Monday, July 17, 2023

The Wretched Man

The following is a more or less verbatim transcript of the sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity. I have lightly edited it for clarity, but it is not meant as a written version of the sermon.

The sermon itself can be listened to wherever you get your podcasts or at this link:

The Wretched Man

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Romans 7:13-25

Consider the following two statements:

1. ‘Human beings are fundamentally good; there is good in everyone.’

You will often hear this said or see it written on inspirational pictures posted online, and we desperately want to believe it. We want to believe that we are all basically good, despite the evil that we see in the world around us. Take Ukraine, for example. Good people, good Christian, church-going people, are committing what are regarded as crimes even in a time of war: torture, murder, rape. Despite their supposed innate goodness, humans like you and me, are still doing evil.

2. ‘I couldn't help myself; I had to do it. I had no choice.’

People often explain their behavior, particularly their bad behavior, by appealing to some inner compulsion or drive over which they have no control. And this explanation of their behavior is often used by people who would otherwise resent being told they had no free will, or that they are unable to do what they want to do! They see no apparent contradiction between claiming that they had no control over something they have done, and at the same time believing that they are free to do what they want to do.

So, which is it? Are we basically good and free to choose how we live? Or are we captive to forces over which we have no control? Well, the reply that is often given is that we are indeed free, but we're free to choose and that includes being free to choose to do evil and that itself includes choosing to give in to both internal and external forces. However, the replier will go on to explain, there is still good in people if you look for it.

Well, St Paul would disagree fundamentally with this explanation. He wouldn't disagree that some people want to do good, but he would disagree with the idea that we have either the freedom or ability to do it.

In our reading from Romans for this week, St Paul, having described a struggle with sin, writes, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)’. Who is this wretched man? Is St Paul speaking of himself personally or is he speaking more generally, with himself as the representative of a type or of a group? And when did this wretched man's struggle take place? Did it take place before he came to Christ? Or is St Paul describing the experience of everyone including that of every believer?

The wretched man, in Romans chapter 7, wants to do good and to resist sin but finds himself powerless and unable to do so. Instead, he finds himself doing the very sin he hates. While there are many different variations, there are basically only two ways of understanding and interpreting what St Paul says in Romans chapter 7, that is, the pessimistic or the ultra-pessimistic way of interpreting it.

The pessimistic way understands St Paul to be saying that outside of Christ, before someone comes to faith in Christ, they are incapable of doing even the good they want to do. The ultra-pessimistic way of interpreting it understands St Paul to be saying that no-one, not even a believer, can ultimately resist the power of sin. And there are people who argue for either of these interpretations. But what, on either interpretation, has led St Paul to such a depressing view of the human condition?

It used to be said that St Paul was reflecting the experience of someone who was a believer but who wanted to keep the Law. In other words, St Paul is describing his own experience as a Pharisee before he came to faith in Christ. This understanding of the chapter has largely been abandoned by scholars nowadays. This is because elsewhere in his letters, this is not how St Paul remembers his experience before he became a believer. He writes to the Philippian church that when he was a Pharisee keeping the Law, he was blameless when it came to righteousness under the Law (Philippians 3:6). Here in Romans chapter 7, however, St Paul writes of the impossibility of keeping the Law.

Now it's important to see that St Paul is not saying that people never keep the Law or that they never do good. Rather he is saying that we are unable to keep the Law as the Law itself demands. Let me give an example.

Suppose on the way home from church this morning, you're driving down the freeway, and you're stopped by the police for speeding. And the police officer says to you, ‘You were speeding sir (or madam).’ And you reply, ‘Officer I've kept to the speed limit for most of the freeway. It's only just now that I've broken the speed limit.’ You wouldn't get a pat on the back from the police officer for having kept the speed limit for seven eighths of a mile and only sped for the last eighth. You would be given a ticket! You have broken the law.

So, which is it in Romans chapter 7? Is it the pessimistic interpretation or the ultra-pessimistic interpretation that we should go for? Well, I started to write my own interpretation of Romans chapter 7 for the sermon this week, and you would still be here at midday if I was to read it out! Instead, for those of you who are members of the Facebook Group, I'll post it this week. So, if you want to read the logic behind what I'm going to say, it will be there for you to look at. What follows is a summary of it!

I think that Paul is pessimistic about any attempt to do good outside of faith in Christ. However, for someone who has come to faith in Christ, St Paul has the confidence that in Christ that person can defeat sin; that, as a believer, we can be freed from sin's power and control. This, then, explains the identity of the wretched man in Romans chapter 7.

The wretched man is indeed St Paul himself, but St Paul writing as the representative of all who want to do good by keeping God's commandments. But it is St Paul also writing as the representative of those who haven't yet come to faith in Christ but who, nevertheless, still want to do good. St Paul is looking back on his life as a Pharisee perhaps, but looking back from the vantage point of faith, and he is looking back on his life differently. He sees the reality of his former life, and he sees the reality of all those who, like him, are genuine in their effort to keep the Law. He sees, though, that their effort to do good will ultimately come to nothing. And it will come to nothing because they simply do not have the power and the ability to do good. St Paul describes in Romans how we need to die both to sin and die to the Law itself.

In Romans chapter 6, St Paul describes how when we're baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his death; we die to sin. But in Romans chapter 7, at the very beginning of the chapter, he writes something that to any good Jew would seem absolutely incredible, indeed, almost blasphemous. St Paul writes that we have died to God's Law. St Paul writes that we no longer serve God that way. We now serve, St Paul writes, in the new way of the Spirit (Romans 7:6). He will go on to describe that new way of the Spirit in Romans chapter 8.

In Romans chapters 1 to 5, St Paul has spent a lot of time describing the human condition. He describes how it is one of sin, how we are all sinners, and how we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Here in Romans chapter 7, he shows one of the terrible consequences of this. We not only sin; we are under the power of sin, which means not being able to do good. Seeing ourselves like this, as sinners controlled by sin and unable to do good, may lead to despair. St Paul cries out, ‘Who will deliver me from this body of death?’. But St Paul knows the answer. He writes, ‘Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ’. Who will deliver me? St Paul knows the answer. But do we?

We resist this pessimistic assessment of our condition outside of Christ. We insist, don't we, on believing in our own innate goodness and our freedom to choose how we live our lives despite all the evidence to the contrary? We refuse to admit our inability to keep God's Law and to live as even we know we should live. We refuse to see the reality of our condition, and our stubborn refusal to see the reality of our condition is itself part of our wretchedness. Who will deliver us indeed?

Sin not only prevents us from doing good, it has led us to believe that we actually can do good. We need to understand ourselves, our sinfulness, our powerlessness, our hopelessness.

The desire to understand ourselves is itself a common one. Hence people will sign up for psychotherapy sessions, will take psychometric tests, and will submit themselves to psychological assessments. And the desire for self-knowledge is a good one, when it is motivated by a wish to be a better person. Sadly, all too often, it's just part of our ongoing self-obsession. The need for self-knowledge, however, is a common theme in philosophy and in religion in general.

But here's the thing: true self-knowledge can only be found when we come to know God. We can never see ourselves as we are until we see ourselves, as St Catherine of Siena put it, in the mirror of God. It is only when we come to know God in Christ that we gain true self-knowledge, for it is only God who sees us completely and who understands us entirely. But when we see ourselves as God sees us, it can be desperately frightening, because to see ourselves in the light of God is to become aware of the darkness in each one of us. It is to become aware of our weakness, failure, and unworthiness. When St Peter saw himself as Christ saw him, he said to our Lord, ‘Depart from me O Lord for I am a sinful man (Luke 5;8)’. But it is when we see ourselves as God sees us that we also see that God loves us as we are, as wretched, as weak, as failures, as unworthy.

I've told you in the past about how when I was just a schoolboy at secondary school, a teacher challenged me and said to me, ‘Ross, do you know God?’ And that was the beginning of my journey of faith. The same teacher also said to me at the same time, ‘Ross, Jesus didn't come to die so we could be forgiven for our sins. And I was a bit taken aback by this, because that was standard Christian teaching: Jesus died for our sins. But he said that no, God had been forgiving sins throughout history. The Old Testament is full of God forgiving sins. The problem was God forgave sins and people went on sinning afterwards. Forgive sin, sin, forgive sin: it was a cycle. God wanted, this teacher explained, to end the cycle. God wanted not only to forgive us our sins, but to make it possible for us to overcome sin. And that's what Paul is writing about in Romans chapters 6, 7, and 8. God not only wants to forgive us our sins, which, of course, he does, God wants to deal with our sin. He wants to make it possible for us to be freed from sin. He wants to enable us to serve him in the new way of the Spirit.

When we look at ourselves, we all too often compare ourselves with others, and so we think we're not doing too badly. But in the presence of God, all is revealed, and we see our wretchedness. The wretched man of Romans chapter 7 is each one of us outside of Christ. And when we see our wretchedness, we too cry out, who will deliver me? And it's in that cry, it is in that moment of despair that we come to see the power of God to change us and to free us. It is when we see our wretchedness that we also see that deliverance is to be found in Christ. Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.


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