The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost August 2, 2009
5, 575, 416, 48
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
God grant to each one of us true honesty and wisdom so that we may rightly see and justly discern between good and evil, righteousness and sin, truth and falsehood, not only in the world around us but in our own hearts and lives. Amen.
Fellow representatives of the One True God:
Suppose for a moment that you are running a company and you have two advisors both of whom send you regular suggestions and recommendations anonymously. In other words, you can never tell which advisor sent which suggestion. The problem is that while one advisor is as wise as he is loyal and he wants your business to succeed, the other advisor is as cunning as he is disloyal and he wants your business to fail. Again, both are sending you advice and counsel and your job is continually to decide which bit of advice is good and which is bad.
Your problems are further compounded by the fact that all of the advice that you receive is rather clever and sounds pretty good at first. The ideas all seem to have a certain appeal, and yet you must be wise enough to discern which one is clever in a good sense and which one is clever in a bad, diabolical sense. You are, moreover, aware that if you follow the bad advice it could well lead to your ruin.
Be aware that this situation is not hypothetical. You are indeed in charge of such an enterprise. The “company” is your soul and its eternal future. Your two advisors are the Old Adam and the New Man that reside within you. Every moment of every day you receive advice and counsel from each. While you delight in the good counsel of the New Man because you have been born again and the Holy Spirit is living in you, the counsel of the Old Adam will not be without its baser appeal. In fact, many of the impulses generated by your Old Adam will carry a very basic sound and feel that appeals to something deep within you. Your job, moment by moment as you walk this earth, is to determine which bit of counsel is of the New Man and which of the old.
This is never an easy battle. Often we seem to lose more than we win. Today’s text speaks of such things. It is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the seventh chapter, beginning with the 15th Verse:
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! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. 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. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin.”
So far the words of our God. With confidence that these are not only the recorded words of our God but that these words are living and active and that our God here visits and instructs us, so we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord, Your Word is truth.” Amen.
Dear fellow Christians, there is a sort of familiarity that breeds not contempt (as the saying goes) but acceptance. In connection with our spiritual side that acceptance is most often very bad. Sin has a way of making itself comfortable through use—like an old pair of boots. Foot doctors, however, routinely tell us that it’s not the boot that breaks-in, it’s the foot. So also with sin in our lives. Sin doesn’t get better with use, we get worse. We tend to compensate, in part, by altering how we refer to our sins in a feeble effort to salve our consciences. Instead of adultery, for example, we call it “an affair” or “an indiscretion.” Instead of stealing we call it “borrowing,” and we change idolatry to “passion” or refer to ourselves as “huge fans” rather than worshippers.
That is why it is good, right, and necessary to evaluate ourselves and our actions through God’s eyes, viewing our lives against the backdrop of God’s Holy Word and will. We do so today on the basis of Paul’s familiar and supremely comforting words in this chapter of Romans. Here Paul outlines the struggle that rages within every Christian—the war between the “inner” or New Man and the sinful flesh, or Old Adam. If you are a Christian you are very familiar with this struggle. The battle is so remarkable because it is literally a civil war that takes place within each one of us. Part of every Christian wars against another part, daily, moment by moment.
The result, as Paul points out, is failure more often than not. You remember how Paul worded it: “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.” [v.15] Since Paul was a Christian he was speaking from the perspective of the New Man within him when he talked about desiring to do good. The sinful flesh never wants to do good of any kind. Any good that is accomplished is just a fortunate by-product of sin—as when a man donates to a charitable cause to make himself look good or to salve his conscience and his contribution actually accomplishes something good. God can make good come of even the most sinful and selfish acts.
While we take great comfort in the fact that even a Christian like Paul faced such struggles in life—and had to repent of constant failures—that is not the aspect of Paul’s words on which we focus today. We focus instead on these words: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” [v.24] We can even narrow the focus further, to just five words: “wretched man” and “body of death.” Why a focus there? Our theme, you will recall, revolves around the premise that the true Gospel involves risk. What, exactly, does that mean?
I first heard the term as a young man several decades ago and it came from an older pastor whom I greatly admired, and the term intrigued me. I remember asking him exactly what it meant and, as was his custom, he made me investigate further to see if I could come up with what it meant on my own. Eventually, I got there. “The Gospel involves risk” refers to the fact that we are always in danger of having the Old Adam treat the full forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ as a license to sin more. Like a kid with his rich uncle’s credit card, our sinful flesh will be tempted to run up the bill because someone else is paying.
Paul talked about this very thing in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)
What then exactly does this have to do with you and me today? Obviously, much in every way. Whenever I hear that the great Apostle Paul himself lost the battle with sin over and over again, it is difficult not to entertain feelings of inevitability. In other words, if Paul couldn’t do any better, what chance do I have?
Yet look again at Paul’s words. Not only did he honestly face his own failures and deficiencies, he saw them for what they were. Note especially that he didn’t refer to his sinful side as “playful” or “fun-loving” or “mischievous.” He recognized the evil as truly evil and he gave it a fitting label: “wretched!”
You and I need to take such stock regularly, and we pray God the Holy Spirit for the wisdom and honesty to do the job right. As the morals of the world around us continue to deteriorate, it becomes all the more critical to use the one and only source that God has given us as the standard to judge ourselves. Only the Bible, the sacred Word of God, can give us a true picture of what we ought to be like. Only God’s Word can provide us with an accurate standard to use when evaluating our own thoughts and actions. Against the backdrop of perfection, we will quickly see that our Old Adam is not just mischievous or fun-loving, it is wretched—a body of death and corruption. So we ought to loathe sin in our lives—all sin.
It is just here, at this point, that we often fail to apply these words to ourselves, even though we accept them as true. Yet God has given these words specifically so that we do apply them to ourselves individually. Only you can make such personal application for only you can see accurately and honestly into your own heart. It might mean recognizing every bit of gossip in your life as loathsome, every rebellion against authority, every lustful look, every prideful thought as hideously evil. It might mean coming to terms with your laziness, or your ridiculous waste of so much of your time of grace on earth. God might want you to recognize your obsession with your looks as the sin that it is, or the evil in your provocative style of clothing. He may want you to recognize that you love material possessions far too much, or to recognize that you love son or daughter more than God. Each and every sin God wants us to identify as “wretchedness” and our sinful bodies as “bodies of death.”
The very last thing God wants any of us to do is to take the failures of others as encouragement to accept and embrace sin in our lives.
Why is this so critical? Why make a big deal about just exactly how we regard every individual sin, especially the sin that has found a comfortable home in our hearts? The reason is Jesus Christ and His worth and value in our lives. What Jesus did for us is diminished or reduced every single time we fail to recognize the damning horror of every single sin. As soon as we downplay the evil of even one sin in our lives, God’s grace (the undeserved love of our Savior for sinners) is also reduced. It is too easy for us to imagine ourselves as lovable and worthy when we soften the wickedness that is within us, as it is far too easy to regard forgiveness as a license to sin more.
Jesus came to save that which was absolutely unlovable and without any redeeming qualities of any kind. Whenever we kid ourselves about our own corruption, we tend to develop an image of ourselves as sort of sweet and cuddly puppies abandoned by some cruel soul at the local pound. Oh, we chew on stuff and we tend to nip and whine a bit, but who couldn’t love such cuddly creatures? That’s hardly the reality of the thing, is it? Jesus Christ came to earth to win freedom for us from the filth and perversion that was ours. He did this by offering His flawless perfection to pay the debt of our perversion. When Jesus refused the offered assistance of twelve legions of angels and instead allowed Himself to be nailed to the cross, He was saying to his heavenly Father: “Place the full penalty and perversion of their guilt on Me, and credit my perfection to them. Make Me filthy. Wash them clean.”
Can you now understand how important it is for us to recognize the true nature of sin in our lives—to see it as the filth and corruption that it is? From time to time you and I lose sight of the reality of things. We tend to start loving this world and this shallow existence too much. We get too comfortable and we lose focus and direction. Always our God has to call us back. He has to remind us of just how bad things really are and thereby refocus our attention on the Life beyond this life. We are truly wretched men, women, and children, walking about in a body of death upon a wretched, sinful earth.
All of this would make for a supremely depressing outlook if our text did not end the way it does. Paul, upon accurately reflecting on the terrible nature of his sinful flesh, first asked the question that ought to be on our lips, and then answered it: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” [vv.24-25] The answer, of course, is that Jesus already has rescued us. Paul goes on to explain how he did it: “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. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin.” [vv.1-3] Note well that what we failed to do because we were too weak and sinful to keep the Law, God did for us by sending His own Son to keep the Law in our place.
This is purest, sweetest Gospel from the Holy Spirit through the pen of Paul. This message represents the very heart of the Christian faith and gives voice to the reason for the hope that is in us. Does it involve a risk? Not for the child of God who walks according to the new man. To us, sin has become loathsome.
God grant to each of us an honest confession of the nature of our sin and the extent to which it permeates our sinful flesh. But then also thrill to the realization that God has now freed us from all condemnation forever by the sacrifice of our Savior Jesus. No matter how black the sins of the past, “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16) In this there is no risk. 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.