Romans 7:15-20 “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. 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.”
These are the words of a very discerning, humble Christian, and isn’t every follower of Jesus Christ mighty glad that they are in the Bible just as we’ve read them in your hearing? The Christian is an enigma to himself. He doesn’t understand what he does. From the moment the Lord’s Supper ended to the time he was driving back with his children in the car his mood may go from gentle summer breezes to a winter storm, all in a moment. He is suddenly irritated, and as mean as a mad dog to the people who love him the most. Again, that day he might have preached a high sermon on the sanctity of marriage, but before the day was out, he could erupt with lustful desires. This preacher was no novice. This was a man who’d known God for fifty years. This is a man who sings from his heart,
How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend!
Whose love is as great as his power and knows neither measure nor end.
‘Tis Jesus the first and the last whose Spirit shall guide us safe home.
We’ll praise him for all that is past; we’ll trust him for all that’s to come.
I am not huffing and puffing about some man who possesses a comprehensive, doctrinal knowledge of truth – men call it ‘head knowledge’ or ‘dead orthodoxy’ – they describe him as being an expert in Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (that’s the book they generally inclined to pillory), but this is someone who loves to read of revivals, and the blessings of a close walk with God, and never fails in attending the prayer meeting. It is this experiential believer who seems to show he has a split personality. He is the one who doesn’t understand what he does. What he wants to do he doesn’t do, but what he hates he does. He sighs about his condition; “How can I behave like this?” He is older, and so he is more clever and subtle in hiding his sins from those who know him best, and he knows it and he groans at it. He is richer, and so he knows how he can get stuff that he couldn’t afford when he was younger, and that also makes him shake his head in self-disgust. Why? Why does he do what he doesn’t want to do in his new heart? Why, when immediately it’s done he hates himself? His lamentation is, “I just did once again what I really hate doing.” That behaviour is one aspect of the Christian life, and only a very great and honest and discerning and spiritually-minded man like Paul would confess such behaviour.
Someone has compared this Christian to a man walking down a lane in the night and stumbling and falling into a deep puddle of muddy water. He clambers out and walks on his way not realising how stained his clothes are until he increasingly comes to see the state he’s in in the street light at the end of the lane. The closer to that light he approaches the more conscious he is of his filthiness, how the muddy water has polluted him and how hard it is to get off. The analogy is this, that the deeper the work of grace is in your life, and the nearer to God you get, then the more you are aware of the defilement of sin, and increasingly concerned to be cleansed from every spot and stain. Sin is an offence to such a mature Christian, and increasingly he longs for purity: “O wretched man that I am,” is often on his lips. That is the sigh of a man making progress in conformity to Christ. But an unholy man, someone with a mere profession, is a man who is at peace with his sins and blind to their defilement. His sin is no problem to him. But let’s see what else Paul says here.
GOD’S LAW IS GOOD, SAYS PAUL.
“I agree that the law is good” (v.16). This is the considered reflection of his deepest convictions. “What is your morality. Paul? What standards do you try to live by?” “By the law of God,” he tells you immediately. Of course he does things that he hates, not approving at all of his actions. Isn’t this hatred he has crucial? If he shrugged and was indifferent, saying, “Well, sometimes I’m good and other times I’m bad. That’s life,” then you’d be very alarmed about him, but always Paul hated his falls into sin. That hatred displays that fact that the most fundamental and characteristic attitude of his soul is a love for the good and lovely and perfect will of God. No good road is a perfectly flat road. Every good road is built with a camber, a slight curve, so that the water and the mud don’t flood the street but flow into the gutter at the side. The heart of every Christian also has a camber, in just the same way. Our hearts are certain that sin is evil and the law is good. That is built into each one of us by God. Grace does that for every Christian without exception.
So Paul’s deepest and most certain conviction was that the law of God was good, that it had a loveliness and wisdom and perfection about it. Paul could say, “When it condemns me it’s right, when it breaks my proud heart and brings me very low then that is exactly what I need.” A great American writer was speaking last week to a group of children at a special vocation day, and they were all thrilled to have her there as their key-note speaker. They’d all read her books, and they listened intently but one thing she said to them they all remembered; “Don’t aim for happiness. That is too low a standard – a determination that you should be happy.” That is what she said and it was a moment when a simple message like that was an arrow that hit many of their hearts. Don’t make happy feelings your goal in life. Life is far more precious than that. We Christians say, “Aim for honouring God and enjoying him.” It is never too late to start. It is the devil who whispers to you, “Too late for you.” Don’t listen to him. Aim for godliness and likeness to Christ. What you want is the will of God for your life, and everything that serves that end is to be welcomed. Every humbling, every weakness, every thorn in the flesh, every heartache, every new awareness of what a challenge it is to follow Jesus Christ – it is all another step ahead, a step in the right direction.
Paul says, “I agree that the law is good.” The question is whether you are someone who agrees with Paul. Do you whole-heartedly agree? Do you agree with him when you’re alone with a member of the opposite sex? Do you agree when every powerful instinct you possess is urging you to disagree? This word ‘agree’ (it’s translated in the Authorized Version by ‘consent’) means literally “to speak with.” It means taking the side of the law against all your strongest feelings and desires and longings. Paul says, “I can make this statement when an opportunity to steal, or lie, or badmouth someone comes to me. Then I agree with the law in condemning such conduct. And when I give in and fall and do the unthinkable then I soon agree with the law that what I did was bad, and daft, and cruel. What a wretched man I am. I don’t understand myself.” Only a true Christian can magnify the law of God to his own condemnation. King David could say to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you condemn” (Psa. 51:4). He justified God in his own judgment. There was a boy who had been sent home from school by the head for bad behaviour. A kind neighbour said to him that she was sad to hear about his expulsion, “I was sorry to hear such an account of you. I had thought you had better principles.” The boy told her, “It wasn’t the principles; my principles are all right; it was for my bad conduct they sent me home.”
Paul wants us to be very clear in understanding his principles, how highly he regarded the law of God. Only a Christian can speak as he does when he says in verse 12 that the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Again in verse 14, when he says that the law is spiritual, and in verse 22 when he says that he delights in God’s law in his inner being. His attitude to the law is like a marriage service in which the apostle is being married to a certain Miss Law, and I say to him, “Paul do you consent to take Miss Law to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, in wealth and in poverty, and to cling to Miss Law all the days of your life until death alone parts you from her?” Paul says, “I consent.” His heart and mind and will agree together in embracing Miss Law, to have her only unto him.
Paul says to us, “O how I love Miss Law. I think about her day and night. It is a description of the highest standards of goodness. It is a transcription of the very character of God. It is an expression of how I want to live in order to please God.” So, however Paul sighs that he doesn’t understand how inconsistently he lives, and he can break what he loves, and grieve at doing it, nevertheless Paul finds his foundational bed-rock consolation in this that he whole-heartedly endorses the law of God – when he has broken it for the ten thousandth time – he says this; “the direction of my life and my chief end is not to obey the flesh or the world but still to keep doing God’s will as expressed in his law.”
You understand that Paul is talking about his own experience, and I have used that slant on these verses to encourage us all. This apostle is the archetypal Christian, a sinner saved by grace. He is God’s great achievement, that God made this man a follower of the Lord who once had been a persecutor and hater of the Lord. God made Paul a wise and discerning man who expressed (by the inspiration of the Spirit of God) his own heart feelings. He displayed a very high love of the law of God. But I do want to move on by adding that Paul is not merely stating his own experience here, but this is a didactic passage, in other words, it is a highly important section of teaching and instruction concerning how every new covenant Christian is to regard the law. We’ve already been taught that when we fall into sin then the Ten Commandments themselves are in no way to be blamed. Paul completely exonerates the law from being the cause of our falls. David could in no way excuse his sins by saying, “If the law hadn’t said, Don’t commit adultery and don’t murder then I wouldn’t have acted as I did.” What self-justifying deceit! King David could not bluster, “If only I’d been told, ‘All you need is love,’ then I and Bathsheba and Uriah and the nation would all have been happy.” What lies! It was not the “Thou shalt not commit adultery” that made him act as he did, it was David’s free choice! Paul wants us to be absolutely sure of this, that the law cannot justify the sinner, and neither can the law sanctify the saint. So God’s law is good. Then what about Paul?
“NOTHING GOOD LIVES IN ME” SAYS PAUL.
What a contrast! God’s law is good, but in me – nothing good! How can Paul say that in verse18? How can it possibly be true for someone who is born of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, justified by faith in Christ, adopted into the family of God, united to Jesus Christ, to say something as bleakly self-condemning as that? Surely this is just a dark exaggeration! But Paul is very careful in what he is saying. He doesn’t say, “there’s nothing good in me,” full stop. He says that nothing good lives in me, and then he adds six qualifying words; “that is in my sinful nature” (v.18). You see how careful he is in the previous verse to make a distinction between “I myself” and “sin living in me.” “I myself” am ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, but in my sinful nature there is nothing good; dead in trespasses and sins. There nothing good in the sin that lives in me. But in Paul himself there is much that is good, God the Father has his abode there, and God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the three members of the Trinity reside in the life of Paul and every single Christian. There is the fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in the life of every believer “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gals. 5:22&23). That is there in every Christian, in some who are young in age, and even in some who are relatively new in the faith. The sower went forth to sow and much of his seed fell in good ground and it produced fruit, 60fold, 80fold and 100fold. The branch abides in the true vine and so it produces much fruit in the believer.
More than that, don’t you desire to do what is good? See what Paul says here, “For I have the desire to do what is good” (v.18). So we don’t interpret this phrase “nothing good lives in me” to mean absolutely nothing anywhere at all in me is the least good at all. Of the devil alone that is true, and Paul has immediately contradicted himself because he tells us that he has a desire to do what is good. So, you tell me that you find nothing good in you at all, and I say to you, would you seek and find something good? “Oh, yes,” you reply. Then that seeking is good. Would you wish to discover something good? Would you be like the man who dug a hole in a field to bury something and then he discovered treasure? Would you find some treasure here today, some assurance that God loved you and was working everything for your good and that is why he brought you here today? There is much in all our lives that is bad, but the Christian has a desire to do what is good, to love God and to love his neighbour, and to overcome evil with good, and have some sweet assurance, some inner testimony of the Holy Spirit that made him sing, “Now I belong to Jesus. Jesus belongs to me. Not for the years of time alone but for eternity.” You have plenty of what’s bad – as we all do – but you have one molecule of good, don’t you, some faint desire for good. Don’t you?
So if I am dealing with a professing Christian, and he is depressed and runs himself down and he says, “I believe in Jesus but I’m a rotter, through and through. There is no good in me at all – just like the Bible says.” Then I might say to him, “Don’t say that. It’s the devil makes you say that. You are a professing Christian, and so do you know what that means? God has loved you before the foundation of the world. He chose you to be with him for ever. God lives in your heart and loves you with a love that will not let you go even though there are many things wrong that you have done. There was a time when your heart was enmity against God, but not now. That is gone and you are having to do battle with the remnants of remaining sin. The devil wants you to think things are much worse than they are. He wants you to despair but Jesus Christ loves you and has kept you until this moment.” So I would counsel him.
OUR FALLS ARE DUE TO INDWELLING SIN.
The way this is said is very striking; it’s almost dangerous isn’t it? It could be easily abused. It’s like the corrupt tele-evangelist caught in fraud and immorality whose excuse is “the devil made me do it.” We scorn such a comment, and that is the danger of looking at Paul’s statements here and thinking “well . . . yes, but . . .” Now isn’t it true about teaching some of the other doctrines in the Bible that unless there’s a hint of danger in how you express them you’ve not been faithful to the plain statement of God’s truth? For example, there is the preaching of justification – a full forgiveness for all our sins, past, present and future through what Jesus Christ alone has accomplished. If you understand the comprehensiveness of that pardon then shouldn’t that cause people to say, “So, shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Let’s give the grace of God in Christ plenty of scope.” Or your preaching of God’s electing and discriminating grace in choosing many to be saved – shouldn’t that cause people to say, “Then surely God is unjust to elect sinners. Why does he still blame people if he hasn’t chosen them?”
So too with the verses before us, if you asked Paul why does he sin if he loves God’s law, then the answer he gives is, “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” (v.17), and again he repeats those words. He is not ashamed of this answer or reluctant in any way to underline it. He says, “if I do what I don’t want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (v.20). His answer is very clear. He is somehow separating himself from remaining sin. He – the real new creation in Christ Jesus – loves the law of God. He hates breaking it. The law itself wasn’t the cause of his sinning. Who then was responsible? How do these sins break out so that down Paul fell? He tells us, “It is not I who did it, but sin living in me.”
Then the young theologian, the young student of Christian ethics and morality, is alarmed. He says, “But King David mustn’t say that it wasn’t David who took Bathsheba, and arranged the murder of Uriah. ‘Oh it was my sin living in me that did it.’ And Peter could say that it wasn’t Peter who cursed and said he never knew that blasted man Jesus, it was Peter’s sin living in him that did it. Isn’t that a cop out?” Would the elders accept that argument when they asked the offending man to come and appear before them? Is Paul saying here, “It wasn’t me who broke the law, it was my sin”? No judge or jury would accept such an argument as your defence for killing someone. Let us think of a number of important things . . .
i] Whatever these words mean they do not take away our responsibility for our actions. Paul is not exonerating himself, he is not removing the blame for his actions. He is not saying, “It was not my fault that this happened. It was my sin that made me do it.” He is not saying that. What Paul is saying is something like this, “True, I have done many awful things as a Christian, but I have done them under the influence of something which is not of or from my Lord, nor does that wickedness dominate my mind. I’ve been delivered from its lordship over me. The bad things I’ve done as a Christian don’t truly represent my real Christian character. In my mind and my thinking and my heart of hearts I am a servant and a slave to the Lord Jesus and the law of Christ. That is my habitual character. But then, occasionally, I am swept away by sin and I do a horrible out-of-character action.”
You find this elsewhere in Paul’s writings. He makes a distinction between himself and another agent – while he is not denying that he himself actually did those things. He is telling us why he did them, but he is not offering the fact of his sin as the excuse for doing them. Let me give you some examples and you will better understand Paul’s thinking and also see why you do things, both good and bad.
A] When Paul talked about his labours for Jesus Christ, how hard he worked, his travels and the dangers he endured, in prison, and in whippings, and in shipwrecks, hunger and thirst, and all his preaching and counseling and praying and letter writing. He worked harder than Peter, suffered more than Peter, traveled further than Peter, and then he says this in I Corinthians chapter 15 and verse 10, “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” Paul isn’t saying that he didn’t do all he did, that he was sort of standing back, and he was being energised through swallowing tablets called ‘grace’, and he was watching himself do those things. No. Paul is acknowledging that he was the one who did them, he worked harder than any other first century Christian, but it was not by his own energy and I.Q. and spirit that he did what he did. It was grace, God’s omnipotence acting in him to sanctify Paul, it was the grace of God immense and free that did it through Paul. We all understand that. We say that we are what we are by the grace of God. We turn it into doxology;
“And every virtue we possess an every victory won
And every thought of holiness are his alone.”
B] When Paul talked about his Christian life he says Galatians chapter 2 and verse 20, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” There Paul is saying that the conception of his new life in grace was due to Jesus Christ’s giving him a new birth, and the continuance of this new life in grace was due to the daily support of Jesus Christ, for without Christ he could do nothing, and the consummation of this new life in grace when he got to glory and saw Christ and was like Christ – everything was due to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and not to him. “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” The whole origin and maintenance and climax of his better life since becoming a Christian was through the influence of the Lord Jesus Christ. “I can do all things . . . I can do all things . . . through Christ who strengthens me.”
C] When Paul gives a list of sins he describes them as very obvious “acts of the sinful nature” in Galatians 5 and verses 19, 20 and 21; “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” Paul is not excusing himself or any Christian for falling into such sins by suggesting that actually he didn’t do them but his sinful nature did them. That is not the point. The point is this: it was not the indwelling Spirit of God who was the cause of those sins. It was the flesh, remaining sin, his own sinful nature, that is the reason we surprise ourselves by our outbursts of sarcasm and cruelty and cynicism and harsh criticism and failure to forgive and our foolishness. The things I hate I actually do because of remaining sin. So all the good and kind things we’ve ever done have been done because of the strength and direction given to us by the indwelling God, while all the bad things we continue to do we do because of the sin that remains in our lives. When Peter refused to eat food with Gentile Christians at the church’s Fellowship Lunch it was an action of his sinful nature – but it was his decision and his action. He cowardly followed his sinful nature. There is no way you can shelve your Christian responsibility by blaming it on your sinful nature. It is your sinful nature. So these words are not taking away your responsibility for what you do. Then again there’s this
ii] Whatever these words mean it is obvious that in these verses Paul is speaking as a Christian. He acknowledges that he has problems with remaining sin – even Paul had such problems – though he had seen so much heavenly glory, and known the Lord so intimately, and had been blessed in his evangelism greatly, yet he unwillingly fell into sin. He had moments of irritation and lust and anger, and Paul does not minimize those actions tossing out as a casual comment – “it’s the flesh that made me say that or do that.” There was an evil power in him – and it’s in every one of us. It wasn’t nice and tame. It’s like a tiger in captivity with whom you are never safe to share a cage. Paul never had complete control over remaining sin until he got to heaven. Even though God was indwelling his life and Paul had been caught up to the third heaven and Paul had had a sight of Jesus, that didn’t mean that the tiger was afraid to stir and never bared its teeth and growled and clawed at Paul and did him damage. But the apostle as a Christian is saying, “I was accountable for letting the tiger get too near. I need to bow before God and say to him, ‘I am sorry Lord for that fall, for that retaliation, for dwelling on these thoughts of lust, for that outburst of temper.’ Paul condemned himself for what he’d done and said and he was penitent. Unlike the non-Christian Paul knew that tension, the fight between the flesh and the spirit, and as a Christian he was always supporting the spirit to get stronger, and cheering him on to win and defeat the flesh. When Paul says, “I live, that is, Christ lives in me,” then he, Paul, is the great ‘I’ whom the apostle longs to be the conqueror.
iii] Whatever these words mean they do want us to understand that there is such a reality as a healthy Christian dualism. There is a battle between the flesh and the spirit in every Christian. Listen to Galatians chapter 5 and verse 17; “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” Isn’t there a dual being described here? On the one hand there is the sinful nature and it carries a rapier in its hand, and it is striking away and slashing at the Spirit? They are at war with one another. There is present in the life of every Christian another active power; it is sin that dwells in him. During the life of the Christian on earth he is a sinner-saint. He is in the body and he is also in Christ. Jesus is in him and sin is also in him. So there has to be tension and conflict. In Christ the Christian belongs to the new age but he finds himself also living in this present evil world. Any attempt to minimize the presence of the sinful nature, any promise of ‘letting go and letting God take over your life and you will never have conflict again’ is vain, empty language. Anything that dulls us to the reality of the Christian warfare is a message that does not come from the Spirit of God.
iv] Whatever these words mean let’s be sure that we know the difference between sin existing in us and sin reigning over us. Sin is the king who reigns over the unregenerate man. It tells the unbeliever not to trust in God, not to think of Jesus Christ, not to have any confidence in the blood of Christ to cleanse him from his sin. And every unbelieving unrepentant man obeys sin. Every non-Christian in our town and Principality is a slave of sin. They’re all boasting that they are free people not like those suckers who still go to church. They’ve snapped the chains of religion, but in fact they are bound by mighty chains to sin, and God alone can break them. It is a picture of utter horror. Sin is subtle, insidious, threatening, enervating and powerful.
Now that same sin is in every Christian too, but it is not in charge! It does not have dominion over us; it cannot; it will not be our tyrant ever again because grace reigns through righteousness unto eternal life!
There was a time in Paul’s life when sin’s power possessed him entirely; unbelief controlled him. It is not like that in Romans seven. He fights with it; he picks himself up when it cuts him down. Nasty hateful sin is still in him and will continue to be in him until his dying breath. Someone has well described the Christian’s situation like this: sin has its habitation in us but not its domination over us. Jesus Christ is our new Lord. He has taken up his residence in us and he walks around from room to room and he sits on the throne of our hearts. Sin is also there but it lurks under the stairs, and in some dark corner, and scuttles along the skirting board, and pops through a hole to lick its wounds under the floor-boards. Remember the story we would tell as children? Let me modify it. I am describing the Christian . . . in a house there was a little room, and in the room there was a little cupboard, and in the little cupboard there was a little drawer, and in the drawer there was a little box, and in the box there was a little bag, and in the bag there was . . .sin! And we would shout out the last word when we told the original story. In the best Christian there are pockets of sin. But then we can also describe the Christian like this . . . in a house there’s a room with a glorious shining light, and in the centre of the room there is a platform, and on the platform there is a golden throne, and on the throne is a lamb that was once slain, and that Lamb is . . . King Jesus! That’s the Christian. He is waiting for the last pockets of sin to be expelled from his house when King Jesus will return to reign over every part of him in the glory that awaits us.
So here is the Christian, with measles spots of sin in many corners of his life, but his life is ruled over by his Lord and Saviour. And this is the reason we are kept and enabled to desire what is good and to do it. An acquaintance was working in his study, cutting out some materials from magazines and his five year old daughter came in and liked what she saw. “Can I do some Daddy?” Do he let her, giving her a scissors and pointing to a pile of magazines that needed to be cut. Then he ignored her and went on with his work. Next time he saw her he noticed that she had picked up the latest National Geographical Magazine that had arrived that morning and she was busy cutting out each picture. Now he could have shouted at her and shown his frustration, but he just thanked her for helping him and gently took the scissors from her and said, “Go now and help Mummy.” He knew that the law is good when it says, “Love your 5 year old neighbour as yourself. Love your neighbour who has dementia as you love yourself.” The desire to do that is actually here in our hearts by the grace of God, and the enabling will be given to us by God, the gentle answer, the checking of the unkind words of frustration, the deeds of kindness. I can do all things – through Christ who strengthens me.
25th July 2015 GEOFF THOMAS