Can You Ever be Free of Sin?
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Can You Ever Be Free of Sin?
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
James Boswell wrote an almost word-by-word biography of Samuel Johnson. Boswell kept his own diary as well and he writes this in it, “For Sunday, November 28, 1762, I went to St. James’ Church and heard service and a good sermon on by what means shall a young man learn to order his ways in which the advantages of early piety were well displayed. What a curious inconsistent thing is the mind of man. In the midst of divine service I was laying plans for having a woman and yet I had the most sincere feelings of religion.” That’s written in 1762 and it’s now about 220 years later, but I wonder how many of us would say, “Well I’m embarrassed to hear that but I’m more embarrassed because I myself have done the same thing. At moments in my life when I’ve wanted above all to do good I’ve found something rising inside me that seems a monstrosity. It seems filled with all the evil that I thought I left behind years ago and yet it does seem to be me.”
This was so real that Robert Louis Stevenson, another novelist, put it into a book called “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He wrote to a friend called Low in America and said, “Well, I’m afraid it could be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Low or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Stevenson just as easily.” Dr. Jekyll was the generous, philanthropic, religious doctor who was always helping the down and out and helping the prostitutes but he took a drug that sprang loose from him a mad beast of a man called Hyde who actually used and murdered prostitutes. So Jekyll at times would find the desire to take the drug and change into Hyde almost overwhelming. But he kept on saying, “The thing is; I feel that Hyde is me also. I feel it’s not just Jekyll, I feel I am Hyde also.”
Then Dostoyevsky had Mitya in “The Brothers Karamazov” say, “God and the Devil are fighting inside each of us. The battlefield is the heart of man.” He wrote “In every man a demon lies hidden: the demon of rage, the demon of lustful hate and the screams of the tortured victim. The demon of lawlessness let off the chain; the demon of diseases that follow on vice.” I don’t know if there’s one man or woman here this morning who, though they may not paint the enemy within in as vivid terms, knows that enemy. I don’t know if there’s one of us here who has not found that at the very moment when we wanted to do what was right, we found that there was a lion within us that rose up and seemed to tear off after the most savage things.
I don’t know if there’s one of us here who haven’t found at the most holy moments of our lives, maybe when we were about to pronounce the wedding vows or when we were about to say something to our own mother, have found rising up within us a savage creature that we find impossible to control at different times. Joseph Conrad wrote his novel “The Heart of Darkness” and he said, “This seems like the journey into a dense jungle where I find a man that is barely human. But it’s actually the journey into my own heart, into a heart of darkness that I dare only look at from time-to-time but whose influence I feel all the time in my life, virtually every day.”
Most of us say, “Well, yes I have found that; I’ve found a desire to criticize people and rip them apart at the very moment when I was praising them and trying to be nice to them. I’ve found a desire to say ugly and cruel things to a person when I’ve been trying to be the kindest I could possibly be to them. I’ve gone home at times determined to be good and to be kind and I’ve ended up making the evening a hell for my friends. I find there’s a Pandora’s Box of evils inside me that wants to lash out of lust, and hate, and criticism, and selfishness that I know isn’t me. It isn’t
me. I can’t say it’s me, because I myself am desirous to be civilized and religious.” And yet loved ones, it does seem to be you, doesn’t it?
We human beings get round it in a “religious way.” We say, “Well, it’s not me you see, it’s my sinful nature, that’s what it is.” Even those of us who are children of God say, “We can have our sins forgiven but we never get rid of our sinful nature, it’s there forever, you can’t overcome it. It’s there all the time and forever. No religion, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, no religion can touch it. That’s the struggle you see, that’s the strife, that’s the conflict, that’s the battle of faith that you have to fight for the rest of your life. That’s your sinful nature. It’s not really me and that’s, to tell you the truth, how I live with it. I know it may sound to you like schizophrenia but that’s how I live with it. It’s my sinful nature it’s not me. If I once admitted it was me I’d go bonkers completely. It’s not me, it’s my sinful nature. I myself am a good Christian, or a good Buddhist, or a good Mohammadin, or a good Confucius. But that sinful nature, everybody knows, can never be overcome in this present life.”
And most of us who say that go to this book [the Bible] for our justification. We do and these verses we’ll look at are the basis on which Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was writing to a friend, explaining what the book was about, and he said, “It’s that business of the war in our members, that’s what it’s all about.” So it is from this book [the Bible] loved ones, that most of us believe that. Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” See, we say we want the right thing, “It’s not me — I want the right thing.” “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.” So, it’s not really my fault, I myself want to be good and I want to be Godly, I want to be generous, I want to be kind, and I want to be pure. Then verse 17, “So then it is no longer I that do it,” see, it’s not me, “but sin which dwells within me.”
And this is the argument we get into, we say, “It’s some other power – sin — and I can’t control it. I don’t know what to do with it but it’s not I that am doing it, you see, it is, ‘Sin which dwells within me.’” Verse 18: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me” And we say, “I know inside I seem to have a mass of hatred and evil but you see it is my flesh; “that is, in my flesh.” It’s my sinful nature, its sin; it’s not me because you see in verse 18, “I can will what is right.” So my will is actually pure in this matter, I will what is right it’s just I cannot do it. To rephrase verse 17 again, “For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.” And that’s the explanation we give.
We say, “That’s right. That’s exactly my spot. I respect all that you say. I respect the 10 commandments, even though I don’t believe in God. I want to be good. I want to live by the golden rule. I want to do the best that the best philosophers and the ethical teachers in this world tell me to do but I tell you, there’s something in me; my flesh, sin, sinful nature, that won’t let me do it. So there you are you see. I’m just in the hands of something that is greater than me and I can’t do anything about it and there it is.” And here’s Paul saying, “That’s right. That’s the situation I was in.” We can go on and read verse 21 and say, “Boy those are the very words that I would use.” The words that Paul uses are, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” That’s right.
It seems at the very times that I want to do good evil is right there, verse 22, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” So you see, there’s a law
in my members; a law, not in the sense of a law about the speed limit, but a law in the sense of the law of gravity; it describes the way something happens. In the law of gravity you don’t have to say, “Bible, fall,” if you let go of it, it falls; it finds it easy to fall.
So it’s the same, “I find a law in my members.” I don’t have to tell them to do evil they just do evil; it just comes naturally to them. So often we go to Paul’s words and we say at the end of verse 24 with him, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And most of us say, “That’s it, there it is; there in the Bible is Paul’s outline of the Christian life. He is one of the saints, one of the great teachers in our world, and that’s his conclusion, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ That’s the same spot I’m in.” But that’s not the last verse of that chapter. The chapter doesn’t end there with “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Look at verse 25; it doesn’t end at verse 24 with the cry of despair, it ends at verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
In other words he says, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” God, through Jesus Christ our Lord will deliver you and deliver me. But then, if you’re awake this morning and not just believing me because I say it, you’ll say, “Yeah, but wait a minute the chapter doesn’t end there either. Look, after that exclamation mark, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.’ So there it is. So really what he [Paul] means by that, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” is actually that we can never do anything else than serve the law of God with our minds, and with our flesh serve the law of sin. We can never be freed from it. We’ll always be in that position that we’ll have to believe with our minds that God’s law is good but with our bodies and our flesh we’ll serve the law of sin. But ‘Thanks be to God’ because despite that, Jesus’ blood will continually cover our sins and God therefore will look upon us as people who have not sinned. So we can sin like mad because we can’t help it, but nevertheless God will keep on saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but because you believe in my Son Jesus I ignore that.” And that’s, I think, what most people today will say.
Really loved ones, so that you may be sure about it; the greater part of Christendom will say that and that’s why the world looks at Christendom and says, “You happy creatures with your bumper stickers, ‘Christians are not perfect only forgiven.’ You happy souls, yeah that’s your out, but we’re the people who have to live with you and you can be pretty miserable you Christians who say, ‘Oh you’re forgiven and you’re going to get into heaven because Jesus’ blood covers you and you can’t overcome this sinful nature.’ But we’re the guys that have to put up with your sinful nature and with all your high flown talk and your hypocritical ways.
Loved ones the world doesn’t like what it sees of religious people, and a lot of those religious people call themselves Christians unfairly, but they call themselves Christians. So the world doesn’t like what it sees in most people who call themselves Christians because it sees a crowd of people who kind of think, “Oh you [Charles] Manson,” or, “You [Leonid}] Brezhnev you’re doing wrong and at the end of this life you will go to hell and you’ll burn forever in fire and brimstone. I am not unlike you; I hate the way you hate. I have critical desires inside, but I believe in Jesus, so I’m going to go to heaven even though I’m no different from you.”
Loved ones, its tricky stuff; it’s a tricky pill to swallow. You may sit there today and you may determine, “Brother, you’re wrong in attacking that because that’s the pill I’m swallowing.” Well loved ones, all I’ll say to you is, it’s not too logical and it doesn’t make too much sense to the world, and frankly, I don’t think it makes too much sense to this dear book [Bible] actually.
You see, there are several problems with this way of thinking if this is what this chapter is saying, that we can do no better than always serve the law of sin with our flesh, then I would point out that if you go on in the next chapter, Paul is then saying that all Christians will die eternally. That’s right. If he’s saying, “With my mind I serve the law of God but with my flesh I serve the law of sin and that’s a normal Christian life.” Then look what he says about such people in Romans 8:13. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.”
So do you see what he’s saying? He says in Romans 7 that all we can do is live by the flesh and then he says in Romans 8:13 that if you live by the flesh you’ll die. So it’s madness! Paul is saying the best that the Christian life offers in Romans 7 is that you are overcome continually by the sinful nature and you live in the flesh, and then he says in Romans 8 that all people who live like that will die. There’s no sense to it loved ones and you should really write the guy off as an idiot with a low IQ who can’t even remember what he wrote in the previous chapter. Except — that you can’t buy that, can you? Because he was taught in the Pharisaical schools and he was a shrewd and highly intelligent man, and a man that all the world looks to as one of those who has seen deepest into life’s problems.
But you have other difficulties too loved ones; if you look at Romans 7:23 you see a picture of defeat there, “But I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” This is a picture of captivity. He’s saying, “I see what is right to do but I’m captive to this law that works in my members.” Go to the previous chapter, and he’s talking about freedom and liberty, and he contradicts himself completely. In Romans 7 he’s saying, “Here I am under sin; I can’t get free of it.” Now look at the previous chapter, Romans 6:15, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
In other words, in Roman 6 he says, “We’re free from sin,” and in Romans 7 says, “We’re back under sin, we’re captives of sin” now it does not make sense loved ones. A lot of people refer to this sinful nature, or sin, or the flesh, as the “old self” and Paul, at the beginning of Romans 6, talks about the end of that old self which is really our old perverted personality. Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”
So in Romans 6 he says, “There’s a miracle that took place in Jesus on Calvary that freed you so that you didn’t have to be bound to sin, and you didn’t have to be enslaved to that sinful nature.” And then in Romans 7 he says, “But nevertheless, the best you can ever hope for is to be enslaved to that sinful nature for the rest of your life.” Now, how do you explain it? If the man himself is
not schizophrenic, or if he can’t remember what he wrote in the previous chapter – how do you explain that in Romans 6 he says you can be freed from the sinful nature — that Jekyll and Hyde inside you — and yet in Romans 7 he says you can’t be freed from it? Well loved ones, if Romans is an autobiographical account of Paul’s own experience, particularly if it’s a chronological account the thing doesn’t make sense; then if the guy’s writing it like some of those 18th century novelists with flash backs; he goes forward here, “I’m free” and then he goes back and “I’m not free” there. It makes no sense.
But the fact is that the book of Romans has never been thought of as an autobiographical account of one man’s experience. It’s never been thought of as a chronological account of Paul’s own personal experience. It’s always been thought of as the outstanding theological treatise that describes how God redeems man. It’s always been thought of as the most carefully expounded outline of God’s dealings with man that we have ever had. And in fact, that’s what it is.
It’s not an autobiographical account of Paul’s experience. It’s not a chronological account of a man’s experience with Jesus and with sin; it’s a theological outline of what God saves us from and the clue to it is in the first verse of Romans 6. We’ll compare it with the first verse of Romans 7. Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” In Romans 6 he deals with that lion inside us, that sinful nature, that old self, that evil flesh that always wants its own way, that wants to overwhelm anybody else to get its own way, that self that produces hatred, and anger, and resentment, and dirt. That has been crucified with Christ, and we are freed from it the moment we believe that. We can live free from this desire inside us to do evil.
Then we say, “Oh good. I’m freed from that so now I can go and obey the law.” He says in Romans 7:1, “Do you not known, brethren – for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during his life?” He says, “No, stop, you don’t go to the law. When you let your old self, your motivational center, your real being die with Jesus, God sends his Spirit into you and then you obey that Spirit, you don’t obey the law. You don’t get back into that business of trying to obey regulations. You have a voice from within you that from that moment on guides you in things you don’t even think are right or wrong, that’s how subtle it is.
So he says, “In Romans 6 you’re freed from the desire and the power that makes you do evil and in Romans 7 you’re freed from the law that was once the only way that the world had to help you to do good; because now there is a higher way.” And you see what he says in Romans 7:6, “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” So he says there’s a new Spirit actually inside you, and that Spirit has displaced your old self and that Spirit will give you directions. If you obey that Spirit immediately, he will take you on. He will at times tell you to do things that are even finer than you ever thought of. He’ll tell you at times not to laugh too loud — the law doesn’t tell you about laughing. He’ll tell you at times to go over and speak to this person and say something to them — the law doesn’t tell you to do that. This Spirit inside you will keep you free, keep you living above self because part of the problem was not the evil things that you did but also the good things you did. You thought you were doing these things, so you were delivered not only from the evil that you did but you’re delivered from even the good that you did.
Then Paul turns around to his friends who were brought up the same way as he, and that’s who chapter 7 is addressed to; it’s addressed to his friends, his fellow Jews, because he says that in Romans 7:1, “Do you not know, brethren – for I am speaking to those who know the law.” Romans 7 is for the
benefit of those Jews who would be apt to say, “Good, we’re freed from the old self that made us do evil and made us get angry, now we can obey the law.” He says, “Listen, that’s not it; you’re freed from that too because there’s something better than the law within you. God has put his law in your inward parts.” So he is saying, “No, I’m speaking to you who know the law. We’re discharged from the law too.” And then he’s thinking of the Jews asking, “Do you mean the law is bad?” And then he has a great parenthesis in his discussion. He’s about to go on from that and he’s about to say, “No, you don’t look at the law, you go on into the Spirit,” and in Romans 8 he starts to talk about this Spirit that is within them, that guides them to what to do. He’s imagining their comment, “Well then, before you go on to the Spirit, was the law bad?” So he says, “No, wait, I’ll deal with that. Before I get on to telling you about this glorious Spirit inside you that changes you completely, I’ll tell you. I’ll put I’ll put parenthesis’ around this and explain.” So the parenthesis begins in Romans 7:7 loved ones. Romans 7:7, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin?” No fellow Jews, “By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”
So the law was good, it exposed sin within me, “But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead.” So the law exposed sin. “I was once alive,” in my ignorance, “apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died;” It showed me the cancerous disease inside me, “the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me.” So no, fellow Jews, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, and just and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” And he then goes on to state the truth, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.”
And he begins to state this general situation in terms of a present tense; “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.” That was me as a Jew. “So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” That was the problem before Romans 6. It was I, I, I. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want.” And so he rams it home, “The problem was that in the old days when we were Jews, we couldn’t do anything with this great burgeoning blossoming self-inside us, this massive ego that wanted its own way.”
Then he sums it all up and says in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then,” and the first Greek word in this sentence is “autos” that’s “of myself” “So then, I of myself,” left to myself, un-crucified, with Jesus doing nothing for me in regard to the old sinful nature, “I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” And then the parenthesis ends and he goes on to what he was continuing to say in Romans 7:6 so in Romans 8:1 he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.”
In other words loved ones, Paul says to us, “You can be freed from your sinful nature.” And that might help those of you who are laboring under it. Do you see what he says? He says the same as you; you’re willing the right thing, aren’t you? Those of you who are children of God have already set your wills towards God and you’ve said, “I will what is right but I cannot do it.” Our problem is not the will, and maybe it’s good to see that. I think a lot of you here this morning say, “Oh,
it’s my will Pastor, it’s my will.” It’s not. Look at Romans 7:23, “But I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” That’s the problem. Chapter 7:18, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”
That’s the problem. You will what is right but the equipment that you have prevents you doing it and that’s what the problem is. The problem is that you have a personality, an old self, a sinful nature, that has been trying to get from people the love that it was meant to get from God. So you go to the office on Monday morning and you say, “I am not going to care what they think about me. I am going to do what is right even if they think I’m square, even if they think I’m stupid. I’m going to do what is right.” But for years your little eyes have been looking out for the boss’ approval. For years your little ears have been listening for somebody to praise you so that you can build up your self-esteem and your whole personality is built on receiving in from other people the love that you need to get from God alone. So you want to do it, but the moment comes when they crack the dirty joke and you know you need to say “Well, I don’t think that’s very funny.” Or, you need to say, “Well, that certainly makes dirt of life, doesn’t it?”
But the little eyes and ears are so used to it that you laugh, or smirk, and walk away and so you say, “I was able to will what is right but I wasn’t able to do it” because your personality has been perverted and bent so strongly towards receiving that love from others instead of from God that you cannot overcome it. Now loved ones that was crucified with Christ; God destroyed that old personality of yours in Jesus. That’s what happened on Calvary. That old self of yours was crucified with Christ and the moment you believe that and stop pleading and whining, “Oh you see, I have my father’s personality,” or, “I have my mother’s personality,” or, “I’ve got this from my environment,” or, “Oh all we poor human beings we’re all naturally critical,” or, “We’re all naturally sarcastic,” or, “We’re all naturally dirty and lustful.” The sooner you stop saying that lie and say, “Wait a minute, this book says that our old self was crucified with Christ. That means it was crucified and its power to prevent me doing what is right has gone. I believe that and I will do what is right from this day on and I will obey you Holy Spirit.”
Loved ones, the moment you do that, that moment you’ll enter into liberty and deliverance. You will. It’s only possible because Jesus has done it, but it has been done. And the power over you is not your will because you can will what is right. Before you’re a child of God you don’t even will what is right, but you can will what is right (once you are a child of God). The power over you is not your will, but it is the lie that that personality of yours will not work the right way. And the moment you believe the truth that that old self was crucified with Christ and that right up to this very moment all that you have been over the past years of your life has been destroyed by God, the moment you believe that and you believe you’re starting with a clean slate this morning, and that you can listen to the Holy Spirit within you and can do what he tells you, that moment that Spirit will begin to take you into a new life. That’s true. It happened to me and it’s true.
Let us pray.
Dear Father, thank you for showing so plainly in your dear book here that it is a lie, this belief that we cannot do what is right. That it is a lie, this belief that the sinful nature is too strong for us. That it is a lie that men and women must live their lives continually in conflict with themselves, continually unable to live above sin. Dear God, we see the world looks at us and says, “Why don’t you live like you preach?” Lord, it’s as if your world even, who often claims not to
know you, testifies to the truth of what happened in Jesus on Calvary. So Father, thank you that all that I have been over these past years, with all the ruts in my personality that have developed, with all the constraints that have worked themselves out into my will, and my mind, and my emotions; all that was crucified in Christ and that is finished with and I am no longer alive; I have died and my life is hid with Christ in God. It is no longer I that live but Christ that lives within me.
Lord, thank you that I can believe that truth this morning and I can walk from this day forward as Jesus walked. I can listen to the same Spirit as he listened to and you dear Holy Spirit, will direct me into stronger and stronger paths that are more and more like Jesus himself. Thank you Lord.
Now the grace of our Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with each one of us now and ever more.