Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Who Will Free Me?

Romans 7:14-25

There is a Christian doctrine called Original Sin. Usually when we think about sin, we think about individual sins, individual acts against the will of God. Original sin is something much deeper. It is the corruption of the image of God in which we were created. The goodness of God that we had when we first created as a people is gone now. And as a result, we find ourselves incapable of avoiding all those individual sins.

I believe Original Sin to be a true doctrine. The Apostle Paul did, too. But not everyone does. One of the great theological debates of the Church occurred in the 5th century between two men named Augustine and Pelagius over the nature of sin. Pelagius argued that human beings are not inherently sinful, that if we put our minds to it, we could save ourselves. Augustine argued that we are sinners in need of grace.

One of the most prevalent philosophies in our world today is the idea of humanism. And one of the basic tenets of humanism is that we are perfectable. If only we had the right education, the right environment, the right influences, then we could perfect ourselves.

Several years ago, I was listening to call-in Christian radio show, and a caller was arguing that we are not destined to sin. He even went so far as to say that he himself had never sinned.

And just a few months ago, I got into a debate about the nature of sin with a young lady on Facebook. This young woman told me that she could do anything that she put her mind to. So I challenged her. I said, “Okay, then from this moment on, never speak another lie, never disappoint yourself or anyone else, and never hurt another person.” She didn’t answer my challenge. She moved on to another topic. Maybe that was her way of admitting I was right, but not wanting to say so.

One of the great ironies of the world today is the rise of the so-called self-help movement. Here’s a question: If it was your self that got you into trouble in the first place, how can your self also be the solution to the problem? Go into any bookstore and you’ll find a “self-help” section. If you’re buying and reading the book, is it still “self-help?” Isn’t the book helping you?

Well, let’s have a look at our passage. I think in these verses from Romans, Paul is dealing with the two most frequently used religious answers to the problem of sin.

The first is knowledge. For Paul, knowledge meant the Law, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Paul, of course, was raised in a strict Jewish culture. He was a member of the Pharisees, who were well known for their devotion to the Torah. The Jews of Paul’s day believed that there were two warring forces inside every person. You could call forces good and evil. Or you could call them spirit and flesh, or reason and passion, or mind and body. Whatever you want to call them, the basic idea was the same. There is good in us, and there is sin in us. For the Jews of Paul’s day, the key to choosing the good was knowledge, specifically the study of Torah.

But this is inadequate. The problem, as Paul says, is not that there is anything wrong with the ethical teachings of Scripture. They are good. They are wonderful. They teach us right from wrong, good from evil. The problem is that knowing what is right will not make us choose what is right. If we were truly good creatures, then maybe knowledge would be enough, but we are not, so knowledge can’t overcome sin.

We all fall short of the good we know we should do. We fail to live up to God’s standards. For that matter, we fail to live up to our own standards. In a sense, we are all hypocrites. We say one thing, but we do another. We teach others what is good and right, but we fail to live up to our own standards. I know I do. I guess I can’t speak for everyone, but I think what’s true of me is also true of everyone. I wish I could tell you that I keep all the instructions I give to others when I preach. But I can’t say that. I know I don’t. If someone were to call me a hypocrite, which has happened, I would have to say, yes, you’re right, I am.

The second religious solution to sin that also doesn’t work is self-determination, will power. That was the solution that this young woman I was debating turned to.

There are two problems with will power. The first is that sometimes we often don’t know what the right is. Right and wrong are not always easy to define. Sometimes we’re forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. The second problem is that often, no matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves do right. That’s what we mean when we talk about original sin, the corruption of our nature such that we find ourselves unable to choose the good.

That great theologian of the 5th century, Augustine, used a Latin phrase to describe the essence of sin. That phrase was non posse non peccare, which means “not

able not to sin.” And this can cause us great agony. It’s a terrible feeling to know what we should do, but to find ourselves unable to do the good we should.

Now we may be able, by will power, to eliminate some sin from our lives. There may be things that if we put our mind to it, we could stop. But we can’t stop every sin. We can’t push them all out of our lives. And a big part of the reason for that is that we love our sins. We all have those sins in our lives that we don’t want to give up. We may hate them. If we are conscientious, thoughtful people, we hate the wrong we do. But we also love it. And this is a cause of agony.

“Who will rescue me from this wretched prison of sin?”

We need help. We need help from outside ourselves. We don’t need more knowledge. We don’t need more will power. Those things would help, but they wouldn’t “solve” the problem. We need an essential change of our nature. And that is exactly what God wants to do in us through his Holy Spirit.

Ezekiel 36:25-27 says: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new, obedient heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so you will obey my laws and do what I command.”

That’s what we need: a change of heart, a change of our sinful nature into an obedient nature. We need the Holy Spirit to break the power of sin in our lives. Temptations will still come, and they will still be real, but the Holy Spirit can break their power over us and enable us to reject sin.

One of the persistent questions about this passage is to wonder if Paul is describing life before Christ or life after Christ. The best answer seems to be that he is describing life before Christ. For one thing, the verses immediately preceding these describe life lived under the Law without Christ. Also, note how often in this passage Paul uses first person pronouns: I, me, my, mine. It certainly seems to describe a life lived by a self-centered religion rather than a Christ-centered faith. And also, the hopelessness and agony expressed in this passage simply don’t fit with a description of life in Christ.

But I don’t think that means that this passage doesn’t have any relevance to us as believers. We still struggle with sin. Its power over us may be broken, but it still has some power in us. And we can still experience the agony of struggling with sin.

This passage really resonates with me in my story of faith. When I was fifteen years old, I did not know Jesus Christ, and I was okay with that. I was living life my own way and saw no problem with it. But during an experience at one of our United Methodist summer camps, I was convicted of my sin. I resolved to change my life and start living life God’s way. In spite of the fact that I had been raised in the Church, I did not truly understand the message of the gospel or the idea of salvation by grace. I figured all I needed was some more knowledge of God’s word and some more will power.

So I tried to turn my life around on my own. And I can tell you, it caused agony. The sins that had a hold on me still had a hold on me. Knowing what was right couldn’t make me choose right. To know the good but be unable to choose the good is agony.

Fortunately, after trying to live life like this for several months, I was finally able to hear the gospel for what it is. It is not one more religious message saying, “Do this, know this, and everything will be fine.” The gospel says, “You can’t do it on your own. Stop trying, and start trusting.” This is what makes the Christian faith unique. I’ve talked to too many people who think of Christianity as just one more religion. But I have found it to be unique because where others say, “Do this,” Christ says, “You can’t do it, but I did it for you.”

But you know what: I still find this passage relevant to me. I still struggle with sin. I still struggle to choose the good. And I would say to you that whatever good is in me is there because of what Christ has done, not because of who I am. I am not someone worth following. But I know someone who is. And as your pastor, I will not presume to be the “one with all the answers.” I just know the One who is the Answer, and I hope I can help you to know him too.

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