A sermon to Winnetka Bible Church on August 14, 2016.
Text: Romans 7:13–20
Title: The Insanity of Sin & The Goodness of the Law
Until this chapter, it almost seems like Paul has gone on a law-bashing spree.
the law brings wrath (Ro 4:15)
sin is not counted where there is no law (Ro 5:13)
the law came in to increase the trespass (Ro 5:20)
sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law (Ro 6:14)
you also have died to the law through the body of Christ (Ro 7:4a)
Can you imagine the kinds of conclusions readers might be drawing about the law at this point? The law brings fiery wrath, it holds you accountable for trespasses, it aggravates your sin. And guess what! You were once subject to its legal demands. You couldn’t ignore the law any more than you could ignore your husband or wife. But as Pastor Aaron preached two weeks ago, when Jesus died on the cross—and you died with him—the covenant of your marriage to the law was ended. What does your relationship to the law look like now?
The high point of this chapter occurs in verses 5–6, and what follows further explains these glorious verses. These verses are critical context for us:
For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Ro 7:5–6)
What is the old way of the written code? Do you remember the utter despair of trying to serve God and appease your conscience by confirming your activity to external commands? That list, or law, might have looked different for you and me, but we all had some kind of law—big or small, either from God or invented ourselves—and it held us captive: don’t wear shorts!, only listen to Christian music!, don’t lust!, honor your parents!, don’t eat gluten!, give 10% of your gross income to the church!, recycle your pop cans!, don’t drink pop!, love God completely!, don’t lie!, and the list could literally never end. When we were under the law, we were playing the world’s most exhausting game of wack-a-mole with our desires. Sinful desires would pop up, and the law-keeper in us would swing at it, only to find our flesh assert itself somewhere else at the very same moment.
But if this is an old way there must be a new way. Christian, you have died to the old way of wack-a-mole legality to serve in the “new way of the Spirit.” Isn’t this great news? Don’t you want to know what this new way looks like? I sure do!
Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t unpack the new way of the Spirit just yet. Don’t worry, we will get there—that’s what all of chapter 8 is about. (So if you were planning a vacation for October or November, cancel your plans and make sure in church instead. You won’t want to miss it.) Before we climb the Mount Everest of the new way of the Spirit, Paul takes us on a very important detour to help us understand an important clarification about God’s law. Yes, the law is part of the old way that we have been released from. Does that make it sin? That’s the question Paul asks in verse 7:
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! (Ro 7:7a)
This was Pastor Keith’s sermon last week. No way! The law isn’t sin, but the law does exacerbate sin, and it has no saving power. The law promises life to anyone who can keep it, and —get this!—God’s law is not a lie. There really is life at the end of perfect law-keeping. Jesus kept the law completely, and was raised to eternal life as a result. The problem with the old way of law-keeping is not the law itself, or even the promises it offers. The problem is you. You aren’t a law-obeyer; you are a sin-obeyer, apart from the Spirit. Therefore, Paul concludes, the law is holy and good, in v. 12, which brings us to the second question in v. 13.
I. The goodness of the law
Exposition: The question Paul asks in v. 13 is a bit different than the question in v. 7. Earlier his question was about nature of the law, but let’s now turn to the second question Paul raises:
Did that which is good [the law], then, bring death to me? By no means! (Ro 7:13a)
This time Paul is not asking about the nature of the law, but about its function. This is a question about how we use the law. Is the good law functioning to bring death? And Paul’s answer might surprise us. He says, “Not at all. The good law does not bring death.”
Well, wait a second Paul. Didn’t you say, in verse 10, “the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Ro 7:10)? How can Paul say that the commandment proved to be death to me in v. 10, and then say, in v. 13, that in no way does the law bring death? (Here’s a hint for reading your Bible: when you think you see a contradiction, lean in. One of my teachers used to say that apparent contradictions in scripture are goldmines of theological interpretation.) The commandments of the law—to love God and neighbor—do not by themselves produce death in you, but they can, wrongly used, be the occasion of death and condemnation. I think this happens when the law is misused, according to the old way of the written code, instead of being used according to the new way of the Spirit. We will return to explore that in further detail next. But first, look at what Paul says in the second half of v. 13. What does produce death in me? Or to ask it more directly: Who is to blame for my sin?
It was sin, producing death in me through what is good [the law], in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Ro 7:13b)
Here’s the first point Paul makes: don’t blame God’s law for your sinning. Q: What produces sin & death in you? A: Your own internal sin-factory. Look at vv. 17 & 18:
So now it is no longer I who do it [what I hate], but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. (Ro 7:18)
Even as Christians, we carry with us everywhere we go this old polluting sin factory called “the flesh.” This is important. Even Christians don’t get the luxury of talking about our sin like it’s this problem outside us—circumstances or chemistry. Sin isn’t what happens when you accidentally slip on the banana peel. Paul says “sin dwells in me.” Sin lives and breeds in this part of your existence called “the flesh”—the throne of your former rebellion against the King of Heaven. This means the war is not between what’s “in here” and what’s “out there.” This conflict is from “in here” to “also in here.” The true King has been restored to his rightful place as ruler of your heart, but the guerilla fighters of opposition still take orders from the enemy headquarters, that is, your flesh.
What’s the role of the law in this? The law shows you plainly that your pet sin is not so cute and cuddly, after all. The law shines a bright radiant light on your sin and calls it what it really is: God-hating. The law commands, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” When the law exposes remaining sin, you can no longer pretend it’s no big deal, because sin is spiritual treason. It is war against the King.
Illustration: Imagine you are out at a sea and a storm sinks your boat. You survive, barely, and start to swim toward shore. Suddenly, a rescue helicopter approaches the rescue team shines a massive spotlight directly on your location. What was once your own private problem is now clear to you and to the watching crew: indeed, you are very much drowning, and about to die. Even worse than you thought, you’re not even remotely close to the shore, and in fact, you have been swimming for hours in the wrong direction! Now, is the spotlight what’s going to kill you? Is the spotlight to blame for your predicament? Has the spotlight done anything to warrant your accusation if you were to drown right then and there? Not even close.
This is what the law does. It shines its light of truth on the chaotic waters of your heart, and even for the Christian, makes the situation worse. The problem is not the law: sin is what is producing death in you. In the spotlight of the law, the crashing waves of sin are shown to be sin beyond any doubt.
Application: Do you avoid the purity of exposing truth in your life? Do you hide yourselves in patterns of anonymity and intentional ambiguity? I can remember times in my own life when I purposefully pursued ignorance, fogginess, on certain matters because I knew, consciously or subconsciously, that to actively seek out the truth in such matters would bring awareness of sin and guilt and shame. Friends, the clarity of the truth and the illumination God’s law provides is not your enemy. Your enemy is much closer to your own heart, it’s your very flesh. You are released from the law’s demands, but don’t rob yourself of its illumination.
Transition: We’ve seen point 1, the goodness of the law, now we’re going to look at point 2, the despair of the powerless old way.
II. The despair of the powerless old way
Exposition: Paul uses his experience of remaining sin in his flesh to show us the impeccability of the law. Look at v. 14
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. (Ro 7:14)
Why does Paul use his experience of his sinful flesh in an argument about the goodness of the law? I think he is using his experience of struggling with sin to show that the Holy Spirit’s work in his heart is proof that the law—this command to love God and neighbor—was true all along. So in that sense, it is totally good. It is spiritual.
The law by itself is spiritual, belonging to the new way of the Spirit. Of course, there is nothing wrong with loving God. Because of the love of God has been poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit (remember that from 5:5?), Paul really wants to love God, so he agrees with the law. This means that the law itself is not what Paul was talking about when he talked about the “old way of the written code” that we have been set free from. Do you understand that, Christian? You are set free from the commandment to love God and love neighbor “or else,” but—get this!—you are set free from that commandment so that you actually can now love God and neighbor!
The old way of the written code was to try and use the commandment to force yourself into obedience from the outside in. But the new way of the Spirit is even better, because it will accomplish the same thing the old way of the letter commanded, this time from the inside out!
What does Paul’s internal struggle with his flesh and sin tell us about the old way of the written code vs. the new way of the spirit? Paul’s hatred of the sin in his flesh tells us at least two things: first, he really agrees with the things the law says. But it also tells us, second, that agreeing with the law doesn’t help you stop sinning. Do you see that? Look with me: He says in verse 16 that “he agrees with the law” but look at where that leaves him in verse 18:
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. (Ro 7:18)
Paul paints a vivid picture here of a struggle I imagine each one of us in Christ have faced. Yes, he shows us by his own testimony that there is a conflict within even a believer over lingering sin. But maybe even more importantly, he shows us that even Christians don’t make any progress in this fight against when they try and kill sin with the law.
Killing sin is absolutely imperative for the believer. That was clear in chapter 6:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Ro 6:12–14)
And it will become even more clear in chapter 8:
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Ro 8:12–13)
Christian, you MUST kill sin, but you must do it by the Spirit. And oh, how anxious I am for us to get there, but not today. But remember that I said Paul is taking us on a detour, before we go up the sin-killing, spirit-empowered, life-transforming mountain of Romans 8—the new way of the Spirit. On this short detour in chapter 7, Paul is doing two things: (1) he is making sure we don’t confuse the law for sin, and (2) he’s showing what it feels like to see no victory over sin because we’re fighting new-age warfare with old-age weapons.
Illustration: Imagine for a moment if you were a colonial soldier in the American Revolution. You would have a musket with a bayonet, a few musket balls in your satchel, and maybe a sword on your side. Now pretend you were to hop in a time machine and you find yourself in the Iraq war in 2007. How do you think the warfare would go for you?
I’ve heard stories of some of our missionaries who fly into regions where tribal warriors will throw sticks and spears at their airplanes as they fly overhead. It almost seems a little funny to us, doesn’t it.
I imagine it’s not very funny to the person fighting for their life with a pocketknife against an enemy with a fleet of armored tanks. That feeling of defeat is what Paul is describing here in chapter 7 in his struggle against his flesh, when all he has to fight with is his agreement with the law of God.
To return to our lost at sea illustration for a moment, imagine trying to pull yourself to safety in the helicopter using the rays of light from the spotlight. That’s what it’s like trying to sanctify yourself using the law. That doesn’t make the law evil, but that’s not what it’s for. It’s there to show you your sin, but it is absolutely powerless to save you.
Application: Christian, are you trying to subdue your flesh by outward-in laws and rules and commandments? Is the only weapon in your arsenal a big blunt gavel that says, “Stop that?” Are you trying to change your heart by behavioral modification alone? Yes, your behavior matters. Very much so. Your steady-state patterns of behavior reveal what kind of heart you have. But you’ll never see a fig tree produce apples, no matter how many apples you staple to the branches. May Romans 7 be an opportunity for us to examine ourselves. If you are spinning your wheels of sanctification, it might mean you are trying to sanctify yourself with the law. Or it might also mean you aren’t a Christian at all.
Transition: And that brings us to our final point. The insanity of sin. I think, if we have eyes to see it, Paul gives us a very real means of testing ourselves to know if we are in the faith in these verses. Let me show you where I am seeing that.
III. The insanity of sin
Exposition: The insanity of sin is only a possibility for the believer, because only the believer has the ability to truly agree with the commands of the law—to love God and neighbor—from his heart. Only someone who truly loves God from their heart can experience deep turmoil over the lingering presence of sin in his or her life. And that means hating the sin, not just hating its effects or consequences. I think this is what Paul means in Romans 6:17 “you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Ro 6:17) Paul doesn’t deny that he experiences sin in his life:
So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Ro 7:17)
This is not a spiritual cop-out. Of course Paul is doing it. He said so in verse 15:
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Ro 7:15)
So is Paul sinning or is he not? He says they are his own actions, and that he does the very thing he hates. But his hatred of such sinning is at such a profoundly central part of his core being, that he can say “it is no longer I who do it.” This kind of deep disconnect between Paul’s deepest holy desires and his very real, evil actions creates a kind of turmoil that feels like an insanity. It leads the apostle to utter despair in verse 24: Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Ro 7:24).
What are we to make of the conflict in this divided man? What does Paul’s vivid description here tell us about the life of a true Christian?
The first thing is to see is the incoherence of sin. Paul cries out in v. 15 “I do not understand my own actions.” A little later he says:
For I do not do the good that I want to do, but the evil that I do not want to do is exactly what I keep on doing. (Ro 7:19)
For the Christian, sin is utterly illogical. Sin is a disease of the soul—a suicidal impulse to self-destruction. Sin is the idolatrous exchange of the glory of the immortal creator god for corruptible images resembling created things. Sin is the trading of fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand, for fleeting wisps of phantom thrills. Sin is the blinding of the mind to the radiance of the light of the truth. So, friends, don’t be surprised when there’s not a lot of clarity and sanity as the apostle talks about his struggle with sin, because SIN IS INSANE.
But the second thing to notice here is that the struggle with sin is a sign of new life. Pastor Keith will spend all of next week on this point, so I only need to briefly mention it here in verse 20:
Now if I do what I do not want, [then] it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Ro 7:20)
Be a good Bible student here, and look at the relationship of the if-then statement here. If we are doing what you do not want, then it is no longer we who do it, but sin that dwells within us. What happens if the “if” statement were not true? What if the things we are doing, the sins we are committing, are what we really want to do? What would that mean for us? What we should see here is that the “struggle” should only be called struggling if there really is a struggle happening. You’re not “struggling” with sin when you’re floating down the river in a raft. You’re struggling when you’re kicking and screaming against the current, and sometimes swallow a mouthful of salt water and choke a bit. This is where must search our hearts, recognizing that we are so prone to self-deception. Do you hate your sin, Christian? Can you truly join the apostle in saying, “I do what I do not want.”
Illustration: If a team of forensic investigators showed up at the crime scene, would there be any sign of a struggle? Would they find some lamps shattered, or some fingernail marks along the entryway doors? Does your alleged captor have a bruise near his ribcage, a bloody lip? Will they find some of his teeth on the floor? Or will it look like you turned off the lights and locked the door? Did you straighten the doormat before you strolled to the curb, where your chauffeur was waiting to drive you off a cliff?
Because here’s the thing, folks. Paul is going to teach us how to fight in chapter 8. But the question to ask ourselves in the meantime is, do I really want to win?
Application: We can test ourselves in this right now. I want for us all to say with the apostle, there’s sin dwelling in my flesh, and I hate it. We start by letting the spotlight of God’s law search out our hearts: Do you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit saying with your mind, “I agree with God’s law, and it is good.” Oh friends, today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart. Right now you can ask God to expose sin in your heart, and hate it with a violent hatred. If you see the sin in your heart, but know that deep down you really love it, and don’t want to see it pulverized, then Romans 7 is not about you.
This is a text for people who can say with Paul, “I hate this.” If that’s where you are right now, praise God. That’s a sign the Holy Spirit is at work in your heart. And guess what? Romans 8 is written to help you run a spear through it. But in the meantime don’t hide in anonymity and darkness. Grab a friend who you trust. Grab one of the elders or pastors and ask them to fight with you, and to fight from the heart, not mere behavior modification. And if there’s a pattern of sin in your life, and no sign of a fight, I beg of you to spend some time alone with the Lord, and ask him to show you whether you really hate your sin, or if you just hate its consequences.
To close, let me give you a taste of where Paul is going after all this detouring. [Hear this good news, Christian.] There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. [Oh, what good news that is after the nightmare that is ch 7 and the struggle with the flesh] For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death [here is what we’ve been saying in chapter 7] For what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. [Here is the gospel message we proclaim:] God has done! [Hallelujah! How did he do it?] By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, [And here is where we are go from here] in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, [of course! because we agree with the law! It is good!] who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Ro 8:1–4)