The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost June 29, 2008
276, 342, 447, 400
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. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to 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 will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In Christ Jesus, who has wonderfully succeeded where we so miserably fail, dear fellow Christians:
How will you celebrate this coming weekend? Maybe you have a picnic or barbecue with friends planned. You might slather on the bug repellant, grab the lawn chairs, and sit out under the stars to watch a fireworks display. Along with millions of others, we will be celebrating the birthday of our country. We recognize that all the blessings we enjoy—from freedom to worship as we choose to an unprecedented standard of living—come ultimately from the loving hand of God. He is the One who has established and prospers our government and nation.
However, as we celebrate there is also a dark cloud over our country. We know there are tens of thousands of Americans who will not be spending the holiday with their families in the backyard. They will be driving military Humvees while patrolling dangerous streets in Iraq, or they are stationed in remote areas on the frontier of Afghanistan. They are on the front lines of the war on terror.
It is not only a dangerous conflict, it is frustrating because the enemy is not a specific foreign power, but people living within the country and the community. A terrorist may look and act just like everyone else until one day he drives a car loaded with explosives into a crowded marketplace, or he detonates a roadside bomb just as a convoy comes along. Terrorism can happen right here in our own country as 9/11 showed. The other morning as I was pouring milk on my Rice Chex, I heard a report warning of how easy it would be for terrorists to contaminate our milk supply with deadly botulism. We celebrate the blessings we have as citizens of our country, but at the same time we need to be aware of the ongoing war on terror.
For Christians there is another war on terror which is a matter of our eternal security. It is even closer to home for it is being fought within each of us everyday. St. Paul speaks of that conflict in very personal terms in our text.
On one side of the struggle is the new man or “inward man,” as Paul puts it. It is the new self God made of us through baptism. “We were buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4 NIV). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV). The new man is made to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. He has the same characteristics Adam and Eve had before the fall. He loves God and His law. His only aim is to please God. He is a willing slave of the Lord Jesus. Paul said, “I want to do good. The law is good. I delight in God’s Law. I have the desire to do what is good.”
We feel the same, don’t we? We truly want to please the Lord in everything. We don’t see keeping God’s commandments as a distasteful chore which takes all the fun out of life, but as a means of expressing love for Him who first loved us. So wouldn’t it seem then that a Christian would always be happy and helpful, never jealous or depressed? Would a Christian ever get drunk or lose his temper? Are you always strong in service to the Lord, never anxious or fearful?
The truth is that there is a huge disconnect between what we desire and what we actually do. Paul admitted: “The good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” [v.19] He said, “I don’t understand what I’m doing.” [v.15] A better translation is: “I don’t know what I’m doing. Paul certainly knew and was conscious of the sins he was committing. He uses “know” in the same sense you might in talking to a friend who was acting totally out of character for him. You might say, “I don’t know you!” Paul is saying that what he was doing was out of character for him, not part of who he really was. He didn’t like what he was doing, and he didn’t want to do it.
The problem was the terrorist who had embedded himself deep within Paul’s heart. “It is not I, but sin dwelling in me.” [v.17] That in-dwelling sin is called the Old Adam because we inherited it from our parents and they from theirs, going all the way back to Adam. We were born with it. The Old Adam hates God and His law, cannot understand spiritual things, and will never be converted.
The Old Adam was defeated and lost his domination in our lives when the Holy Spirit came to live in us. But he is still around, like rebel insurgents who were forced out of Baghdad, but then relocated in other cities and villages. They hide plotting their next attack. As soon as U.S. troops organize a convoy to bring food and other supplies to people in need, the terrorists try to sabotage the effort.
When the believer desires to do God’s will, the sin within is right there too, trying to disrupt the plans. Jesus warned Peter: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We know what happened. Peter had the desire to stand up for Jesus no matter what, even if it meant death. Yet his Old Adam undermined that desire so that Peter ended up denying, rather than confessing, Jesus.
We face the same kind of attacks. We wake up in the morning with a prayer on our lips and praise in our hearts. We are determined to live for the Lord all day long. “Today,” we say, “we’re going to spend quality time in the Word. We’re going to pray more than the 30 seconds we used yesterday. We’re going to concentrate on every petition of the Lord’s Prayer without being distracted. We are going to be kind and patient with everyone and more outgoing when it comes to sharing the news about Jesus. We are going to give generously to the Lord’s work.”
But then we are ambushed by sin. Something comes up we didn’t anticipate and we are an hour or more behind schedule. The sin within is quick to pounce on that and tell us that now we can’t possibly take time to read Scripture. Sin shoots down our good desire. We meet someone particularly obnoxious and anger explodes within. Our love and patience go up in smoke. We compare our bills with the checkbook balance and the Old Adam is quick to divert our attention away from serving the Lord with our income to concentrating on what we need for ourselves.
The sin within wages a relentless war against the new self and we become unwilling hostages of sin. At the end of the day we look back and see that we didn’t get nearly as far as we had hoped. All along the way is the smoldering, twisted wreckage of our desires which were never carried out. We failed. We failed to avoid evil and we failed to do good. “What a wretched man I am!” [v.24] Paul cried out in frustration. What more can we say than “Amen!” We are just as guilty.
The war on terror is extremely costly in both dollars and lives. Billions have been spent and thousands of American lives have been lost. The terrorists are hoping that they can wear down our country’s resolve and resources so that they will be able to take over. The sin within us is desperately attempting the same thing. It tries to wear us down so that we become so spiritually battle-weary that we give up. Lifelong Christians have been driven to despair and surrendered their faith under the strain. One of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas, was so overwhelmed by his guilt that instead of believing there was forgiveness in Jesus, he took his own life. Is the war winnable? The situation seems very bleak. The terrorist is tireless, powerful, and is based within us.
Some say it is just a matter of trying harder: “You can do it! Concentrate, apply yourself, pray longer, and you can overcome sin, and turn your life around.” Others use guilt and say, “You had better get your life together and stop sinning or you’re not a Christian!” But the truth is, neither approach can work. We have no strength or abilities on our own. We keep doing what we don’t want to do. We are constantly caught in the crossfire of sin’s ambushes. We are wretched sinners deserving of eternal death. St. Paul knew that. He saw himself as the chief of sinners.
Yet he didn’t surrender in despair. He looked at himself and saw defeat and hopelessness. But then he looked to Jesus, and saw cause for celebration. “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” [v.25] We can’t win the war, but Jesus has already won it for us. Paul sums up our salvation by using the Lord’s full title: “Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus directs us to who the Savior is. The angel told Joseph to name Mary’s baby “Jesus,” because He would do just what the name means. He would “save” His people from their sins. As the God-Man, He would be the mediator between God and mankind. Christ means “the Anointed One.” Jesus was the one set apart to be our Prophet, Priest, and King. He would proclaim the news of how He came to offer Himself as the sacrificial Lamb, that He might establish His kingly rule in hearts everywhere.
Instead of dwelling on “Why can’t I do better?” look at what Jesus did. His sinless life replaces our lives marred by sin. Rather than fretting about “How can I ever make it up to God for what I’ve done?” look at the payment Jesus offered for you. His blood shed on the cross completely covers all your sin. He crushed the terrorist’s power and control over us.
We still sin, but with Jesus on our side it can’t overcome us. We don’t have to helplessly watch while sin piles up higher and higher until we suffocate under it. Jesus calls, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 NIV).
The Old Adam keeps crawling out of his hole to launch his attacks, but we know what to do. Luther says in the Small Catechism that the Old Adam is drowned by daily contrition and repentance (cf. Baptism). When you are overwhelmed by sin, you can confess it to the Lord, be assured of forgiveness, and the Old Adam drowns. Still, it’s an ongoing battle, for Luther comments that the Old Adam knows how to swim, so he keeps coming back.
Jesus died for our sin, rose from the grave, and now lives to strengthen us in our fight. Through His Word of forgiveness, His power in us is stronger than sin. Therefore Paul could say: “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27 NIV). “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me….I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12ff. NIV). Like troops continually reinforced and re-supplied, we are equipped by Jesus to keep fighting.
The war is ongoing, but it is not endless. The final victory is just a matter of time. Here on earth we live in this body of death. We try to take care of ourselves. We watch what we eat and take our medicine, and still we die. But the Lord promises that He will turn even our death into victory, for just as He rose from the grave, so all those who believe in Him will rise to new life.
What’s more is that when we are raised, sin won’t be! The Old Adam will be left behind. The terrorist will no longer be able to stalk and attack. We won’t have the frustration of wanting to do good and yet falling into sin. We will perfectly serve the Lord in all things.
The war on terror which our country is waging is very real. To pretend otherwise is to invite disaster. Likewise, the spiritual warfare within is just as real and even more dangerous. As we go along, we stumble and fall into sin’s traps. We end up as hostages. But don’t give up. Keep fighting, for the One who is stronger than all enemies combined is near. He is as close as a prayer. You can hear Him as clearly as reading the Bible. He will never let you down. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Corinthians 15:57). Amen.
Just as I am, tho’ tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
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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.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.