Romans 7 v 15-25a The Fourth Sunday After Trinity 5 July 2020
When I think of civil wars I think of the English Civil War in the 17th century between the Parliamentarians (Cavaliers) and the Royalists (Roundheads); or the 19th century American Civil War between the Northern and Southern States; or the 20th century Irish Civil War between Irish Republicans and Irish Nationalists over whether or not to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Today’s reading from Romans 7 in the NRSV has the title ‘The Inner Conflict’. (The NRSV is the translation I am using for this series of sermons unless otherwise stated). As we read these verses they read like a ‘civil war’ going on within the life of Paul, but this is something which we can probably all identify with. Paul says ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ v15, and ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ v19, etc
In Ephesians 4v22-24 Paul uses a metaphor of putting off the old and putting on the new. He says the change that being a Christian makes to us is a bit like putting off one set of clothes, and putting on a new set of clothes. A change of clothes is something that people notice, the change which our faith makes to us should be noticeable. When we become Christians the change should be noticeable. We put off the old and we put on the new. It is not only putting off (that is negative), it is also putting on (that is positive). The putting off is sweeping the rubbish out of our lives, the putting on is allowing the Holy Spirit in to direct our lives.
It is as though our lives as Christians are written in a biography of two volumes. Volume 1 is the story of our lives before we were Christians – the old self, and Volume 2 is the story of our lives since we became Christians. The old life is finished that is Volume 1, the new life has begun that is Volume 2.
I will never forget preaching at a service of baptism by immersion, probably 40 years ago. I was the Youth Leader and Lay Reader in the church at the time. Opposite the church was a school with a swimming pool, and this particular Sunday morning one of the young people from the youth group was being baptised. So we started the service in church then all went across the road to the swimming pool for the actual baptism.
I used a visual aid based on the TV programme “This is your Life”. Do you remember Eammon Andrews (and later Michael Aspel) surprising people with his ‘Red Book’? My visual aid was based on that idea, except I used two volumes. ‘This is your Life Volume 1’ was the story of the old life. It contained those things of the former self before becoming a Christian. It contained stories of all those things of the old life that we must put off. They must be dead and buried. ‘This is your Life Volume 2’ was the story of the new life, life since becoming a Christian. It contained the stories of the things that we must put on and continue putting on, now we are ‘Risen with Christ’.
The idea was that as I was talking about the old life before becoming a Christian, I would throw Volume 1 into the water of baptism. It would sink to the bottom, dead and buried. Buried in the waters of baptism. Then I would hold up Volume 2 and talk about the things we must put on, because we are risen with Christ, the new life we must now live and in which we want to live. But what happened? As I was talking about the old life I threw Volume 1 into the water, it went down under the water to the bottom of the swimming pool, dead and buried, buried in the waters of baptism. I then held up Volume 2 and began speaking about our new life as Christians with the risen Christ. The problem was that as I was talking about our new life in Christ, Volume 1 that was supposed to be at the bottom of the swimming pool did not stay there, it bobbed up to the surface again. I was a bit embarrassed by this, but carried on talking. I was also annoyed because I had made Volume 1 from a box file in which I had put some weights which I thought would hold it down!
But a wise old elder of the church, someone for whom I had great respect, said to me afterwards. ‘I’m glad it did that, because that is what happens in my experience, the old self bobs back.’ And I agreed with him. This is what the devil wants, he wants to destroy the purposes of God in us, render us ineffective, to make the old self that we thought was dead, dominate us. This was Paul’s experience in Romans 7. There is a spiritual civil war going on inside us. It is as though the old self clings to us and we are always tempted to drift back into the bad old ways. I am sure we all experience this conflict in our own lives as Christians. We know God’s will, love it, but find in our own experience that by ourselves we cannot do it. It’s as though there are two people in our skin, but both pulling in different directions, we are a living civil war.
As I was writing this I stopped for a break and switched on the TV news and there was an item on Covid-19. There was a film of a little boy playing football with his dad. And then he was interviewed and the reporter was asking him about how he felt about going back to school. He said ‘I want to go back, but I don’t want to go back. I want to go back to see my friends and see my teachers; but I don’t want to go back and do school work, and do homework’. A little civil war was going on within him!
In Romans Chapter 7 Paul writes about God’s law, the moral law, the Ten Commandments – and of our inability to keep the law – because of our sin. Paul talks of the relationship between the law and sin in v7-13, and then, in v14 he says ‘For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin’. We know for ourselves that however much we know the law of the Lord, however much we believe it, however much we want to keep it, there are times when we fail. We say we can’t help it. In our own strength we are helpless. Paul himself tries to pass the buck ‘Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me’ v16-17. Paul recognises that in his own power, however good his intentions, sin can be stronger and more powerful than his best intentions.
So Paul writes as though there is a conflict, a civil war going on inside him. He wants to keep God’s law, but sin fights so powerfully within him that it makes it so difficult. He says ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ v19. Then he says in v24‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Not What will rescue me, not what method or what programme or what technique or what experience will rescue me, but ‘Who will rescue me…’ Paul continues in v25a ‘But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ So Paul has argued that we are both free from the law of God, yet we need to keep it. On the one hand we are free from the law as a means of salvation. Salvation is through faith in Christ, it is all of grace. Yet on the other hand we should keep the law as a way of holiness. We are to be holy as God is holy. This is to be our response to that amazing love of God. But in our own strength we fail.
There is a story of an owl and a centipede. The centipede got fed up with walking around on the ground with all those legs so he went to see the owl, the wisest creature in the forest. The owl thought about the problem for a few days and when the centipede came back the owl said ‘I’ve worked out the answer. What you need to do is to learn to fly.’ The centipede said ‘thank you very much, Mr Owl, that’s a great bit of advice, but how?’ To which the Owl replied, ‘Listen centipede, I give you the theory, you work out the practice yourself.’
But God doesn’t say to us ‘go and work it out yourself’. He doesn’t say, ‘Here’s the text book, here’s the theory, you work out how to apply it.’ Of course he doesn’t. He gives us the Holy Spirit, his mark of ownership upon us, but also his power at work in us. Interestingly there is no mention of the Holy Spirit in Romans 7. That must wait until we read Romans 8 next week
Sometimes I question our Lectionary! The Lectionary reading for today is Romans 7v15-25a. Look in your Bible and you will see that this section called ‘The inner conflict’ is v14-25. I do not understand why the lectionary omits v14 ‘For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin’, and also omits v25b which says ‘So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin’. These verses sum up Paul’s argument and our dilemma. With our mind (and heart and soul) we want to serve the law of God, but with our flesh we serve the law of sin. But no one can serve two masters at the same time! This is our civil war.
We must put off the old which is incompatible with our life in Christ, and put on the new, a new lifestyle compatible with it. Holiness is not something into which we drift. It is a deliberate act of our renewed minds. But it is also a continual battle. Remember ‘This is your Life Volume ‘1 bobbing back to the surface of the swimming pool! But thank God, that in Christ and the power of His Spirit, we are on the Victory Side – we read about it in Romans chapter 8.