I’m really excited about the part of Romans we are coming to today. We have been looking at what Paul says are three barriers between us and God and how they should unify the church in Rome and us. Those three barriers are Adam, sin, and the law. We saw last week that when we put our trust in Jesus, we have died both to sin and the curse of the law. But that leaves a very important question. If I have died to sin and the curse of the law, why do I still struggle so much with both? Why do I still covet? Why do I still struggle with lust, greed, and pride? Why don’t I feel like I have died to sin and the law? This is what Paul is getting at very famously in verse 15 when he writes 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For xI do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. - Rom 7:15
This is the Apostle Paul! Paul is talking about himself as a converted, redeemed Chrstian. This is his present Chrstian experience. I mean, if he still struggles with sin, what hope is there for the rest of us? I remember Tim Keller saying that this passage is what made Christianity click for him as a college student. This passage is hugely important for us because it shows us 1) a new way to understand our desires and 2) a new power to overcome our desires.
- A new way to understand our desires
Paul knows the questions his argument is going to raise in the people who hear his letter read. Is the law then the thing that is bad? And this is so important to understand our present struggle with sin. Pauls says no! The law is not bad. Even though it brings death, it is good and holy because it reflects the character of God. The law is the necessary, but painful thing that shows us our true problem.
I will never forget being in the hospital with Angela so many years ago and hearing those words, “It’s cancer.” Those were painful words, but necessary because they were diagnosing her physical problems. We couldn’t help her until we could first diagnose the problem. And that is what the law does. Paul says that if it had not been for the law, he would not have known what sin is. But the law did that. The law says do not covet and that produced in him all kinds of covetousness. And because of this, the law proved to be death for him.
The law didn’t bring death, it revealed the thing inside us that is: sin. This is really important because the heart of their question is who do we blame? Who do we blame for our struggle to honor God with our lives? I’m using a Tim Keller argument here, but in our culture you have the progressives or the liberals who never call anyone sinful or evil, including themselves, because all problems are really functions of psychological or sociological dynamics. I was watching a show this week where people land on Mars in 1995 in an alternate reality and there is this one man who would fall into this more progressive camp and he is struggling with the rules of the US military at that time and he says, “When we are 220 million miles from earth, who is to say what is right and what is wrong?” Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s saying that right and wrong are social constructs. But, what happens when that is your view and then you really do something far more cruel or cowardly or worse than anything you ever thought you were capable of, you have no category for it. You’ll go into denial, depression, anxiety, or worse.
Then, you have the conservatives on the other hand who do use the terms sinful and evil for the people ‘over there.’ These conservatives’ very identity is based on the idea that, “I’m not one of those sinful, evil people. I’m one of the virtuous people.” What happens when they find themselves doing things that are cruel or cowardly or worse than anything they’ve ever done? Just like the liberals, they won’t have a category for it. Only the effects can be worse because there is even more shame.
In either case, when confronted with the depth of our sin, it will drive us into denial, depression, anxiety, and it can and has even driven people to suicide. Only the Christian worldview can understand that we are both evil and loved. I made some bonehead decisions in high school and college. Decisions that on multiple occasions found me on the wrong side of the law. My parents were mad of course, but do you know what I never worried about? Them not being my parents. I never worried about them not loving me anymore. Sure, I was disciplined, but I knew that I was loved unconditionally even in my worst moments.
Think about when Jesus said, “You who are evil give good gifts to your children. How much more then will the Father give good gifts to you?” Do you hear what Jesus is saying? You are at the same time loved and evil. How is this possible? It’s possible because of two things that Paul says in this passage. First, There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. - Rom 8:1
This is the conclusion that Paul comes to in his argument. We can’t fix our law and sin problem. Paul says that the law was weakened by flesh. What does that mean? The law doesn’t have any flesh. But we do. The law is weakened by our flesh. We are the weak point. The law is weakened because we cannot do what it demands. So God does it for us. He does it in Christ Jesus. He lived a life under the law, but he lived it perfectly, but instead of taking on the privileges of his perfect life, he takes on the curse that we deserve. The curse of God’s wrath on the cross. Then, all the privileges of Jesus’ perfect life are bestowed on us who trust in him. His righteousness and perfection are legally declared to be ours.
Justification means a not guilty verdict. Condemnation means a guilty verdict. We are no longer guilty. We have been justified. That’s why there is therefore now no condemnation. But, we still live in the flesh which means we will still struggle with sin. This is why Paul still struggled. This is why he also writes 22 For dI delight in the law of God, ein my inner being, 23 but I see in my members fanother law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. - Rom 7:22,23
Sin dwells in our members, that is, our flesh. But, as a Christian, we see it from a different vantage point. Dr. Cole at RTS gives the analogy of a castle. A castle has barriers to keep people out. It has big walls. It has a big moat…probably filled with crocodiles and piranhas. Before we believed in Jesus, we were on the outside of that castle and those barriers were keeping us out. Then in Jesus, God brings us into the castle. The barriers of the walls, moat, and killer animals still exist, but they don’t keep us out anymore. We have a totally new vantage point.
And sometimes, it’s after we are brought into the castle that we see the barriers even more clearly. It was dark on the outside, but it’s light on the inside. One time when I was growing up, we had a dog and two cats and we went on vacation for a week and had the animals kenneled. When we got back, we opened the door and everything looked fine, but then we turned the lights on and saw millions of fleas everywhere. I mean millions. I don’t know the science behind it, but when we took the animals out of the house, the fleas exploded in number. When the lights were on, we could see them on the furniture, in the carpet and crawling up our legs. Everything looked ok, until the light was on and we could see that it was definitely not ok.
Similarly, as Christians, who have both the law and the Holy Spirit, we have more light to see ourselves for who we are. And that light is often going to reveal our blemishes and stains all the more clearly. And this will be true of Christians until we are taken from this body of flesh. Until Jesus comes back or we go to him.
So, what’s the new way to understand our desires? We understand that because we live in the flesh, our sin will still be there. We understand that Christians around us will fail. We understand that we will too. But, we also understand that we are accepted and loved not because of what we do, but because God loves us and has made a way for us to be loved. We need to see that we have a way of processing our moral failings that no other worldview possesses.
We need to pause and just praise God that, in the words of Paul, has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not. We praise God that he has removed the barrier that brought our condemnation. That he has brought us into the castle of his kingdom. Even if the story ended there, which it does not, we should praise God that even though we are evil, we are loved. Even though we will be disciplined, we will not be condemned. That the law and our sin does not stand between us and God.
But, as I said, this isn’t the end of the story. We get more. We get a power to overcome our desires.
- A new power to overcome our desires
The way to overcome a desire is to possess and even greater one. I loved Clark’s scalpel analogy a few weeks ago. To go back to Angela’s cancer diagnosis, she had a softball size tumor in her colon. She really should have died, but that’s a story for another time. But, what would have happened if the doctor opened her up, took out the tumor and walked away? The thing that was killing her would have been taken out, but she would not have been healed. The doctor still had to resection her organs, he had to sow her up, and then she needed chemotherapy for whatever might still be inside her.
If we think we are going to get past our sins by believing in Jesus and then just pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps or applying more willpower to the moral law, we are basically removing the thing that is killing us, but bleeding out on the table. If we approach our sanctification that way, we become like the Pharisees whose self-centeredness and pride made them every bit of a mess as a criminal. So, where do we find this greater desire? Verses five and six 5 For rthose who live according to the flesh set their minds on sthe things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on tthe things of the Spirit. 6 For to set uthe mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. - Rom 8:5,6
We need to change what we set our minds on. Now, today we think of the mind and the heart as different things. Today, mind means reason and heart means emotion. And if we read Paul’s writing this way, it can sound like an intellectual exercise. In Paul’s day, mind and heart were the same things. When Paul says set your mind on the flesh (as a bad thing), he’s not saying to only stop having bad thoughts. He’s not saying less than that, but he is saying much more. He’s asking us to see what it is that we set our desires on. What do we desire most? What do we dream of? What captures our imaginations? Where is it that we seek our value and worth? How would our phones answer those questions? Whatever that thing is, that is where we find our identity. That is where we believe we will be most satisfied. And Paul is asking us if those things are things of the flesh or things of the Spirit.
I remember reading about Richard Nixon after he had been impeached. He was depressed standing on the back porch of his California home and someone said to him, “Look at all you still have. This view is amazing. Your health is intact. You have your family.” To which Nixon said something like, “I have no reason for existing anymore.” Do you see what he was saying? He found his identity in power which is of the flesh. That’s what gave him worth and value. That’s what he dreamed about and, if he didn’t have that, he didn’t think he had any reason for living.
This is a very heavy story, but back when I was in Oxford, there was a young woman whose boyfriend broke up with her. She went into a panic and took her own life. It just seemed so unimaginable to all of us, but to her, she had lost the thing that gave her value and worth. It didn’t matter that she was smart, pretty, and had a family who adored her. Her relationship to this boy was where she found her identity. It’s a heavy example, but it’s a picture of the seriousness of what we set our minds on. Power and relationships are not bad things, but if that is what we set our minds on, if they are the most important things in our lives, if they are where we find our identity, they become a bad thing. They become a bad thing because they become idols in our lives. They become the lens through which we see everything else and they skew our understanding of reality. And we will never find the joy we seek and we will always succumb to the desires they produce.
Paul says we are to instead set our minds on the things of the Spirit. What does that mean? Let’s go back to verse three again. 3 For jGod has done what the law, kweakened by the flesh, lcould not do. mBy sending his own Son nin the likeness of sinful flesh and ofor sin,3 he condemned sin in the flesh, - Rom 8:3 Do you see those two words ‘for sin’? This is a technical term from the Old Testament that means a sin offering. Not a general sin offering, but Jesus offering himself as a sin offering for us…for you…for me.
It’s one thing to know in our head that God loves us in general, it’s a whole other thing to let the Holy Spirit show you he did this for you. Because he loves you. Because he sought after you. We learn this when we become a Christian, but we spend the rest of our lives allowing that to sink in and become the greatest desire in our lives. When we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, he makes Jesus the greatest desire we have. And when Jesus is our savior, not just at an intellectual level, but at our deepest levels, it makes us WANT to kill the sin in our flesh. It makes us WANT to die to it.
And we walk in the power of the Spirit when we pray, when we worship in church, when we take communion, when we read our Bibles, when we serve each other, and when we repent of our sin. And it’s funny how repenting of our sin then in turn gives the Holy Spirit even more of a hold on our hearts. It starts with something small. Think about an ongoing sin struggle in your life and think about what Jesus has done for you. Let it sink in deep. Then take the step to repent of that sin and stop doing it. In that act, you are then filled more with the Holy Spirit and that greater desire for his glory to be revealed in your life gives you a desire to kill more sin in your life.
The light in our lives provided by the Holy Spirit will then allow us to see more sin in our lives that we didn’t even know was there, but instead of being discouraged or go into denial, we will be filled with joy that he has saved us and allowed us to see things as they truly are and we will joyfully repent of that sin as well. And as we live our lives this way and Jesus, our only true savior, becomes the person we dream of, the person who gives us value and worth, the one who captivates our imaginations, we are ok when we don’t have power, we are ok when relationships don’t work out, we are ok when jobs don’t work out, and we are ok when our health doesn’t work out.
And this is going to give us grace for Christians who make really bad decisions. In our study on dechurching we found that 12% of those who had dechurched from an Evangelical church did so because of a scandal outside of the church. Another 12% did so because of a scandal inside the church. This passage gives us categories to understand what is going on that don’t cause us to doubt our faith or lose trust in the institution of the church. Maybe they succombed to their flesh. Maybe they were never a Christian in the first place. Now, I’m not saying these scandals should be excused. These people need to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the church and, in some cases, the law. Maybe everyone in those churches should stop going to THAT church. Maybe it needs to close down completely, but it doesn’t mean they should stop going to A church. If we have categories for us being evil and being loved, we should have categories for people who profess faith and do horribly wrong things. Again, not as a way of excusing them, but as a way of understanding them.
The theological term for what Paul is talking about is sanctification. The process of becoming more holy. It’s crazy to me how interwoven the sermons and Equipping Hour are. I’d love to say that it is a part of Robert’s master plan, but it’s not. In Equipping Hour today we are looking at Grant McCaskill’s book on Preaching Union with Christ and the Holy Spirit for Sanctification. I’ll close with a quote from his book where dhe writes, “We need an alien righteousness to be credited to us if we are to stand justified in God’s presence, but we also need it to inhabit our limbs, lips, and neurons if we are to live and think in a way that honors God, if we are to confess him rightly. Hence, the plight of the sinner can never be solved by the sinner, no matter how well trained or well taught we may be, but only by another: the Righteous One who enters our reality to constitute fresh possibilities for our lives. Any attempt to address the plight apart from this One will serve only the idolatrous instincts of the human condition, what Paul calls “the flesh,” and this continues to be true of the Christian life at all points, as idolatrous flesh wars with Christ’s Spirit.”