Pentecost 4 June 28, 2020
279, 295, 328, 355
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
The human body is an amazing thing. It is a combination of mechanics, electricity, plumbing, filtration, immunization, and heating and cooling. Most of the things that the human body does, it does involuntarily; we don’t have to think about it to make it happen, it just happens—like breathing, heart beating, healing, etc. Even the actions that are voluntary require very little thinking. For example, the words you are reading take some thought process, but you aren’t really thinking about making your eyes move back and forth and up and down across the page.
Yet, imagine that voluntary control suddenly gone, as happens to people who are paralyzed. How frustrating that must be to lose all control so that you can’t do something as simple as pick up a fork to eat. It doesn’t matter how much you think about it, your body simply will not respond, it will not obey.
Such a tragedy only partially describes the reality we Christians live in. It is one thing to have one’s body not do what one tells it to do; it is quite another thing to realize that our body is actually obedient to something altogether different. This is the dilemma that we experience day by day and it is frustrating. We want to do what is right, but we end up doing what is wrong. We want to live holy lives, but we end up sinning. It is this dilemma that is addressed in our text for today from Romans 7:14-25:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
These words touch a nerve in all Christians. It’s almost as if Paul had a telescope that not only could look across the globe but across two thousand years of time to peer into our lives and into our very souls. Except, Paul isn’t talking about us, is he? He’s talking about himself. He’s talking about what he himself experienced in his life as a believer in Christ—a desire to do good, but no ability to carry it out.
There are many who believe that what Paul is describing in these verses is his life before he became a Christian. They want so much to believe that they can offer God something in return for His gift of salvation that they completely ignore the fact that Paul uses present tense verbs and that he speaks of delighting in the Law of God in his inner being. No unbeliever can delight in the Law of God in his inner being, for the natural man is at enmity against God. No unbeliever experiences this struggle that Paul describes in our text. An unbeliever certainly does experience guilt and remorse for committing certain sins, but it is not the same guilt and remorse that a believer in Christ experiences because the believer in Christ sins even though he actually delights in the Law of God. We recognize God’s Law to be true and good, that it speaks not just to our actions but to our very being. Yet, we sin against it daily.
It is at this point that many people go astray and make shipwreck of their faith in Jesus in one of two ways. On the one hand, having believed that Jesus saved them from their sins, they become consumed with a life of “good works” to prove that they really are “saved.” Their good works become the focus of their faith which. We should, of course, always be looking to do good by helping those in need, being kind and considerate, being respectful of those in authority over us, but the focus of the Christian should always be Christ and His cross because He, not our works, is the source of our salvation. On the other hand, many Christians, being honest with themselves, find a rather large absence of good works in their lives and begin doubting their faith altogether. The problem here is really the same as the other—good works are not the focus of our faith.
The real underlying problem is a misunderstanding of the very Law of God in which we delight. That we do, according to the new man, delight in the Law of God, does not change the scope and purpose of God’s Law. The purpose of God’s Law is to expose our sin and to show us our great need to be delivered from it. It is spiritual, but we are “carnal, sold under sin,” even after becoming Christians. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that the Old Adam ceases to exist; rather it means that a new creature, a new man, is brought forth within us. It is this new man that delights in the Law of God, but the Old Adam continues to be completely corrupt and dominated by sin. So, on the one hand, there is this new man in us that delights in God’s Law; but on the other hand, the Old Adam continues to sin. There is no point during this lifetime that any of us will ever be able to say, “Finally, I made it through one day without sinning.” On the contrary, the more we live in the new man, the more we will see how deeply sin infects and ruins our every attempt to do good.
“What’s the point of it all, then?” we ask in frustration. If we can’t escape sin, if we can’t sin less and do good more, why even bother with coming to church? Why bother instructing our children in Christian doctrine? Why bring them to be baptized and why train them to examine themselves for the Lord’s Supper? If we and they are only going to keep on sinning, isn’t our religion then a false religion and aren’t we then hypocrites?
That’s Law-based reasoning and it is the very underlying problem that we spoke about a few minutes ago. It completely misses the point of the Law, which is to expose our sin and show us our need to be delivered from sin. It’s purpose is to drive us to despair of any hope of standing before God on the basis of our good works and to lead us to cry out with Paul, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Now, listen to the Law of God. What answer does it give you? Listen closely. Do you hear the answer? No! The Law of God does not answer this question. Paul turns our attention instead to the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! With these words the apostle does not look to the future as his question does, but looks to the past, to the historical suffering and death of the holy Son of God upon the cross. His question is “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” and his answer is, “God has delivered me through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The sins that we commit against God’s Law have all been atoned for by Jesus when He bled and died on the hill outside of Jerusalem. That is the foundation of our faith. That is when we were delivered.
Now, we go back to those questions that we asked a moment ago… What’s the point of it all, then? Why even bother coming to church? Why bother instructing our children in Christian doctrine? Why bring them to be baptized and why train them to examine themselves for the Lord’s Supper? Why do these things if we aren’t going to quit sinning? We do these things because through these means of grace our God points us back to how He delivered us from our bodies of death. These things are not about showing us how to be more holy, but do convey to us that, in spite of our daily sins, we have been declared to be holy in the sight of God through Christ Jesus. Far from being a reason to despise God’s Word and Sacraments, the knowledge of our sin and of our inability to do the good we desire to do should drive us all the more to them. In these means of grace our God connects us to and assures us of the deliverance He provided for us by offering up His Son for our sin.
When you confess your faith in the words of the three Christian Creeds, you are being reminded of your Baptism into the name of the Triune God who buried you with Christ and are now risen to newness of life with Him. When you eat and drink the Lord’s body and blood in Holy Communion you will be reminded and assured that the sacrifice that takes away your sin is already complete. Even now, in this Gospel meditation God is declaring to you, the ones who do not do the good you want, but the evil you do not want is what you keep on doing, that you have been delivered from your body of death. God has provided a righteousness we cannot produce by ourselves. On the last day, you will, through faith in Christ, see the fullness of that deliverance.
In the mean time, continue delighting in the Law of God, for the new man can not do otherwise. Use that Law of God to batter and bruise your Old Man every time he sins, only do not build your faith upon it. Use it to remind yourself of what sin has done to you. And, yes, use it to guide you in your struggle to live as a child of God. Only, don’t let it become your focus. You are delivered from the death of hell, not because you do good, not even because you desire to do good; but you are delivered by God through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN!
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.