I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on one of Paul’s most famous (and most significant) passages, 7.14-25:
“For I know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under Sin. I do not understand our own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things we 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 selves, but I see within me another Law at war with the Law of my mind, making me captive to the Law of Sin that dwells within me.
Wretched creatures that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death? Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!”
“I’d seen women who admitted to having an abortion receive forgiveness, and I’d noticed how women who had kept their babies seemed somehow harder to forgive. But the more I thought about abortion, the more I knew I couldn’t go through with it.
In my view, abortion is taking a life that belongs to God alone, and I couldn’t do that. I chose what I believed to be the good; I didn’t know all this would follow from my decision.”
Maybe you read the story in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. Or maybe you caught it on CBS, Fox, or CNN (FAKE NEWS).
Maddi Runkles, soon to be a freshman at Bob Jones University, is an 18 year old graduate of Heritage Academy, a private Christian high school in Frederick, Maryland.
She’s also in her second trimester and due in the fall.
According to her own first-person account in the Washington Post, Maddi Runkles was a straight A student at Heritage Academy. She sported a 4.0 GPA and she played forward on the school soccer team. She was president of the Student Council and vice-president of the Key Club. She volunteered every Sunday in her Baptist Church’s nursery and taught at Vacation Bible School every summer. Maddi was by her own testimony an over-achieving, brown-nosing, not just a good but a perfect student.
She out-Wobegoned all the children of Lake Wobegone. She was successful at everything except thing.
She failed to keep her chastity pledge.
She was born again and soon to give birth.
When Maddi Runkles confessed her secret to her parents late this winter, they bucked the stereotype of conservative Christian parents. They did not scorn their daughter. Her Dad even told her: “God is in this somewhere with you and we’ll be with you too.”
Before you smile and tear up, let me tell you about her school.
As word of Maddi’s sin got out, Heritage Academy convened their school board for an emergency meeting where they moved to strip Maddi of all her leadership positions in the student body. They kicked her off the soccer team. They suspended her. They even told her she could not attend her younger brother’s baseball games.
They didn’t hand her a big, fat red A for her letter jacket, but they did they ban her from campus until after she delivered her baby.
The school board even called a school-wide student assembly where Maddi confessed her transgression to her peers, expressed repentance, and asked for their forgiveness.
Nevertheless, the school board informed Maddi that while they would permit her to receive her diploma, they would not allow her to walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony.
That was the straw.
The board’s decision to exclude Maddi from her graduation provoked a public outcry, which emboldened Maddi’s family to fight the graduation ban. When Maddi’s story went viral and the school started to receive mocking press coverage, her community’s reflex was to protect the school.
Eventually, her community turned on her, making the Runkles family the object of nasty emails, inflammatory social media posts, rude remarks in public, and dangerous threats in private. Some of Maddi’s friends from Heritage Academy, seeing their school in danger, said she was spoiled and seeking publicity.
They slut-shamed her.
They attend bible class at Heritage Academy for an hour every school day.
In a letter to the parents, the principal of Heritage Academy wrote that Maddi was “being disciplined not because she is pregnant but because she is immoral…the best way to love her- (pay attention to the words) the good we can do for her right now- is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.”
The best way to love her…the good we can do for her.
According to the New York Times, Maddi Runkles keeps an ultrasound photo of her baby on her nightstand. It’s a boy. She refers to him as a “blessing.”
Nevertheless, Maddi confessed to the reporter:
“I chose life. I chose (pay attention to the words) the good, but now that I see what my decision has produced…sometimes it feels like it wasn’t worth it.”
For that very reason, that Maddi Runkles would even entertain regret over what she believed had been the good and right act of not seeking an abortion, pro-life organizations like March for Life and Students for Life rallied to her side.
As Jeanne Mancini, President of March for Life pointed out to the Post:
“In the manner they held Maddi accountable, Heritage Academy, a vigorously anti-abortion school, has made it more likely that future students like Maddi will choose to have an abortion.”
The theologian Karl Barth said that preachers should approach the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. What Barth meant was that the world, as its described in the Good News of the Gospel- becomes clearer to see when you find it confirmed by and corroborated in the pages of your newspaper.
Here’s what readers of both the newspaper and today’s scripture text should ask:
In choosing the good of carrying her baby to term, did Maddi Runkles seek to split her school and community apart?
In holding Maddi accountable did Heritage Academy mean to shame and stigmatize her? Was it their goal to encourage other students to opt for abortion in the future?
Did the Heritage school board intend to undermine their school and do its reputation damage by enforcing what they took to be the integrity of the honor code?
Of course, the answer to all of the above is “No.”
The bitter irony- the bitter biblical irony- is that everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good. Everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good.
But through them…
Through them, a different outcome entirely was worked.
And the passive voice there reveals everything.
If the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans was a play instead of an epistle, it it was a script with a Dramatis Personnae at the beginning, then it would be obvious even before you read it that in Romans Sin has a starring role.
Now, I know, if you all wanted to hear about sin, you wouldn’t have fled your Baptist and Catholic upbringings for a denomination where our only strong conviction is that ‘God is nice.’
You all don’t want to hear about sin; no one wants to hear about sin anymore.
But the drama of Paul’s Gospel story of rectification by grace is unintelligible without Sin as a primary cast member. Paul’s plot is incomplete without Sin as a main character.
Don’t buy it?
In all of his letters, Paul uses the word sin (hamartia) 81 times, more than he uses any other word. Of those 81 times, 60 occur in his Letter to the Romans. Over 2/3 of those usages occur right here in this chunk of Romans, chapters 5-8.
I realize you don’t want to hear about sin in church, but you need to realize the sin you don’t want to hear about in church is not sin as Paul most often uses the word in Romans.
Sin, for Paul, is not primarily a behavior. Sin is not something we do. Sin is not pre-marital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or self-righteously slut-shaming a teenage girl.
Sin is not something we do; Sin is a Something that Does.
Sin is not a lowercase transgression. Sin is an uppercase Power. A Power that ensnares and enslaves and stands over and against God. Sin is a Power whose ultimate defeat the cross and resurrection portend. Sin is an Agency- a Power synonymous with the Power of Satan. It’s Sin with a capital S.
Just notice how Paul here in Romans 7 doesn’t use Sin as the verb we do but as the subjects of its own verbs: “…it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.”
And again in verse 20: “…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that dwells within me…”
Literally, in the Greek, it’s:
“…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that has set up a base of operations within me.”
It’s a military term. Just as he has in the preceding chapters, the language Paul uses here in Romans 7 is the language of battle and war.
Sin isn’t an attribute of us; Sin is an Antagonist against us.
Sin isn’t a character flaw in you- that’s the sin no one wants to hear about in church.
Sin isn’t a character flaw in you. Sin is cosmic terrorist that can invade even you.
Sin is an Enemy that can set up a base of operations within you.
Notice what Paul doesn’t say in Romans 7.
Notice that Paul doesn’t say he is unable to do the good that he wants to do.
Paul doesn’t say he is incapable of willing the good he wishes to accomplish.
The problem isn’t that he’s impotent to will the good. The problem is not that he knows the good in his head but he can’t bring his heart or his hands to choose it.
No, that’s not it. The problem isn’t that he’s impotent. The problem is that he is not.
He wills the good that he wants to do- he is able. He does the good he wants to do, but, in doing the good, what he produces, what his good act accomplishes is unrecognizable to his intention.
No good deed goes unpunished, we say. But what Paul is saying: every good deed turns out as a kind of punishment. Every good deed ends up destructive.
“I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I accomplish.”
Don’t let the switch to the first-person singular in chapter 7 fool you. Paul hasn’t changed the subject. Paul’s not describing his inner conflict; Paul’s describing an invasion.
His problem isn’t a divided self but a self enslaved to Another. As he says plainly in verse 14, he’s talking about the Self bound to a Slave Master.
Paul’s not narrating shock at seeing what he has done despite his best intentions. He’s narrating the shock at seeing what Sin has done through him, disguised in his best intentions.
William Faulkner said the theme of all lasting literature is the human heart in conflict with itself. Faulkner may be right about literature, but Paul is not writing fiction.
Paul isn’t writing here about the human heart in conflict with itself. Paul doesn’t mean that there is an alter-ego within each us, contending against us. No, Paul means that there is an Antagonist at work in the world, contending against God, an Alien Power that can reach as far down as into us and twist even our good works to evil.
We can will Life, Paul says, but through us Sin can will Death.
And not just through us- Paul says the contagion of Sin’s reach extends even into God’s own Law:
“The Law is holy and just and good. But Sin, seizing an opportunity in the Law, deceived me and through the Law killed me.”
You see, this is why Paul argues so aggressively against requiring Gentile converts to obey the Jewish Law. It’s why he’s so adamant that requiring Gentile converts to follow the Law is in fact a false Gospel.
It’s not because the Law in and of itself is bad or evil. And it’s not simply that Paul wants to lower the bar for admission because adult circumcision is a tough sell.
It’s that the Law has been taken hostage by the Power of Sin such that the faithful religious person in their service to God actually serves the Lordship of Sin.
That’s the awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here in Romans 7.
It’s not the mystery of the human heart in conflict with itself.
It’s the mystery of God’s Law and God’s People twisted, unwittingly, into conflict against God.
It’s the horror that the Power of Sin can co-opt and contravene even the religion God gave us; so that, the outcome of our faithful actions ends up in contradiction to their intent.
The awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here is that even in serving God the religious person can in fact be serving God’s Enemy.
And if you need an example of what Paul has in mind by this awful mystery, Exhibit A is hanging on the altar wall.
Look at that and listen to Paul again:
“I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I produce.”
Evil is not it’s own agency. Evil is what the Power of Sin does through the minions it fools and conscripts as accomplices. Through the Law, through Religion, through People of Piety.
For 6 chapters, the Apostle Paul has been narrating Sin’s long resume. He’s called it a Power. He’s called it a King. He’s called it a Wage-Master and a Slaver-Taker. He’s given it adjectives like Dominion and Lordship. He’s given it synonyms like Death and Satan.
But on Sin’s resume, Paul saves this talk of the Law and the Enslaved Self for last.
Paul saves the worst for last.
He saves the Law and the enslaved “I” for last because for Paul there is no more awful accomplishment of Sin, no grosser testament to the demonic Power of Sin than Sin’s ability to pervert even the best of our piety, to make a wretch of the most sincere religious person, to take even our godly obedience- even our obedience– and twist it to ungodly ends.
Paul saves the worst for last. The Power of Sin is so insidious that the biggest threat to your soul…is you.
Show of hands-
Heritage Academy’s Principal, David Hobbs- how many of you think that he heard about Maddi Runkles’ pregnancy and said to himself “I think I’m going to shame and stigmatize a student today.”
Do you think Principal David Hobbs woke up one morning and said to himself “I think I’d like to drag my school’s reputation through the mud, make its leaders look like hypocrites, and make our religion look ridiculous and shallow.”
Do you think he and his school board members put their heads together and chose to be the bad guys in the story?
If your reaction to this newspaper story is to villainize the principal and the school board members as stigmatizing, self-righteous, slut-shaming sexists, if your immediate impulse is to judge them, then you’re not hearing the Apostle Paul today.
It’s only in comic books that villains choose to be villains.
And only in comic books do the villains know they are villains from the get-go.
The rest of us, St. Paul says, we set out to serve the Good.
We set out to serve God.
And only later discover ourselves to be serving his Enemy.
By all accounts Principal David Hobbs is a much experienced and much more beloved educator.
He and the school board reached their decision to discipline Maddi only after “much prayer and scripture-study and spiritual discernment.” In an interview, Principal Hobbs said: “We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there is no accountability.”
And guess what? He’s right.
Forgiveness is not the opposite of accountability; in fact, forgiveness without accountability is what the Church calls cheap grace.
In that same interview, Principal Hobbs explained: “We teach our students about the beauty of marriage and that sex inside marriage is what Christians believe God desires for marriage and is one of the attributes that makes it beautiful.”
Again, he’s right. That is what the Church teaches, what all Christian traditions teach.
The good that David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board pursued is a godly good.
And yet- and yet…through them…
As Kristen Hawkins, President of Students for Life, said to the Washington Post:
“What this school is doing in advocating for Christian morality is the antithesis of being Christian.”
What they’ve done is the antithesis of what they sought to do.
Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it: “Sin, seizing an opportunity in their Religion, deceived them and through them…”
Maddi Runkles and Heritage Academy Christian School- that’s just one small story ripped from the newspaper.
Never mind what Karl Barth said, you don’t need the New York Times.
Just think about your own daily domestic destruction- we do the most damage to the people we love most and, most often, the damage we do we do in trying to do them good.
Or rather, we don’t do them damage.
But through us…through us…
The Power that has set up a base of operations within us…
Can pervert even our best and most faithful and loving intentions.
Christians like Principal David Hobbs, Christians like the school board members at Heritage Academy, Christians like Maddi Runkle’s slut-shaming friends- they’re all the kinds of Christians who make Non-Christians write off Christianity.
Let’s face it-
That’s how Maddi’s story made it into outlets like the New York Times; it’s a salacious story that undermines Christianity in the public eye.
But frankly, I’m sick and tired of people who try to dismiss Christianity because every Sunday Christians like you are just as petty and racist and passive aggressive and sexist and corrupt and apathetic and hypocritical and greedy as everyone else.
Really, Christians like Principal David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board members and the straight A, born again slut-shamers…
Imperfect and immoral and hypocritical Christians like you-
You’re not an argument against Christianity
You’re the best argument for Christianity.
Because if St. Paul is right
If the Power of Sin is so insidious it can pervert even the best of our piety
Twist our most godly acts to ungodly ends
Then that means absolutely NO ONE
No one can claim that they do not need Jesus Christ.
If the Power of Sin is such that it can turn God’s saints into unwitting servants of God’s Enemy, if even the best of us cannot be good, then nothing you do can be relied upon to make you right with God, to rectify the balance sheet of your life, to justify you before the judgement of God.
If Paul is right about the Power of Sin, then nothing you do- not your piety or your prayers, not your religion or your resume, not your good deeds or your good name, not your charity or your character or your career or your church attendance, not your beliefs or your bible study- nothing you do can be relied upon to justify you before God because in all of it, Paul says, you could just as likely be serving God’s Enemy.
If Paul is right, if the Power of Sin is such that it can pervert what we do for God for the Enemy’s own ends, then we can never trust what we have done.
We can never trust what we have done to justify us.
We can only ever trust what God has done for us.
Imperfect, impatient, petty, immoral, hypocritical Christians- you’re the best argument for Christianity because if the Power of Sin is such that it can corrupt even you then NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE, NOBODY can say that they do not need the justification that God offers us by grace alone in Jesus Christ.
No one here
And no one who would never be caught dead in here
Religious or Irreligious
Secular or Spiritual
Christian or Non-Christian
Sinner or Supposed Saint
No one can say they do not need the grace offered in Jesus Christ.
Because no one can say for sure that in serving God…
They haven’t actually been serving Another instead.
The fact is- you don’t need to believe Paul.
The truth of it is all over the newspaper every day.
We can never be certain which Lord we’re really serving.
Which makes you- me- the perfect argument not against the Gospel but for it. Because the Gospel message is that no matter what you have done, because of what Christ has done, regardless of what Lord you have served, our Lord declares you in the right. As a gift.
That’s good news.