St. John's Lutheran Church, Beloit, WI
“Who will rescue me?”
The Christian life is a life of conflict. We are at war. The battle is for the ultimate prize, your eternal soul, and so this is serious business. The Devil is out to get you. The world that hated Christ hates you too, Christian. And if all of that is not enough. You are at war with your very own self. Even St. Paul himself was. And there is only one that can rescue us from this body of death, Jesus Christ! Thanks to him for the victory!
Paul sets up a contrast for us in Romans 7 that is universally instructive. Every Christian should read and mark these words carefully.
On the one hand Paul speaks of his “mind”. By this he means the new man or “new Adam”. The new creation in Christ that began at Holy Baptism. The Christian, the saint, the believer, the child of God. According to this nature, our new nature, we want to please God and follow his commandments. According to this nature we are righteous, holy, and without sin. This is the man that has been crucified with Christ in baptism and raised again with Christ. This is the man that clings to Christ, follows his word, and does good works with the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the man that delights in the law of God. This is our “inner being”
But Paul makes a distinction. As Christians, we are not only “new man”. But we also have this sinful flesh which clings to us. Our “outer being” if you will. The flesh, is that which we see. And not only the outward skin and bones, but that part of us that is still subject to sinful desires and words. “The Flesh” is our old nature, our “Old Adam”, which wants nothing to do with God and his word and his ways. This is the man who rebels against God at every turn. This is the one that still sins, sins daily, and sins much. This is the man apart from God, apart from Christ, and without the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing good that dwells in you, according to the flesh. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul says. Or you and I might just say of ourselves, “what a mess!”
You want to be kind to your family members, but the sinful flesh finds them so downright annoying! You want to listen to the sermon in Church, but the sinful flesh would rather plan your shopping trip. You want to honor your parents, but your sinful flesh convinces you that you always know best. You want to be faithful to your spouse, but your sinful flesh has eyes for anyone else it can fantasize about. You want to be generous, but your sinful flesh is all scrooge. You want to be content with what you have, but your sinful flesh thinks what that guy has is far better, and you deserve it far more. And you want to fear, love and trust God, but your sinful flesh always seems to have other ideas. What a wretched man I am! What a mess we all are.
And so we live in this tension. As Christians, we want to do good, trust God and love our neighbor. But as sinners, we are caught in this “body of death” as Paul calls it, with a war constantly raging inside of us.
Why is this helpful to know?
For one, it helps us understand what otherwise makes no sense. Some, it seems, even some Christians, think that when you come to faith – all sin suddenly stops.
Or that once you come to faith, you should at least be making measurable progress. And that if you stumble and fall along the way, it means you aren't really saved, don't really believe, and are destined for damnation.
Or some would say that God gets you started, gets you to the point of believing, but the rest is up to you, friend. Good luck. Then what happens when your life exhibits more fallenness than faith? Are you a back slider? Are you not an authentic Christian? Do you need to take it to the next level (and how do you know when you get there)?
All this could lead us to despair. Either God's a liar, or I'm a failure. For we do continue to sin, and we can't do it on our own, and our lives never exhibit the holiness and righteousness that God declares upon us.
But do not despair! Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us otherwise. Sinning doesn't mean you're not a Christian. It means you are still a captive to the law of sin, and will be until this flesh goes into the ground. Your sin is not the ultimate reality about you. It's not what matters in the end. What matters is that you are baptized, you do have Christ's word of promise, you do belong to him, and your future is secure.
Mind you, none of this is an excuse to go on sinning. Paul asks and answers that question in chapter 6, “shall we go on sinning? By no means!” No, the struggle continues as we grapple with our flesh, till death do us part.
Secondly, understanding this distinction lets us know we're not alone in the fight. You think you're the only one who's struggled with sin? No, instead, you are in the good company of all God's people who are of the same flesh, from the same father, Adam. Abraham, the liar and coward. Jacob the schemer. Judah who sold his brother into slavery. Moses, a murderer. Rahab, a prostitute. David, an adulterer and murderer. Jonah, a reluctant prophet. Matthew, a tax collector. Peter, a denier. And even Paul, persecutor of Christians.
But in each and every case, the faithful of God trusted in his salvation, made known and completed by Christ. For all the saints who've gone before us, their laundry list of sin and death was washed in the blood of Christ, and only in Christ. But in him, they – and you – receive the crown of victory. In Him who conquered death, we too look past the grave to a resurrection like his, and the glory yet to be revealed.
Thirdly, all this reminds us that the only salvation is in Christ. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Christ alone. Thanks be to him. You can't do it yourself, nor should you try. If you did try you'd either fall flat on your face, or live in a lie of self righteousness. If you thought you could rescue yourself, you wouldn't need Jesus. The war is too much for Paul, and it's too much for you. Sin is always close at hand. But Jesus is closer. Death is breathing down your neck. But Jesus is the death of death.
And Jesus died for your sins, all of them – before baptism and after. Jesus covers you with his blood, forgives your sins, reconciles you to his Father, and squashes death and the devil under his bruised foot.
Jesus rides to your rescue. He rides on a donkey, he rides the cross to its bitter last stop. He rides to hell and back, through an open grave, to the right hand of God. And he'll ride again on the clouds when he comes to the world's final rescue, all his angels with him. He will rescue us all from death forever.
So any time you struggle with sin, remember your baptism! Remember you are in Christ! All is not lost. He will never leave or forsake you. And he will come again in glory, to bring it all to fulfillment. Thanks be to God, we say with St. Paul and all the other sinners and saints – who are victorious - in Christ alone. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.