Romans 7:21-25 “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, 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 war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
Now every single Christian has a fight on his hands, and the invitation of the gospel is not an invitation to a life of easy, religious escapism. It is an invitation to a conflict. The fight is first of all with the world that operates in terms of another god, the spirit that is now at work all around us in a disobedient generation. The world tempts us and would destroy us if it could. We have to be on our guard against the world, but we are also, secondly, at war with the devil, with principalities and powers, with spiritual wickedness in high places. Sometimes you see explosions of evil, men cutting off the heads of other men, or burning them alive. Young girls are absconded and forced into ‘marriages.’ Horrendous cruelty has been presented to us in the past months and no doubt much more will be shown to us in the days to come. Such is not what I may call ordinary wickedness, and again that is not far from any of us. We are called to resist the darkness of unfettered evil. However, the devil is a crafty fellow and sometimes he comes to us with a shining face so that you could mistake him for an angel of light. But there is also a third fight in which we are engaged, and that is a battle that takes place within our own hearts and souls.
In these verses you will see our inward enemy described to us with more titles than anywhere else in all of Scripture. We are not ignorant of the devices of our inward rebellious self because Paul has described it to us in such a passage as this. See the titles he gives to it. Firstly he says “evil is right there with me”; that is plain enough isn’t it, but I will tell you another. secondly he refers to it as “another law at work in the members of my body”. You understand? God has written his law on our hearts: “Love me with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself” it says. But there is another law that says, “Please yourself; do it your way.” That’s plain enough too, but I’ll tell you another description of remaining sin. Thirdly he describes our inward opponent as “the law of sin at work within my members.” It is working away at this very moment. You think your problem is with me and my preaching but that is a much lesser problem than the one you have with yourself working away in you right now. Is that clear? There is more. Fourthly he calls it “this body of death.” What a vivid phrase. In some primitive Asian societies when a murderer was caught he was punished in this fiendish way; the body of the man he had killed was chained to his back and he could never be separated from it while he lived. It rotted and decayed away. A body of death attached inseparably to him.. We have a body of rotten sin which we have to live with until we are released at the feet of Jesus. Is that striking enough? There is more. Fifthly he says, “in the sinful nature he is a slave to sin.” Sin command him to be unforgiving and resentful and to retaliate and to be mean and hard and proud, and alas, there are times when he obeys the voice of sin. He is sin’s slave rather than sin’s master.
That is your inner enemy. My telling you about it does not make it any worse. The first means of victory in any conflict is to know your enemy. And this is the holy war in which every Christian is engaged. Now we have seen from the opening chapters of this letter that there is not one individual in the whole world in any generation who is not guilty before God, that every one of us descended from Adam and Eve has inherited guilt and sin, and we cannot hold our heads high. Just the perfect and lovely man Jesus Christ – he stands out; he is exceptional; he is blessedly different; but as for the rest of us the divine verdict is that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The Christian is delivered from the condemnation of sin but he is not delivered from the presence of sin, and so he is always going to be involved in a conflict with sin and many a fall, until he meets God and stands before Jesus Christ. Let me begin by saying a few words about sin and the law of God.
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE LAW OF GOD.
You see in the text I’ve read to you the repetition of this word ‘law’ once again. You find it here 4 or 5 times. Now one of Paul’s great teachings in the letter to the Romans is that you cannot begin to understand the human condition apart from a reference to the law of God. It seems a strange phenomenon that when Christians want to downplay the law they still want to talk about sin, and to preach a gospel for sinners, in which Jesus saves sinners.
And I want to say that in any reading of the Bible you cannot have it both ways. You cannot talk about sin and not talk about the law, because sin, by any definition, is a breach of the law of God. And that was Paul’s starting point in this letter, that there are the Jews who had the law at Sinai through Moses, and there are the Gentiles who did not have that privilege, but still had the things of the law written on their hearts. So all have broken God’s law. We are all culpable; we are all law-breakers; we are all sinners and in need of a salvation that we cannot work up to.
Paul struggled to understand how searching and humbling and condemning is the law of God. He tells us that in fact he was awakened to the inward demands of the law of God by the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” You know how that particular commandment is a very insistent commandment that goes into a lot of specifics in a way that many of the other commandments don’t. They will say, “Don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t kill” but the tenth commandment exhorts you not to covet your neighbour’s house, or his wife, or the people who work for him, or his cows and sheep or anything that is your neighbour’s. Is your heart frustrated because of what your neighbour’s got? Are you itchy and angry and discontented and envious? That is sin. That was the particular commandment that went deep into the recesses of Paul’s mind and will and plans and future, and the law said to him, “You shan’t have feelings like that.” And Paul realised that against a standard like that he was defenceless. He was weighed in the balances and found wanting. Until that day when the arrow of the 10th commandment struck his affections Paul felt he was blameless. He was boasting that he was keeping all the commandments, but he was boasting about it because he thought that his religious lifestyle gave him glory in Israel. Like guides and scouts, and soldiers wearing awards and medals for their achievements for all to see, so Paul thought he could parade ten medals on his chest, and walk down the promenade with the sun shining on them and people would bow to him as someone who was a very righteous man. Then God’s Spirit came to him, and showed him the inwardness of the law, that the very desire to sin is to break a commandment, and the proud Pharisees died. What he was doing was for his own glory and his own benefit, to be seen and admired by men.
This is Iain D. Campbell’s happy illustration – You know how you fathers have gone with your children to a little league match. Your son in playing and you are cheering him on, and then another boy fouls him, he kicks your son. And you shout to the ref, “Foul! Ref! He kicked that boy!” You want the weight of the law to come down on the player who kicked your boy. There are no antinomians at football matches. But when your boy trips up and fouls someone else you don’t cry “Foul!” Then you turn a blind eye, or even give a wry smile. You are alive without the rulebook, because you want the rules only in so far as they benefit yourself. Paul is telling us that that is how he lived. He was keeping the commandments, and boasting about how he kept them, but all the time he was alive without the law. Without its searching, convicting, condemning power showing him he needed to be saved from his guilt. He needed a Saviour, the only one who did accomplish everything the law of God demanded, and the only one who could pay the penalty for other people who were breaking the law, by taking their condemnation. Paul saw it and fled from his law keeping to Jesus law keeping as his only hope in this world or the next.
How did he do it? The Lord Jesus saved us by coming down to us by being born under the law for us, and living under the law for us, and dying under the condemnation of the law for us, and rising to justify us from the judgment of the law for us. He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and he did it to save us. We cannot go up to it. Perish the thought that any one of us can go up to God’s law and think it is God’s prescription for our deliverance, God’s ladder for us to reach heaven, so that at the end of climbing up those ten rungs he’ll accept us. Many, many people think that. They believe in justification by death. At the end of a decent life, generally keeping God’s law, God will justify sinners at the point of their death. But the New Testament gospel is quite the opposite. If you are not justified in life, if you are not forgiven and pardoned, and accepted by God in life you will never be accepted at death, because that law-breaking will not be reverses by death. Death is actually its consequence. You need to be delivered from the root and the fruit of your sin to be delivered from your condition. You cannot find a remedy inside yourself, you need to go outside of yourself to find a remedy. You see it’s the very opposite of the kind of psychology that is meant to help you. Our culture says that if there is something wrong with you then the problem lies outside of yourself. It is the fault of everybody else. It is all the pressures out there, and all the difficulties out there. And you search for the hero inside yourself, your inner resources, to deal with the problem. But the verdict of the gospel is opposite.
The problem is in yourself and with yourself, and the solution is outside of yourself, and the glory of the gospel is that God is the Great Physician and he has supplied the solution. There is a righteousness apart from the law, apart from our law-keeping and our good works and it is there in Jesus Christ. That is the glorious conclusion to Romans 7. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v.25). He died the death we deserve to die under God’s condemnation. He bore the penalty; he paid the debt; he bore the guilt. He is the perfect Saviour of sinners because he is God’s Saviour before he is anyone else’s Saviour, and he has come into this world as the Lamb of God, and he has shed his blood, and he has obtained a pardon full and free. That is Paul’s argument. That is his gratitude and rejoicing. What happens when you are joined to him? There he is in the glory of his dying, and in all the glory of his rising, and in all the wonder of his atonement, and in all that he has done for sinners. There he is, and here I am “a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members, living in this body of death, in this sinful nature as a slave to the law of sin” (vv.24&25), and on top of that a God who hates sin looking at me. But there is deliverance. The Son of God came to earth on a rescue mission. He delivers sinners who believe in him, who are joined to him by trusting in him, he rescues them from this body of death.
I am pardoned . . . I stand before him and he says “Not guilty” . . . I have peace with God (wherever else I lack peace) I have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. I have access by faith into the grace wherein I stand. In him I am justified, and in him I am being given the victory over remaining sin. In my inner being I want to do good. In fact I delight in God’s law. I cannot live any longer in unbelief as once I did. I now belong to another, I belong to Christ. I am married to him; I am in love with him and he with me. I am under his protection; I receive day by from his provision. He supplies all my needs. I am not governed by my sinful passions and by this other law that I still find in my members, the law that says, “Please yourself . . . live for yourself . . . do it your way . . . if you both like it do it.” I find it telling me that, and also waging war against the law of Jesus Christ that is in my mind – because he is in my mind, and often I give into it and immediately regret it. I find no deliverance at all in me. Paul ends Romans 7 telling us, “I myself in my mind . . .” five words with the personal pronoun three of them, “I, myself, my” and he tells us that he personally is a slave to God’s law, he lives to serve the law of God, but, he adds that he also lives, “in the sinful nature to the law of sin.” (v.25).
Now there are those people who say that our need is to get out of Romans 7 and get into Romans 8. Now that would have made no sense at all to the people who first heard this letter, as the preacher in Rome got up one Sunday morning and told them that they had received that week a letter from the apostle Paul and that he was going to read it to them. There were no verses at all, and no chapter divisions in the epistle. It was all one message.
But apart from that simple fact is it really advantageous for us to breathe a sigh of relief and for us to say, “Great! The pastor has finished with Romans 7 and now at last we are into chapter 8”? Now I know that there are lots of beautiful things in chapter 8 of Romans, but chapter 8 is the chapter that tells you that you need to put to death constantly the deeds of your body or you will die. Chapter 8 is the chapter that tells us that we must suffer with him. Chapter 8 is the chapter that tells us of the suffering of this present time. Chapter 8 is the chapter that tells us that we are groaning. Chapter 8 is the chapter that tells us that we don’t know what to pray for as we ought. Chapter 8 is the chapter that tells us that we are going to have trouble and hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword that we are going to be killed all daylong and reckoned as sheep for the slaughter. I want to bury this cliché if it is still alive that somehow it is advantageous to Christian experience to move as fast as possible out of Romans chapter 7 and into Romans chapter 8 because men and women I want to say to you that you need to be alive and well in both chapters.
WHY DOES PAUL DELIGHT IN GOD’S LAW?
Hasn’t the law condemned you? Aren’t you guilty because of the law? The law can neither save you nor sanctify you, but Paul you say that the law is holy and spiritual and just and good and you delight in it. Why Paul do you say that you delight in it. Doesn’t it show you how guilty and helpless you are? Why do you delight in it? Paul is certainly not pretending to be unregenerate. If these are the sentiments of an unbeliever then there is no need of the new birth! How could an unconverted non-born-again man have this exalted view of the law of God? All that such a man would need would be helping grace, not saving grace! Why such a high view of the commandments of God when they have had such a devastating, killing effect on Paul? Three reasons.
i] The law is like the one who gave it. It is spiritual . . . like God. It is holy . . . like God. It is righteous . . . like God. It is good . . . like God, and I delight in the law because I delight in God. Wasn’t it the purpose of God when he gave the commandments to remind his people that he was the Holy God of the law that was being given to them! People describe the commandments, you know, as the Judeo-Christian ethic. As if this were something that men invented, as if it arose from earth. Not at all! It is of the very character of God himself, these great commandments that insist we should have no other god and that we should worship God aright and that we should revere his name and honour his day.
In all our relationships on earth give him all the honour and praise and glory due to him by honouring truth and life and property and above all things that we should be content with him, and that all these commandments breathe the very character of God himself. They have a divine aspect to them, and they reflect him and are holy and spiritual and righteous and good. God is all these things and that is why we delight in the law.
ii] The law is holy and righteous and good because it is perfectly embodied in Jesus Christ. In one of his letters John Newton answers a man who was asking Newton what he thought of I Timothy chapter 1 and verse 8, “The law is good if a man use it lawfully.” What does that adverb ‘lawfully’ mean? John Newton says, “When we use the law as a glass to behold the glory of God we use it lawfully for God’s glory is eminently revealed in Christ. We see the perfection and excellence of the law of God in the life of God the Son. He glorified the law in his character as a man, what a character he exhibited. It is no other than a transcript of the law. Warfield says in his article on ‘Jesus the measure of men,’ that Jesus is the very embodiment of the law of God, as if he were set down among men as a plumb line is set down against a wall. It is Iain D. Campbell’s illustration again. If you were building a wall then you would want to know that the wall was straight. Then you adjust it to the plumb-line, not the reverse. You do not adjust the plumb line to the wall. You know what I am talking about. You put a weight on a piece of string and you let it fall and it is exactly vertical. If you want your wall to be absolutely vertical then you measure it to the plumb-line. You don’t build a squint wall, and then adjust the plumb line to the wall you have built. That is what so many people do to the gospel. You have to build the wall according to the perfection of the standard. And here God has let down his plumb line.
You want to know what sort of life we should be living? What does it mean to live a God-honouring life day by day, week by week in all sorts of relationships, then it is embodied for you in the character and personality and the history of the Lord Jesus Christ. Look at him in all his relationships, especially to his enemies, the priests and the soldiers and the Pharisees and there is this absolute moral perfection of Jesus. It is there in one life, the perfect moral embodiment of God’s standards in one life, all the commandments in one life. It has never been there since Adam. But it is there now in the life and thoughts and feelings and words and actions of Jesus. Peel away everything. Go to the very core of his being, his rational, the reasons why he does things and the reasons why he says things, and you will find that it is all utterly and absolutely defensible in the sight of God.
Why? Because the life of the Lord Christ is the utter and entire embodiment of God’s law. I look at the law and it is spiritual and it is good because it is the reflection of God. The one is the perfection of the other. That has never been the case since Adam, but now it is here and present in the last Adam. Here the finger of God is to be seen in Galilee, written in the life of one man Jesus of Nazareth. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. And never did anything wrong. He is the perfect embodiment of the Lord. No wonder Paul say “I delight in the law of God,” – holy and spiritual and good. It is the very transcript of the character of Jesus. Then there is another reason why he says he delights in the law of God.
iii] The law is holy and righteous and good because it is a description of heaven. Imagine you are selling a house and you approach an estate-agent and he comes and supplies a description of the house and he puts it in the best possible light. He highlights all the finest features of the house so that when you read it you open your eyes in astonishment. That is where we have been living all these years? You think, “It seems a pity to be leaving it!” The home report tells you what the home is like. The ten commandments are a conveyance from heaven to earth describing what lies before us in glory. The people of heaven they have no other God than one, and they worship him spiritually, and they never take his name in vain. They enjoy an eternal Sabbath. And their relationships are honoured – no one does violence to another, or bad-mouths him, or steals from him. Nobody covets what belongs to somebody else in heaven. It is perfect.
Iain D. Campbell suggests that the Lord’s Prayer is a reflex of God’s law. In the law the words came down from heaven so that the Lord’s people should be holy as he is holy. And in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus gave us words that we send up to heaven. And in the Lord’s Prayer we are actually asking God for things he requires of us in the law. So we address no other God but our Father. We say, “Hallowed be your name” because the law says, “Don’t take my name in vain.” We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” because he doesn’t want us to steal or covet. We ask him not to lead us into temptation because the law tells us not to go into sin. And at least twice in the Lord’s prayer we refer to heaven. “Our Father who art in heaven – that is where the law came from. And in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to ask for grace that they might be able to fulfil what the law demands. Augustine said, “The law was given that grace may be sought. Grace was given that the law might be obeyed.” So the law came down and grace has been given and he teaches us to pray for the very things that he requires of us in the law.
So we desire that his will may be done . . . on earth as in heaven. What does it mean that God’s will be done in my life on earth as it is being done in heaven? It means that there is no law breaking in heaven. Why is that? Because everybody there is entirely like Jesus Christ. What does it men to be entirely like Jesus Christ? It means for you and me to be the entire embodiment of the law. So I am saying that there is reason why Paul is saying that in his inner being he delights in the law of God. It is a thing to be prized and a thing to be loved. And then;
PAUL AGAIN ACKNOWLEDGES THAT HIS LIFE OFTEN FAILS TO MEASURE UP TO GOD’S LAW.
“When I want to do good, 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 war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (vv. 21&22). Paul is telling us, “But I am not like the delightful law. I don’t live as the law requires. I am not like God who is entirely holy and spiritual and good. I thought I was when I was once alive without the law. I thought I was a righteous man. I was once blind to the other law at work in the members of my body. I did not see what the carnal mind, the fleshly mind, was doing. It was not subject to the law of God neither indeed can be. I am a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my members. “Paul, you cannot be serious! How can you use such language of yourself when you tell us that you delight in the law of God?” “I do,” says Paul, “after my inner being. But I see another law at work in me. It tells me to do things my way and to tread all over my neighbour and his needs.” In other words in this tension of these verses is presented to us the greatest conundrum in the world concerning why having terminated sin’s dominion over every single regenerate Christian God should leave its presence there in every single Christian to agitate and wage war against his mind and capture him time and again as a prisoner.
What a wretched man that I am! “How is that possible Paul? You are ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, washed from every stain and spot of guilt through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, adopted into God’s family, joined to Jesus Christ with sin no longer dominating your life. How can you say you are a wretched man? You are the most blessed man in the world. Isn’t every creature in hell envious of you? Why in the world do you think of yourself as a wretched man?”
Paul tells us in this chapter. When I want to do good, because I delight in God’s law, evil is right there with me (v.21). I do not find myself doing good. This body which is on its way to eternal life and glory, a new body and soul in heaven I find to be now a body of death! The things I do not want to do – that’s the thing I keep on doing. Tell me that that is not your experience! Tell me that the conundrum is not there in your own life, that you know nothing of this tension, this riddle, in your own heart! The very thing you want to avoid is the thing you run into, and the very thing you do is what you don’t want to do. You often find yourself a prisoner of the law of sin at work within your members. The law is holy; it is spiritual and good, but I am not!
Men and women, God’s purpose in sanctification is to model us into the image of Jesus Christ. And that work is uninterrupted as far as he is concerned. He began a good work in you and he will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. But from your point of view it is very frequently interrupted. There is this excursus and that excursus when we seem to be serving sin, not God, when iniquities against us prevail from day to day. And from you perspective the fruit of one day is met by blight the next. And the spirituality of your thinking one morning is met by the carnality of your thoughts that evening. And one day the great longings of your soul which are set on heaven seem to be on the world the next. And every believer seems a trial to himself, and no Holy Spirit baptism and no tongue speaking delivers him from that state. “In my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body” (vv. 22&23). And again, “In my mind I am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (v.25).
4. PAUL THANKS GOD FOR DELIVERANCE THROUGH CHRIST.
“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24&25). Don’t you find there are times when you are aware that there really is grace even in your life. You find some faint desire for something that you don’t easily come across in yourself.
Peter was grieved when Jesus said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” And the only response Peter could give to Jesus was an appeal to the highest court of all. “Lord you know all things. You know that I love you.” The Lord knows all things. One of the great verses in the Bible is in the book of psalms where the psalmist says, “All that I desire is before you.”
I look at the law and that is one thing. I know that I am released from its condemnation and penalty and dominion. bUT I know that I am not released from its righteousness. I read in Romans 8 that the righteousness of the law would be fulfilled in me! That I shall live for God’s glory and go to heaven and experience fullness of joy in God’s presence for evermore. But often these longings are not paramount in me, and what I long for is what I do not easily find. It was C.S. Lewis who said, “You might not even find the wish to be holy . . . but do you find the wish for the wish?” “When I want to do good. Evil is right there with me.” (v.21).
Thank God there is a rescue! Thank God there is one who can and does rescue his people from their sin. What do you think of Jesus Christ our Lord? He stands before us in the gospel and he says, “I know what you are like. I know you’re sinful. I know you do what you don’t want to do. I know you don’t do what you want to do.” But Jesus continues to speak and he says, “Satan has desired to have you, BUT I have prayed for you that your faith will not fail.” There is Job at the end of all his experiences “I have heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now I see you and I abhor myself . . . but I know that my redeemer liveth,” “Woe is me,” says Isaiah in the presence of the glory. “I am a man undone and a man of unclean lips,” but the Messiah is going to die for Isaiah’s sins. Peter cries, “Depart from me for I am an unclean man.” He also cries, “To whom else can we go?” The same man who’d said, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man O Lord.” And so he was, “but I have prayed for you.”
Paul says in these last words of Romans 7 that he is “in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” And it is true! And not for Paul only but for every believer. But for all those who can say those words the very next words are also true, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8 v.1). Romans 7, all true to the jots and tittles, and Romans 8, also completely true. You can have all the rest, but give me Jesus.
I need no other argument, I need no other plea;
It is enough that Jesus died, And that He died for me.
Other refuge have I none. Hangs my helpless soul on Thee. And tonight if you are not yet a Christian then I know that you do not delight in God’s law. It is impossible. But Jesus died for a sinner like you, and you come to him, and you trust in him, and let his law-keeping cover your law-breaking, his righteousness cover your sin, his holiness cover your unholiness, his heavenliness cover your worldliness. Let him be your everything! And my Christian brother or sister tonight, struggling with sins old and new finding new sins mixing in the best of what you can do – like Bunyan. You keep coming back to the old fountain, to the one Saviour of men who can stand before his righteous Father and ask for and receive all that the Father will give him, no sin hindering his fatherly generosity. He sees a world of sinners lost, but stretches out his hands and dies, the just for the unjust to bring them to God. And one day we shall be like him. Amen.
2nd August 2015 GEOFF THOMAS