This is me. This is my struggle. I do struggle with sin like that. I do the very thing I wish I didn't do. And I can't seem to stop the very thing I don't want to do." And I relate to that and I can do what Paul did.
I can cry out against myself. I can say, "What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?" This is me. And so it resonates. The problem is the verses itself. They seem to say things that Paul told us would never be true about us again. Look at verse 14, "we know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual…" Well, wait a minute. What is that? What do you mean I'm unspiritual? I thought I have the indwelling Holy Spirit. I thought I am now newly created and will be that way for all eternity. What do you mean I am unspiritual? And then he goes on and says, "Sold as a slave to sin." Oh, I thought we were done with that. I thought we were free. I thought we'd never be slaves to sin again. The pastor told me so. Romans Chapter 6 tells me so, even more importantly. "Sin shall not be your master, because you're not under law but under grace." And now literally a chapter later, that was 6:14, now we got 7:14 and he seems to be taking it back, at least for himself.
You see the problem. Well, if Paul is speaking as a Christian, how can he make this statement? One commentator said this is not the struggle with sin, this is defeat in sin. There's a difference. We all acknowledge that there's struggle with sin. Galatians 5 talks about that, doesn't it? Galatians 5 says very plainly that if we follow the spirit, we will not follow the flesh and there's going to be a struggle. There's no question at all he's writing to Christians. And he says that there is a conflict between the spirit and the flesh there. We know that, and we do experience it, right? And so, we struggle, the flesh wars against the spirit and the spirit wars against the flesh, so that we do not do what we want, or we do not want what we do. What does that mean? You are not pure people. You're never 100% doing anything. None of you are 100% listening to me right now. Maybe a few are. I mean, there's a pull inside, isn't there? Part of you wants to listen. Part of you doesn't want to listen. Part of you is tracking what I'm saying. Part of you is thinking about other things.
I won't guess at what they are, but they're out there. And so we're not pure beings. Do you realize how pure God is when it says, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." That means He never struggles the way we do. There's no locked up kind of grid lock inside Him. He always knows what to do. And there's no hesitation with Him about anything. But we're not like that, are we? We're divided beings, and so we struggle within ourselves all the time, don't we? I'm not questioning that. The question is, is Paul talking about that here in Romans 7, because his language seems to go too far, doesn't it? What do you mean, "sold as a slave to sin?" I don't like that. I thought I was free. I thought sin had no authority over me. I thought I'm not under sin anymore. What good news is that? Now you're taking it away from me.
You see the problem. He seems to say too much, if he is speaking as a Christian. Okay, the Coke can rolls to the other side. He must be a non-Christian. He's speaking as a non-Christian. Well, in order to see the problem there, you have to realize what Paul says is true of non-Christians. In Romans Chapter 8, he say, "The sinful mind," or the mind of natural man, "Is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God." They don't love God. They don't love His word. They fight against it. They're almost allergic to it. When it's preached faithfully, they get upset about it. They get angry about it. There's an allergy in the natural heart to the word of God. And yet Paul here in Romans 7 says in verse 22, "In my inner being, I delight in God's law." So now you're saying, "I see it, I see why the Coke can rolls from side to side. Are you speaking as a Christian or are you speaking as a non-Christian?"
Either Way, the Christian Life Involves a Deep Struggle Against Sin
And you're saying, "Thank you very much, Pastor. I never had a problem with Romans 7 until you came and told me today." But I want you to understand the Christian life. And if you truly understand the Christian life, Romans 7 gets harder and harder to understand. The more you understand how free you are from sin and the power of the Holy Spirit within you, and the more you understand just how dead you were apart from God and how you could not rejoice in God's law, and there was nothing inside you that resonated with that, the more you're going to see that Romans 7 is the hardest chapter in the Bible. And so I want to say before we continue and try to figure out what this is teaching, I want to tell you that it doesn't ultimately matter. Now, you may be surprised about that, but I believe it's possible to be wrong about this question in Romans 7 and still be completely right about the Christian life. So the pressure's off a little bit. Now, it doesn't mean we shouldn't try to figure it out, but the pressure's off. Either Paul is a Christian or he's a non-Christian, but either way, we understand the Christian life, don't we?
It's a life that's going to be involving deep, bitter struggle with sin. And it's going to be with you as long as you're in this body of death. You're going to struggle. You're going to war. And the answers have to do with the Gospel message and the promises and the power of the Holy Spirit built in you. And we'll get to that in Romans 8. He already alluded to it in Romans 7. "We do not serve in the old way of the written code, but in the new way of the Spirit." The way of the Spirit, notice in all this discussion in Romans 7, he never once mentions the Holy Spirit. That's very, very significant, I think, to me. So, ultimately, we can understand the Christian life properly and not finally resolve whether Paul is speaking as a Christian or a non-Christian.
I say one more thing about it from the top. It could be that there is no resolution because sin itself is an unbelievable mystery. It is essentially insanity, isn't it? So whenever Paul sinned, even as an Apostle, it was insane for him to do so. It was a total denial and disavowal of everything God was doing in his life. And it could be we can't resolve this, because sin itself asks that question I asked at the beginning about that poem. Why? Why do we do it? There is no answer, is there? What benefit did you ever get from sin? And if the answer is none, it's only ever hurt me, it's only ever left my life devastated the way that it left the battlefields of World War I devastated, then why do you keep doing it? There is no answer, is there? It's essentially mysterious. It's the mystery of iniquity.
And that's why I think we won't be able ultimately to resolve this question. But let's try to look at the chapter and try to understand it. As we look in here, we are getting an unbelievable clear look into the depths of human personality, aren't we? We're getting a probing look into who we really are. Have you ever felt this before? I do not understand what I do. I would think, of any topic in the world that you'd be an expert on, it'd be yourself. Don't you think you would really know who you are and why you do what you do? But do you? Do you understand why you do what you do? Do you ever do something or say something and say, "Why did I say that? I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to say that." Romans 7 brings that light right into the core of who we are. Why do we struggle the way we do? Now, as we've looked across this thing, we've tried to understand the various views. We understand what we're struggling with.
III. Overview of the Text
Let's look across the text and try to see what Paul is saying. It's really broken into three cycles. You get cycle one in verses 14-17, cycle two in verses 18-20, and cycle three in verses 21-25. In effect, in each of these three cycles, he says the same thing, only a little bit deeper each time. Cycle one. "We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it but it is sin living in me." The first thing Paul does in this cycle is he states a problem with self. The problem's not the law. There's nothing wrong with the law. The problem is me. I am unspiritual. I've got a problem. And he states a division. There's a part of me that wants one thing and there's a part of me that wants something else. There's a war going on inside me. And then there's a statement of yearning or willingness to follow the law. There's a yearning after God, a wanting to do what God wants. And then there's a statement of powerless. But I can't do it. I see that it's good, I yearn for it, I want it but I can't do it. I just can't get there.
My reach escapes my grasp. I can reach for more than I can really get. Do you feel that way in the Christian life? You can imagine more in the Christian life than you really live. And so he states bad behavior in reference to himself. "Sin living in me corrupts me and causes me grief and harm." That's cycle one. We're going to go into these more carefully over the next few weeks, God willing.
Cycle two. "I know that nothing good lives in me…" It's verses 18-20. "I 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. For 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. Now, 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." Again, he states a problem with himself. There's nothing good living in me that is in my flesh or in my sinful nature. And by the way, that slight correction there helps me to understand this whole thing. There's a slight correction which he's saying, "there's me" and then there's, "my flesh" that I'm dragging around all the time. And that helps me understand Paul speaking as a Christian. Doesn't make verse 14 any easier for me, but it does help me to understand it.
So also, by the way, brothers and sisters, the fact that he says "no longer.." "It is no longer I who do it but sin living in me." What does no longer mean? It means there was a change in my life, right? There was a time that I was nothing but sin all the time. Now, I see that there's something new in me, a new creation. I hate sin. I want something new. I want to walk with God, but I've still got this flesh. So there's that no longer and that gives indications that he's talking as a Christian. And so, he puts a statement of yearning or willingness. Again, part of me desiring to please God. I want to do what is good but I cannot carry it out. And therefore, sin lives in me and corrupts me.
Cycle three, verses 21-25. "So I find this law at work," he says it very strongly, this unbreakable, (it seems) or unshakable principle. "When I want to do good, evil is right there with me." Have you ever felt that? Me and my shadow, right? As soon as you want to do something good, evil's there holding you back. It makes it difficult. You don't actually do anything completely purely. That's why standing on good works will never work, because there are no perfectly good works. Evil is right there at all points. Evil is right there with me. "For in my inner being, I delight in God's law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body waging a war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members." So there's the third cycle.
And then, as though he just can't bear it anymore, he cries out, "What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Can you make that cry today? Do you see it inside yourself? What would you give to be free forever from your sin nature? What would your marriage look like? What would your employment as an employee of a company or however you earn your money, what would it be like? What would your relationship, if you're a young person, with your parents be like if you never sinned again? What would it be like? What would your relationship with the world and all of its allurements be like if there was nothing within you that resonated at all with that wickedness? What would your life be like? And so you cry out and say, I just look inward and I see wretchedness.
IV. Law Leads to Christ, and Christ Gives the Spirit
Who's going to rescue me from this body of death? And then, if you're a Christian, you move onto the second part. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Somebody say amen. Somebody cheerful. Amen! Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He is our savior. And when we get to Heaven are you going to be talking about yourself and how great you were and how you made it through the life and all that? No. You're going to be saying, "Hallelujah! What a savior. Hallelujah! What a friend. Saving, helping, keeping, loving. He stays with me to the end." That is Jesus, our savior. We will discuss this more next week.
Let's get a little application, and then, God willing, if He gives us time next week, we'll look more carefully at these verses and try to understand ourselves. How can we apply this? First of all, be thankful if you're a Christian. Speak words of praise to Jesus all the time, because you can't save yourself. You prove it every day. Even now, even as a Christian, even with the scripture, and with the indwelling spirit and all of these things, there's still enough sin to condemn you every day.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ. Thank Him often for your salvation. Thanksgiving's coming up; every day should be thanksgiving for a Christian. Every day you should be saying thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you.
Secondly, be warned. Sin is going to be with you until you are separated from the body in this world. Be warned. Be ready. Sin is there. Vicious, aggressive, more dangerous than the devil. Because even if there were no devil, you'd still have your sin nature, and it's enough to condemn, right? So you've got that vicious enemy, and it's an enemy within the walls. Be warned. Sin is there.
Be humbled, therefore, you cannot even control your own self. I do not understand what I do. I just can't seem to get the upper hand. And were it not for the indwelling spirit, what kind of life would you live? Even now, justified, believing in Christ, what would your life look like? You need Jesus Christ, don't you? And you need the power of the Holy Spirit, so let it humble you. Be humble. Don't think highly of yourself when you see progress in your Christian life, and you will. But realize, be humble, that something that God is working in you.
Be grieved also. Does Paul ever evade responsibility for his sin in here? Does he ever say, "Well, it's not my fault. I can't help myself." No, he takes full responsibility and he's grieved. It troubles him. So be grieved over your sin. Be instructed. The law cannot sanctify you. It couldn't justify you, and it cannot finish the work in you either. You don't go get justified through faith in Christ and then read the law and try to keep it as best you can. That is not Christianity. The law cannot sanctify you.
And then finally, be assured and encouraged. Have you ever wondered, "Am I a Christian?" Have you ever wondered... You look in and you see this sin and this struggle. Have you ever wondered, has it not slain you to the heart? You love Jesus Christ, you know He died in your place. You know you've trusted Him as Lord and savior, and yet you just can't seem to shake sin. I must not be a Christian. How vulnerable are we to that?
Be encouraged. If Paul is writing as a mature, godly Christian man here, you can't do much better than Paul, and he still wrestled with sin too. That doesn't mean be encouraged to sin. May it never be, but be encouraged as you wrestle with sin. I really believe only true Christians really wrestle with sin. They really wage war, and they're going to be doing it until the Lord comes back. So be encouraged and be assured, just because you have sin in your life, doesn't mean you're not a Christian.