I preached this sermon today at a small-town church in Arkansas. The lessons for the day were Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:14-25a; and Matthew 11:25-30.When Pastor _____ asked me which of today’s lessons I wanted to preach on, I told him the Gospel lesson. It’s what I usually do, and in today’s Gospel we have an especially comforting and encouraging message from Jesus. But I believe in “truth in advertising,” “full disclosure,” and whatnot. So don’t be surprised to hear a lot about the other two lessons as well. The jewel of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 shines all the brighter against the setting Paul’s words in Romans 7.
Towards the end of the sermon, because time was running short, I omitted references supporting my assertion that our sanctification is Christ's work. For your private study and edification, I commend to you John 17:17; Rom. 6:22; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:26; 1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:13; and Heb. 13:12.
“Wretched man that I am!” Paul cries. “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” These are words of a man with problems. Big problems. Is it a surprise to learn a Christian had these problems? A true-blue, believing Christian—even a preacher and a missionary? Here Paul makes a shocking confession of weakness. Whatever he wants to do, he does not do. What he does not want to do, that he does. Though he wants to live a life pleasing to God, Paul finds sin dwelling in him, evil present within him, and a law of sin at work in his members. Though he hates sin and would like to do good, Paul admits that his flesh is a slave to sin; doing the good that he wishes to do is outside his power. Paul says this evil, this sin, this law ruling over the “body of death,” owns him as a master owns a slave; it dwells in him as a man dwells in a house; it wages war against his conscience, like a hostile army; and it holds his will captive, like a prisoner-of-war.
In this awful passage, Paul admits what any honest Christian could admit, and should admit. And that’s why it makes many people so very uncomfortable. If we, as Christians, cannot stop sin from invading our lives, what kind of Christians are we? If even St. Paul, that apostle of Christ, could not live a victorious and holy life, what hope is there for us?
This is such a serious problem that many people refuse to believe Paul wrote this as a Christian. But that raises more problems. Did Paul write this before becoming a Christian? No; anything he wrote before his conversion would hold no authority in the church. Did Paul stop being a Christian just while writing these lines? No; otherwise he could not end by saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Was Paul using the words “I” and “me” in a figurative way, talking not about himself but about people in general, especially unbelievers? There is no indication of that, either. In fact, what Paul says in Romans 7 dovetails right into Romans 6, where he says we should “consider ourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” that we should “not let sin reign in our mortal body,” that “sin shall not be master over us,” and that “having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive... sanctification, and... eternal life.” And Romans 7 also dovetails with Romans 8, where Paul says there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” And because Jesus died for us and now lives and intercedes for us, even though someone may accuse us of sin, Paul says: “God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?”
Romans 7 is a link in an unbroken chain of teaching about our relationship, as Christians, to the law of sin at work in our body and the law of God at work in our mind. Paul gives us the key to this three-chapter chain right at the beginning of Romans 6: “How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
This means what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5: “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Or as Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We have been born again in Baptism; the Holy Spirit has created us again, has made us new people. We are not who we were. Who we are is the “man in Christ.” But who we were is still in us, because we still have our flesh. We still have the human nature infected and made corrupt by sin.
Where Paul uses “I” and “me” in Romans 7, we could use the words “we” and “us.” We still have sin dwelling in us. Our very flesh furnishes the devil and the world with weapons to use against us. We are a prey to temptation. Even when we make the best effort we can possibly make, our thoughts are impure, and those sins of the mind have as much power to destroy us as actual sins of murder, adultery, robbery, and perjury. We can’t stop bad thoughts from coming, even when we try to master them; and once the thought comes, the deed soon follows. It’s very discouraging. It’s very frustrating. It can even drive us to the point of despair.
But notice that when Paul says “I” or “me,” he is still talking about the new man. And this makes a huge difference. Remember, we are not who we were. The Holy Spirit has made us new people in Christ. That is who we are. Before we were reborn and recreated by Baptism, the sin that now “indwells us” was who we were. It was all that we were. But that is no longer who we are; “the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” But even though the old things are dead, they still live in us. It sounds silly, but there it is. The old Adam must constantly be drowned and put to death; but it doesn’t stay quietly dead. It keeps raising an insurgency against us; it keeps fighting its guerrilla war in us, like an old regime seeking a return to power, or like a defeated army that doesn’t stop resisting even after the invasion force has taken full control of the country.
It’s like the lawless element in Iraq. Even though the country’s new government is trying to turn a new page, the ink on the old page keeps bleeding through. What the insurgents do is not the work of Iraq, but the work of a hostile force that “indwells” Iraq. So it is with the law of sin in my members, the indwelling sin that forces me to do evil things against my will and that prevents me from doing the good things I wish to do. That isn’t me; that is my enemy who lives in me. He has been taken captive, but he keeps breaking out. He has been vanquished, but he still fights for control. He has been mortally wounded, but until my body dies he will continue to make mischief in my members. He is a dogged and relentless insurgent; but “I” am the new man in Christ. This conflict is only possible because I am a Christian. For until God gave me a new heart and made me His child, sin controlled me without any opposition, as Saddam Hussein used to rule Iraq.
So while we must share Paul’s admission of an endless and discouraging conflict with sin, we also share the joy of the prophet Zechariah: “Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus is that king. And He came in just that way—not in triumph, but in humble service, serving us to the death. That is how Jesus brought us righteousness and salvation. So even while we struggle with sin, Jesus has secured God’s favor for us. Though our sanctification is incomplete, though sin often halts and sometimes even rolls back our progress in holy living, Jesus had made sure that in God’s eyes, we are perfectly righteous.
All our sins are forgiven. We are justified on account of Jesus Christ. Our warfare with God is over, as He declares again through Zechariah: “He will speak peace to the nations; and... because of the blood of My covenant with you, I have set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to the stronghold, O prisoners who have the hope; this very day I am declaring that I will restore double to you.” By the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, God has healed the schism that our sins placed between Him and us. By the new testament, rather, in which we share every time we take Jesus’ body and blood. We are no longer captives; Christ has set us free from this body of death.
And now comes the much anticipated point where I actually discuss today’s Gospel, which I had selected as the text for this sermon. Jesus “answered and said,” it says. Whom was He answering? The person who was previously speaking was Jesus, calling down woe on Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum because they did not believe Jesus’ Word, even when it was accompanied by wonders and signs. But even in this context of stern reproach and awful warning, joy breaks in. So Jesus answers Himself, or rather, He responds to God: “I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes.”
The people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum rejected Jesus’ message, even though they heard it from His own lips and witnessed the miracles that backed it up. So you see, whoever said the Gospel consists of “evidence that demands a verdict” is wrong. In the face of such evidence—evidence our eyes and ears covet because we feel it would strengthen our faith—and even in the presence of our all-powerful, all-wise Lord, they rejected the truth. Jesus truly knew what was in man when he said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” Make no mistake; those people searched the Scriptures, thinking that in them they had eternal life; but they did not know that Jesus is the one to whom the Scriptures bear witness. Their loss is our gain.
But why do we believe instead of they? It is not because of an overwhelming weight of evidence; otherwise they would have believed in Christ, sooner and better than we do. It is not because we have a better character, purer hearts, or the ability to make a decision that they simply did not choose to make. Jesus said in John 6: “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” But here in Matthew 11 he also says: “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father”—and that includes us. We bring nothing to the table, not even ourselves; Christ gathers us and feeds us for free. The people who saw Jesus’ deeds with their eyes and heard His voice with their ears went away none the wiser. Meanwhile, we know none of these things first-hand, yet we trust them with as much certainty and confidence as we trust gravity. What God hides from the wise and learned, he reveals to babes; the glory is His, not ours.
Why us and not them? The only answer Jesus gives us is: “Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight.” In other words, grace. Which, when you get to the bottom of it, only means we don’t know. We will never understand this. God didn’t make a decision against them; we didn’t make a decision for Him; but somehow, He made a decision for us. That’s all we know, and it will have to be good enough until we can ask Jesus face to face. For “no one knows the Son, except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Jesus has revealed God to us, and what God has disclosed about Himself is most clearly seen on the cross. At that crucial point in human history, God brought His story to bear on our life and our world. Through His gift of faith, this new story of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life has taken control of our lives.
Meanwhile, the old story of sin, death, and hell doesn’t simply go away. Nor does it sit idly in a corner and sulk. It fights us, as Paul teaches in Romans 7. And that fight is often so overwhelming, it seems unlikely that any of us could get through it. What solution does Paul give us? Not much. All he says is: “Thanks be to God, through Christ Jesus our Lord.” It isn’t clear how this is supposed to help, until you consider Jesus’ beautiful promise: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.”
Now we are already burdened by our war against sin. How can we stand up under still another burden, even an “easy yoke” and a “light load”? What does Jesus mean by laying this yoke and burden on us? He means that He will give us rest. He carried the weight of our sin on the cross. No one else needs to suffer to obtain salvation from sin and peace with God. Jesus has already redeemed us. Your justification is complete. Your sins are forgiven. Your guilt is removed. That is a huge load that you never have to bear again.
But your justification isn’t the only thing Christ works for you. He also carries the burden of your sanctification, that ongoing, lifelong process of growing holier in your life and works. Jesus does that in you; He does that for you. He gives you sanctification as His gift. That yoke is easy and that burden is light because Jesus is carrying it. When, like Paul, you are made weary and heavy-laden by sin’s endless insurgency, consider Jesus’ offer in Matthew 11: “Come to Me... and I will give you rest.”
Come to Him for nourishment by the milk of the Word and His faith-building, sin-forgiving body and blood. Come to Him in regular worship, being built up together as a temple made of living stones, so one member supports another and the whole building is founded on Christ. Come to Him in prayer, and draw special encouragement by praying the prayer He taught us, a prayer He will certainly be pleased to hear. Come to Him confessing your sins; and when your pastor declares you forgiven according to Jesus’ command and promise, go your way and leave your burden behind. Come to Jesus confessing your faith, and believe His promise that the faith of your heart and the confession of your lips will save you, just as Baptism also saves you. Come to Jesus where His Word promises you will find Him, and do not doubt, but firmly believe, that out of His gentle and humble heart Jesus will give rest to your soul.
P.S. The words "Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me" suggest even more: Christ's yoke is the faith that we learn from His Word; no more, no less.