Paul looks in the mirror and says, “I don’t know this man.” Stunning admission or cop-out? The evidence for cop-out grows throughout Romans 7, “It’s not me; it’s sin living in me,” almost giving us a Pauline, “It wasn’t me; it was the one-armed man.”
One could look at these verses and just see hand-wringing pusillanimity. “C’mon, Paul! Don’t give us excuses. Don’t give us this, ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ business.” You don’t accept that from co-workers or children, do you? “How did this get broken?” “I don’t know.” Unacceptable. “Where’s that report?” “Yeah, well, you see, I don’t really know what happened.” Unacceptable.
Yet Paul doesn’t stop with, “I don’t know this man or his behavior.” His words lead to confession, not excusing or explaining away. By saying, “I don’t understand what I do,” Paul confesses that he shouldn’t be doing these things, because, as Paul just explained in Romans 6, and says repeatedly in Romans 7, this isn’t who he is. He doesn’t want to do these things. He wants to do good. “In my inner being I delight in God’s law.” Which, according to Paul naturally results in doing God’s law.
Yet it doesn’t. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….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.”
It’s so easy, you say. “You want to do good, do good!” You want to eat this meal, eat it. You want to read this book, read it. Except it’s not that easy, is it? I have a desire to eat this, but don’t always. Why? Either I’m too lazy, or I don’t have the time, ingredients, or money. I want to read this book, but I don’t because I don’t have it, or I can’t keep my eyes open, or there’s something else to do and before you know it break time’s over or it’s bedtime.
Other factors influence behavior. Ours and Paul’s. If it were up to him alone, he would do the good. But it’s not, because sin lives with him. Sin lives in him. “Evil is right there with me.” A law goes to work on his body parts “waging war against the law of my mind…making me a prisoner of the law of sin.”
This factor is that no-good, terrible, very bad thing we talked about last week: the flesh. “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature,” “my flesh.”
This is weird, maybe even not right. Didn’t Romans 6 say we died to sin? That through baptism our Father killed us with Christ, buried us with him and raised us to new life? That’s why Paul says, “I don’t understand what I do.” Dead to sin, yet sinning. Buried, separated from sin, yet hands dirty. Walking in new life, yet covered in old vomit that proves I’m not so far removed from sin.
Sin should be unintelligible to me. In Christ, we speak a new language, a language of the Spirit, of God’s law, of desires to listen to God, to love God, to run to God. The Spirit filled the psalms and proverbs with words like this: “I will set my eyes on no vile things,” “I hate every wrong path,” “To fear the LORD is to hate evil,” “The righteous hate what is false.” Seems simple enough, this new life in Christ.
Yet, we feel Paul’s angst. Sin remains all too familiar. “I know I should do this or that.” I know I should be…what? In church more? In Bible class more? Having devotions with my family? Listening more? I know I should help more. I know I should look at my finances more and adjust the offerings I give. I know I should be more patient, more caring, more loving, more generous. On and on and on. We can explore the home, the state, work, and church and find lots of “could ofs”, “would ofs”, and “should ofs”. And with Paul, as baptized children of God, we can even say, “want tos”.
But we don’t. We don’t give more generously and cheerfully. We don’t stop being lazy or selfish. We do what we hate and don’t want to do. And in so doing we act against words of God that say, “Do” or “Don’t do.” We do what we hate, even though, like Paul, we know that God’s Words are good, holy, and righteous.
Like Paul, we know the problem, “It’s not me, it’s sin living in me.” Our flesh drags us down. This side of heaven we fight a wretched battle. The flesh wages war. The flesh takes us prisoner. It’s a zero-sum game. Either the flesh wins or the Spirit wins. The flesh wants you dead. The Spirit wants you alive.
For that reason, we ought to hate the flesh. But do we? Or do we just “dislike” it? I know I teach my children carefully about the word “hate” and how to avoid using it.
But have we let our hatred denial – “You don’t hate” – seep into this? That now we don’t even hate our flesh; we sort of live with it. “I am who I am.” I’m a sinner. I have this flesh. I deal with it. And, happily, God forgives.
That puts us in danger. Functionally, it aligns us with the Reformed-Calvinist churches. These churches also broke off from the pope during the Reformation. We often summarize their theology with the acronym TULIP – no, not the flower. Each letter stands for a chief characteristic of the Reformed-Calvinist theology. For the moment, we’ll focus only on the last letter, the “P” of the Calvinist TULIP, which stands for “the perseverance of the saints,” or, as it’s also known, “eternal security.” We sum up this teaching in the phrase: “Once saved, always saved.”
The Calvinist says, “You can’t fall from faith.” No matter how bad things look, no matter how badly you behave, no matter how much sinning you’re doing, if God elected you for salvation, if you're truly a believer in Christ, then you belong to him. You may earn God’s displeasure. He may turn off the lights for a time. You might, to all the world, look like an unbeliever, but you aren't. And you can't fall from faith; he won’t take you out of heaven.
I pray none of us would ever say this, but, again, if we compromise with our flesh, if we learn to live with it, dislike it a little, lament it some, then, functionally speaking we’re saying, “It’s okay, God’s going to get me anyways. What can I do about it?”
But Paul says he hates it. Paul goes on record repeatedly in Romans 6 rejecting the premise of just going on sinning. In Romans 7, as Paul examines this duality of the Christian life – loving God’s law, but doing what we hate – Paul understands that God’s law is the good thing and our flesh is the evil thing. We love God’s Word and Law; we hate our flesh. Paul also gets that it’s a fixed law of living on this side of heaven: evil lives next to me, and worse, in me, taking advantage of my unwillingness to hate it and my inability to amputate it. Paul gets to the conclusion, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
To do any less is almost the equivalent of saying, “Well, the lights are one, the pastor’s in the pulpit, teachers are in the classrooms, all must be well!” To just throw up our hands and say, “Well, sin’s in me,” is to give in. It’s sets up a new law, and that law says, “I’m okay”, despite God actually saying, "Go and sin no more."
But I’m not. Does “wretched man” sound ok? Does “body of death” sound ok? Is it ever “ok” when what’s required is rescue?
Far from being cowardly, far from compromising with his flesh, Paul confronts it. Paul confesses. As David did in Psalm 19, “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant from willful sins.” Or in Psalm 119, “Direct my footsteps according to your Word.” Or Psalm 65, “When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions.”
Romans 7 doesn’t compromise with the flesh or shift the blame. Paul repents and confesses. Paul howls in sorrow over these sins, places them before the Lord, and then trusts. “I am wretched. I am a body of death. I need to be rescued. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Paul can confess because he has heard our Gospel, where Jesus doesn’t talk to the confident man who says, “I have mastered sin,” but to us who bow our heads in shame, who throw up our hands in despair, who shake our heads in confusion when we see what we do, even with the name of Christ engraved on us in baptism. Paul heard, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Even in our new life of faith, we can’t overcome what we hate. So God found a way to overcome this fixed rule and law of death by flesh: a faithful high priest, like us in every way, but one – no sin. He didn’t do what he hated. He always did what he desired, what God desired. His footsteps followed God’s Word perfectly.
Jesus waged war against the flesh and took it captive, surprising it with a stunning victory at the cross. There sin and death and hell thought it had Jesus, but as it turned out, Jesus lured them into the greatest ambush of all time. He embraced sin, death, and hell; he wrapped his arms around the flesh and dragged them to where they belong: hell. And then left them there. To die. Apart from us. That’s the promise of forgiveness.
That’s forgiveness. It’s rescue, deliverance, salvation. It’s new life. It’s the devil wildly accusing, pointing at our flesh and saying, “See, see, he does the evil, he doesn’t do the good!” And we admit the truth of the charge. And God says, “Jesus.” A word placed upon us at the font – “in Jesus’ name.” A word the Spirit speaks in his Word, “Jesus gives you rest.” A word attached to crumbs and sips, “Jesus’ body. Jesus’ blood. For you. For forgiveness. For rest.”
Romans 7 does not capitulate to the flesh. It removes the last barrier to understanding our deep need for Christ. It helps us avoid amnesia. Even in faith, we sin. Until Christ breaks through the clouds and announces the new heavens and the new earth, we sin. And until that day, God the Holy Spirit graciously announces rescue in those words Luther teaches us in catechism, “In this Christian Church he daily and fully forgives all sins to me and all believers.” I, like Paul, need that until I die. So that I can keep on trying to love. And Jesus, as he did for Paul, gives it to us until we live forever with him in heaven, where we only love. Amen.