Choice after Conversion: “O Wretched Man!”

I’ve often wondered why, after conversion, I still faced the desire to sin. I won’t claim to have arrived at a satisfactory conclusion, but I recalled this sermon I preached back in 2007. To this point, it remains the best explanation I’ve managed on the topic.

You can find the series on Romans here.


Scripture reading: Romans 7:1-12.
Sermon text: Romans 7:13-25.

“Heaven is not the goal; it’s the destination…. The goal of Christianity is spiritual transformation into Christlikeness.” Todd Hunter, Bishop-elect for The Anglican Mission in the Americas, founding pastor of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, CA, quoted in “Christianity Today,” October 2009

I read the quote above this week and thought it fit exactly the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter 7. Transgression and rebellion; justification; grace. As we’ve read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, we’ve read his explanation of human rebellion against God; how God used Abraham to bless the nations, first through the nation of Israel and then through Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God; and, that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are justified before God and have peace with our Creator. For many people, the question after our justification becomes, “Now what?” When we receive grace from God instead of justice, should something happen in our lives? What happens next?

St. Paul had already explained to the Romans that the Law of Moses had guided Israel in its own covenant with God. Unfortunately, many Jews mistook the Law as a means of separating themselves from other nations rather than as guide to their calling as a holy nation. The Law that should have distinguished God’s people instead led to their condemnation when they broke it.

In chapter 7, St. Paul continued his discussion of the Law and its shortcomings. Many Jews in the early Church continued to adhere to the Law and tried to insist that Gentile believers do so as well. St. Paul gave his readers great news: When we died to sin through our faith and baptism in Christ, we also died to our obligation to the Law. Although believers may continue to struggle daily in a sinful world, we rest in the assurance of our new lives in Jesus Christ.

St. Paul opened this chapter by building on the argument of chapter 6 by reminding his readers of Christian freedom from the human bondage to sin: “The law is binding on a person only as long as he lives.” Since we have died to sin as signified in our baptism. St. Paul switched to another example of freedom by reminding his readers of the law regarding marriage. “A married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.”

St. Paul had to reach beyond both Jewish and Roman law to Jesus’ teachings regarding marriage. Both Jewish and Roman law made provisions for divorce, and in both cultures divorce was quite easy for husbands. However, women under Jewish law could not divorce at all, a restriction Jesus extended to both sexes (Matthew 5, 19). Under Jewish law, a woman was bound to her husband until one of them died.

The same applied to those under sin. As St. Paul had said in chapter 6, only death freed one from slavery; now, he reminded his readers that only death freed a woman from marriage. Once Christians have died to sin, we “belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”

Using another example, St. Paul turned to the legal codes familiar to those in the Roman Empire. According to St. Paul, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”

Every civilization recognized the necessity of rules to enforce human civility and established some sort of law code to reign in human passions. Law gives us boundaries to guide human relationships. Law gives us freedom as long as we remain inside those boundaries, but stepping outside those boundaries leads to consequences.

The Mosaic Law provided for more than mere guidelines for human relationships and obligations; it also established the rules of Israel’s obligations to God. The Law was not “sin;” instead, it served to define sin for a holy people. St. Paul used the example of covetousness — desiring what someone else possesses — as an example. “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” St. Paul continued by saying, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

However, the Law could accomplish only so much. The Law could define sin, but it could not enforce the attitude behind the actions. The Law could define proper worship, but it could not enforce the faith of the worshipers. The Law, in other words, could not overcome the human tendency to sin. Every human ever born has fought this tendency; only one Person has successfully overcome it. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”

The next passage of verses remains a difficult passage for interpreters. Most of the early Church Fathers believed that, in verses 15-25, St. Paul used a common Greek technique to describe the unbeliever’s quandary with sin: A desire to do the right thing, but failing. The early Church Fathers held that Christians would never face a fight with sin such as described by St. Paul.

St. Augustine, however, finally recognized another possibility, one now accepted by most Western interpreters of this passage. His own experience, as well as the experience of every Christian in history, provides us with the justification to allow this passage to speak as St. Paul wrote it: Christians constantly face a fight with sin. This passage describes a common problem with the Christian life, one I believe Hunter elegantly addresses in the quote I used to start this sermon.

St. Paul admitted that at times, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” How many times have we faced this issue? We know what we should do in a situation, but we find ourselves doing the opposite and hating ourselves for it. St. Paul admitted, “ 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.”

What’s the problem here? Hasn’t St. Paul said in the previous chapters that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ? Hasn’t he stated we are justified before God through our confession of faith in Jesus as Lord and our belief in His resurrection? Hasn’t he gloriously proclaimed us dead to sin?

Yes, to all these questions! However, we must realize that our spiritual lives still begin and exist in a physical context. “If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” This is no excuse for our behavior, but it does recognize the fact that Christians are physical beings, with all the desires and passions that come with the physical body. A born-again believer still faces issues with hormones and body chemicals. We must learn to overcome these instinctual urges.

It bothers me to hear someone say, “Just repent of your sins, be born again, and everything in life will be all right. You’ll never have to worry about that bad habit again. You’ll have heaven to look forward to, where you’ll never fight sin again.”

Yes, it’s true that, in the new Creation, we’ll never face sin again. However, as Hunter said, heaven is a destination, not a goal; Christlikeness is the goal, and no one reaches that goal without a serious battle with the sins that beset us (Hebrews 12:1). We pray every week here at New Hope, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation.” We all continue to sin in this life even as we fight it.

I love the way C.S. Lewis describes the power of temptation and repentance:

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later…. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist” (Mere Christianity, Book 3, ch. 11).

I don’t know about you, but I take great comfort that Christ knows the power of temptation. It helps assure me that He understands — and, because He knows I am not yet Christlike, He knows I will sin. He knows that I well understand St. Paul’s lament: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

So what do we do when we sin? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus, the One who understands the power of temptation and who died for our redemption from sin, promises forgiveness to all who confess their sins and turn to Him for help.

C.S. Lewis also beautifully describes the help Jesus gives when we fall:

You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us toward is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again…. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection (Mere Christianity, Book 3, ch. 5).

I love the way Father Hunter concluded his interview:

“In most of post-World War II evangelicalism, we asked people to cross a finish line. So it went: apologetics, apologetics, apologetics, then, okay, you get it now, you need to make a decision, and you get to go to heaven when you die. What I’d prefer to see is apologetics, enculturation, saying the prayers, and then you come to a line, but it’s a starting line: Are you ready to become a follower of Jesus? Can you now see the big intention of God for the earth and what He was doing through Christ and Pentecost and creating the people of God? Are you willing to join that family and take up that family’s cause through following Jesus?”

It’s not a question of if we’ll fall; we will. However, we’re already in the race, and Christ, through the Holy Spirit, promises to help us cross the finish line. When we fall, call on the One who knows the power of temptation and, through His resurrection, promises us eternal life in a Creation where sin and temptation will never haunt us again.