Sunday, July 13, 2008

The War Within

Text: Romans 7:15-8:11

PLEASE PERMIT ME TO begin with something personal. About four weeks ago, I noticed that my body was doing something it shouldn’t have been. So I went on the Internet to look it up. The websites said the symptom could mean anything from a minor infection to cancer, and that you should see a doctor as soon as possible to find out. I got in for an appointment by the end of that week, I was examined, and they sent me to the Medical Center to undergo a certain test. I got that taken care of on July 1st. Then I settled down to wait for the results.

But we all know good and well that "settled down" isn’t the term you use when the diagnosis might possibly be cancer. Of all possible common diseases, it’s the one that seems to strike the most horror into us, the one we live in most fear of getting.

How come? Maybe partly because cancer isn’t like an infection or an injury, where some foreign thing attacks your body from outside, it’s your body attacking itself. You also have that with lupus and other autoimmune diseases. But somehow with cancer, the treachery seems worse. With autoimmune diseases, it’s as if the Army were to launch a military coup. But with cancer, it’s as if whole groups of civilians, whole streets full of your neighbors, suddenly rose up and started making war on the rest of you. It’s your own perverted cells taking over your healthy cells and making them traitors just like themselves. To fight cancer, in a way you have to make war on yourself, from the outside. And without aggressive treatment, the outcome for your body is defeat and death.

That’s a nasty thing to think of. It’s an even nastier thing to experience-- as I’m sure many of you know firsthand. You won’t blame me when I say I haven’t had an easy time of it since that test on the 1st. And that I won’t rest easy until I’ve got the results of the follow-up biopsy I’m to do in the next couple weeks-- assuming that cancer is not in the diagnosis.

It’s not nice, or comfortable, or pleasant to be talking about cancer on a Sunday morning. But it’s a good metaphor for the terrible reality St. Paul gives us in the 7th chapter of his letter to the Romans. Cancer is a civil war within. It pits your own body against itself. But sin is even worse. Sin is also a cancer; it’s a war against every human being’s body, mind, and soul.

Now, many good and thoughtful Bible scholars believe Paul is talking here about how things were with him before Jesus got hold of him and made him a Christian. Other good and thoughtful scholars say No, Paul is talking about the struggles of the Christian life. I can’t claim to be a scholar of any kind, but having looked at this passage for many years, I have to agree with the second group, the ones who say it’s about trying to live up to our holy calling in Christ after Jesus has saved us. To use good solid Church language, it’s about sanctification, not justification.

For look at what our brother Paul says: He says he wants to do good. He says he hates evil. The unjustified person can’t truly say that. People who don’t belong to Christ know they should do good, they say they want to do good, but their goodness stops when it’s hard, or inconvenient, or when others stop rewarding them for it, or if it’ll lose them money. The "goodness" of an unbeliever isn’t about being good for Goodness’ own sake or being good for God's sake, it’s about feeling good about themselves. The unsaved man has no concept of how deep and wide and humanly-unattainable true Goodness even is.

And unless he’s living in a war zone or some crime-filled neighborhood, an unsaved person has no real sense of the evilness of Evil. In fact, people who live where vice is the everyday way of life often get used to it. It’s like evil is inconvenient, but it’s how it is. Your neighbor may be a drug dealer who shoots up other drug dealers, but he’s your neighbor and far as you’re concerned, he’s a nice guy. Or even if he’s not, you respect him for how tough he is.

But God forbid we should go thinking that attitude only belongs to "Those People." We are all "Those People." We all wink at sin in ourselves and people we know. We’re all riddled with the cancer that is rebellion against God . . . until the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, comes to conquer sin in us and give us health and peace for the first time in our lives. Jesus comes like Dr. Christiaan Barnard and transplants into us a new heart, a heart that beats with the goodness that is Christ’s alone. And that’s when we begin to understand just how sinful sin really is.

But we Christians are in a strange situation on this earth: We’re hybrid creatures. We’re living with the heart of Christ and also with our old sinful heart of the flesh; we have Christ’s new nature in us, and our old human nature. But unlike in a hybrid car, say, those two natures don’t pull together. They pull apart. They’re at war with one another. They’re like cancer versus healthy cells. Jesus saves us, and like Paul we begin to delight in the law of God in our inmost selves. But there’s also a law of sin in us that pulls us to do what we ought not do. This law in our members, as Paul calls it, is like a cancer that wants to take over everything we are, until we go down into death.

But there’s this term, "the flesh." Maybe if we could just transcend our physical bodies and be more spiiiiiritual, maybe we could live up to our calling in Christ?

That idea’s been around for centuries, that our minds and spirits are good, they’re just dragged down by our evil bodies. But this idea is a mistake. Worse than that, it’s a heresy.

Matter is not bad in itself. God created it. Jesus Christ Himself rose from the dead in a material body. When Paul uses the word "flesh" in this passage he’s speaking of what we are by birth as sinful human beings--body, mind, and spirit. Nothing we have in ourselves will go to make us able to live up to the Law of God that we see in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can try to cure ourselves by trying hard to be good. We can work till we drop to win the victory on our own. But it’d be useless. As Paul says in verse 18, "Nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh." Have you ever noticed-- it’s hard even to repent without sinning. And so with Paul we cry out, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

Who, indeed?

It used to seem odd to me that Paul says that in verse 24, then immediately says, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Was Paul giving thanks for the mess he was in? For the mess all God’s people on this earth are in?

But no. This is like a big red stop sign. Like a bolt of lightning. Like the world’s loudest coach’s whistle. It says, "Stop! Time out! Look over here and see what you need to see!"

And what we need to see is Jesus Christ and His righteousness. Jesus Christ and His power. Jesus Christ and His completed work. We can tie ourselves in knots worrying about how we just can’t seem to to live the Victorious, Holy Christian Life-- when the solution, the cure, the victory is right there in us all the time. Jesus Christ died to save us-- does He not now live to make us holy and whole? Jesus Christ lives in us-- does He not now work in us to please His heavenly Father and ours? There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

Think of some sin you’ve committed lately. Some hurtful word you’ve said. Some foolish act you did. Some neglect of something you should’ve done, that hurt someone else very much. Yes, it was a sin. Yes, you were guilty, just as I am guilty of sins I can think of. But there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

How can this be? It can be because in Christ the Law of the Spirit of life has set us free from the law of sin and death. As it says in verse 3, God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh-- though with Jesus, the flesh was not sinful, but pure and innocent as God intended from the first-- so that by the death of the flesh of Christ, sin might be condemned and dealt with. Our sin is condemned, but you and I are not-- because we are in Christ Jesus.

Since we are in Christ Jesus, Christ Jesus is in us, through the ministry of His Holy Spirit. That means Jesus Himself is living His sinless life in us, doing His Father’s perfect will, making us into the grown-up, healthy children of God He’s redeemed us to be. He doesn’t save us then leave us on our own! He sends us His Spirit and calls us to walk in Him: and walking in the Spirit is to live in the reality of Christ in us.

We hurt ourselves so much by thinking this walk is something we try hard to do. Like it’s one more burden laid on us that we can’t carry. No, living according to the Spirit is simply trusting that whatever God wants us to do to please Him, Jesus Christ has already done in us. It’s accepting the forgiveness He won for us on the cross and not flogging ourselves over past sins He’s already wiped away! It’s stopping ourselves whenever we want to take over or be in control and saying humbly and simply, "Lord Jesus, do Your will in me and through me, and I praise You for it."

I’m finally learning that the most fleshly thing I can do in my life is think I’m in control of things I’m not in control of. You know what I am in control of? Saying, "Lord Jesus, help me!" and getting out of His way.

Living in the flesh, on the other hand-- it’s what happens whenever we think we can do anything without our Lord, even the best things in the world. It’s using Jesus as our Example, and not submitting to Him as our Savior and Redeemer. Fleshly living is asking, "What would Jesus do?" then effectively telling Him to stand back, because, by gum, we’re gonna do it!

But life in the Spirit doesn’t work that way. Life in the Spirit is asking, "What has Jesus done?" and letting the finished work of your Savior grow to completion in you.

He has promised to make that happen. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Whatever is happening in your life, He’s there to take over your fears, your cares, your temptations, your trials. He has already taken away your sins, and as Paul goes on to say farther on in this chapter, in all things you are more than a conqueror through Him who loved you. Jesus is the Great Physician whose boundless eternal life pushes back and totally cures the cancer of sin in your life and mine. The Holy Spirit dwelling in you is the guarantee. For as it says in verse 11, "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you."

Nothing good or healthy may dwell in our sinful flesh; that is, our fallen human nature. But everything good and healthy and wholesome dwells in the crucified and risen flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our old and new natures may be at war within us, but allegiance to Christ alone brings us victory and peace.

At the end of this service, we’ll sing the hymn "O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee." As you sing it, remember that your Master Jesus is the One serving the lowly and bearing the strain. He is the One moving the slow of heart to His ways. He, Jesus, is the Guide who brings the wayward home-- He is the One who works in you and through you and for you. Walk with Him in the power of His Spirit! To you He gives the hope and peace, the health and joy of His presence within. In Christ and Christ alone our sin has been cancelled, our hearts are cured, and the war within us will be gloriously won.

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