Those who find it relatively easy to lose weight can’t see the not-so-civil war that’s constantly being waged inside those who must struggle to drop pounds. I, for example, want to do the good that is eating less junk food and more healthy food. In fact, I know that I should eat fewer potato chips and bowls of ice cream, and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet I also sometimes crave less healthy food like donuts and pizza.
I also want to exercise more and sit around in my easy chair less. I know that I should be watching television less, and walking and riding our exercise bike more. Yet it’s so tempting to just skip a few days of exercise in order to vegetate in front of the television or computer screen.
In other words, I have a pretty good idea of what’s good for me. But I find it very hard to do the good that I know. It’s far easier just to keep doing the wrong things that, for example, got me into my weight predicament in the first place.
Paul sets his discussion about a similar struggle in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s discussion of the law, of which his view is complex. The apostle sees the law as holy. He also recognizes that the law reveals God’s will and, as such, is a kind of tape measure by which we can measure our behavior.
Yet he also knows that the law can’t free God’s adopted children from slavery to sin. In fact, and this is perhaps hardest for his readers to understand, Paul insists that sin has somehow taken not only people, but also the law captive. As a result, the law somehow tempts us to sin.
Might we think about that this way? A child might never want to touch that beautiful piece of pottery on your shelf. But what happens if you tell her not to touch it? Doesn’t it often seem as though she wants to test you by doing so? It’s almost as if your “law” is what tempts the child to sin.
Perhaps, in a similar way, God’s law tempts people by telling us what we may not do. That may be one reason why Paul, a shrewd observer of the human condition, deduces that instead of justifying people, the law condemns us. The law in that sense brings not life, but death.
However, Paul also insists that Christ has freed baptized Christians from slavery to sin. God has, in fact, graciously raised us to a new life of faithful obedience. So Jesus’ followers no longer have a good excuses for continuing to sin. We can’t even any longer claim that “the devil made me do it!” After all, while sin remains very powerful, it no longer dictates what God’s adopted children do, say and think.
And yet sin remains vigorous even enough in God’s adopted children to deeply puzzle Paul. “I do not understand what I do,” the apostle wonders in verse 15a. He knows he neither must nor should sin anymore. In fact, our desires are often more closely aligned with God’s holy law than our actions. God has, in fact, graciously freed Christians’ desires to align with God’s holy will for us. But our actions somehow stubbornly cling to sin and death.
The Holy Spirit has graciously raised God’s beloved people to a life of thankful and joyful obedience. Yet we sometimes act as if we’re still dead and buried in the grave of our sins. Quite simply, Christians generally know and want to do what’s good. Yet we often find that we can’t carry out the good we want to do.
So, for example, Jesus’ followers want to be loyal friends, loving spouses, good parents, and devoted children. We want to be hard-working employees, supportive co-workers, good citizens, and thoughtful neighbors. Yet we naturally find it so much easier to be fickle, lazy and stingy.
God’s adopted sons and daughters long to be energetic, physically fit and free from anxiety. Jesus’ followers want to be gentle, patient and generous. We want to be racially just and sensitive. So why do we so easily find ourselves so selfish, temperamental and insensitive?
Fleming Rutledge, to whom I’m indebted for many of this Commentary’s ideas, notes that nations struggles with similar issues. North Americans and their countries want, for example, to be racially just. Yet we still find it very tempting to prop up rather than tear down racist institutions and power structures.
The great theologian of the early church, Augustine, compared our stubborn wills to our minds giving our bodies orders. When our mind tells our hand to do something, a healthy hand moves so quickly that there’s almost no lag time between the order and the action. Yet when our mind commands our will to do something, the will is slow to obey.
J.R.R. Tolkien soaked his The Lord of the Rings trilogy in good theology. The Ruling Ring to which its title refers is both all-powerful and all-evil. Yet while no one can use that ring for good, the temptation to try proves to be overwhelming. So the council of Elrond wants to send Frodo to destroy the ring.
While Frodo longs to rest and remain at peace in his home, he finally agrees to take the Ring, admitting he doesn’t know how he’ll be able to do it. Eventually Frodo captures the ring, but finds himself alone and in great danger. He’s strongly tempted to do what he knows he must never do. Frodo, in fact, caves in to the temptation by placing the Ring on his finger.
This, however, puts Frodo under the power of the Dark Lord. The Ring carries him off to the Black Land, Mordor. There he feels the loss of all hope. In his despair, Frodo struggles with competing claims on his life.
On the one hand, he wants to retain the ring with what he believes is its power to help him do great good. On the other hand, Frodo hears a voice telling him to take off the powerfully evil Ring because the temptation to use it for evil is just too strong. Eventually Frodo comes to his senses. He stands, worn out, but with a new will and a lighter heart. Frodo tells himself, “I will do what I must.”
What rages inside of Frodo is much like the kind of not so civil war that rages in God’s dearly beloved people nearly all of the time. The conquered enemies that are Sin and Death constantly reach out to grab us. Without help, even Christians do what we know we should not do.
Another of Tolkien’s main characters, Gollum, especially struggles with that dilemma. He was a normal person whom the evil forces of the Ring completely enslaved. Gollum, in fact, so lusted for the Ring that he murdered his best friend over it. He’s become a hideous, disgusting creature who largely sneaks around in the dark.
While Frodo calls Gollum’s story “loathsome,” his friend Gandalf calls it a “sad” story that “could have happened to others.” So Frodo asks him why Gollum didn’t just get rid of the Ring he’d come to hate. Gandalf answers, “He hated it and he loved it … He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter … it was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided matters.”
Without help, God’s adopted sons and daughters are as powerless to as Gollum was to do what’s right. In our case, however, it’s not the Ring but the twin powers of Sin and Death that naturally “decide matters.”
Yet Paul reminds Jesus’ followers that we’re no longer powerless. Help has come to us from outside of ourselves. God, through Jesus Christ, has rescued God’s adopted children from slavery to Sin and Death. The Holy Spirit has graciously freed us to do, as Frodo says, what we “must.”
Yet even Christians can’t do this on our own. We can’t free ourselves from slavery to Sin and Death any more than most slaves can free themselves. Thankfully, then, God in Christ has freed our wills to serve the Lord and each other.
So with Frodo, God’s dearly beloved people too can now say, “I will do what I must.” God has, after all, freed us to do the good things God has prepared for us to do. God’s Spirit has equipped Jesus’ followers to walk, not in the way of death, but along the path of life.
So God has graciously freed God’s adopted children to be, for instance, faithful friends and supportive spouses, loving parents and loyal uncles and aunts. God has freed Christians to forgive and pray for those who have hurt us.
God has graciously freed us to feed the hungry and visit those who are in prison. God has freed Jesus’ followers to clothe needy people and give a cup of cold water to the thirsty. God has freed us to speak up for justice and work for peace.
An old legend involves a Cherokee who’s teaching his young son. He tells him, “Everyone has two wolves inside of them. One wolf is violent, wild and destructive. The other wolf is disciplined, wise and generous. They are fighting inside of you. Which wolf will win?” His troubled son answers, “I don’t know.” His father then answers, “The wolf that will win is the wolf that is fed (italics mine).”
The Bible suggests that those who feed the “good wolf” that is God’s liberating Spirit at work care about the things about which God cares. God has fully equipped Christians to be generous with each other. So we feed the good wolf by being attentive to vulnerable people with our time and money.
God has graciously empowered God’s adopted children to serve the Lord and our neighbors. So we feed the wolf that is making service a priority in our lives. God has freed Jesus’ followers to spend time with the Lord. So we feed the good wolf that is deliberately making prayer, reading the Bible and coming to corporate worship more important in our lives.
Left to ourselves, we’d only feed the ravenous wolf every time. But God has not left God’s precious children to ourselves. The One who laid down his life for his sheep has freed us for joyful service to God and each other.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 5, 2020
Romans 7:15b-25 Commentary