I’m not much of a golfer. As you can see, I have a set of clubs and a nice bag stuffed with golf balls and tons of little wooden “T’s.” I have a leather golf glove with a snap that comes off to mark your ball on the green. I have this towel to wipe my hands if they get sweaty so they don’t slip when I swing. I even have this pair of fairly snazzy oxford golf shoes. But usually all my golf gear is stuffed in a corner at the back of the garage covered in dust and spider webs because, I only actually PLAY golf when I HAVE to play golf.
For example, I have a very good friend that I have known since my seminary days and he loves the game so whenever we get together—I play golf.
It gives us a good chance to talk and catch up.
A few years back—to build staff unity and comradery—Hugh, Aaron, Steve, and I decided to play nine holes together over at Needwood—so I dusted off my clubs for that “staff meeting” and headed for the fairways.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I do have fun when I play golf. It’s just that when I measure the amount of frustration I experience against the amount of fun I have—well, the frustration always seems to come out way ahead. I’m sure it’s because I haven’t played enough golf to develop my skill but the fact is that pimply little ball will simply NOT go where I want it to go—and that can be SO frustrating!
I remember playing an obligatory game with friends years ago—and the tee off area at the 12th hole was at the precipice of a deep narrow valley with the green directly opposite on the other side. I watched my friends use their drivers to easily lob their balls across the valley to land over on the green but when it came my turn, I topped the ball and instead of soaring over to land on the green, it rolled down into the bottom of that valley. I hiked down there and took a whack with my 5 iron and the ball went high—and in the right direction—both major miracles for someone of my level of “skill” but it didn’t quite make it over the rim of the valley. Instead it landed on the edge and then started rolling back toward me. It picked up speed and rolled all the way back down, coming to a stop just a few feet from where I stood. I tried over and over again with various irons—and each time the same basic thing happened. The ball would go up…but never quite far enough…and would roll right back down to where I was steaming—I mean, standing.
Now—my friends had a lot of fun with this. From their perch above, they thoroughly enjoyed watching my feeble attempts down in that valley to get that little ball up on the green but I have to tell you—I was NOT having fun! After about 15 tries I finally gave up and stomped on to the next tee. It was just one more example of the kind of frustration I have experienced over and over again in this maddening game…and I say “maddening” because golf almost always makes me mad!
I mean, the thing I want to do with that golf ball I just can NOT do…and the thing I do NOT want to do—well, that is the very thing I do—over and over and over again!
Now—do the words of that last sentence sound familiar? They should because they are almost a direct quote of one of the most popular parts of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. In fact, the late Ray Stedman once jokingly said that this portion of Romans is proof that Paul was a golfer! Take your Bibles, turn to chapter 7 and let’s read these words together. Our text includes the entire chapter but because of time constraints we’ll begin with verse 14.
14 – We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.
15 – I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.
16 – And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.
17 – As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
18 – I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
19 – For 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.
20 – Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 – So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
22 – For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;
23 – but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
24 – What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
25 – Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Well, would you say that Paul’s words are “on par” with your experience as a Christian? Do you ever find yourself ashamed….because you did something you knew you shouldn’t have done, AGAIN, or discouraged because didn’t do something you know you should? The hands of all honest Christians should be raised at this point—because we all go through times like this. In fact, some of you probably experienced this kind of frustration just now—because you knew you should have raised your hand but you didn’t! Well, in this familiar text, God has used the Apostle Paul to convey some basic facts that we need to grasp as Christians if we are to deal with this kind of discouragement.
(1) First we need to remember the true PURPOSE of the law.
You see, many times our feelings of despair over those times we fall short in our attempts to live Godly lives—our despair comes from our belief that by obeying the law, we either save ourselves or at least make ourselves more worthy of God’s salvation. We fail in some area of life—an area where we have repeatedly failed before—and we think,
“Well, that’s it. God’s not going to forgive me this time. I’ve messed up like this over and over again and I just don’t DESERVE to ask for His forgiveness again.”
Now—don’t get me wrong. I’m not excusing sin. To use Paul’s words from the prior chapter, BY NO MEANS! But if you’ve ever thought that you didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness—or if you’re thinking it right now—then let me ask: Who told you that you DESERVED His forgiveness the FIRST time? Because you didn’t. There never has been and never will be a time when God forgives us because we deserve it or earn it. His grace doesn’t work that way. Plus—when you became a Christian—when you came to Christ initially and asked for His forgiveness, He knew every sin you had committed and every sin you would commit right up until the end of your life. So Jesus saved you, knowing all that! He WAS willing and STILL IS willing to call you His child. Nothing can change the BLESSED ASSURANCE of that comforting fact.
In his book, The Grip of Grace, Max Lucado writes,“Your temptation isn’t late-breaking news in Heaven. Your sin doesn’t surprise God. He saw it coming. Is there any reason to think that the One Who received you the first time won’t receive you every time?” Of course not!
And the fact that you feel convicted about your failure—well, that in itself is a good sign—because it indicates that you still have a desire to please God.
In any case, this thinking that when we fail to obey the law….when we fail to DO what we shouldn’t and DON’T DO what we should—thinking that this kind of behavior makes us lose our salvation…thinking that our failures—even our repeated ones…cause God to cast us aside and stop loving us—well this is all FLAWED thinking. It’s not Biblical because, God’s law was never meant to SAVE us. It was meant to GUIDE us.
It’s purpose first and foremost was to help sinful people like you and me know what sin is. You see sin has warped us such that it even affects our moral perceptions. Sin leads us astray in every possible way. And so God gave us His law as a “plumb line” of sorts to show us how crooked our paths can become. He gave the law for us to use as a mirror so we can see things as sin that we wouldn’t see otherwise. In verse 7 Paul refers to this fact when he says, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’”
Well, with His law, God is saying to us—that this kind of behavior is not acceptable. Coveting is wrong. It will only bring us and others pain. It is far short of His holy standard. It is sin. And, we NEED God’s “legal” guidance in all areas of life. We need it in our perceptions and attitudes and actions—we need Him to show us the difference between right and wrong. We need Him to teach us what sin is—because we ARE flawed beings—whose sin extends to the point of our trying to cover over our rebellion. This is seen in our tendency to excuse our sin or to camouflage it by giving it more respectable names. John Philips writes,
“Men say someone is ‘an EXTROVERT with a lively imagination.’ God says he is a LIAR. They speak of a certain book as being ‘DARING.’ God would call it FILTHY. They say a man has had ‘an AFFAIR.’ God says he has committed ADULTERY.”
And he’s right. We don’t call certain things “sin” anymore do we!? Of course not—to do so would sound too harsh. God’s law was given to correct that kind of folly and expose sin for what it really is.
But, in any case, God’s law was never meant to save us. It’s purpose was to help us to see that we are sinners in NEED of saving. The law shines the light of God’s holiness on our actions and attitudes and in so doing shows how desperately we need a Savior.
A second thing we need to understand in order to deal with the frustration that comes from our failure to live Godly lives is this…
(2) We need to understand WHY the Christian life seems like such a struggle.
When we became Christians, God’s Spirit came to live in our hearts. That’s the new nature Paul is referring to when he says in verses 18ff,
“There is a wishing in me now…a new desire for the good…now I WANT to do good ..”
And all believers have this NEW nature—this NEW yearning to do GOOD but we since we still live in this flesh we still have the OLD nature as well—the old fleshly yearning to do BAD and as Paul says in verse 23, our old evil nature constantly WARS against the new nature. The Christian life seems like a struggle because that’s exactly what it is!
Robert Louis Stevenson was once asked, “Where did you find the model for your character of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” and he said, “I found it in my own nature.” Stevenson was a Christian who had learned that inside of every child of God there is indeed a BEAST of sorts. Every believer has an OLD beastly “Mr. Hyde self” waging war against a new godly self. This is what Paul is talking about in verse 20 when he says, “If I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” Martin Luther once said, “When I became a believer I thought I had drowned the old man in me but the rascal knew how to swim.” Well Luther was right. Our old nature is still around and it never gives up on this side of Heaven. It never stops trying to get the best of you. It works against your desires to be holy. It tries to sabotage your efforts to be good.
In verse 8 Paul says that sin, “seizes every opportunity…” and that’s what the sin nature—the flesh—the old nature—or whatever you want to call it. That’s what it does. It looks for every opportunity to be sinful. It never stops trying to get the best of you. Paul points out that one evidence of this “rascal” — this sinful “beast” within us—is the fact it goes so far as to make us look at God’s law as nothing more than another opportunity to sin. In verse 8 he says, “sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, [‘do not covet’] produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”
Can you relate to Paul’s statement? When you see a sign like this what do you want to do? I don’t know about you but a voice inside me says, “Push that button. You know you want to. Push it. See what happens!” When I’m on the interstate headed out on vacation and I see a speed limit sign—I think, “How fast can I go and not get a ticket? Is it five miles over or is it twelve?”
This week I read about a hotel on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in the Galveston area that put this notice in each room: “No Fishing from the Balcony.” In spite of that sign, every day, hotel guests were seen throwing their lines down into the water below. So the management decided to try a different approach. They removed all the “no fishing” signs. When they did, the fishing stopped immediately. The sign had apparently “ignited” the guests’ desire to sin. It was “bait” that those vacationers just could not resist.
I’m reminded of a story about a woman who objected to her church reciting the 10 Commandments because, and I quote, “Those commandments put too many ideas into people’s heads.” And in a sense this woman was right because our sinful fleshly self has never seen a law it didn’t want to break.
But—I want to underscore the fact that the problem isn’t the law. As Paul puts it in verse 7, “Is the law sin? Certainly not!” No—the law is not to blame for our sin—WE are. In the immortal words of that old Sunday Comic strip character, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Look at verse 14, where Paul says, “..the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” If you were to read chapter 7 and count, you would find that some form of the personal pronoun, is used 41 times. So it’s clear that Paul is saying, “Hey…we ALL have an ‘I’ problem.” The issue here is not SIN but SELF—it’s that old nature—the flesh. Whenever we fail—whenever we do what we don’t want to do—what we know we shouldn’t do—it’s because we give in to the desires of the flesh. Remember what Jesus said in the Garden of Gesthemane when He saw His disciples napping in the hour of His arrest? He said, “The SPIRIT is willing but the FLESH is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
This reminds me of a story from a tremendously theological book entitled Frog and Toad Together. Allow me to share an excerpt:
Toad bakes some cookies.
“These cookies SMELL good,” said Toad. He ate one. “They TASTE even better,” he said.
Toad ran to Frog”s house.
“Frog, Frog,” cried Toad. “Taste these cookies that I have made.” Frog ate one of the cookies.
“These are the best cookies I have ever eaten,” said Frog.
Frog and Toad ate many cookies one after another.
“You know, Toad,” said Frog with his mouth full. “I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick.”
“You are right,” said Toad. “Let”s eat one last cookie and then we will stop.”
Frog and Toad ate one last cookie.
There were many cookies left in the bowl.
“Frog,” said Toad, “Let us eat one VERY last cookie and then we will stop.”
Frog and Toad ate one very last cookie.
“We must stop eating,” cried Toad as he ate another.
“Yes,” said Frog, reaching for a cookie. “We need willpower.”
“What is willpower?” asked Toad.
“Will power is trying hard not to do something you really want to do.” said Frog.
“You mean like trying NOT to eat these cookies?”Asked Toad.
“Right,” said Frog.
Frog put the cookies in the box. “There, now we will not eat any more cookies.”
“But we can open the box,” said Toad.
“That is true,” said Frog.
Frog tied some string around the box. “There. Now we will not eat any more cookies.”
“But we can cut the string and open the box,” said Toad.
“That is true,” said Frog. Frog got a ladder. He put the box up high on a shelf.
“There,” said Frog. “Now we will not eat any more cookies.”
“But we can climb the ladder and take the box down from the shelf and cut the string and open the box,” said Toad.
“That”s true,” said Frog.
Frog climbed the ladder, took down the box from the shelf, cut the string, and opened the box.
He took the box outside and shouted in a loud voice, “Hey, birds, here are cookies!” Birds came from everywhere. They picked up all the cookies in their beaks and flew away.
“Now, we have no more cookies to eat,” said Toad sadly. “Not even one.” “Yes,” said Frog. “But we have lots and lots of willpower.”
“You may keep it all, Frog,” said Toad. “I”m going home to bake a cake.”
So many times—we do what we shouldn’t do—because like the Toad here, we let our old fleshy “cake-loving” nature win. And—one implication we should take from this uncomfortable fact, is that we need to learn to feed the NEW nature and starve the OLD. It’s like the man who confessed to a friend that he had this inner conflict going on all the time and when asked to describe it he said it was like two dogs inside him fighting all the time. His friend said, “Well, which dog usually wins?” and the man said, “The one I feed the most.”
Well, be honest. Which do you feed the most? I mean, do you have some favorite sin—that you’re not ready to let go of—so in those times when you are weak you feed it? Listen! Don’t be a fool! Starve that sinful desire—whatever it is! For example, if you’ve got a hunger to be in the know—don’t feed it gossip. Mind your own business! If you yearn for instant physical pleasure to make your life seem less boring—don’t feed it sexual images! If you have a weak ego that longs to feel important, don’t feed it compliments you don’t deserve. And if your trust in God is weak—don’t feed your fear. In every way possible, STARVE your old nature. Avoid places where you will see things you shouldn’t or be tempted to do things you know are wrong. AND—don’t stop there—FEED your NEW nature. Feed it with daily prayer and Bible study and corporate worship. As Paul puts it in Philippians 4:8-9, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…think about such things….FEED YOUR NEW NATURE SUCH THINGS….and the peace of God will be with you!”
But—whenever you feel discouraged or defeated as a disciple of Jesus—remember—there’s a reason for that feeling. There’s a war being waged inside your heart.
And—it may make you feel better to know that you’re not the only one who has waged this war. In fact, I can say that in all truthfulness, you are in some pretty good company. The best proof of this is seen in remembering who it is that is writing this letter and confessing his own failures. Who is it? Right! It’s none other than the Apostle Paul. And note—he’s writing in the PRESENT tense. He’s not talking about something that happened back in his immature early days as a believer. He says, “I DO not—right now—understand this….it IS sin living in me…”
He confesses, “I DO not DO the good things I want to do…” not “It DID not do the things I wanted to DO.” “I SEE—not I SAW—I SEE another law working in my body.” Paul anguishes, “What a miserable man I AM—not WAS…” He is writing in the present tense. For all we know Paul was engaged in spiritual combat even as he wrote this letter…he was battling sinful desires at the same time God was using him to write the Bible. And when you think of it, what more strategic time would there be for the adversary to attack? I’m sure satan feared the fruit of these Scriptures.
Well, what about your own struggles? Could it be that you are under an attack of some sort—could it be that you are struggling with temptation right now because satan fears the fruit of your walk with Jesus? Could he be prodding your sinful nature in an attempt to frustrate something important that God wants to do in and through you? Could he be encouraging your hunger for some WRONG thing—to keep you from doing some RIGHT thing? I would say—yes—that is VERY possible! In any case, remember—you are in good company. Peter struggled with this inner battle. Paul did. As I said a moment ago, Martin Luther did.
And once again—I am not condoning sin—but there is a way in which your AGONY over sin authenticates your commitment to Jesus. I mean—think about it—unbelievers are the ones who can sin without blushing…so it’s a good sign that your sin bothers you.
So…do deal with the frustration of the times when you fail to obey God:
—remember the purpose of the law—it was not meant to save you but rather to show that you need saving.
—understand the Christian life seems like such a struggle because it is a struggle,
(3) …and finally, and most importantly, HUMBLE yourself and admit that you can’t win this struggle on your own.
I mean, winning this inner war that we all wage—well, it’s not about your TRYING as much as it is about your TRUSTING. You see, to win you have to rely on Jesus’ power more than your own. Now—some veterans of this inner conflict advise that you do nothing—turn it all over to God. Others say you need to exert willpower. They say that to win requires personal effort. Well, neither of these options works. I like what Jerry Bridges says. He writes,“For years I struggled back and forth between the self-effort and the no-effort approaches to personal holiness. Finally, I realized the neither was Biblical. I came to what I call DEPENDENT RESPONSIBILITY. I am responsible to obey God, but I’m dependent on the Holy Spirit to enable me to do that.”
Bridges is right—to win this struggle requires DEPENDENT RESPONSIBILITY. We need to obey God—but we need to humble ourselves and depend on God’s Spirit living in us to do so.
Paul underscored this fact over and over and over again. In Colossians 1:27 he said, “It is Christ IN YOU…the hope of Glory.” In Philippians 4:13 he said, “I can do all things THROUGH CHRIST Who strengthens me.” And in verse 25 of our text he says, “Who will rescue me from this war that I am losing? Christ Jesus our Lord!” In other words you and I can’t win this inner battle between the old and new natures on our own. We’ll fail every time we try. We need outside help—or more accurately INSIDE help. We need to rely on Jesus’ power.
Now, I’m not a life guard but I’m told that a drowning victim cannot be saved until he stops trying to save himself. Sometimes the life guard even has to knock a guy senseless to save him. Only then will he relax so the life guard can do his job. I read this week that some life guards will actually wait until the person gives up and starts to go under for the last time before he even attempts to save them. They know that a person who is flailing has adrenalin flowing through their system giving them enormous strength….so it’s best to wait for them to give up before they attempt a rescue.
Well, at the end of this chapter Paul says he feels like he is about to go under. He says, “I’m doomed. What a wretched man I am! I’m worn out! I’m sick and tired! I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. What am I going to do? Who will rescue me from this sinful flesh—this body of death?” Then as I said, he answers his own question in verse 25 saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Paul is saying that the only way to live the Christian life is to let Jesus Christ live it through you. You cannot live it on your own power. You’re doomed to failure if you try. Let me put it this way. The Christian life is not a hard life—it is an impossible life. You can’t do it without the power of God’s Spirit. You can’t live the Christian life on your own strength anymore than you can walk on water on your own strength.
Now—I’d like us all to close our eyes for a moment so we can each think more clearly. Here’s the question I want you to consider. What is that main bad thing that you do—that thing you don’t want to keep doing but you do? I know tons of answers may pop in your head. You may be thinking of a number of bad things you do that you don’t want to do…but just think of the bad thing pops to the top of the pile…and even now you know what I’m talking about—it’s your one besetting sin…the behavior you can’t—or won’t give up. Keep your eyes closed but raise your hands and snap your fingers….because I want you all to HEAR that you are not alone.
Now—if you don’t feel guilty about that one sin—well, that’s a very bad thing. I mean if you have hardened your heart and are justifying some behavior that God calls sin…well in a very real sense it is as if you have deserted and gone over to the other side…so if that describes you, then right now I strongly encourage you to pray David’s prayer. “Create in me a clean heart Oh God and RENEW a RIGHT spirit in me.” In other words, you need to say, “God, my thinking is all mixed up—I’m actually justifying the sin that Jesus died to pay for. Help me…heal my thinking….renew a right spirit in me. Help me to feel bad about this.”
Now—let me talk to those of you who DO feel guilty about your failure. I would remind you that this is a good thing. You should feel bad for doing bad. But I would also remind you that God forgives. As 1st John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sin He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So let’s all do that—confess your sin to God and ask for His forgiveness. Then commit to quit fighting Him over this sin in the future. Ask Jesus to take over—to empower you to say NO…to whatever sinful behavior you are thinking about.
LET US PRAY
Thank You for loving us—while we were still sinners—lost in our sin. Thank You for sending Your Son to die in our place so we could be forgiven.
Help us to feel Your forgiveness this morning—for these sins that beset and enslave us.
Free us Father—and empower us to live truly righteous lives.
I ask this in JESUS’ name. AMEN
As we stand and sing, I invite you to respond publically in any way you feel led. Come and profess your faith in Jesus…come and ask to join our church…but come as God leads.
Let the PEACE OF CHRIST rule in your hearts
since as members of one body you were called to peace.
Let the WORD OF CHRIST dwell in you richly
and whatever you do…in word or in deed
Do it all in the NAME OF CHRIST giving thanks to God the Father