No self-loathing. No condemnation.
We are almost at the end of our Romans series; next week is the final week, so this week we are going to hear some of chapters 7 and 8. Before we hear the text this morning, I want to say a couple of things about definitions. Remember how I have told you in the past that every translation of the Bible does interpretation simply through the words the translators choose? That’s VERY true in this passage. Now sometimes what we need is some good interpretive translation. A word-for-word translation doesn’t always give us the clearest meaning because there’s a big difference between ancient Greek and modern English. But since it’s easy to get confused, here are a few definitions that I would like you to keep in mind as you listen.
1. flesh – the word means actual physical body, human existence. Sometimes it’s used in a good context and sometimes it’s used in a bad context because that’s the reality of our human experience, sometimes good and sometimes not good. This word does not mean carnal pleasures, it doesn’t mean sex, and when it gets translated as “sinful nature,” that’s very much an interpretation. Flesh means our embodied existence that belongs to this world.
2. law – Paul uses this word lots of ways without being really clear when he switches meanings. Sometimes it means the Torah, the law given to Moses in the Old Testament. Sometimes it means a custom or accepted practice. Sometimes it means an inescapable principle. What it does not mean is legalism in general. It doesn’t mean simply a tendency toward rule-following.
Finally, just a reminder that Paul’s main point in the book of Romans is to explain how Jews and Gentiles and everyone else is all saved by grace through faith without earning it by following the law. This will be important to remember as you listen. So with those things in mind “let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture: Romans 7:14-8:2,11 (NRSV)
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 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. But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that 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. 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, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 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, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind, I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh, I am a slave to the law of sin.
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 you free from the law of sin and of death.
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 that dwells in you.
This is the Word of God for All People. Thanks be to God.
There’s a very big difference between self-reflection and self-loathing. There’s a very big difference between thinking seriously about our character, actions and motives, and assuming that we are fundamentally worthless. Spiritual maturity, walking humbly with God, should include healthy and regular self-reflection. But it is inherently unbiblical and dishonoring to God for us to engage in self-loathing. I begin with this reminder because unfortunately some of you have been at churches in the past that not only encouraged self-loathing but even based your salvation on your self-loathing. In order for you to realize how much you need grace, you must first be convinced that you are despicable. Here’s the problem: No matter how firmly you believe in grace, if you first believe that you are crap, you will never actually move past that belief. Beloved, to begin our salvation with self-loathing is a satanic distortion of the word of God, designed by the enemy to keep us from living the kind of lives where we recognize that we are blessed to be a blessing to the world.
Now, I have to say that so firmly because this morning we are engaging with one of the Bible passages that is most often used to perpetuate self-loathing. Let me be very clear: this is not a passage about how bad we are. This is a passage about how complicated we are, how tragic sin is, and how powerful Jesus is. This is a text for self-reflection, not self-loathing.
Now I can tell you that, just like most passages in the Bible, there’s plenty of debate over this one. Paul is a brilliant thinker, but his writing is not always easy to follow. It’s hard to tell exactly what he’s talking about here. Is it the situation of humanity before the grace accomplished by Christ? Is it Paul’s experience before his conversion? Is it the experience of the individual even after we have begun to trust Jesus? It’s really hard to know. None of those possibilities fit quite perfectly considering what comes before and after this section.
But this is one of those Bible passages that many of us feel in our guts, regardless of the scholarly arguments. I would bet that at some point, each one of us has agonized with the frustration of missing the mark, of our actions not matching up with our intentions, of missing out on the glory of God as Paul says in Romans chapter 3. Hopefully as we grow in spiritual maturity, it happens less often, but it still happens. Whatever else Paul may be trying to say in this section, what we recognize is the complexity of human existence.
We are never just one thing, are we? Even the littlest bit of self-reflection will make it clear to us that we are not all good. And yet a healthy sense of self recoils from believing that we are all bad. It’s not one or the other. We live in the in-between. In our individual experiences and in the world at large, we live in the already-but-not-yet, in the reality that God has saved us all, but that we have not all recognized it and lived into it. The work is done and there’s a lot of work left to do. Grace has changed everything and a lot of injustice remains unchanged. Already but not yet. That’s where we live.
So what do we do about that? For ourselves and for the world? Well, if we follow the pattern of this section of Romans, the first step is to acknowledge that complexity. Paul says, “Inside of myself I roll around in delight in God’s law.” AND ALSO “I do not carry out what I intend, instead I manufacture the very things I hate.” It does us no good at all to oversimplify people, whether that’s ourselves or anyone else. Every person has this same struggle, including the person you think is a saint AND the person that you think is worthless. Every person is as complicated as you are.
But we can’t stay there. Paul doesn’t stay there. He has his existential crisis and then he moves on. And how does he do this? By reminding himself of a reality more powerful than his experience: the grace of Jesus. No matter how much of a prisoner he feels, he reminds himself and us that he HAS ALREADY been delivered from the body of this death through Jesus Christ our Lord.
But even that glorious reminder is not the final step. It is such good news that Christians sometimes get caught in this cycle and spend a lot of time just rehashing the complexity of our existence and the fact that Jesus delivers us. We are captives. Jesus rescues us. Hooray! We are captives. Jesus rescues us. Hooray! Over and over and over. Now, please hear me: that’s great news and there’s always going to be somebody who needs to hear it for the first time. So we should say it. But if we only ever say that, we run the risk of focusing too much on the complexity, which is what leads easily to the self-loathing. We have to move on again. So what comes after the good news of the rescue?
Here it is: “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 us free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom 8:1-2) The whole point of Jesus rescuing us is that there’s a wonderful life here and now in this world that comes after the rescue. Here and now we experience what is to be free from condemnation, free to walk according to the Spirit, free to have Spirit-filled minds of life and peace. This is the ongoing life of Pentecost. The Spirit is at work in us individually, among us as we gather as God’s people, and through us for the good of the world. It’s not just what about we are saved from, it’s about what we are saved for. All the way back in Genesis, our spiritual ancestors entered into a covenant with God in which they were blessed to be a blessing, and that’s still the case for us. If we are focused on being blessed and not focused on being a blessing to the world, we have totally and completely missed the point.
No matter how complex our experience is, and it will always be complex, there is a larger and more powerful reality that draws us forward. Three different times in Romans 7 Paul refers to “the sin that dwells in me.” But listen again to Romans chapter 8 verse 11: “The one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” We may feel like sin dwells in us, but the greater reality is that the enlivening Spirit of Christ dwells in us, doing a more powerful work in us than even the cosmic power of sin could ever do. Sin is a powerful force. But grace is more powerful. God’s unconditional love is more powerful. Our faith, our trust in Jesus is more powerful. Whatever complexity we face, however conflicted we feel in our emotions and our actions, that is not the end of the story. The Spirit is already also in us, just waiting to be turned loose through our trust in God’s love and grace, so that we can be turned loose in the world as a force for justice, mercy, and humility. Amen.