Read: Romans 7:14-25
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 a Christian only, but as a mature, practiced Christian, an apostle no less, much closer to the end of his holy and fruitful Christian life than to its beginning. This text is what is referred to as a crux interpretum because, while it is certainly not the only text to make this point, more powerfully and plainly than any other it 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 bitter frustration on account of his being unable to get above these sins and leave them behind.
Last time we considered that, painful as the experience of his continuing sinfulness was for the Apostle Paul, and painful as it is for every serious Christian, this reality has, paradoxically, some very happy consequences. Nothing so effectively humbles us before God and man as our own continuing moral failure; nothing keeps us longing so ardently for heaven; and nothing is so well suited to prevent us from taking Christ and his salvation for granted. There are, in other words, advantages to be got from our sins, as spiritually minded men and women have often acknowledged.
Tonight I want to continue with our reflection on this intensely personal confession by the great Apostle and, in particular, I want to demonstrate to you that, strange as it may seem, these verses expressing Paul’s anguish undoubtedly constitute some of the most consoling, most comforting, most encouraging, most reassuring words in all of Holy Scripture. There is still another advantage to be got from our sins, one so important that it deserves its own treatment.
You may well wonder how a passage which so vividly and shamelessly lays bare Paul’s inner struggle, his disappointment with himself, and his sense of wretchedness over the badness in his heart and life that he cannot seem to shake could be of comfort to anyone. It is after all a deeply tragic passage, a sad and, if the truth be told, a gloomy passage. Indeed, I think Alexander Whyte – who, in my mind, is Paul’s definitive interpreter in Romans 7 – was not exaggerating when he wrote:
“Set beside the seventh of Romans all your so-called great tragedies–your MacBeths, your Hamlets, your Lears, your Othellos, are all but so many stage plays: so much sound and fury signifying nothing when set alongside this awful tragedy of sin in a soul under a supreme sanctification. The seventh of the Romans should always be printed in letters of blood. Here are passions. Here are terror and pity. Here heaven and hell meet, as nowhere else in heaven or hell; and that too for their last grapple together for the everlasting possession of that immortal soul, till you have tragedy indeed; and beside which, there is no other tragedy. Only, as Luther says, give not such strong wine to a sucking child.
“‘[D]id I hear or read [says Dr. Newman] of a man of refined mind, and of great nobility of nature that nothing could obliterate, and, withal, a truly Christian man; did I read or hear of such a man held in captivity by some vile, cruel, cannibal tribe in South America, or Central Africa, I would feel sure that he had a tale to tell that would harrow my heart. I would not need to be told by pen and ink the inconsolable agony of that man’s heart. I could picture myself that pour captive’s utter wretchedness. I could see him making desperate attempts to escape his horrible captivity, only to be overtaken and dragged back to a still more cruel bondage. And were that captive able by some secret and extraordinary providence to send home to this country so much as a single page out of his dreadful life, it would scarcely be believed, so far past all imagination of free men at home would be his incoherent outcries. But all that would be but a school-boy’s story book beside this agonized outcry of a great saint sold under sin.” [Bible Characters, ii, 258-259]
It is an apt illustration, I think. Think of the accounts you have read of prisoners of war in the Second World War or Vietnam, of the endless days and months and years they spent in a solitary cell, cold, miserable, underfed, struggling with hopelessness. You can’t read such accounts without wondering if you could endure such a trial. And that is, Whyte is telling us, precisely what Paul is describing here: miserable bondage that seems to go on and on. Will it ever end?
Nevertheless one godly commentator I read said that these words of Paul ‘have recovered me from repeated personal despondency.’ [Moule, Romans, 130] Another aged Christian confessed near the end of his long life that he would often have been ‘swallowed up by despair, had it not been for the seventh chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.’ [Cited in Whyte, Ibid, 261]
And Alexander Whyte, in whose writings you will find numerous references to Romans 7:14-25, spoke of its great comfort with a special enthusiasm:
‘…I would like you to tell me where I can find another chapter so full of the profoundest, surest, and most spiritual…comfort. I have not found it…. No. In its own wonderful way there is not a more comfortable and hopeful Scripture in all the Book of God than this.’ [Ibid]
The reason why the godly find and have always found such unspeakable comfort in this text is, of course, not difficult to understand. This confession of the Apostle Paul is perfect medicine for what most painfully afflicts every true child of God, namely his or her similar failure to rise above sin, and sinful attitudes, thoughts, words, and deeds.
“When a man like me,’ wrote Martin Luther, ‘comes to know the plague of his own heart, he is not miserable only – he is absolute misery itself…” [Whyte, 247] And to a man, embittered and ashamed and made fearful because of the still great power and corruption of his sin, however long he may have been a Christian, it is deliverance and hope and peace and immense relief to learn that a Christian as manly and as practiced and as fruitful as Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, struggled with the very same near despair and with the very same bitter frustration and with the very same sense of defeat. If such were so of Paul, then there is hope for me! That is the consolation of Romans 7:14-25!
Now I know that there are those in this room, including some of you who have been Christians for a long time, who have only a mild sense of this comfort. And the reason, unfortunately, is because you have such an un-Paul-like sense of satisfaction with yourself, because you have so little of Paul’s honesty, or his steadfastness in facing the truth about his heart and life, and so you have little of his self-condemnation and self-loathing. If you were as relentlessly honest as Paul, you would have to admit that you scarcely ever feel about yourself as Paul says here he felt about himself and you scarcely ever speak about yourself as Paul spoke here in Romans 7. You have comparatively little of Paul’s inner wretchedness, inner disquiet and pain, because you consider yourself so superficially and have, as a result, little of Paul’s sense of his own continuing and inexcusable moral failure. You young people may not yet have come to the place where it has dawned on you that you ought to be a much better person than you are and you haven’t yet developed the conscience you one day will that will torment you for your failure to live worthy of the grace you have received.
Take no pride, no pleasure, no satisfaction in that, my friend. As a very wise man once wrote:
“…do not boast that you do not know what it is to be sold under sin, and that you do not believe it about Paul either. A born slave, with a slave’s heart, and a slave’s habits, never complains that he is a slave. He knows nothing else. He knows nothing better… Only a free-born, and a nobly-born man, and a man who had been carried away captive, ever cries continually, ‘O wretched man that I am!’
The reason why Rom 7:14-25 is not life itself and hope and joyful deliverance to some of you is not because you haven’t the same sin, or worse, than Paul detected in his own heart and observed in his own life. It is because your pride has blinded you to the sight of it and your lack of a spiritual mind has made you to be at peace with what Paul could only and always bitterly regret.
You haven’t taken seriously what God says he requires of you and the standard by which he promises to judge you and reward you or condemn you. You do not carefully consider what real godliness and goodness is and you don’t take care carefully to compare yourself to that standard. You have grown comfortable with your life the way you live it even in those ways in which it is an offense to God, in which it counts Christ and his salvation as little things, and in which it is so unimpressive to others who observe you and know you are supposed to be a follower of Jesus Christ. If you were as honest as Paul was and held yourself to the Lord’s true standard as he did, you would be as wretched a Christian as Paul always was, as deeply frustrated with yourself and angry with yourself and disgusted with yourself as he always was. You do not nearly enough put to yourself the right questions, the questions the Lord himself is asking you; the questions Paul never tired of asking himself, painful as the exercise always was.
Ask yourself, if you dare, such questions as these!
- If my chief objects in life are to love God with an absolutely undivided heart and my neighbor more than I love myself; when did I last love God, have I ever loved God with all that I am and have, with a passion and an abandon which tolerated absolutely no competition; and, then, where is the neighbor who thinks that I love him or her more than I love myself? Name that neighbor if you can!
- And where, in your life, is the equivalent of the home, the brothers, the sisters, the mother, the father, the children, the fields, which you have simply given away for the sake of Christ, to serve and honor your savior thereby?
- What is it in your life today, what was it yesterday and the day before yesterday, which amounted to your suffering the loss of all things for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus the Lord? With what care and what caution have you, even in these last days, watched and prayed that you might not fall into temptation?
- When did you last heartily, even secretly, rejoice in the blessing, the success of another – even when that other’s success might seem to place him ahead of you in the judgment and estimation of others? And when did you last genuinely weep for the sorrows of another – many are sorrowing for one thing or another – is your tearful sympathy with them a daily thing, or at least a weekly thing? Is it even a monthly or yearly thing?
- When did you last genuinely rejoice that you had fallen into a trial knowing that your faith is thereby to be strengthened?
- Matthew Henry, thinking about the things which are truly distinctive of Christian godliness, once wrote: “It is comfortable to reflect upon an affliction borne patiently; an enemy forgiven heartily; and a Sabbath sanctified uprightly.” When did you last and how well did you last do any of those things out of love for God?
- Or think of Daniel Rowland’s list of the characteristics of genuine godliness, the marks of character which he had sought after himself without complete success all his most holy and fruitful life: “to repent without despairing; to believe without presuming; to rejoice without levity; and to be angry without sinning.” How do you stack up against that measurement of godliness? Men, how have you loved your wives recently as Christ loved his church and gave himself for her? How much testiness and irritation and anger do you allow into your relationship with her or with your children? Come on; be honest with yourself for once! How much of that disgusting self-centered irritableness washes over your poor wife day after day; how often do you make her day heavy instead of light? How well have you banished impurity from your heart? Women, how often and how well have you risen above all discontentment to find your peace in God?
- How long and how ardently do you pray each day? How eagerly do you come to church on the Sabbath awaiting the privilege of worshipping God? How uncaring are you of your own name if only you might speak of Christ to others? How have you recently turned the other cheek, or returned good for evil, or shared your possessions with the poor, or given up your cloak or gone the extra mile or gave yourself in some expensive way so as to further the interests of God, of truth, of love, and of salvation in the lives of others?
Come now? Answer me plainly? Just what kind of life do you live? Is it the holy, pure, passionate, selfless, loving, giving, sacrificing, self-surrendering life that God deserves of you and demands from you; or is it, in fact, something so much less as to give cause to any careful reader of the Bible and observant friend of yours to wonder sometimes it you are a Christian at all?
If you do not feel about your life as Paul felt about his – if you find but little comfort and deliverance in Rom 7:14-25 – have the moral fortitude admit to yourself, even if to no one else, that the reason can only be that you are so inured to your sin, so comfortable with a superficial, half-interested, nominal Christianity, so willing to satisfy yourself with little or nothing, so uncaring about the life you offer to Christ, that your spiritual senses are too deadened to feel the pain and the heartbreak of spiritual disappointment that was Paul’s constant companion. You have to have strong and holy longings to feel Paul’s frustration and disappointment in failing to fulfill them.
But as I fondly hope for most of you, the Apostle’s sense of shame and wretchedness is very well-known. You read this passage and immediately know precisely what Paul is talking about and why! You too have felt this discouragement; you have felt it keenly and bitterly. And, therefore, to you, for you, I bring the matchless consolation of these verses!
And that consolation comes in two parts.
- First, and most obviously, the lesson of these verses is that triumph over sin in one’s heart and one’s life is not at all a necessary or indispensable mark of salvation.
That which naturally and inevitably disturbs and frightens a believer when he looks within himself at so much evil and wrong, so much in his thoughts, his words, and his deeds that is utterly incompatible with the honor of Christ and the will of God, is precisely this question: Is it possible that someone so full of sin and so little full of righteousness as I am could be a Christian? Is it possible that God’s grace and sovereign power could actually be at work in my life and yet have accomplished seemingly so little? Is it possible that I am white before God when my heart remains so black?
And to those urgent questions, often fearfully uttered, Paul in Romans 7:14-25, and the Holy Spirit behind Paul, thunder back. “Oh yes; it is entirely possible!” It is possible, indeed, it is inevitably the case that someone in whom the Spirit of God now dwells, someone born again by the power of God, someone whose sins have been forever cast behind God’s back, someone in whose heart now beats the life of the risen Christ, can yet remain so full of sin and so burdened down with sinful corruptions as to be almost unable to bear it.
Paul here says not only that this may be the case, he says, in effect, that it will be and must be the case. True Christians will be wretched on account of their sins so long as they live in this world, or, as he puts it in Romans 8:21, until the day at the end of time when they are brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
True, the believer has a new heart, he or she will grow very noticeably in holiness, will become more and more practiced in obedience to God, and will serve Him more and more faithfully. He or she may advance with marked success over certain sins. Nevertheless, no Christian will be rid of sin in this life, or even rid of enough of it that it will not continue to burden and shame anyone who loves Jesus Christ in sincerity.
Nathaniel Ward, that Paul-like Puritan, once confessed that he had two great comforts in life: the perfections of Christ and the imperfections of all other men. That is right. All men, even the best of them, even the most sanctified Christian men and women, will, must remain deeply imperfect in this life: deeply, wretchedly imperfect.
When serious Christians look into their hearts and see what is there and, what is worse, what is not there, they begin to wonder if anyone is really as bad as they are and if they are not in a class by themselves when it comes to selfishness, impurity, disobedience, ingratitude, and disloyalty to Christ. And then, if they know anything at all about the exquisite holiness of God, they begin to wonder if we could be Christians at all. But then, like multitudes of saints before them, they turn to Romans 7 and are reminded, to their immense relief, that Paul, even in the full flower of his apostleship, saw the same ugly things when he looked into his heart as they do when we look into theirs.
And they rightly and safely conclude that even the great sin which remains in them and still so terribly bedevils their Christian living, does not impeach their claim to belong to Christ, or to have the forgiveness of God, or to be an heir to eternal life, or a citizen of the Heavenly City. This then is the first consolation of this text: our great sin does not disqualify us from membership in the family of God, just as Paul’s great sin did not disqualify him.
- Second, there is this consolation and comfort in these verses: that, in a very important respect, it is possible to separate ourselves from our sin, to disassociate ourselves from it.
There is hardly a more astonishing statement to be found anywhere in Paul’s writings than the statement read twice-over in this text: first in verse 17 and again in verse 20:
“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 who do it, but it is sin living in me.” And again:
“Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
“Paul,” we say, “do you realize what you are saying! Do you have any idea what men and women are going to do with that remark? How they will turn it and twist it and make it into an excuse for their sinning? How they will defend their disobedience by refusing to take the blame for it. “It was not I,” they will say, “it was the sin within me!” It is like Flip Wilson excusing his behavior by saying, “The Devil made me do it.” Any Christian can now sin as he pleases, indulge any temptation he pleases and plead at the last: “it wasn’t I; it was the sin in me.” “Paul, do you realize what you said?’
But Paul knew full well the deceitfulness of the human heart, and the Holy Spirit who was directing Paul’s mind and Paul’s pen knew it infinitely better still. Paul never allows a Christian to duck responsibility for his sins, whether of commission or omission. No one has ever spoken more bluntly about the absolute necessity that Christians put their sin to death and brook no toleration of it of any kind. He no doubt realized full well how dangerous a remark this was which he made in verse 17 and then repeated in verse 20. He knew how easily it could and would be turned into an excuse for sinning.
But that only makes more striking the fact that he did not shrink back from saying it. He says unmistakably and, then, lest the point be missed, he repeats it a few verses later.
“It is not I, but the sin within me that thinks, and feels, and does what is wrong and evil.”
I say to you straightaway, that I would not dare to say this about myself or to say it about you, had not Paul said it and then said it again.
But, Paul having said it, what a world of relief and comfort I take from the fact that in a certain way I may disassociate myself from my sin; that I can honestly say, with the authority of God’s Word behind me, that my sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, are not my truest self, but are rather an unwelcome intruder in my heart. Despite all my sin and sinning I can honestly say that my true self, my real self belongs genuinely to the Lord.
This means, don’t you see, that I am not lying and you are not lying when you and I say that we love God and that we love his law and agree with it in every part; that we love to serve Jesus Christ and do all his will; that we have no higher interest in life than to praise our Savior with every breath we take – I say we are not lying when we say such things, even though our thoughts and our actions so often run in a diametrically opposite direction. Are we nothing but hypocrites, you and I, for saying that we love Christ when we so often don’t act like it? Many think so and we can understand that. But the fact is we are not hypocrites, but redeemed and newborn sinners, whose new and true self is expressed in our holy desires and hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and in the bitter regret we feel because we still find, in, under, around, and through our hearts an unwelcome and unwanted intruder which bedevils our holy intentions and often defeats them.
If you are an earnest Christian, who hates sin but must still groan under the weight of your sins, there is no more comforting word in all the bible than this happy audacity of the Apostle Paul, who says that those sins are not the real you!
You remember my mentioning to you the saintly Scottish pastor of the early 18th century, Thomas Boston, renown for his writings and his life. You certainly remember the number of times I have mentioned Prof John Duncan, the famous Rabbi Duncan, the godly Old Testament professor of the 19th century Scottish Free Church. Well it was Duncan who said, “I would like to sit at the feet of Jonathan Edwards to learn what godliness is, and then at the feet of Thomas Boston to learn how to attain it!” Boston was a godly man and his Memoirs are a memorable account of a godly life, full of instruction in what it takes to live such a life.
But have I told you before of the remarkable way in which Thomas Boston conducted a major exercise of self-examination near the end of his life to ensure that he was ready to meet the Lord. These men were nothing if they were not serious about their souls. He intended to be ready and so he made ready. First he went over the Gospel part by part – his sin and guilt, the judgment of God, Christ’s atonement, justification by faith, and all the rest – and renewed his allegiance to it and to the Lord Jesus at every turn. Next he went over his life, once again repenting of his sins and acknowledging God’s grace and goodness to him. He pulled out of the drawer all the covenants he had made with the Lord over the course of his life – those promises of loyalty Scottish Christians would make to God and sign – and reaffirmed every one of them. But, finally, he had to face the fact that there was a sin in his life, a besetting sin – often mentioned but never identified in the pages of his Memoirs, which, to his shame, he had to confess he had still not put to death, even here at the end of his days. It was not his only sin, of course, but it was to him his great sin and had defeated him over and over again for years, a defeat which above anything else made the recollection of his life much less happy than otherwise it might have been. Like Paul, Boston was a man who faced up to the grim facts and he knew he could not properly account for his life if this matter was not honestly faced. Here was a dark shadow looming over his life and his hope.
And so he began, as we read in his Memoirs:
“Lastly, as to that particular matter which it has pleased my God to make the special continued trial of the most part of my life, which has been the most exquisite one to me, and has often threatened to baffle all my evidences for heaven…”
And on he proceeds, and if you boil all of his comment down, all of the argument by which Boston concludes that this sin, shameful as it was and still as vigorous as it was now even near/the end of Boston’s life, did not disqualify him as a Christian, he really does nothing more than to repeat the great encouragement of Paul’s remarks in Rom 7:14-25. My experience, he says, is only the inevitable experience of all the saints who must groan throughout this life under the continuing weight of their corruptions, and, at the last it is not I, but the sin which is within me…’
Thomas Boston’s experience was just the same as Paul’s had been, and it is an immense comfort for me to be able to say that I know exactly what Paul is talking about and what Thomas Boston was talking about. Their experience was like mine, in the defeat and in the disappointment, the embarrassment, and the frustration of it.
I tell you, brothers and sisters, from my heart, that such a passage as this one from Boston’s Memoirs, and still more Paul’s personal cry of anguish in Romans 7:14-25, are light and life and deliverance and hope to me. For given what I know to be the whole sad and terrible truth about my heart and my life, without them I do not see how I could claim to be a Christian, but with them, I know that I cannot be anything else!