Read: Romans 7:14-25
What we are doing these Sunday evenings is meditating on this passage and, even as we are reading the Bible through in one year as Pastor DeMass just reminded us, at some point piece by piece and text by text we need to stop and be sure that we are actually thinking about what this passage actually means. How it affects our understanding of life and how it summons us to a particular life of obedience and service, how it reminds us of what we are otherwise likely to forget, how it encourages our faith, and so on. We are spending at least four Sunday evenings on Romans 7:14-25 and what we are doing is something I think that could be called collective or corporate meditation.
We began our study of this famous passage in Romans 7 several Lord’s Day evenings ago by examining the debate over the identity of the “I” who speaks from verse 14 to verse 25. Some have argued that Paul is speaking here of himself before he became a Christian. We considered that interpretation and rejected it. We argued that there is overwhelming evidence that Paul is speaking here as a Christian and not as a Christian only, but as a mature, practiced Christian, an apostle no less, much nearer to the end of his holy and fruitful Christian life than to its beginning. In other words, this anguished confession of his still great sinfulness, this description of his frustration over the considerable measure of his moral and spiritual failure that continues in his life, should be typical of any and every Christian so long as he or she is in the world. It is a struggle with sin to the end and along the way there are a great many failures as well as, of course, many successes. This text is what is referred to as a crux interpretum because, while it is certainly not the only text to make this point, we considered it’s parallel in Galatians 5 last time, it is the text that more powerfully and plainly unequivocally demonstrates that the Christian, so long as he or she lives in this world, is going to endure a continuing struggle with sin within and must endure with it a great measure of sorrow and frustration on account of his or her ability to get above one’s sins and leave them behind.
Tonight I want to begin to consider the significance of this melancholy fact for our own Christian experience, yours and mine. What does it mean, what will it mean to know that as surely as we are Christians we must be able to say “The Lord is my shepherd,” or “God is my Father,” or “Christ is my Savior” or “My citizenship is in heaven” just as surely as we must be able to say, and must be willing to say, “O wretched man that I am!’ That may strike you as very strange, that the Christian life should be composed of such opposites and contraries: an inner sense of the love and favor of God and the joy of our salvation on the one hand and wretchedness, shame, disappointment and discouragement on the other hand. But it is and it must be.
What you may not realize, what may not appear obvious at first glance, is that this inner wretchedness and disquiet and pain to which Paul gives such an eloquent witness here, is a very good, a very health-giving thing in a Christian’s life. It may seem hard to believe at first that what Paul is here describing can be a good thing, a Happy thing—capital H, but it is. The sense of himself that Paul describes is absolutely essential to a happy and fruitful Christian life and that is relatively easy to demonstrate I think.
There is no doubt that this sense of our own badness, this sense of our constant betrayal of the grace and goodness of God, this heaviness of heart, this shame on account of doing and continuing to do things we know are dishonoring and displeasing to God, the very things we ourselves deplore when we are thinking rightly about our lives. I say there is no doubt that any of us would be very happy to be rid of this burden, or, if it cannot be got rid of, at least to be able to find some way to forget it, but we cannot. It is the desire to be rid and free of this burden that Paul, himself, is describing in his own case, which makes it such a powerful temptation for Christians to grow comfortable with their sins and no longer to struggle against them. A feeling that there really isn’t much use, they have tried and failed, and tried and failed so what is the point. I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said that the best way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it. You can’t rid yourself of sin, so the only psychological solution to the problem that Paul poses other than Paul’s life-long struggle in frustration is to come to the place that you don’t care anymore that you are displeasing the Lord over and over and over again.
But, in no uncertain terms the Scripture leaves us to understand, that this would be a catastrophic mistake, not just wrong, surely wrong, but very bad for us. It is altogether in our own best interest and in the best interest of God’s purposes in our lives that we face up to the facts as Paul did and keep a tender conscience toward our own sinfulness as he did, to preserve a lively sense of our own moral failure as he did. Here is the paradox: that abiding shame and disquiet and bitterness produces the happiest, holiest and most fruitful consequences in a Christian’s life. It did in Paul’s life and it will in yours.
Your view of sin, and more particularly your view of your own sin, and your own sinning, your estimation of it, your understanding of the measure of it, your disgust over it, your hatred of it will determine to a very great degree what kind of Christian you will be and what kind of Christian life you will live. More than you know, your sense of your own sin and the wretchedness you feel on account of it will determine the depth of your love for God and for your neighbor, the purity of your life, the degree of your devotion, your usefulness to the kingdom of God, and so on. Show me a man or woman who feels the sin within to be the heaviest of burdens as Paul did and I will show you a Christian who is going down deep and up high in the things of God. On the other hand, show me a Christian who does not think about his or her own sin as Paul thought about his and described his in Rom 7:14-25, and I will show you a Christian who, in what matters, is a shadow of what a Christian man or woman ought to be!
No wonder then that even such a hater of his own sin as Samuel Rutherford could say: “a sense of sin is a close [sib] friend to a spiritual man.” [Cited in Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, 57] And no wonder the holy John Fox, author of the immortal Book of Martyrs, could write: “My sins have in a manner done me more good than my graces.” [Ibid, 55] or James Fraser of Brea, “I find advantages of my sins.” [Ibid]
It is a very good thing, and a very healthy thing for Christians to know, to feel, to lament, and to hate their sin and to be conscience of how much sin there is to hate and lament. That misery to which Paul bore his eloquent witness and which multitudes upon multitudes of believers have complained against throughout the centuries since is a very great advantage to a Christian. Tonight I want to enumerate three of the ways in which that is so.
- First, this Pauline sense of wretchedness over continuing sinfulness alone can make us properly meek and humble before others.
The Scripture is always teaching us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think because we so often do. What a world of evil we continue to find in the church because of our pride expressing itself in our attitudes and conduct toward others. How haughty and arrogant and unkind and uncaring we can be toward one another! How indifferent we can be to their interests because we are so consumed with our own. We think too much of ourselves to think much of others; spend too much of our time and energy serving ourselves to have much left for others. If we are going to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are going to have to carve out a great deal of the love that we give to ourselves in order to give it to others instead. And all of this, at the last, is because we have such a high view of ourselves and find it so easy to worship and serve ourselves.
But look into your heart as Paul was always looking into his and what do you find? Well you find that, like Thomas Shepard, there are many times when you would rather die than pray. That’s how little faith you’ve got and how unspiritual a person you are. You find that you have to say of yourself what Lancelot Andrewes said of himself: that he was made of sin. Or you find, as Jacob Behmen, the German Lutheran mystic, once said, that sometimes your heart is as full of malice as it can hold. Or, when from time to time you examine your life according to the high standards of God’s holiness, instead of measuring yourself by yourself which is our tendency and which Paul says is very unwise, we find that our hearts are very much still chambers of hell and full of things we would be absolutely humiliated to have fall out where the rest of the world could see them. You discover as wise saints have discovered before you that “no land is so fearful to them that are sent to search it out as their own hearts…” [Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, 6-7] Follow Paul in Romans 7:14-25, I say, and your head will hang down too low for you ever again to be able to look down your nose at somebody else. See your life as Paul saw his and you will be too preoccupied with your own failures to take offense at the failures of others, too horrified at your own badness to imagine that anyone else could have a heart as sick as yours.
I tell you flatly, nothing would so promote our unity in this body, or the beauty or the usefulness or the happiness of our fellowship, and a loving spirit on the part of everyone for everyone else, than for all of us to feel keenly what Paul felt about himself and described in Rom 7:14-25. Nothing would so bring us together as a common sense of the greatness of our own sin and a common sense of our misery on account of it. We continue to insist on making our little distinctions, do we not? We don’t mind being called sinners, so long as we remain free to imagine that there are others around us that are more sinful than we are. We think far too often that there is something really important in the difference between the bad and the very slightly less bad and that only shows how little we understand, which is a big part of our sin!
I remember the way Martyn Lloyd Jones illustrated this illusion that all of us indulge. Take note, he said, of the difference between a 100 watt bulb, a 60 watt bulb and a forty watt bulb. Indeed, there seems to be some difference between the measures of light each produces. But, hold them up to the sun and the difference between them is annihilated. There is no difference to speak of. Next to the sun a 40 watt bulb and a 100 watt bulb are equally darkness, there is no light at all. And it is just like that in the spiritual realm. The gospel brings us face to face with God and his holiness and shows us and our lives in comparison with that standard. It becomes utterly irrelevant for us to claim that we are slightly less bad than someone else. Of course God knows whether we actually are slightly less bad because he judges by a far more perfect standard. His judgment takes into account our advantages and what we have done with them: “to whom much is given, much is required.” Maybe we’re not, in fact, slightly less bad at all. Maybe we’re a lot worse. But, even if, in fact, I prove to be slightly less bad than someone else, in comparison with the standard God set my life, it would take a measuring device far more accurate than anything I have to discern a difference between me and the sinner I think myself better than. The moral difference we imagine we detect between ourselves and others we measure in feet and yards. The actual difference amounts to a nanometer or two. I love those new words with the prefix nano-, a billionth of something. “Nanometer,” is a good word to bring into the sphere of our moral judgment. We imagine we are seeing miles between us and others when God sees a nanometer or two! The fact is we have all sinned terribly and constantly and inexcusably before God. We all do all the time. The lowest demon in hell, but one, can say, ‘At least I’m not as bad as he is.’ But to what point?
And this recognition is the first step to our unity and to so much else that is beautiful in the Christian life. While any one of us is still comparing himself to others, still asserting his superiority, even if only in his own mind, we will never have true Christian brotherhood and unity. One of us is boasting, holding on to his own over against the others. But when we face the truth about ourselves, as Paul did, it makes such distinctions between people utterly foolish and meaningless; we are all together in the dust before God. And that togetherness and sense of it is the beginning to true unity and oneness and fellow-feeling in Christ.
Paul, you remember, once described himself – even late in his life – as the chief of sinners. We wonder about that remark and suspect that perhaps the great Apostle was merely being rhetorical, using hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. Surely we are not to believe that Paul, of all people, was the chief of sinners? This man who was perhaps one of the greatest of all Christians who ever lived? But, don’t you see? Paul wasn’t interested in comparing himself with others. He was looking at his own heart – the heart he knew best and whose depths he had often explored – and he was comparing that heart and the life that flowed out of that heart, with all its shameful selfishness and self-love and willfulness and lusts and unkindness and thoughtlessness and greed, with the holiness and the goodness of God. And he couldn’t imagine a greater sinner than himself. Think of his advantages he would tell you. And, of course, as a Christian his former persecution of Christians and his participation in the death of Stephen must have haunted him all his days and nights. The things he did in his life that he could never forget.
Saint, did I say? With your remembered faces,
Dear men and women whom I sought and slew!
Ah when we mingle in the heavenly places
How will I weep to Stephen and to you.
Besides, all of his privileges as an Apostle he plainly understood only increased his responsibility: to whom much is given, much is required. And then, besides that, brotherly love led him to find extenuations and excuses for everyone else’s sins and failures; only for him could there be no excuse whatsoever. It wasn’t mere rhetoric for Paul to call himself the chief of sinners; he was so far as he knew. And every believer who follows him in the honest acknowledgment of his sins will feel as he does, and it will make of us Christians who take so little pride in themselves that it is not hard for them to think highly of others.
I tell you plainly: the reason why Paul was such a Christian gentleman, always so thoughtful of others, always so generous in his estimation of others, always so willing to forgive the sins of others, always so interested in the lives of others, always so large- hearted towards others was precisely because this living sense of his own sin and unworthiness always kept him humble before others, so incapable of seeing himself above others. What one early biographer of Bernard of Clairvaux said of him could have been said of Paul as well:
“The humility of his heart conquered the loftiness of his name.”
What would this church be, what lives would we live, if we all had Paul’s mind and Paul’s spirit!
- The second great advantage of carrying about with us that same sense of wretchedness over our continuing sinfulness and failure that Paul had to carry about with him is that it keeps us longing for heaven and the world to come!
Happily, tonight’s theme reinforces this morning’s from Phil. 3:20. Paul was a heavenly minded man. He had advantages, to be sure. He had seen Christ in his glory with his own eyes and he had been taken up into the third heaven and seen things so enthralling that he was not permitted to attempt to describe them. But his sense of sin helped him here as well. As he will put it in the next chapter of Romans, he found himself, on account of his sin, groaning inwardly for the day in which the glory of God would be revealed in him and in which he would come into what he describes as the glorious freedom of the sons of God. He means freedom from sin.
We know, don’t we, how very much we ought to be hungering and thirsting for heaven and, to our shame, how little we do. Our whole faith directs our attention forward to the life to come, but we find, do we not, that living by faith and by something we cannot see with our eyes is much harder than living by sight? What a difference it would make if every day we were setting our sights and our hopes and our longings on the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God? Think of the difference it would make!
Think of how much less captivating the possessions and the pleasures of this world would be if you always carried about with you a lively sense of those eternal joys that are so soon to be with you and in you and over you and upon you in Christ. Think of how often you would ride in triumph over your temptations because you had such a keen sense of the judgment day when you would have to give an account of the deeds done in the body whether good or evil or because you could see, as it were, the Master awarding his 10 cities to one disciple and his 5 cities to another and his 1 city to another. Think of how much more faithfully and sturdily you would bear your trials because you were remembering that they are always short-lived and that ‘joy cometh in the morning!’
How unseemly and dishonoring it is to Christ and to his great salvation and to our eternal life when Christians live and speak, so far as any observer could tell, as if heaven did not exist. Yet you and I know that, shameful as it is, we can live too often and far too much as if heaven did not exist. And the worldliness of our lives and the lack of true spiritual power and joy and the discouragement which often settles over our hearts like a wet blanket is proof enough of that!
‘How,’ the unbelieving observer of our lives may well be heard to say, ‘How could heaven be as you say and how could you be as certain of going there as you say you are, when you seem to think so little about it, when you certainly speak so little about it, and when it does not appear in any obvious way that you know you will soon be there?
Well, beloved, the saints through the ages will tell you that during the entire course of a Christian’s life there is nothing that so regularly or effectively creates a longing for heaven in a believer’s heart as Paul’s sense of deep weariness, frustration, and shame for one’s sins and the almost desperate longing finally to be rid of them. At the end of life the pain of sickness and dying will create that longing to be out of this world and on to the next and sometimes in life, the sorrow of the loss, the death of a loved one, some heartbreak or keen disappointment will do so, will begin to break your affection for this world, but throughout the entire course of one’s life nothing so darkens this world and makes you want to leave it than your own disgust with your own life.
In that disgust and frustration with himself Paul cries out, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” And then with an immense relief answers his own question: “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” But what is he thanking God for in that verse at the end of this passage? We learn that, as I said last week, what he is thanking God for in Rom 8:18-25 – which is a repetition of the thought of Rom 7:14-25 but now on a grander scale; now not the individual but the entire church and indeed in a sense the entire world – Paul is thanking God, praising God, and rejoicing in God for the deliverance that will come when the saints are in heaven! His sins set him longing for heaven and thanking God for heaven. And if only your sins and mine did that for us each day, well, we too would say like John Fox that our sins have, in a way, done us more good than our graces.
The Bonar family – you know of Horatius the hymn writer and Andrew the author of the celebrated Memoir of Robert Murray McCheyne – the Bonar family had a crest with this motto written on it: “Denique Coelum,” ‘Heaven at last!’ I want that to be my motto and yours as well.
- Third, and finally, there is this great advantage of carrying about with us always a Paul-like sense of our still great sinfulness: It prevents us from taking Jesus Christ for granted and it continues to keep him magnificent in our view and in the estimation of our hearts.
Surely, this is the greatest and finest and holiest of all the wonderful consequences of this shameful wretchedness to which Paul bears witness in this autobiographical passage in Rom. 7:14-25. Indeed, I do not hesitate to say that this is why the Lord has ordered for each one of us such slow and tortured progress in doing away with our sins.
Have you ever wondered why, after all, the Lord does not make us pure and clean and holy through and through when first he forgives our sins and calls us to belong to his family? Have you ever wondered why he takes all our sin’s guilt completely away and all at once, but leaves so much of our sins corruption and power? He obviously does not free us from sin’s power in the same way he frees us from its guilt; but why?
He obviously could have swept the power of sin and its influence upon us away all at once, had he wanted to, because he is going to do exactly that at the moment we leave this world and see the Lord Jesus and become like him because we see him as he is. Why does he not do so at the moment we enter the Christian life? Wouldn’t that be a better witness to the world? Wouldn’t the gospel be almost irresistible to the unbeliever if it were perfectly obvious to everyone that the followers of Christ were simply better people by far, much more loving, more gracious, more humble, pure, kind, honest, and so on? You can just tell the Christians immediately by the quality of their lives, they stand out like neon lights.
Well, perhaps the Lord has many reasons for taking the way with us that he has. But, I’m quite sure that I know what one of his chief reasons is for leaving us so much in thrall to our sins. Alexander Whyte, I think, put it best of all, though the point is often made by writers on the Christian life of the deeper, wiser sort.
“If you had been both called and justified and adopted and sanctified wholly and all at once you would never have known, you would never have believed, what an inveterate and hopeless and unparalleled sinner you are, nor what a glorious Savior you have got in the Son of God. No; it is not your first pardon that gives God his great name in you. It is his every day and every hour pardon of your sins; sins that are past all name and past all belief…” [Thomas Shepard, 98-99]
Do you understand what he is saying? It isn’t the sins you committed as an unbeliever that teach you how undeserving you were when Christ gave his life for your salvation; or how terrible a price he had to pay to cover over all your guilt; or how great and deep his love for you must be that he was willing to suffer so for you when you were yet his enemy. No; it is the sins you commit and continue to commit even though you know Christ and you know his love and you know his holy will and you know the immensity of the debt you owe to him and the forgiveness he continues to extend to you over and over and over again in defiance of the fact that you have continued to abuse his love and defile it all the while you have been a Christian that proves to your self-satisfied heart that your salvation is nothing short of an amazement. It is what your continuing sinning as a Christian teaches you that gives Christ his great name and place and honor in your heart! And a heavy sense of that continuing sinfulness and the burden and shame of it is what can best keep Christ’s name continually great in your mind.
If you want to know why Paul was so head over heels in love with Jesus Christ and wished for nothing so much and strived for nothing so much as to make his life an honor to Christ, it was because Paul was a man who knew and felt the depth of his sin and guilt and, therefore, knew and felt the width and the height and the depth of the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. If you don’t feel that you really are an undeserving wretch, Christ’s love is never going to thrill you. It may please you, but it’s never going to thrill you.
Many of you know something about Amy Carmichael, the Irish missionary who spent 53 years in the South of India without a furlough, who died in 1951, and whose work and writings about that work and whose life and writing about that life have become part of modern missionary legend. I know a number of you have read Elizabeth Elliot’s fine biography of Carmichael, A Chance to Die. If you haven’t yet read that book, I encourage you to do so. It will rebuke you and inspire you at the same time.
In my own case it was not so much the zeal with which Amy Carmichael served Christ that rebuked me, though her zeal was formidable and inspiring. What has struck me over and over again as I read Elliot’s book, is how this woman loved and cared for people and how genuinely wide spirited she was and how large hearted she was toward others. That is something I have always had a hard time being and when I see that in someone else it always strikes me as very attractive and very inspiring. Her eye seemed always fixed on the world to come, daily alert to the onrushing years speeding us all either to heaven or hell. She was a wonderfully Christ-centered person. And that made her, of course, a wonderfully other centered person. The Lord Jesus, himself, as a person dominated her thoughts, her speech, and her behavior. People like that always stand out; always bear fruit, and always leave a significant mark on others and the world.
Well, how did she become that kind of a woman: humble and other-centered, heavenly minded, and full of love for Jesus Christ? Well, I think Elliot’s book demonstrates that she got that way in the same way Paul did and countless saints since. She got there by learning the lessons her own sins taught her day after day. She talked a lot about her own moral failure. She was alive to it; it was a reality to her. It was the supremely dark feature of her otherwise quite light and happy life. Her sins made others and heaven and, above all, Christ, greater to her than otherwise they would have been. And they will do the same for you, if you acknowledge them, and mourn them, and confess them, and carry them as a burden, a heavy burden, as Paul did, and as every honest Christian should.
One of her most famous poems reads this way.
Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?
Hast Thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent,
Leaned me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow me;
But thine are whole: can he have followed far
Who has no wound nor scar?
For every Christian, while it is not the only way to be wounded or scarred, we spoke of Hugh McHale, we can think of other Christian martyrs in our own day and time who have suffered terribly for their loyalty to Christ. But for every Christian his or her own sin and the battle and struggle with it provide the most wounds and the most scars that make you like Christ in that most important way of identification with your Savior. Sin – our sin – was what made our Savior’s life so difficult and it was in the last analysis our sin that put him on the cross and pierced his hands and feet and gave him his immortal and eternal scars. Our sins did that. And it will be our sins that will give us most of the scars we bear with us to heaven to prove that we fought our master’s battles. It is our sin chiefly, not the world and not the devil; it is our sin and our flesh that makes the Christian life warfare.
What is it that you want most of all, Christian brother or sister? Is it not – I hope it is – that God’s glorious grace may be displayed in your life and that your life might be lived to his honor and praise? Well, then, here is a first lesson for you. Don’t extenuate, ever, don’t cover over, ever, don’t allow yourself to forget, ever, to shift, ever, to minimize, ever, the sin that is raging in your heart and life. The sin that says so much about whom you are and what you are like and how you are living, your sins of commission and still much more your sins of omission. Your sin is enormous, it is incalculable. We know that. It must be enormous if Paul’s was enormous so near the end of his magnificent life. Like Paul, make a clean breast of it to yourself first and then to God and each day, mourn over it as he did. Force yourself to look at it and take the measure of it. Never excuse even the smallest part of it. Learn to be an expert at least at this one thing comparing your heart and life with the exquisite holiness of God and the example of Jesus Christ and the perfection of God’s holy law!
John Newton, who knew a great deal about God’s Amazing Grace, because he knew a great deal about his own sin, once wrote:
“In one sense we are excellently suited to answer to [God’s] eternal purpose. If we were not vile and worthless beyond all expression, the exceeding riches of His grace would not have been so gloriously displayed in us. His glory shines far more in redeeming one sinner like you and me, than in preserving and upholding a thousand angels like Gabriel and Michael themselves.”
That is absolutely true, little as most people believe it. But the magnificent good of that truth is experienced only when it is believed, embraced, and really felt in the heart. Paul shows us how that is done: by the honest, searching confession of our failure and mourning it before God.