June 6, 1993
I would like to begin with three observations about this famous text. Observation number one is this: Romans 7 is a passage that grips us because we understand exactly what it is saying. We see ourselves in it. When Romans 7 is read everyone understands and says, “Amen, yes, that’s right, that’s true, that’s me.”
Here is observation number two: Romans 7 tells us about the Christian life as we actually experience it much of the time. Paul is not discussing the life of an unbeliever. Nor is he describing an immature or a carnal Christian. In my opinion, Romans 7 is describing the mature Christian life as it is actually experienced much of the time by the people of God. Now to say that is to enter into a huge theological debate which has raged across the centuries. I’m only giving you the conclusion and not the arguments that lead me to that point. All I want to say to you is that as I read Romans 7, it rings true to me about my own personal experience and it rings true to me about the personal experience of people I see on a daily basis as a pastor. In fact, when I read this I think that what you have in Romans 7 is Paul’s spiritual autobiography of his experience as a follower of Jesus Christ. You read the text and Paul constantly says “I … I … I … I.” And it’s not past tense. It’s present tense. It seems to me that what we have here is not Paul’s theory or Paul’s practice but Paul’s actual experience of the Christian life as he lives it day after day after day after day.
That leads me to a third observation. Though some of us would perhaps like it, there is no escape from Romans 7 in the Christian life. There is no real escape. Let me go a step beyond that to say that Romans 7 does not comprehend everything that might be said about the spiritual life. It’s not the whole story. It’s important that you understand that because this text does not stand in isolation. It is wedged between two chapters that lay the groundwork for the Christian’s triumph over sin in this life.
Part of the Story
I would say it like this: Romans 7 is not the whole story but it is a part of the story. It is a significant part of the Christian experience for every follower of Jesus Christ. Some people argue otherwise. They suggest that Paul’s experience describes a “sub-normal” Christian life in Romans 7 and that therefore you are called to get your life out of Romans 7 and get it into Romans 8. I want you to know that I don’t believe that is correct. I don’t see anything in the text that suggests to me that we are to live in Romans 8 and not in Romans 7. Paul is presenting a unified viewpoint of which Romans 6 is a part, Romans 7 is a part and Romans 8 is a part. We need all three parts for a well-rounded Christian life.
Let me go a step beyond that and say that I believe that the path to God’s blessing for your life goes right through Romans 7:14-25. The experience that Paul is talking about here is a necessary part of your walk with Jesus Christ. God put these verses in the Bible for your blessing. He put them in the Bible because they reflect a part of life that all of us experience but rarely talk about when we come to church on Sunday morning. So, I think what we need to do is go back into the text and see what it really says.
What is it that we find when we come to Romans 7:14-25? Well, if I could put it in one word, I would say we find struggle. If you want another word, I think we find conflict. If you want another word, I think we find war. Struggle, conflict, and war. That’s what Paul says was going on in his life as a follower of Jesus Christ. I think we can say that that is what is going to go on in your life if you decide to follow Jesus Christ. You’re going to have a struggle, you’re going to have a conflict, you’re going to experience inner warfare. Paul says in this passage that the problem is not simply sin on the outside, but the problem we have to face is sin on the inside. The problem is not simply temptation “out there” but temptation “in here.” For all of us as believers in Jesus Christ, sin is not something that simply is outside of us, but clearly Paul is saying that sin is something that we must wrestle with on the inside every single day.
The Enemy is Us
It reminds me of that cartoon strip Pogo where the hero comes and says “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That’s what Paul is saying. We have met the enemy. The enemy is us. The enemy is not just out there somewhere. The enemy is on the inside. He has infiltrated into our very being. Which is why the people clap and cheer and they applaud you for your great performance, there is something on the inside that is saying, “Oh, wait a minute. If you knew the way I really am, you wouldn’t be clapping. You wouldn’t be cheering.” That’s what the apostle Paul is talking about.
Why is it that there is this struggle inside of every believer? The answer is very simple and it is two words. The answer is indwelling sin. Look at the text. Paul says it twice very plainly. In verse 17, “as it is it is no longer I myself doing it, but it is sin living in me.” Sin living in me. He uses the same phrase in verse 20– “sin living in me.” Sin dwells inside the life of every believer. Paul says that sin is actually present in the members of his body. He says that whenever he wants to do good, “evil is right there with me.” As long as you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you will never be completely free from the pull of the sin that is inside you. As long as you are in your mortal bodies, you will wrestle with sin.
In verse 24, Paul cries out in desperation, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Have you ever thought about the fact that sin is the reason your body grows old? Sin is the reason your body decays, sin is the reason your body dies. There is a sin principle working inside your body. In this passage Paul lays bare the struggle between the liberated mind which knows Jesus Christ and the indwelling principle of sin in the body of the believer. What Paul is saying is that there is a war that is going on inside the heart of everybody who follows Jesus Christ. A struggle, a war and a conflict that goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, year in and year out. Nobody ever comes to a place where he can say, “No, I don’t struggle any more. No, the war is over for me.” If you’re a believer, that will always be true of your experience to one degree or another. As long as you live, the struggle is going to go on.
Three Struggles of the Believer
If you study this text, you’ll find that it falls into three parts. Three different times Paul confesses his own personal struggle with sin. Each one of those confessions reveals a different aspect of the struggle we face as believers to live victoriously for Jesus Christ.
I. The struggle to live up to what you know you ought to be. 15-17
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”
Paul says in verse 15, “I do not understand what I do.” That’s an amazing confession. You hear children say that all the time. They will throw a rock through a window, they will break a plate, they will hit their brother hard. When you ask, “why did you do that?”, they will give you the one absolutely dependable answer: “I don’t know.”
What Paul is saying is that’s true for all of us. There are times in life that we do something stupid. When somebody asks us why did we do that, the only answer we can come up with is, “I don’t know why I did that.” Why did you say that? The only answer we can say is, “I don’t know why I said that.” Why did you go to that place? Why did you sign that lease? Why did you make that deal? Why did you break that promise? The only answer you can come up with is, “I don’t really know why I did that. Something just moved within me and I did it and I don’t really understand it.” Well, you’re in good company because that’s what the apostle Paul said. He said, “Many times I do things and afterward I don’t understand why I did them.”
Then here’s his confession, “For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do.” Paul is here confessing the struggle within his own soul. He is saying that he feels like a split personality. He feels that there is a continual civil war going on inside his heart. It’s almost as if he feels two people inside him or as if he hears two voices, one calling him this way and one calling him that way, and he says, “I want to do good, but I don’t do it. But the thing that I don’t want to do, I do anyway.” William Barclay entitles his commentary on this passage The Human Situation and he’s right. This is truly the human situation. We know the good, but we don’t do it. We know what’s wrong and we fight against it and then we do it anyway. We say “I will” and then we don’t. We say “I won’t” and then we do. We make a promise and then we break it. We set a goal and we don’t go after it. We say “I’ll never do that again” and we do it. We get on our knees and say, “Oh, God, I’ll never do that again.” And then the next day, we do it or we say it again. That is the truly human experience for all of us. If anybody here says that’s not true of you, let me tell you something. I simply will not believe you. I simply will not believe you because that is the human experience for you and it is the human experience for me.
Somebody once said that Paul must have been a golfer because a golfer can understand this principle. You line up the putt and you see it’s supposed to break to the right. So you hit it to break right and it goes left. That which you would do, you don’t do. The thing you don’t want to do, you do. It’s the human situation.
Knowing and Doing
Let me draw a conclusion from this first confession. Knowing and doing are two different things. You can know the right thing and you can still do the wrong thing. That leads me to make this obvious point: Knowledge will never save anyone. Knowledge alone will not save us. There must be something else, something deeper working within us. That leads me to make this conclusion. Even if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you’re not as good as you think you are, and you’re worse than you’d like to admit. That’s the first struggle. The struggle to live up to what you know you ought to be.
II. The struggle to come to grips with repeated personal failure. 18-20
“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. 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. 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.”
Look what Paul says in verse 19. “The evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” Paul was saying this as an apostle and as a follower of Jesus Christ. If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, you can understand these words. They’ll make sense to you. If these words don’t make any sense to you at all, it may be because you’ve never come to Jesus Christ at all, because those who are truly born of God develop in their heart a deep and honest and holy hatred of sin. It has been said that the closer you come to God, the less you will sin and the more of a sinner you will realize yourself to be. When you come close to God, you will sin less … and the greater will be your understanding of how deeply sinful you have been and you truly are.
Every week people have come to my office to confess to me deep personal failure. Every week people call me on the phone with their problems. Sometimes they’re new Christians, but more often they’re not. Sometimes it’s for a first-time sin. More often it’s for a sin they’ve been struggling with for a long time. You know what? After 15 years as a pastor, and I say this thoughtfully, it’s almost impossible to shock me now. I have heard so much, I have listened to so many confessions, I have heard the people of God confess their sins but not much surprises me any more. Just because you are a Christian doesn’t make you immune to temptation and immune to the pull of sin in your life. I’ll tell you this, no man ever went broke betting on the reality of total human depravity. If you ask me, “Pastor, what verses do you really believe at this point in your life?” Well, I’ll tell you the verses I really believe. Romans 3:10, “There is no one who does good, no, not one.” Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” Numbers 32:23, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Proverbs 28:13, “He who covers his sin will not prosper but he who confesses and forsakes it will find mercy.” 1 John 1:7, “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s son, cleanses us from every sin.” 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
You don’t have to convince me of the reality of indwelling sin, not in the lives of believers of this church and not in my own personal life, because I see too much and I hear too much and I experience too much. When I stand in front of the mirror what I see is a man who struggles with sin every single day.
It’s hard for us as believers to come to grips with what Paul is saying here. We try to come up with spiritual formulas that get us out of Romans 7. But I don’t see anything like that in the text. What I see is that you’ve got to face the reality of Romans 7 or you’ll never get to Romans 8. You’ve got to come to grips with repeated personal failure. The first step in healing is to admit that you are sick. Healthy people don’t go to doctors. Only sick people do. The people who are made better by the power of God are the people who are not ashamed to admit the weakness and the failure and the struggle that they are undergoing in their own personal lives. That’s the second struggle. The struggle to come to grips with repeated personal failure.
III. The struggle to admit the true nature of the war within. 21-24
“So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 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. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
We move to the next level–the intense struggle to own up to the war within. In verse 21 Paul says, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” The Greek word for “right there with me” means right beside me. It means I am here and evil is glued to my side. It means I’m joined with sin as to a Siamese twin. Everywhere I go, evil goes with me. Even when I want to do good, all I have to do is reach out my hand and I can touch evil. It’s right there beside me.
Then he uses military terms to describe the struggle–”waging war”, “making me a prisoner.” The Greek word for “waging war” means to line up the troops and go out on a military campaign. Paul is saying that indwelling sin is constantly lining up to do battle with us, to pull us down, to destroy us, to discourage us and to pull us away from God. Evil is not only with us, evil is also waging war inside of us all the time.
That leads me to say this. You are going to struggle with sin as long as you are in this body. There’s no amount of going to church that is going to change that fact. I stopped believing in miracle cures years ago. I no longer believe in three-step programs that will free you from sin forever. I read Romans 7 and I see a most godly man admitting the truth about the struggle within his own soul. If Paul struggled, it will probably happen to me and you too. We’re going to struggle. You know the real battles are not the ones on the outside. The real battle of sin is the one on the inside. It’s the one that nobody else ever sees. It’s the struggle that goes on in your mind and your heart, between the pull of the flesh and the pull of the Holy Spirit.
That battle goes on every Sunday morning. We’re a good-looking congregation. We look nice in church. We’re cleaned up. We’re dressed up. But behind every smiling face is a story of struggle, heartache, despair, defeat, victory, cowardice, bravery, fear and courage all mixed up together. Though we look very good when we come to church, in truth, if we could see our souls, it would be more appropriate to picture us as a group of soldiers staggering out of the jungles of Guadalcanal.
That’s what life is like. Some of us barely make it to church because it’s been a difficult week. Spiritually, emotionally, physically, and in every way we’ve struggled through the last seven days. You know what? That’s OK. It’s a struggle to come to church and admit the truth. We’d all rather think, “I look good, you look good, so I don’t have any problems and you don’t have any problems.” The truth of the matter is that healing cannot begin until we can say, “There is a battle inside of me. I am really struggling and I can barely make it.” When people come to my office and say, “I’m really struggling,” I’m always encouraged because I can go back to Romans 7 and say, “You’re in good company. If you’re really struggling, if you feel there’s a war within, you have a lot in common with the greatest Christian who ever lived.”
That leads me to say something else too. Most of us are going to struggle with some sins for many, many years. We’re going to win some battles and through Jesus Christ we’re going to win a lot of battles. We’re going to know significant amounts of victory. Don’t let anything I said mislead you. If it seem incomplete, remember, Romans 8 is just around the corner. I’m not giving you the whole story in this message.
What I am telling you is this. We’re going to win some and we’re going to lose some. We’re going to be knocked down and we’re going to get back up. We’re going to keep on struggling and, through the help of God, we’re going to one day win the battle. We’ll never ultimately win the victory until we are with Jesus Christ face to face. But until then we can walk in significant victory. But there is going to be a war. Even the best saints of God are going to struggle. How else can you explain pastors that fall? How else can you explain seemingly godly people going into adultery? How else can you explain Christian leaders and Sunday School teachers who admit heinous sins? How do you explain the people of God who end up in jail? How do you explain God’s people giving in to anger, bitterness, rage, gossip and all the rest? The only way that I know how to explain it is the reality of indwelling sin and the struggle we all face.
“Ray, God has been good to you.”
A few years ago I lost my temper. In a moment of anger, I said some things to some people who loved me. Two men who had meant a lot to me. I lost my temper in a terrible way. I paid dearly for it and hurt some people. My friend Max Bunch said to me a few weeks later, “Ray, you’re a fortunate man that this happened to you.” I said, “Fortunate in what way?” He said , “Most of us go through life pretending we’re better than we really are. Once we overcome a sin, we unconsciously think to ourselves, ’Phew, that one’s done with. I’ll never commit that one again.’ We say to ourselves, ’Well, maybe I’ll wrestle with other sins, but that one’s done and over with. It’s forgotten. It’s gone and I’ll never do that again.’” My friend told me, “Ray, it’s dangerous for a Christian to say, ’I’ll never do that again.’ The power of indwelling sin is so great.”
Then he cut to the core of the issue. “For years you’ve put forth an image as a guy who’s easy going and nice and friendly. You act like you’re so laid-back. But you have a terrible temper. Most people never see it, and most of the time it never shows itself, but it’s there. On that night, when you lost your temper, God pulled the covers off of your heart. In that terrible moment, he let you see the extent of your own human depravity. That’s the grace of God at work, because now as long as you live, you can never say you don’t have a temper. God let you see it that night.”
That was a tremendously liberating truth for me, because once I could admit the truth, I could get help. I could begin to grow. I could begin to be set free. That’s the third struggle. The struggle to admit the war within. If you had to admit the naked truth about yourself, it wouldn’t be a very pretty truth. It wouldn’t be a very pretty truth about me either. That’s the first step along the path of spiritual growth and maturity.
Three Things That Will Help Us
What will help us in our struggle with sin? Paul suggests three things in verse 24. Understand that these are only the first steps. We’re going to discover other steps as we move through Romans 8. But this is where we must begin.
Step # 1: Honesty. 24a
“What a wretched man I am,” he says. That’s a Christian man talking. What a wretched man I am. Apart from Jesus Christ and apart from the Holy Spirit, what a wretched man I am. You’ve heard me say it before: “You know the truth and the truth will set you free … but it will hurt you first.” The reason many of us never grow as Christians is because we hear the truth intellectually but we won’t let it get close enough to hurt us. It comes in, we put up the deflector shields and it bounces harmlessly away. We get good at deflecting the truth because the truth often hurts. The truth never really changes us because we won’t let it get close enough to hurt us. Honesty is the first step to admitting your true condition.
Step # 2: Humility. 24b
“Who will rescue me from this body of death?” That’s Paul talking. The difference between honesty and humility is that honesty says “I am a wretched man” and humility says “I cannot save myself.” As far as I know there are only three things you can do with your sin. Number one, you can deny it. Many people do that. Number two, you can try to deal with it on your own. That doesn’t work. Or number three, you can admit it and turn to God and Jesus Christ and there find forgiveness.
Step # 3: Complete Dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ. 25
Here we come to a wonderful verse of Scripture: “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!” That’s the answer to everything he’s just said about his struggle with sin. All of chapter 8 is comprehended in that one tiny statement. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We’re gong to discover that there’s a provision for victory, there’s a provision for walking in the spirit, there’s a provision to help you win the struggle with sin. It’s all right there. Just remember this. It’s not a formula; it’s a person. It is not something on the outside. It is moment-by-moment dependence on Jesus Christ and realizing that his power is enough to rescue you. You don’t have to be defeated, although sometimes you will be. You don’t have to stay in the muck and mire, although that’s where you may find yourself. Through complete dependence on Jesus Christ, there is the possibility of significant victory in your life.
Don’t Skip Romans 7
Romans 7 lies along the pathway of spiritual blessing. It is not the whole story, but it is the place where you must begin your spiritual walk with God. God wants you to go through Romans 7. He wants you to struggle with sin because that experience is meant to drive you into the arms of Jesus Christ. The struggle that you are undergoing in your life now doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. God intends for you to struggle with sin so that in your struggle, you would be stripped of your self-reliance and begin to trust in God and God alone. Does the fact that you struggle make you a failure? No. Does it make you a bad person? No. Does it make you a loser? No. Does it make you a sub-standard Christian? No. Do you know what it makes you? It makes you an excellent candidate for the grace of God.
If you are struggling with sin, first, turn your life over to Jesus Christ if you’ve never done so. Then number two, if you are a believer, hold on to Jesus and never let go. Hold on to Jesus. Run to the cross and there find forgiveness and strength and healing. Cheer up, Child of God. Your struggles are part of God’s plan to make you holy. Your struggles are his strategy to make you like Jesus Christ. Remember this. When you fail–when, not if, but when you fail and when you struggle and when you fall, remember, you’ve got good company. His name is the apostle Paul and he didn’t do so badly. Look up, Child of God. Do you feel like you’re trapped in the muck and mire of sin? Run to Jesus Christ and embrace the cross. Turn to him with your whole heart and you will discover that through Jesus Christ, you can become more than a conqueror through him who loves us.