New life, new regime - Romans 6:15 - 7:6
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
~~New life, New regime
If I had received £5 for every time when, having explained that as we put our trust in Christ we are forgiven all our sins- past, present and future- someone then said to me, ‘In that case all I have to do is believe in Jesus, say I am sorry, so I can then go on to do whatever I want because he will forgive me anyway, I would be a rich man by now. I guess there is a kind of perverted logic going on there. It is logical if you view our relationship with God on a purely impersonal business-like basis, such that God having wiped away our debt gives us a blank cheque to get into more debt which he will deal with at a later time. But it is perverse because that is not what our relationship with God is meant to be; you don’t abuse the kindness of someone who loves you, rather you respond in love and gratitude.
So how is a Christian to think of their relationship with God on the one hand and sin on the other? Do God’s commandments have any place in the life of a believer? And once a person has committed themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, does that mean everything will be easy from then on when faced with sin and temptation? Those are three very important questions which Paul deals with in the passage we are looking at in Romans. And inspite of appearances to the contrary, the answers Paul gives are clear and immensely comforting.
The first thing Paul deals with is our service- chapter 6:15-23. Back in the late 1970’s when he was going through his ‘Christian’ phase, Bob Dylan wrote a song entitled ‘You got serve somebody’ which had these lines, ‘You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride, You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side, You may be workin' in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair, You may be somebody's mistress, may be somebody's heir, But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes You're gonna have to serve somebody, Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you're gonna have to serve somebody.’ And he was right for that is what Paul is saying here. Paul admits in the verse 19 that he is using an illustration to help because of the limitations of our understanding, but the reality is that all humans are slaves of one kind or another- they are serving somebody. Now we are not to think that slavery is necessarily something which was imposed on people for in Paul’s day some people chose to be a slave which was a far better option than many alternatives. And so Paul speaks of people ‘offering’ themselves in verse 16 and whatever we offer ourselves to becomes our master. We all offer up ourselves in terms of our thinking, our priorities, our energies, our bodies, even our families, to whatever we think will do us good. But that doesn’t guarantee that whatever it is we are pursuing will be for our good. And if we keep on offering up ourselves to something, eventually what we do becomes a habit, and if there is no restraint it becomes a necessity- we just have to do it, and so we become addicted- and that is a form of slavery. For example, we want to feel wanted which is a natural desire, but then we get hooked on Facebook desperate to get those likes. The ping on our text messaging service releases the feel good chemical in our brain called dopamine, and in order to get the same rush in the future, the hits have to be more and more and so we are compelled to be looking at our phone more and more in the hope they will come. Similarly with alcohol; people think that folk who are drunk don’t know what they are doing. That is not so. They know exactly what they are doing but they just don’t care- that is how alcohol affects the brain. And so it goes on- pornography, greed, careerism whatever it may be Masters us. And if we give scant regard for what God thinks, that is ‘wickedness’ -v19. In short we are slaves to sin, dominated by it and eventually destroyed by it- for as it says in v23 ‘the wages of sin is death’.
But that is not the position of Christians who are under grace, v 15, but they are slaves nonetheless, but slaves of a different kind: slaves to obedience, v16, slaves to righteousness, v 17 and slaves to God, vv20-22. The Christian recognises that these are good, and that God is our highest good and so will pursue them because you want what is good for you, don’t you? And what accounts for this change from being a slave to sin to being a slave to God? It is that the Christian is someone who has heard the Gospel, having been gripped by the Gospel and changed by the Gospel. There it is in v17, ‘But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance’ Just look at how conversion is described. It involves hearing a ‘pattern of teaching’. The Gospel is a truthful message about our need, about who God is, about what Jesus has done and the difference he makes. It involves ‘obedience from the heart’, this is not just an intellectual exercise, it goes down deep into our innermost being and affects our will, we willingly choose to be God’s slaves for he is such a kind Master. And it is all of God which is why we give him ‘thanks’. So if that is the case, (and it is) then it is ludicrous, if not downright blasphemous, to entertain the thought that because we are under grace we can sin as much as we like because God will forgive us anyway-v15. No. Sin is the problem, the devil is the master and death is the result- and so who in their right mind wants to go back to that?
But then Paul goes on to give a second reason why the Gospel doesn’t set us free to do anything we want- he speaks about our new status, chapter 7:1-13. Now just as some people can wrongly conclude that since we are saved by grace, sin no longer matters, others might conclude that since the law stirs up our sin, then the law itself is in some way sinful and so best avoided. I remember being at an conference on Evangelical ethics a number of years ago now when a Christian speaker was arguing that as we see them in enshrined in the Ten Commandments, God’s ways for living are the best ways- marital faithfulness, truth telling, honouring parents- only to be put down by a well know supposedly evangelical bishop who, referring to the earlier speaker, said, ‘That is just typical- we are under grace but he want to bring us back under the law’. Not surprisingly that bishop went on to become one the leading campaigners for the liberalisation of homosexual practice in the church. So the objection is still very much with us- ‘who needs the law if it is more of a problem than a solution?’
Paul again uses an illustration to help us to get our thinking straight- but this time the husband and wife relationship. Just as in his previous illustration where Paul said that as human beings we are either slaves to sin or slaves to God, here we are either married to the law or married to Christ.
So let’s ask: what is it like being married to Mr Law and how do we get out of that marriage if it is a bad one? Well, verse 5 describes that marriage, ‘For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.’ What’s he getting at? Whether it is the commandments of God or our own moral code, the Law is a tyrannical husband. He is demanding- laying it down: ‘do this, don’t do that’. He is an abusive husband, yelling at us, ‘You have failed again, you didn’t do things the way I demanded’ and so he beats up on us, attacking our conscience inflaming our shame. But eventually Mr Law is destructive- bearing ‘the fruit of death.’ This is not a happy marriage and worse still, there is no way out of it- this is for life so long as the husband is alive- v2. While we are in this spiritual marriage we can’t marry someone else who offers us the kindness and all that we might have longed for in our marriage- because that would be adultery, v 3. So death is the only way out- waiting for the husband to die. Now Paul mixes up the metaphor in verse 4 by talking about a person dying to the law when they turn to Christ, rather than the husband- the law- dying- but the point is the same. By Jesus’ perfect life he kept all the demands of the law and took to himself the penalty of the law for sin which is death. And as we put our trust in Jesus, we, as it were, died with him and then were made alive so that as Christ becomes our spiritual husband we are released from the law as a woman is released from her marriage on the death of a husband, verse 6. And the way Jesus treats his wife- you and me- when she sins is very different to Mr Law. The law accuses; Jesus sooths. This is the way the Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, describes Jesus’ tender heart towards his people, ‘Your very sins move him to pity more than anger…it is true, his pity in increased all the more towards you, just like the heart of a father to a child that has some terrible disease….his hatred shall fall only upon the sin, to free you from its ruin and destruction, his very compassion is drawn out more and more to you and this is as much as when you fall under the influence of sin as under any other affliction. Therefore, don’t be afraid, ‘What shall separate us from Christ’s love?’ The answer of course is nothing- not with this husband; his love is total and eternal, his love is permanent and passionate. And so he is a husband we are to ‘love, cherish and obey’. Rule based religion is always miserable and binding. Relationship religion however, which is Christ’s religion is ultimately freeing because we become what we were made to be and saved to be- the object of Christ’s unending devotion.
So does that mean God’s commandments are to be done away with because they are somehow sinful? The short answer in verse 7 is, ‘No’. You see, we need to understand what the main purpose of the law is, namely to show up our sin, make us feel our need for forgiveness and so drive us to Christ. Here Paul seems to be drawing on his own experience in verse 7ff. For years as a Pharisee, a ‘law man’ through and through, he would have proudly ticked off his lists of ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’ Did he honour his parents? I am sure he did. Did he avoid adultery? You bet. Did he steal? I guess not. But those are all external things. And while he focused on the externals then he felt as he puts it in v9 ‘alive apart from the law’, that is, feeling good about oneself, outside having a proper understanding of the purpose of the law, which is that it is not a means of salvation but a means of preparation- preparing us to receive the Gospel. There came a point in Paul’s life when he did come to understand what that purpose was, more than that, felt it, and that was when he discovered he could not escape his internal covetousness- looking at what someone else had and feeling resentful he didn’t have it and craving it. What was that? We don’t know, but from what we know of his previous life as a Pharisee, it was probably of a religious nature. Maybe he looked at fellow Jews and saw how more zealous they were than him and he coveted that. Perhaps he wanted to be the top Pharisee? He coveted that. We don’t really know. But what we do know is that the more he thought about coveting the more he coveted and the more he felt condemned. The problem wasn’t the law from without- which is ‘holy, righteous and good’, v17 - it was the sin from within which killed him- he was finished as far as his own righteousness was concerned. He could never be good enough for God because even wanting to be good for God meant that whenever he came across someone who was good for God it made him envious- and so he sinned again. It was an endless spiral he was caught up in and what a dreadful state he was in- he couldn’t get out of it.
But the experience did him some good, because it showed up his need as a sinner -v 13, and so the need of a Saviour. Therefore when the risen Christ eventually met him on the Road to Damascus, his heart was already prepared to receive him gratefully. And maybe that is where you find yourself this morning. Despite the carefree face you put on, your soul is anything but carefree, if the truth be known you are weighed down, burdened by guilt and no matter what you do you cannot shake it off. Oh you distract yourself, you may even try to convince yourself that it doesn’t really matter, but you know it does. If that is you then whatever you do, don’t ignore it, let it soften your heart so you will go to Christ who will lift the burden because that is precisely what he has promised to do, ‘“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He has never, ever turned anyone away and you will be no exception.
So does that mean from now on the Christian life will be plain sailing? Not according to what Paul describes next- the struggle, vv 14-25.
There has been some debate as to whether this is the experience of an unconverted person coming under the conviction of sin by the law or the experience a Christian continues to have or whether this is in some way autobiographical-Paul’s own experience before he became a follower of Christ or his experience as a Christian. I don’t have time to go into all the arguments, but it seems to me that it does describe the ongoing Christian experience and Paul puts forward his own experience as being typical of that.
So what is going on?
First, Paul is stressing there is nothing wrong with God’s law- it is spiritual, the problem is our fallen human nature which is unspiritual and ‘sold to sin’ v 14, and doesn’t have any good prospering there- v18. But the person he is describing is still someone whose desires to do good, but struggles to do it-v19, someone who loves God’s ways in his heart-v22, but who finds he has a law or a principle at work within, literally, his ‘members’ v23, which wages a war against what he knows is good and wants to do in his mind. Such is the nature of indwelling sin that it is hard for a Christian to get their minds around it- v15, ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ I can’t believe this is just my experience. Don’t you find this? One moment you seem to be going on well with the Lord, having fellowship with his people, loving his word and suddenly you find yourself wanting to do things and, worse still, thinking things which make you wonder whether you are a Christian at all? It doesn’t seem to make any sense that you so love Christ and at the same time are drawn towards sin. Paul is saying that even for the Christian he still keeps his fallen nature which drags him down while in his heart he wants to rise up. And like it or not his body is going to go the way of all sinful bodies, ending in the grave-v24. So who will deliver him from what he describes as this ‘body of death’? Well, Jesus of course, ultimately in the resurrection but even now in the struggle some progress is being made- v25.
The Christian self, if I can put it like that- renewed by the Holy Spirit, thankful for God’s law as summarised in the Ten Commandments which point to the good life- finds itself in a raging battle with desires and inclinations which it really wants to be rid of. Christ has already delivered him from the penalty of sin and is gradually delivering him from the power of sin, but the presence of sin is with him like a man who is handcuffed to a withering, thrashing, dying man who refuses to die. But a day is coming when the believer will receive a new glorified, sinless body in the new age which will not even have a trace of sin. And so there are times when the Christian will simply feel wretched- v24, but the day is coming when he will simply feel great because he will be just like Jesus.
So don’t despair if, from time to time, you are knocked sideways by temptation and you fall into sin. Don’t ignore it, but don’t be held back by it either. You are sinful to be sure, but you are not condemned- you are forgiven. And when we sin- and I find that the older one gets it doesn’t get any easier you become more sensitive to your sin- there is only one place we are to go back to again and again- and that is the cross and getting on your knees and asking for forgiveness, asking for a greater vision of Christ and then getting up, moving forward and not looking back.
So let me end by praying a prayer written by one of the Puritans entitled, ‘Calvary’s anthem’ which says it all (p314)
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