Being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus. Let’s talk about how all this looks.
To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 7
I want to add a few more brief thoughts about fighting sin. The first is this: being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus.
It is easy to get confused about this, for a couple of different reasons. First, it is our sin that separates us from God. Our sin is the problem that keeps us apart from ultimate joy, which is found only in the presence of God. It is also sin that makes the world such a terrible place at times. All war is caused by sin. All violence grows out of sin. Selfish actions, abuse of children, rapacious greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, and hatred are all outgrowths of the root of sin. Depression, self-loathing, self-centeredness, apathy, lack of love – all this proceeds from sin. Even disease and accidents are the result of the fact that sin is embedded in the world.
Since sin is the major problem, it is natural to make the mistake of believing that the solution is to commit fewer sins. And that leads to the second thing that confuses us: many churches do indeed seem to be teaching that the whole point of being a Christian is to control sin. Now, if we could, in fact, control our own sin, that would be a good thing to do. But, if you have tried very hard to do it, you realize that doesn’t get you very far. Even if you can control your behavior (and some people are quite good at that) when you look into your heart honestly, you recognize a deep commitment to get your own needs met, no matter what it takes.
Some people don’t realize what a problem this is, because they can get their needs met through things that are outwardly righteous. But even if the means are righteous, the heart that uses them is not. So maybe you go around helping people and quoting Bible verses in all circumstances. Both of those things are good to do. But it might be that you do them because it makes you feel secure, and good about yourself. It makes you feel like no one can find fault with you. So, even though the activities aren’t wrong, you are doing them for the wrong reasons. It is wrong to get your sense of security, or self-worth, from anywhere but God Himself. It is wrong to believe you can be justified by your own actions.
The bottom line is that every one of us is committed to ourselves, and to making sure that we get our own needs met, no matter what it takes. That is the essence of what the bible calls “flesh,” and we all have it.
As we have been learning through this series, God has dealt with human sin through Jesus. In a spiritual way, God crucified our own sinful hearts on the cross with Jesus. We died with him, and so now we are dead to sin. The way to “control” sin is not to think about it all the time, but rather, to immerse ourselves into the love and joy and grace that are found in Jesus Christ. We trust what the bible says: that we are new creations in Christ Jesus, holy, and blameless. We let Jesus live his life through us. The more we trust him to do that, the more we turn toward him, the less we are controlled by sin.
I want to use Romans chapter 7 to help us understand all this. Please take the time to read all of Romans 7:4 – 8:17. It is about the length of one chapter of scripture. Please do stop reading this right now, and open your Bible and read that. Seriously. Please stop reading this, and go read the scripture passage. Please?
Thanks for reading that. This is a section of scripture that is often misunderstood. In the first place, we ought to read the section I just gave you as one unit. The verse and chapter markings we find in our modern bibles are not part of the original. In other words, they were added to make it convenient for us to quickly find places in the Bible, but they were not inspired by God. So, if I were the one dividing up the book of Romans, I would have the section I just gave you as all belonging together. It would be a mistake to read chapter 7, and then stop without reading any of chapter 8.
In the first part of chapter 7, Paul is making two main points. First, that law is good. It was given by God to show us what sin is. Second, though the law is good, it shows us that we are not good, and the law cannot help us to become any better.
Next comes a section with which we are all familiar:
14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. (Romans 7:14-23, NLT)
We usually read this and think: “Yup. That’s me. I want to do the right thing, but I just can’t get it together. I keep sinning and sinning.” So far so good. But many people miss the main point Paul is making. He repeats it over and over again. The point is not that he sins all the time. The point is this: he wants to do what is right.
I had friend once who was not a Christian. After a lot of time and people praying for him, and some long conversations, he gave his heart to Jesus. Afterward, we started to meet together to pray and talk about the Bible and generally encourage each other in faith. One time the subject of lust came up. He said, “You know, before I became a Christian, I did not struggle with lust. Now I struggle with it all the time.”
I was shocked. What had we done wrong? I asked him to explain.
“Well, before I was a Christian,” he said, “there wasn’t any struggle. I lusted, and it didn’t bother me. But since I came to Jesus, it bothers me when I lust because I don’t want to do that now.”
You see the fact that he didn’t want to sin any more was proof that he had died to sin. In his deepest heart, he knew that he didn’t desire sin. In his inner being, he delighted in God’s perfect standard and holiness.
So, in Romans 7, Paul’s main point is not that he sins all the time. The main point is that now, he does not want to sin all the time. That fact shows that he has died to sin, and has been raised to be with Christ. He has a new heart, a new Spirit, and his new self does not want to sin.
Now, it is natural to ask: “If I am already dead to sin, if I’m already a new creation, freed from sin, why do I keep sinning? If I don’t want to sin, why do I do it anyway? Doesn’t this prove I am half-sinner, half-redeemed?”
No. Although I like the New Living Translation (used above) it does have a major drawback. In verse eighteen, the right translation is this: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (Romans 7:18, ESV; formatting added for emphasis). In the original Greek it never, anywhere in the New Testament, uses a term like “sinful nature.” The problem is not that we have “bad self,” along with a “redeemed self.” What we have is a part of us that is that vulnerable to sin, called flesh. I mentioned in the beginning that one characteristic of what the bible calls “flesh” is that it is utterly committed to getting our needs (and wants) met, even if it means going against what God says. We all inherited this kind “flesh” from Adam and Eve. Before we became Christians, we all lived according to the flesh. We all found ways to do what it takes to feel better. We all depended upon ourselves, rather than God, to get our needs met. Sometimes we did that in ways that didn’t look so bad (like being a good student to gain approval from adults). Sometimes we did it ways that were clearly wrong (like getting drunk to numb our emotional pain, feel good, and gain acceptance from our peers). But both the good student, and the drinker, were looking to something other than God to meet their needs, and lead them to a satisfying life.
In addition to the word “flesh” Paul also says sin is located in his “members.” The Greek word is usually used as a generic term for “body parts.” In Matthew 5, when Jesus said it is better to lose an eye than to be thrown into hell, he calls the eye a “member.” He also calls a right hand a “member.” James calls the tongue a member of the body.
So, sin does not live any more in what we call our “(figurative) hearts”. It certainly does not live in our spirit. It camps out in our bodies. Let’s not forget that the brain is part of the body. Our brains are usually the main problem. So the problem is not that we have two natures. The problem is that we inhabit sinful bodies, with sinful brains. In fact, Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 7:24 (which you just read):
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24, ESV)
What are some important things we know about bodies? First, we know that human beings are more than our bodies. Our physical appearance is not the real us. It is, in fact, one of the most shallow things about the true people that we are in our hearts. And that is where sin is located. Sin is not part of your nature anymore than your hair is a part of your nature. Sometimes you have to deal with your hair (or lack thereof). In interacting with others, it is good to maintain a decent appearance. You might fail to get the job you are supposed to if you show up to the interview with your hair wild and askew. But your hair does not really say anything about the real you.
Now you might be tempted to say: “Well, if I have sin in my brain, that is a real problem, because my brain directs everything I do.” That’s not exactly true. This is a little bit complex, but the truth is often complex. There is a difference between your brain, and your mind. Your brain is a physical organ that operates on electrical-chemical systems. Your mind is your sense of self-awareness. Your mind uses your brain, and is linked to it, but your mind is greater than the physical electrical-chemical processes that occur in the brain. The ideas you have are more than electro-chemical processes. Your thoughts and ideas have existence apart from the physical processes that created them. In addition, your will – your capacity to make decisions and follow through on them – is part of your mind, but not your brain. Yes, your brain does exert influence on your mind (and will). But your mind, and your will are greater than your brain. They will live on when your brain (along with the rest of your body) dies. If you don’t believe that, you are an atheist. Therefore, says our text today, we set our minds upon the Spirit, not the flesh.
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.( Romans 8:5-11, ESV)
Notice that Paul, also, distinguishes between mind and brain (because our brains are part of our flesh).
When we are in Jesus, the sin that was in our souls and spirits has been crucified – killed and done away with. Our minds, too, have been awakened to God. The only sin left in us is found in our physical bodies. When our bodies die, what remains of sin will die with them. Then we will be raised again with new bodies, uncorrupted by sin. But we already have spiritual life, spiritual holiness, as a kind of down-payment of what is coming. The most important part of you – the part of you that you think of as “yourself” has already been crucified with Christ, and raised again in holiness. There is no connection between the “essential you” and sin. If there was, the Holy Spirit could not live in you without destroying you (Since the presence of God destroys sin).
So, let’s find some practical suggestions for setting your mind on the spirit, not the flesh. When you are tempted to sin, try having a little conversation with yourself.
“This is not what the real me wants to do. This is what my corrupted brain and body think will make me happy. But they are wrong. I don’t need to do this, because in Jesus, I am already whole and complete. This sin will not actually help me.”
Or: “You – my sinful body – are dying already, and everything you want leads to death. But the real me doesn’t want to do this. The fact that I don’t want to do this is proof that the most important part of me is already holy in Christ. I am going to act like I am already holy in Christ.”
Remember this: you don’t have to feel like this is true. You merely need to believe that it is true, and then act according to what you believe. We are talking about a mindset, not an emotion. We are talking about continually trusting that what the scripture says is true. You will not feel that continually, but your feelings can go jump in a lake.
Think about it like this. Have you ever met someone who felt things that are not true? Of course. Many people feel unloved even when they are deeply loved by others. Many people feel worthless when their friends and family value them greatly. Feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. God’s Word is. When you believe what God has done for you, it ultimately changes everything. We will talk more specifics next time.