Notes on the Struggle
In 1956 a movie posed a situation to viewers that was a truly frightening prospect. What if all the people you knew suddenly became someone else? They still looked the same and sounded the same but it wasn’t them anymore. Furthermore, what if nobody believed you when you tried to tell someone about it (in part because they weren’t themselves anymore either)? The film, along with its 1978 remake, was titled The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the original a psychiatrist is called in to help with an hysterical man in a hospital. When he calms the man down he recounts his tale. The gist of the story is that aliens capable of assuming any form came to earth and slowly began replacing people with alien clones identical in every way to their human counterparts except for one thing: they are incapable of showing emotion or individuality. The man stumbled upon the truth and began working to try and stop the invasion. One by one, though, all his human friends were replaced until he alone remained to frantically search for someone to convince of the truthfulness of his tale.
What makes the film so scary is this question of what would happen if the world became corrupted by an indivisible force that left it looking the same on the outside while totally changing its nature. What happens when something good gets corrupted by something bad and nobody realizes it? Well the truth is that this has happened. It happened when Adam sinned and the good nature given to him by God became corrupted. We still looked the same. But on the inside everything had changed. We became prey to a hostile force that subjugated us to its whims. We could still do the things we wanted, but the things we wanted had changed from things that were good for us to things that would leave us dead in the end. There are some folks who have woken up to this invasion, but the struggle to put things back as they were always designed to work is an intense one, fraught with danger and intrigue. Furthermore, it’s a struggle that’s been going on for a long time.
Well this week finds us in the second-to-last installment of our series, Do Over. The whole idea for this series is that you and I are in need of a fresh start in life. It could be that we’ve simply messed something up in some small way, but the reality is more likely to be that our whole lives are a train wreck in one way or another and we need a total reset. We need a do over. In the last four weeks we have explored this idea from a number of different angles. We started by establishing the problem as clearly as we could: we do in fact need a do over. We have a problem that we can’t solve. We are not rightly related to God and nothing we do is having any kind of a positive impact on the situation. We can’t get rightly related to God on our own. Fortunately, as we saw in the second week of our series, we are not on our own. We have hope and help in Jesus Christ. Because Jesus gained the ultimate right standing with God, He is able to share this with us. Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God.
Now, that sounds like a good deal, but it’s actually even better than that as we saw a couple of weeks ago. You see, Jesus gives us a right standing with God, but He doesn’t wait to do this until we have made ourselves fit for it. The truth is that we are never fit for it. We’ve never been fit for it in the past and we’re never going to be fit for it in the future. Knowing this to be the case, Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, while we were still enemies of God. Well, if you can accurately be described as an enemy of God I think we can safely agree that you are in a tough place. Fortunately, when we were in this place, at our worst, God loved us. He loved us and He offered us a do over.
As we saw last week, then, if we are going to embrace this do over lifestyle we’ve got to live in ways consistent with it. This means not sinning. Sinning is what separated us from God in the first place. Trying to let some sin hang around as we adjust to a lifestyle that is intended to be sinless doesn’t make any sense. It would be like a man who spent the last thirty years as a prisoner with chains around his hands and feet being set free and then trying to adjust to his new freedom while still wearing the chains. All pretense of tolerance aside, we would describe such a person as weird or sick and definitely acting inappropriately. We don’t say the same thing about Christians who actively engage in sin, but I’m not sure why. In any event, when we are in Christ sin is not our master meaning that we are free to pursue the righteousness that leads to eternal life instead of the sinfulness that leads to death.
At the end of the message last week I told you that if we are going to live a do over lifestyle we have to submit ourselves to Christ in everything. We have to not sin. Then I asked a question: sound easy? This was, of course, tongue-in-cheek because you know as well as I do that even if it sounds easy it isn’t. It’s hard to live righteously. It takes a ton of effort. The desires of our sinful nature come at us almost relentlessly. Eventually it seems like we always let down and give in. All of us. We share that bit of gossip that’s just too good to keep to ourselves any longer. We take those extra three or four drinks knowing that we’ll lose control, but in the moment it’ll dull the pain or perhaps just be a lot of fun. We click on over to those internet sites or dial up that movie that we know we shouldn’t see but it’ll serve to satisfy the longing without any immediately apparent consequences. We accept the lie that our value is tied to what we do and how people think about us and so we do that with him or go there with her even though we really shouldn’t. In short, we sin. This is the ugly, lingering truth about the Christian life. We are in Christ, but we still sin. But wait, aren’t we supposed to be perfect now? Aren’t we called saints now? Don’t we have the Holy Spirit—God Himself—living in us now? So what’s the deal? Why the struggle? Why isn’t this easy? For the last month we have dealt with the theory of why and how to live the do over lifestyle of Christ. This morning we need to deal with the reality of things: living the do over lifestyle isn’t easy. In a way this takes us back to where we were when we started, but now instead of needing a do over, we already have one. So why do we keep struggling?
If you have your Bible with you in some form find your way to Romans 7 with me. Paul actually speaks here to this struggle to live consistently with our confession in deeply personal terms. We’re going to look at these words in just a minute, but before we get there we need to go with Paul to see how this struggle came about and why it’s so ugly. As we get ready to see this, take a mental leap with me back to last week. As we got ready to talk about the fact that living under grace doesn’t make sin somehow worthwhile, I read to you a note from Paul that God handed His standard for living down to Moses in part to help us see that the kinds of behaviors which come naturally to us actually serve to separate us from Him. In doing this, while the law was a good and righteous thing, it became something of an evil, keeping us trapped in sin, perpetually under judgment, and from which we needed saving. Here in chapter 7 Paul explores all of this in a lot more detail. Look at the text with me starting in 7:4.
“Likewise, my brothers [and sisters], you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” This is Paul just summing up the situation for someone who has embraced the do over lifestyle of Christ. This person has died to the law, meaning it no longer has any power over her, and, as we talked about last week, now belongs to Christ. Continuing, “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” His point here is that the law, in drawing pretty clear lines on what was sin and what wasn’t, served in a twisted sense to lead us into sin. Putting that in another way, the sinful nature in us, that part of us which seeks our own advancement at the expense of everyone else, took its cue from the law and very naturally pursued what the law pronounced to be sinful.
Well, all of this talk can fairly easily lead someone to the conclusion that Paul thinks the law—which is simply the particular standard for living we’ve adopted for ourselves—is just evil. It seems like law and sins are so connected that they’re really just two sides of the same coin. Sin comes from law and the law leads to sin. So then, is the connection this tight? Is the law the source of sin? Paul pretty firmly denies this notion, but the connection is there nonetheless. Furthermore, since we spend our entire pre-Christ lives thinking in terms of whatever is our chosen system of rules to get us right with whoever we happen to identify as the higher power, and since we are all members of the human species which has been operating under the assumptions of law for a long, long time, this relationship between law and sin is important to understand. So then what is the relationship? Why do the two seem so intimately connected? And, what does this have to do with our struggle to live out a do over lifestyle?
Stay with me in the text as Paul explains all of this. Look at v. 7: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? [There’s the question.] By no means! [That’s the same forceful ‘no’ from last week.] Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” He’s just outlining the connection one more time here. The law itself is not sin. It was from God and thus holy and good. But, it enabled us to recognize what sin is. Had God not given the law, we would have been living in a blissful ignorance. But the thing about being in a state of blissful ignorance is that it’s great until the consequences of our ignorance come to bear. Now Paul gives an example of what he’s talking about. Stay with me in v. 7: “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”
Do you see what he’s talking about here? Think about it like this: what happens when you put a plate of cookies in front of a bunch of kids? They are going to eat the cookies. It’s what kids do. When someone then comes along and says it’s wrong to eat the cookies because they don’t belong to them (thus introducing a kind of law), what are the kids going to do? They’re still going to eat the cookies and they’ll probably do it even faster than before. Why? Because of that little thing inside of us that tends to want what someone has told us we can’t have. It does this because we want to be the gods and goddesses of our own little universes. Gods aren’t accountable to anyone. Nobody tells a god no. We want what we’ve been told we can’t have because being told “you can’t” necessarily means someone has power over us. By taking it anyway we demonstrate they don’t. That’s sin in us.
Stay with me here. Was it wrong for the kids to eat the cookies before being told they shouldn’t? Yes, it was. The cookies didn’t belong to them and it is wrong to take what belongs to someone else. But, before being told the cookies didn’t belong to them, the kids had no reason to assume they didn’t. It could have been that the cookies were there for them. Thus, while in the moment they may not have done something for which they were going to be held immediately accountable, in the long run, they had unwittingly done something to separate them from God. Thus, sin is, in a sense, in a latent form until the law is handed down. This is what Paul gets at when at the end of v. 8 he declares: “For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” When the law came the sin which was dormant (but still poisoning our lives) came alive and began asserting itself.
The movie version of The Hobbit is two-thirds of the way to completion. The major villain in the movie is the great dragon, Smaug. In The Hobbit, Smaug has been in the world a long time. When the story opens he is a terrifying threat, but he is sleeping. As long as Smaug is sleeping, while still a latent threat and a poison to much of the land simply by his presence, he was easy to forget about and didn’t seem to directly impact the events of daily life. When the beast is awakened, though, the threat is immediate and existential. But, and this is important, without waking him and drawing him out, he can’t be killed. And yet, as the residents of the little village nestled Venice-like on the lake at the foot of the mountain in which he sleeps know, to wake him means enduring his terrible attacks until he can be killed once and for all. Thus, the very act which will ultimately bring salvation is sure to bring much death on the way to its golden streets. This does not, however, make the act of waking him itself evil. With this in mind, look at what Paul writes next in v. 10: “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me?” Did the act of waking Smaug bring death? No. No more so than the act of giving the law brought the death of sin. Smaug himself brought the death. Waking him only provided the opportunity. Paul agrees: “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.”
So what we have here is this: Sin entered the world through Adam, but without a clear set of guidelines, people didn’t really know what was sin and what wasn’t. We pretty much did whatever we felt like doing, whenever we felt like doing it. In other words, sin was calling the shots we just didn’t know it and never resisted. This all kept us separated from God in an ultimate sense, but it was not possible to hold us accountable for knowledge we didn’t actually have. As a result, God gave us the law. He told us very clearly which kinds of things were sin and which weren’t. This was a blessing because now we knew what it took to live in such a way that we were right with God. But, the goal of sin is always death. The faster sin can bring death the better. With this in mind, the law provided a perfect opportunity to speed things along toward death. The reason for this should be clear. Whereas before the law we committed sins in utter ignorance of our folly, once we had the law, the defense of ignorance was stripped away and our sinful inclinations were laid bare. Now instead of eating cookies that could have been ours even though they weren’t, someone came in, told us not to eat the cookies, put a sign up that said, “Do not eat these cookies,” and put a glass jar over the top of them which we promptly smashed and ate the cookies anyway. The law in this way ignited the conflict between righteousness—living as God desires—and sinfulness—living as we desire. But, kind of like the Tech-UVA rivalry in football…or the UVA-Tech rivalry in basketball, it was a lopsided contest. Because of our sinful nature, righteousness never won. And for a long time, that’s just how things were. We had a problem we could not solve. We needed a lasting do over but couldn’t get one on our own because our sinful nature—with which we happily went along, by the way—kept us from getting there. The result: Torment and frustration.
Then we heard about the real hope found in the do over lifestyle of Christ and took up the journey. Yet what do we find even then? We have a new nature, but the old one is not yet totally gone. All of a sudden we find ourselves in a place where doing the right things, the kinds of things that reflect the fact that we are now rightly related to God, should be easy and yet they are not. The outcome of this great conflict between righteousness and sinfulness does not suddenly reverse itself but rather becomes an all-out war. The new kid on the block is powered by an unconquerable force, but the old guard has been there for so long that it’s not going down without a pretty ferocious battle. If you have tried living the do over lifestyle for very long, you know what this feels like. Listen to how Paul agonizingly describes the results: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 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. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Can I just get an “Amen” there? I remember the first time I read this passage and really understood what Paul was saying. I almost laughed at how confusing the language is. Paul’s back and forth almost leaves your head spinning. He wants to do one thing but actually does another. He knows he shouldn’t do it, but can’t stop himself. He is compelled by an unseen force to do the things which leave him separated from God in spite of his right standing in Christ and the ability that brings to do the kinds of things which proclaim it rather than those which disclaim it. It’s almost like there’s another rule to which he has been submitted. Listen to this in v. 21: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Have you walked here with Paul? Every time we want to do something good, there is evil ready to mess it up. Ever heard somebody cynically exclaim, “No good deed goes unpunished!”? This is where that comes from. We want to do good to prove to the world that we do indeed have this do over lifestyle, but every time we start, even with God’s help available, it feels like we mess things up by putting our interests ahead of everyone else’s. Paul understands this. Look at v. 22: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 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.”
It’s like an alien comes and takes over our bodies and although we look and sound the same, inside we are something other than we appear. But, rather than being expelled from our bodies entirely we are able to watch this waiting-to-happen train wreck rumble down the tracks powerless to stop it until we start relying on the right source of help. We are present and in control yet not in control. We do the evil we hate, breaking God’s heart and letting loose the death of sin into our relationships. Have you felt this? Have you been in this seemingly hopeless position? Have you writhed in anguish at what sin hath wrought in your life? Paul has too. Look at v. 24: “Wretch man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Who indeed. Where is our hope and help so that we do not have to remain in such a desperate place as this? You are probably like me and have tried to tackle it solo mio. But that doesn’t work much, doesn’t it? We’ve been caught in this spiral of death since long before we embraced the do over lifestyle. We may have a fighter on our side who cannot be beaten, but sometimes we still try and tackle things on our own. And yet you know as well as I do that we can’t do it on our own. We can’t get it done on our own. We can’t win this battle on our own. So who can do it? How do we live the do over lifestyle? Or, as Paul put it again, “Who will deliver us from this body of death?” The answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
In Christ we have the hope and help we need to live the do over lifestyle we so desperately want. It was Jesus Himself who promised us that He would never leave us nor forsake us. The glorious truth here is this: We are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin. We are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin. When it seems like the Siren song of sin is too strong to overcome, we are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin. When sin has us pinned to the mat and is demanding that we submit, we are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin. When the battle is raging and we fear we will be swept away, we are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin. The dragon of sin is fierce and dedicated to our destruction, yet we are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin. We do not serve a God who calls us to a lifestyle beyond our abilities and then leaves us to manage on our own. We are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin. He journeyed through this life facing all the same temptations that we face. Because of this, He can walk with us through the temptations we face, giving us the hope and help we need. We are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin. We are not alone and because of this we can live a life free from condemnation. Yet what is the nature of this help? Come back next week to catch the final part of the series as we take a look together at this very question. You won’t want to miss it.