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July 9, 2017

  

  

7.9.17                              Pentecost 5                    - Romans 7:14-25 ESV

14For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but 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. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

HOW TO WIN THE WAR WITHIN
 
Like him or not, President Trump gave a speech in Poland on Thursday where he applauded the Polish people for rising up against the oppressive forces of Communism with the rallying cry, “We want God!”  He indicated that it will take the same kind of resolve to overcome radical Islamic terrorism.  Or else western civilization as we know it - the economic, political, religious values and virtues we celebrated during the Fourth of July holiday this past Tuesday - may be lost.  The president was determined that together Europe and America will prevail. 
 
I hope so, I pray so, for the sake of the Christian Church, but I know so very well that there is another war we are fighting as Christians.  And it’s an internal war every bit as difficult to win as the external war on terrorism.  It’s a spiritual conflict identified by asking yourself the question:  What’s your problem?  Honest self-analysis may reveal: Temper?  Impatience?  Pride?  Lying?  Gossip?  Greed?  Lust?  Envy?  Everyone has skeletons rattling around inside, and they don’t always stay in the closet.  We want to do the right thing, but so often we do the wrong thing with hardly a fight.  It’s almost like we’ve got a split personality.  The tug of war between good and evil rages within. 
 
Well, perhaps surprisingly St. Paul admits he had the same problem in his epistle to the Romans.  That’s right, this great Christian missionary who wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, who experienced such a dramatic conversion, who relentlessly proclaimed the good news of Jesus in the face of severe opposition, who suffered many trials and tribulations, even martyrdom as a result – this amazing hero of faith confesses that he struggled with sin every day.  And yet he can tell us HOW TO WIN THE WAR WITHIN.  Let’s dig in and learn how.
 
Paul has made a thorough case for the gospel in the first part of Romans.  He has shown that everyone should know there is a powerful and personal God from the creation of the world and the conscience in their mind.  And yet, corrupted by bad choices people have denied the true God and turned to idols made in their own image, so that they can indulge the deeds of the flesh.  God gave the law to teach them how to live in righteousness, but instead it showed them how far they had fallen from holiness.  Nonetheless, God promised to save them by grace through faith in Christ Jesus who redeemed them by His perfect sacrifice so they can be freely and fully forgiven. 
 
Then Paul has to answer the charge of his critics that he is preaching cheap grace - that if salvation is a gift, people will just go and sin away willy-nilly like they’ve got a blank pre-paid check.  No, Paul insists, those who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ are dead to sin, alive to God.  He goes further, comparing it to slavery – if you’re released from the slavery of sin you become a servant of righteousness.  You want to do what pleases the Lord out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for you.  And yet sinful pride is so stubborn that it wants to take credit for being a good person, better than so and so (and you can always find a so-and-so you’re better than).  Even though Paul has demonstrated that the commandments aren’t just about trying not to be so bad – they actually forbid even thinking about doing the wrong thing.  It’s an attitudinal problem.  He uses the example of coveting in the preceding verses, just wanting what you shouldn’t have is like scheming to get it. 
 
So now Paul is on the horns of a dilemma. If the law is so good, why do so many bad things still happen?  And more specifically, why do Christians who should know better, who know what Jesus has done for them, why do we still struggle with sin so much?  Ah, now we come to the issue before us: How to win the war within. 
 
Paul reminds us of our dual nature: we are physical and spiritual.  He keeps it simple: flesh and spirit, or body and mind.  And he admits: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And he laments: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”  I memorized that verse in the King James: “The good that I would I do not but the evil that I would not that I do.”  That’s the tongue-twister version, but it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  We all experience the frustration of knowing what we ought to do as Christians but failing to do it.  It’s a vicious cycle.  We may start the day with good intentions, perhaps even a prayer for blessing, but in no time we hit a snag – something/someone irritates us, a sticky situation confronts us, a juicy temptation entices us.  We know better, we shouldn’t let those things get in the way of our Christian walk, but no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to avoid the pitfalls.  We blow it, we mess up, and we wind up all tied up in knots again, like a prisoner sin.  As the coach of a losing team said in a locker room speech: “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” 
 
In our more serious moments we wonder how we can get out of this predicament.  If we are Christians, we start second-guessing ourselves, beating up on ourselves, why can’t we lick this problem?  We might as well be honest – the new life in Christ is not a snap, not easy.  Saved by grace, justified by faith, forgiven by Christ – yes, but, we’re still sinners after we believe this.  The sinful nature we’re born with clings to us for the rest of our lives.  The fact is, by ourselves, we can’t get rid of it as simply as changing clothes.  Knowing the rules, golden or otherwise, doesn’t make us able to obey them.  It’s like a wet paint sign – you want to touch it to find out.  Then you wipe it off on yourself so everyone can see.  Playing with fire, experimenting with evil may result in becoming addicted to it, then denying it, as we know from tragic examples.  And yet we keep falling into the same old traps set before us because the Old Adam in us keeps trying to trip us up.  The new Christ in us wants to dodge the landmines, even helps navigate around them, but then one careless misstep, and – Boom!   It explodes in our face again.  There’s no such thing as peaceful coexistence between these two diametrically opposed forces within us.  Consequently, a Christian is a bundle of contradictions, a walking civil war. 

 

Acutely, painfully aware of this, Paul accuses himself: “Wretched man that I am!”  And he cries out: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Have you been there?  Rock bottom, so depressing - but that’s not the end.  He quickly answers his own rhetorical question:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’  There’s the answer, the victory – that’s how to win the war within.  And we could stop there, where the lesson for this Sunday does, but there’s more, so much more, we need to read the rest of the story as Paul goes on in Romans chapter 8: 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Did you hear that?  Sounds a bit redundant perhaps, but it’s for emphasis.  So profound, but basically it means: You’re not condemned for being a weak Christian.  In Christ Jesus you are set free.  And He gives you the Spirit of life to live for Him, willing and able to do what pleases God.  The Spirit is not just an abstract concept, sort of an impersonal “Star Wars Force be with you” – He is a real Person, the Holy Spirit of God.  Your body is His temple, Scripture says, because He lives in you, He dwells in you, literally, He’s made His home in you. 
 
Oh, the contest between our sinful flesh and our Christian spirit is a fact of life in this broken world.  That’s why we don’t always live up to our high calling as the people of God, sad to say.  But by God’s grace we will see progress, and when we fail, Jesus will give rest to our souls.  It will take more than inspiring speeches to defeat terrorism in the world.  However, with the Spirit of Christ we know how to win the war within.  And that’s where it’s got to start.  
 
So let us pray with the psalm-writer (Psalm 51): “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”  Amen.