Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Go back for a moment to those classic Saturday morning cartoons. Sometimes these cartoons picture a character wrestling with a temptation. The internal struggle is visualised by two miniature versions of the character’s self, an Angel and a Devil. They sit on each shoulder, with the Devil on the left. The angel and devil are shown both whispering into one ear, hoping to motivate the character to choose evil or good. It’s a trope we are all familiar with and seems to go all the way back to the second century AD.
The struggle which can be depicted in cartoons, is even more elaborately explained by St. Paul in our Epistle lesson. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,” says Paul (Rom. 7:19). How many here can relate to that? Have you felt that struggle between what you know is right, and the evil you’re tempted to do? Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do I keep on sinning when I don’t want to sin? Why the struggle? Why the battle?” St. Paul helps us to see why every Christian must face this struggle, and what hope we have.
The Good I Want
First, Paul talks about the good we want to do. Throughout the passage Paul says: “I agree that the law is good.” “I can will what is right” “I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self.” Is that something an unbeliever says? Of course not! There’s nothing hypothetical here. Christians really do desire to follow God’s law. The Law tells us what God wants. God’s law tells us how to display love for God and for our neighbor, and we say, “That’s for me.” Our desire, as Christians, is to do what God wants. That’s what we intend to do. When presented with the Law, we readily agree that it’s right. We know that’s the way things ought to be.
Although we were born dead in our sins, unable to fear love and trust in God, and unable to love our neighbour, yet the Spirit, through the Word has renewed us. We were given new life. We were born again. So, now, Christians have been brought from death to life. It used to be the whole self who did evil. No longer. Now a Christian wants to go God’s way, but struggles against indwelling sin. God has invaded but the conquest isn’t complete. So, when Paul talks about the “new man” or “my inmost self” he’s talking about the Christian insofar he has been renewed by the Spirit.
So notice this: the struggle we experience in the Christian life exists because we want to do what is right. Unbelievers don’t struggle with sin, they don’t fight to fear, love, and trust in God, instead they embrace sin. There’s no inner battle. They don’t care about following Jesus. The very fact that you’re battling is a sure and certain indication that the Holy Spirit is working in you. Your struggle didn’t come from your own innate goodness. It came from the mighty working of the Spirit, through the Word. If you’re grappling with your flesh, it means that you’re born again. That God has adopted you, made you his own, forgiven all your sins, and promised to conform you completely to the image of Christ.
The Evil I Do
Second, Paul talks about the evil we actually end up doing. Admit it. You agree with the law in theory. You like the idea of doing what God wants. Each day you hope that it will somehow be different. I will be a better person today. And then the same old buttons get pushed by the other sinners you encounter. And the best we can say at the close of the day is “forgive me where I have sinned.” Christians continue doing things we hate doing, and fail to do the good we wish we would do. The problem is not that we lack proper motivation or methods or discipline or whatever. The problem is sin. Sin that lurks within our members, that corrupts our humanity, that is the root of all the evil things that we do. We keep sinning because even after we have been given new life by the Spirit, sin hasn’t gone away. By “the flesh” Paul is referring to us, insofar as we have not been renewed by the Spirit. He’s referring to the sin which continues to cling to us. Because of those remnants of sin, we are not able to please God perfectly. We have doubts. We at times lack faith. We do not fear and love of God as we ought. On top of all that we still have countless desires which run counter to what God wants. This sin continues to corrupt our understanding in spiritual matters, it overrides our will and pushes us to give in to sin.
Although the Spirit of God has begun his work in us, we are never fully freed from sin, this side of the grave. We must be realistic about this and never think we have completely won the battle in any area. Never think that you are above a certain sin, because in your flesh dwells unspeakable evil warring to consume and destroy you. It is treacherous and it is deadly. We can so easily think that certain sins are no threat to us, and when we do so, we are in grave danger. Or we can become self-confident and think we’ve finally got that sin under control. This isn’t exactly the “victorious Christian life” one hears about. Fighting sin can be like an endless game of wack-a-mole: you beat sin in one area, only to see it pop up in another area. Should a Christian just surrender and give up the fight? Absolutely not! To give up would be certain death! Do not settle for a lack of holiness. Do not be content a some lower level of sanctification. You may never attain to the highest level in this life, but you will have some victories—and defeats.
The Rescue of the Wretched
So, where does this leave us? Is there any greater misery for a Christian than to be an unwilling prisoner to sin? We cry desperately for someone to come to our rescue! We need to be rescued from this sinful flesh, and that is precisely what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished. Jesus says to you: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). “Come to me, all you who feel your own wretchedness, your death, your sin, those of you who can’t find anything good in you, those of you who can’t seem to get it right no matter how hard you try.” “Come to me,” Jesus says, “And I will give you rest. Let me bear the yoke of the Law for you. You can’t bear it. It will kill you. I’ll bear it for you. Let it kill me! You take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. I will teach you to be free. I will forgive you. I will teach you to live by the Spirit. I’m not like Moses. I’m gentle and lowly in heart. I come not to accuse but to forgive. I come not to judge but to justify. Come to me, and you will find rest for your souls.”
In the meantime, to us who see our wretchedness and are in the thick of battle, Jesus promises that he has already won the final victory. Although sin dwells in us and will continue to dwell there, we have the promise that we and all creation will be redeemed and made new at the resurrection. On the last day the Savior will provide each Christian with a glorified body entirely purged of sin. On that day each Christian will serve God perfectly in will, in mind and in members. If only that time would come soon!
“Why do I keep on sinning when I don’t want to sin?” Because sin clings to you until death do you part. The Christian life is always a both/and – both dying and rising, both sinful and righteous, simultaneously justified and a sinner. This means we can take no credit whatsoever for our deliverance. All credit goes to God, who guaranteed our victory through his Son. Jesus by his life and death has defeated sin, our constant adversary in this life. While we struggle, we are reminded that our sins are not counted against us, instead, we stand forgiven. What is more, God provides us with the means and the strength to remain steadfast in our faith and even to gain limited victories over sin every now and then. God’s Word has promised us complete victory over sin in the life to come, where the battle with sin will at last be ended. “Thanks be to God!”
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.