“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” says Paul (2 Corinthians 5:17). That’s an amazing statement. In Christ we participate in the new creation — now. We are new creatures. We are regenerated. We have been born a second time. My inner man is raised from the dead by the Spirit of Christ himself. My sins are forgiven. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). There are so many glorious pictures of the victorious Christian life.
And yet, despite all these glorious new-life realities, we still sin. We are still duped by the world, the devil, and our own remaining evil within. Some of the very same false promises that captured our attention as unbelievers continue to catch our eye as believers. This is one of the great disappointments of the Christian life — to be so deeply different and yet so easily suckered into the same sins.
On Friday, we looked at whether our repentance is genuine if we keep confessing the same sins. That was APJ 1623. Today we address this question: How do we reckon with our sin failures as redeemed Christians? This is the key theme taken up in the following clip from a 2001 sermon by John Piper. The clip was sent to us from a listener named Lucy in Woking, England. Here’s Pastor John, preaching on Romans chapter 7.
Romans 7:17: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” That’s where I and others get the phrase indwelling sin. Do you see the phrase “dwell within me”? It’s like a resident — an ugly, seditious, warring-against-my-soul resident.
Romans 7:20: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” There it is again. Two texts talk about this reality called indwelling sin. So, Paul’s first front is to defend the law and to show that the problem is not that I have made the law to be sin. Rather, on the second front, he’s defending the reality that there is such a thing as indwelling sin rooted down deep in my life. And I need to put it to death. I need to make war on it. But it’s there, and it’s real.
He’s a Christian. He wants to defend the fact that he’s a Christian. I have a new nature. I have been born again. I have a taste for the things of God. Romans 7:22 would be one of several verses we could look at for this point: “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.” In other words, “I love the law of God,” he says. “I rejoice in the law.” Romans 7:23, “But I see in my members another law waging war.” He’s saying, “I have been changed. I’m alive to God. I’m alive to the law. I have a spiritual taste now. There’s a nature in me that’s not just carnal.”
Despair over Sin
Now, that brings us to the most controversial matter that I pointed out three weeks ago and said I would come back to in order to argue the point that I made there. And the point was this: Is Romans 7:14–25 the pre-Christian Paul? Is he describing his experience before he got saved? Or is it the Christian Paul describing his experience, in part, as he experiences it? That’s the big issue.
Scholars line up on both of those sides — godly scholars, evangelical scholars. My friends line up on those two sides. And I told you which side I stand on and said I would be back to give you reasons, and here I am. The side where I stand is this: I believe he’s talking about Christian experience. I want to defend that, but first let me tell you why it matters to me, because you might be sitting there saying, “That’s about as uninteresting to me as anything I can imagine.”
Here’s the reason I think it should be very interesting to you and crucial to you: I’ve watched why people don’t come to Christ for their eternal joy and rather choose everlasting destruction and misery. There are several kinds of reasons. The one that I have in mind here is a hopelessness that settles in on the soul that doesn’t say the gospel is false; it just says, “There’s no hope for me.” That’s all. You can argue till you’re blue in the face on the intellectual level with such an objection and say, “Look, you’re probably right.” It’s a frightening thing, isn’t it?
One of the sources (not the only one) of this hopelessness is an unbiblical perfectionism that does not provide people with categories to understand their own failure as a Christian. And therefore, when they stumble and fall into a sin or some repeated sinning, they don’t have any way to explain what’s going on in their lives. And they despair that they aren’t a Christian.
What Saved J.I. Packer’s Life
And you remember three weeks ago I pointed to J.I. Packer, who was so thankful for the book on indwelling sin by John Owen, written three hundred and fifty years ago. Packer said that he was saved back in the 1940s and was immediately ushered into a perfectionistic Christianity that believed in the “higher life,” a second-experience Christianity, which, after you’ve had this experience, you were above the struggle, walking in triumph, walking in victory, no more battles. And he said, “I almost committed suicide. But then I read Owen and Ryle, who helped me understand a more balanced, biblical understanding of sin in the believer’s life.”
The only problem with Owen’s work is that you have to be desperate to read it, because it’s written in almost unintelligible seventeenth-century English. Sorry, but the best things have to be dug for. If you rake, you get leaves; if you dig, you get diamonds. And if you’ve got a raking mind, you’ll settle for leaves. If you’ve got a digging mind, you’ll get diamonds. I commend Owen as a good mine.
Now, to further put you off, here’s the title: The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, Together with the Ways of Its Working and Means of Prevention, Opened, Evinced, and Applied with A Resolution of Sundry Cases of Conscience Thereunto Appertaining. [Laughter.] I don’t expect anybody to go looking for this book now.
[Editor’s note: A decade after this sermon, John Owen’s book was abridged, made easier to read, and published under the abbreviated title Indwelling Sin In Believers.]
“The evidence of being a Christian is not that there are no tactical defeats in the war, but that you keep fighting till the promised victory is given.”
But I promise you that if you read those hundred and fifty pages, you probably will not shoot yourself because of your remaining imperfection. You will be set on a course to know how to do battle with sin and understand your failures that saved J.I. Packer’s life and, I believe, will save many.
So, my aim this morning is to argue that this passage is about that — namely, Christian experience in its moments of failure. That’s what I want to argue. This text is about that, and providing you with categories for understanding it.
Now, one more qualification before I get into my five arguments: Please, please, please don’t misunderstand me as saying, “This text teaches ‘make peace with sin.’ Pastor John said, ‘Everybody’s going to sin. And so, relax. Make peace with sin. It’s no big deal.’” That’s not what I’m saying.
In fact, I would say exactly the opposite. This text is teaching, “Make war with sin.” Make war with sin. What you read here is about a man who is on the warpath against his sin. And now he’s got a spiritual nature that enables him to identify it for what it really is, as hard as it is. And he hates it.
The evidence of being a Christian is not that there are no tactical defeats in the war, but that you keep fighting till the promised victory is given. That’s the evidence of being a Christian.