The Captive Freed
“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver we from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:18-25).
“At whatever scripture we begin we are sure to end at Romans 7.” Such was the saying of a servant of Christ who had had a long experience in meetings for the study of the Scriptures. He had found that the need of souls, who were in the condition described in that chapter—and they were very numerous—would sooner or later manifest itself. And how to find deliverance from that condition of bondage would be the final question, no matter what part in the sacred writings they might read.
The reason of this is soon told. The experience portrayed in that chapter is one of the most common amongst the people of God, the wide world over. Multitudes of those who believe on and love the Lord Jesus are struggling and striving to improve “the flesh,” i.e. the old evil nature within them. Earnestly they endeavour to do that which they feel they ought to do, and to free themselves from that which seems to compel them to do evil. But all is without avail. They are plunged into ever-deepening spiritual distress, and if it were not for the grace of God, which keeps them in the consciousness of His goodness, the knowledge of their badness would lead them to despair.
An illustration may enable me to present the subject clearly for any who may be in this condition of soul.
I was passing one evening along a busy thoroughfare in the north of London when I noticed a crowd of people gathered at a street corner. I crossed the road and joined the throng. In the centre of the assemblage was a powerful man bound hand and foot with a thick rope. His muscles were tense and swollen with straining and struggling to free himself. As I stood looking at the athlete he made one further supreme but useless effort to release himself, and then desisted altogether. He was utterly exhausted with the struggle, and said piteously, “I am done. Will someone please set me free?” At once a man stepped from the midst of the crowd, and easily untying the knots which had defied all the wearied man’s exertions, delivered him from his bondage. The latter thanked his helper, picked up some coins which had been thrown for him, and went his way in liberty. I then learned that he gained a living by displaying his ability to disentangle himself from any rope that any of the spectators might bind him with. On the occasion on which I was present he had been roped by a sailor, or some other expert in knots, and had been so well secured that all his distressing labour had been unavailing to release him.
Now note three things about the man I saw, and let me apply them to the case of the individual who is in the state spoken of in Romans 7:7-23.
(1) He was bound.
(2) He sought to free himself from his bondage, but was totally unsuccessful.
(3) He looked outside himself for deliverance, was at once delivered, and then gave thanks to his deliverer.
Now let me apply the illustration.
(1) The man whose struggles are described in Romans 7 is bound and seeks liberty. He has awakened, as it were, from sleep, and finds himself a captive. He seeks to do the will of God, in whose law he delights (v. 22), but discovers that he is unable to do it (v. 23). He learns that for some reason or another he cannot fulfil what he desires to accomplish. “The flesh,” the evil principle within him, controls him. At once he sets about to endeavour to gain his liberty from the thraldom of this power that holds him prisoner. He makes vows and resolutions. He promises himself that he will soon secure victory over sin. He purposes with all the force of his will that he will be a true, faithful, devoted disciple of Christ.
(2) To his dismay he learns that all these things are in vain. “The flesh” in him is too strong, and defeats him again and again. The more he struggles the worse his condition seems, and the tighter the bonds which encompass him appear to become. He learns more and more of the evil character of his nature as a child of fallen Adam. The law of God, which he knows to be “holy, and just, and good” (v. 12), does not help him. He sees that it is a beautiful and perfectly straight rule. But it shows how crooked he is, and it cannot make him straight. Moreover, it occupies him with himself, and by its opposition to sin stirs up the sin that is within him, making it increasingly manifest. He learns that he has been living in a fool’s paradise. He had thought all was well with him because the surface of his life was fair, but now that the hidden depths of his heart, stirred up by the law, are showing themselves he finds out that he is totally corrupt (vv. 9-13).
In his distress he cries, “I AM CARNAL, SOLD UNDER SIN” (v. 14).
Before—it may be many years before—he had said, “I have done wrong,” for he had seen that some sins stained the pages of his life’s story. Now he says, “I am wrong.” He has had to learn the far harder lesson that “in him,” that is, in his flesh, dwells no good thing (v. 18), and that he cannot improve it, try as he will. He is thus not only a captive, but a helpless captive. He can by no means get free. He has, however, during his exercise, made the discovery that he is, in his new nature, distinct from the evil that is in him. The new “I” is on the side of God, and good, and holiness. Thus he ever commends the law as right and ever condemns himself as wrong. Hating the evil, he has, as we have seen, writhed and wriggled in his bonds, but it has been in vain. He has come to the end of all his resources, and is wretched, hopeless, helpless. What can relieve him?
(3) Hitherto he has looked within (the pronouns “I” twenty-seven times, “me” thirteen times, “my” four times, have fallen from his lips during the trying experience he has passed through). Now at long last he seeks deliverance from outside himself. Thus a new cry bursts from his anguished heart, “O wretched man that I am! WHO shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (v. 24).
Can any one set him free? Yes, One can.
God in His wonderful grace has provided all that the sinner needs. He has given His own Son to meet every difficulty which had arisen. Not only has the Lord Jesus died for our sins, He has been “made . . . sin” for us (2 Cor. 5:21). When upon the cross what the sinner was as well as what the sinner had done was taken up in judgment and settled to God’s entire satisfaction and eternal glory. So we read, “What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin [or by a sacrifice for sin], condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (chap. 8:3-4). The Lord Jesus, Himself spotless and perfect, was, when on the cross, a sin-offering. In Him there “in the flesh,” our sin—all that we were—was condemned and brought to an end in judgment before God. Christ has died—died unto sin, the sin which He was made for us, and now He lives again. We who believe are entitled to reckon His death our death, and ourselves “alive to God” in Him (6:9-12). The Holy Ghost is given to us in order that we may bring forth fruit to God He is the Christian’s power for walk, service, and testimony, Thus the Apostle, writing to the Galatians, says, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
So, looking out from himself, the soul that was distressed is given to see God’s way of deliverance, and cries with delight, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25).
No longer is he trying to improve the flesh. He knows it is unimprovably evil, and he has no confidence in it at all. He is in Christ where there is no condemnation, and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set him free from the law of sin and death” (8:2).
Yes, God delivers him, through His Son. The evil principle which troubled him is still within (7:25); but the Holy Spirit now leads the believer, and he is neither under the law nor under the power of sin (8:9-14). He is in Christ, his heart is engaged with Him, and he joys in God His deliverer. His delight is to do His will, and the Holy Spirit enables him to do it. And thus he bears fruit for His praise (6:22).