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What I Want to Do I Do Not Do July 9, 2017

Posted by sandhandrews in Sermons.
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Romans 7:14-25a

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

July 9, 2017

 

Focus:  God does it all.

Function:  That the hearers confess their wretchedness unto the Lord.

Structure:  This is the problem…this is the response of the gospel, with thanks to Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann.

 

What I Want to Do I Do Not Do

 

Our epistle reading today has to be one of the clunkiest sections in all of Scripture.  It’s a tongue-twister.  Give it a try yourself, read the text aloud as quickly as you can and see how you do.

When some people read Paul’s writings here, they say this can’t possibly be him.  The person being discussed is a wretched failure of a disciple.  He knows what he should do, but he doesn’t do it.  He knows what he shouldn’t do, and those are the things he does!

Others read this as a good excuse.  “See, even Paul couldn’t do it, so why should I bother?  I might as well just do whatever I want.”  Paul’s failures here are used as an excuse to sluff off, to stop trying.

But while this text most certainly is about Paul, it’s not just Paul, is it?  We develop habits in our lives.  I want to get up at this time, go to sleep at this time.  This is the week where I finally kick that bad habit that’s been nagging me for years.

We set goals for our marriages, for our families.  I will love my spouse always.  Without hesitation, I will forgive them when they fall short, as I pray they will do for me.  You look to milestones in your relationship with your children, confirmations, graduations, grandchildren.  You plot out goals in your career, goals in your friendships, goals in your hobbies.

And all of these goals are meant to push you.  To push you forward, to make you stronger, wiser, more faithful, whatever it may be.  And so you attack.  You work and you work, and you work.  You put in the extra hours, you sacrifice.  The goal is right there before you, and yet, you can’t quite reach it.

In fact, you fall flat on your face miles short of the prize.  The average New Year’s resolution is a bust fifteen minutes after we wake up on January 1st.  Okay, maybe that’s made up, but you know exactly what I mean.

Failure is our common lot.  It’s what we do.  We put solid, good, faithful things in front of ourselves, and we want to do them.  But no matter how hard we fight, no matter how hard we try to achieve them, we don’t.  This isn’t just Paul, is it?  It’s each and every one of us.

So, how is it that the person who wishes to be faithful, who earnestly seeks to serve God and to serve his neighbor ends up in such a train wreck?  Haven’t we been called to be disciples?  In our baptisms, haven’t we been cleansed, our sins washed away, the Old Adam drowned?  Weren’t we made new?

Why is it then that the Old Adam remains?  Why can’t I do the things that God wants me to do?  Martin Luther in his Preface to the New Testament explained it this way:

“Then he [Paul] shows how spirit and flesh struggle with one another in a man.  He uses himself as an example, in order that we may learn how properly to understand the work of slaying sin within us.  He calls both the spirit and the flesh ‘laws’; for just as it is in the nature of the divine law to drive men and make demands of them, so the flesh drives men and makes demands.  It rages against the spirit, and will have its own way.  The spirit, in turn drives men to make demands.  It rages against the spirit, and will have its own way.  The spirit, in turn, drives men and makes demands contrary to the flesh, and will have its own way.  This tension lasts in us as long as we live; though in one person it is greater, in another less, according as the spirit or the flesh, and he fights with himself until he becomes wholly spiritual.” – Luther’s Works (Fortress Press, 1960), 376-377

 

It’s a back and forth.  A battle between the old and the new. The new man, the new creature is here.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit in His Word and the water at your baptism, God made you new. He freed you from your slavery to sin, rescued you from the pits of death and despair.  You are His.

And yet, the old man remains.  He is your nagging shadow, the thorn in your flesh that just simply won’t leave you alone.  Sometimes he gets the upper hand and convinces us that we want our sin.  Other times, daily drowning our old Adam by remembering our baptism is an easy task.

You are simultaneously a fallen sinner, and justified in Christ.  We are both broken, and restored.  Paul was both chief of sinners and the lead apostle of the church to the Gentiles.  This is the reality that you live in each and every day.

This section from Paul rebukes two extremes which I highlighted at the start of the sermon.  The first is the idea on the one end that we can achieve perfection in this life.  Because we have been set free, because the old Adam is drowned, because we are a new creation in our baptism, we can do the works of God.  And if we can do them, then we must be able to reach the point where we can do them without failure.

Despite the fact that Paul already was teaching against it, and the Lutheran reformers taught against it, this idea is still prevalent among Christians today.  The Catholics call it the consecrated life.  The Methodists talk about it as full salvation, entire sanctification, or being perfected in love.  These teachings lead Christians to despair.  “You should be able to be perfect, so why aren’t you?  What’s wrong with you?  Don’t you have faith?”  “Why can’t I do this?”  This idea simply isn’t what the Scriptures teach.

But neither is opposite end, the idea that we, as Christians, are free from the law and can do whatever we want.  You may hear people talk about their “Christian liberty.”  The Reformers called these people “antinomians.”  People without a law.   In this case, you end up with, at best, mediocre discipleship.  There is no striving any more to do what God has laid before you to do.  This too, isn’t what the Scriptures teach.

Again, let’s hear from Luther as he wrote his commentary on Romans:

In this way, then, you should understand chapter 7, where St. Paul portrays himself as still a sinner, while in chapter 8 he says that, because of the incomplete gifts and because of the Spirit, there is nothing damnable in those who are in Christ. Because our flesh has not been killed, we are still sinners, but because we believe in Christ and have the beginnings of the Spirit, God so shows us his favor and mercy, that he neither notices nor judges such sins. Rather he deals with us according to our belief in Christ until sin is killed.

 

As we cry out together with the Apostle Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” we have an answer: “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

God looks not on our sin, but on His Son.  This is the gospel, the good news to you and to me.  Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, paid for your sins in full.  Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the tomb rescues you from the old Adam within you that seeks to drag you down into the pit of hell.

God does it all! Forgiveness and life are His gifts to you, each and every day. This text that strikes us as so confusing is actually very simple. The Law of God is good. We’re thoroughly evil.  God is supremely gracious to us.  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, strive to keep the Law, remember your baptism, and cling to the promise that it isn’t up to you.  But no matter how well or poorly you do these things, know that salvation is yours already in Christ alone.

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