I want to begin by reading a couple of quotes from Pilgrim’s Progress, which will set the scene for Romans 7. I am going to begin by reading the wonderful moment where Pilgrim becomes a Christian, and then I am going to read a moment where a man or a woman called Prudence, probably a woman, quizzes him about his Christian life. The language is quaint but stay with it, because it is rich.
“Pilgrim ran until he came to a place somewhat ascending. And upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre, a tomb. And so I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back and began to tumble and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome and said with a merry heart, ‘He hath given me rest, by His sorrow, and life by His death.’ And then he stood still awhile to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He had looked therefore and looked again, even until the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. And as he stood, looking and weeping, behold, three shining ones came to him and saluted him with ‘Peace be to thee’. And the first said to him, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ The second stripped him of his rags and clothed him with change of raiment. The third set a mark on his forehead and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on, as he ran, and that he should give it in at the celestial gate. And so they went their way, and Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing.
A little bit further on, as he has begun the pilgrimage, somebody called Prudence comes up and says to him, ‘Do you think, sometimes, of the country from whence you came?’ And Christian says, ‘Yes, but with much shame and detestation, but now I desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.’ And Prudence said, ‘Do you not yet carry with you some of the things of your past?’ And Christian says, ‘Yes, but greatly against my will, especially my inward and carnal interests, with which all my countrymen, as well as myself, were delighted, but now all those things are my grief, and I would choose never to think of those things more, but when I would be doing that which is best, that which is worst is with me.’ And Prudence says, ‘Do you not find, sometimes, as if those things were vanquished?’ Christian says, ‘Yes, but that is seldom. They are, to me, golden hours in which such things happen to me.’ And Prudence says, ‘Can you remember by what means it is as if they were vanquished?’ And Christian says, ‘When I think what I saw at the cross, that will do it and when I look upon my broidered coat, that will do it and when I look into the Word that I carry in my bosom, that will do it and when my thoughts wax warm about whither I am going, that will do it.”
Now that is an excellent introduction to Romans 7, because Romans 7 describes a very real Christian and what we have read of Pilgrim’s Progress there describes a very real Christian – somebody who trusts in the work of Christ at the cross, who wears a new coat (and today, we would have the word Justified written across the back) and someone who still carries a sinful nature with them, even with their new nature and somebody who is well helped by putting their mind, regularly, onto Christ’s achievement, which is cross, coat, Word, and Heaven.
I don’t need to tell you this morning that the mind is an extremely influential thing and very powerful. It is the mind which enables most of you here, to be as capable as you are at what you do. It is also a very inventive thing, the mind – very creative, very powerful, for good or for ill. But if you want to have the joy of salvation, if you want to have the peace of God, if you want to have the assurance of salvation, you have to put your mind, regularly, where God tells you to put it. And the best place you can put your mind is to the cross, the coat of justification, the Word of God and the Heaven to which you are going. And when you do that, it will light up every other part of your life. That’s one of the things about becoming a Christian, is that you learn that your Christianity is not peripheral. It is not as though work is central and Christianity is on the edge. But when you become a sensible Christian, you realise that it is your Christian life which has the ‘candle’ at the centre, and it lights up your work and it lights up your home, and it lights up your relationships, to certain degrees.
Romans 7 introduces us to a very real Christian, whose mind is sadly on himself. He ends up in an enormous number of knots and grief. He keeps thinking about his struggle to please God as if the security of his relationship with God depends on his performance. And instead of looking out the window, to the cross, the coat, the Word and Heaven, he is looking in the mirror at his performance, and it is causing him great grief. Let me give you a mental picture of Romans 5, 6, 7, to put it all together.
Romans 5 tells us that when you put your faith in Jesus, you are seated on a Gospel horse. Romans 6 says that if you try to hold a suitcase of sin in your right hand, so to speak, you will fall off. It’s not as though you will lose your salvation, but you will lose the joy of your salvation. Romans 7 says that if you try to hold a full-length mirror in your left hand and keep checking yourself all the time, you will also lose the joy of salvation. And Romans 8 says, the best way to stay on the horse is to be helped by God’s Spirit, to focus on God’s great truths.
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So that’s how these four chapters fit together.
We are going to spend some time looking at Romans 7. What the law can do and can’t do. And there are so many Christians who are mystified by the law, I hope you will tune in, and I hope that in a few minutes’ time, you will be able to say, ‘I understand what the law is for. I understand what it can do, and I understand what it can’t do.’
First of all, if we go back to Verses 1-6 of Romans Chapter 7, the point of Verses 1-6 is that we who believe in Jesus Christ are free of law to save or make secure. If I were to stand up right now and say to you, ‘Friends, the law cannot save you’, I guarantee that most of you would say, ‘Yep, we have heard this before.’ If I sat with some of you privately and said to you, ‘Now Doris, Bill, Fred, Geoff… tell me what is your greatest reason for looking forward to Heaven? What makes you think you will go there?’ What is surprising, is that certain people begin to talk law. And so, having listened to a preacher say, ‘The law can’t save you’ and agreeing, when you talk to the person privately, you begin to discover that the law plays a very big part in the way they think. They still think, you know, if I do a good job… if I don’t do a bad job. And it’s one of the great sadnesses to discover that there are people who are still thinking law.
If I were to stand up right now and say to you, ‘Friends, the law cannot save you’, I guarantee that most of you would say, ‘Yep, we have heard this before.’ If I sat with some of you privately and said to you, ‘Now Doris, Bill, Fred, Geoff tell me what is your greatest reason for looking forward to Heaven? What makes you think you will go there?’ What is surprising, is that certain people begin to talk law. And so, having listened to a preacher say, ‘The law can’t save you’ and agreeing, when you talk to the person privately, you begin to discover that the law plays a very big part in the way they think. They still think, you know, if I do a good job, if I don’t do a bad job. And it’s one of the great sadnesses to discover that there are people who are still thinking law.
Even the Old Testament Jews knew that the law could not save them. They knew that they had gone through the Red Sea and been saved, and then went to Mt Sinai and were given the law. So the salvation came before the law. The rescue came before the rules; they were the family before they were given the family guidelines.
However, we need to ask the question: why does the Old Testament put such emphasis on ‘do the law’?
You get little phrases like – ‘Do the law and you will live’, ‘Do the law, and it will go well with you.’ And you almost get the impression, reading the Old Testament, that the covenant relationship with God hangs on our law-keeping. Now let me say this as clearly and simply as I can – the law was to show the Jews, and all the world, that the relationship was resting on God alone. It was two parties in the covenant – God and the people – but the security of the relationship depended on God.
It’s not to say that the law wasn’t important, because fellowship with God, enjoying God’s company, required a response, an obedient response. But the message ‘to keep the law and live’ in the Old Testament was a lesson in humility. It was designed to make the Jews, and everybody who was listening, to go to God and say, ‘You must be my Saviour because I can’t do it.’
Paul says in Romans 3, ‘The law is so that every mouth may be silenced. Through the law, we become conscious of sin.’
The law was to teach the Jews to look for God the Saviour and then, of course, to find Him, in Jesus Christ. So when a person turns to Christ for salvation, they suddenly find that the law is no longer a danger for them. It is a very great danger for a non-Christian. Can you imagine a non-Christian turns up at the Courtroom of God, and the law steps forward as ‘prosecutor’? And the law starts to run what it says and what the person has done, and it won’t be more than a minute or two before that non-Christian is completely silenced in God’s Courtroom – hangs their head and has nothing to say because it is so obvious that they are in trouble.
But now imagine a Christian stands in the Courtroom and the law of God steps forward and starts to run down what the law is about and what the Christian has done, and as the Christian listens, the Christian turns his attention, his finger, let’s say, over to Jesus Christ and says, ‘There’s my Saviour’, and the law is silenced. So when the non-Christian comes into the Courtroom and listens to the law, the non-Christian has to be silent. But when the Christian comes into the Courtroom, thanks to Jesus Christ, the law has nothing to say, because Jesus Christ has paid. And that is Paul’s point, in Romans 7, Versus 1-6. He says, ‘Just as marriage is dissolved by death. You see Verse 2, for example: by law, a married woman is bound to her husband, as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage, just as marriage is dissolved by death. So, he goes on to say: our obligation to the law is dissolved by the death of Christ. It is no longer our burden. We don’t have to keep it so that salvation will survive. So I say this again to you, friends, it was never the way into the Kingdom. It seemed, to the Old Testament Jews, to be the way to secure the covenant, but it turns out to be not even the way to secure the covenant. It turns out that God is the Saviour all along and He has freed us from the very great weight of performing it.
The second thing that comes in the Chapter is the force of the law. I hope you can see where we are going in the Chapter. He begins by saying the law does not save or secure you. And the second thing he says is: law still has a very important part to play (Verses 7-13).
In case anybody is going to think poorly of the law, look at Verse 12. Paul is very thankful for the law. He says the law is holy; the commandment is holy, righteous and good. We mustn’t ever get to the stage of thinking that the ten commandments are wrong. But the ten commandments are the instrument by which God shows us the depths of our sin.
Let me give you an illustration. Imagine you are in a terrible rage. Suppose you are a footballer, and a friend has done something terrible to you, and you are furious. You want revenge. And you think to yourself: I would like to harm this guy. And then, sitting there on the kitchen table is the good and faithful bread knife. And your nature, sinful nature, comes up with about three or four ideas for what to do with that knife. And so you take the knife, and you do the deed, and you commit murder, and the penalty is death. Now that is the argument of Verses 7-13.
What the Apostle is saying is, the law is the knife. It is a good instrument. It is capable of doing very good things, but it is also capable of showing us just how much the evil in our nature is real. So the law is not the killer. The knife is not the killer. And Paul doesn’t blame the law. He says, in Verses 8-10: it is a sin in the heart which responds to the commandment and brings its death. So the law, the knife, shows the seriousness or the deviousness or the viciousness of sin. It is a very painful lesson to learn, but if you look at the law in all its riches – as we heard in our first reading from Psalm 19 – the wonderful, wonderful law of God, it will show you two things: how great God is and how devious we are.
I was interested to read of Charles Coulson, that one of the questions he is still asked (and this is 25 years after the Watergate scandal), ‘What is the sin for which you feel the greatest remorse?’ And his answer is a very clever answer. He says, ‘The sin for which I feel the greatest remorse is a secret sin which you don’t know about.’ So, you know about things like dishonesty and injustice and cover-up and depravity, and all the things that have been painted on the screen, but the things that are causing me the greatest remorse, he says, are the sins that are in my heart that you don’t even know about. And he says, the answer infuriates the media, but it’s actually a very honest answer and a very helpful answer and it’s a very godly answer, and it’s what keeps Coulson useful, in a way, because he goes on saying, ‘I am a man who needs Christ, and I have a wonderful Saviour in Christ.’
Well, that’s what the godless and the godly are distinguished by, isn’t it. The godless man is blaming the law, the outside, the environment, the example. I heard someone on the radio this week saying that speed cameras are really to blame for so many accidents because they make you slow up suddenly when you see one. Now you are desperate; I think when you are blaming the speed camera for what you should have been doing anyway. The godless person is always saying, ‘It’s not my fault… it’s that fault.’ But the godly person can say, ‘No, the seeds of sin are in my heart, and the law gives me ideas, and it is only Jesus Christ who is able to rescue me.’ So that’s the introductory part. The law is not our saviour. We have been set free. However, the law is very useful. It shows us the force of evil.
The last thing this morning is the failure of law, Verses 14-25. Now, these are very famous verses, and I hope that we can grasp them because they have come home freshly to me in my preparation this week and I have seen things that I have never seen before. Verses 14-25 show a man in great turmoil. It’s a very famous piece of agony, isn’t it? Verse 15: I don’t understand what I do, what I want to do, I don’t do; what I hate, I do.’
Many Christians have read this and said, ‘Well, I’m so thankful that passage is in that part of the New Testament. That’s exactly how I feel.’ And others have said, ‘But it’s a very depressing way to think of the Christian life. Surely, it has to be better than this.’ And an enormous amount of energy has been spent trying to work out whether Verses 14-25 are pre-Christian, Christian, or sub-Christian. And you have to admit that some of the verses are verses in the pits. I mean, look at Verse 14. He says, ‘I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.’ Now not many of us would talk like that, would we, but there are certain times where we might talk like that. I mean, we have just been seeing, at the beginning of Romans that we are freed from the penalty of law, and now Paul says, ‘I am sold as a slave under sin.’ It sounds incredible. And look at the last bit of Verse 25: in the sinful nature, I am a slave to the law of sin. Now I can only say that there are times where every Christian will be aware of the grip of the sinful nature and will talk or think like this. This is true to our Christian experience.
But there are Verses in 14-25 which make it very clear that this is real Christianity. Look at Verse 22: in my inner being, I delight in God’s law. Isn’t it true, that every believer is able to say, in their best moments, ‘I do agree with God’s way? I’d love to go that way. I would love to be selfless. I would love to be loving. I would love to love the people who didn’t love me. I would love to be completely honest. I would love to be…whatever – I delight in the law of God.’ And then, look at Verse 25… could anybody but a Christian say, ‘Thanks be to God who will rescue me, through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ So we have to ask the question: what is going on in Verses 14-25 which makes this a normal struggle or a reasonable struggle for the Christians? Why is he so upset? What is causing it? The simple answer is that he is trying to secure the relationship with God by performance. So think, for example, imagine that you meet a friend and you decide that you are going to become pen-friends, and you start to write. And you write, and they write straight back. And you write, and they write straight back. And you write, and they write straight back. And you write, and they write straight back. And then it takes you a week to write, and they write straight back. And then it takes you two weeks to write, and they write straight back. And you begin to discover that the tone of their letters is changing because you are not quite keeping up with the pace of letters. And what has probably happened, you see, is that a rule has come into the relationship which says that if you are going to be a correspondent with me, you write immediately. And so there is a strain that has entered because the relationship is now not just a relationship. It is a relationship with a rule.
Or, perhaps you are married, and you observe that the man you married had a mother who did every chore for him. And so you think you had better do every chore for your husband. And you are just not keeping up, and you suspect that he is aware of certain things that she did, that you are not doing. And so a rule has come in. You know, he is trying to be sweet, but he is dissatisfied. And you are trying to be keen, but you are aware of not quite keeping up. And a rule has come in, which says: if you are going to have a relationship with me, it is going to mean that you match the chores that Mum did. And this rule in the relationship sours the relationship. It causes tension and an agony in the relationship.
Or, think of a Christian who knows, in their head, that the Christian life is about Christ and the cross, but, in fact, the test of their security of a relationship with Christ lies in how successful they are in a certain habit. I am not talking about the habits which we find easy to control. You know, we all have half a dozen sins that we are aware of that are not a problem for us. And we look at other people and think, ‘Well, just do it.’ But I am thinking those one or two areas in our lives, which do bug us. And there is a tendency in the Christian life sometimes to say, ‘If I am successful in this area, I am secure, and if I am not successful in this area, I am not secure.’ And that is to think completely unbiblically. And that I think, is what is behind Romans 7 Verses 14-25: that Paul is focussing on his law-keeping as the means of being secure. He is not afraid of the salvation issue, but he is looking to performance to guarantee his security with Christ. And that is designed, for certain, to tie us up in knots.
Well, the issue, just as a marriage can’t survive with a bit of flirting (that’s Romans 6), and a marriage can’t survive if it is lived by a rule or a number of rules (that’s Romans 7), so the Christian life needs the security of what God says and what Christ has done. And as long as Paul makes law the key to his security, he is going to be saying things like, ‘I am not doing the law. I agree with it, but then I do the opposite. My new nature wants to, but my old nature doesn’t co-operate. My mind says, “Let’s go this direction” and then my hand, my eyes, my mouth serve the old nature.’ And that is the Christian struggle. And if you focus on your performance as the security of your Christianity, you will be in anguish. You have to focus, at that point, on what God says and what Christ has done.
As we read in Pilgrims Progress he says he is most at peace when he turns his mind to the cross, my broidered coat, the Word I carry in my bosom and when my thoughts wax warm about whither I am going.’ And there, therefore, needs to be a deliberate placing of the mind on His performance, and not ours.
Well, I want to finish by just giving you some advice as a fellow pilgrim. First of all, please beware the quick-fix teacher. If you have been a Christian for 10, 20 or 30 years, you will know that there are always people who are coming along and telling you that if you just read this paperback, if you just tried this, if you just go to this conference, if you just listen to this series of tapes you will suddenly enter the victorious Christian life. And the fact of the matter is that you and I are going to be in the sort of struggle of Romans 7 and even some of the tensions of Romans 8, as long as we live in this world. That’s why it is very important that Verse 25b comes after Verse 25a. Isn’t that interesting. He says I have a Saviour in Jesus Christ (Verse 25a), and then he says: but I still am tempted to focus on performance as the basis of my security.
So beware those quick-fix hucksters.
Secondly, beware devilish discouragement. The devil is a great discourager. He specialises in the mirror business. He would have you focus on self all day if he could. And that will either make us proud or desperate. And it is a fact that sin is going to stay in our heart until we see Christ, face-to-face and sin will not cause the Holy Spirit to leave, and the Holy Spirit will not cause all sin to leave. But we will have the struggle of Spirit and sin until we see Christ face-to-face. Beware of devilish discouragement.
And the third and the last thing is, therefore, beware of rule-based Christianity. There are some Christians – and this is all of us – who at certain times are tempted to move into careless Christianity – I believe I will sin… it will be fine (Romans 6). It would be a good thing, I think, if many of us would write up on a little piece of paper what I said to you last week – new status, a new fight, new outcome – to remind us not to give in too easily in the fight. But there are many of us (and I guess this applies again to all of us) who lean to rule-based Christianity very easily, not for our salvation but the security of our salvation. And we need to go back, not to rule-based Christianity, but to Christ-crucified based Christianity.
Let’s pray together. We thank You, gracious God, for the realism and the helpfulness of this part of Your Word. We thank You that not only are we saved by grace but grace keeps us. And we pray that You would help us to be led by You in not falling into careless sin and not falling into a legalism which makes us despair. Help us, again and again, this week and every week to put our mind on the cross, the coat, the Word and the Heaven which Christ has secured. And we ask it in His Name. Amen.