11 August 2014

Sermon – “He’s dead but he won’t lie down” (Romans 7:15-25a)

“He’s dead, but he won’t lie down.” These are the introductory words to George Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air. Orwell was quoting from a humorous song popular at the time, recorded by English entertainer Gracie Fields. The first verse goes like this:

My sister’s young man is a hundred and three,
Yes, a hundred and three is he,
And he’s real cold storage meat
From his head right to his feet.
He’s dead, but he won't lie down.

The words seemed an appropriate way to begin my remarks this morning, as we look at the inner struggle that Paul has laid before us in the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans. In chapter 6 he has written, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Yet now in chapter 7 it appears that the old self is not entirely dead—or at least it won’t lie down!

Indeed, far from it. In the verses we read this morning Paul reveals a desperate struggle. It is not unlike what we see in an action-adventure flick. Our hero has just engaged in five minutes of nerve-wracking hand-to-hand combat with the villain. Finally, with one last thrust of his knife he stabs him, mortally wounding him, and and knocks him bleeding to the ground. Then he turns to rescue the maiden in distress. As he is busy unbinding her, his enemy, hollow-eyed and still bleeding profusely, hoists himself to his feet. Regaining his brute-like strength, he staggers across and murderously attacks him from behind—and the struggle begins again.

Listen again to Paul’s words.

I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

The Identity of “I”

It is a vivid scene as Paul describes it. But the question that people have asked again and again, practically since the ink had dried on the parchment, has been, whom is Paul describing here? Origen was a prolific scholar and writer who lived just a century and a half after Paul. He could not bring himself to believe that Paul was writing about his own current experience. Rather, he proposed that Paul was looking back on his past life, on his former self before his conversion. And this has been the position of many since, right down to our present day.

Surely, they insist, what Paul is depicting here is not the experience of one who has been born again in Christ. For them Paul’s desperate plea in verse 24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” cannot possibly be the cry of someone who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Rather it is the prayer of one who has become aware of his sin for the first time and is perhaps on the brink of conversion.

More recently there are theologians who have begun to propose that the “I” of these verses is not any individual at all. Rather, what we have in this passage is a personalization of the whole nation of Israel and its repeated and dismal failure to live up to the standards set by the Old Testament Law.

There are numerous other perspectives on whom Paul is describing in this passage, perhaps almost as numerous as the serious scholars who have studied it, puzzled over it and written about it down through the centuries. For what it is worth, my own view falls into line with that of Augustine and Luther and Calvin: that the individual Paul is describing here is indeed himself—not his pre-conversion self, but his current experience at the time of writing. It is a shockingly candid exposure of Paul’s own inner spiritual struggles. Martin Luther could never be accused of dull writing. Here is how he put it:

Paul … longed to be without sin, but to it he was chained. I too, in common with many others, long to stand outside it, but this cannot be. We belch forth the vapors of sin; we fall into it, rise up again, buffet and torment ourselves night and day; but, since we are confined in this flesh, since we have to bear about with us everywhere this stinking sack, we cannot rid ourselves completely of it, or even knock it senseless. We make vigorous attempts to do so, but the old Adam retains his power until he is deposited in the grave… There is no sinless Christian… Sin stands in the midst of the kingdom of Christ…[1]

The Reality of the Old Self

Let’s stop for a moment and think about what we are saying here. Does this mean that, even having given our lives to Christ, we are doomed to live a life dominated and enslaved by sin? What about those verses in the Bible that speak about victory over sin? What about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit?

Theologian Kenneth Berding helpfully reminisces about his puzzlement over this apparent conflict, which led to a conversation with J.I. Packer. In his wonderfully pastoral but profoundly rooted way, Packer told him,

Paul wasn’t struggling with sin because he was such a sinner. Paul was struggling because he was such a saint. Sin makes you numb. People who sin over and over again become desensitized to sin. The reason Paul’s “struggle” was so intense was not because he was caught in a web of sin, or because he thought of himself as hopelessly doomed to giving into the temptations that he faced. Rather, it was because Paul lived a life so sensitive to the Holy Spirit and passionate about the glory of God that he intensely felt his sins whenever he became aware that he had committed a sin.[2]

Elsewhere in the New Testament John describes living in relationship with God as walking in the light. One of the effects of that light is to reveal the imperfections and the sins, not to mention the glaring inconsistencies, in our lives. To claim that we have rid ourselves entirely of sin, John states, is not to live in the light at all, but in darkness and self-deception. The closer we draw to the light, the more we become aware of our need for the Father’s forgiveness, for Jesus’ cleansing and for the Holy Spirit’s power to renew us.

We can see this biographically unfolding in Paul’s own life. In one of the earliest of his letters, he describes himself humbly as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle”. Later in his ministry he writes of himself as “the very least of the saints”. Then, finally, as he anticipates martyrdom and his life is nearing its close, he confesses that he is “the foremost of sinners” (1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15).

Thus New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield can write,

[These verses] depict vividly the inner conflict characteristic of the true Christian, a conflict such as is possible only in the man, in whom the Holy Spirit is active and whose mind is being renewed under the discipline of the gospel… The more he is renewed by God’s Spirit, the more sensitive he becomes to the continuing power of sin over his life and the fact that even his very best activities are marred by the egotism still entrenched within him.

“In fact,” he concludes, “a struggle as serious as that which is here described, can only take place where the Spirit of God is present and active.”[3] For this reason we find Paul depicting the life of discipleship in Romans and elsewhere in terms of a fierce mortal combat.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you desire. (Galatians 5:16,17)

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)… You must get rid of all such things… (Colossians 3:5,8a)

The Path of Continuous Repentance

So where does all this lead us in terms of our daily living? Two things. The first is that an essential component of our walk with Christ is continuous repentance. “Repent and be baptized,” the apostle Peter proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost, “so that your sins may be forgiven.” What Peter was declaring was not only a first step into the kingdom of God but also a way of life. That is why our Anglican worship regularly includes a confession of sin. That is why confession also needs to be a daily component of our personal life of prayer.

Now I am not advocating what someone has called “worm theology”, the notion that we should think of ourselves as worthless, that to have any shred of self-esteem or pride in our work is sinful and arrogant. That may seem like a characterization, but there are people who think about themselves that way—or even worse feel guilty that they don’t. Such self-lacerating attitudes do not come from Scripture or from the God of Scripture, who created us good and whose image we bear. No, they come from the father of lies, the accuser, whose only desire is to bring us down and cause us to wallow in self-loathing and defeat.

And that brings me to my second point. For those who are tempted to see themselves that way (and occasionally I find myself sliding into those feelings), there is a wonderful pair of verses in Scripture. They are 1 John 3:19,20: “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” In those times when we do slip and fall into sin we do not need to sink into despair, for we have a God who is infinitely more ready to forgive us than we are to forgive ourselves. And in Jesus we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, one who in every respect has been tempted as we are (Hebrews 4:15,16). What is more, in the words of Peter, who well knew the pain of failure, he is able to “restore, establish and strengthen us” (1 Peter 5:10).

So it is that even as he struggles with the power of sin Paul can exclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And we can echo his cry. For we know that by his death and resurrection Jesus has won the victory. And while much of the time we trip and stumble through this life, it is Jesus and not sin that will have the final word. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

[1]     Quoted by Karl Barth in The Epistle to the Romans, 263
[2]     Kenneth Berding, reminiscing on a conversation with J.I. Packer,   
[3]     Romans, A Shorter Commentary, 155,158

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