Summary: This truth about our double identity both warns and comforts.
Albrecht Dittrich and Jack Barsky (show pictures). These men are from the same town in Germany. They even share the same parents. But they are not brothers nor are they adopted. How can that be? How can you share parents but not be brothers or at least be adopted? That’s because Albrecht Dittrich and Jack Barsky is the same person.
Dittrich-Barsky served as a Soviet spy in the United States from 1978 until 1988. He maintained the two identities so completely that his parents didn’t even know that he was in the U.S. They thought he was doing top-secret work for the Soviet space program in southern Kazakhstan. But probably even more impressive, or perhaps more troubling was the fact that Dittrich-Barsky had two families. He had a wife and son back in East Germany, while married to another woman in the U.S. with whom he had a daughter. The two families didn’t know about each other. The spy later reflected, “I did a good job of separating the two. Barsky had nothing to do with Dittrich, and Dittrich wasn’t responsible for Barsky.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Barsky)
Can you imagine what it would be like to live such a double life? Actually, if you’re a Christian, you do it all the time. As we continue our new sermon series celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we’ll consider how a Lutheran/Biblical mind understands that Christians are sinner-saints. It’s important to know this that we might be warned and encouraged. Listen to our text from Romans 7.
Have you ever been surprised at how mean Christians can be? I experienced that moment of surprise when as a visiting preacher, I sat through a meeting in a congregation down in the States about which light fixtures to buy for the church. Several members had strong opinions and they weren’t about to back down causing them to act and react in ways a child might out on the playground who is whining to get his way. “These people are Christian?” I thought to myself. Maybe that moment of surprise for you came when a fellow Christian was complaining about their parents or children. Instead of compassion and patient understanding, you heard anger and bitterness that seemed to flow from something more than simple frustration.
Today the Apostle Paul reminds us that such outbursts from Christians should not surprise us. Paul himself admitted: “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” (Romans 7:19). Some people think that Paul was talking about the time before he became a Christian. But that’s not the case. Even as an apostle of the Lord and someone who had dedicated his life to telling others about Jesus, Paul admitted that he struggled with sin. And this wasn’t just a once in a while struggle, it was a struggle all the time!
Why did Paul and why does every believer have such a struggle with sin? Paul explains: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18). Believers continue to struggle with sin because we continue to possess a sinful nature. At first this sinful nature was in control of all our desires and actions—like a hacker who can make your computer do anything he wants to. But when we were baptized, the Word-infused water short circuited the sinful nature’s control over us and also created a new impulse within—a new nature that can and does struggle against the sinful nature’s schemes. The two now grapple with each other like opposing basketball players fighting for control of a loose ball. You know what this grappling feels like. You want to be patient, you really do, but you keep losing it with your loved ones and you go to bed ashamed of how you treated your family yet again. You may even think to yourself, “How can I call myself a Christian? How can I say that heaven is in my future when my present actions are so evil?”
That’s why today’s text is comforting. I’m glad to hear the Apostle Paul admit that he constantly struggled with sin. It must mean that I’m not a total failure. While our sins should trouble us they shouldn’t send us into hopeless despair. What did Paul say at the end of our text? “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24, 25a)
Left to his own devices Paul’s future would have been bleak. But Paul, along with ever other sinner in the world, hasn’t been left to his own devices. God has delivered us from the consequences of our sin through the work of Jesus. When a double agent’s cover has been blown, his home country will do everything to extract him from the danger he faces. The spy’s boss will even send in an elite combat team, willing to sacrifice those lives to save the spy. Likewise our heavenly Father sent in his best commando, his own Son, whose life he knew he would be sacrificing to save ours. And Jesus saved us by taking on our identity to face the firing squad, while we escaped using his identity. When God looks at us now, he really sees his righteous Son even though we are still sinners. To summarize these truths Martin Luther once wrote: “Christians are righteous and sinners at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God” (Luther’s Commentary on Galatians 3:6, AE 26:232).