“Striving in Grace”
I want to present two points to you by introducing two different scenarios. First, I find it interesting that people often have a misunderstanding of what it means to be right with God. Maybe you’ve had this experience also. But isn’t it true that when you talk to people about their eternal destiny, the usual response you get has something to do with being a “good” person. Some may even tell you about how they volunteer at the soup kitchen, coach underprivileged kids or even attend church faithfully. People seem to think that they can somehow earn good favor with God and this is often based on being better than a neighbor or coworker. They all have some sort of artificial and fabricated standard by which they weigh good works over bad, or good person versus a “bad” person.
We are looking at Romans 7 this morning. I invite you to turn there with me. The book was written by the apostle Paul and it is a rich theological letter. Romans 7 is situated between chapters 6 and 8 (obviously) and really serves as the tension between the two. Romans 6 indicates our position in Christ and elaborates on how sin is no longer has mastery over the believer. Romans 8 speaks of the empowerment of the Spirit in living a life pleasing to God. To me, Romans 7 really holds the two in balance. It is here that we see themes of law, sin, and grace. And it is here that we see the “behind the scenes” of Paul’s conversion. We already know the narrative of Paul (then Saul) how he was confronted by the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul was a guy that, before coming to Christ, was probably one who could and did boast of his striving after righteousness. But then he was confronted. We know he was confronted by the Lord. But he was also confronted with the law. What I want us to see is that righteousness cannot be attained by our striving after it. We cannot earn it.
It is not what you do, but what Christ did. It’s not what you do because what you do is not enough for eternal life. Though many people think so.
In Romans 7, Paul writes to the church that because of Christ, they were freed from the condemnation and rule of the Law. But because the church at Rome held the Law in high regard, he had to proceed carefully and meticulously to prove to them the necessity of being freed from it.
Read with me starting from verse 5 (to v. 6). As Paul continues, he writes as if he is anticipating a response to this statement. He offers the questions, “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin?”
He goes on and emphasizes the fact that the law was good, but rather it was our own sinfulness that condemned us. The point that Paul makes is that the Law provided us with the consciousness of sin. He continues in verse 7 by saying “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” Again, in verse 9, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” He was not aware of his sinfulness until he was confronted with the Law.
This does not mean that he had no concept of right and wrong because he wrote in chapter 2 about how all have conscience that accuses us. But what is not understood is the nature of sin and its implications regarding our relationship to God. Paul says that he was alive apart from the law. When you are unaware of your sinfulness, you don’t recognize the problem. And so you need to die before you can experience new spiritual life. The law demonstrates our depravity and inability to earn our righteousness. This is what he means when he says that when the commandment came, or when he was confronted with it, it caused him to understand this. And so he can conclude in verse 12 that this same law is holy, righteous, and good because he understood more clearly his need for a Savior.
One commentator notes, “Since the law is God’s law, it must of necessity reflect the nature of God. The law of a holy God must be consistent with his holy nature (Isa 6:3). A righteous God decrees commandments that are righteous. They are fair and make no unreasonable demands. The law is “good” because it intends the very best for people. In this entire discussion Paul was not depreciating law as such. His point had been that law has been used by sin as an unwilling accomplice to bring about death.
This is crucial for understanding the Gospel, or the “good news.” I think I’ve said this before. But if I approached you and told you the good news of how I have the cure for your serious illness, you would probably inquire of the illness first. And so it is with the Gospel. If people don’t understand their condition apart from Christ, the gospel makes no sense. If you rightly declare that “Jesus died for sins,” without defining sin and their need of a remedy, it may not connect.
This is one of the things that I particularly appreciate about the Way of the Master evangelism training that we’ve done. It is a simple and biblical approach to sharing the gospel. By asking simple questions, we are able to show people that our artificial standards of “good” are not good. We can point them to God’s standard and lead them to see their need for a Savior. It appeals to the conscience within and shows them the problem of their condition and the good news of Jesus Christ.
The problem with many preachers and evangelists today is that they never introduce the condition but paint an inaccurate picture of what Christianity is about. It is not about health and wealth, or about finding your purpose ultimately. It is about seeing the need of a Savior and embracing the grace that is available to those who repent and believe. It is our responsibility to make sure that we understand and communicate the gospel accurately and effectively. God uses our imperfect presentations, but doesn’t excuse us from trying to get it right.
Next Paul points out that that the law produced a desire within us to sin. He writes in verse 8, “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”
Illus. - The Flagship Hotel in Galveston, Texas, is built next to the water. Large plate-glass windows adorn the ground-level dining room. Occasionally, guests used to come up with the “brilliant” idea of fishing from their balconies, located directly above the dining room.
Using heavy sinkers, they would cast their hook and bait into the water. Unfortunately, the lines were sometimes too short and the leaded sinkers would swing down, shattering the $600 windows. After spending large sums without solving the problem, the hotel management finally stumbled on a simple solution. They removed the “No Fishing from Balcony” signs from the rooms!
I think we can all identify with this. At least I know that I can. When I was younger especially. How many times did our parents tell us not to touch something or hang out with somebody? And isn’t it true that this sparks our curiosity and prompts the rebel in us to do just that - because they said something? Augustine tells the story of how he used to go into a field and steal pears. Not for the sake of eating them, but just for the pleasure of breaking a law. We are rebels by our very nature. Because of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, we are born this way.
Now it’s important to notice in the text that the law is not to blame, but rather our sin. For he says in verse 8 that sin produced this desire.
Not only did the Law show us our sin, arouse our desire to sin, but it also shows us the magnitude of our sin. We read further in verse 13, |Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. The force behind the phrase “utterly sinful” is better understood as being “sinful in the extreme.” Pretty heavy language.
Can you imagine if there was such a thing as an x-ray that could detect your sin. This machine could penetrate your physical body and into your most inner being. What would it find? I know I wouldn’t want to see the results of that test. In a sense I think that’s what the Law did. It provided a standard with which to gauge our spiritual life. We fall way short!
The law was good and served many purposes but it did not provide a way out.
Illus. - Evangelist Fred Brown used three images to describe the purpose of the law. First he likened it to a dentist's little mirror, which he sticks into the patient's mouth. With the mirror he can detect any cavities. But he doesn't drill with it or use it to pull teeth. It can show him the decayed area or other abnormality, but it can't provide the solution. Brown then drew another analogy. He said that the law is also like a flashlight. If suddenly at night the lights go out, you use it to guide you down the darkened basement stairs to the electrical box. When you point it toward the fuses, it helps you see the one that is burned out. But after you've removed the bad fuse, you don't try to insert the flashlight in its place. You put in a new fuse to restore the electricity. In his third image, Brown likened the law to a plumbline. When a builder wants to check his work, he uses a weighted string to see if it's true to the vertical. But if he finds that he has made a mistake, he doesn't use the plumbline to correct it. He gets out his hammer and saw. The law points out the problem of sin; it doesn't provide a solution.
But thankfully there is a solution. Verse 4 reads, “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.” And verse 6, “But now, having died to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
There is nothing good in us that enables us to keep the law. Apart from Christ, we are “sin to the extreme!” We cannot earn our salvation. We need a Savior to deliver us from the wretchedness of our sin. Thanks be to God that, in Christ alone, we possess his righteousness. He is the fulfillment of the law and the only One who accredit righteousness to us. He earned it for us.
It’s not what you do, because what you do isn’t enough for eternal life. It is only what Christ does.
It’s not what you do, because what you do isn’t enough for the Christian life.
Paul continues to show in this next section that we cannot do any good on our own. You can almost hear the frustration as he writes, (Romans 7:14) “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
To paraphrase: Why did I do that? That was pretty dumb.
I just have to say here: God is gracious. As I study Scripture, God has a way of bringing it home. A lot of the meaning and application become readily apparent in the week leading up to the preaching. The issues seem to always bubble to the surface.
So I decided that I will be honest with you and share my Romans 7 struggle. I repeatedly rely on operating in my own strength. Perhaps you too can relate. Now we know from Scripture and our personal experience that the successful Christian life is one in which we are dependent on the Lord for his strength. 2 Corinthians tells us that his power is perfected in our weakness. This brings God glory. It makes him look good. But instead of relying on the Lord and his sufficiency, I continue to pull up my own bootstraps and rely on my own strength. And, if you too have this struggle, you know that this only leads to despair. As I have tried to analyze this a bit, I find that it is likely rooted in pride. So I have to look at that in my life and ministry.
This past month has been burdensome for me in that suddenly I find myself performing more duties. So instead of praying and trusting more, I have been working more. So, I have to ask myself why? I already know that I am inclined to be self-reliant, which is sin. We are told to be controlled and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. But somehow I think that I can do a better job of sanctifying myself by my own effort and carrying out Christian ministry if I just try a little harder. Alright, now let’s dig a little deeper. Why is someone self-reliant? Like I said, it is quite possibly pride – not the pride that goes around drawing attention to yourself. With regard to ministry, it is quite easy to view success or failure of a church as a reflection of your competence. So if the Growth Group Ministry or youth or music ministry fail, somehow this reflects on you. But instead of praying and leaving it in the Lord’s hands, you exert more effort and carry a greater burden. This will weigh on you like crazy. And THAT is exactly the point. We are created to be dependent on God. We cannot attain our righteousness by the law, and we cannot live the Christian life by mere effort. We are dependent on God for our salvation and for our sanctification – which is our lifelong pursuit of becoming more holy.
So, I can very easily identify with Paul’s last words in Romans 7. I know what it is to repeatedly fall into the trap of self-reliance. This seems to be my lifelong lesson. Now this isn’t my desire. With Paul, I can honestly say that I want to do what is right and find this struggle staring me in the face. What is your struggle? Allow these words from Paul challenge you to repent and rest more fully on the One who saves and empowers you to change.
A commentator describes the situation like this: “It probably is true that in the lives of most earnest Christians the two conditions Paul described exist in a sort of cyclical advance. Recognition of our inability to live up to our deepest spiritual longings (chap. 7) leads us to cast ourselves upon God’s Spirit for power and victory (chap. 8). Failure to continue in reliance upon the power of the Spirit places us once again in a position inviting defeat. Sanctification is a gradual process that repeatedly takes the believer through this recurring sequence of failure through dependency upon self to triumph through the indwelling Spirit.”
Verse 21 - So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
I think we can all identify with this sort of inner struggle that Paul is talking about. There is a constant battle for the control of our thoughts. Our society today is saturated with immorality. It’s all around. We see sex pasted on our televisions, our billboards, clothing catalogs, and most of all - the internet. Often times we don’t choose to confront these images - passing through channels on the TV, driving by a billboard, and even your one letter off on a web address and you come across some raunchy stuff. But when we do confront these images, there is a choice to make. Will we quickly dismiss these thoughts and change the channel or turn off the monitor? Or will we entertain them for the simple and fleeting pleasure that sin provides?
Illus. - In the words of D.L. Moody: When I was converted, I made this mistake: I thought the battle was already mine, the victory already won, the crown already in my grasp. I thought the old things had passed away, that all things had become new, and that my old corrupt nature, the old life, was gone. But I found out, after serving Christ for a few months, that conversion was only like enlisting in the army--that there was a battle on hand.
Conclusion - As Christians, we need to feel a tension. We do not strive to earn our righteousness. Nor do we strive in our own strength in our pursuit of holiness. It is grace that is based on Christ’s death and resurrection that achieves our righteousness and it is his grace that empowers us to live a godly life. It is as we strive within that grace, as we obey his commands, that he gives us the grace to grow. This is what it means to be filled by the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” There’s the tension.
One thing that I thought of in the pursuit of godliness is that there are practical steps that we take in order grow. We know that we should read, study, and memorize Scripture, pray, give, and evangelize. Realize that these alone don’t achieve godliness. I think it was either Don Whitney or Jerry Bridges that said something like “the spiritual disciplines put you in the path of grace.” God uses these practices to develop our relationship with him. If they are carried out merely as a checklist that somehow will earn our sanctification, they can easy lead to legalism. But, if we are not intentional in these expectations, we cannot expect to grow. It is in our effort that God’s grace and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit transform us. Our motivation is what determines the difference.
Colossians 1:29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
Benediction – Ephesians 3.14-17