Download or listen to The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, “Worse Before Better” (Romans 7:14-25)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You would think that things would get better when you become a Christian. You would think things would be better when you have the Holy Spirit. You would think things would be better when you are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. You would think things would get better. In fact, some people are so convinced of it that they hear St. Paul’s words in Romans 7 and they either think that he is putting words in the mouths of Gentiles, or he is speaking of himself before and after: before, he fought and struggled and failed. After he has the victory and prevails. Before, he was sold as a slave to sin, but after he is free. Before, he lived according to the letter; after he lives according to the Spirit. It is indeed before-and-after, but not as such people think. Paul’s before was a life free from struggle. He didn’t fight his flesh, or the desires of his flesh. He didn’t struggle against what his sinful nature wanted. He went along gladly. He did whatever he thought was right, what he thought was good, what he thought was pleasing to God. And that’s the part that throws people. Paul, in his flesh, was not less religious or anti-religious; he was very, very religious, but it was the wrong religion. It was the religion of deciding what pleased God, instead of allowing God to reveal what was pleasing to Him. It was the religion of standing by, cloaks piled at your feet, while a man named Stephen is stoned to death. This is how backwards our flesh gets things: the very things that we think are most pleasing to God may be, instead, directly opposed to God. What our flesh thinks is service to God, may be rebellion against God. It’s not until Jesus knocks Paul off his horse, blinds him, and says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” that Paul realizes that his flesh had everything wrong. Then Paul is baptized by Ananias, then he hears the Word of God with the Apostles, then he and they understand that they are preaching the same Gospel. Then Paul realizes what is truly pleasing to God: faith in His Son Christ.
It is not until Paul receives the Holy Spirit that the scales fall from his eyes, and he sees clearly who he is. Only someone with the Holy Spirit can see the truth of Paul’s words here, that the battle has only begun, the struggle just started, the fight is not even close to being over. Only with the Holy Spirit can we see that the flesh really is the flesh, sin really is sin, and our Savior really is our Savior. If you don’t have the Holy Spirit, you will not see your sin as sin. You will only decide what to do based on what you think is best. The flesh is very pragmatic, very practical: will this be good or bad for me as I consider goodness or badness? If good, do it. If bad, don’t do it. But the Holy Spirit does not show us what is sin according to our own feelings about the matter. The Holy Spirit uses the Law to make sin really and truly sin to the uttermost. Since you have the Holy Spirit, since you have the Word of God, you know, like Paul, what is right and what you ought to do and not do. But this means that things are worse, not better. Because before you could just go along to get along. Before you could just do what you wanted, and it only mattered insofar as the consequences affected you one way or the other. If you didn’t know something was wrong, and you did it, how did it matter? If you didn’t know something was right, and you didn’t do it, how did it matter? But now you know, and that means things are worse. Because now you know what the Law really requires, but now you also know that you do not do it. You find that the things you know are right, you don’t do; the things you know are wrong, you do. So do I. I find it to be a law within me that when I want to do what is right, sin is right there, clinging to me. The Spirit is willing; the flesh is weak.
So it’s worse than I thought: because not only do I know what is right and not do it; not only do I know what is wrong and do it; but I can’t seem to get free of this dilemma. There seems to be a stalemate between the flesh and the Spirit, where neither can move forward because of the other. The battle lines are drawn, but I cannot win. I cannot get free. Now that I know how things are, I really know myself and my own weakness. Wretched man am I! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I cannot deliver myself; I cannot save myself. I can’t get free of this net where I am both sold as a slave under sin and also, I am free in the Spirit. And it’s true. I cannot deliver myself from this body of death. But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, we have a deliverer. It is not a stalemate, this life I live. In fact, it’s not really me at all. I am not one person any more, 50/50, or 60/40, or 75/25. There are no percentages at all. There are two of me, 100% and 100%. There is me sold as a slave to sin, dying off; and there is me, slave to Christ, free from sin and death. There is no Scripture about things gradually getting better and better. There is only this life and the life to come. There is only the sinner, who has been sentenced to death, and the saint, alive forever with Jesus. And the person who is still a sinner and who has the Holy Spirit faces this war under the cross. Things will not get better and better, as far as the flesh is concerned, because the cross is going to crush the sinner. And things will not get better and better as far as the Spirit is concerned, because you can’t be more alive or more holy than Christ. So, Paul says in the rest of verse 25, with my mind—my renewed mind, the mind of Christ—I serve the Law of God. I delight in the Law. I rejoice in the freedom of the will of God. But with my flesh I serve the law of sin. And this battle will continue until the day I die. Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! He has nailed this body of death to the cross. He has done everything that has to be done for me to be delivered. And there will be a day when I will no longer be two, but one: one spiritual man in Christ, and the body of death will finally be dead and gone. Before I was all flesh, all sight, all sin and death. Now I am all faith: flesh by sight and Spirit by faith; dead in the flesh and alive by faith in Christ; sinner in myself and holy in Christ. Then I will be all spiritual body and soul, all sight, all glory. Then there will be no more Law, because I will simply be in the fulfilled will of God. Then there will be no more Gospel, because everything, including me and you, will be completely restored and healed. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/5/14