We should expect holy living to be an uphill climb. If Paul lived it and battled it, so will we. When God made you alive in Christ, he called you to a life which is a battle with sin. So face it . . . expect it . . . accept it . . . and fight it! That's your challenge today.
“Keeping Poodles Out of Portraits”
For centuries, the royalty and the wealthy of Great Britain and Europe showed off their wealth in a number of pretentious ways. Castles and coachmen were signs of financial independence. The women of aristocracy spent lavish amounts of money on the breeding of small dogs for pets. It was not uncommon for a woman to have her portrait done, with her tiny dog in her lap.
In America, the late 1800’s were times of financial prosperity for many people. Men became overnight millionaires through railroads, oil and real estate. Their wives lacked the culture and connections to British aristocracy, although they were equally as wealthy, if not more so. To compensate, these little lap dogs which were the sign of European status, became the rage among the wives of American millionaires. Sure, they didn’t have centuries of culture and royal blood in their veins, but they too could spend huge amounts of money to import and breed their own small dogs – one of the most favorite American version was known as the poodle. These women had their own portraits made – with their dogs on their laps, just like their distant cousins in England. They could show off their wealth too! Cynical observers began to describe this show of wealth with the phrase, “putting on the dog.” That phrase exists to this day – when someone is observed as being flashy or pretentious or stuck up – we say, they’re just putting on the dog.
Webb Garrison, What’s In A Word (Rutledge Hill Press), 2000, p. 170
The truth is, the average believer runs the risk of putting on the dog more often than he’d ever want to admit and in more ways than he’d ever want to reveal.
Whether it’s faking a pious look or attitude, using spiritual vocabulary at just the right time and around just the right people; refusing to ever admit failure; showing up for church; volunteering for certain duties . . . you name it . . . we are frankly more comfortable putting on the dog, than letting people know who we really are.
Transparency is extremely difficult . . . it’s safer to hide behind a poodle.
That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult to imagine that Paul the Apostle is actually revealing his own spiritual battle. We can’t imagine that the great Apostle could be referring to himself in Romans chapter 7 with such honest words. We can’t fathom that it is this difficult for him to live a pure and holy life.
We’d rather think Paul had a handle on holiness – that handling temptation for a mature saint of God like him was easy, by now.
The truth is, we’re uncomfortable with this passage because if Paul admits to sinful thoughts and actions, then we have to come clean too.
We’re gonna need bigger dogs to hide behind.
If Paul didn’t have holy living down pat, none of us can say we’ve got it mastered either.
Besides that, we’re just not used to someone speaking so honestly about the battle within as Paul speaks in the latter part of chapter 7.
Let’s read several verses and try to climb into Paul’s skin and feel his agony and hear his passion and sense his heart cry as we read them.
15. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 21. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23. but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
No wonder people have argued that this passage is referring to an unbeliever or an immature believer . . . surely Paul was victorious – this is the language of struggle and defeat and agony and temptation.
The truth remains, becoming a Christian does not end the battle with sin . . . it begins the battle!
Paul speaks in first person and in present tense. And his openness is not only shocking, it is revealing.
Paul says three things that reveal things about himself and sin that can only be true of the believer.
- A true believer has an aversion to sin – “I am doing that which I hate.” When Paul gave in to temptation he did that which he truly hated . . .
An unbeliever doesn’t agonize over sin – he agonizes over the consequences of sin.
John MacArthur told the story of a man who was mocking a preacher after the sermon was delivered. He said to the pastor, “You say that unsaved people carry a great weight of sin. Frankly, I feel nothing. How heavy is sin? Ten pounds? Fifty pounds? Eighty pounds? A hundred pounds? The pastor thought for a moment and then gently replied, “If you laid a 400 pound weight on a corpse, would he feel the load?” The man replied, “of course not, he’s dead.” The preacher replied, “The person who doesn’t know Christ is spiritually dead . . . and though the load of sin is great, he doesn’t feel it.”
John MacArthur, Freedom From Sin (Word of Grace Publications), 1987. p. 166
The truth is, a person who comes to faith in Christ suddenly becomes sensitive to sin – even the smallest sins weigh on you like a hundred pounds. And get this – your sensitivity to sin will intensify as you grow in Christ . . . isn’t that great news?!
Thomas a Kempis wrote centuries ago of his battle, “I desire to cleave to heavenly things, but fleshly things and passions depress me. So I, unhappy man, often grieve . . . O what I suffer within while I think on heavenly things in my mind; the flesh comes against me even when I pray.”
R. Kent Hughes, Romans (Crossway Books) 1999, p. 143
A true believer has an aversion – a loathing to sin.
- A true believer has an abiding love for God’s law. Paul writes in verse 22, “I agree with great joy in the law of God.”
- A true believer has a longing for God’s pleasure found in holy living – “I am not practicing that which I long to do.” Obviously then, the believer is pulled in two opposite directions . . . with his flesh he is pulled toward sin; with his spirit he is pulled toward holiness.
Using himself as the example, Paul has taught us that while he was an unbeliever, sin owned him (that’s in Romans chapter 6), now that he’s a believer, sin cannot own him but it can still master him (that’s chapter 7).
David wrote, “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.” Psalm 19:12
Paul, like David, says in effect, “Before I was under the grace of God, sin owned me. But when I came by faith to Christ, I died to sin, but am still tempted to own it.
Life Application Bible (Tyndale House Publishers), 1992, p. 144
Is this the testimony of an unbeliever or a passive immature believer? No! This is the testimony of a believer engaged in the battle for purity and holiness and devotion and godliness.
Now if you take out your pencil or pen, you can easily outline this paragraph, since Paul repeats himself 3 times – saying virtually the same thing about himself in three different ways.
The first section which you can circle (bracket) are verses 14-17. The second section is verses 18-20.
The third and final section is verses 21-24.
Each section begins with a exposure of the battle within, followed by an example of the battle within and then each section closes with an explanation.
Exposure . . . example . . . explanation.
For instance Paul exposes his heart the first time when he writes in verse 14, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” Or literally, sold into bondage to the sin.
Not individual sins, but the internal principle of sin. Though delivered from the penalty and power of sin; Paul, and every believer, is still bound to the principle of sin which is the flesh.
Being bound to the principle of sin makes the presence of sin the possibility to sin.
Paul now gives his first example in verse 15. “For that which I am doing, I do not understand…”
The word understand or know implies an intimate love of.
It’s the same word used in the Septuagint for Adam knowing Eve and Eve conceived.
Paul says, I believe, the sin that I commit I really don’t love. In fact, Paul goes on in his example to write (15b). “for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.”
Paul goes on to provide an explanation in verse 16. But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good. 17. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me.”
Is Paul excusing his sin? Sounds like he’s saying, “It’s sin’s fault.” No. Paul is actually taking responsibility for his sin by admitting sin within himself was in control of his flesh. . .he’s admitting he’s sinful.”
The unbeliever would never admit to sinful corruption. He would say, “The devil made me do it,” right? That’s his excuse.
Adam said, “It was Eve, Lord. . .she made me do it.” Eve said, “It was the serpent . . . it’s his fault.”
Paul is saying in effect, “I have living within me a propensity to sin – sinfulness lives in my flesh and while the new me – the new creature in Christ wants to do the right thing – the new me wants to be holy . . . but sometimes the person that I no longer am gives in to the very thing I have now come to truly hate.”
Paul lives with the theological tension between who he is in Christ – clothed in righteousness, seated in the heavenlies – with his old flesh, still bound to him, sometimes allowed to control his actions, constantly at war with his new spirit.
Let me pause here long enough to say this. The internal principle and dynamic of sinful flesh will try to do two things to the believer:
- it will try to deceive your mind
- and it will try to control your body
The unbeliever’s mind is already deceived and blinded by sin; his body is already under the control of sin.
The believer has been liberated . . . but still battles against the pull of sin, back into the old ways of the flesh.
That’s why Paul warned Christians back in chapter 6 verse 12, , “do not let sin reign in your mortal body – your flesh.”
And in verse 13, “Do not go on presenting the members of your body (literally, your body parts) to sin as instruments of unrighteousness.”
He challenged the Philippian believers to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Philippians 1:27)
He wrote to the Colossian believers, “But now, you put these things aside – anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech from your mouth . . . put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:8 & 12)
Here is the truth about the battle: we will be delivered from the flesh eternally . . . we must do battle with the flesh daily!
2) Paul now moves to his second exposure.
Look at verse 18. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.
The more mature a believer becomes, the more aware he is of this truth.
Our flesh will never accomplish one good thing. Because nothing good dwells in our flesh.
Only that which is done through the power of Jesus Christ would ever be characterized as good.
But even when you do something through Christ which is good, your flesh wants to take over, doesn’t it?
No sooner are you complimented for doing something that your flesh doesn’t rise up and say, “You really are something special.”
You beg God to help you be a good mother or father and then someone comes along and says, “Man, I really admire the way you parent your children.” And you immediately are tempted to think, “I guess I really am a good parent” . . . forgetting that you’d begged God to help you be that way!
The most dangerous 15 minutes in a preacher’s life is just after the service closes. He stands back by the door and everybody files out and says, “Wonderful message . . . what a great story you told . . . you’re so interesting . . .” and by the time they’re through with him, he’s entirely corrupted with egotistical pride!
Howard Hendricks told us in class to never stand at the back door and make everybody file past you . . . they’ll only feel obligated to say something nice to you, and you don’t deserve it!
Hendricks called that 15 minutes of handshaking that takes place at the back door of sanctuaries all across America, quote, “The glorification of the worm ceremony.”
The older you become in Christ the more aware you are of how difficult it is to do and think and speak anything holy, and how easy it is to do and think and speak things that are sinful.
A couple of days ago I read about his little dilemma. Two men died and waited at the Pearly gates for admission into heaven (don’t you love these theologically corrupt stories?) Peter comes along and declares, “Listen, we’ve got room for only one more – which one of you is more humble?”
Do you think Paul wasn’t tempted with pride – he was the great One . . . he would compose more biblical books than any other living human being. He received more revelation from the risen Lord than any other Apostle. And he will introduce the bride – the church – to her bridegroom, the Lord.
Do you think he ever got caught up in his incredible platform of ministry?!
Listen to Paul as he writes, “Because of the incredible greatness of the revelations God gave me, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself (Peterson paraphrases this, “to keep me from getting a big head) there was given to me a thorn in the flesh to buffet me – to keep me from exalting myself.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8)
God gave Paul something, we don’t know exactly what, to keep his head from swelling up . . . and his pride under control.
Did it work?
If you could have interviewed Paul, like some sportscaster interviewing some athlete after an incredible play – you’d ask him, “How does it feel to be the world’s greatest missionary – how does it feel to have the church hang on your every word – what’s it like to be the mentor of every new believer and every future leader?”
He’d respond, “You don’t know me very well . . . you see, I can’t help but think of what I could have done had my flesh not gotten in the way. . .you see, there is nothing good in old Paul – nothing good at all in what you see . . . and 3) Paul would deliver his third statement of exposure in verse 21 as he answers, “I find the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good.”
Let me give you an example of how this works – verse 22. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.”
Paul says two things an unbeliever cannot say!
You could translate the phrase, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,” I love the law of God from the bottom of my heart . . . this new inner man.”
Secondly, Paul just said that sometimes, even though he loves the holy standard of God, his flesh makes him a prisoner of sin.
An unbeliever can’t say that he becomes a prisoner of sin because he’s already a prisoner. Paul says, “when I sin, I become a prisoner of sin again.” That is, I can refuse what I love in my heart and follow after what I want in my flesh and find myself chained to the old life.
How do you explain it? Paul goes on in verse 24 to write, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the flesh – this body of corruption and decay?”
You say that a believer sins? Yes. If Paul sins, I think I probably do too!
What happens when an unbeliever sins? Nothing! He’s dead in his sins and trespasses . . . condemned, deceived and yet proud of how good he is. He doesn’t feel a thing!
What happens when a believer sins? When he loses the battle within?
At least 12 things:
- He grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30)
- His prayers go unanswered (I Peter 3:7)
- His life disqualifies him from productive ministry (I Cor. 9:27)
- His praise of God becomes unacceptable to God (Ps. 33:1)
- God’s blessing is withheld (Jeremiah wrote, “Your sins have withheld good things from you.” John wrote that an unrepentant believer forfeits his full reward (2 John 1:8)
- He forfeits joy in salvation (You remember David, upon confessing his sin he asked the Lord to restore unto him the joy of his salvation Psalm 51:12)
- He experiences God’s discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11)
- His spiritual growth is hindered (I Corinthians 3:1-3)
- His service for Christ is limited (Paul wrote to Timothy, “Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things – sins listed in the previous verses – he will be a vessel for honor, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. (2 Timothy 2:21)
- The length of our lives is endangered (I Corinthians 11 reveals that some believers had died early because of their unrepentant lives)
And if all this isn’t enough, you cannot keep from adding to the list the fact that. . .
- The testimony of the church is damaged (I Corinthians 5) and . . .
- God is dishonored (I Corinthians 6:19-20 – glorify God in your body!)
Adapted from John MacArthur, Freedom From Sin (Word of Grace Publications), 1987. p. 167
No wonder the true believer hates sin and battles against the flesh.
On the other hand, an unbeliever is unable to embrace the truth of his sin – admit the corruption of his flesh . . . he makes sin acceptable . . . makes wrong seem right.
I received an email this week from somebody more deceived by sin than I have ever encountered. He doesn’t attend church but was encouraged by someone here to ask me for my advice. He explained that he wanted to make sure when he got married that he’d be able to keep his wedding vows because he knew God would want that . . . so in order to make sure he and his girlfriend were truly able to make sure they could keep their vows, they were determined to make sure they were absolutely compatible in every way, including sexual relations. He went on to say that he wasn’t convinced that the Bible forbade sexual relations outside of marriage. Then he got to the interesting part – I’ve heard all that other stuff more often than you would believe. He then went on to say that when Jesus was tempted by the devil He responded by saying, “Thou shalt not put the Lord your God to the test.” He then explained that to not do everything to make sure they could keep their vows, including fornication, would actually put God to the test, which would be wrong.
In other words, he didn’t say, “I know what I’m doing is wrong, do you think God will overlook it”
He wasn’t saying, “I don’t think God really thinks it’s wrong.”
He was actually saying, “Not only is this not sin and not only does God not think it’s wrong, this is actually an act which God requires of us and which God will hold us accountable if we do not engage in it, because if we don’t we can’t know for sure we’ll make the marriage last and that would put the Lord our God to the test when we took our vows.”
So sin not only became an act which God endorsed, it became sinful if he didn’t engage in sin.
He ended his email by saying, “Please send me your thoughts.”
So I did. I sent him a few thoughts.
This may sound strange, and I hope you understand what I mean when I say this – for the unbeliever, sin doesn’t matter now – it will one day when he stands and the books are opened and he is judged by those things which he did.
For the unbeliever, sin will become a very serious issue on the edge of eternity; but for the believer, sin is a very serious issue now.
Our eternity is not at stake in heaven – but so many other things are at stake on earth!
With that in mind, why do we sin? Because God didn’t do a good enough job cleaning us up when we were saved? Because He didn’t give us a completely new nature? Because He didn’t pay entirely for our sin and so we have to try and do good things to make up for it?
We sin because we are sinners, even though we are saved! Sin is bound up in our flesh, and while we live in the flesh we will battle the propensity to do what the flesh wants to do and that is sin.
Here’s Paul’s explanation in verse 24, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death.”
Would you notice he did not say, “What shall deliver me…” as if there is something we can do . . . but “Who shall deliver me.”
For Christ is the only power on earth that can not only save us from the penalty of sin, but from the power of sin.
We’ll look at that closely next Lord’s day . . . but I want to give you, before we close, two exhortations.
They are short and easy to remember.
Exhortation number 1) Get real!
You want to be like Paul?
Stop trying to sound so perfect to everybody else.
You don’t have to try and pass yourself off as a person who has everything under control. . . a believer who has reached a place of order and discipline and consistency.
If I could be so blunt . . . don’t put any poodles in your portrait.
Don’t put on a show for the saints . . . you don’t have to put on the dog for anyone.
Get real with yourself and before God.
As real as Paul in Romans chapter 7.
Number 2) Stay put!
Stay in the fight! Paul would one day write, “I have finished my marathon run . . . I have fought a good fight!”
So don’t throw in the towel because living a holy life is an uphill climb! Expect it. If Paul lived it and battled it, so shall you!
When God made you alive in Christ, He called you into a life of battle with sin. So face it . . . accept it . . . and fight it!
J. I. Packer calls this perspective spiritual realism. He says that “spiritual realism has to do with our willingness to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves and start making necessary changes. . . we are constant blamers of others for whatever goes wrong in our relationships, families, churches, careers and so on; complacency and cleverness in acting as the injured innocent are among the most Spirit-quenching traits imaginable, since they become excuses for doing nothing in situations where realism requires that we do something and do it as a matter of urgency. We are called to a constant spiritual warfare in this life and that this warfare calls for rigorous preparation, constant alertness, dogged [persistence] and moment-by moment trust in Him who alone can give us the victory.”
James Boice, Romans: Vol. 2 (Baker Book House), 1992, p. 767
So get real . . . and stay put!
Or to put it in the words of Robert Chapman, a godly warrior for Christ, who lived 200 years ago was fond of saying,
“Keep low . . . look up . . . and press forward!”
Say that with me . . . keep low . . . look up . . . and press forward!
Say it again . . . keep low . . . look up . . . and press forward!