Romans 7:14-25

It was to intercede for a friend that the young attorney had taken a boat out to the British fleet anchored in Chesapeake Bay, beyond Baltimore Harbor.  And he had been successful; the British commander consented to allow his friend, who had been captured, his freedom.  But, he would not allow the two of them to leave the fleet until the next day, because at that very moment the British ships were preparing for a great bombardment of Fort McHenry, the only obstacle in way of their entering Baltimore and capturing the city, as they had already captured and burned Washington D.C.

Ft. McHenry’s guns were no match for those of the British warships and, in fact, could not even reach the fleet; and so, when the bombardment began, the British could fire at will and the American gunners could do nothing but sit and take it, having no targets within their range.  It was Tuesday, Sept 13, 1814 when the bombardment began and it lasted all day long.  The young American attorney, from his vantage point on a British ship in the Bay watched with great anxiety as the great warships poured their fire into Ft McHenry.  The fort was a great distance away, but he was able to see it and, especially, was able to see the huge American flag that flew above it–it was fully 50 feet long.

You are, of course, way ahead of me: the young attorney I am speaking of was Francis Scott Key, and the verses which he would pen the next morning became our national anthem. It was his reflection upon those anxious hours he had spent as a spectator of the great battle.

Throughout the day and evening, through the smoke and haze of the battle, from time to time he could see the great flag still flying.

Then darkness fell, but the battle still raged on through the night.  Now he could not see the flag, but he knew it must still be there, because the fact that the warships continued their bombardment was indication enough that the Fort had not been taken or destroyed.

And then dawn finally came, and we can almost see the young man and his friend peering over the ship’s side, gazing into the distance, through the smoke and haze, anxiously awaiting some sight of that flag still flying…

 "Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming,
whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
o’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming,
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there,
Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free,
 and the home of the brave.

Jimmy Lyons, a Presbyterian Church in America minister and staffer for Mission To the World tells me that if you go to the visitors’ center at Ft McHenry today, when the story is completed and while the anthem is being played, a huge curtain opens and you can look through a large window overlooking the fort and see the flag flying there.  In his own words, ‘If that doesn’t cause your heart to beat faster, then you’re already dead; you’re just too lazy to lie down!’

Text Comments on Rom 7:14-25

In this second message on distinctives of a reformed spirituality, of the kind of Xian life and thought which should be characteristic of those who believe as we do about the Bible and its great message, I want to address myself to the matter of the consciousness of sin, of sinfulness, of unworthiness in the Christian soul. We spoke this morning of the greatness and majesty of God. Now, what view ought we to have of ourselves before God?

The text I have read is of crucial importance to this question.  It is not, of course, the only passage in the Bible which speaks of the continuing sinfulness and great sinfulness of Christian people, but it is, without question, the main text.  And so, when in the modern period it has become fashionable to argue that Paul here is speaking not of himself as a Christian, but as an unbeliever before he became a Christian, it was inevitable that this interpretation would have a great influence upon the way in which Christians perceive themselves.

In my view, it has been the growing popularity of the view that Paul here speaks as an unbeliever before he was liberated from the bondage of sin, that has given such credibility and has made so much easier the ascendancy of such views of the Christian life as may be found now so widely in the evangelical world, the views of Robert Schuller, of the charismatic church in general, and in a host of various forms of interpersonal or psychologized theologies which have become so popular today.

Far removed from a classical, historical form of Christian spirituality, with its strong emphasis upon penitence, self-abhorrence, humility, and the combat of the soul with its own flesh; these new views emphasize the cultivation of a positive self-image, are critical of any effort to illuminate the continuing sinfulness of the Christian’s life and foster a self-assertiveness and self-confidence that are quite similar to what has become popular in the circles of contemporary psychology.

I know that some good men have and do favor this interpretation of Rom 7:14-25, for reasons which have nothing to do with any interest in contributing to the de-emphasis upon the great sinfulness of even the best Christian life. [Romans 6] Nevertheless, I cannot believe otherwise than that to interpret this text in this way–as the confession of a man not yet saved©©is to play into the Devil’s hand.

C.S. Lewis somewhere warns us that the temptation of every age and a method by which each age rationalizes its sins, is to put people on guard against the sin which it is in the least danger of committing.  So brutal societies warn against the sin of sentimentality; promiscuous societies warn against the danger of Puritanism, and today also, a man worshipping society and man worshipping church, such as the American evangelical church, calls us constantly to beware of morbid and negative depictions of the sinfulness and guilt of man.

I most firmly believe that we desperately need to maintain Rom 7:14-25–there as it sits in the midst of Paul’s magisterial exposition of the Christian life in his greatest of all letters—as a bulwark against this virulent cancer of man-worship which is eating the heart and soul out of the American church.

And let me first say, that this is not a difficult thing to do, for the arguments for the classical interpretation of this text–that is, that it is Paul’s confession as a believer and as a mature believer of his still abiding and great sinfulness—are as persuasive today as they have ever been.

The arguments are basically 4:

  1. First, the sentiments expressed and the holy desires given utterance in these verses simply cannot be reconciled with what Paul everywhere says, and here in Romans especially says, to be true of the one who is still dead in transgressions and sins.  This man says he knows that no good dwells in him, that he delights in the law of God in his inner being, etc.  But the man who is in the flesh is hostile to God and will not submit to God’s law, as Paul will say but a few verses later.
  2. Second, these verses, in fact, describe the experience of earnest believers throughout the centuries.  That is a fact.  The best of Christians have all along come to these verses to seek understanding of and comfort for their misery over their yet so great sinning.  Paul says that the whole creation is groaning, and Christians especially are groaning; why else did Jesus say that the believer must be poor in spirit and must mourn, but chiefly because of his still so great sinfulness and ill-dessert.  I say it plainly: if these verses do not describe a believer, then I am not a believer.
  3. But there are two more still more conclusive arguments to be offered on behalf of the traditional reformed interpretation of Romans 7:14-25.  The first of these is that these verses, from 14-25, are in the present tense. Now, it has been argued that Paul uses the present tense here only for vividness, though he is in fact still describing his experience long ago as an unbeliever.  And that is conceivable, but only just conceivable.  The present tense is maintained for so many verses, and follows on and so dramatically contrasts with a paragraph set in the past tense (vv. 7-13), a paragraph which undoubtedly describes Paul’s experience as an unbeliever, that the burden of proof rests with enormous weight upon the one who wishes to claim that the present tense does not mean what is surely most naturally would suggest: that Paul is speaking of what is true of him right now, as a believer and a believer of many years.
  4. The second of these most conclusive arguments, and the last of the four I will offer you on behalf of seeing these verses as Paul’s confession of his sinfulness as a Christian is the significance of the repetition of Paul’s thought in v 25b.  The fact is that Paul cries out for deliverance and then thanks God for it in v. 25a.  Were that the end of the paragraph and the end of the matter, it would be easier to conclude that the Apostle was describing his situation before he became a Christian and then, with thanks, declaring that his bondage had been broken and his terrible inner struggle with sin brought to an end when he believed in Jesus.  But Paul is not finished.  He recapitulates, and the conclusion of the matter is that he remains double-minded–a slave to God’s law yet also a slave to the law of sin.  This is the conclusion of the matter; there is victory in Christ, but that victory awaits its consummation in the next world, as Paul will explicitly say in the next chapter.

As C.E.B. Cranfield writes in his magisterial commentary on Romans: ‘Verse 25b is an embarrassment to those who see in v. 24 the cry of an unconverted man or of a Christian living on a low level of Christian life and in v. 25a an indication that the desired deliverance has actually arrived, since, coming after the thanksgiving, it appears to imply that the condition of the speaker after the deliverance is just the same as it was before it.  All the attempts so far made to get over this difficulty have about them an air of desperation.’

I do not think a convincing case has been or can be made for taking these verses as anything else than the cry of a believer’s heart.  Let us take Paul at his word when in Romans 6 he speaks of our deliverance from sin and be careful not to slander God’s grace; but let us also hear him as he speaks of the terrible sinfulness and the titanic struggle which will ever mark the life of even the most consecrated and devout Christian. Here is Paul, an apostle and believer of many years…

Now, I want to spend the remainder of my time indicating why we ought not to shrink from what Paul says about himself and about us in these so important and powerful verses, why they are so important and their message so crucial to a godly life.

  1. First, what Paul says here about the great sinfulness of even the most earnest Christians, is, after all, the truth.

One of the greatest problems with contemporary spirituality is that it is, so often, far removed from the facts.  This makes it but unstable and unlikely to last, but also makes it very unimpressive to observers from the outside.

This is so whether it is a believer quite confidently speaking about his spiritual gifts, which no one but himself can see, or claiming some revelation from the Lord which others find quite hard to believe, or Christians in large numbers claiming to have witnessed genuine miracles but remain unable to convince anyone but the faithful.

But no truer words were ever spoken than these verses from Romans 7, and a Christian life and experience built upon them will be built upon the solid rock of the truth, of truth which is confirmed in every Xian’s experience.

Blaise Pascal was only giving his own Pauline estimation of himself when he admitted that if only people could see what went on in his heart, he would not have four friends left in the world.  And John Owen knew of what he was speaking when he described the Christian heart as still a standing sink of abominations.  And what of Samuel Rutherford, the holy Scot preacher, pastor, and theologian?  Was he exaggerating–tell him from your own experience, if you can, that he was exaggerating, when he said, from exile, that if only Scotland could see his inner side, no one in the land would ask how he was doing. William Law, holy and consecrated a man as he was, was he giving vent to some morbid exaggeration when he confessed that he would rather be hung and have his body thrown into a swamp than that anyone should be able to look into his heart.

These men were not psychologically unhealthy.  They were to the man bright, active, extraordinarily useful and productive, godly and devout, wise and discerning–they were just very clear about the awesome demands of the divine holiness and much more honest with themselves than is the habit of Christian people today.

Paul’s instruction concerning the still so great sinfulness of the Xian life, and the spiritual mourning, and the commitment to spiritual battle within, which flows from that instruction, should be heartily received by us, then, first of all, simply because it is true; and, as Jesus said, the truth always sets men free.

  1. Second, what Paul says here about the abiding sinfulness of Christian people–even himself after more than 20 years an apostle–is the foundation of those bottom graces of the Christian life, humility and meekness.

Too many Christians today are being allowed to think far too highly of themselves, and no one is disabusing them of that unholy pride.  And the sad and terrible consequence of that is that so many other virtues of biblical holiness lie stillborn for want of the mother grace of humility to give them life.

What a world of evil do we find in the church as a result of our pride expressing itself in our attitudes toward others.  How haughty and arrogant, unkind and uncaring, thoughtless and indifferent we can be to one another, because we are so consumed with ourselves and so much in love with ourselves to find time or energy for others.

Hah!  Look just once into your heart as Paul looked every day into his; see your heart once as he did daily, as a very chamber of hell itself; discover just once, as every genuine Christian before you and beside you worthy of the name has discovered, that, as one old saint put it: ‘…no land is so fearful to them that are sent to search it out as their own hearts…’ [Whyte, Sam Ruth, pp 6-7] Discover that and your head will hang too low for you ever again to be able to look down your nose at another human being, much less another brother or sister in Christ.  See your heart as Paul saw his, and you will be too preoccupied with your own wickedness to take offense at the sins of others, too horrified with your own failures to imagine that anyone else could have a heart as black as yours.

Nothing, nothing at all, would promote love and unity in this body so much as for many of you to feel deeply about yourselves as Paul felt about himself as he penned this immortal confession.  Nothing would so bring us together and so break down the barriers between us as a common sense of the greatness of our sin and a resulting humility.  If only more and more of us would, meaning exactly what we say, utter such things about ourselves as Bishop Beverege once did about himself:

‘I cannot pray, but I sin; I cannot hear or preach a sermon, but I sin; I cannot give alms, or receive the sacrament, but I sin; nay, I cannot so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are still aggravations of them. My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears want washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my redeemer.’

People who know and feel that truth about themselves and are humbled by it, will not give way to the pride and self-love and self-conceit which stands so much in the way of Christian fellowship, love, and sympathy.

  1. In the third place, what Paul says here about the abiding sinfulness of Christians, is essential to worship, is the great engine driving on our love for Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, above all other things and supremely the Savior of his People, and what he saved them from was their sin.  Christ will be as beautiful and he will occupy as exalted a place in a Christian’s heart as sin and sinfulness are given their due.  He who despises the disease, will despise the physician.

It is only the Xian who wonders at the enormity of his heart’s evil who will also wonder and marvel at the greatness of the divine compassion which could love unto death even such a heart as his!

Paul says it here himself: it is as he faces full force, bitter as the recognition is to him, the facts of his sinfulness, his ingratitude, his lust, his worldly-mindedness, his self-love, his indifference, his indolence, his pride, and all the rest, that the true marvel of his salvation washes over his heart once again: ‘Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!’

I tell you, my friends, if you can judge by Christian sermons and by Christian books and by Christian conversation; the beauty, the wonder, the glory, the majesty of Jesus Christ and his saving love, have been shuffled off to the side of contemporary Christian spirituality and piety.  We are more concerned about making adjustments to the Christian family or getting our self-image problems ironed out, than we are about adoring the Redeemer who rescued us from sin and death and hell.

And the reason for that is clearly that we spend so little time thinking about the true reality of our sin, as Paul did, that the whole matter of our deliverance from that sin has become an almost incidental part of our thinking and feeling as Christians.

How wrong; and how sad–or putting Christ first and high above, as a true sight of our sin will cause us to do, is the very best tonic for a Christian family or a Christian ego.

One of the holiest and finest Christians in 17th century Scotland–a place and a time with many fine Christians–was a woman by the name of Marion M’Naught.  So saintly a woman was she, and so useful a Christian, that when she died the entire parliament of Scotland rose en masse to attend her funeral.  One Irish minister tells us that when he was on his way home from London to Ireland, he visited Scotland, chiefly in order to be able to meet Samuel Rutherford and Marion M’Naught.

Now Marian M’Naught lived in Kirkcudbright and she had a good minister of her own.  But very often she would travel to Anwoth in order to hear Rutherford preach his immortal sermons.  She explained her practice this way:

‘I go to Anwoth so often because, though other ministers show me the majesty of God and the plague of my own heart, Mr. Samuel does both these things, but he also shows me, as no other minister ever does, the loveliness of Christ.’

Do you not think that such a desire should be uppermost in every Christian’s mind and heart, to see the loveliness of Christ?  Well, Christ is the Savior of sinners, and his loveliness, above all, consists in his achievements as our Savior.  And that Savior and that salvation will grow in their loveliness to you, I say, only as the true virulence and tenacity of the evil in your own heart and life is fully acknowledged.

  1. Fourth, what Paul says here about the abiding sinfulness of the Christian life, believed and received into the heart, is fundamental to the determined practice of and seeking after sanctification.

It is precisely a deep dissatisfaction with ourselves, a hatred of our sin, a desire to rise above it for Christ’s sake which alone is adequate to constrain us to do that difficult and very painful work of putting on the whole armor of God, of beating our bodies and bringing them into submission, of fighting the good fight of faith, of putting sin to death in our daily life.  Encourage a believer to think less of his sinfulness, to be troubled less by the wretchedness of his life, and you cannot but greatly weaken a believer’s hungering and thirsting after righteousness.

  1. And finally, what Paul says here about the abiding sinfulness of a Christian’s life, is a fact desperately important for the consoling and encouraging of every Christian.

One commentator I read on this passage said that these words of Paul’s, ‘have recovered me from repeated personal despondency.’  Another aged Christian confessed at 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.’

And Alexander Whyte, who once told his congregation: ‘You’ll not get out of the 7th of romans while I’m your pastor,’ perhaps explained his remark when he said on another occasion: ‘…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.’

The reason lies, of course in this, that this text, these 12 verses, are perfect medicine for what most painfully afflicts every true child of God…namely his failure to rise above his sin, and his failure to live worthy of the gospel and the calling he has received, and his failure to live a life which bespeaks his gratitude to God and to Christ for his salvation.

He tries, she tries, but the successes are so small and the failures so many; the same sins rise up to defeat us again and again; we continue to fly in the face of what we know is good and right and, indeed, even what we most want to be and do.

But here the great apostle to the Gentiles tells us, such was the case with him too; and such will be the case with every Christian. The sin which remains is no proof that you are not a Christian after all; it is the inevitable incompleteness of your salvation in this world–delivered completely from sin’s guilt as you are; its power will not finally be broken until you leave this world for the next, until the groaning of the creation is turned to laughter at the revelation of the sons of God.

Some of you are no doubt even now downcast by your sin and your sins and by your failure to rise above them.  Take hope and take comfort, and give praise to Jesus Christ–that sorrow you feel, that frustration, that bitter longing never again to be at the nod and the beck of sin–that is no sign that you are defeated; far from it; that is the surest and most certain evidence

‘that your flag is still there!’