To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Monday, November 22, 2004

Battle in the Flesh

Romans 7:13-25
Preached Sunday morning, November 21, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Several years ago a young Christian told our Bible study group that since becoming a Christian, she had had more trouble with sin than before her conversion. On the one hand, group members told her, the Devil had made life easy for her while she was lost, because she already belonged to him. At the same time, our friend had fallen into the trouble that every Christian has to face throughout our lives—sin after baptism.

Making sense of this sin in our lives is one of the biggest challenges we have as Christians. How can we be Christians and continue to sin? Another, related, problem we face is legalism. We can call this problem by different names: works righteousness, works salvation. Whatever we call it, it amounts to trying to save ourselves through our good works. This passage from Romans 7 gives us answers to both problems and hope for living lives of victory in Jesus.

Back in Chapter 6 of Romans we saw that Christians have died to sin (6:2). Chapter 7 begins with the good news that we’ve also died to the law (7:4). The law itself is holy and good (7:12), but sin used the law to bring about death (7:11). One of the purposes of the law, in fact, is to highlight our sin so that we see our need for grace (5:20). Baptism, by the way, symbolizes the death of Christians to both sin and the law [1].

One of the reasons this passage promises victory for the Christian is, ironically, that it affirms our flesh is weak and given over to sin. We may use different names for “the flesh” in a New Testament sense. We can call it the “old man” or, like the New International Version, the “sinful nature.” Whatever we call it, we see that Paul himself had trouble doing in his flesh what he wanted in his heart and mind [2]. At his conversion, Paul had received a miraculous vision from God, complete with blinding light and a voice from heaven. Still, years into his journey of faith, Paul struggled with sin in the flesh. Paul described this struggle elsewhere when he said, "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would" (Gal. 5:17).

Notice one thing about the struggle Paul describes here. The battle is not between the conflicting desires of our minds and hearts, but between the Spirit and the flesh. The Bible is very clear that we are not to be double minded. As the Apostle James told us, the double-minded man is “unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1:7). No, the battle is between the Spirit and the flesh [3]. Now let’s be careful here. The Bible does not say that in every case the body is evil and the Spirit good. Yet somehow sin still dwells in our bodies even after our hearts receive the Spirit of God. Our culture today has inherited the legacy of modern psychology, which tries to find unconscious mental motivations for our actions. Even to psychological science, however, the relationship between mind and body is by no means completely understood. Notice Paul made no claim to understand it—in fact, he positively says he doesn’t understand his own actions when it comes to sin. The simple fact is this: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).

Can’t every Christian say the same thing? As much as we try to do good, we sometimes find ourselves sinning anyway. If we try to judge our faithfulness based on our actions, how often do we throw up our hands and call ourselves wretched? As painful as the realization of our own wretchedness is for us, however, it is a key to a knowledge that liberates.

Knowing that even God’s apostles sinned, at least at times, can help liberate us. It frees us from trying to be good enough—good enough to qualify as a “true, obedient” Christian. Good enough to really be abiding in Christ. Good enough to earn God’s approval. Good enough to earn others’ approval. Good enough to feel free from guilt. Do you ever find yourself chasing after this futile effort to be good enough for God? Do you find yourself trying to obey God more out of guilt than from joy? I must admit that I do. Yet we are not called to focus on our shortcomings. We know this with certainty because even after his confession here in Chapter 7, Paul goes on twice to remind the Romans that, in the words of Isaiah, “no one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom 9:33, 10:11). Peter reminded Christians of the same thing: “For it stands in scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame’” (1 Pet. 2:6).

So facing our sin frees us from desperately striving to be good enough and from the shame of our inevitable failure. It also frees us from the hopelessness that comes from knowing and hiding from our own impurity. Knowledge and confession of our sin frees us from being snobs who look down our noses at brothers and sisters who have sins that do not tempt us. Facing the sin in our flesh frees us from worrying about our salvation—whether or not we are good enough to be saved.

Still, God does not want us simply to rest on his grace. We are called to fight the battle of righteousness. It is by no means acceptable for us simply to say, “Well, my flesh is going to sin anyway, so why worry about it?” Let’s be clear. Sin is incompatible with the Christian life. We are told, “ Sin shall not be your master, for you are not under law but under grace" (Rom.6:14). We know that Paul himself struggled to overcome sin and live a life worthy of his calling (1 Cor 9:27). Christians today are to do the same (Eph. 4:1), as Paul reminded Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). John also stressed the need for those who await Christ’s return to live holy lives: “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3).

Very well, so Christians are called to live holy lives. But if right actions aren’t what it takes for justification before God, what is the basis of our justification? We can be certain it is not ourselves. That is the central problem of Rom. 7—the futility of trying to gain righteousness on our own [4]. We know this, of course, at least doctrinally. But aren’t we still tempted to try? If we do, it won’t work. No matter how hard we try to deserve God’s blessings of salvation, we will never succeed. No matter how hard we work at being good, we will never have anything to brag on about ourselves (Rom 3:27).

No, the only hope for righteousness in us or anyone else is Jesus Christ. He alone is “our wisdom and our righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). Our righteousness is not of ourselves, “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Living that righteousness depends on our faith—an absolute conviction that Christ alone makes us right with God.

Putting that kind of faith into practice is not easy. It takes a new kind of thinking—a mind that doesn’t try to drive us to be good enough to please God. We must remember that Christ not only helps us to be righteous. He not only makes us righteous. In fact, Christ is our righteousness, to all of us who believe. We are made righteous not by our good works, but by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ. We call that gift grace, and God gives it to us because he loves us.

In Chapter 7 of Romans we’ve seen the futility of trying to relate to God through the law. If we relate to God through trying to live up to his standards, we will fail, because evil has infiltrated into the very cells of our bodies. Next week, in Chapter 8 we’ll see the victory that comes to be believer who relates to God through the Holy Spirit [5]. In both chapters we are offered relief from our striving to be good enough. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. But it does mean we have a righteousness far greater than anything we ourselves can achieve: Jesus Christ the righteous. Let’s take that righteousness up, to the glory of God.

1. Richard A. Batey. The Letter of Paul to the Romans. Austin: R. B. Sweet, 1969, p. 90.
2. F. F. Bruce. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans. London: Tyndale, 1963, p. 148.
3. Batey, 99-100.
4. Batey, 97.
5. Lawrence O. Richards. The Teacher's Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987, pp. 820-25.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ


Blogger POWERSHAKER said...

This really helped. I'm saved. Every so often, I commit this sin. I do this sin like once or twice a week or every two weeks. Sometimes, longer... but I do it... and then I feel guilty because I know and believe Jesus is Lord, and that He saved a wretch like me. I also try to think on Paul. It is true. We are in a constant struggle between flesh and the spirit. Your entry was very helpful and peace sustaining. God Bless you! :)

4:54 AM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Thanks for saying so. Glory to God that you found this helpful. Peace.

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Mark Stephenson said...

I have recently been pondering: the "flesh" includes the mind, will and emotions...all except the new creation, the spirit given life by Christ, is soiled by sin and cannot be trusted. Hence the total dependence on Christ Jesus as the master builder...

11:12 AM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

That sounds right to me--very good points. Thanks for the input.

5:28 PM  

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