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Jim Casy’s Dilemma

Romans 7:15-25a


2370 words


Please turn in your Bibles to the book of Romans, chapter 7, and follow along as I read verses 15-25.


15  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

16  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.

17  But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

18  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.

19  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

20  Now 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.

22  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,

23  but 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.

24  Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

25  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!


Amen.  The Word of God.  Thanks be toGod.


Jim Casy’s Dilemma

In 1939, John Steinbeck published his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  People who read a lot make lists of greatest books.  Everyone has their own opinion on this, but on my personal list of greatest works of fiction, I rate The Grapes of Wrath as the best novel of the twentieth century.

Set in the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of a family of sharecroppers, the Joads, who were 'Okie' farmers driven from their land by the Dust Bowl, and forced to endure the hardships of migrant workers moving West.  Early in the Book, Tom Joad has just been released from prison and is returning home.  A few miles from home, he meets a man he recognizes.  Tom says, “Why, you’re the preacher.”

“I was a preacher,” said the man seriously.  “Reverend Jim Casy.” 

“But not no more,” he sighed.  “Just Jim Casy now.  Ain’t got the call no more.”

Tom and Jim talk about the preacher’s former ministry, and finally Jim says, (I should warn you that the language here is a little earthy, but this is what Steinbeck wrote.  Have I got you attention now?), Jim says, “Tell you what—I used ta get people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, and glory-shoutin’ till they just fell down and passed out.  An’ some I’d baptize to bring ‘em to.  An’ then—you know what I’d do?  I’d take one of them girls out in the grass, an’ I’d lay with her.  Done it ever’ time.  Then I’d feel bad, an’ I’d pray and pray, but it didn’t do no good.  Come the nex’ time, them an’ me was fill of the sperit, I’d do it again.  I figgered there just wasn’t no hope of me, an’ I was a damned ol’ hypocrite.  But I didn’t mean to be.” (p29).

This is Jim Casy’s Dilemma.  He is a preacher locked into the sin of fornication.  He knows it is a sin.  He does not want to do it, but he does it anyway.  He feels like the complete hypocrite, but we hear the cry of the last sentence, “I didn’t mean to be.”


Paul’s dilemma

This is the Apostle Paul’s dilemma.  In v15, Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

We wonder first of all what “action” Paul is referring to when he speaks of not doing what he wants.  What is Paul’s sin?  Does he have a problem with sexual immorality, like Jim Casy, or is it something else?  We do not know.  Paul does not tell us what the specific problem is.  Perhaps he is speaking not of his current condition when writing Romans but of that time earlier in his life when he persecuted the church.  Even then, Paul knew that what he was doing was wrong.  He was dragging men, women, and children out of their homes and off to prison, for just believing in Jesus.  He knew that was wrong.  One part of him found that repugnant, but he did it anyway.  And he looks back on his actions almost with despair, thinking, how could I have done those things?

Paul tries to figure this out.  He was always a religious person.  He intended to do what was right.  As a Jew and a Pharisee, he wanted to keep the law properly.  He says in v16, I know “that the law is good.” And therefore I know that I ought to keep the law.  Why don’t I?  Paul is wrestling with this, and that is why we find so much repetition in this passage.  He says, I must not be good or I would not be doing that which is not good.  In v18, he says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”

Ultimately, what Paul is saying, is this is not just a matter of one failure to do right.  He is not just talking about one misdeed.  He says that somehow his inmost being has been corrupted, so that no matter how much he wants to do right, he messes it up.  In v18, he says, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me.”  In v17, he speaks of sin dwelling in his being.  In Paul’s experience, sin is more than a bad deed, an evil action or a wrong decision.  Sin is a power, a principle, a predisposition, that pervades his inner self, and dwells deep within him programming his every move. This is Sin with a capital S.  The action, the specific sin, “What I do,” is the outcome of the state of Sin that is within me.


Humankind’s Dilemma

Paul would emphasizes that he is not the only one this way, but this is the general state of humankind.  We come from a corrupted gene pool.  John Calvin called it “total depravity.”  Saint Augustine called it “original sin.”

In The Confessions, Saint Augustine addressed himself eloquently and passionately to the enduring spiritual questions that have stirred the minds and hearts of thoughtful people since time began.  Written A.D. 397, The Confessions is the history of young Augustine's spiritual struggle.  Augustine freely admits his willful disobedience to God.  He reveals the perversity of the human heart.

One of the most famous incidents in The Confessions is Augustine’s recollection of a decisive event in his youth.  He and some friends stole some pears.  They were not hungry.  They did not want to eat the pears.  After they stole them, they ended up throwing them to pigs.  Augustine works through his motives for doing this.  I suppose that today social commentators would blame his parents or his environment.  Augustine does not accept any of those excuses.  He says that his sole motive was a love of wickedness: He stole because he enjoyed stealing.

This is what Augustine called the perversity of the human will.  This perversity causes us to do things we hate. It prevents us from doing things that are right.  It causes us to gossip about our friends when we know we shouldn’t, to cheat on school assignments against our better judgment, to waste time on the job when we don’t want to, to surf porn sites on the Net, ashamed even as we do it, to mislead our customers for a buck, to lust after our coworkers, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to snap at friends and loved ones, to covet wealth and material possessions, to turn a blind eye to the needs of poor.  We know full well what course of action we should take —but we don’t do it.

As with most problems in human life, the Greek philosophers argued about this.  Socrates said that no one deliberately chooses evil.  We only do evil out of ignorance.

Aristotle scoffed at that notion.  Simple observation of human behavior, Aristotle said, tells us that a person might know what is best, right, and true, yet still do what is bad, wrong, and false.  Aristotle said they do know better and they do it anyway.  He was right.  Our own life and times show us that Socrates got it wrong, and that Aristotle and Paul got it right.

Former President Bill Clinton in looking back on his affair with an intern, after many qualifications, after much verbal wriggling and squirming around, describes the affair in terms of an addiction.  He knew it was wrong.  He went through all kinds of mental gymnastics trying to justify his behavior, but he always knew it was wrong, but he did it anyway.  Why would he risk his presidency over an affair.  It was so dumb, and so human.

Then there was Tonya Harding.  She won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships twice and placed second in the 1991 World Championships. She was the first American woman to complete a triple axel.  Why would a person of such stature in the skating world conspire to injure a competitor?  She did.  She was involved in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.  She avoided jail by a plea bargain.  The U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) stripped Harding of her 1994 U.S. title and banned her for life from participating in any of its events.

Harding knew that the attack on Kerrigan was dumb and wrong, but she went along anyway.  How do we account for such self-destructive, brainless behavior?  The Apostle Paul tells us how.  It is called Sin.

Then there was Peter Rose who had three World Series rings, three batting titles, one Most Valuable Player Award, two Gold Gloves, the Rookie of the Year Award.  He made 18 All-Star appearances at four different positions (2B, OF, 3B, 1B).  He is acknowledged to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time.  Yet for years rumors were going around that he gambled on games while playing for and managing the Reds.  After years of public denial, in 2004, Pete Rose admitted that the accusations were true.   He knew that as a player and coach, he could not bet on games, especially not on games involving the Reds.  But he did it anyway.  That was so dumb.  But the Apostle Paul would say that was so human, so like you and me.

The human condition is that our best intentions are often thwarted by our sinfulness.  Sin plays a corrupting role in every deed.  We do a good deed, and hope we’ll be noticed and rewarded.  We make a sacrifice for someone else, and feel selfish pride about our supposedly selfless act.

The evidence of Sin is everywhere.  For example, we have enough food in this country to feed every person in the country, yet we have children suffering from malnutrition.  We know that is wrong but we do not do anything about it.  We know that conflict and bloodshed are wrong, but we are right now involved in a war that drags on and on and most of the country could care less.

What is the problem?  Ultimately, the problem is sin, not just a specific sin, but Original Sin, total depravity.  This is not to say that everything we do is completely sinful, but it is to say that every dimension of our life — personal, community, national, global; every dimension of human life is tainted by sin.

Scott Peck is a psychiatrist and a best-selling author.  In an interview with Christianity Today (February 2005), he says, “I think we’ve got things wrong.  The predominant view in our culture is that this is a naturally good world that has somehow been contaminated by evil.  It’s much more likely, I think, that this is a naturally evil world that has mysteriously been contaminated by goodness. And that the good bugs are growing and that indeed Satan is being defeated.”

The Apostle Paul would say that Peck is too optimistic.  Paul is too aware of his own sins to talk glibly about Satan being defeated.  Paul says, I am the one who is defeated.  He cries out in v24, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24).   I have messed it up.  I have screwed it up.  My best efforts to do good have come to nothing.  I need help.  That is Paul’s assessment of the human condition.


Only Faith In Christ

But then Paul says, “Thanks be to God though Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25).  The only antidote for total depravity is total grace.  The only antidote for Original Sin is original forgiveness.  We receive that grace and forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul says that we are caught in circumstances that are beyond our control.  What we need is rescue.  Good intentions won’t rescue us.  More education, more money, more discipline, more time, more second chances—none of this will rescue us.  Only Jesus Christ is the rescuer.  He has paid a high price to rescue us.  He died in pain and agony on the cross. 

Today is Reformation Sabbath. Today we emphasize the great theme of the Reformation—which is salvation by faith in Christ alone.  The Westminster Confession of faith speaks of Christ as “the mediator between God and man.”  Because Christ was fully God and fully man, he can make things right between us and God.

Who are the sinners?  We are the sinners.  We wrestle with Sin like Paul, and are beaten by sin.  What then shall we do?  Believe in Jesus.  At the cross, Jesus triumphed over sin and death.  Jesus heals our corrupted nature.  In the words of the Confession of Faith, for us, Jesus has “purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the Kingdom of heaven.”  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last modified  02/27/06