Clam Chowder Christians
15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
Sometimes events are so odd and ironic that we can only shake our heads and smile. Consider the recent discovery of the world’s oldest living animal. Scientists were studying change in the marine environment off the coast of Iceland by examining variations in the shells of clams from the area seabed. By counting one clam’s annual growth rings, they determined it to be between 405 to 410 years old. That smashes previous records for the world’s oldest animal. Guinness had officially cited another clam as the record holder at 220 years, but this new clam is 190 years older than that.
At 410 years old, this clam was living before the first American colony at Jamestown, before Shakespeare’s penning of Macbeth, before any of Rembrandt’s brilliant artwork. In fact this clam was alive before Rembrandt was even born. How old is this clam? This clam is even older than my granddaughters think I am.
That is interesting, but here is where it turns sad. In order to measure the clam’s age, marine biologists had to cut it open, killing it in the process. They made chowder of this clam before they realized they had murdered the world’s oldest living animal. As one of the researchers put it, “For our work it was a bonus, but it wasn’t good for this particular animal.” Well duh! That was an understatement. It seems sort of strange that a clam would live that long just to be whacked open in some science project.
However, scientists believe that this same Icelandic seabed still holds even older clams. One scientist speculated, “It’s quite possible others are out there in the water that are 600 years old.”
So, what’s the first thing that scientists do when discovering the world’s oldest living animal? They kill it!
Until June 2006, the world’s oldest living animal was believed to be a tortoise. Harriet the turtle lived a well-fed and well-sunned 176 years before dying of a heart attack at an Australian zoo. The oldest living human was Jeanne Clement who died at age 122 in 1997. Experts used DNA blood work to determine Harriet’s age and government paperwork to determine Jeanne’s age. They did not have to kill them to date them, but in the case of the Icelandic clam, they did. In seeking to understand and save life, they ended it. The good they wanted to do, they failed to do; the evil they didn’t want to do, they did.
The Christian experience can be a lot like this research mishap. In spite of ourselves, we often kill that which is most precious to us, and keep alive that which is most detestable. As the Apostle Paul says, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
This is a difficult passage of scripture. I read from the NRSV this morning in the hope that it would be a little easier to understand, but I don’t know that it helps much.
The first thing we notice is that this is an “I” passage of scripture Paul is speaking personally about Paul. He says, “I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, I do the very thing I hate.” Paul is talking about himself, the question is when. Is Paul talking about himself before he was a Christian, or is he talking about himself right now as he writes this letter to the Romans? Now as you probably suspect, I read commentaries in preparation for writing a sermon, but in this case that was not a very helpful exercise, because biblical scholars are divided into various camps. Christians have always had difficulty understanding Paul, but let us work at it a little bit.
One of the most important points to keep in mind is that all the verbs in this section are in the present tense. Paul says, I am a sinner, not I was a sinner. In v22, he says, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self.” That is certainly not an attitude of an unbeliever. An unbeliever does not care about God. On the other hand. a believer loves God and loves to do God’s will but having said that when we try to apply that love of God to real life, we often screw things up and wind up doing something more diabolic that divine.
What Paul is doing in Romans 7 is honestly describing a real relationship with God. Many people, even people in the church, have a sort of cartoon understanding of Christianity. They think that we are gloriously saved, and after that we get better and better every day and finally when we are good enough we go on to heaven to live forever in the divine presence. Alleluia amen. But real life in Christ is not so clear cut. Sometimes you do not do better every day. You do worse. You do not intend to do worse. You want to do the right thing, but somehow the thing that gets done is not the right thing. And you wonder how could that have happened. You wonder what kind of Christian am I, that I failed to do what I knew I ought to do.
This is basic stuff that every person wrestles with. Paul is not just writing about Paul. He is writing about you and me. He is writing about our Christian life and our personal struggle with obedience to God.
Now strangely enough, this is a struggle that only effects God’s people. For example, consider v18: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” To unbelievers that verse makes no sense at all. They think, “Sure I’m not perfect, but I’m a lot better than most people.” That begs the question. Paul would reply, we are not talking about most people, we are talking about you. A lot of people, sometimes I think even a majority of people, think they are going to go to heaven because they are good enough. Or they think they are not as bad as most people and God grades on the curve, so when God makes the cut so to speak they will be on the heavenly side.
This is a basic misunderstanding of the gospel, but I encounter this notion all the time. Most people believe that they are good enough to go to heaven, and if that is true, they do not need Christ at all.
Paul when he wrote Romans had been an apostle of the church for many years. He had founded churches all around the Eastern Mediterranean. If there was ever a super-Christian, surely it was the apostle Paul. But does Paul believe he is good enough to get to heaven. He says, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”
No one is good enough. Some are better than others, but no one is good enough. Consider this illustration: suppose God set up two platforms high in the sky and the platforms are 30 feet apart, and suppose God said that successfully jumping from one platform to another guarantees a place in heaven. An out-of-shape couch potato runs and jumps two feet off the platform and a long jumper equals the world record and makes it 29 feet. Still, they both jump short because the standard is not how far you jump. The standard is jumping to the other platform.
When it comes to pleasing God, the standard is not how good you have been compared to other people, the standard is have you completely and entirely kept the divine law. Paul says I have not done that, and every other Christian who has ever thought much about it says the same thing.
We can never please God enough on our own efforts. That is why at the end of the chapter we have this desperate question from Paul: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” then we have the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
We get the idea that Paul is baffled by his inability to completely serve the Lord. He is an honest man who sincerely wants to be totally dedicated to Jesus. But he discovers that even as a Christian with the Holy Spirit that his intentions don’t always work out and almost in despair, he is crushed into utter dependence on the cross. Even this man who wrote about half the NT can only have a connection with God through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
So How do we react to that. I have sometimes thought that some folks overreact and make too great a show of their sins. I have heard some folks testify about their sins and they seem to enjoy too much talking about what a great sinner they once were. You get the idea that their testimony is about them.
It is a common human failing, even in church, to try to find some way to exalt ourselves. Even people who would say that they are saved by faith look for wiggle room on this issue. Yes we are saved by faith but you can do this or you can do that and God approves of what you do.
Paul in the passage before us is a great psychologist. He is looking very deeply into our motives and actions and finding no justification at all. There is no wiggle room for any kind of approval by God for what we do. Because it is all screwed up and messed over, and there is nothing good in it by the time we are done with it.
Now this raises some difficult questions. For example, if no matter what we do, we are still sinners, why should we try to do right at all. If we are always sinners, no matter what, why don’t we just give it up and do all the sin we can. We are not going to succeed in doing good so we might as well be as bad as possible.
But that way of thinking misses the whole point of this passage from Romans. Paul is struggling to do good because he is a believer. Christians, because they are God’s people, want to do God’s will, want to do what is right. We have the HS and the HS leads us toward what is good and right and true.
But we never get there, not in this world. In this world we are locked into a war, in our own mind and heart, in our own members, as Paul would say, trying to do God’s will, and becoming more convinced than ever that we are never going to succeed.
It is a spiritual war. A Christian by the very nature of things must fight this war. We have no choice. Being a people of the spirit, we are enlisted for the duration. We struggle for the good, but from what Romans is telling us, we are not going to win. That is, I personally am not going to win the war against sin
But in a sense I have already won, or rather Jesus has won from me. My call is to fight the good fight while treasuring the message of grace and truth found in the next chapter: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Sample, Ian. “Clam claims oldest animal record.” Guardian, October 29, 2007. guardian.co.uk/science/2007/oct/29/clam.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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