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Book of Romans, Sermon Starters—Week 6

Lectionary Readings for July 9, 2017

Scripture Notes for Romans 7:15-25a

Today's passage should actually begin with verse 13. It is in verse 13 that Paul begins to deal with the role and function of the law. Later Paul adds to his argument an explanation of the power that sin holds over non-Christians. In last week's reading [Romans 6:12-23], Paul dealt with the question, "Without the law, are we sinners?" This week, Paul first deals with whether or not the law itself was evil or caused sin.

Next, Paul moves from a discussion about the law to a description of the constant human struggle with sin.

Paul concludes by saying, the only power great enough to conquer the power of sin is the power available through faith in Jesus Christ.

Key Preaching/Teaching Points:
Contemporary scholars note that this passage is NOT an autobiographical outline of Paul's presumed pre-conversion despair about sin. The problem with that presumed despair is that Paul considered himself to be a "Pharisee of the Pharisees." He believed his zealous adherence to the law was noble. If anyone had bragging rights about keeping the law, it was Paul. "As to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:6b) "I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors" (Galations 1:14). Paul the Pharisee felt no despair.

To interpret Romans 7:15-25a, one must understand Paul's use of "I." The passage is written from the perspective of Paul the Christian reflecting on Paul the Pharisee. Thus, "I" refers to Paul, the non-Christian Pharisee. This marks a break in the historic interpretation of this passage advanced by Augustine, Martin Luther, and Bible commentators from the Middle Ages to the Reformation to the present.

Contemporary scholarship notes that Paul is looking back on the law from his new Christian perspective and reflects on the effect of the law and the power of sin on non-Christians — in this case, adherents of the law. Here is a summary of Paul's conclusions:

1. The law can be fulfilled, but fulfillment is insufficient to produce righteousness.

2. The law enables moral awareness. Adherents to the law understand what is right and wrong. Adherents can even develop the will to do what is right. Still, sin can overpower the adherents' moral understanding and willpower.

3. The law is not inherently evil, nor does it cause sin.

4. Sin is powerful enough to co-opt the law for evil purposes. (For example, Paul followed the law, but persecuted Christians and denied Christ as the Messiah.)

5. For the adherent, an inward war is inevitable. One may delight in God's law; but sin dwells inside the non-Christian, contradicting every effort at righteousness. Without Christ, humanity is powerless to win this battle.

6. Humanity stands in need of a power greater than sin to break sin's grip. That power is found only in Jesus Christ.

Challenges: Preaching from the perspective of "I" — referring to Paul, the Christian — reflecting on Paul, the Pharisee, may feel like swimming upstream against tradition. It will take time to unpack this perspective, but it will be time well spent.

This passage actually serves as a warning to Christians who reject their freedom in Christ. Such rejection opens the door to the dangers of falling prey to the old bondage (see Romans 6:12-16).

Suggested Resource: For more commentary on Romans see The New Interpreter's Bible A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume X — Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians. Abingdon Press.

Key comparison verse: "But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin when it is fully grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:14-15).

"But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me" (Romans 7:17).

Sin lives in not the true self but in the unregenerate self. One scholoar calls this the "lower self," which sin enslaves.

"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" (Romans 7:18).

The flesh again refers to one's unregenerate self. That flesh is incapable of good. The will to do good resides in what one scholar refers to as "the higher self."

"Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me" (Romans 7:20).

Sin's power takes over the unregenerate self. It becomes the perpetrator of evil deeds. Nevertheless, the person takes responsibility for the deeds and suffers the associated guilt.

"But I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members" (Romans 7:23).

The "lower self" (the unregenerate self) wars against the "higher self," that which agrees with God's law. The result is captivity to sin. Ancient writers noted similar inward struggles between conscience and deeds (Plato, Ovid, Seneca, Epictetus).

Key Questions:

1. Paul describes the futility of non-Christians' struggle to overcome the power of sin through moral awareness and willpower. How then does the Christian confront the lure of sin?

2. The religions of the world have some equivalent to "the law," which teaches moral awareness and urges the use of willpower to "do good." What good news do Christians have to share with people in other religions?

3. What sober warning should Christians heed from Paul's teaching in Romans 7?

Evangelistic Preaching Tips

The "good news" exists in one verse in this week's passage: Romans 7:25a. Paul will unpack the fuller meaning of victory in Christ in Romans 8. The preceding verses describe the agonizing inward struggle with sin. Do not gloss over the intensity of the struggle that Paul describes. Some listeners may resonate with that struggle and decide to escape its grip by responding to the hope provided in Romans 7:25a.

Reading: Romans 7:15-25a [An Evangelistic Approach — To lead people to Christ]

Independence Day! — Freedom becomes more enticing the moment you believe that it can be achieved. Take time to describe the inward turmoil resulting from warring with the power of sin. What is it like to be a walking contradiction? How does it feel to know what is right but find yourself doing the opposite? Who wants to live a hypocritical life before their loved ones? The tensions are real. Do not avoid them in your sermon. Thankfully, there is a way out through faith in Jesus Christ.

Aim: Invite people into an exploration of the inward war caused by the power of sin. Then invite people to declare their independence from sin's grip.

Reading: Romans 7:15-25a [A Renewal Approach — To strengthen the faith of Christians]

Don't Go There! — We often say in jest and sometimes in seriousness, "Don't go there," when people near some personal taboo. Today's passage acts as a stern warning to Christians never to return to the inward war with sin. Christians have emigrated from the place where sin dominated their lives. Lest we entertain ideas of returning, today's message should be clear: "Don't go there!"

Aim: "Fire a warning shot across the bow" by reminding Christians not to relinquish freedom from sin's power in Christ.

Reading: Romans 7:15-25a [A Reclamation Approach — To restore "de-churched" individuals to vital faith in Jesus Christ]

Ending a Senseless War — Highlight the endless inward war that Paul describes. That inward war should not be the plight of the Christian. Christians who abandon the freedom afforded by Christ re-enter a war that should be over in their lives. They battle a "senseless war" within themselves. Declare an end to senseless inward wars that divert our attention from righteous living in Christ.

Aim: Highlight the futility of re-entering a battle with sin armed only with moral awareness and willpower. Invite listeners to reaffirm their freedom in Christ.

Provide Opportunities for a Faith Response

1. Independence Day! Consider inviting someone to share a powerful testimony that illustrates Christ's power to deliver one from some serious problem. Invite that person to remain after worship during a fellowship time to talk with interested persons. Following the sermon, provide an opportunity for individuals to declare this as their independence day by embracing Jesus Christ by faith. Instruct your intercessory prayer ministry to pray for those who respond.

2. Don't Go There! Invite people to write down places, situations, or people that tempt them to abandon Christian values. People could enter into covenant with a small group, Sunday school class, family member, or friend. The covenant could be a promise to pray for God's strength to resist the temptation, a weekly check-in, an openness to receive a call from the other person if the temptation becomes too great, and so on.

3. Ending a Senseless War. Use the same suggestions as #2 above.

Provide Opportunities for Follow Up
Invite people to do a "check-in" next week in Sunday school, during a small group, or as a neighborly nudge with a covenant partner. The check-in is simply a time of briefly sharing how the week went with regard to living out their Christian faith. This check-in could also take place between covenant partners during the week by phone, visit, or email.

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