The Battle of the two empires
I don't know about you, but when I preached that German sermon to myself, it almost felt like a spanking. The fact is, in many cases we know better, and still we remain unresponsive to the voice of God. In this passage from Romans 7, Paul lays it all on the line. He tells us of an experience that is at home in the life of every person.
Have you ever said to yourself or to someone else, "I don't know why I do this. I should know better." When we make a really stupid mistake , we say, "I could kick myself for that." Or "I had it coming. I should have known better."
That is what Paul is talking about here. He wanted to do what was right; yet somehow, he could never get it quite right. He knew it was wrong, and the last thing he wanted to do was to do the wrong thing. Yet somehow, he did it. And the good that he knew he should do, he couldn't get himself to do.
Do you ever feel yourself pulled in two directions. As if two powerful forces were tearing you apart. The one force pulls you toward doing God's will and the other force pulls you towards sin and darkness. Actually, most of the time its two forces pulling in opposite directions, and both claiming to be the will of God. In the life of every Christian there is struggle with sin. And it can get to be a frustrating experience.
Paul was frustrated with this ability to see what was good, and the inability to do it. He was frustrated with the ability to recognize what was wrong, and the inability to refrain from doing it.
Philosophers and theologians through the ages have struggled with this dilemma. Seneca for example, talked about how men hate their sins and love them at the same time. Ovid, a Roman Poet said, "I see the better things, and I approve them, but I follow the worse."
No one knew this problem better than the Jews. They had come to the conclusion that every person was created with two natures, two tendencies, two impulses. The Jews explained that God had made every person with a split personality, a good side and a bad side. Every person has an "evil twin" living right inside them, as it were.
To the Jews doing good or evil was a matter of choice. It is a free will decision of every person whether she will respond in a right way or a wrong way.
As we contemplate this passage, we must place it in the context of Paul's discussion about Law and Grace. The Jews would say that God gave them the law to keep a person from falling prey to the evil impulses. The Jews believed theoretically that it should work to limit the activities of a person in order to limit his evil choices. They would say, "take no more than 100 steps on a Sabbath and you'll be fine. That should prove your dedication to God."
A contemporary interpretation of that view might be, "go to church on Sunday, and you've done your part."
The Jews would say that all you need to do is to learn the Law of the Lord, and it should keep you safe in times of temptation. I agree. I firmly believe that the songs of faith and scripture verses that people have learned as a child can help and guide them through the difficult periods in their lives. However, the legalistic approach to learning all the right words and actions, without a relationship with the living Christ, will not stand up to sin and temptation.
Paul says that every attempt to follow the letter of the law is bound to fail at some point. We can try as hard as we want to, but there comes a time when our own good intentions fail us. We cave in to temptation. We say "I can't help it." "It's just a part of who I am." In our own strength we are powerless against sin.
The world has tried to offer us many solutions that explain our inability to say "no" to sin. We have tried to psychologize sin. We have become a society of victims. "I can't help that I have an attitude problem - my grandfather had an attitude problem." or, "I can't help being dishonest - my whole family has a history of stretching the truth." Or, "I was abused as a child."
Yes, the sins of our fathers and mothers have an effect on our lives. However, there comes a time when every individual has to take responsibility for his or her actions.
Our society has also done a good job at downplaying sin. "It's not sin what were doing, after all it doesn't hurt anyone." Or this one, "I didn't get caught shoplifting, and besides a few bucks won't hurt the company."
It is no wonder that so many Christians have become desensitized to sin. We hardly speak of sin as sin anymore. We explain our sins away by claiming that it was an "honest mistake". "I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that. Besides, it felt good."
It still comes down to Paul's basic confusion: even though we try to do the good, often we find ourselves face to face with sin. The Holy Spirit reveals to us in that moment that this was not right and pleasing to God. It may have felt good and satisfying to the ego, but it doesn't necessarily imply God blessing on our actions. Our conscience then keeps raising red flags and flashing pictures in our minds that remind us of our wrong actions.
In one way it almost sounds as if Paul is trying to escape responsibility when he says, "it is no longer I who do it, but the sin which resides within me." But, what he is really saying is that in his own power he is bound to be a looser. "I can't do it myself. Sin is much more powerful than all my good intentions."
And then comes his proclamation of victory: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Jesus has fulfilled the law of God. He is the perfect Lamb that was given as a guilt-offering for your and my sins. All our pride, our jealousy, and our need for acceptance can be brought to Christ. Everything that hinders our relationship with God can be dealt with through the forgiveness and love of Christ. Everthing that motivates us to choose sin over the will of God can be submitted to the will of Christ at the cross.
As Paul speaks about his own struggle with sin, he identifies an area in our lives that we need to bring under God's control. We too struggle with dishonesty, impure thoughts, wrong actions, carelessness towards others, and lack of accountability in our walk of faith.
Paul invites us to bring our inner turmoil to the cross of Calvary. Confess your sin! Renew your life with God! Renew your life with your husband, wife, children, parents, your brother and sister in the Church. Christ's grace is sufficient for us!
Paul challenges us to die to sin and become alive to God. He calls us to more intentional living of the life in Christ. "If we are in Christ, we are a new creation." The old is past. The new life is just beginning.
Let us break free, and become alive in Christ. Let us grow in our relationship to Christ. Let also our relationship with this body, the body of Christ, spring forth to new life. Let our hearts burn for the Kingdom of God. Then the world will know that we are His disciples.