One of the big weaknesses with a lot of evangelical preaching through Romans is that because Romans holds off the direct application until chapter 12, the preaching isn't applied enough. So how does this passage apply?
1. Do we acknowledge sin in our lives?
This is particularly a danger for those of us in leadership positions in churches. It seems that there are two main dangers in this. Either that we set up a quasi-sacerdotal us/them mentality, where we present ourselves as if we were sinless, we might not deny our sin, but we don't acknowledge it publicly either. And that's dishonest because it's implying that we're not sinful and that we are different from those in our care, which makes it much harder for us to live as a model for them to follow.
Alternatively, the other danger is that we are so honest and unconcerned by our sinfulness that we imply that it is ok to sin. We need to avoid both of them.
We need to live, and to be clear that we are living, as sinners striving for holiness, and so to encourage those we have responsibility for, who generally know that they are sinners, to strive for holiness too. It should be a struggle, and we should model that struggle.
2. Do we acknowledge sin in the life of the Christian?
It is so easy to present the Christian life as if it is wonderful, moving from one triumph to the next. We should be clear that reality often doesn't match up to that. Yes, sometimes it does, but we should be teaching the whole counsel of Scripture, otherwise we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, because we only ever say the good stuff; we don't talk about life as it really is.
I don't know how well you know Psalm 88. It's a great passage, often reckoned to be the most depressing chapter in the whole of the Bible. Here's an extract.
From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88:15-18, NIV
When I was at school, one of my best friends became a Christian after reading Psalm 88, because she saw that God wasn't about some kind of namby-pamby fluffiness – he understood where she was at.
3. Do we make promises we can't keep?
The sinful nature lives in Christians, but Christians don't live in the sinful nature. We do not do what we want. So do we expect people to make promises they can't keep? Do we make promises we can't keep?
Do we say that becoming a Christian means promising to obey Jesus as our Lord? Can they do that? Do we do that? Becoming a Christian means acknowledging that Jesus is our Lord, and striving to obey him, but we aren't going to do it perfectly so we shouldn't promise to.
An example of this is covenant renewal services. Which covenant are we renewing? The one that says that Jesus has saved us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God's glory alone, so that we can do good works? How can we renew that? Or have we made some kind of other covenant where we try to make a deal that we can't keep to try to avoid the gospel?
4. Are we paralysed because we aren't good enough?
I guess for a lot of people, this passage sounds really like their current Christian experience. And they feel guilty because they don't live up to the standards they set.
Take heart! God hasn't finished with us yet. God doesn't expect us to be perfect; he commands us to follow him and to trust him, however falteringly - to trust that in Jesus he has dealt with all our sin, past, present and future - to follow him, even though we mess things up, to recognise that he is Lord, even though we don't always treat him like that. What our disobedience shows is that we still need God's grace to work in us and to keep making us more like his Son.
This was the experience of the Apostle Paul, one of the men God used most in all of history. Are we willing to follow Jesus, to give him what we've got, even though we're foolish and sinful and we stuff up?