Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity September 17, 2000
374, 449, 658, 448
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So far the Holy Word.
In Christ Jesus, Who has promised to strengthen us in our struggle against sin, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
If I ask you to imagine a battlefield—what sort of image springs to your mind? Chances are, it’s a dark image. Maybe you think of Roman legions with swords and spears, struggling and dying on the plains of Italy. Perhaps your mind conjures up a civil war scene; confusion and death at Bull Run, or the Wilderness, or Gettysburg. Those of us who were young and impressionable during the sixties and early seventies might immediately think of Viet Nam—for us, the word “battlefield” brings to mind gloomy images of rice paddies and steaming jungles. But no matter what particular battlefield you envision, chances are it’s not a pleasant scene. Very likely, your mental image is one of gloom and darkness and desperate struggle.
This morning, the Apostle Paul is describing for us—in very eloquent terms—a battlefield. There’s a battle taking place, he says, but it’s not happening out in the open where we can see it with our eyes. This battle is fought in the heart of every Christian, every single day. It’s the battle between the spirit and the flesh. Paul tells us that he’s felt the heat of that battle many times. Have you? Have you at times been so discouraged and frustrated with the sin in your life that you thought victory was impossible? Then today’s text is for you. Yes, the battle is real, Paul says, but all is not gloom and doom—as Christians, ultimate victory is within our grasp! Our theme this morning is:
Do you remember when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before He was crucified? He took Peter, James and John with Him, but they kept falling asleep. What was it He said to them?—“Watch and pray; for the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
-He was talking about the same spiritual struggle that Paul’s describing in our text for today. Only Paul goes into a little more detail. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. Paul has discovered a principle, or a law—like the law of gravity. It has universal application, because every single Christian experiences the same struggle: it’s our sinful flesh battling against our “inner man”—the regenerate child of God—inside of us. He says, For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
Every believer has this battle going on inside his or her heart. I know I sure do! Once I was driving home from a late night fishing, and the only radio station left on the air was one of those Christian broadcasting stations. So I listened to it for a while. A young man was singing kind of a catchy song. It went like this: “I want to be a righteous man / I want to be a holy man / I want to do whatever I can / to follow after my Lord.” And I thought to myself, “Yeah! I do, too! I want to serve Jesus with a righteous life, too!”
Have you ever felt like that? I’m sure you have. Then how come it never seems to work out that way? Why is it that we can never seem to serve God as we’d like to? How come we always fall short of perfect service? It’s because we’re not just made up of pure, Spirit-driven desires. We also have the old sinful flesh inside of us, and it’s constantly pulling us in the opposite direction. Paul says, To will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. In another place, the Bible says, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.”—Gal 5:17.
It’s a battle, and our hearts are the battlefield! Every day this struggle between the flesh and the “inner man” is going on. Worse yet, the outcome of the struggle looks very gloomy. How can we be saved, if we can’t shake free of this awful, sinful flesh of ours? You’re torn both ways. You know what God wants you to do, but you so seldom do it. You know very well the things that the Lord wants you to stay away from, but so often those are the very things you end up doing anyway! Sin seems to be on the verge of capturing us for good and making us it’s slaves. Finally, we feel like crying out with Paul, O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
The outlook does indeed look gloomy. The gray clouds are lowering over the battlefield, and defeat would seem inevitable. By ourselves we could never gain the upper hand over our sinful flesh. But we’re not by ourselves. We have Jesus. And in Christ, God offers us a ray of hope!
“Who will deliver me?” Paul asks. “How can I possibly win this battle?” If he stopped there, this would be a really depressing passage. But he goes on to confidently answer his own question: “I thank God; through Jesus Christ our Lord!” There’s the answer! In Jesus Christ we have the secret weapon that will allow us to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. You remember that when Jesus was hanging on the cross of Calvary, half-dead and suffering, his enemies jeered, “He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”—Mat 27:43. Well, Jesus was the Son of God, and He could indeed have called on God to deliver Him from His suffering. But He didn’t—He stayed up there and finished it. Why? Because Jesus wanted something else even more than He wanted to be delivered from that awful agony. He wanted to deliver you and me from the power and the punishment of sin. And that’s exactly what He did. With His suffering and death, Jesus put paid to every one of my sins, and every one of yours!
That’s good news! It’s especially good news as far as our daily struggle with the flesh is concerned. Did you ever hear of a game called, “Paintball”? It’s supposed to be a lot like real war. Two teams of “soldiers” spend all day battling it out in patch of forest somewhere. They wear camouflage uniforms and carry military-style weapons. The only difference is that, instead of real bullets, these guns shoot little capsules of paint. So at the end of the day, even players who have been shot can simply get up and go home. The paint marks wash easily out of their clothing. Nice, huh? Beats fighting with real bullets, don’t you think?
For a Christian, the battle against sin is something like that. We take hits every day—sins we commit that, normally, would have the power to kill us eternally. But God has delivered us from the killing power of sin. Paul rejoices, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”—Rom 8:1-2. At the end of every day, we can bring our sins to our Heavenly Father in repentance, and He removes them. He simply washes them all away in the blood of our Savior Jesus!
In Christ, God offers us a bright blue sky of hope, even in the midst of our ongoing struggles. And make no mistake—the battle against your sinful flesh will still have to be fought every day. You will have gains and losses. But you can draw on the power of the Holy Spirit Himself to strengthen you. Every minute you devote to prayer, every half-hour you spend reading the Bible in your home, every hour you’re here listening to God’s Word being preached in church—these are the times when you’re building up your forces. The Holy Spirit will be working through that holy Word to strengthen the “inner man,” the child of God inside of you. My prayer for each of you members of Ascension Lutheran Church is the same one Paul prayed for the members of his congregation in Ephesus, “That God would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man.”—Eph 3:16.
As long as you live on this earth, you’re going to have both forces—the sinful flesh and the “inner man”—battling it out inside you. But when you draw on the strength of the Holy Spirit, God promises that the inner man will have the upper hand. There’s a bright sky over your battlefield, because as a Christian, the Spirit is in control of your life, not the flesh! Paul says, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”—Rom 6:14.
When you’ve had a loss, when the fighting is fierce and ever-present sin in your life has got you down, remember something else: we won’t be fighting forever. One day, as we stand before the judgment throne of God’s Son, He’s going to hand us the ultimate fruits of the victory He earned for us on the cross. For our sinful flesh, that will be a day of unconditional surrender. We’ll say goodbye to imperfection and failure, goodbye to sorrow and shame and guilt. From that Day on into eternity, we’ll be able to give our dear Lord Jesus the perfect service we can only dream about now. So, my Christian friends, hold on. Keep fighting! It won’t be long, and we’ll be out of this battle!
A old Christian farmer was once talking to a younger man about his faith. He wasn’t an educated man, but he did a pretty good job of explaining the two conflicting natures within a Christian. “It’s like two dogs are fighting inside of me,” he said. “One is a black dog, and he’s very mean and bad. The other is a white dog, gentle and good, but the black dog is fighting against him.” “And which one wins?” asked the younger man. “Why,” said the farmer, “whichever one I say ‘sic-em’ to!”—And I guess that’s our life, isn’t it? With the strength that God gives us through His Spirit, we’ve just got to keep siccing the white dog on the black dog.
It is a battle that’s taking place within each of us Christians. The battle is fierce and long. But remember—with Christ in our lives, there is a bright sky over the battlefield! AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.