No audio recording is available for today’s sermon.
Romans 7 is a very difficult chapter. Paul begins with some strange stuff about being married to the law and then sort of mixes the metaphor up half way through. Then he has some very complex stuff in which he seems to tie himself in knots about whether or not the Law is good or bad. To begin to understand this chapter we need to grasp what Paul means by a whole range of words: Law, spiritual, flesh, unspiritual and so on. Romans 7 is a chapter full of problems.
And yet despite all the problems when we read v 18 & 19 “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.” We know that Paul is onto something he is describing how we live our actual day to day experience of the struggles we have.
Think of the Pharisees who brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. They caught this woman infalgranti delicto with her lover, stripped her to the waist and hauled her before Jesus demanding that she be stoned as prescribed by the law. They were seeking nothing less than the total absolute humiliation of Jesus. What should He do? Forgive the woman and so undermine the Law, or should He have her stoned and so undermine His whole ministry of forgiveness? We all know Jesus answer; that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone…” and one by one, the oldest first, the Pharisees drifted away.
It was good that these men recognised their guilt; but should they also not have got down on their hands and knees and sought the forgiveness of the woman they had humiliated and the Lord they had sought to destroy? As they walked away from Jesus their consciences burned, burned over the guilt Jesus had uncovered in their hearts, burned over the wrong they had done to Christ and the woman. But their hearts would also have burned with rage at the way in which Jesus had thwarted and humiliated them. But they would rather live with a tormented conscience and nurse their rage than humble themselves before Christ or that woman. That is where we all are. The Pharisees were genuinely concerned about morality and integrity but they would have to confess with Paul “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.”
This raises the question that Paul analyses in great depth here in Romans 7; if we are perverse in this way of what good to us are the Ten Commandments and moral teaching like the Sermon on the Mount? If we know the right thing to do but do the opposite why have the Ten Commandments, why bother with the Sermon on the Mount?
To this question Paul gives a most profound and searching answer; in essence he writes that reading the Ten Commandments or studying the Sermon on the Mount is like going to the doctor. You are feeling unwell, what my father used to call grieshach, you are out of sorts, you know something is wrong, you have odd aches and pains, you do not have the strength you had but you are at a loss to know what it is. Before the cancer I had was diagnosed I used feel there was something down on my left hand side nothing to complain about nothing I could go to the doctor with but occasionally I could feel there was something there. I used to have days when I just wanted to leave everything and escape to a desert island far away from everybody and everything.
Now you go to the doctor and you explain all these things and as one doctor said to me being a doctor is like being a detective, the doctor listens to what you have to say, examines you, follows the clues, and carries out some tests and then comes to a conclusion as to what is wrong with you.
Now says Paul that is the role the Law, the great commandments have in our lives they diagnose what is wrong with us spiritually.
I am sure that in the days when Israel was held in bondage the bondage of slavery in Egypt, there were many, many occasions when the Israelites envied the gods of their masters the Egyptians; after all these gods made Egypt the most powerful nation on earth. She would have admired the religious festivals the Egyptians observed, the elaborate ritual, the wonderful robes and power of the priests and no doubt on many occasions some Israelites would have taken things a step further and actually begun to worship these gods. In many ways such Israelites would not have known what they were doing they were just going along with the times.
However after God dramatically humbled Pharaoh, destroyed his armies and led the people to freedom when the people persuaded Aaron to make the golden calf and they all gathered round and worshipped it when Moses confronted them the Law he had just received from God diagnosed the situation immediately the people were idolaters; they were violating the first two commandments. The commandments that were given to lead them in the true worship of God now diagnosed what was wrong in their lives.
Paul writes that personally he had a similar experience. As he grew older he realised that a whole lot of different desires raged within him. He was gifted and he coveted the highest offices in the land ; he desired the power and the prestige such offices held. With such positions of power went wealth and luxurious homes. He was that every kind of desire was in him. Was he therefore also envious of the way some women were drawn to men of power and influence and he longed to have women fall at his feet. Certainly when we read the story of the stoning of Stephen in the book of Acts the power of life and death lay very easily on Paul’s shoulders and he thought it only right and proper that the common herd should spread their cloaks before him, better that there cloaks should be trampled on than his feet be muddied.
Then one day he got the shock of his life, as he was contemplating the great commandments, as he was doing some spiritual health check upon himself: worship no Gods but Jehovah – check, observe the Sabbath – check, honour your parents – check, don’t lie – check, don’t steal – check, don’t murder – Stephen was technically guilty of blaspheme so that does not matter so – check. Then do not covet your neighbour’s house. Do not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant or his ox or his ass or anything else that belongs to your neighbour and it was as though the doctor said that he was riddled with cancer he realised that far from being a good man he was a man consumed with envy, these corrupt desires ran through every part of him and corrupted his every thought. In that awful moment he realised that the commandments that he sought to observe and follow so that he would lead a life commendable to God actually diagnosed a deadly disease that infected every part of him.
Then it got worse; then it got really bad. Paul then realised that this covetousness was in fact itself a symptom of what he calls sin. Sin is not just breaking the commandments; sin is finding satisfaction in breaking the commandments. Sin is not merely that we do not turn the other cheek, sin is that smug feeling we get when we put someone in their place and then boast about it. Sin is performing some religious duty for applause and then lapping up the applause and the plaudits heaped upon us. For Paul sin was not just envying the positions of power and influence in Israel, sin was enjoying being God as he sentenced Stephen to death and then enjoying the adulation of the crowds afterwards. So Paul came to this devastating conclusion that not only did the great commandments teach him that he was a man riddled with covetousness that covetousness was so pervasive in his life that he coveted God’s throne.
This is the agony of the human soul that Paul describes here in Romans 7 we can read the great commandments, we can listen to the Sermon on the Mount and know that they are right, that our own lives, our families, our communities our nation the whole world would be a happier healthier place if we observed them. However the awful truth is that the Law instead of being our teacher as to the healthy way to live has become our doctor and gives us this devastating diagnosis of our condition; that our pleasure is found in breaking the Law and so though we can admire the Law with our minds in practice we live in completely different life. This is the misery of our condition.
In the text books on preaching they always say the preacher should apply the principles unearthed in the Scriptures. I am not sure that is always necessary. I am sure you have the imagination to make the connections between Paul’s experience and your own. I simply ask are you still in denial like the Pharisees who challenged Jesus with the woman caught in adultery or like Paul have you come to a sober assessment of your life and are you honest about this fearful disease that is in your soul?
But going to the doctor is not all bad news. When we visited the consultant who treated me, he began by saying you have two malignant tumours one here and one here is that clear then he said and this is what we are going to do about it and he got out his diary and set the date for surgery.
Thankfully after Romans 7 comes Romans 8; and Romans 8 describes life in the Spirit. Romans 8 describes all that God has done for us in Christ. Essentially in Christ God fulfils a promise He makes to mankind though the prophet Jeremiah; that He will form a new relationship with us not based upon the law but upon a Saviour; that he will be our God and deliver us from all that would threaten us, that He will reveal His glory to us, forgive all a our iniquities and write His love into our hearts and lives.
That is what we see at the cross; we are delivered from our enemies, the glory of God is there for us to see, we are forgiven and we are gripped by this strange love of Christ for His people.
At the cross we move from misery to ecstasy.