Last week we began a series on what Christians believe about the law, about grace, and about the Christian life. Therefore, please open your Bible at Romans chapter seven. Looking at this chapter, we need to grasp that this is one of the most important and less understood chapters In the Bible.
We have set out three objectives for this short series. The first, and that was our focus last week, is to better grasp the central doctrine of the union with Jesus Christ that through the bond of faith, a Christian believer is actually made one with Christ, one with Him in His death, and one with Him in His resurrection.
As we looked at the opening verses of this chapter, we used Paul’s illustration of the relationship with the law as if it is a marriage. We gave the law a name because it is here personalized as if a person, and we called it Nomos. To be married to Nomos would be to be married to a very demanding person that is never pleased or satisfied. Paul says that this is actually the position we all are in by nature. We are born into this miserable marriage and bound by law. The only way out of it is death to self. Because the law never dies, it leaves us in a very sorry state.
We then saw the good news, for those that who are in Christ Jesus, the truth is that you actually did die. You died and rose in Jesus Christ and in this way, you are released from the miserable marriage to the law. And more than that, you are brought into a new and marvelous union with Christ. By God’s grace you are brought into a new second marriage; a great union with Jesus Christ and made one with Him – a union wherein you are able to flourish.
“Likewise, my brothers, 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” (Romans 7:4)
Today we are going to focus on the second objective whereby we better understand the human condition, and therefor see why a sustained human attempt at a moral life, cannot be the answer. We pick it up in Romans chapter seven,
“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (Romans 7:7)
This is the question that naturally arises from all that we said last week in Romans 7:1-6. “If being bound to ‘Nomos’ is a miserable marriage, if the law beats up on you, it sounds like you are saying that the law is bad.” That is what any thinking person would say after grasping verses 1-6, and some of you might have asked this question last week.
It’s a pattern in the letters of Paul, and especially in Romans, that he makes a case and then answers questions. You know that you have correctly understood what Paul is saying if you are left with the question that he raises and answers next. Notice the question here in verse seven, “What shall we say then? That the law is sin? By no means! …” So, what is a proper Christian view of the law?
“So, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12)
The commandments were given by God Himself. They reflect His character. They lay out for us a way of life that is holy and righteous and good. When God gave the law, He gave a good gift to His people. Think of what a marvelous world this would be if everyone kept the law of God! What a marvelous city or country we would have if everyone obeyed the law. How marvelous it would be to do business in this city if everyone you did business with spoke the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
The law is good
Paul identifies two particular ways in which the law is good:
- The law is good because it reveals sin
“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin …” (Romans 7:7)
Driving on the road, you see signs that tell you what maximum speed is allowed for you! If no one told you what is the required speed when you are driving, you would be in trouble. We are thankful that the law of God has been written on tablets of stone, and that it does not change. What if the speed limit gets changed daily! I would be in trouble constantly. Thank God His law never changes and He has told us what it is.
The law is good because it tells us what a righteous life looks like. Nobody wants to go through life thinking you are getting it right, and then on the last day to stand before God and find out that you got it completely wrong.
- The law is good because it promises life
“The very commandment that promised life …” (Romans 7:10)
The lawyer stood up asking Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him about the commandments. Jesus then asked him how he read the commandments.
“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:25-26)
The man then recited the Law to Jesus, and Jesus says to him,
“And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:28)
Fullness of life lies ahead for those who live according to all the commandments of God. The law is good. It reveals sin and it promises life. It tells us what God requires of us. It comes with a marvelous promise for those who keep it.
The law is not the problem – sin is! Martyn Lloyd-Jones says of this, “It is beyond any doubt the profoundest analysis of sin, and of its ways and its results, which is to be found anywhere in the whole of Scripture.”
What sin is
If you were to do some ‘man in the street’ interviews and ask people what sin is, one answer you would get would be that sin is doing bad things – like lying and stealing. But sin is much more than doing bad things. If you think of sin only in terms of actions, you have not yet understood its nature.
Sin is a power or impulse that, by nature, resides in our hearts. This is the big truth that was missed by the Pharisees and is missed by many people in church today. The Pharisees were committed to a moral life. They were very serious about avoiding sin. The problem was that their definition of sin was limited to evil actions.
Jesus told a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prays honestly saying to God, “I don’t steal and I give myself to prayer. I fast twice a week. I practice generosity. I give my tithe, not only of my salary, but of everything that I get.” (Luke 18:10-12)
We see that the rich young ruler was working with the same definition of sin. He thought of sin simply in terms of actions.
“And a ruler asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? … You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour your father and mother.’ And he said, ‘All these I have kept since my youth!” (Luke 18:18-21)
He was saying to Jesus, “I am committed to living a good moral life.” Exactly the same as the Pharisee in the temple.
When Paul looked look back at his earlier life, before his conversion, he saw the same pattern.
“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason foe confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eight day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (Philippians 3:3-7)
Paul says, “As to righteousness under the law, blameless”. He says, “Was I the kind of person who lied, cheated and stole? The answer is ‘no!’ I lived a moral life.” But the next thing he says is very significant. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ”. Being a moral person kept him from seeing his need of Jesus Christ. His morality blinded him to his need!
Believers, this is really important because, in large measure, we are people who are committed to a moral life. We raise our children to live moral lives. And it is very hard for a moral person to grasp that he or she is a sinner. If you are a moral person, it will take a miracle of grace for you to see the extent of your need before God.
I’m praying that this miracle will happen right here for some of us today. It begins with settling in your mind this truth from Romans 7 – that sin is more than wrong actions.
This was crucial in the experience of the apostle Paul: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’. The thing that got me was the tenth commandment” (that’s the one that says, “You shall not covet”). The tenth commandment was the one that changed my whole view of myself, which was: “I’m a moral person.”
Why this command? Because the tenth commandment is the one that speaks not to the actions, but to the desires. Coveting is a desire. The tenth commandment anticipates the teaching of Jesus that all the commandments go to the heart. The sixth commandment says, “Do not murder,” but Jesus traces that back to the roots of being angry with your brother in your heart. The seventh commandment says, “Do not commit adultery,” but Jesus traces this back to the roots of looking with lust in your heart.
God is not simply looking at actions, he is looking at the heart. So, Paul says, “The tenth commandment was the one that got me because it showed me that I was working with the wrong definition of sin. I had limited it to certain actions that I did not do. There I was with my moral checklist, thinking I was doing quite well – I don’t steal; I’ve never robbed a bank.” Paul says, “Then one day I came face-to-face with the tenth commandment. And when I saw that sin includes the impulses of the heart, I could no longer regard myself as the moral person I had imagined myself to be.”
Sin is a power. It is an impulse of the heart that gravitates toward what God forbids. This impulse is in all of us by nature. That is what we need saving from.
Here’s why Romans 7 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible: If you’re working with a limited definition of sin, you are not likely to come to Jesus. If you buy into the Pharisees’ definition of sin, you will feel, as they did, that you do not need what Jesus offers. But when you see that sin is an impulse that resides in your heart, you will begin to see why you need a Savior.
What sin does
Paul identifies three activities of sin: Sin produces. Sin deceives. And sin kills.
- Sin produces
“But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness…” (Romans 7:8)
The word ‘produced’ is important here. Think about a fire throwing up flames or water bubbling up in a spring. Think about a fountain producing water. That’s what sin is like. It produces all kinds of desires. It is always throwing up new impulses and inclinations towards sin. We call this temptation, and it comes from within.
“Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own evil desire” (James 1:14)
This is the teaching of Jesus:
“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)
As parents, we rightly want to protect our children from the many evils that are out there in the world. But if you grasp what our Lord is saying here, you will see that the bigger problem is the impulse toward sin that resides in your children’s hearts, as it resides in yours! Those moods, those tempers, and those hurtful things that you say – where do they come from? They came from within. The impulse to sin is produced from your own heart.
- Sin deceives
“For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (Romans 7:11
This goes back to the Garden of Eden when Eve said, ‘The serpent deceived me” (Genesis 3:13). Sin has an allure. Every temptation holds out a promise of happiness. But sin deceives. It makes promises that it cannot keep.
Sin deceives in the prospect that it offers, and in the outcome that it conceals. The prospect offered to Eve was: Satan said: “You shall be as God. Why would you not want that – to be the lord of your own life? Why would you want God running your life, when you can run it yourself? It’s your life, so you should be your own god. Taste the evil as well as the good and then you can make up your own mind and pursue what you choose.”
That was the first temptation. But when Eve tasted the evil, she found that she had been deceived. She did not become God. She became a sinner. Sin deceives in the prospect that it offers.
Then sin also deceives in the outcome that it conceals. The woman said to the serpent, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden… lest you die’” (Genesis 3:3). But the serpent said, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). Sin conceals its own outcome. It closes your eyes to where it will lead you.
The impulse or inclination of sin in you will produce these two deceptions: If I do this, I will be happy (the prospect). If I do this, it will be ok. Nothing bad will happen to me (the outcome).
Sin is a powerful impulse. Its power is so great that it can draw you to things that made you miserable the last time you did them. How can you explain that? Why are we drawn to the same sins again and again? Because sin deceives you over the prospect and over the outcome.
- Sin kills
“For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (Romans 7:11)
Sin produces, it deceives, and it kills. Sin sucks the life out of you. It kills the ability to love and it deadens responsiveness toward God. Sin puts you in a position where your heart becomes dull (Matthew 13:15). You go to church and are always hearing but never understanding (Matthew 13:14). You honor God with your lips (that is, you say the right things about Him), but your heart is far from Him (Matthew 15:8).
Jesus said these things about the people who were the custodians of the law of God! They were committed to living a moral life. Sin is an impulse of rebellion against God that lies within you. It sucks the life out of you. It produces, it deceives, and it kills.
Where sin leads
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15)
If all you have is the law, you will always be a mystery to yourself. You won’t be able to make sense of what you do or why you do it.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
If all you have is the law, if all you have is a sustained attempt at living a moral life, the best you can hope for is a life of confusion and frustration. A sustained attempt at living a moral life cannot change who you are. Becoming religious won’t do it either – praying, fasting, solitude, serving, giving back to the community – none of these things has the power to deal with this impulse of sin in you that produces, deceives, and kills.
Morality cannot be the answer. If we call people to morality but do not lead them to Christ, we lead them into confusion and frustration. So, the message of the church to the world must be more than a call to morality. Calling lost people to a moral life is like telling a man who is dying of lung cancer to stop smoking. The damage is already done!
A call to morality, on its own, will only lead people to the place of saying, “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” If the message of parents to our children is simply a call to morality, we set them up for frustration and water the seeds of rebellion. We have to explain this doctrine of indwelling sin, how it produces, deceives and kills – how it is in them, as it is in us.
There’s only one way to deal with this impulse to sin! You have to become a new creation. You have to die and rise. That happens in this second marriage, when having died to the law, you are brought into a new and living union with Jesus Christ. You become a new creation in Jesus Christ.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)
This gives an answer to that problem. If I just had the law, that’s where I be left, but I have more than the law, thanks be to God, Jesus Christ our Lord!
Thank God that being a Christian is more than a sustained attempt to living a moral life. Thank God that being a Christian is much more than vaguely believing in Jesus and then going out to try harder. Thank God that being a Christian is a living union in which the presence and the power of Jesus Christ comes to indwell you by the Holy Spirit to enable you to stand in this battle that you have with sin that resides within you.
A final appeal
I want to end today with this appeal. I am increasingly burdened, increasingly burdened, as the years go on, for the many people, also for people in our congregation, whose best understanding of Christianity is that it is a sustained effort to live a moral life.
You have seen that Jesus can forgive what you have done, but you have not yet seen that Jesus Christ can change what you are! You come to church faithfully, and each week you go out, with a white knuckled attempt, attempting this good moral life for another week. But actually what you experience on the inside is a great deal of confusion and a great deal of frustration.
I’m praying that this series will be the place where God will shine the light into your heart and you’ll begin to say, “Ah! I see in a way that I never saw before! I need a Savior! Not just a Savior who I vaguely believe in from afar, a Savior that is actually with me, a Savior who by the power of His Holy Spirit will work within me.”
I want to say to you today, Jesus Christ is able to do for you, what you cannot do for yourself. Come and confess to Christ today that your best attempts to change on the outside can’t change what you are on the inside. Cast yourself on the mercy of Jesus Christ. Ask Him to bind you to Himself, to make you a new creation, and hope will begin for you, in Him, today.
Sermon by Pastor Ben Hooman