A sermon on Romans 7:7-25 by Richard Keith on Sunday 27 November 2022
The marathon was a race especially invented for the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. It celebrates the legend of Pheidippides, a soldier fighting for the Greeks at the battle of Marathon, who ran all the way from the site of the battle to Athens, a distance of about 40 km. According to the legend, Pheidippides ran all the way without stopping, throwing away all his weapons and clothes to run faster, burst into the Assembly, announced with a loud voice, “We have won”, and collapsed and died.
To commemorate that legendary effort the first Olympic Games at Athens staged a race from Marathon to Athens. Forty kilometres. Twenty five athletes travelled to the starting point, but eight of them had second thoughts and didn’t compete. Thirteen of the 17 starters were Greeks. One of the other four competitors was Edwin Flack, Australia’s first Olympian who had won the 1500 m race 3 days before and had won the 800 m race the day before.
Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux led from the start to the halfway point, but with the poor road, heat and uphill grade he staggered to a stop. He tried to resume but pulled out with 8 km to go. Edwin Flack then led but withdrew with exhaustion with only 3 km to go.
From then on the race was led by Greek runner Spyros Louis. Along the way Louis had stopped at an inn and had half an orange and a glass of cognac. When he ran into the stadium the crowd went wild to see a local athlete in the lead. Crown Prince Constantine and his brother Prince George jumped out of their seats and joined Louis in running the last lap. When he crossed the line first, the King of Greece went to him and congratulated him on his victory, and Louis was carried off to the dressing room. In fact, Greece would have won gold, silver and bronze in that first marathon if the third place getter, Spyridon Belokas, wasn’t disqualified for spending most of the race riding in a carriage.
That day in 1896 a new legend of marathon was born. A race that tests the competitors to their limits. That challenges their physical and mental powers to breaking point. An endurance race that isn’t won by the quickest, but by the one who keeps a steady pace to the end.
The marathon is a great image to describe the Christian life because following Christ isn’t easy. Like starting an endurance race the decision to accept Jesus as our Saviour and Lord is only the beginning of an experience that will test us from the outside and on the inside. It is a continuing struggle full of minor victories and setbacks that will often feel like taking two steps forward and one step back, if not one forward and then two back. And like a marathon the real victory in the Christian life is to keep going without giving up. Not to finish first, but to finish faithfully.
It is this continuing struggle of the Christian life that Paul talks about in Romans chapter 7. In chapter 7, verse 7, Paul asks the question,
Is the law sin?
It’s the last of a series of questions in chapters 6 and 7 of this letter that have been inspired by Paul’s critics. In chapter 6 verse 1, Paul asked,
Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Then in verse 15, he asked,
Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?
We can imagine Paul’s critics saying, “You are a bad man, Paul. You are lying to poor gullible people. You say we are not justified by the law. You say that we are saved by faith in Christ apart from the law. You are taking away the law, the only thing that makes people behave. What you are saying is not true?” Paul must answer these criticisms if people are going to take him seriously and believe that the good news of Jesus is true.
Is the law sin? The question poses the criticism that Paul’s teaching on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus and not by obedience to the law implies that the law is bad. That the law is sin. And we are familiar with unjust and stupid laws in everyday life. We can all probably think of a law that doesn’t make sense. But to say or to imply that God’s law is bad, that God’s law is stupid or unjust is a step too far. So Paul must answer the criticism. Does the gospel, does the good news of salvation in Jesus and not by works of the law, mean that the law is bad? Is the law sin?
Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law.
The law of God, Paul asserts, is the very opposite of sin. For the law is the expression of God’s will. Obedience to his law is the life that God has made us for. It is the fruit that he wants to harvest from our life. The law is not sin. Disobedience to the law is sin.
All of God’s law can be summarised in two laws. Love God first. And love your neighbour as yourself. So the law’s job is to teach us what love is, on the one hand, and what sin is, on the other. The law is like a powerful torch that shines its light into the dark places of our lives to show sin up for what it really is and to show us the way of obedience to the will of our creator. The law is holy, righteous and good. As Psalm 19 says,
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving he soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
Well if the law is so perfect, then why is Paul so adamant that salvation comes to us by grace apart from the law? We come to our second point. The problem of the law. And the problem of the law, the reason that it cannot save, the reason that the law of God does not lead to true and genuine obedience, is me. It’s you. It’s us.
Yes, the law of God is like a powerful torch, shining the bright light of its truth, lighting up the path to take that lies in front of us. It is like a power torch in the hands of someone who is lost in the bush with a broken leg. Yes, with the torch at night the walker can see the path that they should take. But because of their weakness, because of their injury, they cannot possibly take that path. They don’t need a torch. They need healing. They need rescuing.
So we find that in our lives there are two laws at work. Two opposing principles. There is the law of God, the principle of love, revealing his will in all its perfection. Calling us to obey. Condemning us for falling short. But there is also the law of sin, the principle of evil at work as well. Clouding our judgment so that we confuse what is good with what is just good for us. Undermining our motivation, so that even if we knew the good that we could and should do, we are afraid to do it. Or we simply just don’t want to.
There is, of course, one thing a torch can do for a walker lost in the bush with a broken leg. Shining it can attract help. It can lead them to the help they need. And so the law of God, perfect in itself, made weak by our weakness, not its own, can show us our need for Christ. Our need for his salvation. Our need for his healing. We are lost without him, but in him we are found. On our own we are weak, but in his arms we are strong. Left to ourselves, we neither can nor want to obey God’s will. But summoned to follow in the footsteps of Jesus we are given the ability and desire to go where he leads. Not that we ever do so perfectly, this side of heaven. Instead the salvation we find in Jesus, the healing we experience in heart and mind and soul, is only the beginning of a continuing struggle.
It is this struggle that Paul talks about in Romans chapter 7. But first of all I have to say, in the interests of full disclosure, that not everyone agrees with my interpretation of this chapter. I could, of course, drop a few big names who agree with me, some of which you might know, some of which might mean nothing to you except that I read a lot of books. And then there are a few names that disagree with me and then it would be just a battle of names. Not of wrestling with the truth.
On either side, most people agree that Paul is talking about his own experience. That when he says I, he means I. The people who disagree with me say that Paul is talking about his unconverted life in chapter 7, struggling with sin, only to be saved in Christ and to be led into the victorious life of a Christian led by the Spirit that he talks about in chapter 8.
I don’t think it is that simple. I think that Paul is talking about the continuing struggle of our converted Christian life in both chapter 7 and 8. And I think that for two good reasons.
The first good reason is that the person Paul describes here in chapter 7 is wading against a current that he finds in his own nature. A current that wants to pull him towards sin and selfishness. But the unconverted person, who does not know Christ or his love, who does not feel their need for salvation or fear for their soul, more naturally just floats along with the current. They think that they are in control of their own lives, but they are slaves to their own natures. In willing servitude to the powers of darkness. It is the converted person, the person who wants to follow Christ but battles against their own weakness who feels the power of the current of sin.
The second good reason is that the person that Paul describes here in chapter 7 is me. This is my experience. I know Christ and I know his love. I know the good that I should do, but sometimes I don’t want to do it. Or I want to but not enough to overcome my fears and insecurities. So I find the strange situation that I don’t always do what I want. This is my experience and I’ve just a hunch that it might be your experience too.
Let’s listen to Paul again.
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
Paul doesn’t say he used to see another law at work in the members of his body, he says he sees it. This is our continuing struggle. We are saved from sin’s penalty. Because Christ died for us and rose to life for our salvation, sin is a thing of the past. Nailed to the cross of Jesus. Buried with him in his tomb. But he rose to life without it, creating the promise that we too may live without it. Sin is a thing of the past. It no longer controls our present or determines our future. We have peace with God and peace with ourselves.
But we have not yet been saved from its presence, and not yet been fully saved from its power. Sin is like a current we still feel when we wade against it. It is like a wound that has healed but still aches. It is like the memory of trauma that still haunts our nights, if not our waking days.
This is our continuing struggle with sin. Saved from its penalty but not yet from its presence or power. We face obstacles from the outside and just as many on the inside. Following Christ requires effort and perseverance, but we do not give up in despair. Instead, we keep going in hope. For we do not run around in circles, but towards the finish line of our complete salvation in Christ.
Paul himself poses the question that he answers himself.
What a wretched man I am.
Not was, but am. This is his present life.
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Not who rescued him, but will rescue him. What is his future hope?
Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
His hope is Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, who is Lord of his past, present and future, so that Paul’s walk with Christ is by faith from beginning to end.
How will this happen? Paul will tell us in chapter 8, but that’s a lesson for another day. Today’s lesson is that the Christian life is an endurance race, that doesn’t end but only begins when we accept Christ as Saviour and Lord. When we stop floating along the current of selfishness and wade against it. When our broken leg is healed and we still have to walk out of the forest we are lost in.
Following Christ isn’t easy, friends, but don’t give up. Don’t give up because you are ashamed of the struggle, because the saints who wrote the Bible like the apostle Paul felt it too. You aren’t a failure. You are a work in progress. God isn’t finished with you yet. And don’t give up in despair. The finish line is in front of you when we will experience our full salvation in Christ from sin’s penalty, its power and its presence forever. The race isn’t won by the quickest, but by the one who keeps a steady pace until the end.