Romans 7:15-17 “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”
Have there ever been occasions in your life as a professing Christian when you have said to yourself, “What am I doing here? How am I behaving like this? Why do I feel so broken and sad? I don’t know what I’m doing.” Have there been times when you’ve said to yourself, “I make resolutions to be more patient, and more prayerful, and gentle, and loving. I want to live like that, but I stay exactly the same”? Do you think about it, and then you remember what the Bible tells us about remaining sin and your natural depravity and so you say to yourself, “I know that it’s my sin that pulls me down. It is so subtle and insidious and relentless.” Do you say, “The Christian life is the best life, and the happiest way of life. It is a good life obeying the law of Christ, and I want to live like that day by day. How I wish I were more consistent in how I behaved.” Do you experience anything like that?
1. PAUL IS DESCRIBING HIS CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE.
Then most, if not all of you Christians, will say, “Yes. That is my experience exactly.” Then I want to tell you that you are in good company because Paul the archetypal Christian tells us that that was his experience too. What extraordinary blessings he’d known, more than any other person since, or ever will be. He’d seen the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He had spent some years in solitude and contemplation in Arabia and there had had deep encounters with the Lord Christ who gave him truths that he passed on to the churches. Once he had been caught up to the third heaven and seen sights and heard words that it was not lawful for him to repeat to anyone, so holy and sacred were they. Most wonderful of all he’d been daily kept by God living a consistent, righteous, loving life. Nobody could accuse him of theft or adultery or greed or sloth. He was a burden to no congregation. He’d been mightily used as an evangelist and church planter. He’d become God’s appointed spokesman to speak before philosophers and kings so that the Christian faith could gain for its followers the right to gather for worship and to evangelize. Many people had come to faith through listening to him. His letters were wholly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and though almost 2,000 years have passed since he wrote them, they have lost none of their relevance and power to elevate and illuminate and energize those who read them or hear them preached. All over the world on this day people have been reading and preaching from them and becoming Christians by their influence.
Paul is describing his Christian experience here, and if he had done it in terms of the fight, the good solider battling with sin, the Christian conflict, then there’d be no questions in our minds at all of its helpfulness to us. But Paul in Romans 7 describes his experience in terms of defeat! He tells us not only that he wants to do good, but he tells us that he doesn’t do good, and even that he can’t do it.
Romans 7 is not the whole story of the Christian life but it is a crucial part of real Christian experience for every follower of Jesus Christ. Some people are embarrassed by this chapter. They have suggested that Paul’s experience describes a “sub-normal” Christian life in Romans 7, and that we are called to move one and get our lives out of Romans 7 and get it into Romans 8. I want you to know that I don’t believe that is at all correct. I don’t see anything in the text that suggests to me that we are to live in Romans 8 and not in Romans 7. Paul is presenting a unified viewpoint of which Romans 6 is a part, Romans 7 is a part and Romans 8 is a part. We need all three parts for a well-rounded Christian life.
Let me go a step beyond that and say that I believe that the path to God’s blessing for your life goes right through Romans 7. The experience that Paul is talking about here is a necessary part of your walk with Jesus Christ. God put these verses in the Bible for your blessing. He put them in the Bible because they reflect a part of life that all of us Christians experience but rarely talk about when we come to church. So, I think what we need to do is go back into the text and see what it really says
To understand it you must think of the context. In the previous paragraph (vv. 7-13), Paul has shown that as an unbeliever he discovered that he couldn’t keep the law. “Love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength?” Impossible! “Love my neighbour as I love myself?” You must be joking! Now in our text and in this paragraph, Paul shows that even as a Christian believer, joined to Jesus Christ, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, he still cannot keep the law blamelessly all by himself. He tells us that he does appreciate the goodness of the law (v.16) in a way that he didn’t as an unbeliever. In fact he delights in the law as Old Testament saints also did, and he longs to keep the law in a way that he didn’t as an unbeliever; but he so often has to acknowledge that he is “sold as a slave to sin” (v.14). This sin is alive and well, “living in me” (v.17), and his consequent failures to obey God – the things which were his undoing before his conversion – are what defeat him after the Damascus road. This is still his Achilles heel after his conversion.
So what we have here is an honest and humble acknowledgment of the irremediable evil of our flesh, while we are in the body, even after the new birth. I am saying that the first step to holiness is humbly acknowledging this before God. Let me talk to you quite plainly, men and women. There are some of you who’re not leading holy lives for the simple reason that you have too lofty an opinion of yourselves, or the blessings that you have known in the Christian life, and you think that they’ve put you on a plateau, and made you immune from falling into sin. You’ve never come to a position of being poor in spirit – the first and most foundational of the beatitudes as well as the next of those beatitudes, the blessedness of those who mourn. See such Christians! They have felt their misery and they have cried from their hearts, ‘Oh, miserable creature that I am, who shall deliver me?’ In other words, one indispensable way of coming to faith in the power of the Holy Spirit is to reach an end to yourself, to go to God and to tell him that you have no hope in yourself at all. “Oh Lord, you must save me and you alone.” You will never be cast upon the Holy Spirit until you despair of yourself. You have to go down to go up, and that is what Paul is showing us here by his own self-consciousness. This is my own foundation, he is saying. This is my bedrock. I know that in me, that is in my flesh dwells no good thing, and so on Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
So the opening verses of this paragraph proclaim to us that whether we are believers or unbelievers, whether we are regenerate or unregenerate, we are confronted with sin within us. In fact it lords it over the unbeliever and as remaining sin it battles with the Christian. We who’ve been believers maybe for fifty years, indwelt by the Godhead, prayed for by our loved ones and pastors, who can recite the 10 commandments, we struggle to obey them because of the power of our flesh. That is the reason for the sad history of the Jews in the Old Testament. Isn’t it a frustrating and heart-breaking story? What wretched leaders they had. They had the law. They knew the law. They had prophets to preach to them, and they had the way of forgiveness in the tabernacle and sacrifices but the law of God was weak because of remaining sin, and it could not help them to live any better than the Egyptians and the Babylonians and the Amorites and the other pagan nations surrounding them. The law could tell them what was right and wrong but it could not motivate them to do what was right, and resist what was wrong. It was helpless to change them. So that is the background to our text.
2. ONE PROBLEM WE HAVE IS WITH OURSELVES.
Paul says in this passage that the problem is not simply sin in the world or the attacks of the devil all coming from the outside, but the problem we have to face is sin on the inside. The problem is not simply temptation “out there” but temptation “in here.” There is that American cartoon strip called Pogo, and in one famous cartoon the hero comes and he says “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That’s what Paul is saying. We have met the enemy. The enemy is us. The enemy is not just out there somewhere. The enemy is on the inside. He has infiltrated into our very being. Which is why when people write from all over the world and say how they enjoy reading or hearing your sermons then there is something on the inside that wants to say to them, “Hey there, wait a minute. If you knew the way I really am, you wouldn’t be clapping. You wouldn’t be cheering.” That’s what the apostle Paul is talking about.
Here then is this extraordinary man, one of the greatest minds of all time, of vast understanding, and he is making this remarkably candid confession, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v.15). He has been talking in striking general terms so far, about being ‘carnal’ or ‘unspiritual’ and a ‘slave to sin.’ And you might think that that is simply rhetoric, the hyperbole of a writer, but now he spells out what being a slave to sin means in the words of this text – “what I hate doing I actually do.” Paul doesn’t speak of this problem defiantly – “well this is how I am – take me or leave me!” He clearly deeply regrets the discrepancy between what he’d like to be and do as a Christian and what he actually does. In fact Paul appears to be a dilemma to himself. He’s thinking, “Why am I behaving the way I do? Why did I say those proud words, and do those hurtful things, and think that thought, and imagine that foulness?” He has the highest ambitions – “the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” If the famous hymn had been written when he was alive then he’d have sung Francis Ridley Havergal’s hymn verse after verse, “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee.” He could sing every line with meaning, choking up at many of the words, “Take my hands and feet and lips and intellect and will. Take my life and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.” But that night on his way home, after a service, he’d experience a fall into sin. He’s be involved in hurt pride, in not getting his own way, in a tense conversation with family or friends and what he had sung about giving all that he was to all that is Christ he’d failed to do 60 minutes later. He’d fallen again at the first hurdle.
So Paul himself says in verse 15, “I don’t understand what I do.” That’s an amazing confession. You hear children saying that all the time. They’ll be mean to the dog, they’ll break a plate, they’ll hit their brother hard, and when you ask, “Why did you do that?” they will give you the one absolutely dependable answer: “I don’t know.” What Paul is saying is that’s true for all of us. There are times in life that we do something bad. When somebody asks us why did we did that, the only answer we can come up with is, “I don’t know why I did that.” Why did you say that? The only answer we can say is, “I don’t know why I said that.” Why did you go to that place? Why did you listen to that salesman who called you? Why did you make that deal? Why did you break that promise? The only answer you can come up with is, “I don’t really know why I did that. Something just moved within me and I did it and I don’t really understand it.” Well, you’re in good company because that’s what the apostle Paul said. He said, “Many times I do things and afterward I don’t understand why I did them.”
You must understand that what we are reading here is not some psychological dualism, or evangelical schizophrenia, or incredible irrationality. I’m concerned that this passage should be abused by our thinking that if the apostle Paul himself failed to live the Christian life then how can we possibly live it? Loving your enemies, and overcoming evil with good, and turning the other cheek and so on is all hopelessly idealistic and utterly impractical. I cannot believe that the God who gave us his ten commandments gave us a hopelessly unattainable code, nice to admire but impossible to keep. I don’t believe that Paul is saying that he simply couldn’t help doing what he did – like a fallen evangelist or morally compromised preacher excuses himself by saying, “The devil made me do it.” Come on! Pull the other leg! You chose to do it yourself. No action of ours is performed without the consent of the will. There is no way that I can get outside my body and mind and affections and then look at myself and say “I was quite helpless when this great force of sin came crashing into my life that day and swept me off my feet and down I fell into sin.” There is no way that Paul is saying, “I am like a puppet. There is someone else pulling the strings.” Paul is telling us, “I do . . . I am the one actually doing what I hate doing.”
3. PAUL IS NOT DESCRIBING HIS LIFE AS ONE OF UNMITIGATED DEFEAT.
Again, let’s get this clear; please realise this, that Paul is not telling us that he was completely and permanently defeated in his desire to do good. He’s not saying that when he is confronted with one of the ten commandments at breakfast time, and another mid-morning, and another at lunch, and another in the middle of the afternoon, and another in the evening, and another as he retired at the end of the day that he constantly broke each one, every day and every week, year after year. Paul is not saying that at all. You know what he tells us, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phils. 4:11). He’d learned not to be covetous. He says, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phils.4:13). He was given the energy daily to live the Christian life. He even told the Thessalonians, “You are our witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you” (I Thess. 2:10). Paul was not a man in a state of permanent despair. He was not the man in the iron cage though he did not do the things he longed for, and did things he hated – and subsequently hated himself for doing. Paul was a pastor who could exhort others to do what he himself did day by day – rejoice in the Lord always! He was a happy Christian. So you must never absolutise Romans 7 and say, “Here we learn that the failures of the Christian are the Christian’s paramount feature.” They are not, but they are one essential feature of our multi-perspectival Christian life, and you must find a place in your theological framework to fit in Romans 7. If you ignore it then you are going to be shocked and disillusioned one day and it won’t be far away. It might be tonight. Remember that Romans 7 is followed by Romans 8 and we live in both chapters all our lives.
What we see here, and it is so challenging, is that this man Paul was taking full responsibility for his actions. When he lived in a blameless way – as he did more truly and deeply than any of us – then he knew that he was doing that by the divine energy and enabling of the grace of Jesus Christ. “I am what I am – by the grace of God.” He knew he was not as he had been. He knew that he was not yet what he would become in heaven. But he knew that what he was at this moment was by the daily strength that God gave him in his weakness. In fact he speaks of the remorse and the regret he feels for behaving as he has. “O wretched man that I am!” he cries. That repentance is also a gift of God. He was all too aware when he’d been behaving in a shabby and shameful way. “How can I, as a saved man of many privileges, be acting like this?” You understand that in these verses in the last half of this chapter Paul is not writing the script of our excuses when we fall into sin. This is not some missal that we pick up and turn to these well thumbed pages and read aloud after another fall into sin – taking it in your stride as you go on to yet another fall; “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Roms 7:21-25). These words are not a kind of penance like saying two Lord’s Prayers and three Ave Marias. Paul was not condoning his behaviour in this chapter. He hated his falls! See that! Note these five, simple, one-syllable words in verse 15, “What I hate I do.”
What is Paul doing? He is expressing the frustration and bewilderment of the Christian who would love God with all his heart, and love his neighbour as himself, but who constantly fails to achieve this. “These falls are my actions and my words and my desires and my imaginations. They are all mine. And if you could see what I think in my heart then you’d want to spit in my face. But I’m not going to tell you a word about my thoughts. I just want you all to know how deeply ashamed of them I am.” Do you see that Paul is not saying in a rather sad and weak tone of voice, “I wish I could live a better life. It’s really hard to be a Christian isn’t it? There we are, struggling on, and doing our best, and God can’t expect any more from us than that.” There is nothing remotely like that in Romans 7 or anywhere in the Bible. That is not Christianity. Our saving faith in Jesus Christ knows nothing about vague resolutions about turning over a new leaf, and nostalgic longings for impossible improvements. With Paul there is the presentation of your body as a living sacrifice to God, there is the putting to death of the deeds of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is being filled in every part with the Holy Spirit. There is righteous determination to be a good disciple of Jesus; “This one thing I do!”
How then do we understand what I may call the true psychology of the Christian life through what we read here of Paul’s self-consciousness as the model Christian? We must get this right because it’s going to be crucial when we fall, and especially when we fall repeatedly, and when we pass through one of those periods that the psalmist spoke of when he confessed that iniquities against him prevailed from day to day. Christians go through winter times.
4. NOTE THE BASIC CHARACTERISTICS OF THE CHRISTIAN OF ROMANS 7
i] The Christian has one will. That is the first thing to know. It is absolutely foundational. The Christian does not have two hearts, a heart of stone and a heart of flesh. He has just one new heart. The Christian does not have two wills, one will choosing devilish devices and worldly pleasures and fleshly lusts, and the other will choosing whatsoever things are true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable. You must understand that there is no such dualism. There are not two wills at war in every Christian, Mr. Good Will and Mr. Bad Will fighting one another every day. Christians have one indwelling God, one heart, one steadfast high purpose to glorify and enjoy God, and one will. And yet every Christian is tempted by remaining sin and fiery darts to defy God’s will for their lives, and to listen to the evil one, and give in to the pressures of the world, and go along with the suggestions of indwelling sin. Every Christian is involved in a battle and in it he wills for victory, and every Christian acknowledges that he fails to achieve total victory and annihilation of the enemy. The enemy has learned to live to fight another day, and so have we.
ii] The Christian is capable of doing real good. In spite of our falls in the New Testament we are given numerous examples of disciples who did real lasting good. I am thinking of such a person as Mary Magdalene who anointed the head of Jesus with costly perfume and dried with her own hair those feet that she’d soaked with her tears. She loved the Saviour much for she knew that she’d been forgiven much. Again, in Joppa there was a woman called Tabitha or Dorcas and we are told that she was “always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). Again we are told about another follower of the Lord Jesus that ‘she did what she could.’ Again the Christians in Philippi collected a sum of money and carefully sent it to Rome either to buy creature comforts for Paul in prison, or to defray the cost of his trial. Again we are told of a man named Onesiphorus who searched through the prisons of Rome until he found Paul and then he often refreshed the apostle. Again a Christian centurion built a place of worship for Old Testament Christians. Again there was a Samaritan who stopped on the road when he saw a man who had been robbed and beaten up. He took him on his own donkey to an inn. Or do you remember Zacchaeus who paid back four times the amount that he had wrongly taken from those he had defrauded. The prodigal’s father ran to greet him and embrace him and he brought him back into the family immediately.
All of those men and women are people of like passions as ourselves. They did nothing perfectly. None of us has ever done anything perfectly in God’s sight, but we are able to do much that is good and kind and loving. Paul shows us in this section that he is deeply aware of the spirituality of the law of God and that it demands inward purity and obedience. It demands absolute perfection. God doesn’t ask for 85% obedience. Paul’s chief desire in life with his new heart was to please God. Whatever he did he wanted to do it with all his might, and to the glory of God. But because he couldn’t do anything that was totally perfect he didn’t say, “Well, it isn’t worth trying to do anything.” Do something for God! You don’t know how much the smallest things you do are appreciated.
iii] The Christian doesn’t make excuses for his sins. Paul is not describing for us in this chapter the heartache of a person who doesn’t know God. The country is full of people who are not Christians and many are in utter despair about their lives. They consider their lives to be absolute failures. Some of them are virtually suicidal, but they’d never describe their unhappiness in these words of Paul. They’d never say that the law of God is holy and righteous and good. They’d never say, “Who can deliver me from this body of death, Thank God it’s through Jesus Christ.” So you may not take this chapter and apply it to the unbeliever with no interest in Christianity. This chapter belongs to us, to the people of God. We will not give it to the world. Nor is Paul describing the frustration of a defeated carnal Christian – someone who hasn’t had the second blessing, someone who has taken Christ as Saviour but not taken him as Lord. Paul when he wrote this chapter had been serving the Lord Christ for about twenty years, growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus. Here he is opening up his heart to us and he’s sharing with us what he’s discovered about himself and the nature of the narrow path to heaven. He is telling us how strong is the grip that sin has on us. Many of you don’t know half. Sin is deceitful above all things, and our hearts are so shallow, and the one great lesson we are being taught in this chapter is this, that the closer you get to God, and the more you are filled with the Spirit, and the greater degree of holiness you attain that then you are most conscious of your failures. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are they that mourn.
iv] The Christian actually detests sin. He has a hatred of sin, of anything that is contrary to the will of God. Now it is only the regenerate who truly hate sin. Unregenerate people disapprove of Hitler, and racism, and Isis, and homophobia, and narrow-mindedness, and things like that. But sin? Ah, they don’t acknowledge what sin is and don’t hate it. But the Christian prays that God will deliver him from secret sins. The Christian sees his sins as done against God. When Potiphar’s wife sought to seduce Joseph then he resisted saying to her, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” He was conscious that every bad word spoken and bad deed done and bad emotion felt was a sin against God. He would answer to God for his life.
Now I want to ask you, men and women, if that is what you know about yourself. And is it because you don’t know these things about yourself that you’re not leading a holy life? Has the Holy Spirit shown you these things about yourself? Can you say, “This is what I know, that sin continues to dwell in me, and I have no perfect good even though I am redeemed and regenerate and justified and adopted and joined to Jesus Christ. When left to myself, remaining sin brings me into captivity and bondage.
Again he says “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” He can hardly acknowledge his own actions as really being his (v.15). “Who is this stranger, this horrible person doing these things?” He’s saying, “I do things against my will; things to which as a Christian I don’t give my consent. As a Christian I don’t want to do all these things I do. They are the things that I really detest when I fall into sin.” And he will return to this theme in a few verses’ time as something crucially important for him and for all of us too.
Men and women, I want to urge you again to see that this is the conflict of the Christian man. This is the conflict of a man who knows the will of God, who loves the will of God, who longs to do the will of God, but finds himself often failing to do the will of God. He finds that because of his flesh he cannot do what he wants to do. The Christian should know that by regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit his whole being, his mind and his will, has been set upon a new course. Now he wants to do the will of God, and the law of God. He longs to do what is good; he hates what is evil with a holy hatred. And if he does sin, and whenever he sins, it is against that divine impetus and momentum that God has given to him. The Christian always sins against his mind, and against his will, and against his consent. Sinning for the mere believer is going against the whole tenor of his new life in Christ. That is the experiential conflict of Christian living.
We have learned from Paul that he felt that there was a continual civil war going on inside his life. It’s almost as if he could hear two voices, one calling him this way and one calling him that way, and he’s saying, “I want to do good, but I don’t do it. But the thing that I don’t want to do, I do anyway.” That is truly the Christian situation. We know the good, but we don’t do it. We know what’s wrong and we initially disapprove, and then we do it anyway. We say “I will” and then we don’t. We say “I won’t” and then we do. We make a promise and then we break it. We set a goal and we don’t go after it. We say “I’ll never do that again” and we do it. We get on our knees and say, “Oh, God, I’ll never do that again.” And then the next day, we do it or we say it again. That is the truly human experience for all of us. If anybody here says that’s not true of you, let me tell you something. I simply will not believe you. I simply will not believe you because that is the human experience for you and it is the human experience for me.
Don’t you see what this chapter is doing? It is putting a huge bomb under the idea that our salvation hangs on our own righteous lives, on our good works, that I do my best and then God takes me to heaven. It is not like that at all. Salvation hangs on one man who never said, I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” And that makes us cry out, “Hallelujah what a Saviour!” He could be a three dimensional, loving, suffering man and yet he always did what his heavenly Father wanted, the spotless and holy Lamb of God. He always knew where he was going and why he had to do his Father’s will. What he wanted to do he did. What he hated he never did. This righteousness of Jesus Christ is our only hope of heaven, and forgiveness and pardon and eternal life. Flee to him. Be found in him. Hide in him. Rest in him. Make him your plea, and in the conflict and falls of following him when you often feel you are a wretched man and need deliverance then you know through whom that deliverance comes. “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
19 July 2015 GEOFF THOMAS