Why Do Christians Keep Sinning? Why Do I Keep Sinning?! #234
Happy Monday, dear friends! May the Lord shine His light and grace on you this week and protect and keep you as you navigate another week in pandemic city. Our Bible readings today include 1 Samuel 9, Jeremiah 46, Psalms 22 and Romans 7, which begins a trio of chapters (Romans 7, 8, 9) which may be the three most controversial chapters in the Bible, being as how they strongly address the issue of predestination.
Predestination is not our focus today, for our big Bible question comes from Romans 7, where Paul famously declares himself a wretched man who still mightily struggles with sin. This passage has confused many, many people over the years: How could the mighty and Godly apostle Paul seemingly struggle with sin so much? Some have concluded that the end of Romans is speaking of Paul’s pre-salvation state, but that is inaccurate, because Paul is speaking in the present tense there. Some have concluded that Paul was speaking with humble hyperbole -that he wasn’t actually that bad of a sinner…he was just being humble. I don’t accept that either – perhaps such people have a much more saintly disposition than I, but I believe that what Paul is saying here should be taken at face value – that he is indeed lamenting his sin. I believe that first because we have no clue of hyperbole or exaggeration, but also because Paul’s experience is my own. Sin and temptation do not go away at salvation, but they continue to vex the Christian throughout his life. I too, am a wretched man. So – why do Christians keep sinning, considering that Jesus is factually such a wonderful savior? Let’s ask Tim Keller:
Even in the very best people, there’s a core of evil, a capacity for doing terrible things way beyond what you believe it to be, far greater, far worse than you ever imagine. It’s hidden from you, but sometimes there are certain situations that act as a potion: stress, temptation, marriage to a difficult person …The real wickedness, the real capacity for evil, that incredible hideousness, that enormous, almost endless capacity for self-centeredness, self-absorption, self-will, and self-indulgence comes out, and then you’re dead. Do you believe the very best person is capable of such awfulness ?
Sufjan Stevens, an indie rock artist some of you know, has a song called “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” It’s a song about a serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, who killed 30 people and hid them under the floorboards of his house. Sufjan sings about this serial killer, and the last two lines of the song are absolutely astounding. In fact, even the music critic at the Village Voice was blown away. At the very, very end, he’s singing about this serial killer. How awful! What a terrible person. Incredible serial killer. The very last lines go like this.
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
He says, “Look beneath the floorboards of my life, and you will see the capacity to do terrible things.” Do you really believe that? Do you believe what Robert Louis Stevenson is saying, what Sufjan Stevens is saying, what Paul is saying, that in you you have a capacity for hideousness and selfishness and evil way beyond what you really think you’re capable of?
Saint Augustine in his famous book The Confessions reflects on an incident in his youth. In his youth at one point, he broke into a private orchard and stole some pears (that weren’t his, of course) off a tree. Later on he reflected theologically and pretty profoundly, actually, on that incident. He thought back on it, and he said, “Why did I steal the pears? a) I wasn’t hungry. b) If I was hungry, I didn’t like pears.” After he stole the pears, he threw them to pigs. He didn’t even like pears, but he went and stole the pears. The answer is, “I stole the pears because somebody told me they were forbidden.” In other words, someone says, “Thou shalt not take those pears.” He says, “Until someone said, ‘Thou shalt not …’ I had no interest in the pears, but once they said, ‘Don’t take those pears,’ I wanted them.”
There is something about the heart. Deep inside the heart there’s an aspect of our hideousness, of our self-centeredness, of that self-absorption, that says, “Nobody tells me how to live.” There are a lot of people whose lives that is right on the surface of, because there are a lot of people walking around talking like that all the time. “Nobody tells me how to live my life.”
The rest of us, a lot of us, are very nice, but deep inside, you Mr. and Ms. Jekylls, is a part of our hearts that absolutely hates being told how to live. That’s part of what’s wrong with us, and when you bring the moral law to bear on a child or you bring the moral law to bear on people, instead of it shriveling up that aspect of our beings, it actually aggravates it, and people do things because they’re forbidden…
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).
So – how do we live with this lingering sin, given that we have been washed by Jesus and saved by Him? Let’s ask John Piper!
“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” That is the real cry of a Christian saint. Not because we are not redeemed, but because the redemption Christ bought for us comes to us in stages. First, life in the Spirit and justification and progressive sanctification; then at the resurrection, the redemption of the body. Till then it is a body of death, and we groan. We groan because of its diseases and we groan because of its treasonous complicity with sin. Romans 7:24 is a Christian cry.
9. The Law of Sin and Death
How shall we answer the counter-argument that Romans 8:1–2 seems to signal that in Christ the failures of Romans 7 are left behind? Paul begins Romans 8 with these words: “Therefore there is now [!] no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Many commentators take this to mean that the experience of Romans 7 is past and done with.
Note especially the term “law of sin and death” in verse 2 and compare it to Romans 7:22–23, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” There you see the term, “law of sin.” It is a principle or power or rule of sin working through the body (just as we have seen—making the body a “body of death”), and taking Paul captive so that he does what he doesn’t want to do.
But in Romans 8:2 it says, “Now … the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin.” So those on the other side of this debate say, “You see, Romans 7 is describing the experience of a person before they are in Christ—before they are Christian. Before you are a Christian and have the Holy Spirit, the ‘law of sin’ takes you captive. And after you become a Christian and have the Holy Spirit, you are free from the law of sin.”
But is it that simple? Does Romans 8:2 have to mean that after you become a Christian this principle or rule or authority of sin never gets the upper hand? I have tried to show for several sermons now that this is not what Paul teaches. In fact, he teaches just the opposite. Sin does threaten—all the time—to get the upper hand in the Christian life and we must fight against it. Verse 13 of chapter 8 says, we must “put to death the deeds of the body.” Romans 6:13 says, “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness.” The battle is real. Temporary defeat is possible.
So what does the freedom of Romans 8:2 mean then when it says, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin”? I think it means exactly what Romans 6:14 means when it says, “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” Virtually nobody takes that to mean that at the moment you are justified you become sinlessly perfect. Most people agree that it means: the decisive, final power of sin to dominate and destroy your life is broken. You enter a new freedom. With the power of the Spirit you can defeat sin.
So when Paul says in Romans 7:23 that the “law of sin” takes him captive, and then says in Romans 8:2 that the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set him free from the law of sin, I think he means that the defeat and captivity of Romans 7:23 is not his chief or final condition. The Spirit has set him free from the “law of sin” as the decisive, final power to defeat and destroy him. The Spirit often gives him the victory. And increasingly gives him the victory. And in the end will give him the final victory. And he cannot be destroyed by the “law of sin” because the back of the enemy has been broken. His head has been severed from his body. We fight him as we fight a defeated foe. And in Christ Jesus who has bought the victory we will win.
John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (2000–2014) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014).