An Encouraging Word

We have just finished the season of class reunions.  It seems to me that there are different responses to these reunions.  Most people who go to their reunions do so to meet up with old friends.  There are some who return because they were popular in High School and hope to being popular again . . if only for a day.  Some hope to rekindle a childhood romance.  Some want to show others that they exceeded everyone’s expectations.

There are others who dread their class reunions.  For them it is a painful time.  They don’t want to hear how “great” everyone is doing.  These testimonials only make them more aware of their own struggle.  Some of these people haven’t achieved what everyone expected.  Some have gone through difficult and painful times.  For these folks, their reunion just adds to their misery.

Too often, when we come to worship, talk to our friends, or even read the Bible, we feel like this later group of people.  We hear about the standards we should achieve, the victory we should know, and the abounding joy that is supposed to be part of our regular experience.  It sounds sometimes like everyone has it “together” except us.

This is why I love Romans 7:14-25.  In these words most of us find our own experience.  So, this morning we hope for an encouraging word.

WHO IS PAUL TALKING ABOUT?

This is a controversial passage because Paul’s words seem so different from the words of victory and holiness he has been giving us in chapter six and the first part of seven.  In chapter six he told us that we must choose whether we will be slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness.  In the beginning of chapter seven he reminded us that we died to the Law so it no longer has any power over us.

The verses before us don’t seem to fit.  Paul tells us that he is “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” (v. 14).  In verse 17 he says, “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”  He repeats that phrase in verses 18, 20, and 23.  What gives? Who is the person Paul is describing in these verses?  There are three generally accepted possibilities.

There are those who believe Paul is talking about his pre-conversion life.  In other words, Paul is talking about the way he used to be before he became a follower of Jesus.  He wanted to do the right thing but was powerless to do so.

However, an interesting thing happens in the text.  Paul changes his tense.  In the first part of the chapter he spoke in the past tense.  In this part he speaks in the present tense.  Why would he change the tense if he was talking about a past time in his life?  But there is more.  Paul says he recognizes his sin, he loves the Law, he wants to do what is right, he longs for deliverance.  In Romans 1-3 we are told that the non-believer thinks he is doing fine on his own.  He does not love the Law but actually hates it.  Paul is not talking like an unbeliever.

There are others who believe Paul is talking a time when he was an uncommitted Christian. The idea is that Paul remembered when he was “saved” but wasn’t truly following the Lord.  He received Christ as Savior but not as Lord.  I have trouble with this view also.  There is no indication that there was ever such a time in Paul’s life.  The Bible never implies that a person can be a believer yet not be trusting Christ as Lord of their life.  If you are not trusting Jesus as the Lord, you aren’t trusting Him as Savior either.  He is both Savior and Lord; He is not divided.

The third possibility is that Paul is actually talking about his present experience.  This is the most natural because of the change in tense and the personal pronouns.  To me the most compelling reason to believe the text is about Paul’s present experience is because it so perfectly describes my own experience!

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE

So, how do we explain how this can be true of an unbeliever?  Paul wants us to understand that even though we are set free from the condemnation of the Law and even though sin has no power over us, there is still a battle going on between the good we want to do and the evil that seems to come so naturally.  Remember those cartoons that showed a person who was going through a dilemma.  On the one shoulder was an angel, on the other, a devil.  Both the angel and devil would make their arguments trying to move the person in their direction.  That’s the way we often feel.

On the one hand we are learning to develop an appetite for the things of God. We understand our own sinfulness, we are amazed by His grace, and we are learning that God is trustworthy.  There is a part of us that wants to serve Him fully.  We know that His way is the best way.

On the other hard, the sin instinct is very strong.  Have you ever tried to change something in your life?  Perhaps you tried to quit smoking, or snacking during the day.  Maybe you have tried to stop saying, “you know” or tried to become more outgoing.  Perhaps you have tried to stop complaining.  If so, you realize how difficult it is to make such changes.  These habits are things we do without thinking.  They are instinctual.  Sin and rebellion is like that.

To be holy we not only have to change one or two things, we have to change everything.  God calls us to think differently, to view others differently, and to respond differently.  Holiness calls us to act with a new heart.  God is asking us to change EVERY sinful bent in our lives.  No wonder there is a battle.

The irony is, that the more you grow in your faith, the more aware you become of the struggle.  You see your own sinful nature more clearly while at the same time seeing the standard of holiness more clearly revealed in God’s Word.  If you are NOT in the midst of the kind of struggle Paul describes, you need to ask why? Are you ignoring God’s standards or are you ignoring your sin?

TWO VALUABLE LESSONS

Paul shares his struggle not only to encourage us, but also to instruct us.  There are a couple of key lessons for us.

First, this passage reminds us that we can do nothing in our own strength.  Paul is not saying that it is impossible for us to live a holy life.  He is saying that it is impossible for us to do it by ourselves.  Jesus told his disciples, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15: 3,4]

Think about it this way:  I may look at a wonderful landscape and want to capture it in a painting.  I may have the paints, the canvas and the brushes.  But, no matter how deep my desire, I won’t be able to capture the scene because I don’t have the ability. My only hope is to have an artist guide my hand as I draw and teach me about perspective, color, and shadows.

We want to live a Holy life but we don’t have the ability.  We need the help of God’s Spirit.  In Romans chapter 8 Paul is going to talk more about the power of God’s Spirit and how to get His help in our struggle.

Our task is not to muster up more of our strength.  The task is to draw more fully upon His strength. When a child learns to swim they have to learn to stop fighting the water.  Instead of getting into the water and tensing up and flailing around you need to learn to relax and let the buoyancy of the water work with you.  In a similar way, we must learn to let God’s Spirit lead the way.  It’s not easy to learn but it is the goal we seek.

Second, this passage is a reminder about God’s great love.  Day after day we see ourselves stumble and fall.

  • We know we should not speak those negative words, but we do.
  • We know we should not respond in anger, but we do.
  • We know we should share the gospel message but we don’t
  • We know we should not entertain lustful thoughts but they still fill our mind
  • We know we should address a problem but we don’t
  • We know we should do some act of service and compassion but we don’t

We are haunted by our repeated sins.  We stumble, feel bad, ask for forgiveness, and then we fail again.  It happens to all of us.  In fact it seems to happen so often that it’s easy to begin to wonder if we really belong to Him.

Max Lucado has written,

First of all, remember your position—you are a child of God. Some interpret the presence of the battle as the abandonment of God. Their logic goes something like this: “I am a Christian. My desires, however, are anything but Christian. No child of God would have these battles. I must be an orphan. God may have given me a place back then, but he has no place for me now.”

That’s Satan sowing those seeds of shame. If he can’t seduce you with your sin, he’ll let you sink in your guilt. Nothing pleases him more than for you to cower in the corner, embarrassed that you’re still dealing with some old habit. “God’s tired of your struggles,” he whispers. “Your father is weary of your petitions for forgiveness,” he lies.

And many believe him, spending years convinced that they are disqualified from the kingdom. Can I go to the well of grace too many times? I don’t deserve to ask for forgiveness again.

Forgive my abrupt response, but who told you that you deserved forgiveness the first time? When you came to Christ did he know every sin you’d committed up until that point? Yes. Did Christ know every sin you would commit in the future? Yes, he knew that too. So Jesus saved you, knowing all the sins you would ever commit until the end of your life? Yes. You mean he is willing to call you his child even though he knows each and every mistake of your past and future? Yes.

Sounds to me like God has already proven his point. If your sin were too great for his grace, he never would have saved you in the first place. Your temptation isn’t late-breaking news in heaven. Your sin doesn’t surprise God. He saw it coming. Is there any reason to think that the One who received you the first time won’t receive you every time?[1]

It is encouraging that Paul begins chapter 8 with these glorious words, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

Is this an excuse for sin?   Not in any way.  This is a motivation for worship.  God is more patient with me, than I am.  He is more committed to my growth, than I am.  He is using the difficult times to teach how to trust Him more fully.

CONCLUSIONS

Let me give you three things we should do in light of this.  First, we need to be honest about our struggle.  There is too much pretending going on.  We act like we have it “all together” but we are lying.  Christians struggle in their marriage, with finances, and with their children.  Christians get overwhelmed by trials and sometimes are filled with doubt.

We need to be honest.  When we aren’t honest about our struggles, we become hypocrites.  We have to stay isolated because we can’t let anyone get too close, lest they see our flaws.  Somehow we think we are the only ones who struggle.  We aren’t.

We also need to be honest because when we aren’t honest we become a barrier for others who are outside of the faith. They see our hypocrisy and turn away or they come to the Savior and then get discouraged because they struggle.  They conclude, “Christianity doesn’t work.”  The truth is, we didn’t tell them the truth about the cost of following Christ.

The one comment I get more than any other is this, “Thank you for admitting that you struggle.”  I am saddened that this is such a revelation to people.  We need to be honest about the fact that struggling does not mean you are a deficient believer . . .it means you are in the process of growth.

Second, we need to spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Why is there a homefield advantage for sports teams?  The advantage is there because of the fans.  The encouragement from the stands helps the team do its best.

We need to help each other.  We can help each other up when we fall (and we will).  Some will fall hard and far, some will only stumble and scrape their knee but either way, we need someone to help us get up.  It is unfortunate that too often it seems that when a believer falls other believers immediately gather around and start trying to bury him!  That is not helpful!  We need to help each other get back on the road once again.

We can help each other avoid sin in our lives.  We need people who will help us see the pitfalls before we fall in.  If someone says to you, “Who are you to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do?”   The best response is, “I am your friend and brother or sister in Christ, that’s who!”

Finally, we must spend much time with the Lord.  Here’s the struggle isn’t it.  We know we need to spend much time in His presence yet we seem to so easily be distracted.  We know we need to pray, but when we try to do so, our mind wanders.  We know we need to read the Word, but so often, when we do, we find ourselves merely turning pages.

The Devil will not give up without a fight.  Neither should we. Though we struggle, we must keep trying.  Though prayer seems awkward and forced, we must continue to pursue intimacy with God through prayer.  Though we find ourselves reading sometimes without understanding we must keep reading and putting ourselves in positions where we can learn.  Though worship at times seems inconvenient, we must continue to set aside time for the Lord.  We must continue to move forward in the confidence that God will continue His work in us.

It may seem to that Paul’s words in Romans 7:14-25 are out of place. But I hope that you have come to see, like I have, that these words are perfectly timed and wonderfully encouraging.