Read: Romans 7:14-25
Having considered the debate about the identity of the one speaking in these verses, whether Paul as still an unbeliever or Paul as a mature Christian, and having concluded that Paul is clearly speaking of himself as a Christian, indeed as a Christian in the maturity of his Christian life, we considered the various helps that Christians find both in the fact of their continuing sinfulness and in Paul’s way of confessing it here. An honest reckoning with our indwelling sin humbles us before God and man, it keeps us longing for heaven, it keeps Christ great in our hearts, and it comforts and assures us that our moral failures – egregious as they are – do not disqualify us as followers of Christ. I make no apology for spending still a fourth Sunday evening on this text, so important, so definitive is it for a true understanding of Christian experience and, as we shall see, so vital to the right pursuit of true godliness. Last time we took comfort and consolation from Paul’s anguished confession of his continuing sinfulness, his inability to rise above and to master the sinful tendencies of his heart. We spoke of what unspeakable relief this honest passage is to other Christians who, in the midst of their own similar struggles with their sin and sometimes near despair in their own very Paul-like embarrassment, here discover to their immense relief that even as eminent a Christian as the Apostle Paul struggled just as they do.
Tonight, however, I want to face squarely a temptation which rises out of the very comfort and relief which we rightly take from this text. Every thoughtful follower of Christ knows that he or she has more than once been tempted, in reading Paul’s confession, to find here an excuse for sinning, or at least an excuse for less resolution and determination and effort in doing violence to his or her sins.
This is the grave danger lurking behind the right interpretation of Romans 7:14-25. If you took Paul to be speaking here of his pre-Christian experience, as many have, we saw some weeks ago that there is the very great danger of forming a shallow and superficial and dishonest view of Christian experience and the Christian life. If Paul speaks this way as still an unbeliever, then obviously Christians should not speak this way. Christians should not speak about being still so sinful. And what could that mean but that all of us Christians are actually more righteous than it seems to us that we are? If we are conscience-stricken about our sins and are inclined to speak as Paul spoke here, well we need to stop being so hard on ourselves, get more comfortable, more accepting of our lives, because that kind of self-condemnation is the language of unbelief not of faith. Whatever we are, it has to be much better than Paul the unbeliever was when he spoke as he did here. That way of thinking is the practical danger of taking Paul to be speaking as an unbeliever here. It is an interpretation tailor-made to put Christians to sleep in regard to their sins.
But, taking Paul here to be speaking as a Christian, as we surely must, there is an opposite danger: that of defeatism and pessimism and lethargy in the matter of one’s own holiness. “If the great Apostle didn’t get above his sins by the end of his life; if that master Christian had still to cry about his miserable bondage to his sins near the end of his apostolic life and ministry,” so the Devil whispers to your soul, “what hope have you to live a really godly life?” “To what purpose do you continue to wage a war you know you cannot win?” If Paul didn’t win his fight with his sins; if he admits that he won’t win it in this life, in this world, why bother?
Now, I admit, there is a certain superficial logic to that argument. If you read these heartfelt utterances of the Apostle Paul with a sympathetic mind and feel, as he felt, the suffocating weight of your own sins and sinfulness, even after you have been so long a Christian, you might very well, from time to time, be inclined to despair of better things in your heart and life. Indeed, I cannot think that a Christian of any depth and spiritual insight, reading what Paul says about himself here, would not sometimes come near to despairing of further effort. Why bother? It’s never going to work! I’m going to be ineffective in dealing with my temper, or my lusts, or my tongue for the rest of my life!
Here, for example, is Samuel Davies, who succeeded Jonathan Edwards as President of Princeton and who during his life and through the generations following was widely regarded as the greatest preacher North America had ever produced. Shortly after arriving in Princeton he fell ill and writing to a friend in London said this:
Formerly, I have wished to live longer, that I might be better prepared for heaven; but this consideration had very very little weight with me, and that for a very unusual reason, which was this: – after long trial I found this world a place so unfriendly to the growth of every thing divine and heavenly, that I was afraid if I should live any longer, I should be no better fitted for heaven than I am. Indeed I have hardly any hopes of ever making any great attainment in holiness while in this world, though I should be doomed to stay in it as long as Methuselah. I see other Christians indeed around me make some progress, though they go on with but a snail-like motion. But when I consider that I set out about twelve years ago, and what sanguine hopes I then had of my future progress, and yet that I have been almost at a stand ever since, I am quite discouraged…. The thought [that I will not serve the Lord better in this world] grieves me; it breaks my heart, but I can hardly hope better.” [Cited in Murray, Revival and Revivalism, 18]
Now some of that is due to the fact that Davies was dying when he wrote that and some to the fact that the more mature a Christian becomes, the more godly his heart, the more sin he sees. Davies was willing to credit other Christians with progress, just not himself – which itself is godliness in action. But, you see the point. It is not difficult to think that even the right kind of effort – full of faith and love – is, at the last, going to produce little.
But, as soon as the despair rises it must be cut off, because, at the last, the Devil’s argument fails. Paul is no defeatist. He never made peace with his sin. His wretchedness is precisely the consequence of his abiding disgust and hatred of the sin he still found within himself. Were he able to make peace with his sins, to grow accustomed to them, he would no longer feel as wretched as he so clearly does. He does not deny that to his great shame he finds within himself still a love of sin; but, he also finds deeper within himself and more genuinely an expression of his truest self another principle by which he is a slave in his mind to the law of God. The principles of his new birth, of his faith in Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit within him are inflexibly arrayed against his sin and, thanks be to God, prevent him from ever making peace with it. There is a warfare going on inside his life and, sworn enemies as his true self and his old self are, there can be, will be no making peace.
Which is why throughout his letters the great Apostle is always urging us to fight the fight of faith, to refuse to stand still but always to press forward in repudiating sin’s mastery, to live by the Spirit, to seek to be filled with the Spirit, and to walk worthy of the grace we have been given. What is more, Paul’s doctrine of the Christian life carries everywhere in itself the expectation that genuine believers will grow in the grace of God, will mature in Christ, will be more and more sanctified, and will be transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever increasing glory. So, it would be a capital mistake to imagine that Paul is a defeatist or a pessimist in Romans 7:14-25. Read him as we did recently in Philippians 3 and see if you can make him out a defeatist in regard to his Christian life! No, he was always pressing on!
What there is here, instead, is another kind of lesson altogether for Christians, who, like Paul, find within themselves the warring principles of sin and righteousness. And the lesson is this: Our sin is an entrenched and well-supplied enemy. Paul’s life-long struggle with his own sin is a magnificent illustration of how tenacious an enemy it is that lurks in our hearts and is always at work to undo our loyalty to Christ. And, therefore, if we are to weaken the grip of sin or any particular sin upon our lives, it will require of us a supreme effort, an unflagging diligence, concentration of will and a constant active dependence upon the Lord and the help of his Holy Spirit according to the principle that he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.
You cannot read Paul in this text and any longer believe that you will fall into a holy life by accident or that godliness, devotion, purity, and a life of Christian love can be had with little effort. Such an inbred badness as Paul here confessed still bedeviled him, even far along in his Christian life, will not come out of its own accord. Like some weed it cannot be killed by snipping off what shows above ground. If it is to really be got out it must be grabbed with both hands and torn out by the root.
Brothers and sisters there is not a lesson in all of Holy Scripture that the Devil is more determined to keep you from learning than this. As Richard Baxter put it: “Never was a thief more careful lest he should awake the people, when he is robbing the house, than Satan is not to awaken a sinner.” Well, Rom 7:14-25 is our “wake-up call!” It should rouse us wide awake to the power and sway our sin still has in our hearts so that we will bend every effort to the task of putting that sin to death for the sake of Christ our Savior. This great text is one of the most powerful reminders in the Bible that your Christian experience and mine must be nothing less than all of those military and athletic and exceedingly violent and even gruesome images used in Scripture to describe it: a warfare, a struggle, a race, a boxing match, a beating of one’s body, a killing of one’s old nature, a cutting off of an arm, a gouging out of an eye, and a taking of the Kingdom of God by storm.
Anything less than this would never be adequate to deal successfully with an enemy so well-entrenched as the enemy Paul here describes. Far from teaching that we might as well surrender to our sins, this great text teaches, on the contrary, that we must resist and fight with all our might in order to have those individual victories and that ever greater victory which leads at last to that total victory over sin when we join the company of the saints made perfect.
But that is still putting the lesson too generally and does not yet adequately point us in the right way. And so I want this evening to mention some of the chief ways in which we are to conduct this holy warfare against our indwelling sin, some of the methods most often recommended in Scripture and most often confirmed in the experience of the holiest Christians of other days. I have read a good many of the best writers on Christian living and on the mortification of sin and featured again and again in their instruction are the strategies I want to recommend to you this evening.
But let me remind you first that these are the strategies of faith. Without the Lord we can do nothing and without him we will never kill a single sin which rises up in our hearts. In sanctification more than in anything else we have not because we ask not. As Luther said of the Protestant Reformation, so we must say of the sanctification of our own lives, “prayer must do the deed.” The methods we employ, the acts of obedience we perform in this work, amount only to following the directions of our Lord and embodying our prayer for holiness in acts which foster it. As much as with our justification our sanctification also is by faith, but faith which is not accompanied by action is dead, as the Bible never tires of saying. The last thing we are permitted to think is that our sanctification lies in our own hands. We depend utterly upon the Holy Spirit. But the fact that he must work does not mean that we do not work, but that we work effectively when we depend upon him and follow the instructions he has given us in his Word.
So then, what would the Lord have us do to grow up in holiness and in conformity to Christ Jesus? How would he have us practice our loyalty to him with regard to the contest which rages in our own hearts between sin and righteousness? Well take heed, all of you, young and old: for among other things and chief among them, if you would be holy and go up high and down deep in the things of God and enjoy more of heaven while on this earth and be more often and much more filled with the Holy Spirit, and be a more useful servant and soldier of the Lord Christ than you now are, you must do these things. Each one is worth a sermon of its own, but this evening I can only mention and briefly describe these three strategies of sanctification.
- First, you must maintain a careful watch over your inner life.
Paul in this text speaks as an expert on himself. He has studied and mastered his inner life and its competing principles. Simple as this may sound it is a difficult thing to do and many Christians scarcely do it. Still fewer Christians today do this at all well and, consequently, there are fewer Christians today who speak of themselves as Paul did in Romans 7:14-25. And if you don’t think about yourself as Paul did, you are quite unlikely to fight against your sins as manfully as he did. You must know your own heart! You must know how temptation works within it and goads it and how characteristically it gains its mastery over it.
When you fall into sin, you have to stop to think about how that happened and why. How did the temptation strike, why were you so vulnerable? And when you successfully resist various temptations, you must learn from those occasions as well. We must learn from a study of our own hearts how deceitful sin really is, how regularly it hides its stinger away until we have gone so far that when we finally begin to feel the pain we realize that we are in too far to turn and run. We need to learn how stupid it is to chase after the immediate pleasure temptation offers with no thought to the lasting pain and shame and harm which inevitably follow.
Have you ever read in The Imitation of Christ Thomas a Kempis’ famous description of the successive steps of a temptation? There is first the bare thought of sin. Then after that there is a picture of the sin formed and hung up on the secret screen of the imagination. A strange sweetness from that picture is then let down drop by drop into the heart and then that secret sweetness soon secures the consent of the whole soul and the thing is done. Can you tell in such vivid and accurate detail how temptations come to you and how they conquer your will?
Are you yet an expert on sin’s working in your heart? Or are you like so many who, as John Owen put it, “live in the dark to themselves all their days.” The fact is, my friends, you cannot “watch and pray that you enter not into temptation,” as the Lord Christ commanded you, if you do not know what it is that you are to be watching for and watching against. You will never rise above your temptations until you become expert at detecting their approach and seeing through their appeal. And you will never be as wise and as clever as you must be to take on the world, the Devil, and your own sinfulness at the same time, until you have well learned to distrust yourself and your powers and to see through the silly excuses you so often make to yourself when you are succumbing to temptation but don’t want to admit it.
The Psalm writer wrote [119:59]: “I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes.” So must we. If a Christian is to have victory in the battle for his own heart the battlefield must be well-known and well-mapped. Wise Christians have often kept journals or diaries for just this purpose, to track and take note of and remember the lessons their daily battles taught them. Keep such a journal if you can; but whatever your method, you must become an expert in what goes on within your heart if ever you are going to see righteousness rule there!
- The second strategy emphasized in the Bible and universally commended by the godliest of the saints, is to take steps to strengthen the influence and the authority of our holy disposition, convictions, and desires.
Paul says that there are two principles or laws warring in his heart: the love of sin and the love of righteousness. It is imperative that we increase the advantage of the love of righteousness, that we make it more and more powerful and dominating in its influence.
This is done, of course, in a variety of ways.
It is done, in the Bible, for example, by soliloquy, by talking to oneself. In the Bible we often see the godly making the case for righteousness to themselves, pressing upon themselves all the many considerations furnished in God’s Word to make us prefer obedience to sin. Christ in the Gospels, you know, was always giving us such arguments. “It is better to go to heaven with one eye than to go whole into hell.” And many other arguments like that one. Those arguments are of little use left on the pages of Holy Scripture. They must be etched in our souls, indelibly printed on our hearts, and the way to do that is to urge them, press them, upon ourselves.
Psalm 103 is an example of a man talking to himself about praising God and making the case for giving God the worship of his whole heart: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…” and then he proceeds to enumerate for himself many of those great benefits until at the end of the psalm his heart is aflame with praise.
Well, the same is to be done, day after day, with regard to living a holy and righteous life before God and man. Mull over, remind yourself, ponder the significance of such arguments as these:
- “Is it not ruin for the wicked, disaster for those who do wrong?’ Or, “in keeping the commandments of God there is great reward.”
- “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” and “A curse on all who do not love the Lord Jesus.”
- “We must all appear before the judgment seat of God.”
- “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”
- “Their deeds do follow them.”
- “Faith without works is dead.”
- “To him who overcomes I will give the crown of life.”
- Or, the example of David’s woes after his sin; or Achan’s or Peter’s.
- Or, of Joseph’s holy response to temptation: “how can I do this wicked thing and sin against God?” and the favor of God upon his life which followed.
Argue the facts to yourself. Make the case. Persuade. Lloyd Jones once remarked that “The whole art of Christian living is to know how to talk to yourself.”
I know that there are some Christians who hardly ever make this effort, never take your soul in hand and argue the case for righteousness until your determination to do the will of God is running at full flood. You allow your thoughts to run unimpeded to so many utterly trivial or positively sinful things, but will not make the effort to set them on the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Well, don’t expect much progress in the things of God until you are ready to be an advocate to your own soul!
But, strengthening the righteous impulse God has placed within you is done in other ways as well. For example, there is the practice of self-denial. The problem we face with temptation is saying “NO!” Jesus, Paul says in Titus 3:12, came into the world to teach us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions. There is nothing so difficult in all the world as to say that single monosyllable and to mean it when you say it. And it takes the most noble and manly and soldierly and saintly of hearts to say “No” and keep saying it to the bitter end of a temptation. Sometimes, even when we manage a “No” it is so feeble and so unconvincing that the temptation scarcely misses a step in sweeping in to our hearts to gain control. We need to say “No!” with authority. Our “No!” needs to become the end of the discussion.
And the chief way recommended in Scripture to gain that authority in saying “No!” is by practicing saying it over and again until you can say it with authority anywhere, anytime, and under any circumstances. Until you have become like Bunyan’s Captain Self-Denial, who was a perfect hero at saying “No” and at saying “No” to himself. No wonder he was put in charge of the defense of the ear-gate and the eye-gate when the city of Mansoul was under attack. [Whyte, Bunyan Characters, iii, 166-167] So how does one become strong like that?
Systematically, regularly deny yourself and your desires, even perfectly proper desires, good desires and bad desires, until you are a master of them all. Deny yourself the food you crave, the sleep you want, the ease you desire, say ‘No’ until you can say ‘No’ when it is sin that you want and sin which is inviting your ‘Yes.’
Paul did that, he tells us in 1 Corinthians 9 – like an athlete buffeting his body – sometimes by fasting or by refusing himself sleep, in order to make his body his slave, that is not sin’s slave. The more of this he did the more self-denial became a habit to him and a power in his soul and the easier it was for him to say ‘No’ when righteousness demanded it. Spiritual muscles also become stronger by exercise.
In these and other ways, then, we must give the godliness in our hearts a leg up; give it the advantage over our flesh and its desires which are also there inside us and speaking to us.
- Third, and last, we must enervate and weaken the power and the influence of the sinful tendencies which remain within us.
This is what the Scripture calls ‘mortifying’ sin or putting it to death, usually, in our experience, a slow rather than a sudden death. Our sin was, in principle killed in the Savior’s death on the cross; it was dethroned when we were born again; and now, by the Holy Spirit, we are to spend our lives draining what remains of its lifeblood. And this too is done in various ways.
Soliloquy, or arguing the case with your heart, works as well when it is directed against sin as when it is directed for righteousness. Meditation, or careful, intentional reflection on the love of God and the sufferings of Christ cause sin to wither in a Christian’s heart because it becomes so perfectly obvious as you meditate how wrong it is for a believer to sin in the face of such love and such sacrifice; to sport with that which cost our Savior so dearly.
And then there is this cardinal rule, so often repeated in Scripture, that temptations are best overcome by being avoided altogether; and that sin is best overcome by giving it no occasion or opportunity. Avoid the occasions of sin; do not court your temptations, or, as Thomas Fuller put it: we should not “hollo in the ears of a sleeping temptation.” As holy a man as Robert Murray McCheyne confessed that he was often tempted to go as near to a temptation as possible without committing the sin.” The Bible’s counsel is to stay as far from it as possible.
The Scripture says “keep a path far from her door.” “Avoid the path of the wicked, do not travel on it.” Or as Spurgeon tartly summarized this biblical teaching: “The best answer to some temptations is a good pair of legs and the King’s Highway.”
Are you listening young people? This means that there is company you should not keep if you would have a pure heart. It means that if you would keep yourself pure before God and man and enjoy the immeasurable blessing of a clean conscience, then you should not spend time with your date, late at night, in a darkened room, sitting together on a couch. No one who asks for temptation will ever be disappointed, and very seldom does one who asks for temptation resist it when it comes! If you would avoid the terribly destructive sin of marrying an unbeliever, you will not court the temptation by dating an unbeliever. If you do not wish to be a gossip you will not give an ear to the hearing of what you would not want to find yourself repeating! If you would have a clean heart and a right spirit, a good many of you should watch little or no television. And so we watch against occasions of sin all our lives.
Listen to Christina Rossetti, the author of our exquisite hymn “None other Lamb.”
“All our lives long we shall be bound to refrain our soul, and to keep it low; but what then? For the books we now forbear to read, we shall one day be endued with wisdom and knowledge. For the music we will not listen to, we shall join in the song of the redeemed. For the pictures from which we turn away, we shall gaze unabashed on the Beatific Vision. For the companionships we shun, we shall be welcomed into angelic society, and into the communion of triumphant saints. For all the amusements we avoid, we shall keep the supreme jubilee. And for all the pleasures we miss, we shall abide, and shall forevermore abide, in the rapture of heaven.”
Hard to do? Of course. Peter said that it was a hard thing for the righteous to be saved! Or as Chesterton put it, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Or, better, Samuel Rutherford: “I find true religion to be a hard task; I find heaven hard to be won.” But let us never find ourselves among those Christians who seem to pay so little attention to these basic rules of godliness that Jesus might as well have never said, “If your right eye offends you, or causes you to sin, cut it out…” It is just here that we are to do our gouging out of eyes and cutting off of arms: laying the axe to the root of our sinful tendencies, starving them, and killing them.
I’ve told you before of Origen, the church father, who even while a teenager was famous for his learning and his piety. His father was a martyr and Origen hoped to die with him, but was prevented when his mother hid his clothes. After his father’s death he supported his family by teaching and had in his classes, even as a young man, a number of women. In order to protect himself from temptation and from any appearance of evil, this godly, consecrated young man had himself castrated. Now, I don’t say that that was right; Origen himself later acknowledged the error of it. But, my friends, wisdom and godliness lie closer to Origen’s act than to the behavior of so many Christians today who say they want to be godly and then promptly go running after sin, hurling themselves into sin’s way, obviously hoping to be struck. There is the lesson of Romans 7:14-25: such a sinfulness as remains within us cannot be slighted or toyed with. Only determined measures, sacrifices, and furious resistance will suffice to defeat it.
I just finished reading a very interesting book, a Christmas present from my son: A.J. Langguth’s Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence. It is a history of the United States leading up to, during, and shortly after the War of 1812. I learned many things I had not known before reading that book. For example, did you know, that Thomas Jefferson, that man of prayer, once recommended to James Madison, his Secretary of State, that they should pray for the death of Patrick Henry? But in this account of the War of 1812, I was reminded how incompetent the American army was. Over and again it had victory in its grasp and failed to obtain it. In one instance an entire army, situated with many military advantages, was surrendered without a shot being fired. The generalship was abominable. In some cases the failure was due to sheer cowardice. In others to incompetence. In others to the lack of intelligence that could and should have been available to the army commander. Indecision, the unwillingness to strike, and a lack of perseverance time and again left the enemy holding the field – an enemy that could very well have been defeated soundly had the fight been taken to him intelligently and with resolve. Apart from a few naval victories, one campaign against the Indians of Alabama and Georgia, and the victory at New Orleans after the peace treaty had already been signed – a victory due as much to British miscalculation as to American strategy or valor – the Americans failed miserably in every major engagement. They fought stupidly and they fought poorly and they lost.
And there is a great deal of that in the life of every Christian sometimes and many Christians most of the time: indecision, cowardice, a lack of intelligence concerning the enemies intentions and likely tactics, a failure to devise an intelligent response, a lack of strategic initiative, a failure to persevere leading to battles lost again and again. You lose by your own fault. You fight poorly or not at all. You are not without resources: not with the Bible in your hand and the Holy Spirit in your heart! It is the way you fight your battles that will tell the tale. Will you fight them with intelligence, dedication, and fury? That is the question. If you fight them that way you will win often enough. Like Paul did, who mourned his still great sinfulness, but went a very long way down the path of godliness and fruitfulness in the service of Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior.