Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 5, 2008

Sermon on Romans 7:15-25

THE CHRISTIAN’S MULTIPLE PERSONALITY PROBLEM

Introduction

There is a large WELS congregation in Antioch, Illinois (just south of the Wisconsin border, in the Chicago metropolitan area) that recently built a beautiful new church building. I had the chance to visit their new facility last November when our Commission on Worship meeting was held there. Among the many eye-catching features of the church, there is a triptych (a series of three paintings) behind the altar. The center painting is a picture of Jesus’ resurrection, and that picture remains there year-round. But the two side pictures change with the seasons of the church year: There is a Christmas set, an Epiphany set, a Lent set, and so on.

Taken from the church's website. The picture described in the sermon is on the right side of the triptych.  Click the picture for a larger view.

During the Pentecost season, one of the side pictures in the triptych is a picture of the parable in today’s Gospel (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23), Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed. Behind the farmer in the picture one can see the birds eating the seed on the path, the seed on rocky soil, and the thorns that later choked the seed sown among it. The farmer in the picture is looking out at the congregation, and it looks as if he is scattering seed right toward the assembly. The artist did that for a reason; the implication is that the congregation gathered to hear God’s Word and receive his Supper is the “good seed” in Matthew 13.

Now think about the people who go to church on Sunday and see that picture staring at them and the seed coming toward them. Think about the things some of those people must inevitably struggle with living in a sinful world. The man who struggles with an internet addiction sees the good seed coming toward him, and he knows that’s not really him. The woman who gossips maliciously and nags her family sees the seed coming toward her, and she knows that’s not really her. The college student who just laughed along as his professor and classmates ridiculed Christianity and failed to stand up for his faith sees the picture and knows it’s not him. The teenage girl who got pregnant and had an abortion because she feared her parents’ reaction holds back tears as she sees that picture because she knows that’s not her.

In today’s Second Lesson, it almost sounds as if Paul is sitting in the church I’ve just described. He looks at that picture of the farmer scattering seed, and he says to himself, “That’s not me.” The struggle against sin – a struggle that every Christian faces, from the apostle Paul to each one of us – is the reason why we feel like we’re not always the good seed in the parable. The struggle against sin is the reason why Christians often feel like they have a spiritual “multiple personality” problem. That’s the very issue that St. Paul tackles in today’s Second Lesson, which is the basis for today’s sermon. Paul will show us that the Christian’s “multiple personality” problem is [1] a problem that causes me to do what I don’t want to do, [2] a problem that causes me ongoing conflict and despair, and [3] a problem that causes me to praise God for rescuing me.

1. A problem that causes me to do what I don’t want to do

If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, you know that part of you wants to light up another one even though your head tells you otherwise. If you’ve ever dieted, you know that part of you wants a piece of that chocolate cake even though your head tells you otherwise. If you feel too dependent on caffeine to get you going in the morning, you struggle to not grab that cup of caffeinated coffee even though your head tells you to stick to juice or decaf.

With enough determination and help, you might be able to kick nicotine, sweets, and caffeine. But have you ever tried to kick sin? God’s Word clearly calls Christians to live a pure and holy life in words and actions and even thoughts. So how well have you done in the first six days of July, or the first six months of this year? Perhaps some insight from St. Paul will prove helpful. Listen to Paul describe his attempt to eradicate sin from his life: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. … For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

Paul doesn’t get too specific here. He doesn’t tell us what particular sins he struggles with. But there’s no question that he struggles, and there’s no difficulty relating to what he says. But the word choices he makes are particularly revealing. Twice in these verses, as he talks about the evil he does not want to do, he actually uses a word that means to practice something. “What I hate, I practice,” and, “The evil I do not want to do—this I keep on practicing.” Think about that! If you ask a doctor what he practices, he’ll give you his specialization, such as pediatrics, neurology, or internal medicine. If you asked Paul what he practiced, he wouldn’t say evangelism or preaching or missiology. If you asked Paul what he practiced, his answer would be evil!

Do we ever think of our own lives that way? How could the greatest missionary in Christian history call himself a practitioner of evil? But if he wrote that under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, can we dare to claim that we are not practitioners of evil? What else can we call disrespectful talk to parents, or malicious gossip about those we don’t like, or lazy spiritual indifference to Bible study, or thoughtless and hurtful words spoken in anger and frustration? You don’t want to do those things. You know what’s right and wrong. And yet if you’re going to be honest with yourself, you do the very things that you know are wrong. That’s a sure sign of the Christian’s multiple personality problem: It causes you to do what you don’t want to do.

2. A problem that causes me ongoing conflict and despair

Recently there was an awful (in my not-so-humble opinion!) game show on NBC called “The Moment of Truth.” I never watched it, but I remember the ads for it. Contestants were hooked up to a lie detector, with close loved ones seated next to them, and asked absolutely embarrassing questions. If the polygraph indicated that they were telling the truth, they moved up to the next dollar level and to the next intrusive question. One ad showed a man seated next to his wife and mother-in-law while he was asked the question, “If you knew you wouldn’t get caught, would you cheat on your wife?”

I don’t know if that show is still on the air (I hope it’s not), but I want you to think about those types of questions in light of what St. Paul says in our reading. If Paul had been married and had been asked that intrusive game show question, it sounds like he would say, “Yes, there is a part of me that would stoop to that level.” Paul acknowledges that the Christian multiple personality disorder causes him to do what he doesn’t want to do, and that reality reveals an ongoing conflict inside of him. “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. … 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.”

Talking about Christian multiple personality disorder is not far off the mark after you hear these words. At one point Paul says, “Nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” He puts an equal sign between himself and his sinful nature. But later on he says, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law.” Now he equates himself with the Christian “new man.” So is he really the sinful nature or the new man? The answer is “Yes.” He’s both. The two are contending against one another like wrestlers trying to push each other out of the ring. But every time his Christian nature wins a battle, it’s not much longer before his sinful nature comes attacking again. Those two personalities or natures are “waging war” against each other. And although his Christian nature still strives to do what is good, it is inevitably worn down by this battle to the point that Paul cries out in despair, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

You start work at 9:00 a.m. thinking to yourself that you’re going to be a good employee and example today, and by 10:00 a.m. you’ve already wasted enough time and gossiped enough around the water cooler to disprove your good intentions. You start the day determined to keep a tight grip on your tongue, but the rush hour drive already brings out road-rage cursing under your breath. You begin the week thinking that God’s Word is going to be a priority for you day by day, and not only does your Bible never see the light of day but your attitude never seems to be adjusted by the light of God’s Word. And no pastor preaching a list of eight steps toward self-improvement will change the fact that your sinful nature has gotten the best of you every day of your life. And no Christian inspiration book will change the fact that good advice does not take away sinful liability before God. The only reality before us is to cry out with Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” That’s another sign of the Christian’s multiple personality problem: It causes ongoing conflict, and ultimately despair.

3. A problem that causes me to praise God for rescuing me

Last week a long-time neighbor of my parents died after a long struggle with liver cancer. This woman was a friend of our family, but everyone among her family and friends were well aware of the fact that she also struggled with alcoholism. It was finally the cancer diagnosis that led her to come to grips with her addiction. She had to hit rock bottom before she could change her ways. It’s sad, but often it is reality. Someone has to bottom out before things can change.

If you think about the statements we have heard from Paul so far in this sermon, it sounds like he spiritually bottomed out. He realizes that he suffers from spiritual multiple personality disorder. This problem has caused ongoing conflict and despair within his soul. But now that he acknowledges that he has bottomed out, he changes from complete despair to total joy. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Paul’s spiritual multiple personality problem may have led him to ongoing conflict and despair, but it also led him to find the one and only solution that works in Jesus Christ. The eternal Son of God stepped into time and become a human being at his birth. Then he became our Lord, conquering our sin and guilt at the cross and confirming our salvation and glory at his resurrection. The message of Jesus’ cross and empty tomb lifted Paul out of despair and led him to praise God for accomplishing the greatest rescue effort in all of history. He rescued Paul from the clutches of hell and placed him in the mansions of heaven.

Nobody likes to hear the stern commands of God’s Word prescribing perfect obedience in every aspect of our lives. Nobody likes to see the stern finger of God’s judgment pointing at our hearts and exposing the sinful personality within us. But those stern realities serve a good purpose. They bring us to our knees in repentance. They make us cry out, “What a wretched [person] I am! Who will save me from this body of death?”

But once we’ve hit rock bottom, God himself picks us from the pit of despair and places us on the path to everlasting life. God rescues us from the sinful condition that leads our sinful nature and Christian nature to struggle and that causes us to despair, and he washes us in Baptism so that we are innocent and pure in his sight. God assures you that no longer have any reason to despair because he sent his sinless Son to do for you what you could never hope to do for yourself. God promises you that you have no reason to despair because Jesus Christ went to hell and back on the cross in order to rescue you. God proves to you that you have no reason to despair because his Son’s tomb was empty, and so are any charges Satan brings against your conscience. And that makes us cry out, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Thanks be to God that he addressed our multiple personality problem in Jesus Christ! That’s all the reason we need to praise God for rescuing us through his Son.

Conclusion

If we were gathered today at our sister WELS congregation in Antioch, Illinois, we would see that picture of the sower scattering the good seed toward the congregation. And if we are honest, there is a part of us that should say, “No, that’s not me.” But God didn’t let that situation stand. Jesus Christ has rescued and redeemed you, and his Spirit has planted the seed of faith in your heart so that you really are the good seed. You have gathered to be nurtured by his Word. You have been given a hunger and thirst for his Sacrament. You may struggle against a sinful nature that sticks to you until the day you die, but as far as God is concerned, he sees you as the good seed, as his rescued child, and as ready soil for spiritual growth. Amen.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for your work on this text.


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