LIVING IN REVERSE PART 5.
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Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? And how do we deal with it?
I’m so glad you ask, because the answer is found in a passage of scripture that is frequently misunderstood: Romans chapter 7:15-20.
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom 7:15-20, ESV)
We read this and we say, “Yeah, I understand that, that’s me.” And we hear Paul say “sin is living me” and “nothing good lives in me” we think: “See? Isn’t that a sinful nature?”
But this passage is frequently misinterpreted. First, in verses 7-14, Paul is talking about the past, about how life was before Jesus. In verse 15, he begins to speak in the present tense, but it isn’t clear if he has switched to his present circumstances, even after salvation, or if he is still explaining the past. Just to move the discussion along, let’s say that in verse 15, Paul is talking about sins he commits as a Christian.
We always need to interpret scripture in context. The entire context of chapter seven is actually chapters six, seven and the first part of chapter eight. The chapters and verse marks were not inspired by God. They were put in by monks 1000 years after the New Testament was written, to help us in navigating around the bible. So pretend they aren’t there, and you can clearly see that the first several paragraphs of chapter 8 are still on the same subject as chapters six and seven.
So with that in mind, what is the general topic that Paul keeps coming around to? You are dead to sin, dead to the law, and alive to Jesus. Therefore, when Paul describes his struggle with sin here, he is not contradicting himself. It is the in the same letter, in the same section, talking about the same subject as when he said: “Likewise, you also have died to the law.”
Therefore, clearly Paul is not turning around and saying “You have not died to the law. You are not free from sin. Your old self is alive and well.” That would be ridiculous and unsustainable biblical interpretation.
I used to believe I had a sinful nature that was alive and well. So when I read this, I was focused on Paul saying “I do bad things…even though I don’t want to.” Actually, Paul’s emphasis is not that he is sinning, but rather that he doesn’t want to commit these sins. What Paul is saying is, “In the deepest part of me, I don’t want to sin. This shows that this part of me is holy and agrees with God. In my deepest nature, I am not a sinner.” He says, in verse 22: “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.”
And so he says in 8:1-3
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (Rom 8:1-3, ESV)
I had friend once who was not a Christian. After a lot of time and people praying for him, and some long conversations, he gave his heart to Jesus. Afterward, we started to meet together to pray and talk about the Bible and generally encourage each other in faith. One time the subject of lust came up. He said, “You know, before I became a Christian, I did not struggle with lust. Now I struggle with it all the time.”
I was shocked. What had we done wrong? I asked him to explain.
“Well, before I was Christian,” he said, “there wasn’t any struggle. I lusted, and it didn’t bother me. But since I came to Jesus, it bothers me when I lust because I don’t want to do that now.”
You see the fact that he didn’t want to sin any more was proof that he had died to sin. In his deepest heart, he knew that he didn’t desire sin. In his inner being, he delighted in God’s perfect standard and holiness.
So if in our deepest heart, if we are perfect in spirit, and we don’t desire to sin, why do we do it? Paul says this:
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom 7:19-20, ESV)
Before you cry “aha! I told you we had a sinful nature!” I want to tell you about the Greek here. A lot of translations give the impression that sin is a living force, a nature within our human nature even after we are in Jesus. But the Greek word for “living” does not imply either a “nature” or even a “life force.” It means “house.” A very literal translation would be, “I don’t do this, but rather, the sin housing in me.” In other words, the impression is not sin as a living force, but rather, that sin has a nearby location. Sin is located in me. Now, in 7:18 and 23, Paul makes it clear where exactly this sin is located in a person. He uses two terms: “flesh” and “body parts.” So it isn’t sin as a life force occupying a second nature in us. It is a residual sin that is located specifically in our “body parts” and in our “flesh.” In other words, this sin is located in the shallowest part of us, the part of us (the body) that is already dying slowly, that part that will be thoroughly changed at the resurrection.
When we are in Jesus, sin doesn’t have a life force within our souls or spirits. It doesn’t have a nature within the heart of us. It is located in our dying body parts and flesh.
Once we are in Jesus, real life flows from God, into our spirit, into the soul and out through the body. What happens when we sin is that we try to do that in reverse.
Imagine you ingested a deadly poison. Thankfully, someone saved you, and administered an antidote. Through the cure, your vital organs were entirely freed from the poison. But over the next few days, there will be some residual toxin in your muscles. You may twitch involuntarily sometimes in response to those toxins. Those responses look exactly the same as if you were still in the grip of the fatal poison. But you have been thoroughly cured. The twitches are not pleasant, but they do not mean that the poison is in every part of you. The poison is located only in your external muscles, and cannot affect your vital organs.
That’s the picture Paul gives us. Sin is no longer located in our vital organs. There is a residual sin located in our flesh and our body parts, and so sometimes we commit sins but this is not the sign of a sinful nature.
So sometimes we commit sins because there is still that residual of sin within our flesh and body parts. It serves as a vehicle for the devil to tempt us, and we forget who we really are. We stop believing for a time that we are dead to sin in the most important part of ourselves, and we listen instead to our flesh, where that residual of sin is housed.
I want to talk just a moment about the bible’s use of “flesh.” The Greek word is sarx and it just means, essentially, “meat” or “muscle.” John uses it as a neutral term generally meaning physical body. Paul sometimes uses it that way also. But more often, Paul uses flesh as a special theological term. He usually means basically, an orientation that is based upon outward things, and is generally turned away from God. So sin lives in our body parts – literal flesh – and also takes advantage of anyone who is oriented on the externals of life, particularly if such a person is trying to live life on their own strength.
Once again, this is why I have been preaching this as a sermon series. Here comes another application of what we learned from Elijah. God showed Elijah that real life is not found in the flesh. It isn’t even found in the good things that happen in the flesh. Once we are in Jesus, real life flows from God, into our spirit, into the soul and out through the body. What happens when we sin is that we try to do that in reverse.
We feel a lack in our soul or our body. Rather than seeking life in the spirit, we seek it in the flesh or the body. We seek to take care of the need ourselves. We refuse to wait for God, and we absolutely refuse to let our need or lack go unmet. So we respond to the flesh by agreeing with it, gratifying it, and we injure our relationship with the Lord.
Satan, of course encourages in this, and tries to deceive us into living by the flesh. Even the very first temptation of Eve and Adam, was essentially a temptation to live by the flesh. He told them that God had not given them everything they needed. Satan said God had withheld from them the knowledge of good and evil. He then suggested that they had the means to get for themselves what God was withholding – they could meet their needs apart from God by eating the fruit.
We also have the world around us, living according to the flesh. If we look to our friends, neighbors and co-workers for help in living for God, we’ll see instead that they are living to gratify the flesh. This too, tempts us in that direction.
So we are tempted, deceived and led astray by the flesh, by the world and by the devil. These things have access through our physical bodies (sight, sound, hearing, physical and emotional needs) and through our flesh when we choose to be oriented away from God.
Now, last time we talked about the fact that when we do give in to this, and commit sins, it causes us to be distant from God. Obviously, the way to return and be closer is through repentance and confession and remembering again what the Lord has done for us. But is there any way to fight sin? Is there any way to sin less than we used to?
I submit to you that if you believe you are still by nature full of sin, if you believe you are half sinner, half saint until you die, there is no logical reason you should ever be able to sin less than you do right now. But I believe, as I have explained in the previous parts of this series, that in fact, In Jesus, our old self has been killed, and sin is exiled now into our bodies and into our flesh orientations. It is no longer part of the essential you.
Now, there is a lot of language in the New Testament that seems to tell us we ought to quit sinning. But we often miss the context of it. Sometimes we are so filled with idea that we are half sinner and half saint, so sure that living for Jesus is about fighting ourselves to try and make ourselves behave properly, that we miss the idea that the fight is already over, and our job now is simply to believe it – to cling daily, even hourly in faith to what Jesus has already accomplished for us. The fact is, almost all of the New Testament’s teaching on how we should behave is preceded by teaching on who we are in Jesus, and what he has done for us.
You see, we can even try and fight sin through the flesh – and that gets us only a fleshly result. Suppose a Christian young woman had a terrible father. This created emotional problems for her. Now she experiences need for intimacy with men. She is tempted to meet her own needs in the flesh through sexual relationships. Now, she can try to fight flesh with flesh. She can say to herself, “I won’t do that. I will be strong, I will use my will power to stop myself.” You see even though she is trying not to sin, she is still living in the flesh. I would guess that she will fail, more often than not.
An alternative is to fight temptation by clinging in faith to what Jesus has done, and to who has made us to be in our innermost being. Now the young woman says, “I am a new creation in Christ. In Him, my innermost needs are met. The real me no longer desires to do this. This desire does not come from me.” My temptations are different than hers, but I will tell you, I find it a hundred times easier to fight temptation by believing in this way, than by gritting my teeth and using my willpower.
Paul says this:
I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing — if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:2-5, HCSB)
We received salvation as gift of pure grace, simply by believing that it is true. We are supposed to live the Christian life in exactly the same way. We do it through faith, by the Holy Spirit, not by works of the flesh. Later in the same letter, Paul puts it like this:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal 5:16-18, ESV)
Paul writes to the Ephesians about their behavior. This is how he begins:
But that is not how you learned about the Messiah, assuming you heard about Him and were taught by Him, because the truth is in Jesus. You took off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires; you are being renewed in the spirit of your minds; you put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth. (Eph 4:20-24, HCSB)
We don’t change our behavior. Instead, we trust Jesus and what he had done for us. We cling to the truth that he has not only forgiven us, but he has changed us in the inmost being and through Him we have put off the old self and put on the new, which is righteous, holy and pure like God himself. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will begin to act as we believe. Paul says it one more way:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:1-5, ESV)
Very few translations include this, but in verse 5, it says, “put to death your body parts, the earthly ones…” In other words, the sins Paul names afterward are sins of the flesh and body. And the way to deal with these, the way to put them to death, he tells us in the preceding verses: set your minds on things above. Set your minds on the fact that you died and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. You fight temptation by believing that Jesus has already broken your connection with sin. You fight it by believing that you don’t need to sin in order to meet your needs, because real life is in the spirit, and in the spirit your are perfect and complete, and God has already met every need.
There is something else that is important to us as we fight sin. We need to remember that Jesus himself was tempted in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4:15). What that means is that temptation is not sin.
You see the devil is a cheat and a liar. You hear a voice in you that says, “I wish pastor Tom would just shut his ugly trap. In fact, I’d like to shut it for him. He is a worthless excuse for a pastor and a human being.” Then you think, “Oh s—, did I just think that in church?” And than, “Did I just think the s-word in church?” And before you know it, you are out of control, guilty and feeling terrible. But the devil pretends to be you, to get you to sin. John Bunyan, author of the allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, describes this in his story:
I took notice now that poor Christian was so confounded that he did not know his own voice…One of the wicked ones got behind him and stepped up softly to him and whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind. This put Christian more to it than anything that he met with before, even to think that he should now blaspheme him that he loved so much before; yet if he could have helped it, he would not have done it; but he had not the discretion either to stop his ears or to know from whence these thoughts came.
So the devil comes up to a man and suggests, “I’d like to sleep with young woman over there, the one wearing the short skirt.” And the man thinks the thought came from him. Next, the devil says, “you’ve already thought it, you just failed.” But temptation isn’t the same as sin. I know Jesus said lust in the heart was as bad as adultery. But temptation to lust is not the same as lust itself.
Or the devil comes up to a woman, and when another woman walks by, he says, “who does she think she is? She’s wearing a fine dress, but she probably got it at goodwill. I know trailer-trash when I see it.” And the woman thinks the thought came from her. Then she either pursues the thought, which is a sin, or she thinks that she’s already committed a sin because the thought was there, and the devil uses it all day to beat her up and make her feel guilty.
Haven’t you ever had a terrible thought and then said, “Oh my gosh! That’s awful! I can’t believe I just thought that!” Maybe you didn’t.
When we think temptation is sin, we can never win, because even Jesus was tempted. We won’t avoid it. So when we think we’ve already failed, we either go ahead and sin because we think we’ve already blown it, or we don’t sin, but we let the devil make us feel guilty all day long for something that was not a sin at all.