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“St. Paul Had the Same Struggle
Romans 7:15-25

 

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Pastor Kevin Vogts
Trinity Lutheran Church
Paola, Kansas

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—July 9, 2017

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

When we lived in Lawrence there was a story in the paper about a human resources director at a company there who received resumes from over a dozen graduates of the same technical college in Kansas City.  As he was reading through these resumes, he noticed some amazing similarities.  Each candidate was described as “highly-motivated, energetic and results oriented.”  Each one had a “proven ability to work independently” and an “ability to interact effectively as a team player.”  It was more than a coincidence; not realizing that these resumes would all end up on the same human resource director’s desk, the college placement office which prepared them just filled in the blanks for every candidate on the exact same glowing resume.  Needless to say, even though those candidates were all described as “independent thinkers” and “self-motivated,” none of them got the job.

The purpose of a resume is to put your best foot forward, to trumpet your good points, while not mentioning your bad points.  The entire book of Romans is, in a way, the Apostle St. Paul’s resume.  St. Paul had never been to Rome, but he planned to make it his base of operations for mission work in the western part of the Roman Empire.  The book of Romans was St. Paul’s introductory letter to the congregation at Rome, sent in advance to pave the way for his visit.  That is why Romans is such a detailed, systematic explanation of the Christian faith.  St. Paul expected the congregation at Rome to welcome him and help him in his mission work, so he was writing in advance to spell out his teaching.

But, if the purpose of a resume is to put your best foot forward, and if the book of Romans is St. Paul’s resume to the congregation at Rome, then why in the world did St. Paul include THIS admission in today’s Epistle Reading:  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do. . . 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. 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.”  Why would St. Paul air his dirty laundry like that?  Why would St. Paul admit to the Christians at Rome that he himself struggled with sin?

First of all, St. Paul’s admission that even he struggled with sin teaches us not to rely on our own works for salvation.  As St. Paul says earlier in Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . there is no one righteous, not even one”  And it teaches us that, although our goal is to strive for perfect holiness, even the most faithful Christians will never achieve perfection in this life, not even the Apostle St. Paul himself.  But, despite this biblical example from the great Apostle, some denominations do teach wrongly that Christians can achieve perfection in this life.

Like St. Paul, Martin Luther, in an autobiographical hymn that he wrote, humbly confessed his own sinfulness: “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay, death brooded darkly o’er me. Sin was my torment night and day, in sin my mother bore me. But daily deeper still I fell, my life became a living hell, so firmly sin possessed me.”

But, some later reformers got the idea that when Luther restored the Biblical faith he missed a teaching they called “perfectionism.”  John Wesley, for example, believed that toward the end of his life he had achieved spiritual perfection, that he had progressed beyond the point of sinning.  The late television preacher Robert Schuler went even further, declaring, “I have never broken one of the Ten Commandments.”

However, St. Paul’s struggle with sin shows us that perfectionism, the idea that Christians can achieve earthly perfection, is a lie.  As St. John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

St. Paul’s admission that he himself struggled with sin is also his wonderful, comforting way of telling us that we should not be surprised or discouraged when we struggle with sin, because even “St. Paul Had the Same Struggle.”

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.”  In this life we are saints and sinners at the same time.  In the eyes of God, everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation is a saint, completely forgiven, declared holy and righteous and ready right now for heaven.  But, until we get to heaven, as long as we remain in this world, all of us—even St. Paul himself—still struggle everyday with the weakness and temptations of our old sinful self.  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

“And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the Law is good.”  You see, the very fact that you have this struggle within you means that you are reborn, that you are a true believer.  Your constant struggle with sin does not mean you have fallen away.  It’s when you stop struggling with sin that you need to worry about falling away.  Because, the only way to stop struggling with sin in this life is to give yourself over to sin.

The fact that St. Paul struggled with sin does not call into question his salvation or the sincerity of his faith; on the contrary, the fact that St. Paul struggled with sin confirms his salvation and the sincerity of his faith.  The fact that you struggle against sin confirms that you are born again, because only those who are born again have the desire to follow God’s law and do his will.  The Living Bible paraphrases St. Paul this way, “My bad conscience proves that I agree” with God’s law.  “And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the Law is good.”

“As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 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. 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. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin living in me.”  Christians have a split spiritual personality.  For, according to our new, Christian self we “desire to do what is good.”  But, according to our old, sinful self we “cannot carry it out.” 

As long as we remain in this life, the old, sinful self still clings to us, still lives in us.  Even after we are converted to faith in Christ, we still go through life with our old, sinful self shackled to us like a ball and chain, hindering our ability to do God’s will, thwarting our desire to follow God’s law, frustrating our efforts to live a holy life.  “As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 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. 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. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin living in me.”

“So I find this principle at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s Law, but all through my body I see another law, fighting against the Law in my mind, and making me a prisoner to the sin ruling my body.”  We will never achieve spiritual perfection in this life, BUT that is not an excuse to stop struggling against sin and striving for holiness.

St. Paul says, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law.”  There is a war going on within your soul every day.  St. Paul puts it this way in Galatians, “The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other.”  “So I find this principle at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s Law, but all through my body I see another law, fighting against the Law in my mind, and making me a prisoner to the sin ruling my body.”

“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Like St. Paul, every day we mourn over our sins, we confess our failures, we lament our inability to perfectly walk in God’s ways.  “What a wretched man I am!”  That’s what St. Paul said about himself. 

But, like St. Paul, we also rejoice, we rejoice because we are certain of our ultimate victory, our ultimate victory over sin.  “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, you WILL have the ultimate victory over what St. Peter calls, “sinful desires, which war against your soul.”  For, through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, you will enter into heaven, where all sin will be forever purged away, and there you finally will attain perfect holiness.  As St. Paul says in 2nd Timothy, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.”  “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The day you become a Christian is not the day your struggle against sin comes to an end, it is really the day your struggle against sin is just beginning.  Every day you struggle and strive, with God’s help, to decrease sin and increase holiness in your life.  As St. Paul tells Timothy, “Fight the good fight of faith.”

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do. . .  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. 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.”  Why did St. Paul admit that he himself struggled with sin?  It teaches us not to rely on our own works for salvation, because spiritual perfection is impossible in this life.  And, it is St. Paul’s wonderful, comforting way of telling us that we should not be surprised or discouraged when we struggle with sin, because even “St. Paul Had the Same Struggle.”

Amen.

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