Well, it is good to be back! I’ve never taken an extended vacation, but I’m really thankful for this church allowing us to do that after a particularly busy year. I will say that we all really missed being here at OGC with you. I said this at Family Night, but it was sweet to worship at our former church in Mississippi, but as I was worshiping there, with so many dear friends, I really missed being here. Although my kids said that they liked the other preachers because they didn’t preach as long as I do. I’ll work on that kids. But, I’m thankful to be back.
If you’ve been with us this summer, you know that we are walking through Paul’s letter to the Romans at a slightly higher altitude than you normally hear Roman’s taught. You also know that Paul is looking for a new sending church as he looks to take the gospel to Spain and the church in Rome is his ideal home base. But the church in Rome has a major problem. They are divided. They are divided into two groups: gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. You can go back and listen to the first sermon in this series to understand how this happened, but basically you have the Jewish Christians who are happy for the gentiles to be there just as long as they understand who’s in charge and where they stand in the pecking order. You see, the Jewish Christians had the law, they were the original people of God and these gentile Christians, and in their view, these gentile Christians needed to understand that.
Now, so we don’t lose the forest for the trees here. Keep in mind what Paul is doing. He’s using the gospel to try and show that we are all on a level playing field. No ethnic group is higher than another. Not even the Jews who had the very law of God. That’s how he’s working to heal this division. All are equal in Christ. All need the same amount of grace. And in chapters five, six, and seven, he’s identifying the three major barriers between us and God. In chapter five the barrier was Adam who introduced sin into the world. In chapter six, the barrier is sin itself. Then, in chapter seven, the barrier… is the law. The law the Jews use to prop themselves up. Keep that in your mind. Three major barriers and we are going to see the second two this morning. The barrier of sin and the barrier of the law.
Think about it his way. My oldest now has his learner’s permit and he can drive with an adult. And I don’t want to micromanage him and crush is excited spirit, but I’m constantly telling him things like watch out for that kid, don’t hit that curb, don’t change lanes in the middle of an intersection, don’t roll through a stop sign…to which he said, “You do that at all the time, Dad!” You have to drive for 20 years to gain that privilege. But, my goal is to help him to drive safely on the road so that he can, one day, have the freedom that comes with safe driving. In a similar way, Paul, in this passage, is setting up a road that leads to freedom and life and on either side of that road are two ditches that lead to death.
The ditch on one side is sin and the ditch on the other is the law. So, I want to look at each ditch that leads to death and how the road to life creates true freedom.
- The sin ditch
As Paul does all throughout this letter, he’s anticipating an objection from his audience. And the objection here is this. If we have grace, why not just sin? Why not have your cake and eat it too? If we have been saved by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, why not drink excessively? Why not continue in sexual immorality? Why not continue in unethical business practices? Jesus covered all that, right?
And here is where Paul brings in the metaphor of slavery. Scholars disagree as to how shocking this would have been to the original audience. Personally, I don’t think it would have been terribly shocking because they were surrounded by indentured servanthood. If someone got into a debt that they couldn’t get out of, they would voluntarily become someone else's slave for five or ten years, work off their debt, and earn their freedom. I think this is what Paul has in mind because he uses the phrase ‘offer yourselves.’ It feels like indentured servanthood, not race based kidnapping like American chattel slavery..
But, even though it’s the person’s choice to do this, these slave owners had complete control over them. Some slave owners were good and that would set them on a path to freedom and others were bad and that would set them down a bad path and maybe even a path toward death.
Paul is saying that we are going to be slaves to something. All of us. And sin is a terrible slave owner. Sin doesn’t care about us and serving it will not bring us the freedom we desire. All of us have pursuits that define us, that give us our significance, and to those things we become slaves. If our wealth defines us, we can then be slaves of greed. If our physical appearance defines us, we can be slaves to pride. If our sexual pursuits define us, we can be slaves to lust. If our politics define us we can be slaves to either power or fear. We become slaves because none of those pursuits will give us what we really need so we have to give ourselves to them increasingly more. And, they will lead us to make very self-destructive decisions. We think we are in control, but when we pursue sin, it is the slavemaster with the whip.
They will isolate us in this life as we become increasingly alienated from other people and they will lead to death because we will die in our sin and face God in that sinful state. This is why Paul very famously says the wages of sin is death. That’s what we earn. Now, even though that verse is often used in gospel presentations to unbelievers, we have to keep in mind that Paul is writing this to a church. He’s asking them, “Why, after being set free from the power of sin, would you want to submit yourselves to it again? It’s completely out of line with the new life of a believer. To be set free from the power of sin and then to ‘present yourself’ to it again is to enslave yourself once again. Makes you think of Psalm 26 11 Like ha dog that returns to his vomit is ia fool who repeats his folly. - Psalm 26:11
Have you ever heard of Stockholm syndrome? It’s when someone who is abducted or abused bonds with their captors and even begins to think that what they are doing is right. One of the more famous stories was Patty Hearst who was a 19 year old woman abducted by domestic terrorists and she began to identify with their cause robbing banks and engaging in shootouts. She was captured and at her trial said it was like she was brainwashed. She couldn’t imagine why she was doing what she did. When people are rescued from Stockholm syndrome, they are said to be in a trance-like state where the concepts of right and wrong are so muddled that captivity strangely becomes comforting.
I think that is a perfect example of what sin does to us. It blinds us to the freedom that we could have in Christ because we submit ourselves again and again to our former captive. Paul is saying that if sin is not in control anymore, it can no longer be the characteristic pattern of our lives. Does that mean that we won’t ever sin? No. We will. We will until the day we die, but the life of the believer is remorseful when we sin and we desire to fight that sin every day of our lives. We can sin, but not LIVE in that sin. If we use the idea of grace to excuse sin instead of fight it, we may not have grace. That’s the ditch on one side of the road and that ditch leads to death.
The lie that our culture so often tells us is that true freedom lies in doing whatever we want. No. That’s the Stockholm syndrome. That’s the brainwashing. That way of life will only bring us strife, corruption, and death. Paul says in this passage that our answer is that we need to find another owner, another slave master. One who will love us and set us free. That slave master, according to Paul, is righteousness. That may sound jarring to think about being slaves to God, but this is why Paul says, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.”
Think about it like this. In Jesus, we are set free from sin’s hold on us and now we have become obedient in our heart to ‘the standard of teaching that we are committed.’ That’s another way of saying that the law has been written on our hearts. We had a heart of stone and we are given a heart of flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our desires will be in line with the God who created us and we will now know how to pursue Him who will satisfy us.
Back in April, we got a new puppy. She is a specific type of dog that is bred to duck hunt. We are training her to be a duck hunting dog. If you’re anti-hunting, I’m sorry. You can take comfort in knowing that I’m not that good of a shot. Collins says I’m the worst shot he’s ever seen. We spent some time on vacation at Angela’s family’s lake house and our dog’s favorite thing to do was to fetch a decoy duck out in the water. She couldn’t get enough of it. And I was thinking that she is doing what she is designed to do. It’s hard work, but she loves it. It’s wired deep inside her to want to swim and retrieve birds.
That’s a kind of a picture of what happens in our hearts when we receive the Holy Spirit and desire to make ourselves slaves to righteousness. This is why the great hymn says ‘I once was blind, but now I see.’ Just like Patty Hearst, we look back at our former lives and we can’t believe the things we did, the sins we actively pursued. Like Patty, we experience remorse and regret. Why would we then want to go back to that life?
It’s hard work fighting sin, but if we are a Christian, it is the desire of our hearts. Again, that doesn’t mean that if we sin we aren’t a Christian. We will all continue to sin, but it does mean that that sin doesn’t define us anymore. We desire to fight that sin even as we commit it. Thomas Aquinas said, “Grace does not destroy [our] nature, but perfects it. We desire to be slaves of righteousness because pursuing that righteousness will give us the freedom we long for. And this is not a works based righteousness. This is why Paul says, 23 dFor the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Rom 6:23 God has designed it such that he gives us the free gift of salvation through faith and then, through his Holy Spirit inside of us, gives us the desire to become holy as he is holy and in that pursuit, we see and experience God in a way that satisfies us and leads us to freedom and eternal life.
That’s the first ditch, thinking that grace can allow us to sin more. But on the other side of the path to freedom is an opposite ditch with the same result. RTS Orlando has some very quotable professors. Glodo says, “The best way to avoid a ditch is not driving into the opposite ditch.” Dr. Swain says, “the opposite of a mistake is the opposite mistake, not the right answer. And that is what the church has been dealing with for over 2000 years. Here we come to that opposite mistake. That opposite ditch.
- The law ditch
In the first verse of chapter 7, Paul says, ‘for I am speaking to those who know the law.’ There is some debate on who exactly Paul had in mind here. But, we can all agree that he at least has in mind the Jewish Christians in Rome. These Christians who felt like they had an advantage over the gentile Christians because they had the Mosaic law. Now, Paul has already told them that the law doesn’t make them in need of less grace. The law doesn’t make them spiritually better. Now, he’s telling them that law is actually a barrier to the salvation of the Jews. In verse five he says that the law doesn’t help our sin issue, it actually arouses our sin even more.
How does that work? Well, St. Augustine in his famous book Confessions, told a story when he was a boy he snuck into a pear orchard and stole some pears. Looking back at the incident years later he observed that at the time of the incident, he wasn’t hungry and he didn’t even like pears! He actually threw them to the pigs after he took it. So, what did he steal the pears? He said, because they were forbidden. If no one had told him that he couldn’t steal the pears, he would have never thought to or desired to. It was the law that aroused the desire to steal the pears.
That’s how our hearts work. The more moral law we are exposed to, the more our sinful desires are aroused. That’s why it’s a ditch. It acts as a sort of greenhouse for our sin to grow and blossom. And as that happens, Paul says that the fruit we bear will be for death. Do you see what Paul is doing? He’s saying that the very thing that these Jewish Christians were leaning on to benefit their standing before God is actually hurting it.
I have to imagine the Jewish Christians sort of throwing their hands up at this point and saying, “Well, if the law is actually a barrier between us and God, what in the world do we do, Paul?” And Paul’s answer is die. And he uses an admittedly confusing analogy, but I think his teaching is clear and simple. He says that a married woman is bound, by the law of marriage, to her husband as long as he lives. If she took on another man before he died, that’s not good. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage and free to marry another man. Paul says that, in the same way, we have to die to the law to be free from it. Now, the confusing part is that in Paul’s analogy the husband dies and in his instruction, he says we must be the one to die. I wouldn’t get tripped up there. The point he is making is that death needs to happen to be freed from the law.
I also want to say that I don’t think Paul is preventing remarriage until the former spouse is dead. Some people use this to say that if you get divorced, even if the divorce is in line with what the Bible says are the legitimate reasons for divorce, that you can’t remarry until your former spouse is dead. That’s missing what Paul is saying completely. He’s not teaching on marriage here, he’s teaching about the law and using what is generally true of marriage to illustrate what is true about our relationship to the law which is a barrier between us and God.
And I think we can take what Paul is saying and apply this ditch to almost every other world religion. If you take the moral laws of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, or even Jehovah’s Witnesses, you will see a lot of similarities. Because of God’s general revelation that we looked at in chapter one, just by living in the world, there are certain moral truths that you don’t have to be a Christian to know. You shouldn’t steal, you shouldn’t murder, you should obey your parents. But, what makes Christianity different from every other religion is that all other worldviews teach that you need to work harder at the moral code. Work harder at the Ten Commandments, work harder at the five pillars, work harder at the Noble Eightfold Path, and things will go well for you. In every case, though, the harder you work at it, the more condemned you are because the more you see that you can’t do it.
I read this week that Ghandi once read the Sermon on the Mount and said, “If I were a Christian, I could never sleep. I’ve never seen an ethical system which made the demands of the Sermon on the Mount.” Do you know why Gandhi said that? Because he was stuck in this second ditch. He looked at the moral law as something you had to obey in order to commend yourself to God.
Even in our Reformed tradition, we can slip back into this ditch. We can think that we are spiritually superior to other Christians because of how we vote, because we don’t drink alcohol, or because we do drink alcohol, how frugal we live, and I don’t know if I see it anywhere more clearly than how we parent and school. And you know what? All these things are in the law. But, when we dig so deep into the moral law, we then see that we can’t possibly uphold it, and we begin to connect things that aren’t in the law so we can feel like we are upholding it. This is exactly what the Pharisees did. They created new laws to make the law feel manageable. All along making themselves further slaves to it leading them to death.
Paul says the law produces more sin and more condemnation and we are to die to it. So, how do we do that? By believing in Jesus. Jesus who did fulfill the law perfectly on our behalf died to pay the penalty we deserve. And when we put our faith in Jesus, we are bound to him in every way including his death. We die to our old selves, we die to the slave master of sin, and we die to the law. This is why Paul says, 4 Likewise, my brothers, gyou also have died hto the law ithrough the body of Christ. - Rom 7:4
But, not only that, we are raised with him. We are resurrected to a new life bound to him…married, if you will, to him. Paul is not commanding that we do something…that we work harder…he’s talking about a spiritual union with our ever-living Savior who will satisfy us, release us from the curse of the law, and then make that law the desire of our hearts.
So, now we don’t have to do the law, we instead get to be satisfied as we follow our new divine desire to honor God. To stick with the marriage analogies, imagine if I had messed up really bad and I went to Trader Joes and got Angela an orchid because I was sorry. There’s a place for that. But, I can tell you what Angela would want more. If I went to Trader Joes and got her an orchid just because I love her. That would be sweeter. That would be more thoughtful. And I know to get her an orchid and not tulips because I’m in a marriage relationship with her. And in pleasing her the way I know she likes to be pleased, I’m actually more satisfied as I get to enjoy loving her more. That’s a picture of the union we are called into with Jesus. We have a desire to honor and obey him and it is in that obedience of love that we find deep relational satisfaction with him.
So, coming full circle, should we sin more that grace may abound? By no means. We walk down the road of freedom. We are free to love and be loved by Jesus. People will look at us weird. Wonder why we stay faithful to one person, why we give money away instead of spending it on ourselves, or why we give our whole Sunday morning to worship instead of all the other things we could do. They might look at us and see anything but freedom. That’s ok. They don’t realize how much freedom we experience because we do what we do out of a deep sense of love. They don’t realize the satisfaction it brings us. They don’t realize that we do the things we do not because we have to, but because we get to.
And this puts us all on an equal playing field. Paul’s hope is that this radiant grace will cause the church in Rome to sin less and to love more. To be more united to each other and to be the fruitful sending church he is looking for. And this is so important for us because God desires the same thing for OGC. That we would sin less and love more. That we would be a fruitful sending church. So let’s pray for exactly that.