Is the Law Sin?

Sermon preached on Romans 7:7-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/23/2012 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Romans 7:7-25

“Is the Law Sin?”

Is the law sin? That’s the next question Paul addresses here in Romans, and again he replies with a clear no. Certainly not! And yet this is an understandable question, and so it makes sense for Paul to address it. Recall that in our last few passages, Paul has been making the point that the Christian is no longer under law but under grace. He’s helped us to see that being under the law left us guilty and condemned. In last week’s passage, he painted the picture that before when we were under the law, that it was like a bad marriage. Of course, the reason why it was a bad marriage, wasn’t the law’s fault. Nor was it the law’s fault that our sin resulted in the law’s condemnation of us when we were under the law. Nonetheless, we can appreciate why Paul would address this question here. Verse 5 in last week’s passage even talked about how the law aroused our sinful passions. Is the law sin? Essentially, is it sinful? Is it inherently evil and bad? Is that why we were left condemned and dead by it? No.

Again, we see that question raised further in this passage even. As we look at the description of the law here, we could see how someone might come to the simplistic, but false, conclusion, that the law is somehow bad. Verse 8 talks about how sin takes the opportunity given it by the law and produces all manners of sins with it. Verse 9 talks about how sin comes alive with the commands of the law and brings death. Verse 11 talks about his sin uses the opportunity afforded by the commandment to deceive us. Again, taken in a superficial way, we can appreciate how someone might wonder if the law is the problem. We could think that our problem is solved if we can just get away from the law. That if we can throw those laws away, then we’ll be in good place. But again, Paul combats that idea here in this passage.

And so Paul today is combating a wrong perspective of the law by giving the right perspective of the law. As much as he’s talked about some negative outcomes when sin and law come together, he makes it clear today that law is not to blame. Rather Paul is looking to redeem our perspective on the law. He even uses his own life as an example. So, we’ll look first today at Paul’s life as an example. Second, we’ll consider the right perspective of the law as Paul describes here. Third, we’ll then consider some specific things we today as Christians can use the law for in our lives.

Let’s begin then by considering Paul’s own life example. We see him start to get personal here. Paul tends to be pretty intentional with his pronouns. I, we, you, etc. Verse 7 is no different. He starts with the question, and he puts that in the first person plural, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not!” But then notice the switch into the first person singular. “On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law.” Paul’s getting into some personal testimony here. The rest of this chapter gives us a very intimate picture of Paul’s struggle with sin. That might have been a bit of a surprise. We can relate to how we all struggle with sin, but even the eminent Apostle Paul? Yes, even him! What Paul appears to recount here in this chapter is a bit of his conversion and then ongoing struggle with sin as a Christian. And in this first part, he especially uses it to talk about the role of the law.

And so he begins in verse 7 to address how the law is not sin by saying that he personally learned about sin by the law. Clearly he has in mind especially the Ten Commandments at this point. We see that with his example in verse 7. He says he wouldn’t have known what coveting is, apart from the law of God, specifically that commandment that says, “Thou shalt not covet.” That’s of course the 10th commandment in the Ten Commandments. It’s that command that says we ought not to lust after those things which are not ours but belong to another. We should not covet our neighbor’s wife, or his house, or his field, or his servants, or his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Coveting of course is that sin of the heart. It’s that deep passion of the heart for something you should not be craving. It’s not something that people can’t necessarily see you doing, but God sees it. Paul says elsewhere (Col 3:5) that covetousness is essentially idolatry. You set something as an idol of your heart through your craving for it.

Well, Paul says that he gives the credit for knowing that we should not covet by the law telling us that we should not covet. Now as a side note, I don’t think we should press this idea so far as to disregard what Paul already said back in chapters 1 and 2. There he said that all men know God and his righteous laws, because God’s law is written on all men’s hearts. Thus, he said that all men are without excuse when they don’t worship God and when they break God’s laws. We shouldn’t understand verse 7 to negate what he said back in those opening chapters. Rather, the thing to understand is that since the fall of man, our natural state is one that is blinded to that law written on our hearts. Our natural state should know God’s law because it is written on our hearts, but in our fallen condition, we turn a blind eye and deaf ear to this truth. We are darkened in our understanding. The result is that people can and do plead a form of ignorance to God’s laws. That’s the sense Paul is getting at here. He himself needed the revealed law of God to press down upon him. This law taught him. It informed him about coveting.

But verse 8 then introduces a surprising twist. Verse 8, “But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire.” And so the idea is this: The 10th commandment comes to him, and he learns that he shouldn’t covet. But no sooner does that happen and he finds himself coveting. And not just a little coveting. All manner of evil desire. That’s coveting language there. Paul says that sin took the opportunity of the specific command to sin specifically. It was like the commandment brought the sin to mind, and so sin jumped on the idea. And at that point, your guilt especially shines. And the malevolence of sin comes out very clearly.

You see, Paul is not saying that the law is the problem here. It’s the sin. But he goes on to say that apart from the law, sin is dead. Essentially, that’s true by definition. Sin is by definition lawbreaking. If you don’t have law, then you can’t have lawbreaking. That doesn’t mean that if you didn’t have the law, that what would otherwise be sin would be good. No, that’s the whole point here. Verse 13 says that the whole reason we have these commandments is to show that sin is so bad. Verse 13, “So that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.” So take the example of coveting. If there was no 10th commandment, that wouldn’t make coveting good. No, coveting wouldn’t be good. But if there was no law of God to condemn coveting, then you couldn’t call it a sin. Because sin is lawbreaking. So the command comes from God so that coveting would be a sin. So that it would be clear how exceedingly bad it is.

I’ll use a risky example to make the point. Risky in the event you don’t like the law, then you’ll have to deal with my example. But take the new CA law prohibiting text messaging while driving. Before the law, if you were text messaging while driving, I would argue that’s not good. It’s not safe. It’s bad. But you weren’t breaking any explicit law (though maybe some law on distracted driving, but give me some grace with my example). But now that the law has been put into place, that which was legal before, is now not legal. But that doesn’t mean it was ever good to be texting and driving. The law came to make it clear how bad that is.

That’s essentially Paul’s point here with coveting and the 10th commandment. Coveting is bad. God wanted to make clear coveting was bad and a violation of his standard of righteousness. So God made it a part of his law. Thus, when you covet, you sin, and you then incur guilt. Such unresolved guilt of course, leaves someone under the condemnation of death. That’s why we need the justification given via the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul then begins to turn to in verse 9. There he says, “I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” This verse is a more difficult one to understand at first. It seems that he’s recounting some aspect of how God was bringing about his conversion. Most commentators tend to understand Paul’s reference to being alive without the law, as simply referring to that point before God opened his eyes to see the law and its demands on him. To Paul’s fallen perspective, he seemed alive at the time, carefree from any concerns of his sin. But then God drove home the law into Paul’s heart. He finally got it. It finally clicked. He saw his life compared to the law, and so he says he died. He saw his actions as sin and so he realized the state of death he was in, with regard to the law.

Of course, Paul didn’t stay in that state. He did turn and trust in Jesus. He found forgiveness and grace. But we see in this that the law is not the problem humans face. Sin is our problem. The law is helpful and necessary to expose that sin, but that doesn’t make the law the problem. Getting rid of the law wouldn’t solve the evilness of man. Getting rid of the law wouldn’t make mankind holy, just, and good. Yes, the law so clearly points out that we aren’t those things on our own. But getting rid of the law doesn’t change that reality.

And so that leads to our second point. To affirm what Paul says is the right perspective of the law with its commandments. That they are holy, just, and good, verse 12. John Murray says we should not be surprised when we hear of the law’s holiness, justice, and goodness. Why? Because it bears the imprint of its author. For something to be holy is to be set apart. And so to say that the law is holy is to talk about its special, unique position. The law stands out apart from all mankind’s wavering standards. Think about all the nations. They all have differing laws. We can discuss which ones are better than others, or which might be more appropriate or necessary given a nation’s circumstances. But God’s laws stand the test of time, they stand alone, and are perfect in every situation, not open to scrutiny or question. They are holy.

And they are just. The opposite would be unjust. Look at human laws and you hear such complaints from time to time. That there is an unjust law. Many have said that about China’s one baby policy, for example. But God’s laws seek and serve justice. In other words they are equitable and fair and right. They promote the cause of righteousness. Similarly, they are good. That’s a broad idea. Morally we acknowledge them to be good, not evil. This means we acknowledge their beauty and their benefit. To be good, means they are not bad, and are not wicked.

Going back to the original question then. Is the law sin? No, the law is good. The law is just. The law is holy. Just think of all the complementary passages of Scripture that show this to be true. The Sermon on the Mount comes to mind. There Jesus says he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He goes on to talk about various commands that God gave in the law, and explains what it looks like to fully live them out. Like with the command against adultery. He said it was not enough to just not commit the act; you need to not even look at another woman lustfully. Jesus said we need to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect. Jesus lawgiving in the Sermon on the Mount set the high standard of how we should understand God’s revealed laws. And so for Jesus, teaching law was not inconsistent with his proclamation of the gospel and the coming kingdom of God. In fact they are interrelated. The law brings people to see the need for the gospel. And for those who’ve come into the kingdom by the gospel of faith in Christ, they have God’s law to explain how to live in Christ’s kingdom.

Another example which shows the goodness and importance of the law is that of the time of the judges. This is an example by way of contrast of what happens without God’s law. The time of the judges was the early part of Israel history as a nation. Those were very dark times morally for them. The problem repeatedly stated in the book of Judges was that at that time there was no king, so everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Well, yes, that’s putting the blame on not having a king, not on not having the law. But what was a king supposed to do to solve the situation? He would enforce the law of God. That’s why Deuteronomy 17:18 said that when Israel picked a king, the king must make for himself a copy of the law of God, and get the copy approved by the Levitical priests. So that everyone didn’t do what was right in their own eyes. Relative morality through people picking and choosing for themselves what is just and good, is not good! No, the law has been given for that purpose.

And so the law is good, and having no law is bad. There’s no surprise then that on the one hand we find the Christ giving law during his earthly ministry, and on the other hand we see the Anti-Christ described as the Man of Lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2. And so if God, and Jesus, and Paul, and the Bible as a whole says that the law is good, even for the Christian, what use can we make of the law today? And so this leads us to our last point for today. What positive uses for the law do we find even here in this passage? Well, there are several. I think this is the question in verse 13. Has what is good become death to me? Paul again says certainly not. Paul wants us to realize that the goodness of the law still applies even to the Christian. Even to the Christian who is not under the law but under grace. The law still is there for us, for our good. I’ll mention briefly five specific ways we can use the law for our benefit.

First, the law gives us a knowledge of sin. Yes, we saw that already with Paul. He knew what coveting was because of the 10th commandment. But, surely this is an ongoing thing for us too. Just contrast verse 7 and 15. Verse 7 say that the law gives us knowledge about what is sin. But verse 15 talks about how the Christian still struggles with committing sin for which we don’t understand. The word for understand in verse 15 is the same word of knowledge in verse 7. Verse 15 says that Christians will sin in ways they don’t know they are sinning. Sometimes people commit sins that they “know not what they do.” Next week by the way I’ll make the case that verses 13-25 describe the struggle with sin among a born again believer. So sometimes we can commit sins in ignorance. But that need not be the case if we are students of God’s law. For the Christian, even though we are not under law as a covenant of works, God would have us to study his law. He’d have us meditate on it. Learn it in all its details and intricacies. He wants us to grow in knowledge of his holy and good laws. And this knowledge isn’t meant to be just general knowledge either. It’s supposed to be personal knowledge. Just like how Paul could used the general command against coveting to observe all the many specific ways coveting was being manifested in his life. God’s law gives us this knowledge of sin both in general, but also in a very personal way as well.

Second, the law directs us in particulars. In specific actions we should or should not do. We see this here because there are several references to the law in general, but there are several references to specific commands. The difference in this passage between the word for law and the word for commandment brings out this difference. The law here is the whole of God’s commands considered as a unit. But the law is not some general vague thing. The law is full of individual specific commandments. When this passage uses the word for commandment here, that’s what it’s getting at. Just like the one on coveting is one specific command. In the same way, we use the law in its specifics to analyze our life. God would have the redeemed Christian to examine his morality in the details. To repent even of specific sins and pursue specific acts of righteousness. The law is useful in that pursuit.

Another way to use the law for us is that it shows us how bad sin really is. This again is something we touched on before. It’s especially the point of verse 15, but it’s really been his point over and over again. Sin brings bad fruit and ultimately death. The law condemns it. But this helps us to make sense of life when we as Christians break God’s law. We find the destruction or evil that comes from our sin. Without the law we might wonder why this goes bad for us. But now with the law we can see that sin for what it is. And then when God chastens for us that sin, the law helps to explain why this is happening to us. We can realize God’s fatherly displeasure and concern over our transgressions.

A fourth way to use the law is as something to delight in. Verse 22 says that the Christian will delight in the law in our inner man. Of course as we’ll see next week, we don’t always delight in it the way we should. We can have battles inside us between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to the sinful thing. But God’s seed inside us is going to be growing us to delight in the law. So when we study his laws, we look to direct our hearts to seeing its beauty. We look to bend our affections towards seeing God’s laws and saying they are the best. The law is to be used by us as a source of our praise.

A fifth and final way to use the law is in our thanksgiving. As Paul struggles as a Christian over keeping God’s law, he feels the weight of the battle between doing the right things versus doing the sinful things. It makes him ask how we will be delivered from that battle. The answer comes in verse 24. He thanks God through Jesus Christ. Final deliverance is coming from this struggle with sin. My point here is that as we think about the law, we realize the struggles that we have in keeping it as Christian. We can feel so unholy. We can feel like we fall so short. But in it all, we can thank God in advance for how he will deliver us from it. The end result will be our perfected sanctification. We will in eternity keep the law finally perfectly. Until then, we can use the law to remind us of that future, and thank God in advance of that final state of our deliverance.

And so brothers and sisters, I hope that today you’ve been reminded of the goodness of the law. Yes, in our justification, it’s powerless to make us right with God. But even then the law leads us to Christ. And in our sanctification, it’s powerless again to make us holy. And yet with Christ’s power in our life, we can make use of the law now to grow in holiness. Let us indeed fill our minds with his law and each specific commandment. Let us learn about the evils of sin from it. Let us in turn learn to delight in the joys of righteousness. And may we praise God and thank him for how he will one day deliver us from the struggles we find ourselves in. Amen.

Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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