Recently I made the statement, “Our biggest sin as believers is ‘trying to do good” and ‘trying to be like Christ.'”
What do I mean by that? Shouldn’t we try to be like Christ, and try to be good Christians? Romans 6-8 brings some background for my opening statement.
Paul, in Romans 6, states our real identity in Christ. We died to sin (6:2). Our old self was crucified with Christ (6:6). We are no longer slaves of sin; we’re freed now from sin’s tyranny over us (6:6, 7, 18, 22). These are radical statements, but since this is now how God defines Reality we’re to count it as true (6:11).
Well, first of all, what is sin? If we look at what righteousness is, it’s “Loving God and neighbor at the expense of oneself.” So, reverse that, and sin is “Loving oneself at the expense of God and neighbor.” We’re dead to that, Paul says, and so we’re to take that statement literally and count it as a foundational reality. Think for a moment of what that means: “I am dead to sin.”
But – it’s not enough to know we are dead to sin, and Paul foreshadows Romans 7 in 6:14. Sin shall not be our master, because we are not under the Law, but under grace.
What does “the Law” mean? Some say that Paul means the ceremonial Law, but when you get to 7:7 he uses “Do not covet,” straight out of the Ten Commandments, showing he is discussing not merely the ceremonial but the moral Law.
If we look at the essence of the Law-based economy, it was “Do this and you shall be blessed – fail to keep the whole Law and be cursed.” It is an either-or proposition; either we succeed totally by our human effort and achieve blessing, or we make one mistake and we’re done for.
Both Paul and James point to this principle: Gal. 5:3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
James 2:10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
And 2Kings shows that the Law is all or nothing: 2Kings 21:8 I will not again make the feet of the Israelites wander from the land I gave their forefathers, if only they will be careful to do everything I commanded them and will keep the whole Law that my servant Moses gave them.” That’s the “if” of the Law.
And in Deut 27:26 “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.” That’s the all of the Law.
The Law is an “if” proposition. If you do A B and C, then you will be blessed. If you don’t do A, B, and C, then you will be cursed.
The Law is about becoming Something through doing. It is God’s answer to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – Satan’s paradigm. With the Law, God said in effect, “OK, human beings. If you think you can know good and evil and be “like God,” here’s the standard. If you keep all these commands, I will bless you. If you break one, you are under a curse.” If we’d had the brains we’d have said at Sinai, “We can’t do all that! There’s no way!” But instead what was said was, “We will be careful to do all you have commanded.” No problem, Lord. We’ll just be like You. Got it.” And the Old Testament record shows how well that worked.
The Law doesn’t work because only God is love; He’s the sole source of totally other-centered love in the universe. Human beings, in their own effort, cannot love in this way. This is why Paul says, “The Law was weak, through the flesh.” Flesh-effort cannot truly love as God loves. We can love those who love us. We can be kind to those who aren’t unkind to us. But only God Himself can say, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” while being tortured and executed for crimes he didn’t commit; only God can make Corrie Ten Boom reach up years later and shake the hand of the Nazi guard who had caused her so much pain; only God can cause widows of missionaries to go into uncharted territory to find the natives who murdered their husbands and then love them into the Kingdom. That kind of love belongs only to God Himself, and moreover He doesn’t give this love to man as a thing to use; rather, God gives Himself to us as the driving force of love inside these earthen temples.
That’s why our Law-based human effort doesn’t work. By human effort we cannot rise above our flesh tendencies, the desire for self-protection, self-preservation, self-love (which loves my family, my friends, my country), and love simply because we are love. Only God can do that. Oh, we can look pretty good. We can be religious, moral, live good lives, even die for our country. But we can’t die for those who are spitting, whipping, beating, crucifying us, Nazi guards and natives who murdered our husbands. That last bit is the measure of real love.
Most Christians believe that the Law, fleshly effort, cannot save us. They know we need Jesus as our Savior. But how many realize, and I didn’t for many years, that Jesus Christ is also our sanctifier? “As you began in the Spirit (by relying on Jesus Christ) so walk in Him (by reliance on Christ, the Spirit in us).”
And so the point of Romans 7 is to show the hamster-wheel struggle of a believer who tries to use human effort to “be like God” and keep the Law. It is a wheel with no end. The infinite intricacies of the Law knock us down again and again. “I hate what I’m doing! I’m not doing what I want to do!” And so Paul says, “All who rely on the Law are under the curse.” Why?
Human-effort says, “I am not good as God is good, and must strive to become like God.” The lie of the Garden and Satan’s boast in Isaiah 14. Paul says, “When I will to do good (will-power), evil is present.” Will-power exertion to be ‘good’ produces wretched-man syndrome – the defeated Christian. And so Paul calls the Law, “the Law of sin and death” and “the ministration of condemnation” (2Cor 3:9). “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” It’s a death-stage as we forever die to the illusion that we can be like Christ if we just try harder next time.
But it’s an important stage; it is the stage by which we learn “I am not like God. I cannot be ‘like Christ.’ I’m as different from God as a light bulb is from electricity.” That’s the crucial thing to learn. As Paul put it, we are “vessels” and as Jesus said, “Branches.” There is no way for a cup itself to slake anyone’s thirst without something in it. There’s no way a branch can produce a single bit of fruit by exertion of effort. All the branch does is rest and stay connected to the Vine. That’s the foundational reality for the mature believer: “I am a cup.” “I am a branch.” It is the foundation of real humility, where we finally dispense with self-commendation when we do this or that good thing and self-condemnation when we fail. And so Jesus Himself, who set aside the use of His Deity and came to live here as a Holy Spirit-directed man knew this reality of human cup-ness and said, “I can do nothing of Myself” and “The Father in Me does the works.”
In this humility – through the humiliation of our failure to be ‘like Christ’ – we find our true, inherent, God-created weakness. We were never meant to be good on our own steam, our effort, our striving. “Why do you call Me good? For there is only One who is good – that’s God.” That means there’s only one source of goodness in the entire universe, and it isn’t me, this human cup.
To wrap this up, Romans 6 states we’re dead to sin. But a believer, dead to sin, cannot be a clear channel of God’s love unless he knows he’s also dead to striving, flesh-effort based, hamster-wheel-running ‘trying to be like Christ.’ That’s Romans 7. And I guess we can talk about Romans 8 after we finish discussion on this bit – 8, where the lie is conquered and we begin to see ourselves as weak in our humanity but strong in the Spirit.