Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sermon on Romans 7:15-25a "Saint and Sinner"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The sermon text is Romans 7:15-25a,

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!

In our Christian lives, it’s often easy to become disheartened or discouraged as we examine our lives. We feel deeply grateful for the forgiveness of our sins that Christ has given, and we desire to do better to show our gratitude. But as we look over our lives, and see the struggles against sin that we so often are mired in, we begin to despair, and wonder if God is really at work in our lives. It seems as though things aren’t changing sometimes. We expect more ‘progress.’ We find ourselves ‘stuck in a rut.’ Or perhaps we seem to have gotten past one particular sin, and then it returns on us and we feel defeated. And then there are some sins that we know and hate, but we can never seem to conquer them. No matter how hard we try to resist one or another sin, it always seems that somehow we cave in to temptation. And we are left spiritually and mentally exhausted. Does this sound familiar?

Dear Christians there is a reason for all of this, and its not because your Christian life (i.e. your sanctification) is failing, or that God isn’t helping you. In fact, part of the problem is the very mindset that looks at it that way. When we expect that kind of constant upward progress, defeating our pet sins one by one, inching ever closer to the so-called ‘victorious Christian life’—we are setting ourselves up for either hypocrisy or great disappointment like I’ve just described. You see, God has in fact set us apart for holy living—that is what the word ‘sanctification’ means—set apart to be holy. And God has prepared good works for us to do, He does desire for us to turn away from our old sins and walk anew in Him. But what He hasn’t done is to set us free from the Law in Christ, only to put us back under it again with new and higher demands! And God doesn’t promise a so-called ‘victorious Christian life’ here on earth where we will have risen to higher and higher levels of perfection and defeat of sin. But why, you might ask, do I say that having such an expectation of our Christian life will lead either to hypocrisy or disappointment? The answer is twofold. The first possibility is that by creating such a false standard (not given by God), and then expecting to meet it, this will cause us to become convinced that we have kept it (in which case we become hypocrites, for none of us can say we have no sin). Or the second possibility, if we are honest with ourselves and see our sin, is that this will produce despair as we realize we are not conquering our sins and/or rising to higher and higher levels of holiness, and therefore have not met the false standard. So put away your measuring stick! Really! This way of looking at your Christian life is not Biblical, and therefore is not spiritually healthy or productive.

So instead, when we look at our life honestly, we see it as St. Paul describes in today’s text. Rather than finding ourselves victoriously free from sinful thoughts, desires, and actions, we still find these things woefully present within us. Sometimes we lift up our hands in frustration and say with St. Paul, “I do not understand what I do! For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do!” And the tongue twister goes on! Despite our desire to do good, so often we find ourselves doing just the opposite. But in doing so—in doing what we hate—we recognize with St. Paul that God’s Law is indeed good. For both by desiring what is good and hating what is evil, we are in a small way acknowledging the objective standard of God’s Law being the determiner of what is good. Even if we find ourselves unable to do the good like we want to.

So we find a great disparity within us between our desire to do good, and the actual action of doing good. As reborn believers in Christ we have that desire to seek and obey God’s commands, but it doesn’t always turn out to be that easy, as I think you can all testify from experience. The sin dwelling in us, in our flesh, proves to be a great and compelling force still active in our bodily members to produce sinful desires and actions. Even though we know in our mind and heart what is good, we still find it so easy to put the members of our body to evil work. Our tongue is a restless evil, from which so easily we can pour out words of spite, hatred, or slander. Our hands can so easily take what is not ours or even be turned into weapons to hurt another person. Our eyes are so easily lead astray to lust after what is not ours. Our feet can easily lead us to places where temptations are sure to defeat us. And above all, our mind is susceptible to all sorts of evil thoughts such as greed, jealously, lust, hatred, etc. And so with seriousness and sadness, we confess with St. Paul that “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is in my sinful nature.”

It really is as Paul describes: a war or fierce battle within us. Through our rebirth by baptism into Christ, we have entered into the great spiritual warfare between good and evil. When we want to do good, evil is right there at hand with us, coaxing us or even driving us to sin! As reborn, we delight in God’s Law, His just commands; but we find a contrary ‘law’ at work in us in the members of our body. This contrary ‘law’ Paul calls the ‘law of sin,’ which wages war against the law of God. The battlefield is drawn and the war is raging, and the battlefield is in us! In our flesh! And with our eyes opened by God’s Word to see this battle taking place, we become aware of the great power of sin in our lives—the power Paul calls the ‘law of sin’ waging war against the ‘law of God’ or the ‘law of my mind’, which is the desire we have to do good. Awakened to this spiritual conflict within us we see why the false expectations of a ‘victorious Christian life’ are unreal. We realize that we can’t underestimate the power of sin that still dwells in our flesh. Because that power of sin can lure us into the false security of an illusioned victory over sin like I described before: falsely thinking ourselves to have defeated sin. Or on the other hand, that power of sin can lead us to despair of God’s grace when we find ourselves locked in this constant combat against sin.
But St. Paul would also have us learn and believe that this battle can’t be won by denying that sin is our real problem, or by self-reliance. If we rely on ourselves to win the battles, we have already lost! The very law of sin at work in our members makes us a prisoner of that law of sin in our flesh. And where else is it easier to fall into despair than in the prison of our own sinful desires? Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? All our failures and desperation are wrapped up into this great cry for help. We’ve come to the point of realizing that our own efforts are helpless, and that only rescue from outside can save us. Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! He will deliver us from this body of death!
Jesus Christ waged the ultimate war against the power of sin, and its fruit: death, when He died on the cross. For there on the cross all the weapons of sin and Satan were shattered with a deafening blow as Christ spoke those conquering words of victory as He breathed His last, “It is finished!” And back He came from death after three days of rest to rise as the invincible conquering hero, the immortal Son of God! And now all that remains is the clean-up work and the gathering of the human harvest of those who were once enemies of God, to make them believers in Jesus our Savior. And since the sinful flesh that we were born with still lives alongside our new redeemed, reborn inner man until our earthly body dies—we still face that ongoing struggle or warfare within us. But by the Word of God we know enough not to fight on our own. No, instead, having been drafted by the Holy Spirit into God’s army, we wage war against our own sinful flesh by the weapons and powers of almighty God!

As we daily enter this battle with our sinful flesh, we take up God’s weapons against our sinful nature. One of these weapons is repentance, which is a powerful attack against the flesh. In repentance we acknowledge and expose our sin, calling on Jesus Christ to forgive our sin—which He of course delights to do. He crucifies our old sinful flesh with Him on the cross through our Baptism, and raises us new and alive, enlivened by His grace and the Holy Spirit to “suppress the old man so that the new [man] may come forth and grow strong” (LC, Baptism 75-77). So our daily repentance is really a return to our Baptism, the great weapon by which our old sinful desires are crucified with Christ, and the new man is raised again to be set apart as holy to God, which again, is the sanctification I talked about earlier. And through Baptism we set out to do good works not alone, by ourselves, but with Christ living in us. Through our baptism Christ not only takes away our sins, but also lives and moves in us to seek and do the righteous deeds of God’s Law that we delight in by our inner being. So that we can say with St. Paul that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). And no matter how much it may seem to us that we are not succeeding or progressing in the battle against sin, Christ has not abandoned us, and we can continue to return in repentance for our sins, to be restored by His forgiveness, available through His Word, through our Baptism, and through the Lord’s Supper. We are literally surrounded on all sides by forgiveness! Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord for delivering us from this body of death! So as often as we find ourselves besieged by sin in our lives, and in fact even when we are not aware of the sins that we are doing, we should constantly repent and seek God’s everflowing forgiveness through Word and Sacrament. And so doing, by repentance and Christ’s forgiveness, our sinful nature is attacked, weakened, and put into check, so that Christ can produce good works in us. This is the realistic view of our Christian life, shown by the words of St. Paul in today’s text—a battle against our own sinful flesh, but the promised victory in Christ Jesus!

Now may the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

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