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Following in the footsteps of his sea-captain father, he was tossed out of the British Royal Navy for his rebellious ways. He ended up in West Africa working for a slave trader where he was basically enslaved and violently mistreated. One chronicler described him as “a wretched looking man toiling in a plantation of lemon trees in the Island of Plantains . . . clothes had become rags, no shelter and begging for unhealthy roots to assuage his hunger.”
Escaping the island in 1747, he was washed overboard while drunk in a violent storm. He was saved only when another sailor harpooned him and pulled him back aboard! It was that near-death experience, and the lingering message of Thomas á Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, that turned him to God. Though a Christian, he continued for another six years as the captain of a slave ship, a practice he then gave up and ultimately crusaded against. He went back to England and entered the pastoral ministry, becoming well-known for his preaching and his hymns.
Of course, I’m referring to John Newton, the well-known author of perhaps the most famous hymn in Christendom, Amazing Grace. In it, of course, he writes, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” And although some have attempted to smooth over the use of that word (wretch), no one knows better than Newton what a wretch had been found by God’s amazing grace. As William Kruidenier writes in his commentary on Romans, “To downplay the wretchedness of the one found is surely to diminish the amazingness of the grace that seeks and finds.”
Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 7. This is a wake-up call for anybody who thinks that the Christian life is all sweetness and light. As John Newton and the Apostle Paul both testify, it’s a life of victory; but it’s a victory won out of conflict. It’s the ability to conform the hand (the “what I do” part) with the heart (the “what I want to do” part). It’s all part of the tension of the “now, but not yet” that’s so characteristic of the Christian life. We’re freed from sin (Chapter 6), yet we still have to wrestle with sin’s unrelenting presence (Chapter 7). One day the conflict will cease. But for now, it’s a moment-by-moment rescue that’s realized when we call upon Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul has just argued (in Chapter 6) that we’re no longer slaves to sin because we’ve been “righteousized”, we’ve been made right by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – that in some sense we’ve died to sin with Jesus and since dead people don’t sin we’re free to choose our master. But, once again, Paul anticipates his audience’s argument (and ours) and here it is:
“Hey, Paul, see if I’m following you correctly here. You’re saying that I’m made right before God – my acceptance, my standing, my position before a holy and righteous God – is not because of anything I’ve done, am doing, will do, or even anything that I possess. Rather, my salvation, my rescue from sin and guilt and shame, my peace with God is due to the shear grace and love of God, which is fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and has been gifted to me, imputed to my account, and poured out upon me freely. And all of this is done by trusting Jesus, by placing faith in Jesus?”
And Paul says, “You got it.” And then here’s the argument that Paul anticipates: “So what’s the point of the law? Is the law sinful? Is the law bad? If, as you say, righteousness is from God via Jesus, then why did God give us the 10 Commandments? And a follow-up question, what are we supposed to do with the law now? Do we ignore it? If we do, aren’t we ignoring God’s will and God’s character? If we don’t ignore it, and we try to obey it, aren’t we denying righteousness by grace through faith? Help me out, Paul?”
That’s where we are and here’s what God, by way of the Apostle Paul, through the super-intention of the Holy Spirit has to say:
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 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. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Today, the first argument that Paul wants to make is that the law is good and spiritual.
The Law Is Good and Spiritual
All along the way, Paul has argued passionately against justification by works of the Law. We aren’t “made right,” we aren’t righteousized with God by law-keeping, but by faith alone. And in the process, he even seemed to say that the Law is part of our problem.
For example, in Romans 3:20 Paul says, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in [God’s] sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” Or, in Romans 3:28 he says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” And, even more shockingly, in Romans 5:20 he writes, “The Law came in [God gave the Law at Mount Sinai] so that the transgression would increase.” That almost makes the Law sound like an accomplice to sin.
In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that if you want to bear fruit for God – that is, if you want to be sanctified as well as justified – you have to die to the Law. Romans 7:4 says, “Therefore, my brothers, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” You can’t bear fruit for God if you don’t die to the Law. Law-keeping is not the first and decisive way to bear fruit for God. Being joined to the risen Christ is the first and decisive way to bear fruit for God.
So, the huge question that Paul has to answer is stated in Romans 7:7, “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?” Or, a little differently in verse 13, “Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me?” Here are two huge questions raised by Paul’s gospel of justification by faith apart from works of the law: Is the law sin? and Does the law cause death?
If the answer to these two questions is “yes” . . . if the law is sin and causes death, then Paul knows that his gospel is undermined. Paul knows there’s no future for a gospel that turns the law of God into sin and death. So, with all his might in verses 7 and 13 Paul says, No! “May it never be!” “By no means!” The law is not sin; sin exploits the law and uses it.
At least three times Paul makes this point. Verse 14: “The Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh.” Verse 16: “If I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.” Verse 22: “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.” The law is holy. The law is just. The law is good. It’s not the law that causes death; it’s sin that causes death, but sin uses the law to accomplish this.
So, Paul’s purpose for writing Romans 7:7-25 is to explain and defend that answer. Don’t miss this. It’s all about justification by faith and sanctification by faith. If these two foundational doctrines imply that the law of God is sin and causes death, they are doomed and cannot be true. And Paul concludes that the Law is not sinful and deadly, rather I’m sinful, and my sin is deadly.
As a result . . . God, in His mercy, has made His righteousness available for us another way, apart from the Law (3:21), namely through Jesus Christ His Son. For us to be righteousized or “made righteous” we must turn from our law-keeping to Christ’s law-keeping. We must receive Christ as our treasure, and be declared righteous because of our union with Him by faith, not because of any righteousness in us. That’s how we are declared perfectly righteous before God. But the Law is not sinful. In fact, it’s good and spiritual. That’s the first point.
This naturally leads to the next question: “Okay, I’ve surrendered my life to Jesus, I’ve died to sin, I’ve died to the law, the law is good and spiritual, then why do I still struggle?” And Paul’s second argument is for the reality of what he calls “indwelling sin.”
Indwelling Sin Is the Culprit
This is Paul’s way of explaining why Christians – although free from the dominion and rule and reign of sin (Chapter 6) and free to choose our master – don’t always make the right choice. On the one hand he’s arguing that the Law is good, and on the other hand that indwelling sin is the culprit in the Christian life.
This is the section of Romans 7 that’s so familiar to us, and Paul uses himself as the subject. Look back at verses 15-20, “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For 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. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
Let me say immediately that I do not – nor does Paul – suggest that we should settle in and coast with worldly living and a defeatist mentality. We should not make peace with our sin; we should make war on our sin. Defeat is not the main experience of the Christian life. But it is part of it. I like what J. I. Packer had to say about this many years ago. He said:
“Paul is not telling us that the life of the ‘wretched man’ is as bad as it could be, only that it is not as good as it should be, and that because the man delights in the law and longs to keep it perfectly his continued inability to do so troubles him acutely. . . The ‘wretched man’ is Paul himself, spontaneously voicing his distress at not being a better Christian than he is, and all that we know of Paul personally fits in with this supposition.”
So, I think what Paul is saying is not that Christians live in continual defeat, but that no Christian lives in continual victory. And in those moments and times when we fail to triumph over sin, Romans 7:14-25 is the normal way a healthy Christian should respond. The healthy believer should say,
- I love the Law of God. Verse 22: “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.”
- I hate what I just did. Verse 15: “I am doing the very thing I hate.”
- I long for deliverance from this body that constantly threatens to kill me. Verse 24: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death?”
Nobody should want to live this way or, dare I say, even settle to live this way. That’s not the point. The point is, when you do live this way, this is the Christian response. No lying. No hypocrisy. No posing. No vaunted perfectionism. Lord, deliver us from a church like that – with its pasted smiles, and chipper superficiality, and blindness to our own failures, and consequent quickness to judge others. God give us the honesty and candor and humility of the apostle Paul. Romans 7 is part of the Christian experience. It’s not ideal, but it’s real.
So, Paul’s answer is that the Christian loves the Law of God, the Christian esteems the Law of God, the Christian delights in the Law of God, he/she concurs with it, regards it as good, and does not blame the Law for his/her own failures. Instead the Christian admits (and here’s a crucial and practical teaching) that there is in all of us, as long as this fallen age lasts and we live on the earth, the reality of “indwelling sin.”
Another way of looking at it is like this. The Law doesn’t cause our defeats, the Law defines our victories. It’s indwelling sin that causes our defeats. And Paul is very jealous in chapters 6-8 that we not overstate or understate the measure of holiness possible in this fallen age where Christians are delivered from the dominion of sin and yet groan awaiting the full redemption of our bodies and the “law of sin” connected with them.
So, number one, the Law is good and spiritual. Number two, indwelling sin is the culprit. Finally, Paul argues for genuine Christianity. He’s a new man, a new creature in Christ, even though he still sins.
A Genuine Christian Life
For example, he says in Romans 7:22-23: “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.” I’ve been changed. There’s a new spiritual taste for God and His law in me. I’m a Christian. I’m a believer. And my growth in this new spiritual life will come in stages.
Look at verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This isn’t Paul’s victory cry proving that he’s moved to a new, triumphant kind of life above the battles and losses of Romans 7. Instead, this is a shout of hope – followed by a sober, realistic summary of everything we’ve seen, namely that Paul, the Christian, is both a new man and an old man. He’s both indwelt by the Spirit and harassed by the flesh. He’s freed from the dominion of sin and indwelt by remaining corruption. This will be his lot until he dies or until Christ comes. And it reflects the reality of your Christian journey too. This is what a genuine Christian life looks like.
Paul is not describing a life that only has failure, or only has success. Paul’s point is not how successful he is, or how often he is triumphant or defeated. He’s only saying that these two realities exist in him, and that’s why he and other Christians aren’t perfect. So, the question is: How are we to live in view of this double truth about ourselves? And the answer comes from watching the amazing way that Paul speaks to us about our deliverance and our newness in Christ.
What he does again and again is to say: This new man, this new woman is who you decisively and irrevocably are in Christ. This free man, this free woman is your deepest and truest identity. Now act on it. Look to Christ, trust His help, and by His Spirit become what you are.
If your besetting sin is anger, then affirm that in Christ you have died to that identity and in Christ you have His patience and kindness. Look to Him and trust in Him and rejoice in Him. And fight against anger as one who has the victory in Him.
If your besetting sin is heterosexual or homosexual lust, then affirm that in Christ you have died to this fallen and distorted identity. I have a dear friend who has struggled almost his entire life with same sex attraction as a result of sexual abuse when he was a very young boy. He never gets tired of saying, “Do not say ‘I am a homosexual.’” Say rather, “I struggle with homosexual desires.” That’s not a superficial mind over matter trick. It’s a profound Biblical insight into Romans 6 and 7. In Christ our old selves have died – whatever their distortion and corruption – and we are decisively and irrevocably new. In Christ Jesus the homosexual, the fornicator, the adulterer, the covetous, the thief, the alcoholic, are not who we truly are. Affirm that by faith in Christ. Trust Him as your all-satisfying treasure and look to Him for the help to become (as much as possible in this life) who you truly are in Christ.
Let me conclude with another story about a hymn writer. Charlotte Elliott was born on March 18, 1789 in Brighton, England. Her maternal grandfather was Rev. Henry Venn, an evangelical minister in the Church of England that helped to bring about “The Great Awakening.” (By the way, if his last name sounds familiar it’s because his great-grandson is responsible for something in logic called the Venn diagram. See, y’all learn all kinds of free trivia when you come to church.)
Charlotte’s childhood was passed in a circle of great refinement and piety. She was highly educated. She developed a great passion for music and art. And at an early age she became aware of her sinful nature and of her need to resist sin’s enticements. (Exactly what Paul talks about here in Romans 7.) She felt unworthy of God’s grace and she knew she couldn’t face a righteous and perfect God. She was continuously told by different pastors at the many churches that she visited to pray more, study the Bible more and to perform more noble deeds.
It was about this time, when she was 32, that the Rev. Dr. Cesar Malan of Geneva, visited her parent’s house and asked her whether she was at peace with God – a question she resented at the time and refused to talk about. However, a few days later she called Dr. Malan and apologized, saying she wanted to cleanse her life before becoming a Christian. Dr. Malan answered, “Come just as you are,” and she committed her life to Christ that day.
Twelve years later, reflecting on her conflicts and doubts, she remembered those words from Dr. Malan and she penned a song titled Just as I Am. There was no way Charlotte Elliott could’ve known, but almost 100 years to the date of writing that song a 16-year old teenager would respond to the call of God upon His heart at a revival where her song was being played at the conclusion of the service. That young boy would grow up to be one of the world’s greatest evangelists, Dr. Billy Graham.
Charlotte Elliott’s life reflected what the Apostle Paul described in Romans 7, and it led her to pen a song that God used to call another great evangelist to spread His gospel. In fact, that song spoke to Billy’s heart so much that his team used it in almost every one of their crusades. Rev. Graham said it presented “the strongest possible Biblical basis for the call of Christ.” And he even used the song title as the title to his autobiography.
As we conclude our worship this morning, stand with me as we sing Just as I Am.