Victory in Jesus as Expressed in Romans 7 and 8
Saint Paul wrote to Timothy: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (1 Timothy 3:12, 13). That passage does not necessarily rule out the triumph of the gospel over these evil men, but it does rule out the idea that there will ever come a time when it no longer costs a person something to live for Christ in this world prior to his return. Even in a world where the gospel has overwhelmingly triumphed, there will always be those who suffer. Sickness and death are not banished from our world until the Lord Jesus returns; neither is sin. Nowhere is the power of sin more painfully experienced than in the life of the Christian who is pursuing holiness, for the pursuit of holiness is the Via Dolorosa because it is the way of the Cross, and the way of the Cross is the way of sorrows, not the sorrows of the world that produce death, but of godly sorrow that leads to repentance and self-denial (2 Corinthians 7:10). And self-denial, as John Calvin reminds us, is the very essence of the Christian life, and it always will be until the second coming of Christ. At the very least, self-denial is a painful thing, and that kind of pain and suffering are not extinguished until you and I see the Lord Jesus face-to-face, when we finally see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
With the possible exception of Peter’s first letter, nowhere is the theme of victory and suffering more fully expressed than in Romans 7-8.
Romans 7:14-25 is a description of a mature, godly Christian who lives victoriously through the power of the Holy Spirit—the same person described in Romans 8:1-39. The man of Romans 7:7-13 was a man who had yet to discover the depths of his sin to the point of resting in the finished work of Christ. Just over half way through the chapter, the Greek tenses change from a description of a past experience, to a description of present experience (Romans 7:14-25).
The paean of confidence in Romans 8:37-39 is the continuation of a theme first introduced, pianissimo, in Romans 7:14, 16, where Saint Paul describes his delight in God’s law, calling it “spiritual” and “good.” This theme builds in 7:22 to the burst of confidence of 7:25 and continues on throughout Romans 8:1-39. The theme of victory crescendos then diminishes, again and again, each time becoming the more dominant of the two themes in this fugue that comprises our Song of Hope. Victory plays against the theme of human wretchedness so dominant in Romans 7:7-24. That sad motif in a minor key swells again in Romans 8:18-23, with the climax: “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly” (Romans 8:23). But the theme of victory is never far away—that inner grief over one’s own sinful weakness diminishes before the swelling confidence of ultimate victory: “As we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Gloriously, this theme celebrates, not only our future complete victory at the return of Christ—the grandioso of the triumphant theme at the end of Romans 8—in the present time, we are comforted in Romans 8:26, 27—we now experience victory in the middle of the dark tones of self-awareness: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
Or to put this more literally: the person of Romans 7:14-25 experiences true victory in Jesus Christ, yet, paradoxically, he finds that this true victory is accompanied by a growing awareness that no matter how close he grows to conformity to the image of God’s Son, he still comes short of being like the Lord Jesus. His best works are still contaminated by self. Indeed, the closer the believer walks with the Lord Jesus, paradoxically, the more keenly he is aware that he is imperfect. Spiritual maturity brings a person increasingly into awareness that he has often been deceived about himself, especially when he has been in conflict with others.
I will go so far as to say that the person who has never known the cry of Romans 7:24 has never been born again—indeed, that such a person is afflicted by a measure of insanity. But the cry of Romans 7:24 is accompanied, paradoxically, by the cry of Romans 7:25: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Such knowledge of one’s own frailty leads the Christian to an increasing evangelical humility and grief, to awareness that he is not a spiritual giant living among pigmies, but to a longing to be more like the Lord Jesus. It leads him to be gracious and merciful when dealing with others who sin, including, especially, those who sin against him. And by the gracious and fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit, this awareness brings about a purity of heart rather than a focus on facile, external marks of holiness. People who regularly know the brokenness of true self awareness, become passionate in the ministry of reconciliation, but, sadly, they regularly experience hostility from those who have a psychological need to maintain conflict and bolster pride (My broad paraphrase of Matthew 5:3-12).
When I think about that ubiquitous element within all my good works, sin, I am prompted not only to evangelical humility and self-examination; I am pressed to pray: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23, 24).
As I contemplate the fact that in the Fall I lost more than a gift of super-added grace (donum superadditum)—that in spite of the work of grace God did within me, sin still corrupts every aspect of my life, even—especially—my ability to know my own heart—I am compelled to cry: “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12).
As I consider my peccability, I plead with God, especially given the fact that even in that noble work of self-examination, I may find myself so focusing on my assumed spiritual attainments that I begin to succumb to the Siren song of seduction to pride—that will always bring me to crash on the rocks of some notorious and destructive sin. Being keenly aware that great men have done great harm as they have stumbled in the blindness that their pride begets, I long for God to grant me a fresh revelation of my remaining corruption so that I may deal with it and so that he may keep me back “from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression” (Psalm 19:12, 13).
The more I know myself, the more I comprehend the truth of Doctor Luther: “the whole life of believers should be repentance” (Ninety-Five Theses). One trouble with much that passes for Christianity is the tendency to view the work of the Law as having been completed at the time of people’s conversion to Christ. But Christians must grasp that the Law is to be their Schoolmaster every day, not only to be “the rule of their obedience,” but also “to humble them in the sense of their sin and misery,” thereby daily leading them to the foot of the Cross in the brokenness of repentance (Westminster Larger Catechism, 97, 95).
In this life all that we do falls short of what it needs to be, including our confession and repentance. Bishop Berkeley wrote, “I cannot pray, but I sin; I cannot preach, but I sin; I cannot administer, nor receive the holy sacrament, but I sin. My very repentance needs to be repented of: and the tears I shed need washing in the blood of Christ.”
As I ponder Berkeley’s words, I reflect on my penchant for sin. Even in that most noble of tasks, the preaching of the gospel, all too often I’ve caught myself thinking about something I just said—“That was really eloquent”—and I grieve the Holy Spirit. Or, sadly, sometimes I find my eyes noticing someone in the congregation, glowing with joy as she stands and sings, but perhaps with too tight a blouse, and I have immediately to renew the covenant I made with my eyes (Job 31:1). (Of course, noticing a female, on the one hand, and playing a metaphorical video tape in the theater of the mind, on the other, are two different things, but every believer has to be careful with his eyes and the imagination, and this carefulness cannot cease this side of being face-to-face with the Lord Jesus.) Even in the greatest of all good works, prayer, how often have I found myself interceding for someone only to be aware that in my very prayers, some hurt from long ago had begun to seep into my mind, oozing its putrefying self-righteous bitterness into my soul, so that my prayer had become a pustule full of sin.
The important thing is that I am stung by these things and turn from them to Christ; that is compelling evidence that I do have true faith. I do have good works, the same works that will inevitably, eventually come to be present, in some measure, in everyone who has put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jonathan Edwards : “When I look into my heart and take a view of its wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper than hell. And it appears to me, that, were it not for free grace, exalted and raised up to the infinite height of all the fullness and glory of the great Jehovah, I should appear sunk down in my sins below hell itself; far below the sight of everything, but the eye of sovereign grace, that alone can pierce down to such a depth. And it is affecting to think how ignorant I was, when a young Christian, of the bottomless depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy and deceit left in my heart.”
As I attempt to evaluate my good works, I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:5, “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” It is that truth that brings about Paul’s understanding about the inadequacy of his own conscience: “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4). Only at the judgment seat of Christ will we be able to make a true confession for our sins.
As I contemplate the fact that my good works are accepted only “in Christ,” I am also reminded that, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) That “Day will bring . . . to light” the true significance of what we have done in this life (1 Corinthians 3:13). And though we may suffer the loss of rewards, yet we ourselves “will be saved,” even if it is “as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15).
For the believer, the outcome of the judgment seat of Christ is never in doubt, because our true judgment day has already come and gone; it took place two thousand years ago on a hill called Calvary. As the Lord Jesus said, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
What a wonderful truth! You and I who have put our trust in the Lord Jesus have already crossed over from death to life, and we will never be condemned—no condemnation now—no condemnation then. As Saint Paul put it: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:33, 34).
Yet, in spite of there being no condemnation, there will be a Judgment. To what purpose? It is common in some quarters to believe that this will only deal with those sins for which we did not ask specific forgiveness in this life. But does this fit in with what we find in Scripture?
We must remember that God no longer remembers our sins against us. That does not mean that God gives himself some kind of amnesia.
Take, for example, the case of David. He was a justified man; had he had a fatal heart attack in the act of adultery with Bathsheba, he would not have gone to hell. His penitential thirty-second and fifty-first Psalms describe both his grief for his sin and his gratitude to God for his refusing to charge it against him: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1, 2). Yet, David’s sin is recorded in Scripture, in God’s Word, which is “forever settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89).
Because of the blood of Jesus, instead of David’s sin being some hideous thing for which he must one day be condemned, it has become the dark tapestry on which the jewel of God’s grace is displayed in all its crystalline brilliance.
It is at the judgment seat of Christ that I shall truly understand my own utter wretchedness, but—wonder of wonders—it is at the judgment seat of Christ that I shall truly understand grace—forgiving, justifying, nailing-Jesus-to-the cross-as-my-substitute, blood-bought, grace.
As the years go by, as the Lord gives greater revelation of our hearts, do we not discover, especially as we mull over past conflicts with others, that our actions often had much more of our sinful flesh in them than we thought at the time? The judgment seat of Christ completes that process both of self-examination and of reconciliation with others, and it finally brings complete healing. We will face things about ourselves too hideous for our frail minds to handle while in this mortal frame, but there we will face them while being held in the loving, all accepting, arms of our dear Savior.
The truly stupendous thing is that we do not have to be afraid of this event, “because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18), and there will be no punishment there. It will be a time of healing and release, of restoration and reconciliation with the whole body of Christ. Every church split will be made whole; every injury will be healed. It will be a time of mourning, but the happy mourning of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3 ff.), for we will know a comfort beyond all comprehension—the comfort of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, and the comfort of the Comforter, the Lord Jesus (John 14:16; 1 John 2:1). Then our mourning will turn into unspeakable joy, for our blessed Triune God “will wipe every tear from” our “eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things” will have “passed away” (Revelation 21:4). From then on our good works will be fully good, every last tincture of sin forever gone. And we will never again know the cry of Romans 7:14-25, “What a wretched man I am!”