Sermon on 11 September 2016 - Romans 7:1-6; 7-25
Pastor Don Pieper
In our sermon series, going through Paul's letter to the churches in Rome, Christopher explored with us last week Paul's themes of freedom and slavery as covered in Romans 6. He began with a few comments from our friends, Calvin & Hobbes, who actually have more to say on the subject...
Calvin: I can't believe summer is almost over. Soon school will start. No more freedom.
No more long days outside. No more fun.
Hobbes: Well, let's go make the most of the time we have left!
Calvin: Nah, I've reserved the rest of the month for moping.
Calvin's thoughts regarding the end of summer and returning to school relates to the common perception about obeying God's word – that it inhibits our fun and robs us of our freedom. But as Christopher shared last week obeying God's word actually expands our freedom not unlike obeying the rules of any given sport increases the fun of playing and limits the risk of injury...
Christopher pointed out that one cannot understand a chapter in the book of Romans without familiarizing oneself with the chapters that precede and follow it. The book has a flow to it and the themes that Paul writes about are revisited and enhanced as one precedes... Chapter 7, for example, is the midsection of a subsection that began in chapter five and concludes at the end of chapter 8.
Perhaps a quick overview might help. Romans is Paul's most comprehensive presentation of the gospel and the most systematic theological discourse found anywhere in Scripture. Where other letters present the milk for new believers here he provides us the meat.
Here Paul clarifies the significance of Christ's death and resurrection and the core concepts of the Christian faith: sin and grace, faith and spiritual fruit, justification and sanctification.
The letter begins with a kind of prologue, 17 verses long, that include his greeting, thanksgiving and reason for writing – to prepare them for his upcoming visit to them. He goes on to provide 1) a detailed description of the sinfulness of man (1:18-3:20); 2) an extensive discussion of justification by faith (3:21-5:11); 3) an elaborate exploration of sanctification (5:12-8:39), 4) an inspired correlation between the history of Israel and the calling of Christ's church (9:1-11:36); and 5) instruction on how believers are to live out their faith in relationship to society, the government and other believers (12:1-15:13); before concluding with his personal plans, greetings to specific individuals and blessings (Romans 15:14-16:27).
Because Paul writes to a mixed membership of those from Jewish and non-Jewish background he repeatedly clarifies such issues as salvation through faith, the power of the cross and the significance of the law, which he takes up again, for the third time, here in chapter seven. This is not only crucial for his ancient audience in Rome but for Christians down through the ages as our tendency is to slip in to thinking and believing that that our hope of salvation is based somehow on what we do or don't do.
Chapter seven, then, begins by returning to the rhetorical question he asked in the previous chapter: “Shall we continue to sin because we are free of the law under grace?” (Romans 6:15) And our survey says...? NO! Of course not. And to illustrate that truth he makes a comparison to marriage:
“For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband.” (Romans 7:2)
That is, if one partner dies, the other is no longer bound by the law and is free to marry someone else. The implication of this illustration would be that the law died as a way to get right, so the believer is free to “marry” grace.” Who is 'Grace' you may ask? The single men are wondering is she is cute...
No, not that grace – the grace of God. Paul's point is that in Christ the power of the law has died and as such those who place their trust in him, who are in a relationship with Jesus, are now free to marry God and bear fruit for him, for out of a marriage relationship comes children. Out of our intimate relationship with Christ comes the fruit of obedience and acts of loving kindness to others.
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, this is the point: you died to the power of the law when you gave your life to Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God, a harvest of good deeds that glorify God!” (Romans 7:4)
That's sanctification – a word that means how we work out our salvation, how we become more and more like the one we follow, or in a word, how we become holy, which is what the word means.
We become holy by bearing fruit and do this as we learn to serve God not out of compliance but out of thankfulness. Or as Paul so beautifully puts it: “Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new of living in the Spirit.” (Romans 7:6)
So ends chapter seven, section one. Section two, begins with yet another rhetorical question – Paul's favorite teaching tool: “Well, then, am I suggesting the law of God is sinful?” And our survey says...., (bing, bing, bing): “No! Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed my sin!”
Is the law of God a bad thing, he asks? Is the law, because some use it to hammer others they deem less godly over the head with it, bad in and of itself? No, because God gave us the law to reveal to our blind eyes and rationalizing minds, how far off from God we really are.
From the metaphors of freedom and slavery in chapter six, which Christopher so skillfully took us through, Paul now utilizes the metaphors of death and defeat as opposed to life and victory. And as he does so he personalizes it. For the first time in this letter he shifts to the personal pronoun, “I”...
“At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law's commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead.” (Romans 7:9-10)
Paul asserts here that the law reveals our desperate state – that we are far off from God, and the scriptures are clear that pernament separation from God is the definition of death. So even though “sin used the law to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me” (7:8) Paul still emphatically asserts that the law itself remains “holy and right and good”. (Romans 7:12)
How can that be? Ready for another biting rhetorical? “Did the law, which is good, cause my death?” And the survey says, (bing, bing, bing): “No, of course not! Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death! So we can see how terrible sin really is...!” (Romans 7:13)
There ends section 2! The law is inherently good because it reveals the truth! It reminds me of the classic story of Dorian Gray, a man puffed up with pride, who makes a deal with the devil for eternal youth and vitality, as long as he never looks at his painting....that reveals the truth about his soul
[DVD clip from the film, Extraordinary Gentlemen; ]
Section three continues Paul's self-disclosure and self-discovery: “So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, I am a slave to sin.”
There's that old slavery/freedom motif again. What I find particularly amazing about that verse is that Paul speaks in the present tense rather than in the past tense. As a believer and follower of Jesus shouldn't he have said that he was a slave to sin? But instead, he humbly declares, I am a slave to sin.
No words that Paul writes do I relate to more than those and the ones that follow. I am so very thankful that Paul wrote them. In them I see myself and the plight that so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ struggle with, at least those that are honest with themselves. Some Christians seem to have it all figured out. They talk about their struggles with sin in the past tense. That's not me...!
You see..., “I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15) I want to do God's good, but I don't.
In the world of Star Wars, I'm no Jedi. When told how to do what is right and good, I tend to respond, “Okay, I'll try”, to which the gerus in my life respond,'No, either do or do not, there is no try'.
But I keep trying..., and it's two steps forward and three steps back. Or in the words of Paul: “I want to do what is right, but I can't. I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway... I have discovered this principle of life – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God's law with all my heart, but there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is within me.”
Does this strike a chord with anyone else? Why is it that we who believe in Jesus, trust that he has conquered death and sin on our behalf on the cross, still so struggle with the old Adam within? If we are free to live new lives..., why do I, why do we, struggle so to do so? I do but I don't!
Maybe because there is something within us that fights to be in control, that refuses at all costs to submit to such moral scrutiny, as the law demands and provides? Maybe I'm more like a willful kid, a specific willful kid, one we know by the name of Calvin, then I'd like to admit...!
Calvin: Dear Santa, before I submit my life to your moral scrutiny, I demand to know who made you the master of my fate? Who are you to question my behavior, huh? What gives you the right?!
Hobbes: Santa makes the toys, so he gets to decide who to give them to.
Calvin: Oh..... Time to prepare my appellate case.
In other words, Calvin concludes, with a little help from a friend, his only hope is to make an appeal to the judge – or to use a familiar phrase, to throw himself on the mercy of the court! So it is for me...and for you! Romans 7 points clearly to the terminal state of our all-too-human condition. We will never be able to overcome our sinfulness merely by trying harder. Our only hope is to throw our-selves at the mercy of the court and thank goodness we have an advocate willing to take our case, who has in fact, already taken our case. And if we ask he will replace our taste for one more pringle, one more forbidden fruit, with the flavor of grace, and the fruit of righteousness that he alone can provide.
As Paul puts it: “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is Jesus Christ our Lord who brings victory... by showing us a new way of living by walking in the Spirit!” (Romans 7:24-25)
How so? Stay tuned...! That is the focus of Romans 8! In the mean time, let's pray...
Spending these past weeks in Romans has hopefully helped reveal just how well structured Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is. After spending a couple of weeks on Paul’s introductory words, we moved onto the apostle’s examination of sin. When he has pointed out our sin, Paul emphasizes our immense need for someone to save us. We are in a hole, totally bankrupt, and as a result we can newly appreciate God’s grace through Jesus Christ. We begin to recognize our value and identity as being a tremendous gift, which we cannot possibly earn through our own strength. As my dad explained last week, this gives us reason for joy in all circumstances. Who we are is not determined by our hardships, our failures, our comforts, or our triumphs. Who we are is decided totally and irrevocably by Jesus Christ.
The couple of times that I have been able to preach on Romans this summer, I have tried to unpack with my dad the gravity of this message to the Roman church. It is good news, but it is also wholly new and different news. There is no other religion in the world that tells you, “There is nothing you can do to establish yourself. All of that has been done for you already.” We are, so to speak, given gold medals before we even enter the pool (cf. 21 August’s sermon, “Gold Medals Before We Swim”). However, Paul is also keenly aware of the ethical problem this abundant grace seems to raise: “What will keep Christians in the pool? If they have received everything, what makes Jesus’ grace anything other than a cheap Get Out of Jail Free card?” In the words of some early converts, “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?” (Rom 6.1 NLT). In chapters five and six, Paul responds to these concerns by tying together three key concepts or themes.
Paul’s three themes are friendship, slavery, and freedom.
Paul begins with friendship, certainly aware that the idea of friendship is something that his Roman peers value. We still assign some value to friendship today, so Paul’s starting with friendship makes some sense to us, too, but Paul’s contemporaries gave friendship much more priority than we do today. In the modern-day West, we rarely consider it possible that friendship could be something as beautiful as or even more beautiful than our romantic relationships. The ancients thought that friendship possessed a superior beauty. C.S. Lewis once wrote, whereas “very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all … to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue” (“Friendship,” Lewis). Why? Lewis adds that the reason friendship is second priority to us and was first priority to the ancients is because it is the least natural love. It is a non-sexual, non-necessary relationship, and is therefore selfless in a way that all romantic and business connections are not.
Pastor Timothy Keller provides a helpful explanation, “If it weren’t for erotic [romantic] love, you wouldn’t exist; if it weren’t for family love, you wouldn’t have been reared; if it weren’t for neighbor [civic] love, you couldn’t even survive (crime, oppression, that sort of thing, [would wipe you out]). Therefore, in a busy culture like ours, where we’re working long hours or traveling, all the other loves, all the other relationships, will push themselves on you. … You still have to deal with your family; you still need civic relationships; you need vocational networking to get a job; you still want to have romance. But friendship, which takes incredibly deliberate amounts of intentionally spent time, over time, will always get squeezed out. And yet the book of Proverbs says you won’t make it without friends. Friendship love is unique” (“Friendship,” Proverbs: True Wisdom for Living, Timothy Keller). Keller is talking about friendship by delving into the context of the Proverbs, but I think that his description of the remarkable non-necessity of friendship will be helpful to us as we look at what Paul writes, too. Remember this: Keller and Lewis are saying that friendship is “chosen” in a unique sense, which no other love quite replicates. True friendship has the beauty of being fully chosen, without prior need of the other person.
Let’s return to Romans, where Paul brings up friendship himself. We saw it last week, when we read through Romans 5, so we are going to review some of that. Paul writes, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God” (Rom 5.6-11 emphasis added).
Have you ever wondered why Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15.13). I have always stumbled over that passage a bit. I have thought, “What? That makes no sense. It would make way more sense to say that someone who laid down his or her life for their enemies showed the greatest love.” Right? [Because that’s what Jesus did.] If you are asking that question, you are so close. Paul explains it here. Jesus lay down his life for us “while we were still his enemies” and thereby restored our friendship with God (Rom 5.10). Jesus proved and restored friendship with us when he died for us. The man or woman who lays down his or her life for an enemy proves that they are no longer their enemy but a friend. Jesus did that for you. That is the gift—God’s friendship—that Jesus freely gives you.
But that is not the end of the story, for if we were satisfied with reception of the gift—his friendliness—being the end of the story, we would not have understood. Who is really a friend, if he or she feels that the friendship should conclude where it began? Nobody. The joy and the gift of friendship is in the journey that the two of you participate in together. This is where I think Keller’s words about friendship are most helpful to us. Jesus has chosen us for friendship first. That is the bottom line. Still, friendship is meant to be two-sided. It is chosen by both members of the friendship, even if one person is the initiate. That is why Jesus, immediately after saying, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” adds, “If you are my friends, you will obey my commands” (Jn 15.14). There is no one without the other. If we accept the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf, then we accept his friendship. No one in their right mind receives a priceless gift and never makes use of it. If we accept Jesus’ friendship (his gift), we will walk with him, live with him, follow him.
Friends are not, according to Jesus and Paul, independent or free from one another. Friends are connected. You might say, they are chained together. This is how Paul’s second and third themes come to the fore: slavery and freedom. Paul will not allow you to get through this chapter without being provoked by his metaphor of slavery. “Because of the weakness of your human nature,” he writes, “I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy” (Rom 6.19). Be challenged by those words. Do not miss their implication. Paul moves from the concept of friendship with Christ into slavery under Christ seamlessly, and that challenges the foundational principals of most Americans.
[Images evoking the idea of freedom, ending with the Statue of Liberty]
Don’t “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence). We want freedom, not slavery. Paul knows that, and he therefore has to be as blunt about this truth—another mind-blowing paradox—as he can be: there is no freedom [in the biblical salvific sense] without slavery. We are so fixated on the idea of absolute or “total” liberty in America that this is one of the hardest lessons Paul has for us, but it is wholly biblical. Paul tells us that our freedom from sin comes through friendship with Christ: “For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. … So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Rom 6.7, 11 emphasis added). He then reminds us that friendship to Christ is a life of obedience: “give yourself completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (v 12 emphasis added). And, finally, he tells us that obedience is slavery: “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living” (v 16 emphasis added). In summary: freedom from sin is friendship with Christ; friendship with Christ is obedience to Christ; obedience to Christ is slavery to Christ/righteousness.
I know it sounds complicated, and I will try to make it clearer. [If A=B and B=C, then A=C. Freedom = Friendship = Obedience = Slavery.]
We are so obsessed with the idea of having our rights and having “total” freedom—that is, the ability to do whatever we like. But Paul wants you take very seriously the danger of sin. The following is what “total” freedom leads to according to Paul: “total” freedom (to sin, too) is friendship with all that the world offers; friendship or intimacy with all the world offers is obedience to sin (because we then engage in sin, too); obedience to sin is slavery to death (we will die if we sin). Paul points out our slavery to or friendship with sin and reveals where that relationship leads (“You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom” [v 21]), so that we can recognize the friendship with and slavery to Christ in all its goodness: “But now you are free [freedom] from the power of sin and have become slaves [slavery] of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life [obedience]. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord [friendship]” (vv 22-23).
Paul is concluding that there is a certain form of boundedness, instead of boundlessness, that is the real, human expression of freedom. Many of us know this from our own experience. We have expressed our “total” freedom through parties, alcohol, sexual looseness, drugs. In the end, we are attached to, we are friends with, we are slaves to those activities instead of the life God calls us to. Romans 5 and 6 remind us, God is infinite. We are finite. Rejecting that truth is the first human mistake recorded in the Bible. Adam and Eve were convinced that they could be like God, but closeness to God and likeness to God had already been given to them. All they had to do was walk with him in the Garden. All they had to do was respond to God’s friendship. Today, through the cross on which Jesus died and the new life he has prepared for you, you are given the opportunity to walk with your Father again. You are allowed to recognize your need for him, and you ought not to be ashamed at that need. You were made for him. You were made for dependence. You were made for friendship with God, and he is offering that to you through his son, Jesus. You were made for obedience, not because obedience makes you less, rather because obedience makes you more: more free, more alive, more of who you really are and were created to be.
To close, I want to read part of Psalm 27, in which David rejoices in God’s provision. He realizes it is everything he needs. We get to sense that David cannot stay away from the Temple of God. Why? God means everything to him! Coming to the Temple is a sign of friendship, just as it is a sign of obedience. In the same way, the Christian life is one of friendship, as well as obedience. David rejoices in everything that God is. God is both friend and king. I pray for you that you may rejoice in everything that God is for you, too. He is so much more than you previously imagined. And his love is reaching from heaven to you through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the gracious gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.