The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost July 5, 2009
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 the Lord our God, who has given us His Law to reveal our true selves and who has given Jesus Christ to redeem 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, I was a little taken aback and then I smiled a little bit too. I imagined that the sermon preached that Sunday would be a “fire and brimstone” message.
The “catch your attention” statement on the church sign is a true statement. If we were to dismiss what lies behind that statement as unimportant we would be dismissing something that is really very important because that statement, in it’s own way, conveys the message of God’s Law. If, on the other hand, that statement were to be all we have on which to build our faith, we would not have the fullness of God’s Word and we will be left to despair and we would be lost.
We need to be a Gospel-based congregation and our message needs to be Gospel-oriented because only the Gospel can convert the souls of sinners. Only the Gospel can preserve faith. Only the Gospel brings the forgiveness of sins and is the power of God for salvation. Nevertheless, this does not mean we do not have a use for the Law. We need both Law and Gospel.
Being a Gospel-based congregation and having a Gospel-oriented message means serving the needs of a sinner’s soul, having the desire of salvation for all souls, and possessing a love that brings the Word of God to that soul—whatever part of it and in whatever measure is needed. This means that when a soul needs the Law, a Gospel-based church brings the Law; but when there is a need for the Gospel it will bring the Gospel.
We learn from Scripture that the Law serves three specific purposes. The first use of the Law is as a curb. The Law serves as a curb to the unbelieving world and to our sinful flesh in order to keep the wide-open outbreak of sin in check. The Law’s threat of punishment and consequence for sin doesn’t completely stop it, but it does keep it under control.
The Law also serves as a guide. This use is only for believers. Only believers will look to the Law of God to find out how they can please God. Unbelievers don’t care whether they please God or not, so they won’t look for a guide.
The primary use of the Law is as a mirror. 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. All of Scripture includes both Law and Gospel. So when Paul wrote to the Romans, he spoke against any assumption that the Law is evil, but is rather, very much a part of God’s holy Word through which He speaks to us.
The Law judges. The law condemns. But is the Law “bad”? No! The Law is necessary to identify sin. Paul wrote, “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’…the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” [vv.7,12]
It is mentally jarring that something which speaks so harshly against us—condemning us to eternal death—is called, “holy and just and good.” 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 actually 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). The Law was intended to bring life and good, but it brought death only because it reveals the sin in us and that sin brings death. Blaming God’s Law for death is comparable to blaming a messenger because he bears bad news. The messenger is only carrying the news. The Law is the messenger that identifies our sin that brings death.
In showing how the Law identifies sin, Paul speaks of an earlier time in his life when sin wasn’t actively identified. As a child in a typical Jewish family, Paul would have been free from any particular condemnation of the Law until he was 13 years old, which was when a young man was expected to uphold the Law. Even as an adult Paul did not fully understand the impact of the Law’s identification of his sin. As a Pharisee, Paul saw his life as wonderfully holy. He kept all the laws outwardly and in his mind was doing just fine; but when he learned the true meaning of God’s Law then sin was truly identified in him. Paul said, “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 was 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 following a false god because of his great love for his wealth. When Jesus told him to give up his false god for the sake of following Him, the man did not. That man had not known idolatry until Jesus exposed it with the Law.
Like that man, you and I do not know idolatry until something pushes the Lord out of first place in our lives and the Law comes to us and says: “What a minute! What are you putting in front of Christ? What are you regarding as more important than your Lord and Savior and His Word?” I had not known idolatry until the Law said: “You are not trusting in God above all things. You are worrying. You are trusting yourself. You are trusting what you can do in this life. Trust in the Lord, not in other things.” The Law identifies sins in our hearts.
On another occasion a man came to Jesus and asked Jesus, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25ff). Jesus asked the man what was written in the Law. The man replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Do this and you will live.” Then the man asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” To answer this question, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. Loving your neighbor as yourself is loving everyone with whom you come into contact—not just your friends, not just those who are kind to you.
I did not know murder until the law said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and then showed me that I, at times, ridicule people and laugh at their shortcomings and am impatient with them. I had not known murder until the Law came and said, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). The Law showed me that I do not always love and I sometimes do hate.
I did not know misusing God’s name until the Law came and identified my sin by saying you don’t pray, praise, and give thanks to God perfectly as you should; and occasionally you do misuse the Lord’s name, if not out loud then at least in your thoughts. Once again, the Law exposes and identifies our sin.
One by one the Law will show us that we sin against each commandment. The Law does not only identify sins that are “big” and noteworthy—killing someone, open adultery, stealing, etc. It probes deeply and says, “Yes, even your thoughts and intentions are sinful.”
Without the Law active in someone’s life sin lies dormant. Oh, it’s still there. It is still working and living happily. 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.” [v.13]
Perhaps you have experienced someone who will do something just for the sake of breaking the law. “You make a rule and I’m going to break it just to prove to you that I can!” That is sinful nature! The Law excites the breaking of the Law because our sinful nature says, “You’re going to put that restriction on me? I DON”T WANT IT!”
As the Law began to sink-in and probe into Paul’s hearts and as it 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 be seeing your self. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.” [v.14] Paul is not speaking about an unbeliever, but about believers. Earlier in the letter, Paul did speak of unbelievers as “slaves of sin” (cf. Romans 6:16), but we believers have become slaves of righteousness. We are no longer bound by sin because Christ has created a new man within us. Nevertheless, but we still have sin. We may not be 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…” (John 3:6).
Therefore, 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 isn’t identifying sin. The world is saying you need to find your true self and act upon your own ideas. The world wants you to believe that if you turn yourself inward and look to see your self and follow your self then you will find the answers to any problem. However, if we look into the true mirror of the Law we see our true self—a sinner, nothing greater than that.
At times, we may need some help in identifying our sin and seeing our selves. It can be awfully hard to turn the mirror of sin-identification on our own hears. This becomes the role of one another Christian—helping one another to see sin and in love to correct it.
When we’re looking into the mirror of God’s Law to see our true selves each of us 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 right. I am sold under sin and there are so many ways in which the Law identifies me as a sinner.”
This 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 sin away for you when He died on the cross.” The Gospel comes and 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 are washed completely clean by the blood of Christ. All of the Law’s expectations that we have failed to keep have been kept perfectly by Jesus for us. All of the guilt we amass each time we break the Law has been paid by Jesus on the cross. The death which the Law pronounces upon us because of our sin 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 and sinful desires, but redeemed by Christ and given a “New Man” within us who desires only what pleases God. These two wills live within us and that produces the struggle: “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]
The situation which Paul describes is one in which every child of God finds himself. When you face this struggle you can say, “Paul I know exactly what you’re talking about! I have been there and I am in that position constantly.” When you face this struggle know that you are not alone. Every child of God faces this struggle because every child of God continues to have his sinful flesh as well as the New Man created by Christ and the Gospel.
We are redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God sees us as holy and pure because we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, but we still have that flesh that is trying to gain the upper hand. Our New Man is saying, “YES! I will go out and follow God’s Word completely!” But we have to take that old flesh with us and it doesn’t want to do God’s will. As a result we often times find ourselves not doing what we want and doing what we don’t want.
If you have felt trapped by your weaknesses, if you have been led to think that you have a hard heart and you know that there is pride in your self, and you know that sin drips off everything you do or say, and you long to be free, understand that you are already free through Christ, but you are going to continue to struggle in this life.
We can look to the Law of God and understand the struggle by knowing that the Law is identifying the sinfulness of our flesh. “I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwells no good thing” [v.18] and that is why we need forgiveness. In my New Man created by Christ, there dwells righteousness and I have eternal life through Him.
This struggle is ongoing. Every one of us has done the same sinful thing more than once and afterwards determined: “I will never, ever, ever do that again!” …and a day later, maybe a week later, you do it all over again.
This struggle is good and necessary. It is not good that our sinful flesh wins the struggle many times, but the existence of the struggle is good because 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 and weak that he can no longer put up a noticeable fight. So when you face this spiritual tug o’ war you know that your new man is working and that is a good thing; and don’t despair because your Savior is there to help, encourage, and strengthen you in the fight
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 said this in his explanation of Baptism: “The Old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance and die with all sins and evil desires” (Luther’s Small Catechism).
Repentance includes turning to the Word of Life to be reassured that all our sins are forgiven. We beat down that Old Adam by following our Lord and hearing His Word. From the Gospel we hear what Jesus has done and still does for us and so we are led to follow Him. 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. We can’t rightly say, “I’m a sinner…oh, well. I’m a sinner…I can’t help that.” That’s not struggling, that’s giving in and giving up. 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 to the mirror and see ourselves for what we truly are. We look to the mirror and we see the struggle produced by our sinful flesh warring against the Law of God. But with joy we look to Christ for the forgiveness of all 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.