Romans 7:14 “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.”
Let me ask two little questions to test you. [ONE] If I should say to you, “The law is spiritual,” then what, and how, would you reply? I guess that many of you would give a cautious “Yes” and then you’d add, “But it can’t save us. No one can be saved by keeping the law,” and I would be delighted with that reply. The law is spiritual in that it gives sinners the knowledge of what sin is – that’s what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. He is showing us all our need of the divine mercy and grace. The law is spiritual in the vital role it has in evangelism. It shows people why they need a Saviour. The law is spiritual again in showing us as Christians how we should live. What moral principles we live by. The law is spiritual in its origin, its divine authority and its character and also there is the fact that the law is written on the heart of every believer. The law is spiritual also in this that the Holy Spirit was there with the Father and the Son on Mount Sinai giving the law to Moses on the tablets of stone. The law is spiritual in that it can’t be obeyed without the energy and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit in our hearts. The law is spiritual in that whenever we pray and say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:24) then it is the Spirit of God who in particular answers such prayers.
What do you think of that? I guess some of you are thinking, “Yes, but . . .” You mean by that cautious agreement that you want to magnify the grace of God; “Yes, but we are free from the law-keeping to get salvation. We are dead to the law as a means of righteousness. We are redeemed from the law’s curse. The law has been abolished, all its shadows driven away as the Sun of righteousness has risen. All the ceremonial system of the law has been abolished.” I hope you are thinking some of those things anyway, because all of that is what I believe. The law is spiritual but Mr. Morality cannot save us. We must have Jesus of Nazareth as our Saviour. We must have his blood and righteousness to cover us. Only the Son of God can redeem us and present us faultless to God. You agree to that? Good! That is basic Christianity, and you have grasped it.
Now another question to test you; [TWO] if I should confess to you, “I am unspiritual (the word in our text means ‘fleshly’ or ‘carnal’), sold as a slave to sin,” then what would you say to me? I think there could be a three-fold response to my confession. Firstly, some of you would say, “No, pastor, you are being too hard on yourself. You are washed from all your sin in the blood of Jesus, all your sins are forgiven, and you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Since you are justified by your faith in the Saviour you have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. You must remember that.” Secondly, others of you would ask me, “Are you all right today pastor? Are you feeling depressed? Why such morbid thoughts? You need to look to Jesus. Turn your eyes upon Jesus. He knows all about you and he loves you. He will keep you safe however good or bad you feel.” Yet others of you, thirdly, would say, “Do you also feel like that too, unspiritual and sold as a slave to sin? I’m so glad to hear it because that is exactly how I often feel about my Christian life.”
Those are the three responses that are pastorally all true and that I find myself giving them to people who express some such sentiment to us like the apostle’s here: “I am unspiritual (or carnal), sold as a slave to sin.” In our conversation with them we try to work out where they are coming from or as people say, ‘where they’re at.’ What’s their problem? How can we pastor this person? I had a letter recently from a man who listens to my sermons who thinks he has sinned the unforgivable sin. I cannot dismiss his self-analysis by saying to him, “Don’t be silly.” And I can’t just exhort him, “Look to Jesus.” Maybe he is suffering from clinical depression. Maybe his falls into sin are a result of his weakness in not lifting the shield of faith high enough and he has been allowing the fiery darts of Satan to get through. Whatever has caused this state of mind I must not crush him. But neither may I condone his sinning. The gap between vice and virtue is a razor’s edge.
This is why the second half of this chapter of Romans 7 is so important in understanding ourselves and the Christian life. The law of God is perfect. That is what the apostle affirms. How terrifically perfect it is, but alas, we are not. That law requires truth in the inward parts. It does not permit the slightest deviation from the divine standard. It detects the slightest ambush of our deceitful hearts. And Paul is aware of this, and here the tense of the verbs in this passage in Romans 7 changes to the present tense and also he is not saying ‘we’, he is saying ‘I’. He is talking about his regenerate heart, his new heart of flesh that God has given to him in the new birth. His heart of stone has been removed and he just has one new heart now. On that heart the law of God has been written, and one result of that is when we hear the commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord with all thy heart and soul and mind and strength” then our new hearts leap with recognition and cry “Amen! May it be so” And when we hear the commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” our heart leaps again with joy shouting, “Amen! May it be so!” But our hearts, though admiring and desiring such graces, alas, lack any natural power to obey those commandments. The law of God that is written there by itself doesn’t provide the energy to enable us to do those commands. Our hearts may admire the handsomeness of the face of the young Clint Eastwood, and we say, “Isn’t he good-looking!” but there is nothing in our hearts than has the power to change our visage so that it looks like his face. We say, “Alas. I’m no handsome guy. I’m a pretty plain and ordinary looking chap.” So too we admire the perfection of the law – from our hearts, but those hearts by themselves and with the law standing over them cannot make us as beautiful as Christ. Only God can do that. The laws of God are impotent – utterly powerless to produce holiness in the heart of the believer. The fault does not lie in the law, but in the fact that we are carnal or unspiritual sold as a slave to sin. Let me move on and ask this question
1. WHEN CAN A CHRISTIAN SPEAK OF HIMSELF AS ‘CARNAL’ OR ‘UNSPIRITUAL.’
There are three correct answers to that query. The first is this . . .
i] A Christian can speak of himself as ‘carnal’ before he is converted. At that time in his life he does not have the indwelling Holy Spirit. He is dead in trespasses and sins. He is under the influence of sin. If you tell him to cheer up and ‘look for the hero inside himself’ he may look but what he will find is ego. Of course that flesh of his is restrained by the loving influences of his parents, the moral restraints of the society in which he lives, his education, and an earlier grace in the nation. He is not as bad as he could be, or as bad as he will be. He’s learned that the way of the transgressor is hard, and so he shuns a life of crime. He makes resolutions, turns over a new leaf and he buckles down to his job and caring for his family, but in his heart all the time there is deceit, and desperate wickedness. Scripture is clear; his ambitions are selfish; “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires.” And again, “Those who live in the flesh cannot please God.” So the first answer is that Paul could have said “I am in the flesh . . . I am carnal . . . I am unspiritual” before he was converted because that has to be the response of every natural man and woman.
ii] A Christian can speak of himself as ‘carnal’ when he acts in a carnal way. I am speaking about certain deficiencies that easily beset some of us on the Christian walk. When Peter swore and denied knowing Christ for the third time on that dark night then Peter was acting carnally – in the flesh. When the mother of James and John asked Jesus if her sons could sit each side of him in the best places in heaven then she was being carnally ambitious for her boys. When Abraham told Sarah to tell people that she was his sister and not his wife in doing that he was not being spiritual but fleshly. When Jonah ran away from the road to Nineveh and went in the opposite direction to Tarshish he was being carnally rebellious against God. When some of the Christians in Corinth said, “Peter is the greatest and I follow him. He is the best,” and others said, “No, Apollos is the greatest. No one can preach like him,” then they were being carnal. All of those different falling, sinning believers could say of themselves, “Now, in this regard, by acting in this way, I am being a carnal, unspiritual, and fleshly Christian.”
I am saying that the particular behaviour of all those Christians when they acted in those different wretched ways was carnal behaviour. They were acting just like unbelievers act, defying God and lying to men and running away, and so on. That is what you expect from people who don’t have the indwelling Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ in not living in their hearts and so they are weak and worldly, but when in those particular ways professing Christians act like that then they are not spiritual men and women but fleshly.
Do you understand I’m acknowledging that in most other areas of their lives they’re acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit? They have their quiet times. They’re scrupulously faithful to their wives. They’re honest and abhor violence, turning the other cheek. They don’t neglect meeting together on the Lord’s Day. They give generously to mission. They’re ready to give a reason for their hope. They memorize Scripture. They visit other Christians in need. They’re not carnal in many of the other areas of their lives, just in one particular area they’re being unspiritual and fleshly. They’re acting like babes in Christ. Their disputings or lies or false ambitions are all symptoms showing the presence of the flesh in their lives, how weak we are! Paul rebukes them for having had such privileges and yet acting in those ways like people who never knew the Lord Jesus at all.
Do you see what I am saying? There is no two-tier Christianity taught in the Bible. There are not ‘carnal Christians’ and ‘spiritual Christians’ in an absolute sense. Here is a person who makes a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, but soon he is nowhere at all spiritually. He is not interested in the Bible, or in going to church, or in meeting with other Christians. He never prays or thinks a thought about God. You may not say about him that still he is a Christian because he made a decision and raised his hand, and said a prayer, and shook hands with a preacher, and got baptized and joined a church because very quickly after that first fascination in religion his profession disappeared like the morning dew! He is not a ‘carnal Christian.’ He is one of those ‘stony ground hearers’ that Jesus spoke about in the parable of the sower, There was the initial first fine careless rapture of religious excitement; how quickly it withered and died. Once some trials came into his life and his new faith was tested then he said good-bye to it all. He is carnal – full stop. He is not a carnal Christian. There is no such being as a ‘carnal Christian.’ His need is not for a step up, some elevation to a higher life. His need is for a new birth. He needs to be truly converted. The root of the matter of the gospel has never penetrated their lives.
iii] A Christian can speak of himself as ‘carnal’ in what we may call a general or a relative way. Just like I might say quite truthfully and humbly with a heavy heart to you today, “What an unspiritual, and carnal, and fleshly man I am. How unbelieving I am! I read the ten commandments, and I hear how Jesus Christ expounds them in Matthew 5 and how they are opened up in Romans 12, and I sigh, ‘Woe is me! I’m not living as I should.’” That is what Paul is saying here, “I am carnal, (or unspiritual, or fleshly).” And we understand exactly what he’s saying, and we identify with him. We say the same. When we read Abraham saying, “I am nothing but dust and ashes,” then we don’t cry, “Don’t say that Abraham. You are righteous as every justified believer is.” They are both true. Jacob says, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies you have shown to your servant.” And we know exactly what he means. We are conscious of our struggles and our failures. How unworthy we are of God’s mighty forgiveness.
So we feel our sin; I am aware of my failure as a believer, but of course I’m also conscious that I’m no longer living as I once lived, prayerless, with my chief end in life me and my happiness, rather than glorifying God. I am no longer part of unregenerate humanity, a man in the flesh, under the power of sin. I am certainly not like that. I am certainly not behaving in one area of my life as a filthy, godless man, a drunkard, a pervert, a thief, a wife-abuser, a murderer. I am not saying that.
Compared to many people in the world I believe that I’m spiritual, and I don’t think that that’s boasting. That is our status in Christ. I understand totally what Paul says when he writes to the Thessalonians. He says to them, “You are witnesses and so is God, of how holy, righteous, and blameless we were among you who believed” (I Thess. 2:10). He was not claiming sinless perfection. He was not turning a blind eye to his falls, but Paul did have an integrity and a genuiness and a purity of life. He was conscious of what the mighty grace of God had achieved since the Damascus Road. I look at all of you Christians and I am so impressed and challenged and thankful for what I see of Jesus Christ in you, the younger Christians as much as the older believers. Almost all of you are quite unlike Peter denying our Lord, afraid of men. Almost all of you are quite unlike Jonah defying the Lord and running away from your vocation to serve him. Most of you are unlike the people in Corinth worshipping one of the great Christian personalities of the New Testament age. Some of you are students around 21 years of age, yet what maturity and godliness you show. I thank God for you.
What I am saying is this. When I consider the will of God for my life that says to me, “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” then at times I can groan and shake my head in sadness and say, “The law is perfect, but I am carnal.” When I consider the will of God for my life that says to me, “I desire that you love your neighbour as you love yourself,” then I can break my heart that so little progress has been made, and how much indwelling, remaining sin and pride is still within me, and I say, “I am carnal. I am unspiritual. I am too much influenced by the flesh. I am unequal to the demands of God. I am so often a failure as a follower of Christ.” That is the language of deep sorrow; that is mourning over remaining sin, and every mature, and holy, and enlightened and thoughtful believer feels like this.
There was a newly married Christian couple who moved to a new town and were befriended by a woman, and after a time she told them that she had not sinned for two years, and they were very discouraged at hearing that because they had a battle with remaining sin, and were conscious at the end of virtually every day that they were saying, “Sorry Lord that my tongue ran away with me, and I had those bad imaginations and desires again . . .” But as they got to know that woman better they discovered that she was simply being blind to her sins, and refusing to acknowledge her ignorance and selfishness and impatience.
Paul wrote the words of our text not at a time of great failure in his life, not before he got Holy Spirit baptism, but as a spiritually-minded believer and as a representative of every single Christian. In all of us there remains much failure and opposition to God. Let me put it like this, that every single Christian lives for one period of his life – before he was born again – exclusively as a sinner. Then, every single Christian is also looking forward to a future time in his life in glory when he will live exclusively as a saint. But now, as Paul dictates this letter, and as I preach what he wrote to you, he and I and every true Christian alive on this planet today are ‘sinner-saints.” A saint to be sure, one of the saints who live in Aberystwyth, that’s what we are. A sinner, to be sure, who compares his life with the will of God for every Christian and groans his disappointment with himself that he is so pathetic. There is a tension in the Christian life, and a frustration because we have to deal daily with remaining sin, and we live in a groaning world, and we are hit by the fiery darts of the evil one.
2. WHEN CAN A CHRISTIAN DESCRIBE HIMSELF AS ‘SOLD AS A SLAVE TO SIN.’
This is the other phrase of Paul’s. Can a true Christian ever describe himself in that way? Must we say that when Paul wrote that he was describing himself as he used to be before the Lord met with him on the Damascus road and changed him?
Paul was not like the wicked king Ahab of I Kings 21 who abandoned himself to evil. We are told this about Ahab that he “sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord” (I Kings 21:20&25). So what would be the characteristics of a man who sold himself to do evil? They would be such features as this, that he took as his wife a godless woman. She was named Jezebel and she hated Jehovah and his servants. She was a pagan princess who was the daughter of Ethbaal a priest of the god Astarte. Again we are told that Ahab built an altar in Samaria – the capital city of the northern ten tribes of Israel – and dedicated it to the god Baal. He built groves where Asherah was worshipped and he outlawed the worship of the Lord. Pagan worship contained such practices as child sacrifice. Ahab was also greedy and petulant. He was content with the judicial murder of Naboth so that he could have his vineyard. He was also characterized by the sins of omission; he did nothing when Jezebel persecuted the prophets of the Lord. He didn’t defend Elijah. Ahab was an opportunist who went wherever he felt would be to his advantage. He never sought cleansing and mercy from the Lord as David did. Those would be the characteristics of someone who sold himself to do evil. This is Bunyan’s man in the cage who dies in dark captivity to such a lifestyle.
So Ahab, the king of Israel, deliberately rejected Jehovah as his God, and abandoned himself to live without God’s law. “He sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Take that as a possibility and a reality, that a person can be brought up in a community of people who love and serve the Lord, with all the knowledge and privileges of such a life, and yet can reject that way of life entirely. He can scorn it and belittle it and use his increasing power and gifts to destroy it. Church history is full of examples of men like Ahab who have done that very thing, selling themselves to do evil in the sight of God. Jesus warns us to “remember Lot’s wife.” Paul tells those professing Christians who think they stand to beware lest they fall. Consider the example of Judas; he heard the Sermon on the Mount, and saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, and was the recipient of such exquisite pastoral care from his Master, and yet he betrayed his Lord to crucifixion.
Paul was not like Ahab. No regenerate man could behave as Ahab behaved. King David behaved abominably, with many lapses bringing disgrace on himself and dishonour to the Lord, but he never stopped being aware of his debt to God and how great God was. There came a time when David confessed his sin to God.
So when Paul is saying “I am sold as a slave to sin,” he is acknowledging something very different. Paul is saying, “I know much of Lord Sin’s activity in my life. There have been days and periods in my life when sin prevailed against me from day to day. I know the power of sin over me and I felt myself to be its slave.” That is very different from the life of Ahab who sold himself to the power of sin.
Let me illustrate it like this. We used to hear much about the Somali pirates who would get on board merchant ships and take the captain and crew captive, and sail the ship to a port in Somali and demand millions of dollars for the release of boat and crew. That ship is a picture of the unregenerate man who is under the lordship of sin. But if a group of pirates comes on board and the crew barricade themselves in the engine room and at the wheel then the pirates can create mayhem in the ship but it is still under the control of the captain and the chief engineer and it is going where they want it to go not the pirates’ choice. That is the picture of the regenerate man in Christ. Sin is there in his life, and sin gives him distress and pulls him down, but he hasn’t sold himself to be consumed by sin and controlled by it.
My room mate at Seminary was Canadian Donald Macleod and his father Alistair was a missionary with the China Inland Mission in China. He was taken captive by the Japanese in the invasion of China and spent five years in a prisoner of war camp, a slave to the enemy. What was his attitude during this time? He was a man who longed for his freedom; a man who still considered himself a loyal servant of his nation and prayed for British victory over Japan. He would complain of his captivity. That is a picture of a man in this fallen world who has been born again and has entered the kingdom of God. But I might know another man who has left the United Kingdom and gone to Syria where he has become a mercenary fighting for the Islamic State. Quite deliberately he has sold himself into the employment of our enemy. This man is very different from the involuntary slavery experienced by Alistair Macleod. The man in Syria is not complaining about coming under the influence of Isis. He is totally compliant.
Ahab was consciously, deliberately and habitually defiant of God though he were king of Israel. There were few aspects of his life which spoke of him being a Jehovahist. He opposed the Lord and his law. He willingly capitulated to evil. He surrendered all his faculties to perpetrate evil, He’d sold himself into the slavery of sin, but when Paul says, “I am sold as a slave to sin” he says it with a lump in his throat, his head hanging down, with much regret. He longs to be entirely spiritual. He wishes his life were entirely in accord with the law of God. He feels that his cruel enemy, sin, can assault him, intruding into his life time and again temporarily taking him captive so that he does what basically and truly he does not want to be doing. In his heart he wants to serve God, but sadly he acknowledges from time to time there is much lacking in his life. Sin is an alien intruder who deceives us with promise of happiness that sin never fulfils. We know that solid joys and lasting treasures are only known when we do the will of God. Paul is just like Job when he says, “I am vile.” He is just like the patriarchs when they say, “I am unworthy . . . I am nothing but dust and ashes.” Paul is reflecting what Jesus described as true blessedness, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . blessed are they that mourn,” and that blessedness is what Paul is showing when he says “I am sold as a slave to sin.”
Paul was saying that he just saw himself as a slave being put up for sale and being bought one day by Mr. Lust, and then some time later sold and bought by Mr. Prayerlessness, and then some time later bought by Mr. Cold Heart, and then some time later by Mr. Impatience, and then some time later by Mr. Pride, and then some time later by Mr. Ignorance, and later on again by Mr. Covetousness. But as a slave he would see close up what a wretched way of life his masters lived and he would resist what they stood for and his masters would grow angry with him, and beat him and sell. He would not change and they would take him back to the slave mart and sell him to get another slave who would be more compliant to their ways. “In my life,’ Paul is saying, “I find that I am being sold as a slave to sin, again and again.” When we were young men our battles were with lusts, and as we grow older our battles are with self, and then with a grouchy spirit that always justifies ourselves and wanted to be right.
You are sitting in a lounge with a group of Christians and you are talking about the Christian life, and an older person quietly says, “What a slave I am to carnal affections and unruly passions.” Your mind wouldn’t respond by thinking, “He’s not much of a Christian!” That thought would be far from you. You would be encouraged to hear a man who seems so much higher and godlier than you revealing the fight of faith that he has to wage to keep his trust in Christ. His humble acknowledgment of his struggles and falls are totally consistent with being a born again man. You would not find king Ahab speaking like that.
Paul has been made free from sin through Christ, and yet as long as his earthly life lasts he still has remaining sin, and battles with principalities and powers. He is aware that he is on the victory side; he is more than conqueror through Jesus Christ and yet there is many a skirmish when he falls and there are battles that he loses, but through Christ he is certain that the war is going to end in triumph. Christian victory offers no promise that in this present life we will never sin again. Rather it is victory over the dominion and domination of sin over us and it condemning us. Every Christian is delivered from that. It is victory over love of sinning, which again we are delivered from. We sin and fall and then we are ashamed. The devil will jump in immediately and tell us that we can’t be Christians to be falling into the same sins again and again. Where does God say in his word that he will always prevent us from falling into ignorance, and prayerlessness, and rejection of the absolute sovereignty of God, and coldness of heart, and cowardice, and fear, so that we will never sin those sins more than a few times? Nowhere! Get real! Deal with this! Tell the devil that God’s grace is greater than our much sinning even when we feel that we are carnal and sold as a slave to sin.
12th July 2015 GEOFF THOMAS