“Independence Day”

Romans 7:15-25closeRomans 7:15-25 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV) closeRomans 7:15-25closeRomans 7:15-25 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV) 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV) a

In the series “Grace is for Everyone”

Have you ever said to yourself or to someone else, “I don’t know why I do this.  I should know better.”  When we make a really silly mistake, we say, “I could kick myself for that.” Or “I had it coming. I should have known better.”

When I hear Paul say, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” it is very hard for me not to think about sweets, like cookies and candy.  In my lifetime, I have eaten many, many sweets.  And I have wonderful memories associated with them.  As a child, whenever we visited my great-grandma’s house, she would take out the cookie jar stored in her cupboard and allow us to have one of these chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies.  At my grandma’s house, there was a tall glass candy jar that was filled with a different candy almost every week:  jelly beans, chocolate-covered peanuts, orange slices, cinnamon drops, or pink wintergreen mints.  I don’t know if I was born with a sweet tooth or I developed it over time, but today I still like to eat sweets.  You may also, but for me today, as a diabetic, that desire to consume lots of sweets is problematic.  Even though I know I should limit or avoid them altogether, I still have a craving for them and sometimes give in to that craving.

If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, you know that part of you wants to light up another one even though your head tells you otherwise. If you’ve ever dieted, you know that part of you wants a piece of that chocolate cake even though your head tells you otherwise. If you feel too dependent on caffeine to get you going in the morning, you struggle to not grab that cup of caffeinated coffee even though your head tells you to stick to juice or decaf.

With enough help and willpower, one might be able to give up nicotine, sweets and caffeine, but have you ever tried to give up sin?  Scripture makes it clear that disciples of Jesus Christ are called to live pure and holy lives.  That includes our words, our actions and our thoughts.

That is what Paul is talking about in our passage.  He wanted to do the right thing; yet somehow, he could never quite get it right. He knew it was wrong, and he knew he didn’t want to do the wrong thing.  Yet somehow, he did it anyway.  And the thing he knew was good to do, he just couldn’t get himself to do.

Have you ever felt yourself pulled in two directions, feeling as though two powerful forces were tearing you apart?  The one forces pulls you toward doing the thing God wants you to do, while the other force pulls you toward doing what God does not want you to do, which is called sin.  Sometimes it even feels like the two forces pulling opposite directions both claim to be God’s will.  In the life of every Christian there is a struggle with sin.  And it can be a frustrating experience.

Paul was frustrated because he could see the good, but he was unable to do it.  He could recognize what was wrong, yet he was unable to keep from doing it.  He doesn’t get specific about what sins cause him to struggle, but that doesn’t really matter.  He recognizes that sin is what causes him to do what he doesn’t want to do, and sin leads him to fail to do the good things he really wants to do.

Paul comes to this passage in the midst of his discussion about law and grace.  Paul was born and raised as a Jew.  He was trained as a Pharisee, a conservative religious scholar who was concerned with keeping the Jewish Law.  He believed that God gave the Law to keep people from giving in to their evil impulses.  This meant that, if a person’s activities were regulated, their evil choices could be limited.  So, in applying the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” they would say that a person should take no more than 100 steps on the Sabbath to prove your dedication to God.

A modern equivalent notion might be, “If you go to church on Sunday, you’ll have done your part for God.”

So the thought was that, if a person could simply learn God’s Law fully, then it should keep you safe in times of temptation.  It’s not a bad idea, but is helpful.  I agree that the Bible verses and songs of the faith that people have learned in their childhood can sustain and guide them through difficult choices and times in their lives.  The trouble comes when we insist legalistically on learning and keeping all the right words and actions without a relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ.  A legalistic lifestyle will not stand up to sin and temptation.

In fact, Paul says that every attempt to follow the Law is bound to fail at some point.  Try as we might, our good intentions will ultimately fail us.  We give in to temptation.  We say, “I can’t help it.  It’s just a part of who I am.”  On our own, we are powerless to overcome sin.

And in our human nature, we try to rationalize and explain away our inability to resist sin.  We psychologize sin and say that it is a result of our family.  “I can’t help that I have a bad attitude – my grandpa had the same problem, so it’s in my genes.”  Or, “I can’t help being dishonest and lying, because my whole family has a history of it.”  We become victims.

Yes, the mistakes and sins of our parents affect our lives.  However, there is also a point at which every individual must take responsibility for her or his own actions.

We’re also pretty good at downplaying sin.  “What we’re doing isn’t sin, because it doesn’t hurt anyone,” we think.  Or, “I didn’t get caught shoplifting, so it’s not wrong. Besides they overcharge on other things, so it doesn’t really hurt the company.”

Is it any wonder that some many people, including Christians, have become desensitized to sin?  We don’t even like to use the word. We’d rather talk about an “honest mistake.”  We claim, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that. Besides it felt good.”

Regardless of our efforts to diminish our challenge, it still boils down to Paul’s struggle:  Even though we try to do the good, we find ourselves choosing sin.  Through the Holy Spirit, God wakes us in that moment to the reality that our choice was not right and pleasing to God. It may have felt good; it may have satisfied our ego; it may even have seemed justified, but that doesn’t mean that God blesses our actions.  Our conscience then keeps sounding the alarm and flashing images in our minds to remind us of our wrong actions.

In verses 17 and 20, it almost sounds as if Paul is trying to avoid responsibility, when he says, “It is no longer I who do it, but the sin which resides in me.”  But what is really seems to be saying is that he cannot overcome sin by his own willpower.  He says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19).  He can’t do it himself. Sin is more powerful than his good intentions.”

He reflects on the inner conflict, a war that rages within him.  At one point, he says, “Nothing good lives within me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18).  He names the sin nature that is in him.  In some other letters, Paul refers to this as the “old self” or the “former nature.”

Then, in verse 22, he says, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self.”  He loves God and God’s Law. He longs to follow God’s ways and to live a life that pleases God.  In other writings, Paul calls this as the “new self.”

So which is he?  Can he be both in sinful nature and the new self?  The answer is, “Yes.”  He can be both.  These two natures are “at war.”  This is more than the popular image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering in the person’s ear.  This is an internal struggle.  Sometimes his new self, his Christian nature, wins, but then it seems that his sinful nature is right there pushing back.  Paul describes this struggle as a war within.  Ultimately, this struggle leads him to cry out, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24).

Can you relate?  You start work at 9 a.m. thinking about how you’re going to be a model employee today, but by 10 a.m., you’ve already disproven your good intentions by wasting a lot of time and gossping with coworkers.  You begin the day with the goal of keeping your tongue under control, but the drive to work brings out road-rage swearing.  You start the week thinking that God’s Word is going to be a priority, but your Bible never sees the light of day and your attitude remains unchanged by God’s Word.

No pastor’s preaching on the seven steps of self-improvement and no Christian inspiration book, no matter how well-written or how famous the author, will change the fact that good advice can’t take away your sin nature.  We’re left, with Paul, to cry out, as Eugene Peterson renders it, ““I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?” (The Message)

Then comes his proclamation of thanksgiving and victory:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Having hit the bottom of his struggle through relying on his own strength and ability to live for God and to fulfill the Law, Paul recognizes that God in Christ is the only one who can rescue us from the war within us.  Jesus has fulfilled God’s Law out of his great love for us.  He has won the victory and given us freedom from the law of sin and death. By this grace, he has declared our independence from sin when we put our trust in him.

As Paul writes about his own struggles with sin and becoming more like Christ, he invites us to examine ourselves and our lives to find areas of our lives that we struggle to put under God’s control.  And he reassures us that all our struggles, everything that hinders our relationship with God and everything that motivates us to choose sin over the will of God, can be laid down to Jesus at the foot of his cross.  He calls us to more intentional living of our life in Christ.  All of this is possible because God’s grace is sufficient and is for everyone.

We have been freed from sin and death by the grace of God.  We are free to grow in our relationship with God through Christ.  We are free to live as disciples of Jesus in the Kingdom of God.  When we recognize this, all we can do, with Paul, is express our praise and thanks to God with our words and with our lives.  May it be so.  Amen.

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