By Paul Koch –
Today in church we had the joy and the privilege to read together one of my all-time favorite sections of Holy Scripture. St. Paul’s words in chapter 7 of his letter to the church in Rome is a delightful gift. Now, it can sound a bit confusing as he says things like, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” It sounds as if Paul is having some sort of mental crisis. In fact, perhaps that is exactly what is happening. The thing that makes this text so wonderful is how brutally honest it is about the human condition. About the struggle of the Christian life. About why I can desire to do good over and over again, and yet fail to accomplish it.
See, the rhythm of this text with its tension and confusion, mimics the tension and confusion of the Christian life. The reason I love this text is because it actually describes what it feels like to be a child of God. How often have you gone through this rhythm yourself? There are times when you’ve been inspired by the Word of God, times when you’ve been profoundly impacted in some way, and you see clearly a better way to live, a more God-pleasing way. Perhaps you might see it as the will of God for your life at this particular time and place, and so you head off fully intending to live this more faithful and righteous way. Yet this new direction, this new intent to live faithfully, is frustrated. Not by outside obstacles, but usually it is frustrated by your own desires, your own longings, and your own sinful passions. See, Paul is just being honest. He saying I want to do good, I really do. But I don’t seem to do it. And I want to avoid the evil. I want to walk a more faithful walk. But I keep wandering off the narrow path.
He is honest. If a Christian cannot be honest about his struggles, failures, and sins in this life then there is only one other option – he will tell lies. And it turns out, we are really good at telling lies. So good, in fact, that we begin to believe our own lies. We think that by our lies we will somehow work this all out for our own good.
On the one hand, we begin to tell lies about the Law of God. About His decrees and commandments, about how He has called His children to live in this world. As you struggle with your sinfulness, it is easy to say things about the Law that are not true. Things that we want to be true because they would calm our minds and give us some control over ourselves. Perhaps you might say that the Law is somehow wicked or evil. It is just a tool of the Devil, used to make you feel bad and control you with guilt. So then, we begin to try and silence the Law, to ridicule it and declare that it has no purpose in the life of a Christian. After all, we are free in Christ; what good is it to bring up the Law again? But Paul won’t let us get away with this. He calls out that lie by saying, “We know that the law is spiritual.” We know that the Law of God is a Spirit-filled, holy thing that our God has given. And He didn’t give it for our death or our guilt and punishment, but for life.
On the other hand, we might try and lie about the Gospel. If the Law is the command and the decrees of our God, if it is the eternal measuring stick for what is good and what is evil, then the Gospel is the gift of grace delivers salvation through Christ alone. So, if the Law says to you, “do this,” or, “don’t do that,” then the Gospel says, “Believe in Christ and everything is already done for you.” You are declared to be free in Christ alone. But when you look at your life you see the struggle, you see the battle within. You say, “Well I can’t avoid the evil I’m supposed to be free from and I can’t do the good that I want to do in Christ,” so you conclude that the Gospel isn’t enough. The Gospel hasn’t really set you free. Perhaps it got your started down the right track, but now it’s up to you to see things through, to finally live as you were meant to live. You ask, “What must I do to be saved?” And the answer you are looking for is something that lies in your own hands or something that you can do for yourself: for Christ isn’t enough. But the very blood of Christ denounces this lie. For if you could secure your holiness, why did He die?
Now whether you are lying about the Gospel and its inability to produce Christian people or you are lying about the Law as a Spirit-filled gift of God, the truth of the matter is you are lying about yourself. You are lying about who you are. For as we struggle to live a life of faith, we find this war going on within ourselves. We begin to wrestle with who we really are. Are you a saint of God; one who is free from the Law and its demands? Or are you a sinner; one who needs that Word of God to guide and instruct you and bring you to your knees in repentance? And so, this is where the honest part comes in. Who, exactly, are you?
If we take our cue from St. Paul (and I think that is probably a good idea) you are not a saint or a sinner, but both. You are both a saint and a sinner at the same time. When Paul talks about himself he sees himself as he really is. He says, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 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.” (Romans 7:21-23) He is a sinner, a sinner who daily needs to be brought to his knees in repentance. Yet he is a saint, a child of God who delights in the Law and longs to do it.
This, then, is who you are as well. You are saints and sinners at the same time. You are sinners: you fail to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. You do not treat others as you would have them treat you. There are those you’ve hurt and those you’ve failed to help. You are sinner deserving of the wrath of God. But in Christ, you are saints. You are heirs of all the blessings of eternal life. You are promised a crown of righteousness and a seat at the heavenly banquet of our Lord. This is yours, not by your work, not by your effort, but by Christ who bore your sins to the cross and died for each and every one of them. But that sinner hasn’t been completely destroyed. He may have been drowned it he waters of baptism, but we learn that he is a good swimmer.
This is the crazy struggle of the Christian life. This is the tension that you live with each and every day. You live in this middle time; a time between the death and resurrection of Christ and the return of our Lord in victory. And in this time, you find a war being waged inside of you. It is a battle of eternal promise and present temptation, a tug of war between the saint and the sinner. And so, St. Paul’s cry becomes your cry. You put down the lies and lament to your God and say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of Death?”
The answer doesn’t come from within yourself. The solution to the saint and sinner never rests in our own being, but in Christ alone. So, Paul says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Thanks be to God that this battle will not go on forever. Thanks be to God that you are not lost to the sinner in your flesh. Thanks be to God that you have a champion that will come to deliver you from death and eternal destruction. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
For the promise made to you is that upon the return of your Lord you will see the saint He has already declared you to be. The sinner will finally be done away with. This is who you are – you are the forgiven, the redeemed, the saints and sinners of today who our Lord will welcome as holy saints in the new heavens and new earth.