The Second Sunday After Epiphany January 15, 2006
2 Kings 22:8-20
340(1-7), 295, 398, 657
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
In the name of Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the Law for us and redeems us from the death we deserve—dear fellow-redeemed:
“Hell is smokin’ and God ain’t jokin’!”
A number of years ago when I saw that statement on a church sign, it was a bit startling. I imagined the sermon preached that Sunday would be “fire and brimstone.”
In terms of the two main doctrines of the Bible—Law and Gospel—that church’s sign was proclaiming pure law. It is, however, a true statement in it’s own way. If we were to dismiss what lies behind that statement as being unimportant we would be dismissing something that is really very important. If, on the other hand, that statement were all we had on which to build our faith, we’d be left to despair and ultimately lost.
We need both the Law and the Gospel. We need the Gospel because it is what the Holy Spirit uses to convert our souls, to preserve us in faith, and to bring the forgiveness of sins to us. However, we also need the Law to show us our sin so that we understand our need for the Gospel. We need the Law to rebuke our sinful flesh; and we need the Law to provide a “road map of righteousness” so that we know what pleases God and can give Him thanks by following His will.
We are able to categorize the purpose of the law into three uses: The Law serves as a curb to the unbelieving world and to our sinful flesh to keep the wide-open outbreak of sin “in check.” The Law serves as a guide—the road map of righteousness; and the Law serves as a mirror to show us our sin. Today we LOOK INTO THE MIRROR OF GOD’S LAW to I. Identify our sin II. See our self and III. Understand our struggle.
It would be a wrong understanding to conclude: “The Law is bad. The Gospel is good.” Both the Law and the Gospel are equally God’s Word. Both are doctrinal truths found throughout the entire Bible. God Himself is speaking to us through both Law and Gospel. When Paul wrote to the Romans, he spoke against any assumption that the Law is evil and establishes it as being part of God’s holy Word. “What shall we say then, is the Law sin, certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin, except through the law. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’” [v.7]
The Law is not evil, but it is necessary to identify sin. Paul continues, “But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the Law sin was dead. I was alive once without the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” [vv.8-12]
It may be unexpected to hear Paul call the Law of God “holy…and just…and good” when it so strongly condemns us to eternal death. But Paul wants us to firmly understand that the corruption is not in the Law. The corruption is in the sin that lives in us.
The Law would bring life if only we could keep it. God says in Leviticus. “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:5). Paul adds that the Law was intended to bring life and good, but it brought death because it revealed the sin in him and sin brings death. Sin is what brings death and the Law identifies sin.
As a child in a typical Jewish family, Paul would have been free from any condemnation of the people’s law until he was 13 years old, which was when the law went into full effect for a young man. Even as an adult, Paul did not fully understand the impact of the Law identifying his sin. As a Pharisee, Paul viewed his life as wonderfully holy. He had kept all the laws outwardly and in his mind he was doing just fine; but when he learned the true meaning of the Law, that was when sin was truly identified in him. “I didn’t know what sin was until the Law probed deeply and I fully understood what it said. Then I knew that even a sinful desire like coveting is a sin.”
A man once came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 18:20ff). Jesus said, “Keep the commandments.” The man responded, “Oh, I’ve kept these since I was a young man. What else do I need to do?” Jesus told him, “One more thing. Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor and follow Me.” The man couldn’t do it. He thought he had kept all the commandments, but he was really harboring an idolatrous love for all of his riches. When Jesus told him to give up his false god for the sake of following Him, the man didn’t. That man had not known idolatry until Jesus exposed it with the Law by exposing his greater love for wealth than for his Savior.
Like that Paul and the man who came to Jesus, we do not truly know the full extent of sin until we see the Law identify it. We can say: “I had not known idolatry until the Law said: ‘You’re worrying. You are trusting yourself. You are trusting what you can do in this life. Trust in the Lord, not in other things.’ I had not known murder unless the Law had said, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). I did not know misusing God’s name until the Law identified my sin by saying, ‘you don’t pray, praise, and give thanks to God all the time as you should; and occasionally you do misuse the Lord’s name directly, if not out loud then at least in your thoughts.’”
One by one, the Law will show us that we sin against each commandment. The Law doesn’t only identify those sins that are big and noteworthy—killing someone, open adultery, stealing, and so on. The Law probes deeply to identify and expose the most hidden sins of our heart.
Paul continues, “But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead…Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.” [vv.8,13]
Without the Law active in someone’s life sin lies dormant. Oh, it’s still there. It’s still working away and living happily, but it isn’t challenged. It isn’t exposed. It lives and thrives and reproduces in peaceful existence. But once the Law exposes sin for what it is, then it really flares up and becomes, as Paul describes, “exceedingly sinful.”
Sinful natures love to challenge the Law. Sinful nature says, “You make a rule and I’m going to break it just to prove to you that I can!” So as the Law began to sink-in and probe into Paul’s heart and does the same to ours, the sinful flesh resents the command as unwarranted and an interference with its rights. When this happens, the Law produces this sin and we see ourselves as exceedingly sinful. The Law is not creating sin, it is merely exposing what has been there all along.
Look into the mirror of God’s Law to identify your sin and you will then be seeing your self. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin” (Romans 7:14). Paul is not speaking about an unbeliever. He is speaking about himself and other believers. Earlier in Romans he had spoken of unbelievers as being “slaves of sin” (cf. Romans 6:16). Paul, we, and other believers have become slaves of righteousness. We are God’s children. We are no longer bound by sin because Christ has created a new man within us, but we still have that sin. We are not slaves to sin—totally under its sway—but we are still “sold under sin” because we still have our sinful flesh. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). When we use the Law’s mirror to identify sin, we are going to see ourselves as carnal. Or as Paul says a little later, “I know that in me (that is in my flesh) nothing good dwells” [v.18]
The world around us is not identifying sin. The world is saying you need to see your “self” and act on your own ideas. The world wants you to believe that if you turn yourself inward to see and follow yourself then you will everything will be good, then you will find the answers to any problem you might have. When the world promises these happy results from relying on your self, it is not seeing the true self. When you look into the mirror of God’s Law you truly see yourself—a sinner! We will be led to confess: “I find in myself a lot more than just a few things I’ve said or done that weren’t quite right. I am sold under sin and there are so many ways by which the Law identifies me as a sinner.
The identification of our true selves is why we so desperately need the Gospel. When we look at the mirror and the bright reflection points back at us and says: “You are a condemned sinner!” The Gospel comes and says, “Jesus took that away for you when He died on the cross.” The Gospel gives us the confidence of praying, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).
As corrupt as we are, as completely engulfed by sin as we are, we can be and are washed completely clean by the blood of Christ. All of the laws we break—Jesus kept them one by one perfectly all the time on our behalf. All of the guilt we amass each time we sin—Jesus paid it all when He gave up His life on the cross. The death which our sins deserve and which the law pronounces upon us because of our sin was defeated when Jesus rose victorious on Easter morning.
We look in the mirror and see ourselves for what we are, but we look to Christ to see what God has made us: His beloved children!
So then, here we are: Flesh with our sins, but redeemed by Christ and given a New Man that delights in God’s will. These two “personalities” within us struggle with one another. “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” [vv.15-20]
Paul is speaking of sanctification, not justification. When he speaks of not doing what he wants to do and doing what he does not want to do, Paul isn’t sorrowing because he’s not doing what he needs to do to get to heaven. Paul isn’t talking about a work-righteousness that will earn eternal life. Rather, Paul is describing a situation over which he sorrows because he already has eternal life through his Savior and now wants to live for Him…but fails in doing so.
The situation which Paul describes is one which every child of God faces. When you feel the same way as Paul did, you are not alone. Every child of God has this struggle because every child of God still has the two spiritual personalities.
As a whole we are redeemed. As a whole we are viewed by God holy and pure because we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, but the sinful flesh still tries to gain the upper hand. Our New Man says, “Yes! I will follow God’s Word completely!” But our old flesh comes along and doesn’t want to follow God’s Word so we often find ourselves not doing what we want and doing what we don’t want.
This struggle is ongoing. I am sure that every one of you, like myself, has done something more than once…or said something more than once…and have determined: “ I will never, ever, do that again! But a day later, maybe a week later, you do it all over.
This struggle is both good and necessary. It is not good that our sinful flesh many times wins the struggle, but it is good because if the struggle is present it means that your New Man is warring against the Old Man. If you do not feel or face any struggle, the new man has either died or is so sick, weak, and quiet that he no longer fights. When you face this spiritual tug o’ war, you know that your new man is working and that is a good thing. In the struggle, don’t despair. Your Savior is ever-present to help, encourage, and strengthen you.
How do we beat down the Old Man so that we consistently win the tug o’ war and in the end obtain the victory? Luther wrote in his Small Catechism: “The Old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance and die with all sins and evil desires” (Baptism, part four).
We beat down the Old Adam by seeing our sins through the Law and repenting of them—sorrowing over the sins and putting our trust in Jesus for their forgiveness. We beat down the Old Adam by following our Lord and hearing His Word. From the Gospel we hear what Jesus has done for us. We have hope in Christ.
We need to understand the struggle so that we don’t use it for an excuse. The existence of our sinful flesh is never an excuse for a sin, e.g., “I’m a sinner…oh, well. I’m a sinner…I can’t help that.” This is not struggling, it is “giving in.” We can use our sinful nature to explain why we sin, but never ever to excuse it. …and the struggle goes on.
We look into the mirror of God’s Law and we learn what sin is. We look in the mirror and find that sin lives in us. We look to the mirror and we see the struggle. But we look to Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins, for strength along the way, and for life everlasting. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.