For All Our Good Intentions

Romans 7

Let’s just clear something up right now. It has sounded through the first 6 chapters of Romans like Paul is against the Law – has no use for the Law – that the Law is the enemy of grace and righteousness.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul has the highest regard for the Law:
Rom. 7:12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
Gal. 3:21 Is the law opposed to the purposes of God? Absolutely not!
1 Tim. 1:8 We know that the law is good, if one uses it properly.
And there is the rub…
God had given the law for one purpose, but they had attempted to use it for another. They had taken the law and made it an instrument of attaining righteousness. But it could never do that. It could do only one thing – show them how utterly sinful they were.

Paul makes that very clear there in 1 Timothy 1. He had just said in vs 8 that the law is good if one uses it properly. But then he explains – vs 9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.

Did you hear him? The law is not made for the righteous but for the ungodly and sinful. God didn’t give the law to help you feel good about yourself, but to point out how sinful you are.

There are two ways of looking at yourself – in a picture or in a mirror. When you go to have your picture made – you dress up nice and look pretty good (they’ll even touch it up for you and get rid of all the blemishes and pimples and gray hair!) But when you come into the bathroom after working in the garden, you look in the mirror – there you are with all that dirt and grime.

The Law is like the mirror. It holds up a reflection in which you see yourself exactly like you are. It’s not like you intend to be, but there you are – covered with sin. (Now, realize you were already dirty before you looked in the mirror – and you were already a sinner before you saw yourself in the Law). Here you are stained with sin.

Can the Law do anything about that? Can the Law scrub you up and make you look better? No – it wasn’t intended to make you righteous or make you look righteous. In fact, if you follow Paul’s discussion in Galatians, the Law is like a school bus driver – it is put in charge to deliver us to the one who can do something about our condition. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ so that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24).

Paul never denigrates the law or blames the law for our condition – the law did exactly what God intended for it to do. It’s not the mirror’s fault you are dirty, nor the mirror’s job to clean you up. It shows you how you look. Nor is it the Law’s fault you are a sinner, nor its job to clean you up. God gave the Law to show you who you are – and to lead you to the one who can cleanse you.

In chapter 7, Paul lets us into his personal life. I’m glad he did. It’s one thing to hear someone say, “hypothetically, theoretically, if you weren’t as good as I am, this is what sin would look like.” But Paul doesn’t do that – he transparently lets us see inside his own struggle with sin.
Here, Paul – and you and I – (his struggle is our struggle) are going about our lives – ignorant of the significance or the implications of our actions. We are just acting in a natural, human way. Suddenly, we learn that the Law says “Do not covet.”

Now, it had never occurred to us that coveting was a sin – it just seemed like a natural thing to do – to be envious and desire what someone else has. Everyone does it – it’s human nature.

But now, I learn a whole new side of human nature – if someone tells me not to do something – that some action or attitude is forbidden – I can’t get my mind off of it. It grips me, it takes over – twice Paul says, Sin, seizing the opportunity… – first, in vs 8 he says, it produced in me every kind of covetous desire – and second, in vs 11, sin deceived me and put me to death.

For a while, we’ll go around feeling guilty because we are sinning. We know it’s wrong, we shouldn’t be doing it – but with all our very best intentions never to do it again, we still do.

But after awhile, sin starts to work on us – it’s not that bad, it’s not a very big sin – it rationalizes for us, it excuses us, it convinces us – that sin isn’t… sin!

Don’t ever think of sin as some impassive, inert thing out there which we can just quietly avoid and stay out of trouble by minding our own business. Sin is the tool of the devil – and the devil is actively looking for a way to ensnare you (remember Peter’s description – “a roaring lion…”) – and he uses sin as skillfully and wisely as any craftsman. The moment we think we are above sin, or that the devil has given up on us, then you had better watch out.

We don’t intend to sin – we really want to do what is right – our intentions are the very best – but – listen to Paul himself – vss. 15-19 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. 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.

Have you ever felt that way? I have. So, what do we do? Are we condemned to a life of weak-willed, hopeless addiction to sin? Are the answers found in some kind of rehab program, maybe a 12-step approach, maybe psychotherapy? I don’t want to disparage those, and those may indeed be a part of the solution. But our basic problem is not that we don’t have enough information (like a TV drama where suddenly the light comes on and the person realizes their problem started when mom took me off the bottle too early – and they’re cured) – more education will not make us more able to avoid sin. Ours is not a problem of the head, but with the heart – it is not a problem of the intellect, but of the will. And more information will not solve that.

Paul isn’t just disinterestedly shouting out instructions to us – he is walking with us through this mess. He says, when my best human efforts fall short, … 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? (vss. 21-24).

There is a war being waged for our soul. His soul – our souls. We are in the trenches and the battle is going against us – our ammunition is ineffective, and we are quickly running out – it seems like only a matter of time – “the wages of sin is death” and payday is coming.
Have you ever felt like that? You try harder, you resolve, you promise. But you are exhausted, frustrated and helpless to do what you want to do. I have. Paul did.

When was the last time you admitted you just couldn’t do it on your own? When was the last time you just threw off the brave face, the strong façade and said, “I can’t do it” ? It’s easier to say, “all have sinned” than to admit “I have sinned.”The point is that, until we do, God’s resources remain unused and gathering dust. As long as we keep hitching up our boots, trying a little harder, being a little better, we’re on our own. Making more rules and being harsher on ourselves won’t cut it either – because sin loves looking for loopholes in our self-imposed rules.
Paul came to the end of his rope and cried out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Until Paul’s cry is our cry, we will only experience more of the same.

Paul doesn’t leave us hopeless. Bad news is always followed by good news:
3:23 “We have all sinned … and are justified freely by his grace”
5:8 “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”
6:23 “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life.”
Eph. 2 “You were dead in transgressions and sins… but God in his rich mercy saved us.”

And here in Romans 7:25, Paul has laid out his struggle and frustration and then his cry of desperation – “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And his cry of relief – “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Sin does not have to be our master – Satan does not have to be victorious. In our powerlessness over sin, God begins his work. In your struggle with sin, God has weapons and resources against which Satan himself is powerless.

And though Paul doesn’t reveal God’s source of this power until chapter 8, I want to lay the flap open just a bit for us to begin to sense the incredible strength which Paul will offer to the Christian in his battle against Satan – Romans 8:1-4 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

“No condemnation - the law of the Spirit of life – set free – live according to the Spirit.” Phrases that tell us there is so much more than a daily struggle with sin. God makes our lives victorious through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Back in chapter 5, Paul told us that God “poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

Now, in ch. 8, we will find out that this Spirit who lives within us plays a huge role in our lives as he empowers us and enables us to live the life God has called us to live. We are not powerless to sin, Satan has no hold over us, we are victorious in the blood of Jesus Christ.