Scripture: Romans 7:15-25
On November 14th, 1782 a division of American militia under the command of Captain William Capers engaged in a skirmish in South Carolina at Avant’s Ferry. This was a minor engagement in the American Revolution. It took place in an isolated, rural area that was of little strategic significance and it is likely that a hundred or less men were involved in the fighting. The only reason why there battle is even known is because of a couple of lines from an obscure 19th century biography. The battle of Avant’s Ferry is a fun tidbit for people who like forgotten history, and the most notable aspect of the fight is just who the American militia fought. Captain Capers’ militia division did not face off against British regulars. They fought loyalist militia. At the battle of Avant’s Ferry American patriots fighting for independence clashed with American colonists fighting to defend the honor of the crown. Yesterday we celebrated our Independence Day. We rightfully see that day and it’s declaration worth celebrating. It is easy for us to forget that in the late 1700’s American Independence was not so widely celebrated. The American Revolution was in fact revolutionary. It was a new idea that was a threat to the status quo and it was an idea that was destined to lead to fundamental change. For this reason people opposed it. Historians estimate that about 20% of colonial Americans were loyalists and opposed the concept of revolution. Even though Americans today almost universally see the revolution as a positive event, it should not be surprising that there were people who opposed it. Any change of real significance will always find opposition. This seems to be a reality of human nature. It happens on the national level, on a regional level, a local level, and as this scripture points out we find opposition to change on a personal level. Following Jesus as Lord and Savior, seeking the guidance of the Spirit, and walking humbly with God the Father should create profound change in our life. This scripture makes it clear that even though we seek and choose this change we paradoxically oppose it. Our faith, it seems, is a revolution fighting for hearts and souls.
This morning’s scripture picks up in the middle of a highly technical argument that Paul is making. This happens a lot when looking at scripture from the book of Romans. Romans was written using a philosophical style where it continually builds on itself. This means when we look at just a section of scripture from Romans it is vitally important to get a sense of the surrounding context. One of the major points that Paul is seeking to make in Romans is that the grace of Jesus does not completely make the Old Testament law given to the Israelites worthless. Before this morning’s reading Paul addresses this by stating the value of the Old Testament law is that it makes plain what is sinful. Paul declares in Romans 7:12 “So then the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.” In this morning’s scripture Paul tries to explain why even though the law clearly spells out what is sin, why then he (and by extension his audience) still continue to sin.
In making this argument Paul introduces an idea that at face value can seem somewhat problematic. In verse 17 Paul wrote, “As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” This idea of being indwelt with sin is only really found right here in the bible, and it is problematic because it creates and out. It gives us an excuse for our poor decisions and bad behavior. Much like claiming the devil made me do it, claiming the sin living in me made me do it, seeks to release us from accountability. This morning’s scripture is not seeking to give us a ready excuse to get out of our sinful actions. Rather it is naming the reality we face. When we seek to make a positive change, when we seek to follow what is holy and good, when we seek to revolt against evil in our own actions then even though we want to do good, evil is right there with us.
This evil, this sinful nature, is not necessarily an external force influencing us. Instead it is a trap of our own creation. We have likely heard the phrase of being stuck in a rut, and metaphorically that is what happens with us and our sin. A rut is caused by wagon wheels in the dirt. As heavy wagons travel across the land they leave an impression. Over times these impressions become deeper and deeper and turn into proper ruts. This repetition of repeating the same action is powerful. For instance, outside of Geurnsey, Wyoming there are still ruts from the famed Oregon Trail. These ruts will last for centuries as hundreds of wagons crossing a bluff carved the ruts into the limestone. Being stuck in a rut does not mean we are trapped and cannot move. On the contrary. Being stuck in a rut means we keep going the same way because our wheels our in a rut and it is easier to keep going where the ruts lead. In the same way, before we yield areas of our life to Christ and seek that which is holy righteous and good we carve ruts in our lives through our sinful actions. The more we engage in selfish, prideful, or unkind behavior the easier it gets to continue doing that. Ongoing sinful behavior digs deep ruts into our hearts and souls.
I imagine this can lead a lot of us to really feel Paul’s words in verse 15. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do but what I hate I do.” We can be so stuck in the rut of our sin that it almost feels predictable. We can feel so trapped by a prison of our own creation that it does feel as if there is this entire part of us that is out of our control. A revolution is a sudden and marked change, and that is what we need to break free of the power of sin in our lives. The good news is that God has already done the work to begin the revolution. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God loves for us, and it is what enable us to make the change. It is what enables us to go from doing what we do not want to do, to doing what God has called us to do. Grace, forgiveness, new life is a gift offered without price. We simply need to respond to it, to open the gift. In order to properly do that, we need to do two things.
First, we have to be willing to admit that we are sinners. We have a tendency to try to sugar coat sin. We try to make downplay what it really is. We might call sin a mistake, a bad choice, an indiscretion. We need to be clear about this, sin is willful disobedience against God. Sin is often a purposeful and malicious decision to do wrong or evil. As uncomfortable as it is, we have to claim that we are sinners. We have to claim that we have been wrecked by the Fall, and like Paul describes in verse 21 we have to admit that although we want to do good, evil is right there beside me. One of the things that our country’s founding fathers showed us is that every good revolution need a declaration. In the same way, we need to be honest enough with ourselves to declare what the sinful problems of our hearts are, and we need to be willing to declare that Jesus is the answer.
We have to claim that we are sinners, because if not we will rationalize it a way or worse we try to justify it and convince ourselves that our actions really are not that sinful. One of the things I really appreciate about 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous is the insistence that those who participate never stop being alcoholics. An AA member could be sober for decades, but they still understand themselves as an alcoholic. In the same way, even though followers of Jesus are redeemed, even though our sins have been separated from us as far as the East is from the West, we have to understand ourselves as still being sinners. We have to understand that we will still have a sinful nature waging war inside of us. Even if we have managed to (somehow) go years without sinning, we would still need to see ourselves as sinners in need of a savior.
Being willing to admit that we are sinners is important so that we can fulfill the second step, which is we have to be willing to confess our sins and repent. If we are not willing to name how we have turned away from God, then we are unable to seek reconciliation. In order to seek forgiveness for our sins, we must be willing to confess them. We have to be willing to tell God what we have done wrong, ask for forgiveness, and then repent. Repent means to turn away from, to leave behind, to “go and sin no more.” One of the hard lessons to learn in our faith, is that repentance, true repentance, is a process. I wish it wasn’t. I wish it was as simple as saying a prayer, making a firm decision, and then never falling into a certain temptation again. To turn away from our sinful nature and delight in God’s law is a change, and remember we naturally resist change.
This is why even though we can claim the salvation and forgiveness that come from knowing Jesus, we can still choose to rebel against that love. True change always meets opposition, even within ourselves. The skirmish at Avant’ Ferry South Carolina actually shows us just how stiff this opposition can be. Those of you who are really hardcore history buffs may have noticed the oddity of the date for the Avant Ferry skirmish. It happened in November of 1782. However, the decisive battle that effectively ended the American Revolution was the battle of Yorktown which the Americans won in October of 1781. Even though the war had effectively been won, it seems the loyalists were not done fighting. In the same way, even when we have experienced grace in our lives we may not have fully surrendered to the lordship of Jesus and so we continue in certain sins instead of embracing the revolution of forgiveness and love.
The reality is, that we will fail in living like Jesus. Instead of following the path of Christ to new life, we will fall back into the same old ruts we are used to. When we do each time God will still be there. Each time, God will forgive again, and each time through the grace of Christ we will step back on the road to repentance. When faced with this sinful nature, we are not helpless. The same struggles that plagued us then might plague us still, but not all of them. All of us have who are in Christ probably have sinful behaviors and sinful desires, which we have truly repented from. That we have turned our back on and never gone back to. It might have taken awhile, but we did. This is a reason to have great hope, because with God all things possible, and we can have hope because we know repentance is possible. We can celebrate because in our life and faith there have been victories in Jesus.
And some sweet day we’ll sing up there the songs of victory. Until that day though may we continue to fight the good fight. If you feel like you are losing the battle within you and you feel like you keep doing what you do not want to do, then may you claim the truth of this morning’s scripture, that the power of God is greater than the power of sin. May we all confess that we are great sinners but Jesus is a greater savior. May we all be willing to confess our sins and may we seek repentance. May we all be able to give thanks to God who delivers us through Jesus Christ our Lord. May our lives continue to be a revolution against sin in favor of love and forgiveness, and may we know that Jesus has already won the victory.