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The Frustration of Doing Good

The apostle Paul eloquently explains how the law causes us to do the very things we don't want to do—clearly accentuating our need for grace.

Most of us Americans see ourselves as flexible, innovative, and open to change. Contrary to the people who live in the Old World, we see ourselves as having a pioneering spirit. If there's a job out there that needs to be done, if there are changes that need to be made, we perceive ourselves as the kind of people who will do that.

Yet I find that even though we see ourselves as people of change, we are often resistant when change is imposed upon us. If we are initiating it, if we are creating it, then we are for change. But when someone else is imposing it, we tend to be a bit more rigid.

Perhaps it's because we see change that is imposed as being inefficient, or inconvenient. Recently my wife had some cabinets moved in the kitchen. Aesthetically it makes the kitchen look a lot better. But I must now walk four extra steps to get that bowl for my ice cream. I'm not sure I like that kind of change.

When it comes to the church, we are no different. We have the idea that if God is eternal and his Word is eternal, then that which we have done in the past should continue on for eternity. But perhaps the biggest reason we resist change is that we see change as a commentary on the past. If we are making a change in what we do in the church, we often assume that implies what we have done in the past is somehow inferior, inadequate, perhaps even wrong. And we have committed our lives and our service to Jesus Christ by doing whatever for the last five or ten or fifteen years, something someone has now said is inferior.

Sometimes that is true, but often it isn't. Many times changes come because the original idea, the original method, had met its purpose. New purposes have arisen, new goals have come, and therefore changes must be made. Change is not so much a commentary on the inferiority of the past; it's just a matter of a different purpose.

The apostle Paul imposed a major change: Live by grace, not the law.

In the Book of Romans, Paul imposed upon other Christians a major change. He told them they are to live by grace, not by the law.

For 1,500 years, from the time God had given the law to his nation, men and women of God assumed the way to live, the way to be nation, men and women of God assumed the way to live, the way to be holy, the way to serve God, was to keep the law. Paul comes along and says, "Live by grace." That's a major change.

Now what Paul is going to say is crucial for you and me. For 2,000 years the church has struggled with the change Paul is suggesting. We look at the Ten Commandments, we look at the law of God, and somehow we have the idea that law is still good. It's still from God. It should have a relationship to us today, if we are serving the same God, who is eternal. Therefore, we often confuse the purpose for law, and wonder why Paul says in Romans, "Make a change. No longer attempt to live holy lives by law; instead, live by grace."

Why did God give us the law?

It's imperative that we understand why God gave the law. Paul wants to tell us that purpose, and then by way of illustration, point out that if we attempt to live holy lives by keeping the law, we will find we can't be holy. Instead, we will be frustrated.

Turn with me to Romans, chapter 7. In verse 7 you can see that Paul anticipates resistance to change, because he raises a question: "What shall we say, then? Is the law sin?

Paul says, "Certainly not." In fact, in verse 12, he points out that the law is holy, righteous, and good. Paul recognized the minute he said, "Live by grace, not by law," a whole group of Christians would say, "Paul, are you suggesting the law is inferior? Are you suggesting that somehow it's inadequate, perhaps even sinful or evil?

Paul says, "No, that's not what I'm suggesting." But he says, "What you do need to understand is why God gave the law. What was his intent? So he says in the rest of verse 7, "Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, 'Do not covet.'"

Children, soon after they begin to grow up, get teeth, both upper and lower. Once those teeth come, they begin to eat differently. They begin to exercise certain muscles and use the teeth God has given them. However, there is often that youngster playing in the sandbox with another, and right next to him is that nice, plump arm. Or that nice, juicy leg. And so the child reaches out and uses those new muscles and those new teeth. He eats just like he has eaten before. That's when the mother comes along saying, "No, there's a law I need to tell you about. The law says you can bite your food, but you can't bite Johnny. Didn't you notice how he cried when you bit him? So the mother comes to the child, who the first time he does it probably knows no better, and lays down a new law.

Paul says that's what God did. God came to men who thought certain things they were doing were right or proper. But Paul says, "God's law didn't just deal with action. It didn't just deal with things like lying or stealing or committing adultery. God's law also dealt with desires and feelings, those things that cause people to lie, to steal, to commit adultery." And Paul says that God doesn't want people to lie, to steal, to commit adultery." And Paul says that God comes to us and says, "If you wonder what I'm like, if you want to know what pleases me, if you want to see a reflection of my character, don't covet, don't lie, don't steal. This is how you ought to live."

How does the law cause our downfall?

If you and I read verse 7, we then would raise the question, "Paul why make the change?" If the law reveals that God doesn't want people to lie, to live in adultery, to that's what God should we make the change? Shouldn't the law be used to live holy lives?

Paul says there's another problem: the law runs into people who are controlled by sin. He says in verse 8, "But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death."

I don't know about you, but when I read those verses, my question is, "Paul, what are you saying? You talk about sin being dead. You talk about sin springing to life. You talk about being dead to the law. You talk about coming to life. What are you talking about?"

Let me suggest this illustration. Have you ever noticed that when you go to work for a company, during the orientation and training period they never tell you everything? There's always something they forget. All of a sudden as you're working, you're confronted with a situation that was not covered in orientation. You're tired of going back to your manager and asking questions. You don't want to look like a dummy. You want to show some initiative. So you attack that situation and you create a set of procedures that helps you quickly and efficiently finish the task. For the next two or three months, every time that situation arises, you do what you think is right.

Three months later, your manager comes by, observes what you're doing, and says, "That's the wrong procedure. You're going against company policy. What you're doing doesn't take into account what's happening in accounting or sales or what's occurring in the plant. You need to do it a different way. Here are the new procedures." You realize that in relationship to the company's policies, you've been sinning, not following the correct procedures.

But something else occurs the moment your manager tells you that. If you're like I am, something down here says, Wait a minute! He or she doesn't understand my job. I figured it out. I've done it efficiently. If I follow their procedures, it's going to be more paperwork, more bureaucracy. And when the manager leaves, the temptation is to do it the way you've been doing it the last three months. Why? Because there's something deep inside of us that causes us to respond negatively to law, rather than positively.

God gave the law to man, saying, "This is the way I want people to live." The apostle says that when people are controlled by sin and they are confronted by that law, rather than changing and going back to God, we do just the opposite. We rebel. We won't live the way God wants. And we sin in greater and greater ways. God has all the evidence he needs, as if he needed more. When a sinner stands before him and the books are opened, God can say, "Here's my law; here's what you knew. Instead of coming to me, you went the other way." The evidence is marshaled, and man is condemned.

That's what Paul says in verse 13: "Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. That's why God gave the law to man: not to make him holy, not to make him righteous, but to show man that he is utterly sinful. And when an utterly sinful man sees his sin before the law, Paul says the thing he does is not respond positively but move the opposite way and respond negatively.

Some of you may be thinking, Wait a minute. That may be the way the unbeliever responds to God's law, but why do we need to make a change? We've been born again. The control of sin in our life has been broken. God has given us the ability to live for him. Why does Paul say to us, "Make a change. Don't live by law; live by grace. Shouldn't we of all people be able to live holy lives by keeping the law?

Paul says, "Let me show by way of personal illustration that that's impossible."

Paul says something inside of him is "still a slave to sin.

Verse 14: "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave in sin." The word the NIV translates as unspiritual is literally "fleshly." Paul is saying, "Yes, the ultimate control of sin over me has been broken when I believed in Jesus Christ. But I still have a sin nature, that thing inside of me that somehow pushes me toward sin. Whatever that thing is, it is still a slave to sin." Now, Paul says, "Since I still have that within me, the problem is that when I see the law, which is good, and I see what God wants, that nature within me pushes me the opposite direction."

Verse 15: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out." Paul says we need to realize that when God gave the law, the purpose was to show the utter sinfulness of sin. God never gave the law to make people holy. He gave the law so they would see they are sinners.

The minute we try to live holy lives by keeping the law, we go exactly the opposite way. So the apostle says in verse 21: "I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members."

How do we break free from this cycle?

Paul says, "The law tells me what God wants. But every time I try to use the law to enable me to live a holy life, I do exactly the opposite." Paul says, "I am frustrated." He describes himself as "a wretched man." What in the world can I do? The only answer Paul can come up with is that I recognize I am a slave of Jesus Christ. And as a slave of Christ, he says, "Don't live by the law. When we live by the law, we will never be holy, only frustrated." The times in our lives when we have perhaps been most frustrated are when we have attempted to live for God by keeping the law.

My father was raised a Quaker. He learned from the time he could remember that our responsibility is to treat Sunday like Israel treated the Sabbath. That meant when you got up in the morning, you got dressed and went to meeting. When you came home, you stayed dressed and ate dinner. Then you had two options: either sit in the parlor and talk, or take a nap, two options that children love. You weren't allowed to play ball. You weren't allowed to go outside and get dirty. Why? Because this is the Sabbath and we must keep it this way.

The problem was that keeping that law doesn't produce holiness. All it produces is frustration.

There are parts of the Mosaic Law that you and I may latch on to because of our background, our heritage, because somehow we think that's what we're supposed to do. Whether it's what we eat, our tithe, or setting aside certain days, we're committed to it because we think that will produce holiness. And Paul says, "Every time I come back to the Law of Moses and try to live a holy life, it doesn't produce holiness, because I still have a sin nature. I saw the law telling me not to lie, and I lied. I saw the law telling me not to covet, but I coveted. I saw the law telling me not to be immoral, but I lusted."

Paul said, "The law can't produce holiness. That was never its purpose."

Some of you might say, "I don't live by the law of Moses." Let me suggest there are many of us who live under the "laws of application." One of the things we preachers do is take principles of Scripture and make them concrete and specific. We bring them by way of application into life, and after a while those things become laws.

I was raised in a church where it was communicated week after week that if you really wanted to be spiritual, you didn't show up just Sunday morning. You went to Sunday school. You went to Sunday morning church. You went to Sunday evening church. And if you really wanted to be spiritual, you'd show up Wednesday night, because, as we were told, "The spiritual thermometer of the church is Wednesday night." You know what I learned? That's not true. You know how I learned it? Because I was there. And I didn't want to be there. I hated being there. And not just when my parents dragged me, I'm talking about when I became the pastor of a church, and people expected me to be there! I found it didn't produce spiritually. All it produced was frustration.

Some of you say, "I don't live under the laws of Moses, and I don't live under the laws of application." Then perhaps you've had to live under the "laws of the ," the kinds of things we do as Christians jut like the Pharisees. If the cliff is here and the law says don't go over the cliff, we build the fence fifty feet back so that nobody gets near it. That's exactly what the Pharisees did.

The Bible says that lust is wrong. But if that is where the cliff is, we build the fence fifty feet back and say, "Don't you dare look at TV or go to movies. Only read Forbes and the Wall Street Journal so you can lust over money, but nothing else. We create these kinds of laws and somehow have the idea that if we can keep them, we will be holy, and God will be pleased with us.

It's always amazed me that those churches that have all of these rules and regulations have just as big a problem with immorality, with thievery, with gossip, with all of the sins of the Bible, as the churches that don't have those laws. Why? Because law was never intended to produce holiness. All that law was intended to do was to show man that he is a sinner. Man has a sin nature, whether he is regenerated or unregenerated. He will react to that law negatively, not positively.

Some of you might say, "Well, I don't struggle with the law of Moses. I don't even struggle with the law of application. I don't even know if I struggle with the law of the . I'm from California; anything goes." I suggest that you probably have to struggle with what I call the "laws of lifestyles."

God leads some Christians into a certain lifestyle, and it fits those Christians and it's good for those Christians. But then their desire is to make what they do a law for everyone else. And if we don't live and think exactly as they do, we're made to feel guilty.

Some Christians communicate to me that if I don't provide an education of my child in the home, I can't know God's thoughts; I'm not walking with the Spirit; I really can't be pleasing God. Then other Christians say, "No, you've got to do it in the Christian School, and if you don't have your son or your daughter in Christian school, you really don't know the mind of God." Then other Christians say we're to be salt and light, and if you don't have your child in a public school, if that's not where they're getting their education, then you don't know the mind of God. You really can't be pleasing God.

I hate to tell you this, but reading from Genesis to Revelation, I don't find a thing about elementary and secondary education in the Bible, including Deuteronomy 6. We need to realize that if something works for us, God says, "Fine, live that way. But if you want to make that a law for someone else, you're not going to make them holy. You're just going to make them frustrated."

There are a lot of books out on marriage and raising children, many of them good. But we need to realize they were written because they worked in one person's life, and it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to work in somebody else's. I remember a couple holding some marriage seminars and telling people you need to get up at six in the morning and read to your spouse. That will make yours a godly marriage. My spouse and I don't even want to talk to each other at six o'clock in the morning! We have a rule: No talking until after ten. And we'll call each other on the phone and make up for whatever we said before ten. That makes our marriage work.

God hasn't called us to set up laws for other people. The apostle said, "When God gave the law, 'Do not covet; do not steal; do not lie,' he gave this to show men they are sinners." And when sinful men see the law of God, they're not going to come to God. They are going to go the opposite direction. That's why Jesus Christ came and died, so that all they have to do is to believe in keep the law, because they can't!

As a parent, I have the right and the responsibility to discipline my children. I have the right to establish laws and enforce them. But I recognize that as a parent, all I can guarantee is that my children will obey my laws as long as I'm in the room. But what I'm also concerned about is how my child will live and act when he is grown up, on his own. That's when I want my child to decide correctly for the right reason. I realize I can't produce that with law. Oh, I can produce obedience, up to a point, with law. But not when my child is an adult. That's why as a parent, I have had to learn that as the child grows, so grows his or her freedom to make decisions and live with the consequences. If I want to produce maturity in my children, I've got to give them freedom.

That's what our master, Jesus Christ, has done for us. He says, "I haven't called you to live by law. Instead I've called you to live by the principles of the New Testament. Some of you may do them this way; some of you may obey them a different way. But that's fine. Because in order to produce maturity, I want to give my slaves freedom."

But let me tell you, it's only in the setting of freedom that you see an adult come to worship service because he or she wants to be there, who is involved in a prayer meeting in the home because he wants to be there, who is willing week after week to walk into that jail and meet with that abused kid because she wants to be there. Then and only then can you say of that kind of person, "There are people who are truly slaves of Jesus Christ. They're living for the freedom he gives, but they are sold out to him."

That's what it means to live by grace. And Paul says we need to make a change. Not to live by law, but to live by grace.

(c) Paul Borden

Preaching Today Tape #44


A resource of Christianity Today International

Paul Borden is executive minister of Growing Healthy Churches and author of Direct Hit.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The apostle Paul imposed a major change: live by grace, not the law

II. Why did God give us the law?

III. How does the law cause our downfall?

IV. Paul says something inside of him is "still a slave to sin"

V. How do we break free from this cycle?