With all the grace-talk in the church (rightly so), one might think God’s law is bad. Especially since Paul wrote that we died to it, that it arouses sinful passions in us and that it leads us to death.
Here (7:7-13) Paul defends God’s law.
What then should we say? That the law is sin?” (7:7a).
Why would Paul even anticipate such a question? Because the law, arouses passions in our sin-nature body. So, is the law evil?
“By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (7:7b).
Paul answers emphatically: “Absolutely not!” I see three important points in Paul’s explanation about the “good” of God’s law.
First, Paul assumes it is binding. It stands outside ourselves as a revelation of God’s sovereign authority. Paul doesn’t question the coveting-command’s authority. It’s true. It’s reality. It’s in place as God’s decree.
Second, I think Paul chose the “You shall not covet” command, not because he had a special bent toward coveting, but because we all have a special bent toward it. We all have, what commentator Leon Morris calls, “encompassing illicit desires of every kind”.
Third, law’s purpose is to reveal sin. The law uncovered Paul’s inward covetousness. When Paul read, “You shall not covet”, he realized the desire inside him was covetousness and was sin against God. In that sense, law is like the doctor who tells us we have cancer. It’s bad news we don’t want to hear. But, only by hearing it, can we pursue a cure.
Paul assures sin, not law, is the “bad guy” . . .
“But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (7:8-11).
By “seizing the opportunity” Paul envisions war. When the commandment is preached, sin uses the commandment as a base of operations and springs to life and “produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”
It’s a sad fact of fallen human nature that the more we’re told something’s wrong, the more we want it. The forbidden mysteriously pulls us to it. Why did Eve want the forbidden fruit? Satan tempted her—by using the prohibition to whet her appetite.
What does Paul mean, “Apart from the law sin lies dead”? Not that there is no sin apart from the law, but that apart from the law there is no incitement of “reviving” of sin. “I was once alive apart from the law . . . “ What past time is Paul referring to? Perhaps when, as a boy, he knew “You shall not covet”, but sin had not yet “revived.” But the more he knew the commandment the more sin in him enticed him to covet. That’s when he knew he lived under God’s death sentence. “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4).
“ . . . but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” Through Moses, Paul knew the Lord had promised, “Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land” (Leviticus 25:18). But in his experience, the commandment was the occasion for sin to spring into life inside him–and he stood condemned to death before God.
Another fact that the “bad guy” isn’t the law, but sin. Paul writes, “ . . . sin . . . deceived me.” It swindled him. Duped him. Betrayed him. Promised him fulfillment, delivered death.
“So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure” (7:12,13).
So then, the law is not evil (7:7) but “holy”. That is sacred, set apart for God’s purposes. And God’s commandment “holy and just . . . “. That is, righteous, in accord with what God requires. And it is “good”. That is, morally good and beneficial.
This good law didn’t bring death to Paul. Absolutely not. It was sin, sin working through the good law so sin “might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment (which “revived” sin) might become sinful beyond measure.
Here are two purposes for God’s law, says Paul. One, that we might recognize sin for the sin that it is. Not a mistake. Not a simple moral failure. But evil before God. And, two, that sin might become excessively sinful. Not something small that we can “handle”. But something that controls us and threatens our very existence.
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How casually I read God’s laws! I skim over, “You shall not murder”, because I don’t even think of it. But then, I find Jesus saying . . .
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5;21,22).
I don’t murder, but act in anger. So I’m liable to God’s judgment. Not to their faces, but in my home’s privacy I call certain business people “stupid.” So I’m liable to hell’s fires.
No, not me! That can’t be! Look in the mirror of God’s law. Look in the mirror and see yourself. You stand hopelessly under God’s judgment. You face the fires of hell. You must see yourself as you are: guilty of sin upon sin. Gehenna, the burning garbage dump, awaits.
Except . . . for Jesus.