I ask for patience because of the length of this post, but I think, maybe, that the best way to shed more light on my position on this matter is to do it by relating it to real life and not just doctrinal discussions.
A week or so ago I had the special joy of a meaningful exchange with one of my students, who just happens to be a young Christian and new member of our small town Bible-belt community and the local church I attend. I am her oral communications teacher, and she came to me for help with the testimony she was preparing to deliver for an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) event. She was nervous, and with tears in her eyes, she tried to convey to me exactly what was causing her so much angst. It wasn’t the thought of speaking, as she is already a confident public speaker; it was the thought of what she had to tell that was choking her. She finally just asked me to read what she had written.
Her testimony was beautiful because she gave a clear picture of exactly what Jesus had saved her from, but she was troubled about telling it because she was afraid that revealing so much of her past would cause her new-found friends to think differently of her. She didn’t have the same kind of background that many of them do. She didn’t grow up in the church and hadn’t been surrounded all her life by people who were attempting to live lives of obedience. She was afraid that by revealing her past, she would somehow no longer fit—and, if the truth be told, she may always struggle with the scars and shame of past sin precisely because her coming to Christ now reveals to her just exactly how damaging sin can be—and because as long as we live in this body, we will always be conscious of sin.
I must share that I think both of us walked away from that exchange—which incidentally, happened before class began but spilled over into the opening minutes as other students came trickling in—with a clearer picture of who our Savior is and what He did and continues to do for us. I encouraged her and thanked her for her willingness to share, but I think the most important thing I had to tell her was that she didn’t have any more shame to carry around than any one of us who has been redeemed by the Grace of God. I told her that all of the young people she would be speaking to that night needed to hear her testimony. ALL of them—even the ones who had grown up in church and never “drank, cussed, smoked, chewed, or gone with wild women that do.” We ALL need to see who we are. Just because I haven’t committed the same type of sins that others have committed does not mean that I have no sin. In fact, Jesus, Himself, said that if we are guilty of breaking ONE commandment, we are guilty of them all.
Not a single one of us has righteousness to maintain. Not one. After we come to Christ do our lives change and do we begin to separate ourselves from the foolish things of this world? DEFINITELY! But, we aren’t doing it because of the righteousness we have. We do it because of the Holy Spirit of the Living God that is working in our lives to conform us into the image of His Son. It is HIS holiness and HIS righteousness that is being worked out in us. Those who born again hate their own sin and will always hate their own sin because of the new life that is in them. When we continue to compare ourselves to other people and judge our righteousness and everyone else’s based on the law, you know what ends up happening? We end up running from the truth of our own sins and condemning everyone else or worse, we don’t share the testimonies that really would reveal the Grace of God and beauty of our own salvation. If we want to help each other in this struggle, we will point people to the message of the gospel all the time, every time—which is exactly what Paul does in the book of Romans.
He is dealing with a church body that is comprised of Gentile believers who have to be introduced to the concept of the law and obedience to a God who has saved them but they are just learning about and Jewish converts who have been practicers of the law their entire lives. Paul definitely wants the Roman church to know that following all the rules has never been what saved people, but he also wants them to know that now that they have been saved, they should follow hard after Christ and learn more and more about the righteousness of God displayed in and through Christ. He definitely wants people to turn from sin, but he reminds them that they are helped by the Holy Spirit in this strange warring between their old flesh and the new person that they are because of what happened at their conversion.
The reason, Extraordinary, that I so strongly object to your position is because not only are you pointing people away from the message of the gospel, but you are also robbing yourself of your own joy and confidence in your Savior! He died to free us from the condemnation of the law. As long as you live thinking that you fulfill it through your fleshly obedience, you are living under a heavy yoke. Wonder who else delivered that message? Jesus did—and Paul expands. How can you think that Paul was saying that we would live sinless lives in this flesh when he himself despairs over his own sin nature?
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Paul was definitely telling us to keep on fighting our sin, but he also tells us that NOW WE HAVE HELP TO DO SO—and we do not have to fear the death of this flesh because it’s already dead. It is crucified with Christ! We have resurrection to look forward to one day, but even before we get our resurrected bodies, we have life in the inner person and are able to know God through our faith in Christ. We also experience a wonderful change in what we love and what we hate.
I don’t know what troubles you so much. I would like to think that it is a genuine concern for people—a true desire to see change in their lives. Don’t you see, Extraordinary, that telling people to change their own behavior has never and will never work? People cannot change their behavior to make themselves more “righteous.” The miracle that is salvation (which automatically includes sanctification) is a Divine work of the grace of God that turns a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. Preaching at people to trust in themselves and put themselves on the right path is just more of the same way most of us already live. Our lives are changed when the Grace of God gives us eyes to see Christ and believe every promise of God fulfilled in Him and offered to us. HE works in the lives of His people and will finish the work that He has begun in us.
I am going to repeat myself—if you want to help people, give them Christ and Him crucified. Point them to Jesus. I’m pretty sure that is exactly what Paul was doing in the book of Romans. All of us need to know what happened to us and who lives in us. If we do not acknowledge the weakness of our flesh, we are robbing ourselves of the HOPE of our lives. We're robbing ourselves of the one thing that gives us joy--seeing our Savior and knowing who He is for us as individuals.