Theme: How God Takes Care of Your Greatest Need
1. He tells you the truth about your situation
2. He accomplishes what you could not
I will praise You, O LORD, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works.” Psalm 9:1
Let’s play a round of “funny or annoying.” It’s just how it sounds. I say something and you think to yourself whether it’s funny or annoying. Ready? Blonde jokes. The super intense body-building guy at the gym who takes everything so seriously but really is only intent on checking himself out in the mirrors. That parent who always has his go-to joke, which you’ve heard 15 times. That person at work who plays really nice in front of the boss but is lazy and mean with everyone else. Chances are, even with just those few examples, we are going to answer differently. Some things in life are utterly hilarious to one person while at the same time completely annoying to someone else. We’re all different.
How about when it comes to the phrase, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” I’m sure you’ve heard it before; probably even used it before. Is it funny or annoying? Perhaps both. To the person who is doing it or saying it, it’s probably funny. To the person who’s being acted upon, it’s most definitely annoying.
Here’s a tougher question though. Is that phrase true? Is it actually easier to ask forgiveness than permission? Simplistically, yes. Getting permission for something is usually a headache. Think of a teen with their parents or a young entrepreneur with investors. Sometimes, a great idea to you takes a lot of convincing for someone else. Why not bypass the permission step and just do it? Surely, in many instances in life, that is a very attractive idea.
But, realistically, it’s not actually true. If we’re talking about true forgiveness, the kind that means something and doesn’t just sound good, it doesn’t work if we ignore obedience at the same time. We explored this idea a bit last weekend as we talked about hypocrisy. Is there a greater example of hypocrisy than a Christian who exalts the forgiveness of Christ yet ignores the boundaries of permission in God’s Word? James tells us that that kind of attitude really isn’t true faith in Christ, because “faith without works is dead.” That’s kind of a no-brainer right, faith that is hypocritical is not truly faith.
Then, what of sin? What about the main issue we all face, even though we confess faith in Jesus? How are we proven to be more than hypocrites? We wrestle with that theme in our text today from Romans 7:13-18, as we take part two of our series on the Heritage of our Fathers. We see today the great need we have before God and what He has done to take care of it:
Romans 7:13-18 Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.
When most people think of God taking care of our needs, they immediately jump to the supernatural. They think of God’s aid as something as simple as snapping His fingers and doing whatever He pleases. Along with this notion comes a lot of pent up bitterness against God. After all, if He is able to accomplish anything why doesn’t He help everyone, exactly in their moment of need? Why all the pain, struggle, hostility, and unfairness that we witness in the world? God should be able to just wipe all that away.
It’s true that God could do that. In some ways, God has used the miraculous to accomplish His will. He has stepped beyond the limits of natural law and affected the outcome of events. But, those situations are really the outliers of how God normally operates and even when they happen, there is always a bigger goal on the horizon. Many of the miracles in the Bible were done, not so much because they were noble and right on their own, but that they served a greater purpose in the long run, often to confirm or protect the promise of a Savior in Jesus. Now that Jesus has come and salvation is fully accomplished, God doesn’t have as much of a need to go beyond the realm of our reason, though He certainly can.
I believe that one of the reasons that God often doesn’t just snap His fingers to solve mankind’s problems is because He wants us to be aware of what He is doing. He could choose to simply operate on a plane above our understanding. We would never know what’s going on and God would control everything, like a puppet master behind the scenes. But, this would not be very fulfilling for our relationship with God. God wants us to discern His will. He wants us to learn. He wants us to understand what we can about Him, until we reach heaven and we no longer have any limits on our understanding. And so, God condescends, if you will, His will to us. He helps us see.
We see this as the first part of looking at our great need. God is honest to us about the truth of the situation, and with that honesty will come struggle. Our text begins with Paul talking about how the Law of God is good in our lives. We don’t often think of the Law as good because it has a condemning message because of our sins. In fact, it’s the opposite of the Law, the gospel, that literally means “good news.” But Paul is pointing out the Law’s usefulness in our lives and in that sense it is good. Essentially, the Law tells us the glaring truth about who we are. Paul goes on in verse 13 that this Law, which is good, helps us to understand sin to be “exceedingly sinful.”
This phrase is a bit jumbled. What could Paul mean by saying that sin becomes exceedingly sinful?
Think of it as knowing something “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” The Law’s purpose is that we would know exactly what sin is. People naturally have different feelings and opinions about everything in life, just as we mentioned before. God knows this and He knows it will be that way when it comes to discerning His will too. That’s one reason He has given us His Law – to know without mistake what is good and what is bad, or to put it another way, to know what is sinful. Even when it comes to sin itself, God wants you to know it is exceedingly (without a doubt) sinful.
Earlier in verse 13 Paul also said that the Law does its job so that sin might “appear” sinful; literally so that sin would be exposed for what it is. “Appear” means to illuminate something, to shine to light on it and make it known. God removes all “shadows of doubt” through the Law. We know what is right and what is wrong, so long as we use the Law in truth. I hope you see the importance of this. We know how easy it is to make God’s Word say something it doesn’t. People regularly adjust the boundaries of the Law so that it no longer shines the light on that which God has called sinful. Imagine someone who changed the parameters of a ship navigator’s instruments. By themselves, the instruments would still work, but they would lead to a much different destination, even if one or two degrees were changed in a long journey. The same holds true with God’s Law. Change it ever so slightly, just one or two degrees, and it has drastic consequences on your destination. It will start to condemn things which God does not, or it will no longer condemn something which God does.
Okay, so we see how we should be using God’s Law. But, here’s exactly where Paul describes the next problem, we are carnal humans trying to use the spiritual Law. That’s like trying to use that navigation equipment with no training. In addition to being carnal (think physical, mortal) we are also sold to sin. We are slaves of the devil. We have no claim to our own personal freedom. It’s like having the antidote for a deadly disease right in front of you but not knowing how to open to the bottle. So is our struggle with sin. We see the Law, we understand the Law, but we can’t accomplish it on our own.
No wonder Paul says in the very next verse that he has no idea what he is doing. What Paul is describing is what we often refer to as the struggle between old man and the new man. Christians have both within their hearts. The old man is the sinful flesh that keeps us bound to sin, both the sins we have inherited from our parents that the sins we commit daily. It is an enemy that we can’t even detect on our own, let alone conquer. But, God tells us in our text, the Law is meant to bring that sin to light, to expose it, to show it as “exceedingly sinful.” But, what do we do with this tremendous gift? We fumble around with it, we misuse it, we ignore it, we reject it. And all the time, we know we’re doing this.
And yet, in the same moment, we are forgiven and renewed in Christ. We are given the new man, the life of faith. We are truly able to serve God in righteousness and holiness. Our acts are counted as worthy before God, as if Christ Himself were doing them because it is Christ who works in us. As chaotic as it sounds, the Christian life on this earth is one where these two extremes exist side-by-side. We are in a constant battle between the old and the new. To the world, this makes no sense. Paul’s personal confession here sounds ignorant at best, psychotic and schizophrenic at worst.
Here’s where we come back to our phrase from the opening. Does the reality of the old man make Christians hypocrites? Are we simply running around telling others what to do all the time while we just ask forgiveness from God? Does a trust in the Gospel forego the desire for obedience? These are questions we should genuinely wrestle with because they show we care about our beliefs. But, they are also accusations leveled against justification by Christ. It was this very thing that caused many to reject the Reformers during the time of Luther. These individuals had discovered this profoundly simple truth – that God forgives sinners by His grace alone. Yet, many rejected such a thought because it didn’t make sense to them. In their minds, Christians would then ignore the Law of God, forget about trying to be obedient, and just use forgiveness as an excuse to do anything. To them, there would be no way to control the people any longer.
And right there, in their own position, they show their biggest mistake. The work of the Church is not about controlling others, it’s about sharing the simple truth. Leave the work of conversion and regeneration to the Holy Spirit. And when we start with the truth, we start where Paul did – at our need. Whether we want to believe in God’s grace or man’s work, one thing we cannot deny is that we have a great need. We suffer because of sin. We struggle with the old man. Paul took the time to point out these basics truths, not to confuse us, but to set us off on the right track. If this struggle is real for you, if you are aware of it, if you seek relief from it, then it proves that you care about more than just asking forgiveness. No one who ignores their sins thinks about the need for obedience. On the other hand, those who are plagued with despair because of sin are pressed down precisely because they desire to obey, but cannot. They suffer the same as Paul, and the hope is that they are restored the same as Paul.
On the surface of our text it may not seem like it, but accomplishment is a major theme. Verses 13,15, and 17 all use the exact same word, which means to achieve something.
Verse 13: But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me…
Verse 15: For what I will to do, that I do not practice…
Verse 17: But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me
In each verse Paul speaks about what is being done in his life, but in each case he is helpless. Sin accomplishes death through the Law. He wills to accomplish what is right but can’t. Sin accomplishes what he hates. This is the crazy, psychotic cycle of sin. This is how Paul describes the inner battle; the same struggle we all endure. No wonder that Paul exclaims in verse 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? His next words provide the answer: “I thank God – through Jesus Christ, our Lord!”
Jesus is the one who has accomplished what we could not. As the Father promised, so Jesus delivered, as One who “redeemed those under the law.” Paul reminded the Galatians of the cost, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree ") (Galatians 3:13). The Law is good because it continues to point us to obedience. It does not relax the importance of God’s commands. Yet, God, through sending His Son to earth, has made a way possible for salvation that does not rest with us accomplishing the Law. We continue to use it to expose, to illuminate the truth, but not to be saved. For that, we look alone to Jesus, who loved us and gave His life for us.
Today, we struggle internally with this battle between the old man and the new man. But, tough as it may be, not all battles are without purpose. Our great need reminds us that we are not fools. We are not simply seeking forgiveness at the expense of obedience. We do not take the easy way out. For our great need gives way to our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He suffered the divine wrath for our sins. His difficult, nay impossible for us path, makes life eternal easy for us. But, lest we forget, let us always remember and treasure the great cost of our need; the debt our Savior paid by His grace. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.