Sunday, February 16, 2020

Romans 8: a Treasury for the Saints

When we come to Romans 8, we are immediately met with the word, “therefore.”  What is the “therefore” there for?  Some commentators point back to Romans 7:6, in which Paul argues that through Christ’s death for us, we are released from the law so that we may serve in the newness of the Spirit.  And surely this ties nicely into the flow of thought introduced here in Romans 8:1 and continued in the next several verses.  For in the next few verses (2-10), the apostle argues that it is the Spirit who through Christ delivers us from the flesh and enables obedience, and who, moreover, will ultimately deliver us from the mortality brought on by sin.  The apostle had argued for the impotence of the law in chapter 7; now he argues for the power of the Holy Spirit given to us through Christ.

Others point back to Romans 7:25 and to the apostle’s cry of thanksgiving to our Lord who delivers us from the body of death.  It is because of Christ that the Spirit comes to us.  The law cannot deliver us from the power of sin, but Christ can, and the apostle now unfolds how this comes to pass.

However, I personally take the point of view that the connection between Romans 8 and the preceding goes further back and encompasses more than just Romans 7.  It is remarkable that though justification is not a topic in Romans 7, and yet at the very beginning of Romans 8, this is what Paul points us to as the implication of what he had been writing about.  Surely we cannot avoid the inescapable conclusion that the “therefore” at the beginning of this chapter takes in and encompasses all of the apostle’s foregoing argument, not just chapter 7, but chapters 1-7, including all that he had written on the subject of justification in chapters 3-5.  

Romans 8, therefore, stands not only the end of chapters 5-8, but of all the preceding epistle.  It is a summary statement of what has gone before.  But it is more than that, for in it the apostle also develops the themes of the preceding chapters and shows how they all contribute towards an unshakable foundation for hope and confidence and security for those who are in Christ. 

For this reason, I think it is important, before we dive into the chapter and examine it on a microscopic level, that we step back and observe it on the macroscopic level and get the big picture here.  In some sense, we are not only looking at Romans 8 as a whole but also all the epistle up to this point.  And there are many very important truths here that are meant to be taken in together.  To just look at the details and not see the whole panoramic landscape would be like focusing on a little pebble at the foot of the Rockies and never looking up to be taken in by the breathtaking majesty of the mountains towering all around you.  Yes, the pebble may be worthy of minute inspection.  But the pebble is probably there at the foot of that mountain for a reason.  Don’t so focus on the pebble that you miss the mountain.

One of the reasons I think it is important for us to consider the truths of this chapter together, is because the cumulative effect of all the truths together has more power in engaging the affections of our hearts than any one of them alone.  It’s like a rockslide.  You may be able to dodge a thousand stones when they come at you one at a time, but when they all come at you at the same time, you have no chance. In the same way, we can be reminded of this precious truth or that precious truth and yet our hearts will dodge the invigorating implications those truths have for our hope and joy.  But when the apostle launches them at us one after the other, it becomes harder for us to do that.  And that’s want I want to happen this morning.  I want us to see the magnitude of the blessings that we have in Christ.  We can do that better when we look at them all together than just one at a time.

I also think it’s a good thing to do this because of the very structure of this chapter itself.  In verse 31, the apostle asks this question: “What then shall we say to these things?”  In other words, given what the apostle has said up to this point, what should be our response?  These are not things simply to store up in some memory block, but these are things that have soul-stirring implications.  But it is only when we have considered them together that the question comes.  

What are the truths that the apostle highlights in this chapter?  I think they basically come to us in this order: justification (1), sanctification (2-13), adoption (14-17), and glorification (18-30).  The response to these realities is then one of exultation (31-39).  And as we embrace these realities by faith, our response also ought to be one of exultation and hope and joy.  It ought to make us happy people.  

It is so easy for us to focus on the bad in us and around us.  There is no doubt that there is a lot to grieve over.  There is a lot of sadness surrounding us.  The trajectory of our society is troubling, to say the least.  And when we look within, we find nothing good there (cf. 7:18).  And then there are those of us who are naturally more melancholy and find ourselves tending towards being depressed by our weaknesses and limitations and failures.

But Romans 8 ought to make the believer in Christ a happy and hopeful person.  The thing about ourselves and the world is that they are always changing, most of the time for the worse.  We are not guaranteed that our jobs will get better or even that we will keep them.  We are not guaranteed that we will be able to avoid heartache and hurt in this world.  We cannot guarantee that everyone is going to like us.  We cannot guarantee that we will be spared tragedy.  In fact, if we take Scripture seriously, we can actually expect all these things (cf. 8:35-37!).  Forget about having your best life now, for our Savior said that those who save their lives in this world will lose them in the age to come (Mk. 8:34-38).

But if that’s the case, how do you remain hopeful and happy in this world?  This is important, because it’s going to be hard to remain faithful if we lose all hope and happiness.  Psalm 73 and the book of Hebrews bears this up.  

Hope and happiness in the end don’t come from nice things and earthly comforts.  They can only come from blessings that have unshakable permanence.  Nothing in this earth can give us that.  But what Romans 8 tells us is that in Christ we have such unshakably permanent blessings.  Nothing on this earth or anywhere else can take these blessings from us.  They are eternally durable.  Nor do they wear out or grow old.  Things of this earth can make us happy for a time.  But the things of heaven will make you happy for eternity.  This is what Romans 8 reminds us.  If we truly grasp the truths which are laid out before us in this chapter, we will find a reservoir of joy that will never dry up.

So lets take an inventory of the blessings which belong to all who belong to Christ.  It is a veritable treasury for the saints.  As John Stott summarized it: the chapter begins with no condemnation and ends with no separation.

Justification (1)

Though Paul doesn’t use the word “justification” in verse 1, the idea is definitely there in the phrase “no condemnation.”  For justification is the declaration that we are righteous before God.  It is the opposite of condemnation, which is the declaration that a person is not righteous.  To be justified, therefore, is to be no longer condemned.  

To be sure, this is justification before God, not before man.  Men may and will condemn us, as they did our Lord.  But they cannot successfully condemn us in the sense that at the end God’s pronouncement will upend all human condemnation (35).  We will inevitably triumph in God’s forgiveness and acceptance.  

It is this that we need above all things.  To be condemned by God in the day of judgment will be unutterably tragic and terrifying.  It would be better never to have been born than to face that reality at the last day.  No earthly blessing can ever redeem the value of our souls.  We need to be justified by God before God.  One of the reasons we might be sad now is that we do not truly appreciate the magnitude and implications of this blessing.  We will see some of the implications as the chapter unfolds.  But it begins here.

One of the things that makes justification so precious is that we have it “now.”  It is an immediate reality for all who believe on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  It is not something you have to work towards.  It is not something you have to earn.  It is not something for which we become worthy.  For God justifies the ungodly (4:5).

It is not only a present reality; it is also a permanent reality and that multiplies its sweetness for the believer.  One of the things about earthly wealth is that once you have it, you have to keep it.  It could be taken from you at any moment, either by robbers or by the stock market or by poor decisions or a thousand other eventualities.  Wealth does not necessarily bring with it inner peace; for many people it only multiples their worries.  If you don’t have much to lose, what of it?  But if you have to keep your millions, that can be something to keep you awake at night.

But the thing about the justification that God gives is that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  If you are in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation for you.  It doesn’t depend upon you; your justification rests solely upon Christ and his work for you.  You have it now, and you will have it as long as you have Christ.  And as we shall see, the believer can never be separated from Christ.  And so justification is not only a present reality, it is also a permanent reality.  It cannot be taken from us.  There is nothing that can happen to you in this world or the next that will undo justification, if you belong to Christ.

If we really believed this and held is constantly before our eyes, how could we not be happy?  To be accepted by God!  That is the thing that secures everything else.  If we are justified we shall be glorified (8:30).

Sanctification (2-13)

These are not hard and fast categories, but it is pretty clear to me anyway that Paul is dealing with sanctification in these verses.  He speaks of not walking according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (4), and the distinction between being in the Spirit and in the flesh.  Though in chapter 7, the apostle has argued that we cannot be sanctified by the law, now he turns and shows us that we shall be sanctified by the Spirit of Christ.  

Note that Paul has no problem moving from justification to sanctification.  Nor does he imagine a category of believer who has the former blessing but not the latter.  If you have the Spirit, you will set your mind on the things of the Spirit (5).  But everyone who belongs to Christ has the Spirit (9), and if you have the Spirit you will be walking according to the Spirit.  This is no second blessing; this is the description of all who belong to Christ.  He not only justifies his people; he also sanctifies them.  On the cross, he not only purchased forgiveness of sins, he also purchased freedom from our sins (3-4).  Christ does not communicate only some of the blessings purchased on the cross for his people; he gives freely of all that he has obtained for us by his death: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (32).  

Paul is elaborating here on the thanksgiving expressed in 7:25.  We are indeed wretched, but Christ delivers us from our wretchedness.  The law cannot sanctify us, but Christ can, and he does.  The clutches of sin can be powerful but Christ is infinitely more powerful.  There is no lust or passion or sin that can overpower the triumph of Christ over sin.  There is never any reason for those who are in Christ to ever despair over the sin in their lives.  Rather, we have every reason to fight it through the help of the grace of Christ.  

Those who have truly come to Christ for forgiveness for sin must inevitably come to him for freedom from sin as well.  This is because, to truly see ourselves as sinners and as someone in need of forgiveness we must also see the sinfulness of sin.  We must come to hate sin and see it as hateful and disgusting, not only because of what it does to us, but more than that because of what it is to God.  But if we see sin in this way, we are going to want to be rid of sin.  No one who comes to Christ comes to him and yet wants to go on wallowing in his or her sin.  They are not only going to want to be justified but also sanctified.  

When we look within, there can be a lot of reasons to be sad.  But we must remember that the sin within does not and cannot control the story that God is writing for us.  God is at work in each of his people, working in them the graces of the Spirit.  Through his providence and the work of the Spirit, he is at work bringing you to be a more holy, humble, and loving person.  And that is surely a reason to be glad.

Adoption (14-17)

In these verses, the apostle expands upon the blessings which all who belong to Christ enjoy.  They are not only justified and sanctified, but they are also adopted in the family of God.  It has been often put that this is the crowning blessing of salvation.  It is conceivable, at least, that God could have forgiven our sins and left it at that.  But he has not only done that, he has also brought us into his family and made us sons and daughters of God.  It’s one of those things that, had Scripture not revealed it to us, we dare not believe it.  

Thus, the apostle speaks of “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’  The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God” (15-16).  God has not adopted us into his family but then kept this fact a secret; no, he sends the Spirit to his children so that they will have an awareness of the familial ties that now bind them to their heavenly Father, and cry out to him as a child does to their parent.  God wants us who are in Christ to come to him as his sons and daughters.

Do we believe this?  Do you think you are not worthy of this honor?  Well, you are not.  But that’s okay.  For Christ was worthy for us.  We don’t become sons and daughters of the most High because we are good enough, but because Christ is good enough for us.  

If this is true of us, how could we not be hopeful?  Yes, it is true that God allows us to go through hard times.  We can be sure that he does so because it is best for us to go through those hard times.  But they are not the end of the story, for “if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided with suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (17).

As his children, we can be absolutely sure that God knows us, knows the very details of our lives, that he cares for us, and is working for our good (Mt. 6:25-34).  It is why we can say, with Paul, “that for those who love God all things work together for good” (28).  

Glorification (18-30)

Because we are justified and sanctified and adopted in Christ, we can be sure that we will be glorified.  That is the theme of these verses.  The apostle talks about the “glory that is to be revealed in us” (18).  In fact, this has direct links to the previous verses, for according to Paul glorification is the outworking of our adoption into the family of God, for we are heirs with him: “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (23).

But that is not all: for it is not as if the glory to come is something that is put in front of us as if it were a carrot on a stick.  Rather, all who belong to Christ and have these blessings must inevitably inherit the glories of the age to come.  For “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (30).  This has often been called an unbreakable chain, because it is: all those who at the beginning were predestined will be glorified at the end.

We must not slide by this word, “glory.”  It is a word which in Scripture is very often used in reference to God.  Of course Paul is not saying that we become God, or even little gods.  But he is saying that the inheritance to come is not something that can be described in terms of this world.  It is something which only God can give.  It is something which is qualitatively different from the decay and the sinfulness of this world.  Moreover, it is greater than what we lost in Adam.  For Adam could fall in paradise: but in the age to come, there is no more probation.  Eternal life is eternal life.  The way to the Tree of Life is now open in Jesus.

Our Response: Exultation (31-39)

“What shall we then say to these things?” (31).  This ought to be a question we ask of realities like this.  If we just read about them and then go on with our day, then we will not be affected by them as we ought.  Our hearts will be left heavy with the weight of this world instead of being lifted up through the blessings that we have now (1) and will have in the age to come (30).  Hope only fills us when we are filled with the Spirit and the word (15:4, 13).  If we are only focused on present problems and do not allow the truths of Scripture to penetrate our thoughts and minds and affections, we won’t change from people whose arms hang down to those who hands are lifted up.

So that is what Paul does.  He exults in the blessings of grace.  To the end of the chapter, the apostle, in several different ways, supercharges our hope with the triumph that is ours in Christ.  No one can condemn us.  No one and nothing can defeat us.  No one and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our lord.  

This morning and tomorrow morning and the morning after and on and on should find us rejoicing in our hope which is ours in Jesus.  That doesn’t mean we don’t groan inwardly.  But it does mean that even as we groan we can “await eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (23).  These are sure blessings because they don’t depend on us, they depend on what God is doing and has done for us.  And surely that is reason to hope and be glad.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Who is the man in Romans 7? – Romans 7:14-25

The issue is this: in Romans 7:14-25, is Paul speaking of his experience before he came to Christ, or after?  This is an issue on which interpreters of this chapter are divided.  Sometimes, one view may be embraced by an individual only to be later supplanted by the other view.  St. Augustine of Hippo is known for first interpreting these verses in reference to Paul as unregenerate, only to later discard that view for the one that takes the verses in reference to Paul as regenerate.

The arguments for either side can be impressive.  In fact, this reality has caused one commentator to state, “I would suggest that the arguments are so finely balanced because Paul does not intend to distinguish believers from unbelievers in this text.”[1]  In other words, Paul does not intend us to adjudicate this issue of believer/unbeliever in this passage.  The point is not whether or not that these verses speak of one over the other, but rather that the law is powerless to change and sanctify.  

I basically agree with this point of view.  I do think that the main point here is not to paint a picture of the unregenerate or regenerate, but rather to make the point that no one, regardless whether they are born again or not, can use the law to bring about the change we need in our lives. 

However, I disagree that we are not intended to read this as the experience of a believer.  I do think Paul intended his audience to read this text as referring to his life after coming to Christ.  I will try to make a case for this in this message.

Someone may ask, “But why should we care?  Why does this matter?”  It matters for the reasons that I gave at the close of our last message.  If we interpret this as referring to a believer, as I believe we should, it stands as a warning for believers to beware looking to their own resources in order to keep the law and obey God.  And that is an important point, because this is a pitfall into which we can all fall.  In Paul, being under the law means that we are looking to the law for either justification or for sanctification.  But looking to the law for sanctification means that we are relying on our own resources for obedience, because the law is not something inside us but something outside us.  The law does not give us the power to keep God’s commandments, it only tells us to keep God’s commandments.  To be under law then means that we are looking to ourselves to do what God’s law tells us to do.  As Paul will put it to the Galatians, “The law is not of faith” (Gal. 3:12).  The warning of Romans 7:14-25 is that even the believer cannot sanctify themselves apart from Christ, because we are yet “of the flesh, sold under sin.”  

But it also stands as an encouragement to believers who are experiencing the inner conflict between the sin within and the desire to be more like Christ.  It is encouraging because this text reminds us that no matter how far we are advanced in our walk with Christ, there will always be this struggle.  The presence of this struggle does not mean that we are unbelievers or unsaved.  And in the heat of battle that reminder can be at times very encouraging.

I think that some people who claim that it is possible to be without this struggle as a believer do so because they really don’t appreciate the high standards of God’s law.  I’ve been recently reading Jerry Bridges’  book, The Discipline of Grace, and in it he makes the point that even we who are believers in Christ and embracers of the gospel can become like the Pharisee in Luke 18 (the one who told the Lord, “I thank you that I am not like other men are…”).  We do so by defining sin conveniently narrowly.  He writes, “A large part of our problem as evangelical believers is that we have defined sin in its more obvious forms – forms of which we are not guilty.  We think of sin in terms of sexual immorality, drunkenness, lying, cheating, stealing, and murder.  And in more recent years we’ve tended to focus on the societal sins of abortion and homosexuality.  We see the ever-increasing pervasiveness of these more flagrant sins, and we see ourselves looking good by comparison.”  He then goes on to talk about “refined sins,” sins like a judgmental spirit, a critical attitude, a backbiting and gossiping tongue, an unforgiving spirit, and unloving heart, and so on.  We can unfortunately become very comfortable with these sins, especially when we are comparing ourselves to those who commit the more “obvious” sins like adultery or murder.  Bridges go on to say, “One of our problems with these so-called refined sins is that we have become too comfortable with the whole concept of sin.  Because we do sin so frequently we learn to coexist with it as long as it doesn’t get too out of control or scandalous.  We forget, or perhaps we have never learned, how seriously God regards all sin.”[2]  

The point is this: when we consider how high God’s standards are, we are going to become more aware of our failures, not less, even as mature and experienced believers.  We are not going to glide over our sins; we are going to deplore them as the acts of rebellion and defiance that they are.  When we are willing to face up to all our sins, including the respectable ones, we will probably be more likely to identify with the struggle depicted in the verses we are considering here in Romans 7.  It is when we start ignoring our more hidden sins that we can convince ourselves that the struggle Paul depicts in these verses doesn’t apply to us.  And I think that is dangerous.  So in that sense, yes, it is important how we look at these verses.

So why do I think Paul is writing of his experience as a believer here?  

It is the most natural way to read the text

I mentioned this last time, but I will repeat it here because it is to me the biggest piece of evidence for the view for which I am arguing.  Paul is writing autobiographically; of that there is no doubt.  He has been speaking of himself in the past in verses 7-13; now in verse 14 and following he switches, uniformly and consistently, to the present.  The most natural way to take this switch in tenses is to read verses 7-13 as referring to Paul’s past and verses 14-25 as referring to Paul’s present.  The main argument against this is that Paul has switched to the present for dramatic purposes.  But this does not make sense: if Paul is describing the same experience (bondage to sin as experienced by the unconverted), why would he dramatize part of it and not the other?  In other words, why make a distinction in the text when there is no distinction in the subject matter?  It is simply not the most natural way to read this text to make it refer to the apostle’s experience before he came to Christ.

Now some have pointed to the connection between verses 13 and 14 as requiring us to read the following verses as referring to a person who is not born again.  In verse 13, Paul has argued that the law is not responsible for causing death, but rather the sin within.  Verse 14 supports verse 13: it begins with the word “for.”  So if ver. 13 refers to the unregenerate, and verse 14 supports verse 13, verse 14 and the following verses must also refer to the unregenerate.  

However, this ignores the fact that though there is real discontinuity between our life before Christ and our life in Christ, yet there is also an unfortunate continuity.  The sin which plagued us before we were born again is still present in those who are born again.  It is true that it no longer has the power it once had.  Christ is now the true King of our hearts.  We have the ability, in Christ, to say no to sin and to do what is right and holy.  But the sin within is still lurking in the shadows, and its presence means that if we look to the law for sanctification, we are going to lose every time.  The “for” of verse 14 is not connecting the idea that all applies to the unregenerate; rather, it connects the idea that the law is impotent to change, whether we are born again or not.

The terms used of the struggle with indwelling sin depict a believer, not an unbeliever

It is important to note that the apostle does not just say that he struggles with sin.  That could describe an unbeliever.  He says that in the struggle with sin, he does not identify with the sin that seeks to capture his heart: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwell within me” (17); “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (20).  He also identifies his true self with God’s law, and puts some distance between his deepest longings and the sin that rises up within: “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good” (16); “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (19); “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” (22-23); “I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with the flesh the law of sin” (25).  Such was the intensity of the apostle’s longing for complete conformity to God’s law, and his identity with it, that he distances himself from the sin that dwelt within him as if it were someone else, and depicting his lapses into sin as that which was against his will (although without absolving himself from responsibility, for the sin is his sin). 

Note that he identifies his longing for holiness with the desire of his mind, or his inner being.  I take this to mean that fundamentally, Paul longed for holiness, although such longing did not always come to fruition.  He truly hated sin (15) and delighted in God’s law (21), but that did not mean that the desires of the flesh were always thwarted.  When he said that he did not will, or desire, or delight in sin, he does not mean that there were no desires thereto or gratification upon the performance of it – he only meant that the deepest feelings of his heart were against it.  What he really desired, and delighted in, was conformity to God’s law, however he may have been entangled in sin.  His true personality, the “inward man” (22) and the law of his mind (23,25), were against the performances of sin, and he groaned upon every remembrance of being entrapped in “the body of this death” (24).  And thus the struggle.

This is not how the Bible describes unbelievers.  This is how Jesus described the Pharisees of his day: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.   When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  Fundamentally, unbelievers are estranged from God and his law.  They may struggle with sin, but in their case, sin lies at the very heart of who they are apart from Christ.  Again, that does not seem to be the case with the individual described in our text. 

Some have attempted to apply the struggle with sin described in the text to the unregenerate by a reference to ancient secular literature.  “Some contemporary scholars who hold this position back it up with a quotation from the first-century Roman poet Ovid: ‘I see and approve the better things, but I pursue the worse’.”[3]  However, this is not applicable to what the apostle is describing.  The heathen writers said these things from the compulsion of their consciences, not from the longings of delight and complacency in the law of God.  As Calvin, referring to such writings, aptly comments, “…these act under a constraint when they subscribe to the righteousness of God, as their will is wholly alienated from it, but the godly man consents to the law with the real and most cheerful desire of his heart; for he wishes nothing more than to mount up to heaven.”[4]  Again, he writes, “That the whole, then, of this reasoning may be more fully and distinctly understood, we must observe, that this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God: for man, left to his own nature, is wholly borne along by his lusts without any resistance; for though the ungodly are tormented by the stings of conscience, and cannot take such delight in their vices, but that they have some taste of bitterness, yet you cannot from hence conclude, either that evil is hated, or that good is loved by them; only the Lord permits them to be thus tormented, in order to show to them in a measure his judgment; but not to imbue them either with the love of righteousness or with the hatred of sin.”[5]

The connections between Romans 7 and 8 support reading 7:14-25 as referring to a believer

This is often given as the reason why many interpret Romans 7 the other way.  They will argue that there is such a difference between how Paul describes the believer in Romans 8 and the experience of Romans 7, that there is no way Romans 7 could describe the regenerate.  The claim is that the two descriptions are simply incompatible.  It is further argued that in Romans 7:6, Paul sets up his argument through the end of this chapter and into chapter 8: 7:7-25 describes life under the law, “in the old way of the written code,” and 8:1-39 describes life in the Spirit, “the new way of the Spirit.”  Moreover, the Spirit is never mentioned in 7:14-25, whereas he is mentioned over and over again in chapter 8.  All this, it is argued, means that Paul must be referring to his pre-conversion experience.  This is of course a very tidy way of putting things, but there are serious problems with this view. 

First of all, we are presented with a false choice.  We are told that since the Spirit is never mentioned, therefore the only possible interpretation of this text is in reference to the unbeliever.  But this ignores what is almost universally recognized to be the main point of the passage.  The main point here is that the law in itself is powerless to sanctify.  Those who look to the law for sanctification are not looking to the Spirit, so of course the Spirit is not going to have a place in the conversation at this point.  More importantly, this is not just true of unbelievers, it is also a truth that believers need to hear.  Is it not possible for believers to rely on the flesh in the attempt to become more holy?  Of course it is.  Why else would our Lord remind his disciples, “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5)?  The epistle to the Galatians was written to believers who were attempting to do this very thing.  Paul is reminding such folks that the presence of indwelling sin makes this reliance upon the resources of sinful flesh stupid and foolish.  Such people need to hear again the apostle’s expostulation of Romans 7:24-25: “O wretched man that I am!  Who shall deliver me from this body of death?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The law cannot sanctify you, believer; only Christ can.  The argument of Romans 7:14-25 is the negative argument against the law; the positive argument for the Spirit comes in Romans 8:1,ff.  To sum up, the division between Romans 7 and 8 is not, as is often put, unregenerate versus regenerate, but rather law versus Spirit.  And since believers are in constant danger of going back to the law as a source for sanctification, we need to be constantly reminded that, due to the prevalence of indwelling sin, such a going back is really regression rather than progression.  And that’s the point of Rom. 7:14-25.

Secondly, the description of the person in our text must refer to a believer, given what Paul does say in the following chapter of those who are in the Spirit and those who are not.  We’ve mentioned that the description of the struggle most likely refers to the struggle believers have with sin.  We receive further confirmation for this when we look into Romans 8.  For example, in 7:22, the apostle says, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.”  Now in chapter 8, he says of those who are “in the flesh” that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8).  As John Stott put it, “… how can an unregenerate person, who is hostile to God’s law (8:7), declare that he delights in it (7:22)?”[6]

Now it is said that Paul is referring to his delight in the law that he had as a rabbi before his conversion to Christ.  I’ll be honest: I’ve never even come close to buying that response.  The sentence “I delight [again, present tense] in the law of God, in my inner being” does not naturally lend itself to the interpretation: “I delighted as a Pharisee in the law of God, although only in the way that an unsaved person could.”  Without any such qualifiers, the most natural way to read that sentence is to read it as a genuine expression of present delight in God’s law, as such.  And that is just impossible for those who are not born again, who are yet genuinely in the flesh.  

Thirdly, the conflict that Paul describes in chapter 7 is perfectly consistent with the picture that he paints of life in the Spirit in chapters 6 and 8.  Being born again, being in the Spirit, does not make you immune from the assaults of sin.  It does not relieve you from the struggle against sin.  Sometimes people come down so hard on the position that Romans 7 could never refer to a believer that they make you wonder if they think the true Christian is someone who is always on the mountain top, who is always experiencing victory, who never has a bad day and who is always joyful and rejoicing.  However, there are indicators, even in Romans 6 and 8, that this is not the case.  

For example, remember that in Romans 6 Paul makes this mighty case that the believer is dead to sin, that sin will not have dominion over us since we are not under the law but under grace.  However, in verses 12-13, he applies this truth in this way: “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.”  Again, some people will object to the language of Romans 7, especially phrases like “of the flesh, sold under sin” (7:14).  They will argue that we cannot be sold under sin since we have been delivered from its dominion (6:14).  Ah yes, but that didn’t keep Paul from telling those who were no longer under sin’s dominion to not let it have dominion!  Sin can still capture our hearts and turn us from the path of obedience to disobedience.  And since this is true until the day we die, I don’t see why Paul can’t describe the experience of believers in terms of Rom. 7:14,ff.

You see this also in Rom. 8:13, where Paul exhorts his readers: “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.”  It is still necessary to fight the sin in our lives.  In his book on “The Mortification of Sin,” which was essentially an extended meditation on this text, the puritan John Owen wrote, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you . . . .  There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on, and it will be so whilst we live in this world.”[7]  How is this possible?  It is possible because of the reality of which Paul speaks in Romans 7.  Thank God that we have been freed from sin’s penalty and power.  However, we are not yet free from its presence.  That awaits the age to come.  And so, until then, we will have to fight the sin within, we will have to keep mortifying and struggling with and fighting against sin.

One more time . . .

I want to conclude this morning by coming back one more time to the main point of these verses.  Whether or not you take these verses to refer to the believer or unbeliever, the main point remains unchanged: the law is impotent and powerless to change us.  But this is something that even we, as believers, need to hear.  We need to be reminded that the law tells us what to do but it cannot make us do it.  What this means is that the power to do what we ought does not come from within; it comes from outside of us.  When we are called to be holy, the very last thing we ought to do is to look within.  Rather, we ought to look to Christ.  It is in union with him in his redemptive death and resurrection that we are empowered to be holy men and women.  Our only resource here is our greatest resource.

This does not mean that we “let go and let God.”  It does not mean that we do not put effort into the pursuit of holiness.  But what it does mean is that as we fight sin and pursue holiness, we do so looking to Christ, trusting in him, and crying out to him for daily grace and empowerment. As Paul ends this chapter, “Who shall deliver us from the body of this death?”  Who indeed?  Not you, and not me.  Rather, with Paul let us “thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  We thank him because he not only can but does deliver those who put their trust in him.

This is a very freeing truth.  If the power to fight sin does not lie within me, but rather in a gracious and loving Savior who has promised to save those who come to him, then it does not matter how powerfully the iron claws of sin have closed around you.  For there is a Savior who is more powerful than the most powerful sin in which you feel trapped.  Trust in him, look to him, and looking to him, relying on him, turn from your sin.  The truth of Christ can and will set you free (Jn. 8:32).

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans [BECNT], (Baker, 1998), p. 390.
[2] Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace, (NavPress [Kindle Version], 1994), p. 22,25.
[3] John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World, (IVP, 1994), p. 206.
[4] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans: Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Baker, 1996), p. 266.
[5] Ibid, p. 262-263.
[6] John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World, (IVP, 1994), p. 207.
[7] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Vol. 6, (Banner of Truth, 1967), p. 9, 11.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

How should we think about indwelling sin? Romans 7:13-25

What is the apostle doing in these verses, and how do they fit in the big picture the apostle is trying to create in this epistle?  Unfortunately, there is a lot of debate surrounding these verses, and it tends to detract from the larger point the apostle is trying to make.  Among evangelicals, even Reformed evangelicals, there is a sharp disagreement over whether the apostle is speaking of himself as a regenerate man or as an unregenerate man.  However you come down on this issue, though, it doesn’t materially affect the main idea the apostle trying to make, and so we need to make sure we see this big picture and don’t get side-tracked too much by the debates which swirl around some of these other relatively minor points.

The big picture concerns how we are changed and sanctified.  In Romans 6, the apostle Paul tells us that we are delivered from the power of sin solely through our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.  Now in 6:14, Paul had made this important statement: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  In other words, it is not law that delivers us from the power of sin, but the grace of God, grace that comes to us through Jesus Christ.  He essentially says this again in 7:6, “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.” 

In other words, there are two things we have to keep in mind.  First, we are not delivered from sin’s power through the law of God.  That is, we don’t lose sin’s grip over us by trying to be good on our own.  That is essentially what Paul is getting at when he talks about being under law and serving in the old way of the written code.  Law is something external to us, something that talks to us.  It is not something in us.  To be under the law, then, means that we are trying, in our own strength, to measure up to God’s will for us.  We are not doing it by grace, through faith, in dependence upon God, but in the resources of our own heart and will.  

The second thing is that in Christ we have all the resources to fight sin that we lack in ourselves.  In Christ we have grace and power and life.  In him we are delivered from sin’s bondage and enslavement.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that law has no place in our life, it just means that we don’t rely on our own resources to obey God’s commandments.  We live out a life of obedience by the life of faith, through reliance upon the redemptive work of Christ for us and his consequent work in us through the Spirit.  We work out own our salvation, knowing that it is God who is at work in us both to will and to do of his own good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).

At this point, the apostle knew that some of his Jewish interlocutors would think that Paul was saying that the law was sinful, and use this as an excuse to ignore and reject the claims of Christ upon them.  And so what he is doing now in chapter 7 is to show how that, despite the fact of the law’s impotence in delivering us from sin’s power and penalty, this does not mean that the law is bad or sinful.  On the contrary, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, and righteous, and good” (7:12).  And his main argument is that it is not the law that causes us to sin; it is the sin within us that causes us to sin.  In other words, it’s not enough to say that we are sinners because we sin; more fundamentally we sin because we are sinners.  Sin may lie dormant and latent within us, but when confronted with God’s law, our penchant for self-sovereignty rises up in bitter hostility and opposes it.  This is what Paul is talking about when he writes, apparently autobiographically, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.  For apart from the law, sin lies dead” (7:8).  The law said, “Thou shalt not covet,” and then the sin within said, “But I will,” and did it.

That is the basic argument up to verse 13 in chapter 7.  The law is not sinful, we are.  But that means that we can’t be saved by the law, because the law, being external to us, can do nothing about the rottenness that lies hidden at the core of our being.  We can only be saved by Christ and what he has done for us and in us; in other words, through union with him.

The apostle himself summarizes argument up to this point in verse 13-14, as well as transitions to the next stage of his argument in verses 15-25: “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.  For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”  I take verse 13 as a summary of verses 7-12, whereas the phrase, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” is descriptive of our entire experience this side of heaven and sets up the description of Paul’s experience in verse 15-25. 

And this is where opinions diverge concerning the interpretation of this chapter.  They diverge over the issue of whether or not the apostle is speaking of himself in these verses as a saved man or whether he is describing himself as he was before he was born again.  Some have a big problem reading the phrase “sold under sin” as descriptive of the believer in any sense.  Now, I want to come back to this issue next time, and defend the view that the apostle is speaking of himself as a believer.  Right now, however, I am just going to basically assume this view, because what I want to do is to get us to see the main point.  The main point here is not whether or not this is descriptive of a believer or non-believer (though I don’t think this is an unimportant issue).  The main point still is that though the law is not sinful, it is yet impotent to change us.  And this is true whether we are born again or not.  The law cannot change your heart when it is dead and hard.  Neither can it sanctify your heart even after you have been born again.  That, I think, is the point of these verses.

I do want to mention what is to me one of the strongest arguments for the view that Paul is speaking of himself as a redeemed person.  You will notice that throughout these verses, the apostle has been speaking autobiographically.  However, there is a difference.  In verses 7-13, he has been speaking primarily in the past tense.  It is pretty clear that he is describing himself in the past.  And there is not a lot of dispute over this, as far as I can tell.  Paul is writing of himself as he was just prior to his conversion to Christ.  However, in verses 14-25 he switches, uniformly and consistently, to the present tense.  Some people say that he  does this for dramatic purposes.  But why didn’t he do this in the previous verses?  There is no satisfactory answer to that, in my opinion.  Another thing to consider is this: where in the history of literature, ancient or modern, do we have an autobiographical account that switches from consistently using the past tense to consistently using the present tense, but which continues to speak of the past and not of the present?  Maybe something like that exists somewhere, but I’m not aware of it.  In light of these considerations, I have always taken this passage to be Paul speaking of himself in the present, as a believer.

It has been pointed out that the apostle basically repeats the same basic argument in three difference cycles.  The structure basically goes like this: (1) there is nothing good in me (14, 18, 21); (2) the evidence for this is that I do the very thing I hate (15, 19, 22-23); (3) conclusion: I agree that the law is good because I have to acknowledge that the problem is the sin within, not the law of God (16-17, 20, 24-25).  Another way to put it is: the reality of indwelling sin, the evidence of indwelling sin, and the lesson of indwelling sin.

The reality of indwelling sin

The apostle says this in three different ways.  First, in verse 14, Paul writes, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh sold under sin.”  This is indeed a strong expression, especially in light of the fact that in Romans 6 the apostle has argued that we are freed from the dominion of sin, and that in Romans 8 he will argue that to be in the flesh is to be without the Spirit.  However, it does not follow that Paul is referring to himself as an unregenerate man, for two reasons.  First, because he does not say he is “in the flesh” but “of the flesh,” or “fleshly.”  That is, like the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3), the godly can sometimes act according to the flesh but that does not mean they are necessarily unregenerate.  Second, this language is completely consistent with the reality that, this side of heaven, we cannot completely free ourselves from the vestiges of sin within us.  In that sense, we are “sold under sin” for as much as we would like, we cannot completely free ourselves of it.  John Murray explains in his commentary on this passage, “And since the flesh and sin still inhered in the apostle and exercised as power over him, it is the necessary reaction of his sanctified sensibility to deplore the captivity to which, in the nature of the case, he was subjected by reason of his indwelling sin.”

He says the same thing 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.”  Paul is not saying that the saved person cannot resist sin.  He is not saying that we are absolutely helpless in the face of sin’s temptations and allurements.  What he is saying is that, apart from the grace of God, even the saved are helpless.  My friends, the new birth does not give us the ability to walk in holiness independently of the grace of God.  And the reason why we daily, hourly, moment-by-moment, need God’s grace is because of what Paul describes here.  In us there is no good thing.  Sin still lies there waiting to leap into action.  What good is in us, does not come from us, but from God.  As Paul would put it in another place: “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” (1 Cor. 15:10).

And then he says it again in verse 21: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”  How many of us can say that that is not exactly our experience?  Is it not true that every purpose to do what is right is met by a challenge within to waver from God’s will for us?  We are reminded again and again that there is nothing good in us.  Sin is always close at hand, even when we are setting our hearts upon the kingdom of God.

The evidence of indwelling sin

Paul has says that there is nothing good in us, that we are sold under sin, that sin lies close at hand.  But where is the proof for this?  Paul relates the proof in terms of his own experience: “For I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (15).  “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (19).  “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” (22-23).  

What we see in each of these passages is the struggle against the indwelling sin that remains within us.  It is all the evidence that is needed to convince Paul that there is still nothing good in him.  And that means that the law remains impotent on its own.  It means that we are in constant need of God’s upholding hand of grace and mercy through Christ.  If you want to be holy, you are not going to do it on your own.

The lesson of indwelling sin

The lesson from this reality is two-fold.  First, the law is not sinful, we are.  It’s a lesson the apostle has already been teaching, but now he applies it to the believer.  “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” (16-17).  In other words, this very turmoil in Paul’s soul, doing what he hated and so on, could not exist apart from the implicit acknowledgement that the law was good.  When we hate the things which the law forbids, we are giving evidence for the goodness of God’s law, even when we end up doing what we hate.

The second lesson is that the law is powerless, even for believers, to enable their obedience.  “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (20).  Note that the apostle is differentiating between himself and the sin dwelling in him.  What he is saying is that as a saved person he wants to obey God’s law (cf. ver. 22).  For those who are born again, the true self is the self which wants to love God and keep his word.  The sin which dwells within is an aberration.  But it is there, and as a result we need more than the law to produce in us the fruits of holiness.  And I think that is the point: he is saying that even as those who are born again and united to Christ, we are never completely rid of sin in the present age, and that means that need more than commandments telling us what to do; we need gospel intervention.  Sin may no longer truly define us (“it is no longer I”), Christ does, but it stills indwells us, and so we need God’s grace.

Thus, Paul expostulates: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (24-25).  The law will not deliver us.  It is only Christ Jesus our Lord who will ultimately save us.  Remember: to say that the law cannot save us is just to say that we cannot save and sanctify ourselves.  It was true before we were born again and it is true afterward.  For even though, with Paul, we may “serve the law of God with my mind,” yet “with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”

In this last phrase, Paul is using the law in two different senses (see also verse 23).  The first refers to the law of God in the sense of commandments; the second refers to the principle or power of sin that is within.  With the renewed mind, we serve the law of God.  But that is not the only reality at work within us: there is also this remaining sin, which the apostle refers to as “the law of sin.”  It continually reminds us of our wretchedness and the real need and dependence we have for Jesus our Savior.

How should we think of indwelling sin?

There are two mistakes that people make with respect to this reality of indwelling sin the apostle is describing here.  One is to take Romans 7 and use it as a way to define what normal Christian experience is supposed to be like.  Some take this as I take it, referring to Paul as a Christian, and through him to us, but do so in a way to cast the Christian walk in terms of continual defeat.  In other words, some people use the description Paul gives us himself as an excuse for being constantly defeated with respect to the sin in their lives.  That is not what the apostle intended.

This is where it is important to remember the main thing the apostle is getting at here.  The point being made here is not what normal Christian experience is like.  The point is that the law, though good, is impotent and powerless to save and sanctify us, either before we are saved (7:7-13), or after (7:14-25).  Paul is saying that if we rely on the power of our own flesh, we are not going to find victory but only defeat.  Our struggle with indwelling sin is a constant reminder of our wretchedness and our dependence upon Christ.  He is saying that when we rely upon our own flesh, we are not going to find anything good there.  He reminds us, from his own experience, of the struggle with the sin within, and this should warn us against any presumption that we are capable in and of ourselves to defeat sin.  Our only resource against the temptations of the flesh is also our greatest: union with Christ.  

We also need to remember that Romans 7 does not stand alone.  It is preceded by Romans 6 and followed by Romans 8.  Romans 6 tells us that we are dead to sin and that sin’s power over us has been broken.  Romans 8 tells us that the Spirit of Christ indwells us so that we are no longer defined by the flesh.  The flesh may still be present, but it is no longer the dominant presence in the heart of the one who belongs to Christ.  And that means that we need never feel defeated.  It also means that we have no excuse for remaining in sin.  “Shall we continue in sin that grace might abound?  God forbid!  How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (6:1).  

Another mistake people make with reference to Romans 7 is to make it all refer to the unregenerate, and to deny that struggling with sin is a part of the Christian walk.  There is this idea out there that if you are walking in holiness and faith, you will not be struggling with sin.  

It grieves me to hear people talk like that.  One reason for this is that I’ve known believers who tend to be perhaps a bit too introspective and are constantly doubting themselves.  They live in perpetual fear and worry.  They bear upon their shoulders guilt that they cannot seem to rid themselves of.  When you question them about the gospel, they seem to have a pretty good grasp of who Jesus is and what he has done, but the problem is that they are looking inward more than they are looking outward to Christ. 

That's their main problem.  But another problem is that they have an unhealthy view of what the Christian walk is like.  They seem to think that if you are walking by faith you will never have to struggle with sin.  This is not healthy because it is not Biblical.  And Romans 7, rightly interpreted, cautions us against this unbalanced view.  It reminds us that, no matter how far you are advanced in the Christian life, you are going to be fighting the sin which dwells within. 

My friends, faith and repentance is not just something we do at the beginning of the Christian life.  As I think I pointed out last Sunday, faith and repentance is something that we do on a daily basis.  Why is it, do you think, that our Lord told us to pray daily, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?  Why is it, do you think, that the apostle John makes confession of sin part of walking in the light (1 Jn. 1:7-9)?  And why is it that reminds us, not once but twice, that it is a lie to say that we are without sin? (1 Jn. 1:8, 10).  It is because sin is a daily reality even for the most sanctified of believers.  

The sign of life is not that you are not struggling with sin.  The sign of life is that you are struggling with sin, even as you hold onto Christ by faith.

How do we take Romans 7?  Take it as a warning and an encouragement.  A warning not to trust in your own resources to fight the sin in your life.  You will only find that in Christ!  And as an encouragement, knowing that if you are struggling with the sin in your life, it is not necessarily a sign of spiritual immaturity.  It is something that believers have always struggled with this side of heaven.

This side of heaven.  There is coming a day when, if we belong to Jesus Christ, we will be among “the just made perfect.”  I long and look forward to that day.  Do you? 

Sealed and Standing (Rev. 7)

At the end of the previous chapter, when John sees the breaking of the sixth seal of the scroll, we see Christ coming again in judgment upon...