Not I, But Sin That Dwells In Me

Dallas Willard Part 5 of 7

In 1977 while Faith Evangelical Church of Chatsworth, CA was just forming, the church asked Dallas, who many knew, to step in as their morning and evening preacher for a few weeks. This morning series on the book of Romans is an adaptation of material Dallas had been teaching elsewhere and appears in part in chapter 6 of The Spirit of the Disciplines. [Editor’s Note: We are missing sermons 2-4, dealing with Romans 1-4 and would love to find somebody with copies!]


Dallas: And thank you for that beautiful music. The beauty of the words and of the people who sing it set the right atmosphere to appreciate the message of grace. I’ll be speaking to you two more Sundays I trust and on these Sundays, I shall be dwelling upon the 8th chapter of Romans. And I ‘m wondering if I could ask those of you who have the time—I know not everyone does—to make a special effort to read the 8th chapter of Romans each day during the next two weeks. Read it with an open and questioning mind. Read it as if it were something you had never seen before, as if you didn’t already know what it was going to say, in other words and open your mind in that way and I think you may be surprised at what you can learn and how it will change your mind as you do so. [1:24]

Now, in carrying out a series on Romans, there is one thing which it is very important to guard against, and that is the view that what we are after is somehow the perfectly correct set of beliefs. I have stressed over and over that the book of Romans is a treatise on the soul. It is not an attempt to tell you everything you need to know and to make your beliefs just absolutely perfect in their correctness about God and about Christ but rather it is a book, which attempt to tell us how to live.

It may shock you to hear someone say that there is no way of salvation in having the completely perfect set of beliefs. The way of Christ is not exhausted by having the right beliefs. Right belief is surely important but the only message that the church of Jesus Christ has to proclaim is the message of the gracious reign of a personal God in the life of the individual soul. That is a relationship to a person and to a group of persons and it cannot be lived by just believing the right things. [3:09]

The writer, James in the New Testament speaks to those of his kindred who believe that there was one God and were very proud about it and he compliments them on it and says, “You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devil also believes, and trembles.” (James 2:19 Paraphrased) The devil if you wish has all of the right beliefs. He understands exactly what the nature of the mediator ship of Christ is. He understands exactly nature of God. He knows precisely all of the fine points of prophesy that you and I may struggle over. He understands these things, but he is in rebellion against them. He is not subjected to the reign of a personal and loving God.

Now, the book of Romans attempts to tell us and explain in ways, which we can understand and apply just exactly how the experience of the reign of a personal God in the Kingdom of God proceeds. What happens as we go along? The passage which Cal read to us today is one of those passages which has tied more mental knots in the brains of theologians than possibly any other passage in the scriptures and it looks like a great puzzle until you come to understand that Paul is continuing his description of how the soul of the individual is claimed and taken over by the work of God if you attempt to see what is the truth? What is the right doctrine, which Paul is presenting in this passage, you will find yourself tied up in knots. You will ask yourself such questions as, “Well, is this person saved or not?” Right?  [5:41]

You will ask yourself such questions as, “Is this describing a condition in which one stays all of ones life?” That last verse looks so final—that 25th verse of the 7th chapter, “ . . . So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” (Romans 7:25) That sounds like that Jesus Christ is going to deliver us from this body of death when we die and that up until that point, we are just stuck with it and all we can say is “Well, with our mind, we serve God but our flesh serves sin.”

I cannot pretend that I am going to straighten out all of the puzzles in this passage today but I want to make an emphasis on the life of the Christian as a process of experience and growth which I believe can help us understand this passage and put it in the context of what we’ve been saying all along. [6:55]

What we’ve been saying all along is that the Kingdom of God is available to anyone simply by an act of repentance and faith in which they accept its presence and begin to count upon it and that as they do so, they begin to experience its reality. And as they begin to experience its reality, their mind and the life begin to change. And they go through a process of growth in which they finally come to the place where they actually live as children of the King in this present world and it isn’t a lot of whistling in the dark that’s going on. It is a real contact which can be spelled out in terms of the difference which is made in their life by a power not their own.

Week before last, we dwelt upon the topic of “dead to sin.” Last week, we talked about reckoning ourselves to be dead unto sin. This week, we are going to go into just a bit more of the details of how we do that and in particular the verse which I have put on the black board over here to my left—Romans 7:20 is going to be the focus of our remarks. [8:45]

It is the normal pattern of those who come sincerely into the Kingdom of God that they experience failures to live according to the way, which they have set before them—the way of Christ. That is the normal pattern that they should begin in that way. I want to say quickly it is not the necessary pattern that they remain in that position but in any case, it is the normal pattern that they should begin there and that they should experience failure. [9:24]

You see, when we come to Christ or when we enter the Kingdom of God, there is a very real sense in which we do not know what we are doing in which we have no understanding of what it means. There are many things that we could use from the scriptures to illustrate this but none is more vivid than the life of Peter. All of us are more or less familiar with his experience and his failures. Peter left his nets and he left his business and he followed Jesus Christ. That is more than perhaps many of us have done and yet as ye followed his understanding, not just of Christ, but of himself, was so small.

As he went along, he understood more and more and he came to that great place where he confessed while others were saying of Jesus, “Well, he’s a prophet.” Or he’s some great healer or he’s John the Baptist raised from the dead, Peter struck by a powerful thoughts said, “Jesus is the Messiah.” How easy it is for us with benefit of hindsight to underestimate the tremendous change that meant in Peter’s mind. [10:58]

Jesus was not anything like what the Messiah had been presented as to the popular mind of his day and for Peter to see that was an amazing piece of spiritual insight and that’s why Jesus turned to him and said, “Blessed art thou Peter. Flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee.” (Matthew 16:17 Paraphrased) It was something, which was so beyond that power of Peter’s flesh and blood. That Jesus was very happy because he knew that something was going on in Peter’s mind which wasn’t just Peter. And yet it was after that time when Jesus began to explain more of what Messiah-ship meant and in particular that it meant death.

Then Peter said “Far be it from thee, Lord.” (Matthew 16:22 Paraphrased) You see, do you see the imperfection in Peter’s mind? On the one hand, he could say, “You are the Messiah.” And it was a tremendous change in that man’s mind and he was very unusual to be able to say that but on the other side that very understanding which God had given him was so imperfect that he continued to misunderstand the nature of Jesus’ Messiah-ship and do you remember what happened when they came to get Jesus in the garden? It was Peter who grabbed a sword and began shopping ears off of people. [12:52]

He wasn’t done there. That wasn’t the limit of his failure, was it? After he chopped the ear off, he ran and after he ran, he followed afar off and warmed himself by the fire of those who were persecuting Jesus and when he was faced with his discipleship to Christ, he said, “I never knew that man” and when that wasn’t enough, he cursed and said, “I never knew him.” Hmmmm—what a mixture we are. What a mixture we are of good and evil. [13:40]

It is so important for our understanding of what we are and how our experience grows in the Kingdom of God that we look at Paul’s focus in the 6th and 7th chapters of Romans–upon our members. Paul is very definite about the body. He speaks in Romans 16:13, “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourself unto God as those who are alive from the dead and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.” (Paraphrased)

Members! Members! He’s talking about hands. He’s talking about feet and brains and eyes and ears. He’s saying give them up. Yield them as members. With that in mind, look at the opening verse of chapter 12 of Romans now because here again you see bodies. “I beseech ye therefore brethren my the mercies of God that ye present your bodies . . .” (Romans 12:1 Paraphrased) [14:52]

Now, let me tell you that Paul is not speaking metaphorically when he says, “present your bodies a living sacrifice.” He is speaking of a mental act of devotion of your actual members to the cause of God in acts of righteousness and Paul is doing that because he has a philosophy of the human body. He understands that we do not live by intentions or disembodied thoughts and ideas alone, but that fundamentally we live by the meanings, which are present in our very members.

Let me ask you. When you drive your automobile, do you have to think about what you have to do? When you see the stop light go red, do you have to look at it and perform an inference and say, “Well, the stoplight is red; therefore, I had better move my foot in this way to put the break on.” Now, when you were learning to drive, you may have had to do that, isn’t that right? But as you learn to drive, that rule or law became a part of your foot. Your foot just ups and does it. Isn’t that true? [16:23]

When you are learning to write as a little child, do you remember how difficult it was to make that ever lasting curl in “A” or “Q” or whatever it was and you had all the little black things around the top of the school room (and I supposed they still do that) where when you forgot how, you could look up and see what—how did that mark go right there and you would then say, “Oh yes” with great pain you would put it this way. But you don’t have to do that anymore. Now where is the knowledge of writing? It’s in your hand.  You don’t even think about it. You just write.

If someone is asked to perform a piece on the piano, as our pianist did a few moments ago, she doesn’t think about all those notes. She doesn’t think about all that she has to do. She looks perhaps at music. She knows where she is but there is something in her hands and arms and her whole body that takes over and carries her and I could sit down and try to do that and it wouldn’t carry me because it’s not there. It’s not in my hands.

Now, Paul understands the functioning of the members at least at this simple descriptive level. Our members lead a life of their own and he knows that as we are formed up by the world, our members have become the repository of sin.  Our members have become to repository of wrath and anger and hatred.  They have become the repository of deceit, of scorn, of fearfulness. Our members have been yielded unto sin. [18:30]

Look please at Romans 7:5—“For when we were in the flesh”—that is to say, when we lived only by the natural powers deposited in our normal self—in the world as we were brought up. “When we were in the flesh—“ excuse me; I must stress this. You see, Paul, when he talks about getting out of the flesh, he’s not talking about getting rid of the body, right? He says, “When we were in the flesh—well, is Paul out of the body? No! The flesh is not just the natural body. Life in the flesh is not the life you have before you die and get your body buried. Life in the flesh is life lived according solely to those natural powers that are resident in the body.  Now, please hold that thought because I am going to conclude today with another verse, which presents the contrast.

When we were in the flesh, the motions of sins—notice the plural—the motions of sins, which were by the law; that is particular habits and feelings—did work where? In our members; that’s where they are. They are in our stomach. They are in our brains. They are in the back of our neck. They are in our head. They are in our hands.  They are the habits and feelings, which govern the fallen world in which we live. “ . . . did work in our members to bring forth death.” (Romans 7:5) [20:30]

Now, I want just to say as simply as possible about what Paul tells us to do about this condition. Last time we looked at him recommending that we reckon ourselves dead unto sin and we saw some ways in which that worked but there’s a very specific spiritual device, which the last part of the 7th chapter of Romans tells us to use. Paul is telling us how to deal with the sin that is in our members. He is speaking to us at that period in our lives before we have gotten new habits and new feelings to replace these old motions of sin and he’s saying that in that condition you do what you don’t want to do and what you don’t want to do, you do.

Now, that isn’t a clever contradiction; that’s a description of an actual state of mind. Let me try to make it clear. You will see some people who when they do what is wrong are doing exactly what they want to do. That’s exactly what they want to do. Those who have turned to Christ want to do what is right. They want to follow Christ. There may be problems in their knowledge of what is right; there may be many kinds of difficulties and weaknesses but the basic point about them is that they have decided in the language of a few Sundays ago, to quit sinning.  They intend to do it. That is their intention and it is because they intend to do it that when they do what is wrong, they do what they would not do. That is the nature of the problem—verse 16—“For if I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.” I do that which I would not. I do that which I prefer not to do. I do that which makes me sick when I do it, which makes me angry at myself when I do it.  “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” (Romans 7:17) [23:13]

If it is what you would not do, Paul is saying you are to make this step this act of faith. You are to say, “ . . . it is no more I that do it but sin that dwelleth in me.” Notice how the “I” has now shifted in its identification; away from that one who wanted to do exactly what they did when they did wrong to the person who now wants not to do what they do when they do wrong. And it is an act of faith to say that’s not me.

Those who heard the message of Paul and also the message of Jesus with the teaching of free grace offered and the forgiveness of sins and a new kind of righteousness were very worried about this kind of talk because they thought well look, if you can say that, it’s not me. You might just keep on doing it and enjoy it.  But, Paul’s point is simply that there is a kind of person who has turned and does not enjoy it and wants out of it. And the instruction is for that kind of person to say by an act of faith that is not me; that is not my true self. I will not have it so. [24:44]

“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,)”—in the manner I have described it a moment again—“dwelleth no good thing: because to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. And again, for the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7:18-19 Paraphrased)

Now, watch this 20th verse again. “Now if I do that I would not—please note the condition—“if do what I would not—if—that “if” condition is satisfied by the person who has turned from ungodliness and who has chosen the way of righteousness. If I would not do the things that are wrong, then it is my privilege to say, “It is no more I that do it but sin that dwelleth in me.” (Romans 7:20 Paraphrased)

Now what happens? As this act of faith is taken, we could spend much time talking about how the habits and feelings which are present in the old self are moved out and indeed as your minister comes and as you develop your teachers, one of the things you must explore as a community of people who wish to know the grace of God in reality is how this works and the details. [26:10]

How does it actually work in the details? We can’t explore that on a Sunday morning. You need to give much time to that kind of study so that you can tell other people and know yourself of as surety how these things work. But we can say this in general that as we disassociate in an act of faith ourselves from the sin which is in our members, then there is gradually implanted in us a new set of feelings and a new set of habits whereby it becomes as simple and good or more so to do the right thing, to do the good thing in all of the contexts of life, in confidence and trust in the presence of God to uphold us and guide us and instruct us. It becomes as easy. It becomes more easy than it was to follow the old motions of sin.

The person who looks at the command of Christ to love his enemies is apt to say, “That’s hard.” But then, have you ever considered how hard it is to hate your enemies? Have you ever considered what damage it does to hate? And as we make the shift and by an act of faith, say, “That is not me. That is sin which dwells in my members and which we can add is on its way out of my members.” We come to the place to where we know the goodness of right-ness as we spoke about previously and it flows through us in the prophecy of the Old Testament that the laws of God will no longer be written in tables of stone but in our own heart comes very simply to pass. [28:17]

Now then may I give you the other kind of life in a verse which many of you I trust know and if not, I hope you will write it down somewhere on a card or a pad and try to memorize it. This is Galatians 2:20—here is the new life in the flesh; previously it was the motions of sin in our members. Now it is to be the motions of Christ in our members.  In Galatians 2:20—Every person should memorize this so that you can hold it before yourself as the place you are moving to—“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I but Christ liveth in me . . . ” (Galatians 2:20)

Christ is the substitution for the motions of sin which is in our members—the ways of Chris, the feelings of Christ, the thoughts of Christ, the habits of Christ, the mind which was in Christ comes into our body and washes out the habits and feelings. You know there is so much I’d like to say about how that works and how we go into the processes of change but I can’t now. Christ comes in so that we can, as we looked in horror possibly and said, “It is no longer I. It’s sin, which is in our members.” Now we look and say, “Ah, there is something else at work in our members. It is Christ. It is Christ who liveth in me.” And he says, “  . . . the life which I now live in the flesh”—in the flesh—“I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” [30:26]

That’s what Paul means when he concludes the 7th chapter of Romans with the saying, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death and replies, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:25 Paraphrased) And opens the 8th chapter by saying, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1)

We must hold before ourselves the model of the life of Christ in us and we must say to ourselves by the twofold act of faith, “it is not I but sin which dwelleth in me” and on the other hand, “it is Christ who liveth in me.” [31:37]

We are going to stand now and sing a hymn before our communion service and if there are decisions to be made, this is your opportunity to do so. We do not pressure you but simply make an opportunity if you wish at this time to declare your discipleship to Christ or to come to join this group in fellowship and communion with them or any other thing with which the ministry of this church may be of help, you make wish to come now as we stand to sing.

Listen to all parts in this Romans series