Sermon for Trinity 4

Listen to or read a sermon by Revd Aron Donaldson for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, on Romans 7:15-25.

13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.
17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,
23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Romans 7:15-25

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Romans 7:19

What is wrong with us? Why do we resist what we know is good? When we were children, we had to be taught how to be good; being naughty came quite naturally. When we are adults, the struggle continues. Doing the right thing is challenging but the wrong thing is easy. We have to fight for what is right but we only have to give in to temptation. There is something not quite right about us.

Paul Tillich saw there was a problem within all of us, he said:

‘It is our human predicament that a power takes hold of us,
that does not come from us but is in us,
a power that we hate and at the same time gladly accept.
We are fascinated by it; we play with it; we obey it.
But we know that it will destroy us if we are not grasped by another power that will resist and control it.
We are fascinated by what can destroy us, and in moments even feel a hidden desire to be destroyed by it.’

This phenomenon swirls within our inner selves but it is not restricted to our inner beings. Looking at the world around him, John Stott saw how this inner predisposition has outer expressions. He said:

Many of the happenings of civilized society would not exist if it were not for human sin.
A promise is not enough, we need a contract.
Doors are not enough, we have to lock and bolt them.
The payment of fares is not enough, we have to be issued with tickets which are punched, inspected and collected.
Law and order are not enough; we need the police to enforce them.

All these things and many others, to which we have grown accustomed, that we have taken for granted, are due to our sin.

We cannot trust each other, we need protection from one another.

In our reading from Paul we see his struggle with the power of sin; his struggle with an underlying power in his inner being.

Now, there is much disagreement about who Paul is referring – to when he uses the word ‘I’ in this passage. There are those on one side who think that this refers to Paul at the time of writing (and therefore all who know Christ); and there are those on the other side who think that Paul is referring to who he was before he knew Christ (and therefore all Jews who are trying to live by the Jewish Law apart from Christ).

This is because there are serious tensions between what is written prior to this passage and what is written in this passage. For example, those who are inclined to interpret ‘I’ to refer to Paul at the time of writing have to smooth over or ignore what we heard last week. For example in our passage today it says in verse 14 ‘I am of the flesh, sold under sin.’ But in our passage last week Paul wrote in Chapter 6 verse 22 ‘you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God.’

This is a challenge because if Paul is talking about those who know Christ, how can it be that they have been set free from sin but are still sold under it and are captive to it? The entire message of chapter 6 was that Christians have been delivered from the power of sin. Yes we still struggle with sin; we still struggle with the challenges of living between the old and new eras. But we are no longer enslaved to sin in the way that we once were. We are certainly not sold under it or made captive to it. We have been set free from its slavery to live for God.

So which Paul is Paul referring to? I would tentatively suggest that he is referring to himself before he knew Christ. He is referring to Jews who try to live by the law apart from Christ. It is an in-house debate within Judaism. However, it has applications for anyone who is overhearing Paul’s warning to his fellow Jews.

In this chapter, Paul is keen to support the Jewish idea that the law is holy and righteous and good. There is nothing wrong with the commandments. The problem is what happens when the law comes into contact with sin. Before the commandment, sin lies dormant. After the commandment, it awakes and resists. The law is not bad. The law didn’t cause the sin. The law is good, and it’s very goodness is what reveals sin.

When I was at theological college, we had a preacher who told us there was a new command for those who were in chapel: no one is allowed to look at the ceiling. I wonder if I should issue the same command to you. Now, I had looked at the ceiling of chapel before and it wasn’t anything special, just a row of plain wooden beams. But now that someone had told me not to, I wanted to know why. Part of me was suspicious. What were they hiding up there? It could be something really beautiful, it could be something really dangerous. It could just be nothing. If it was for my own good, then I wanted to be the judge of that. Another part of me also wanted to know if I could get away with looking or what would happen if I got caught. I lasted for about 15 minutes before my eyes flitted-up in a moment of weakness and I saw the same, plain, unadorned, beams I had seen before. Nothing happened. The preacher had proved the point he wanted to make.

What is interesting about this example is that I had entered chapel every morning for months and never bothered to look up before. It was only when the prohibition was made, that I suddenly had a desire to see what was suspended above my head. Paul has a similar experience with the law. There is a force within us that resists commandments. We can agree that the commandments are good but we need another power within us to resist the other power that resides in our inner being. We can have the desire to follow the commandments but not the ability to do so. All the commandments end up doing is highlight our inability to fulfil them by our own strength. However, the situation is not hopeless. There is an additional power that can give us that ability to do what is good. It is curious that this additional power is never mentioned in chapter 7 but becomes the focus of chapter 8. It is a power that is within every person who knows Christ. Can you guess what it is? It is the power of the Holy Spirit.

So how are we to live? We are not to set the law up as our way to salvation. But neither are we to disregard it. The moral parts of the law still apply. However, to fulfil them we are to rely on the Spirit living within us. There is a power within those who know Christ that moves us towards the good. As Paul goes on to say Romans 13, the law can be summarised like this:

8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet”, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word:
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
10 Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 13:8–10

Love requires more than external action. It requires an inner disposition. And this inner disposition can only be cultivated by prayer. Therefore prayer for the help of the Spirit is the most effective way to bring forth the good will, empathy, and compassion needed to love those around us. It is a strange thing. It is not a call to work even harder. It’s a call to give up. It is a call to relent and let the Spirit instruct your opening heart. As we heard Paul Tillich say at the beginning of this sermon: we need to be grasped by another power. And when each of our hearts are colonised by the Spirit, then we catch glimpses of the joys that await us in the age to come.

And we will hear more about this power as we look at Romans chapter 8 next week.

So let’s pray…

Heavenly Father, we confess that we still struggle with sin in our lives.
We ask that you would increase the power of the Holy Spirit within our hearts; to desire what is good and to fulfil your commands.
May we have the ability to love each other as we love ourselves, and in so doing may we catch glimpses of the joy you have prepared for us in the life to come.