Doesn’t it strike you as odd? In the midst of one of the most profound and exciting theological documents ever written we find an admission of failure by the author.
I am talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is a theological gold mine, with a rich seam of gold sprinkled with priceless jewels of truth about Jesus.
And then we find this:
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 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but 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: Although 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 me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!
Photo by ramzi hashisho, used by permission
It’s Romans chapter 7 (NIV). What was it that motivated Paul to write this very personal admission? If you read the preceding verses we see that Paul is talking about our new life in Christ. In that life we are no longer bound by the law (by which he means the codified rules and regulations of the Old Testament and the assorted regulations that had grown up around them) but we live in freedom because of Jesus. Paul is not denigrating the Old Testament law but he recognises that all it could do is bring an awareness that we have fallen short of the standards.
It seems to me that as he was dictating this letter he realised the truth that whilst we have freedom from the effects of sin in Christ and God’s Spirit is at work in us to transform us and make us more and more like Jesus, we are also prone to falling short of God standards (and the law reminds us of that). As a Christian leader, looked up to and perhaps even revered by many people, Paul was perhaps more acutely aware of his own weakness and failure. When people are put on pedestals one of the problems is that they are slightly further out of reach and imperfections and blemishes are less obvious.
Perhaps this is Paul’s attempt at ensuring that people did not put him on a pedestal and an attempt at showing everyone that even Paul struggled with sin in his life. He did not deserve to be put on a pedestal and certainly did not want to be.
If we are honest, especially those of us in Christian leadership, we all have the ability to present a shiny veneer to those around us that suggests we are sorted, close to perfection, super spiritual believers. And if we are really honest we will admit that these verses from Romans 7 resonate with us. All of us are prone to falling short of God standards. Some of us come up with new and original sins, others of us return to the same old sins.
So what’s the antidote? What are we to do about this? Well for one thing I am sure that Paul was not content with the status quo. You can see that in the last verse above where he declares himself to be a wretched man. Sin becomes more of a problem if we become used to it, are content with it, and it doesn’t bother us any more. Wrestling with sin is at least a step in the right direction because it shows that we do not like that aspect of our lives. This is not something we can do on our own, even though we wrestle. This is what Paul continues to say in the verses immediately following those I have quoted above:
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (NIV)
I think the chapter divisions in our Bibles sometimes mask the truth. if we are reading the Bible we can often stop at the end of a chapter that when Paul wrote the letter there were no chapter divisions and his train of thought did not stop at the end of what we call chapter 7. That’s what the therefore is there for. We cannot sort out our propensity to sin and feel condemned by the law on our own. But God has done something about it.
We need not feel condemnation if we are “in Christ Jesus” because he has sorted out the condemnation of sin (the law has been fulfilled, the sentence served, guilt is unnecessary) and he gives us his Spirit to help us to sin less. I believe that the Spirit joins us in our wrestling and helps us by nudging our conscience, reminding us of Scripture, helping us to think about what Jesus might do and so on. But whilst he can help us, he does not take control of us. We still have to make the choice and still act on that decision.
So let’s have a little Romans 7 honesty and recognise that we all wrestle with the sin in our lives, nobody should be put on a pedestal, and pray for one another that we will listen to and receive the help of God’s spirit each day in our wrestling.
Be blessed, be a blessing.