Saint Paul speaks today regarding the tension between sinner and saint that exists in each believer. We are at the same time both redeemed and free from sin and the threats of the law, yet also mired in sin.
As sinners, our relationship to the law is that it is a tyrant that rules over us so long as we are alive. The law has terrible effects upon us: threats and punishment and death.
The law even stimulates sin in us. Our carnal sinfulness is so strongly disposed to sin that we are lured to it by the law’s demands that we not sin. The law says, “Do not covet,” and we say, “Covet, you say? That sounds interesting. Tell me how I can covet.” So the law actually increases sin in us.
This seems strange and counter intuitive. The law is not evil. It is spiritual and good. It is a gift of God. But the problem is in us. We are fleshly. We cannot blame God or His law for our sinfulness. But our twisted nature takes a good thing and uses it as an excuse to do wrong.
But at the same time, we have been freed from sin. We are liberated from the law’s threats, since Christ has fulfilled the law’s demands in our place. He has delivered us, saved from the destruction that our sinful flesh should bring upon us. Praise be to God that He has saved us from this body of death!
We are so greatly removed from the power of the law that we have died to the law. When you are dead, you are no longer bound to the things of this life. Before we were bound to the law as if we were married to it. We were stuck to it and nothing could dissolve that union except death. So Christ killed us. In Baptism, we died to sin and were raised to newness of life. Now we are not joined in union with the law, but with Christ. He is now our dear Lord. Instead of the hostile marriage of constant bickering and threats that existed when we were under the law, now we have a marriage of pure love and joy in our Bridegroom, the Prince of Peace.
In Him, we now have a renewed mind that desires what is good. Although we are delivered from the law, we now desire to do what the law says. The law, which formerly could only threaten us, is now our friend and delight.
Yet the old flesh still exists in us. We are redeemed, but the rebellious old Adam keeps fighting and kicking and resisting. We desire what is good in the freedom of Christ. Yet we have a sinful nature that keep clinging to the old ways of bondage and threats and death.
What a tremendous toil this takes on a believer! We are constantly torn in two directions. The inner mind of the new man in Christ wants only what is good. Yet the old man in us keeps coveting evil.
If only we reached a more mature level of faith where we could stop desiring what is evil! Sometimes people think that they have reached such a new mastery over sin that they have stopped coveting sinful things. But that is a trick of the old Adam. He finds that if he is very quiet and subtle, he can still call the shots without you even knowing he is there. He disguises his lowly urges as lofty principles. So we should pay careful attention to what the Word says about sin, and pay careful attention to our lives to recognize those sinful things we do. If we are complacent and lazy, the old Adam has a field day with us.
But if we pay attention and work hard, we will reach the next level of peacefulness where we only serve the law of God, not sin, right? No, you will not; at least not in this life. If you beat down and conquer one sin, more will slip in unnoticed. There will always be the excruciating tension as the saint in you battles with the sinner. Even if you do not feel it at the moment, it is always there.
Paul, called by God to be a saint and apostle of Christ Jesus, is our example. After years of serving the Lord, accompanied by visions and miracles, guided by divine inspiration in writing much of the New Testament, surely HE would reach a level of tranquil obedience where the old Adam was conquered. But no, instead he writes of struggle and frustration. His God-given impulses to do right were constantly stymied by the corrupt flesh of death. Paul seems even worse off, because he sees very accurately how bad his situation is. He calls himself a wretched man with a body of death.
If the apostle Paul never reached a level of victory over the flesh in his personal life, then we surely will not. The victory is his, and ours, but not in our thoughts and words and deeds. It is in Christ, by faith, not by sight. So we will not see the victory by doing better (even though we must try to do better every day). No, we see the victory when we look at the Cross and the Blood shed for us and the Empty Tomb.
The tension between saint and sinner must remain. This may tempt us to two directions. First, that we convince ourselves that there is no tension because we are doing really well. Such super-saints, better than Paul the apostle, are actually pharisees who feel little need for the Cross and the Gospel, even if they give them lip Service. They will attend the Divine Service only to show how good they are or for some other self-righteous reason. But they will not attend because they are poor, wretched sinners who feel the weight of their sins.
Second, we may resolve the tension of saint and sinner by falling into despair. If a man is failing at his Christian life, and feels that it will never get better, then he may decide that he may as well give up. Such a person may no longer care if they sin or not. This Christianity stuff is not working for them, so they may as well throw in the towel. This kind of despair is just as deadly as self-righteousness.
So what do we do? We do not resolve the tension. We keep trying and struggling, and quite often failing. Then we turn to Christ for forgiveness and strengthening to jump back into the fight. This is the life we must lead as the saints of God.
The power and comfort to continue is here in God’s house. You cannot do it by yourself. Keep coming back to this sweet absolution and this divine food for your soul. Keep letting the law of God accuse you. That keeps turning you toward Christ in repentance and keeps you from complacency.
And when you feel like God is not with you because you are a wretched sinner, remember for whom He died; not for the good people who do a fine job. It was for wretched sinners. If you do NOT feel that you are poor and miserable, that is the problem. But feeling poor and miserable is what Paul did, and what we should do, because that is the reality. Cling to Christ in such moments, for He does not despise you. Look what He was willing to do for you. That is not a Man who despises sinners.
He is with you, and will remain with you through this difficult life, to the very end, until He removes the sinful flesh for all time in the place where only righteousness dwells.
In His Name. Amen.
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