July 3, 2011

Who Will Rescue Me?

Passage: Romans 7:24-25a

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

My daughter-in-law, proud of my granddaughter’s grade two report card, emailed family members the content of the report last week.  My mother kept all of my public school report cards.  As I set my grade two report card next to my granddaughter’s it is evident that she is a better student; it is also evident that the protocols for what teachers write on report cards has changed significantly.  Let me put it this way: on my report card “areas for improvement” were stated more bluntly; “positive contribution to class” was not a category for comment.

When Paul cried, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”; is this the cry of a man tormented by overly-blunt talk on childhood report cards?  Would he be helped if someone had simply emphasized where he did well; that the “A” in physical education means all is not lost?

I recall when I first attended a leadership development workshop.  As a part of a personal mission writing exercise we were asked to answer two questions.  The first; if you were to do one thing in your professional life that would have the most positive impact, what would that one thing be?  The second question was the same only aimed at personal life.  I immediately knew what to write in answer to both questions.  The follow-on question was this.  If you know the one thing to do that would have the most positive impact and you are not doing it, why aren’t you doing it?

The answer to this inaction on important things was to embrace a process for developing the habit in your life of putting first things first.  Is this what Paul needs; a workshop that will help him improve his life management skills?  I have indeed found great help from such workshops—but they do not address the issue Paul is raising?

Is Paul a frustrated perfectionist?  When he writes, “I know nothing good dwells in me”, is this just a reflection of a personality trait that has an overinflated need to do things right?  Does he suffer from “morbid pessimism” syndrome? Would you send Paul to counselling to help him resolve his inner conflict?

1. When Paul writes, “I know that nothing good dwells within me”, he means “I know that nothing godly dwells within me.”  When Paul cries, “Wretched man that I am!, Who will rescue me from this body of death?”, he speaks of a deep-seated self-contradiction that is in all of us, a deep-seated perverseness in all of us of which we can’t root out of ourselves.

“I know that nothing good dwells within me.”  By “good” Paul means the ultimate good, godliness.  It’s this that we can’t fashion for ourselves.  He never denies that people are capable of lesser goods.  He admires the ethical conduct that morally serious people display.  That is certainly a good we are capable of.  He admires the learning of learned people.  That is a good we ought to treasure.  He acknowledges the helpfulness of Roman government and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of this good.  Still, he denies that we fallen men and women are capable of the good, that godliness which consists of adoring surrender to God and the godly conduct that arises from it.

Christians are aware that there’s a difference between the human situation and the human condition.  The human situation has to do with how we are shaped by education, culture and wealth.  A positively worded report card can spur good things; helpful life management skills are a good; counselling can help sort out confusing issues.  These all help with the human situation.

The human condition, deeper than the human situation; the human condition has to do with our innermost rebellion against God, contempt for his claim upon us, disregard of his mercy and disdain for his truth.  He wants to be lord of all life?  We insist on being on our own lord.  He has made us in his image?  We resent the intrusion and attempt to make him henceforth in our image.  He presses himself on us as friend and guide?  We tell him we prefer to be independent, self-made men and women.

Our Reformation foreparents describe humankind as “totally depraved”?  When they did they didn’t mean that we are all wantonly immoral.  They weren’t stupid; they knew that virtually everyone is vastly more moral than immoral.  They did mean, however, that however good we might be morally, we aren’t godly; they meant that the human heart is in se curvatus, bent in on itself.  All the depraved human heart can will is its self-perpetuating depravity.  No one can will himself out of his sinnership.  No one can “right” her capsized relationship with God.  No one can undo the warp in the human heart that wrecks even our best efforts at curing ourselves.

It’s right here – “I know that nothing good dwells in me” – that the Christian understanding of what’s wrong ultimately differs from that of the Marxist, for instance.  The Marxist (or socialist for that matter) argues that what appears to be spiritual perverseness, incomprehensible self-contradiction, in fact is perfectly comprehensible, since human self-contradiction and self-frustration are entirely a consequence of economic disadvantage.  The Marxist says there is no ingrained twistedness in us; what appears to be such is merely the product of our economic situation.  Human beings aren’t iniquitous, sinful.  They are victims of inequities, victims of economic disparities.

At the same time, from a different angle, the Marxist says too that all economic inequities are iniquities.  Christians, however, deny that all economic inequities are iniquities.  The fact that Canadian billionaire David Thompson is richer than me isn’t iniquitous and I had better not blame my innermost depravity on it (my heart corruption isn’t because someone else is richer than me).  At the same time sensitive Christians are quick to admit that economic wretchedness – grinding poverty – is a terrible thing with terrible consequences.  Sensitive Christians will admit too that to be culturally deprived is to be deprived of something worthwhile.  But just as surely Christians insist that regardless of our economic and cultural position or privilege there is a deep-seated deformity that has nothing to do with wealth or culture.

2.  When Paul talks of this inner contradiction—for I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do—it is in a section that is, in some measure, a digression from his main topic.  The main topic is that the law of God is good, holy, and just.  “Is the law sin? By no means”, asserts Paul.  Why does this question even come up?

Do you ever find that prohibition of something makes you curious and arouses desire to explore why something might be prohibited.  Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour, says the law of God—sin seizing the opportunity of the law, explains Paul, soon has us looking over the fence so we can see if our neighbour has anything worth coveting.  Is the law of God at fault?  If God had kept his ideas to himself are we better off?  Paul says emphatically, NO!  Our sinnership is the problem.

Our Reformation foreparents were careful to point out the uses of the law of God.  First it was to show human sinfulness and thus call from us humble dependence on God.  A second use was to show Israel—and now Christians—how to walk in company with God.  Trouble arises not through use of the law but through abuse of the law.  Instead of being humbled by it, for many in Israel it became an instrument of self-glorification—strict law keeping was seen as the vehicle for making themselves moral not needing God; it became an instrument of personal self-sufficiency and  pride for looking down on others.

As Canadians we hear Paul’s discussion of the law through the prism of our experience of living under the rule of law.  What Paul means by “the law” and what we experience as Canadian law are two different things.  Still, there is a sense in which many treat our Canadian law as an instrument of personal self-sufficiency.  Take, for instance, the measure we use to speak of good citizens as those who are “law-abiding”.  Is this not, in some sense, an implied measure for what is good—, many thus will resist the notion of a need for salvation because deriving comfort is law-abiding citizen status.

We have, in addition, written law to suit ourselves—in effect defining for ourselves the meaning of “the good” replacing it with what is constitutional.  On September 28, 2010 Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel ruled that certain laws prohibiting aspects of prostitution were unconstitutional effectively legalizing prostitution in Ontario.  On June 18, 2011 an appeals court issued a stay—keeping current law in place—while the appeals court deliberates and comes to a decision regarding Justice Himel’s ruling.  We are functioning on the belief—a mistaken belief—that the idea of what is moral can be uncoupled from what is legal.  The affect this often has on a people is that in time what is ruled legal comes to be thought of as defining moral.

The point I raise with you is one that Paul raises.  The human attempt apart from God to achieve through self-effort its own goodness—whether using the law of God or some other measure—is disobedience to God masquerading as righteousness.  It is self-righteousness.  If our very best efforts cannot break free from sin; if in fact out best effort is an instance proving our rebellion against God—who will rescue us from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
When Paul asks, who will rescue me, he has finally come to the place of knowing, of admitting he needs to be rescued.  The gospel shows all our self-efforts to be wanting; God, in speaking the law (his word) and then in sending Jesus, the living Word, ever brings us—often gently, occasionally jarringly—to the end of ourselves.  We are called by God to self-abandonment; to self-abandonment to the claim of the gospel upon us that is nothing other than self-abandonment to the one who is our life, our comfort, and our eternal blessing, our Saviour Jesus Christ.

3. There is something more here in Paul’s expression of his inner conflict; it is a conflict that pertains particularly to the believer. In two places in the Apostle Paul’s letters he describes his life before meeting Jesus Christ and becoming a believer (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4-6).  There is no hint of this inner conflict in those descriptions; on the contrary he seems a man certain of himself.

The believer knows “good”,  meaning “godliness”, which consists of adoring surrender to God and the godly conduct that arises from it. While sin’s dominion has ended for the believer it still clings to the believer.  As Paul puts it there is a war going on between the sin that “dwells within me” and the experience of “the good I want” which is the experience of relationship with Christ who is our righteousness.  The believer has a foot in two worlds, so to speak.  The one is the age that has dawned in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the other is in the present age that has not yet passed away.

Luther expressed this saying that as believers we are at the same time both totally sinful and totally justified.  Luther was reacting to the position of the Council of Trent that said we are partly sinful and partly justified, justified to the extent that we are not sinful.  Two hundred years later Wesley was concerned that this emphasis on totally sinful implied resignation with respect to one's residual sinfulness and complacency in it.

The line here, like all the lines in both theology and discipleship, is finer than a hair and harder than diamond.  Paul nowhere feels defeated in this conflict; he is very optimistic that what he cannot do in himself Jesus Christ empowers us to do.  At the same time he knows that this is an ongoing ever deepening work in the life of the believer.

Do you not sense within yourself this conflict; the experience that our Saviour has done much is us yet there is more work to do.  If we need examples we need look no further than to those instances where people have been turned off of church because of the behaviour of some of Christ’s people.  Even though we sense this conflict yet we know ourselves loved by Christ.

A few weeks ago news coverage trumpeted the story of Anthony Weiner.  He is the US congressman who resigned after a scandal erupted because he sent sexually suggestive photographs on Twitter to several women.  In one online newspaper readers were invited to comment on the question is the congressman’s conduct really cheating on his wife.  The believer knows Jesus’ clear teaching that the thoughts of our heart are anything but neutral.  As we walk with Christ the corruption of our heart comes into ever sharpening view.

Paul goes on to say that even in light of this “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  The verdict with regard to the believer’s sin was rendered at the cross since we are bound to Christ by faith—the verdict is acquittal.  Such merciful forgiveness frees us to live for Him.

As I read Paul I don’t get any sense that he feels defeated by this inner conflict.  The life Christ calls us to live he enables by his grace—thanks be to God rescue comes through Jesus Christ our Lord.  The thing that is evident in Paul is that he knows himself loved by God—knowing in that Hebrew sense of experience.

How do you know that a person loves you?  We can point to all the things they do for us but it is more than that—is it not?  There is an intangible part that we somehow sense that is beyond all the doing; intangible yet nonetheless very real.  Yes, God loves us in that he provided today’s daily break; but there are lots of people who received that provision and do not know that God loves them.  But the believer knows—how?  There is an intangible portion that is real; it is experienced by faith.  It is experienced when we pray and somehow sense that Jesus hears our prayer; it is experienced when we hear the gospel announced and somehow Jesus makes it known to me that he had forgive my sin.

6.  Bebo Norman is a Christian recording artist; his new song God of My Everything touches on this subject of the Saviour’s love in the midst of this inner conflict.  He said: the song “is a prayer that I wrote watching my older brother’s 15-year struggle with addiction and recovery.   It is a difficult thing to speak openly in our Christian communities about what it means for a fellow believer to struggle with something as culturally frowned upon as addiction…but it has been perhaps the most inspiring story that I have ever witnessed.  I have seen firsthand what it means for someone to truly offer God everything…every lie, every deceptive word, every foolish thought, every weakness, every single thing finally laid down before the mercy of God”

We can’t resolve the conflict ourselves; in self-abandonment to the One who is our righteousness it is found.  The opening lines of Norman’ song reads

Oh God of heaven come and hem me in
Gather the pieces that are broken
Show me the wonder of You again

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!