I feel some unease preaching from Romans. One of the regular preaching pastors is David Johnson, who teaches the Letter to the Romans at Providence: He has studied this book in depth and with more understanding than I have. But it is the set text for the morning, and I have done my best to hear God speak in the reading of Scripture today.
Some beginning comments on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote this letter about 55 to 57 A.D. He was staying for an extended period in Corinth, before taking the financial gift he had been collecting from the church of Asia to the mother church in Jerusalem (see Acts 18). Letters are, by definition, what we call “occasional documents”. That is, they are written for a specific occasion or in response to some particular issue. For example, the letters to the Corinthians address the issues of spiritual enthusiasm and church conflicts the church there was experiencing. So also the letter to the Galatians deals with the issue of adding law-keeping to faith in Christ as necessary for salvation. Each letter has its own particular purpose.
What then is the purpose for Paul’s Letter to the Romans? The church at Rome was one of the oldest in the world, possibly formed by people who heard Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2) and were among those who repented and joined the church there. When they returned home to Rome, they may have immediately formed the church in Rome. In any case Paul says that he had nothing to do with their formation, and he does not write in response to problems or questions that they have sent to him.
We can see this letter as a kind of introduction, anticipating a visit at some point in the near future. Paul knows that some people think he is controversial, and he knows that he wants to visit Rome, so he sends a letter that states clearly what he preaches, and what his life is about. As a result, Romans is one of the clearest statements in his letters about the centre of his understanding of the gospel.
James Dunn notes that one can see a missionary purpose (“I am not ashamed of the gospel …”), an apologetic purpose (explaining and defending the gospel), and a pastoral purpose (holding Jew and Gentile together in one church, and speaking on behalf of those in the Roman Church whom he knew). These three weave together in a coherent whole, and they make a document that works well to introduce Paul to the church at Rome.
Many of the Roman Christians came from a Gentile background, partly because a few years before Nero had expelled Jews (including Jewish Christians) from Rome. They soon returned, but the Jewish Christians in the church may have also needed some measure of reinstatement within the Roman Church. This need helps explain the central chapters (9 to 11), which deal with the place of the Jews within the new reality of God’s People, the church.
The basic message of Romans, then, is clear: Paul is a servant of the gospel of God. In various ways throughout the letter he repeats the message that human efforts to reach God fail, and he emphasizes the truth that only God’s grace, working through God’s Spirit, can reconcile us with God for all eternity. Our passages this week and next week serve as a microcosm of this message. So today we begin with the failure of human efforts to reach God, and next week we consider the reality of God’s power available through God’s Spirit.
Text: Romans 7
In the verses we read this morning, Paul indicates the absolute failure of human efforts to live well in this world. He has made the case that all people fall short of God’s glory and that only God’s grace can save anyone. “Save” in this case means to make us good enough to live forever with God. The Law of Moses might seem to do this. As Paul says in the verses just before our passage, the Law is “holy, just, and good” (verse 12). But we are not; we are, as he says in verse 14, “sold as slaves to sin”.
Our first point, then, is that “we are slaves to sin.” In chapter 6 Paul observes that everyone is a slave to something—either to sin or to righteousness. Some people claim to be non-religious. They are, they say, in charge of their own lives. But the truth is that we all follow some compelling idea or power that rules our lives.
Some live for self and their own pleasure; and this search for pleasure and self-fulfillment rules their lives. My mentor, Darrell Whiteman, taught anthropology at Asbury Seminary. I remember his description of one of his early classes as a teacher of anthropology at Southern Illinois University. He described “cultural compulsives”, those aspects of our culture that we absorb so deeply that we do them without thinking. He described the way that the demands of being an individual work in our society so that everyone insists on being unique. Finally one young man in the back of the class stood up and said, “I can’t accept this. Nobody tells me what to do, and certainly not my culture!” Whiteman thanked him for illustrating his point.
Some live for country and for honour, and their desire to serve their country rules their lives. I think of George Bush, Sr. Whether or not one agreed with his policies and actions as president, most people recognized him as one who had a strong commitment to his country and placed a high value on honour. Paul’s point, however, is that even something as good as love of country becomes part of being a slave to sin when it is our master.
Paul himself lived in his early life for the Law of Moses. He gave himself without holding anything back to serve God through lifting up the Law. Now, in his Letter to the Romans, Paul holds up a different path—to serve God through the Spirit of God.
Verses 15 to 20 then lay out the problem that we find ourselves in. Paul says, “I want to do what is good, but my actions are bad. I will the good, and I do the bad. I am a slave to sin.” Commentators raise various difficulties here.
1) Is Paul describing his own experience or a generic experience?
2) Is he talking about his own life before he became a follower of Jesus?
3) Is he talking about his experience after following Jesus, but before being filled with God’s Spirit?
4) Or is he describing the experience of anyone who tries to live outside of God’s control?
I think that the answer is the last option. Paul is impersonating the one who lives according to the flesh [that is, doing one’s best humanly speaking], and he describes the result. He uses his own experience as part of the picture, and he emphasizes the total inability of human efforts to break the power of sin.
Some interpreters go further and think that Paul is struggling with an overwhelming sense of guilt. They see him struggling with a terrible angst, just as we imagine we would have been. Krister Stendahl critiqued this reading 44 years ago with an article titled, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” He observed that Paul actually had a robust conscience and did not agonize over his sinful past. Consider the way he describes himself in Philippians 3:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
So much for feeling guilty! Paul looks at the demands of the Law, rigorous and difficult, and says, “I kept the Law! As regarding the Law, I am faultless!” No, Paul was not struggling with a bad conscience about what kind of a person he had been. He had sought to serve God faithfully, but he knew that all of his efforts were worthless. A few verses later in Philippians 3 he refers to his efforts to be good as “garbage”. What then is going on Romans 7?
Verses 21 to 24 restate the experience Paul describes as a natural law: The person who lives outside of the Spirit of Christ seeks to break free from the power of Sin, but finds their efforts constantly frustrated. Our human efforts to do what is right end in frustration and despair. Then into our helpless struggles God breaks in with the power of the resurrection and gives us victory over sin, breaking the power of Sin in our lives.
A Treatise on Sin
One way we can read this passage is as a treatise on the power of Sin in human life. First, Sin is an addictive power that we are helpless to break. Second, Sin reveals our human limitations. Third and most importantly, Sin is a power that works against anything good in our lives, taking even our best efforts and twisting them to failure and distress.
1) The Addictive Power of Sin:
Although Paul did not experience sin as an addiction (consider his robust conscience concerning keeping the Law), his description rings true with human experience. Think of some personal habit that you wish you could get rid of. Perhaps you know that you would be so much better in your work place if you arrived at work and at meetings five minutes earlier. Maybe you have been warned that you are in danger of losing your job for constant tardiness.
So you decide to implement a new routine. You set your watch 10 minutes fast. You determine that procrastination is a thing of the past in your life. You start living a new life, but after a few weeks of being really good old habits reassert themselves, and you find yourself swearing at the traffic that threatens to make you late and undo all your good resolutions.
Think of a more serious problem. You have a temper, so that your family is afraid to say anything around you that might set you off. You’re also afraid of what might happen, because CFS has started to ask questions about how you treat your children. You determine to remain level-headed and to avoid outbreaks of temper. For several months all goes well, and then the pressures of a bad day overwhelm you and you lash out at your young son. In a moment, all of your good intention is undone by one destructive explosion.
I could multiply examples (such as drug or alcohol addiction), but we know too well what Paul is describing. We want to do what’s right, but sin is an addiction too strong for us to break. We long to experience Paul’s shout of victory at the end of the passage: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”
2) Sin as Human Limitations: Sin as addiction reminds us that we are limited human beings. With enough effort, and with strong support from family and friends, we can make great strides in improving ourselves—that is one of the truths that various 12-step programs teach us. When we turn to friends who hold us accountable and who encourage us, we are able to improve ourselves remarkably. Even so, we realize our limitations. We rejoice in our triumphs, and we grieve together in our failures. The harder we try, the more we realise that we are limited human beings, and again we long to experience Paul’s shout of victory. This reading hears him more clearly than thinking only of the addictive power of sin. We can be good, but we can never be good enough. This takes us into the third and most important point.
3) Sin as a Power: We often think of sin as simple actions that break God’s rules. Sin is much deeper than that. Sin is a Power that works against God and seeks to destroy us. That’s why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us from Evil.” Sin is that force or power in our world that seeks to undo what God wants and to bring about chaos and destruction all around us.
Consider the current political climate in which people routinely describe those who disagree with them as bigoted, or primitive, or evil in some way or other. People who are otherwise good people, and who are making choices that are generally good, speak and write in ways about their political opponents so as to destroy community and civil society. (Maybe this sounds like an American disease, but I see it in Canada too. Think, for example, of letters to the editor of the Winnipeg Free press about the current debate concerning the right to choose the manner and time of one’s own death.) What is going on in such destructive patterns of conversation? How is it that otherwise good people act in ways that are so destructive? I believe it is the power of evil (Satan, if you will) at work through sin.
Paul was fully aware of this dynamic. I think it is at the heart of what he is saying. He had started his life eager to do what was right and good. He became a Pharisee—one set apart to keep and protect the Law of Moses. At the beginning of his career he heard about these followers of Jesus who said that the Messiah had come. He heard that they identified this Messiah, Jesus, as the Son of God, and that Jesus had said that he was one with God. Saul the Pharisee was outraged. In his desire to protect God’s Law from those who would defile it, he received permission to travel north to Damascus to root out and destroy these Jesus-followers.
You know the story (Acts 8). Just before he entered Damascus, Saul was struck down by the Shekinah Glory of God. He recognized it immediately. As he lay on the ground, now blind with his physical sight, he looked with the eyes of his soul into the presence of God, Adonai Elohenu, the God of Israel, and he asked, “Lord (Adonai), who are you?” God replied, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.” Do you wonder that Paul considered his own righteousness as garbage? Doing what the law required led him to attack the God whom he loved. This is the way of Sin. The power of Sin works through us so that even our good efforts turn to evil.
This level of sin leads us to consider our words and actions carefully. A simple example: Churches often spend time restructuring their lives to remain more in tune with the world as it is now. My own congregation is in this process. We analyse our situation carefully. We look at our theological distinctives and the way that God has worked in our congregational life in the past. We pray. We plan. Finally we decide what to do. But if God’s Spirit is not at work in our planning, we rediscover the power of sin at work. We will to do something good, but we actually accomplish what we don’t want. Paul tells us that this happens all the time.
No wonder that Paul cries out, “Who can deliver me from this body, subject to the power of sin?” His question is also our question, and his cry of triumph is also our cry: “Thanks be to God who delivers me from Sin.” God makes it possible to defeat the power of sin through the Spirit of Christ working in us. God makes it possible for us to live victorious lives as individuals and as the church.
But that is to anticipate next Sunday’s sermon. Jesus sets us free. The Spirit of Jesus lives in us and we become slaves to the good and the true. Next week we’ll talk about that wonderful victory. For today, it is enough to say that Jesus saves—that is, the Spirit of Jesus living in us makes us good. God makes us all that God wants us to be, and that is good news indeed.
Grace Bible Church
9 July 2017
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 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.21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 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!