The Christian at War (Romans 7:12-25)

I. Who Is This and What Does It Mean for Us?

We’re about halfway through our Lenten journey this year, and if you’re at all taking this seriously, asking the Lord to show your great need and the Savior’s great work anew, you probably need some encouragement. Romans 7 brings us that encouragement this morning.

Let’s begin with a few questions to get us thinking together.

  1. What does the mature Christian life look like? How would you describe it?
  2. Who is this guy at the end of chapter 7, verse 24? Who is this wretched man Paul describes?
  3. Can this person, described by Paul, be a mature, growing Christian?

II. Paul & the Normal Christian Life

Well, let me go ahead and answer my last question right up front by saying that Paul makes it clear that the wretch is he himself. In this, he speaks for all Christians.  Some have wanted to deny that, but for several reasons, it’s plain and obvious in our passage today.

First, elsewhere Paul called himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). He did not say, I was the chief of sinners, he said I am. Second, in verse 14, the tense switches to the present (so, grammatically speaking, Paul is describing his now not something he used to be), Third, Paul speaks of the intense struggle of the old with the new (vs. 17 and 20 clinch it: “It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” There it is – the already and not yet of the Christian life). Fourth, Paul is frank about his lostness apart from God (v.18: I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh). The person here is not trying to justify themselves before God. This is Paul the Christian, convinced of his need for grace.

Is this disconcerting for you? Do you find this at odds with a mature Christian life? Does it make you uncomfortable to hear Paul, the great Apostle, speak in such terms? This where we begin to see the comfort and encouragement this passage has to offer us this Lent. The normal Christian life is a life at war with sin. Are you feeling intensity of your battle against sin? Brother, sister, it only means that you are in the fight and not on the side lines!

Luther famously summed this reality by saying that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners. Now that is realistic, wise, mature and biblical. If you do not heed this reality, you are headed for a train wreck in your faith. Some may say, well, I may sin, but I’m not a sinner. Well, just how many times do you have to sin before you have acknowledge you’re sinner?

Rather, in our lives as Christians, we have been called out of darkness into the marvelous of Christ. We’re wrapped in his righteousness, our filthy rags exchanged Jesu’ purity. We’ve been justified by faith alone and in Christ we are a new creation. But here’s what happens: the longer we stand in the light of Christ, the more the darkness that remains in us gets exposed. In the words of Psalm 19 “The commandment of the Lord is pure, and gives light to the eyes.” So when the psalmist reflects on himself, all he can say is, “Who can tell how often he offends?”

Theologian Jordan Cooper likens it being a room with a dimmer switch for the light. Imagine your sitting in darkness in your living room. The lights come on, but its very low. You might see a blanket on the floor, a cushion out of place here or there. You might think, man, I should clean up a little. The lights come on a little more. Maybe you see some dirt on the couch, smudges on the windowpane. You might think, man this room really needs a good clean. Then perhaps the sunlight shines in the room as it does at that certain time of day. You see dog hair everywhere and specks of dust endlessly floating. And you think, where does it all come from?! Does it have no end? Friends, as we grow in the Christian life, we don’t leave the Cross of Jesus – it’s our need for the Cross of Jesus that grows. When we come to Christ by faith, we see but an inkling of our need for him. As we abide in him, we see it more and more.  

As J.I. Packer notes, “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.” (As told by Ken Berding)

The thing that should worry us in Romans 7, is not Paul’s honesty and transparent portrait of the Christian life, but whether or not we experience it for ourselves. Have we become numb to sin? Do we recognize the struggle Paul describes as real for ourselves?

In her song “Grace and Mercy” Jess Ray translates Romans 7 into lyrical form. I want to read some her lyrics for you here this morning.

For every time I make the choice

To love the sound of my own voice

Another’s wants, another’s needs

I trample underneath my feet

For every time I boldly say

That I’m the one who knows the way

And I come down with a heavy hand

And withhold my understanding

I know now, more than ever

I am still so in need of grace and mercy

For every time that I hold up

My life against another one

And I envy what I cannot have

And curse what I don’t understand

Oh on this darkness, shine a light

Remind me once again that I

I am still so in need of grace and mercy

I’d like to think that I’m older now

And surely I must have grown out of this

I’d like to reach some higher ground

But what a sad life to live without

Grace and mercy

III. Christ, Christians & the Law

This all helps us to understand what Paul says about the Law’s place (that is, God’s good, holy, perfect commandments) in the Christian life. Listen to what Paul says in vs. 22-23: “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.” Let me use an example to illustrate what Paul teaches us here. Let’s take God’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. We love that commandment. It’s good. It’s right. It’s pure! Like the psalmist, we delight in the law of God. Now let’s look at living that out. For most of us, we live that commandment first of all by loving our spouse and our children. 24/7. Every day. Every night. All the time. To put it mildly, that’s hard. How many of you have had the experience of waking up, praying for a particular person in your household, asking God for strength to love that in a person in a particular way, only to be repenting by the day’s end for your lack of love to that particular person?

We delight in the law of God, but we also know we fall short of its end – perfect love of God and neighbor, always. Realizing this drives us closer and closer to Christ. That is the natural rhythm of the Christian life. As David Turner puts it, “the Law is like an x-ray – it reveals the presence of sin and so urges us to find refuge, help, and health in Christ.”  In essence, this is exactly what Paul says. Vs.24-25 “24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The law is like a mirror that shows us what we’re really like. If we listen to the law, we learn to we look to Jesus, so that our salvation is not in ourselves, but in Christ. Is there transformation in the Christian life? Absolutely. Romans 8 actually describes how that happens. Is there sanctification? Yes – by the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power. But we don’t look to our sanctification for our assurance – that’s why it’s called the fruit of the Spirit and not works. Instead, we look to Christ. John Newton famously said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

So as the Lord continues to work in your heart and life this Lent, be refreshed this morning. In Romans 7, we do have the normal Christian life on display. As you examine yourself and do battle with sin, be embraced by the mercy of God. Come to his table in simple faith and earnest repentance. Look to Jesus. Amen.