Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7:24-25
We’re learning about law and grace in our lives. Both law and grace call us to obey God. Grace promises we will obey, but law makes no promises. It only adds a threat if we disobey. And we do disobey. We are all law-breakers. We just don’t like taking orders. We don’t like being told what to do. When he was a boy, C. S. Lewis had a dog named Tim. Lewis wrote of his dog, “He never exactly obeyed you; he sometimes agreed with you.” We’re all like that. We want to figure things out for ourselves. But to do God’s will just because it’s his will, just because he’s the one speaking to us – that’s obedience. It is possible to do good things without obedience, in addition to our actual disobedience. And whatever our behavior, good or bad, we are all disobedient to God in our hearts. That’s why we need grace. God’s grace says, “I will so love you, that you can do my will with all your heart.”
God wants to get us beyond fear of being penalized for our disobedience. He wants us to feel this heartcry: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). He wants to create in us hearts that are happy to obey him, because there is no condemnation. God wants to take us there. He wants to take us through the narrow gate of verse 24 – “Wretched man that I am!” – it’s hard to accept that, but it’s also freeing – he wants to take us through that new self-awareness into the open spaces of verse 25 – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Those two key phrases – “Wretched man that I am! . . . Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – they’re another way of saying, You are more evil than you ever feared and much more loved than you ever dreamed.
Remember that Romans 1-5 are Paul’s theological lecture. He presents his message, his gospel, in chapters 1-5. Then chapters 6-11 are the Q & A session after the lecture. Two more people in Paul’s audience ask him questions here in our passage for today. The first question is in verse 7: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin?” After the negative things Paul seems to have said about the law of God, the Ten Commandments and all the other commandments of God, someone raises his hand and wants to know, “Paul, are you saying that the law of God is our problem?” The second question is in verse 13: “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me?” In other words, Does the gospel of Paul misrepresent the law as a destructive power? Obviously, Paul really wants us to understand law and grace in our lives. And in fact, in this section, Paul becomes very personal and even intimate with us. This is one of the most personally honest passages in all the Bible. Paul admits his own weaknesses. What do we learn from that? First, in verses 7-12, we learn how good God’s law is. Secondly, in verses 13-25, we learn how evil we are. And thirdly, we’ll learn how God loves evil people who break his law. So let’s dive right into the ongoing Q & A session here with the apostle Paul.
How good God’s law is
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. —Romans 7:12
The Bible as a whole says two things about God’s law. On the one hand, the Bible says that God’s law is holy, righteous and good. You see those three adjectives here in verse 12. If you didn’t know those three words were describing the Ten Commandments, if I just pulled those three words out and told you they describe something, what might you think of? Word association test: “Holy, righteous and good.” God, right? God is holy, righteous and good. So, the law of God is God himself speaking. He is revealing his own beauty and how we ought to reflect back to him beautiful lives and a beautiful culture and a beautiful world. So that’s one thing the Bible says about the law of God. It’s holy, like God himself. Can you imagine, if we all obeyed the law of God for just one day in this world? It would go down in history as the best of days. Zero crime. Total kindness. Heaven on earth. It would feel like God was among us. The law is holy.
On the other hand, the Bible also says that the law of God fails. In verse 9 Paul admits, “When the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” In other words, When the will of God came into my awareness and I began taking it all seriously, did I get better? No, sin was my knee-jerk reaction. And my whole self-image, that I was such a good guy, was slaughtered in guilt. In the next chapter Paul will say, “. . . what the law was powerless to do” (Romans 8:3, NIV). What was the law powerless to do? Make us better people. Only grace can do that. So the law of God is both holy and powerless.
In fact, it gets worse. The law of God calls us to the perfection we would love to attain – Who doesn’t want to be a better person? Who doesn’t want the world to be a better place? But the very law that calls us to perfection at the same time arouses in us rebellion. As the voice of holiness in our lives, powerless to help us, look what happens:
For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Romans 7:7-8
Paul is making it personal. He isn’t blaming anyone else. He isn’t confessing someone else’s sins. He’s confessing his own sin and failure in the moral crisis of his life. You can see how, for the rest of this chapter, he makes it intensely personal. What does Paul tell us about himself? Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul tells us that all his life he had kept up a good record: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6). He managed to keep up model behavior. But his by-the-book righteousness actually made him a violent man. He was a righteous, violent man. How did he get out of that? The hard way, the only way. He read the tenth commandment and he began to see himself. In the blazing light of “You shall not covet,” he saw his heart producing all kinds of covetousness.
You and I are like Paul. Take the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.” We’re probably okay on that one, at a technical level. We probably haven’t shot anyone lately. But the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet,” cannot be obeyed at a merely technical level. It goes right to the heart. What is God saying to us in the tenth commandment? To covet is to feel something, and some emotions are sin. We may tell ourselves, “I can’t help what I feel.” Okay. That only means, you can’t help sinning. To covet is to desire something I have no right to. To covet is to be discontented with what I have because you have what will really make me happy. To covet is to see someone else with the body I wish I had, the brains I wish I had, the money I wish I had, the recording contract I wish I had, the breaks I wish I had, the reputation I wish I had, and so forth – all this frustration and envy and resentment and anger my heart is producing as I walk through everyday life – that is covetousness. Then the commandment compounds my frustration by telling me my frustration is itself sin. The tenth commandment is telling me, “Ray, that feeling in your heart is sin. That feeling is what’s making a hell of this world. It explains every war, every act of theft, every word of slander. That feeling in your heart belongs in hell. It is a sin not to be contented with what God has given you. It is a sin to look at someone whose life is going well and be sad. You shall not covet. And if you do, you will be condemned.” That’s what the law says. And it’s the truth. And our consciences know it’s the truth.
But what if God wanted to be so nice that he never made covetousness an issue? What if he so wanted to protect our hearts from pain that he just didn’t bring it up? Without the tenth commandment getting up in our faces, we would have felt justified in our selfish thoughts. We’d tell ourselves we had every right to feel this way. We’d suck up covetousness so naturally, we wouldn’t even put it in a moral category. We’d put it in a self-esteem category. And then we’d put the cherry of self-pity on top of our heap of coveting. It would never occur to us to feel this way: “I’m so thankful to God for my life. I’m so happy to see other people succeed. I even want to encourage other people.” That level of humility just isn’t in us. We think, “Hey, I’m not burning that rich guy’s house down. I’m okay.” But we’re not okay, and we need to know we’re not okay. So God pulls up to the surface all that non-okay-ness through his law. It is too easy for us to be complacent, self-satisfied people. But complacent, self-satisfied people, however well behaved, go to hell, because they’re so good, too good for Jesus. So God exposes our hearts with the tenth commandment and shows us the jealousies, the fantasies, the selfishness at work down inside us and how far our hearts are from humility and gratitude and joy.
Here’s what happens to us under the power of the law: “Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Romans 7:11). When we become aware of how much we need to change, what do we do? We take up the challenge: “Okay, God. You want me to make the best of my life and be happy for other people to be in the limelight? Yes, Sir!” And off we go, to obey God with the false hope of our own willed obedience and our own self-mastery by the law. But when God said, “You shall not covet,” he wasn’t implying we could obey. He wanted to show us beauty, the beauty of God himself. So you want to obey the tenth commandment? Good. But sin will deceive you into thinking you can. And then it will kill your smug self-esteem by undermining your good intentions. You’ll discover that you are more evil than you ever feared. Here’s the point: Stop blaming God for your failures. He is holy, righteous and good. There is only one person in all the universe that doesn’t need to say, “I’m sorry,” and that person isn’t you.
How evil we are
So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. —Romans 7:25
Paul admits here, in a heart-breaking way, that he is a divided man even as a Christian. He came to a new self-awareness through the tenth commandment. But that was just the beginning. Now as a Christian, he continues to see the same pattern throughout his life, and he is frustrated. Here is what he cannot bring under control: His conscience and his desires keep pulling him in opposite directions. And that is how he answers the question in verse 13, “Did that which is good bring death to me?” In other words, Is the law of God my problem? Can I blame God for my misery and dysfunction and bondage? Has the holiness of God brought all this death and shame into my life? Was I a fool ever to take God seriously in the first place? Should I just give up?
We’ve got to see the depth of our own corruption. You won’t hear about this on TV. You’ve got to come down to church to hear this about the you inside you. Verse 17: “Sin dwells within me.” Verse 18: “Nothing good dwells in me.” Verse 20: “Sin dwells within me.” Sin is like a squatter living down in our hearts, not legitimately there, but impossible to get rid of by any law or behavior regimen or ethos of self-esteem. It’s why Paul speaks of himself this way: Verse 14: “Sold under sin.” Verse 15: “I do the very thing I hate.” Verse 19: “The evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Verse 23: “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me a captive.” Is that you? It sure is me.
What are we learning? We’re learning that laws and rules and threats and ultimatums and so forth are not the problem, but neither are they the remedy. Our problem is too deep inside us. Our hearts are so deeply evil that we need more than instruction and challenge. We need grace. The only remedy for hearts like ours is God’s grace. The key word in verses 7-12 was “law.” God’s law is holy. And the key word in verses 13-25 is “I/me/my,” because that’s where our problem lies. The paragraph starts out, “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh.” Then Paul sums it all up in verse 25: “So then, I myself serve the law of God in my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
We need this in Nashville today. We have an idol, the most formidable idol in our city, worshiped even by us Christians. It’s the idol of outward appearances – looking good, looking successful, keeping up a strong front. We crave human approval, so we present a made-up persona to those around. We’re like swans on a lake – swimming along so elegantly, but under the surface paddling like crazy. We look good. But the truth is, we have so much unconfessed sin, so much hidden brokenness, so many secrets breaking our hearts even as we keep smiling. So God uses his law to go right to the heart. What God wants for every one of us is a heart filled with the Holy Spirit, so that a new you flows out of a new heart. And it’s all of grace. It begins with total acceptance through the finished work of Christ on the cross. If Jesus accepts you, does it matter as much what other people think? If the Holy Spirit indwells you, is it a crisis to admit the problems that are also inside there? The worst that can happen to you and me is not to lose face. The worst that can happen is never to know the joyful shout, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul had a passion to be real with God, and God met that passion with grace. Are you living a Christian life out of personal experience of God’s grace, or because living a non-Christian life in Nashville Tennessee would be embarrassing? “Wretched man that I am!” is so freeing – hard, but freeing. It’s hard to use the word “wretched” about ourselves, but it’s true. That word means distressed, troubled, miserable. It’s a word of suffering, because every sinner is also, and for that reason, a sufferer. It is hard but freeing to come under conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit and admit the truth.
How can we get there? What is the gateway into the joy of “Thanks be to God”? Every one of us needs to repent in three ways. One, before you can feel the joyful shout “Thanks be to God” you must repent of your actual sins, your past, your record, what you have done and left undone – in specific detail. Two, before you can feel the joyful shout “Thanks be to God” you must repent of your sinful heart, your sin nature, your latent sinfulness within. Run from yourself. Turn around and take God’s side against yourself. Paul is doing that very thing here in Romans 7. His heart breaks his heart. Three, before you can feel the joyful shout “Thanks be to God” you must repent of your appearances and your good record and that arch-sin of sins, your righteousness. You must understand that the best prayer you ever sent up, the one you’re proudest of, may be your worst offense. The idolatry of Self is the last stronghold of rebellion within. We must feel in our hearts that we have no righteousness of our own at all and that Jesus Christ is our only hope. And we can go into repentance, we can open our hearts and receive the conviction of the Holy Spirit without denial or repression or transference, because God loves sinners.
How God loves evil people who break his law
Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). If you’re righteous, Jesus has nothing to say to you. But if you’re sinful and out of control, he’s calling you into his grace. What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love that disregards what you deserve and loves you with all the more tenderness because of your misery. Grace is love that loves you when you can’t even stand yourself. Grace is the one-way love of God moving toward you in all your need. The only lasting change we can hope for is to receive by faith a love too great to be limited to what we deserve. And that is how God loves. When we hide our sins in denial, God drags them out into the open by his law. When we drag our sins out into the open in confession, God hides them under the blood of Christ. And that’s how we start changing. The Bible says, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s love and acceptance and tenderness, putting our sins onto the cross of Christ, awaken our love in return as no law could ever do. And our hearts say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
What sin have you been concealing and denying and ignoring? What has God been speaking to you about? Confess it. You can. He loves sinners through the cross of Christ.