Purpose: to provide comfort and encouragement for those who struggle with sin.
Sermon prepared by Rev. George Koopmans, Medicine Hat, Alberta
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 29:1-2 (could be done as a responsive reading)
Opening Song #171
God’s Greeting: “May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen.”
Prayer of Confession
God’s Will For Our Lives
Hymn of Response #474
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Romans 7:14-25a
Sermon: “Jesus: Hope For Hopeless Sinners”
Prayer of Application
Hymn of Response #497
God’s Parting Blessing: May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify us through and through. May our whole spirits, souls and bodies be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls us is faithful and He will do it. Amen
Parting Hymn of Praise #635
Brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ;
The speaker at a youth event asked the students to take a moment to think of a few people that they consider heroes of the Christian faith. Parents, grandparents, school teachers, Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, pastors and others were mentioned. Not surprisingly the Apostle Paul made the list of heroes of the Christian faith.
Many would agree that Paul is indeed one of the great heroes of the Christian faith. After all, his credentials, or qualifications, and his experiences are most impressive. We do well to spend a few minutes reflecting upon the life of Paul because as we do this our Scripture passage seems all the more remarkable.
Although the exact date of Paul’s birth is unknown, he probably was born a few years – perhaps 10 or so years - after the birth of Jesus. While Jesus was growing in wisdom and stature Paul was also growing physically as well as in knowledge. In Acts 22 we find Paul speaking to a crowd in Jerusalem about his younger days. In verse 3 Paul says that he was “thoroughly trained in the law” under Gamaliel, and that he was just as zealous for God as any of the people who were there listening to him. Now studying under Gamaliel was no small thing. Gamaliel was a leading Rabbi or teacher in the days of Paul’s youth. Not just anyone could go to Gamaliel and become one of his students. Only the brightest and most promising prospects would have the opportunity to learn under him. During the time that Paul was a student of Gamaliel he would have memorized vast portions of the Old Testament and he would have learned much about the interpretation and application of those Scriptures.
In Galatians 1:14 Paul mentions that he was advancing in Judaism beyond many his own age. Yes, Paul was highly educated; he had a brilliant mind and had found favor in the eyes of the religious establishment. He was one of the up and comers in the world of Judaism. A Pharisee of Pharisees, even destined one day to become one of the great Rabbis himself, or so it seemed.
Paul was not only highly educated, but he was deeply devoted to his religion; he had a true passion for his faith. This young man was prepared to defend Judaism at any cost. Paul became an ardent opponent to the growing movement in Jerusalem which named Jesus Christ as Lord. He was deeply troubled by the fact that many were leaving the ranks of Judaism to follow the teachings of Jesus and His disciples. Paul devoted himself to routing out Christianity because it stood in opposition to the established understandings of his day.
Paul, the brilliant mind but also the ruthless persecutor of the church, was then hand picked by Jesus Christ to take the gospel to the Gentiles. One day, as Paul was traveling the road to Damascus in order to arrest Christians in that city, Jesus appeared to Paul. A light from heaven flashed around him, and he fell, blinded to the ground. It was then that the Lord called him to a new life of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. In Acts 9:15 the Lord spoke to Ananias, who was a follower of the Lord, concerning Paul. "This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”
Yes, Paul had been hand picked by the Lord to bring the very gospel that he had opposed so strongly to the Gentiles as well as to the people of Israel. As we were reminded earlier, when Paul was a follower of Judaism, he had been instructed at the feet of Gamaliel. But now as a Christian; as a follower of Jesus Christ, he would not be taught by a man, but he would be taught the truths of the gospel directly by the Lord. Paul writes in Galatians 1:11-12; “I want you to know, brothers that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”
Paul’s calling would not end with preaching this gospel that the Lord revealed to him, but God used Paul, with his vast knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, also to write a large portion of the New Testament. In time Paul would become the author of more than a dozen books in the New Testament.
Paul’s conversion story is remarkable. So is the way he received the gospel that he was to preach. There are also many other amazing events that occurred in his life that are worth pondering.
Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 12:2 “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.” He goes on in verse 4 to say of this man who was caught up to heaven; “He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” Now, although Paul never comes right out and says it, as we read on we may safely assume that he was the one who was drawn up into heaven.
From time to time we hear of people speaking of their near death experiences in which they talk about having approached the gates of heaven and they speak of being filled with a sense of peace and joy. But for Paul, this was no “near death experience.” He was drawn up to heaven and witnessed inexpressible things. What an amazing thing that is – to be drawn up into heaven – and what a tremendous encouragement this must have been to Paul as he carried out his calling. Paul did not only speak of the glories of heaven “by faith” but he had already had a taste of those amazing things which the human mind cannot really even begin to imagine!
Now we could go on and on speaking of the glorious events in Paul’s life; being visited by angels while in prison, bringing the dead back to life, performing great signs and wonders, etc. Yes we could go on and on.
But it is time to turn back to our Scripture passage. Here in Romans Chapter 7 we find this hero of the Christian faith in a deep and sorrowful lament over his struggle with his own sinfulness. Paul’s cry in verse 15 is this; “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Then in verse 19 he says, “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.” Finally, he cries out in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Here is Paul, some 20 years after his remarkable conversion, after being drawn up to the third heaven to witness inexpressibly great things, after authoring much of the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – here is Paul – after all these experiences presenting himself as a hopeless sinner.
Well, what do we make of all this? Today we will consider four different approaches we can take to Paul’s confession in which he bares his soul to the reader.
There is first of all a long history of interpreting this passage as simply being a description of either Paul’s life, or someone else’s life, before they have come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The argument is that this is not a mature Paul speaking of his present life, but here Paul is describing the life of one who is not committed to Christ. This understanding of the passage was quite widely held by the early church fathers. However, over the centuries very gifted biblical scholars have done a great deal to discredit the view that Paul speaks here of unbelievers. The simplest and most straight forward reading of Romans 7:14-25 is that Paul is speaking of the intense battle between sin and obedience that continues to rage on in his life. Although this idea that Paul is referring in this passage to an unbeliever is still held by some, it is not as common as it once was.
There is a second approach to this passage that we could take. We could agree that Paul is speaking here of his own struggles, but you know that is Paul’s struggle, not mine. I do not struggle with sin; I am past all of that in my walk with the Lord. Such a view may be called Christian Perfectionism.
Christian Perfectionism is rooted, in part, in the command of Jesus found in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfectionism holds that in some way it is possible for Christians to live up to these instructions of Jesus by achieving a certain level of spiritual perfection.
But no one would actually claim that he no longer sins, would he? Probably not. At least not many would make that claim outright. However, does not Paul say in verse 17, “As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me?” Perfectionism tends to minimize sin in the believers life by claiming “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” While the teachings of Christian Perfectionism are difficult to fully grasp, this movement tends to be a little too optimistic when it comes to obedience and a little too quick to dismiss disobedience when it comes to the Christian life.
It is perhaps true that Perfectionism is no longer as common as it once was, but could it be that a different tendency is rising up in its place. Let’s just call this tendency semi-perfectionism. “I don’t sin very much and the sins I do are not very bad sins! On the whole I am a pretty good person!!!”
But let us ponder for a moment what Paul’s sins were. The chances that Paul was a bank robber, a murderer, an adulterer or that he was committing some other “major horrendous” sins, are small. One speculation is that Paul found himself harboring bitter and vengeful thoughts towards those who were persecuting him rather than praying for them. Or perhaps that he had spoken harshly or impatiently to one who was slow to grasp the glorious truth of the gospel? Whatever it was, Paul does not argue away or dismiss his sinful deeds, but he is greatly disturbed by them.
Now there is a third approach we could take. We could perhaps just sort of throw up our arms and say, “Come on Paul, get real! You said yourself that ‘it is by grace you have been saved, not by works.’ No one is perfect; we are only human. Christ has died to pay for our sin. We are saved by grace, so quit focusing on the sin and the brokenness; just thank God for His grace and move on.”
Philosopher and Theologian Dallas Willard has a term for such a view: “Vampire Christianity.” A “vampire Christian” in effect says to Jesus: “I’d like a little of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven?” (Dallas Willard – Why Bother with Discipleship)
The “vampire Christian” does not desire to live a godly life, does not desire to truly walk in the ways of the Lord. The “vampire Christian” wants heaven, but does not truly desire a living relationship with Jesus.
Paul had already addressed such a view that makes light of sin before his lament over his own sinfulness. We read in the opening verses of Romans 6, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer.” Paul refused to make light of sin. Paul refused to excuse his sinfulness. We do well to follow his example.
Now we come to our fourth and final approach to this passage. The fourth approach is to identify with Paul. It is to say, “Hey, that is exactly how I feel. I’m with you Paul. I also want to do God’s will, I want to do what is right and pleasing to Him, but it seems like so often when I want to do good I mess it up and do what is wrong. The good I want to do, I just don’t do, and the things I hate -- the things I say I am not going to do again -- these are the things I keep on doing. I know what you mean when you say, ‘What a wretched man I am.’ I feel that way too. I sometimes think what a wretched man, woman, teenager or child I am.”
There is tremendous comfort in identifying with Paul. It is not uncommon for God’s children to go through seasons of sin and guilt. At times we may even begin to wonder if we truly are children of God. After all, I want to love God and obey him, but I just keep on sinning. And we may wonder, could God really love me, could Jesus really have died for me? If I really was a child of God would I not be a better person by now? Yes, I have no doubt that Jesus died for others. But did He really die for me? If you find yourself thinking this way, be encouraged, dear Christian! The Apostle Paul, that great hero of the faith, struggled with sin just as much as the next person.
There is tremendous comfort in identifying with Paul, but there is also a tremendous lesson to be learned. Paul, at the end of his lament, lands at the feet of Jesus Christ. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Forgiveness is found at the cross of Christ and nowhere else. Forgiveness is for us when we come to the cross in sorrow and repentance, truly sorry for our sin as Paul was. We receive forgiveness when we confess our sin and say to God, “I want to do what is good and right and pleasing to you. Help me to do what is right and to avoid what is evil. Forgive me for the sake of Jesus.” When we say that then the fountain of God’s saving grace washes over us and we are forgiven.
My sin, - O the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
(When Peace Like a River)
We read in James 4:10 “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” Great comfort and joy is ours when we humble ourselves along with Paul, for at the foot of the cross there is hope for hopeless sinners. As we humble ourselves at the cross our God will lift us up. He will put a song of joy in our hearts, and He will restore us to the joy of our salvation, enabling us once again to walk with Him in faith and obedience. Amen.
Prayer of Application
Our Father in Heaven, we thank You and praise you for Your Word which teaches us, and reassures us, that in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness of sin and hope for a life of joy with You. We thank You for the assurance and encouragement that comes from knowing that we are not alone in our struggles. In those times when we do fall into sin, help us to repent and confess our shortcomings. Grant to us peace and comfort that we may find great joy in being your children. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.