Chapters 1 and 2 of Romans are about the fact that we’re all sinners who are liable to God’s wrath and curse. But then, in chapters 3 and 4 Paul goes on to teach that we’re justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith in Jesus Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world who gave up his life on the cross to deliver us from our sin and misery and who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins to make peace for us with God. And then, in chapters 5 to 8, Paul writes about the assurance of glory. Since we’ve been justified through faith, nothing will prevent the believer from being glorified in the presence of God one day. Nothing will prevent us. Death won’t stop us. Sin won’t stop us. The law won’t stop us. Nothing at all will separate us from God who is working out his plan to bring sinners like us into his glorious presence one day.
And so, in chapter 5, Paul teaches us that though death came into the world through Adam, nevertheless life has come into the world through Jesus Christ. Because of Adam’s sin, we all die. But because of the Lord’s perfect obedience to his Father, all who believe in him will live. For those who belong to Adam, there’s only condemnation and death, but for those who belong to Jesus Christ, there’s justification and life. That’s what chapter 5 was about.
Chapter 6 is about how sin won’t stop us. And sin won’t stop us, because through faith we’re united with Christ in his death and resurrection. We’re united to him in his death so that just as he died, so we too have died to sin so that we ought not to live in it any longer. And we’re united to him in his resurrection so that just as the Lord Jesus was raised, so we too have been raised with him to live a new life of obedience to God. So, we’re to regard ourselves as dead to sin, but alive to God. Sin no longer rules and reigns over us, but instead we’re to offer ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness. So, sin won’t stop us from being glorified in the presence of God one day, because sin has been dealt with thoroughly by Christ. And that’s what chapter 6 was about.
And chapter 7 is about the law and how it won’t stop us from being glorified in the presence of God one day. And in verses 1 to 6, which we looked at the last time, Paul explains that we’ve been released from bondage to the law so that we might serve the Lord in the new way of the Spirit. The law by itself can only command and demand; it says to us ‘do this’ and ‘do this’ and it says to us ‘don’t do this’. It commands and it demands. But the law by itself can’t do anything to help us to keep it. It says ‘do this’, without lifting a finger to help us. But the Holy Spirit, living inside of us, helps us to serve the Lord and to bring glory and honour to him and to obey him more and more.
Paul has said a number of negative things about the law. Back in chapter 4, he said that the law brings wrath. In chapter 5, he said the law increases the trespass. Earlier in chapter 7, he said the law aroused our sinful passions. And, of course, he’s written that we need to be freed from the law’s bondage so that we might serve in the new way of the Spirit. He’s written these negative things about the law. So, is the law sinful? That’s the question which Paul sets out to answer in verses 7 to 12 of Romans chapter 7. And, of course, Paul wants to defend the law. He wants to make clear that the law is good. So, he says in verse 12 that it’s holy, and righteous, and good. The law is not sinful. It’s not wicked. It’s good. However, it’s been taken over, if you like, by sin. And sin uses it against us.
So, think of a hammer or a knife. A hammer can be used for a good purpose. You can use it around the house when you’re doing repairs and DIY. And a knife is good for cutting vegetables. However, a hammer can be misused and a knife can be misused. Somebody can take a hammer, and instead of using it to hammer nails, he uses it to destroy property. Somebody can take a knife, and instead of using it to cut vegetables, he uses it to attack someone. Well, the law is good. But sin can misuse the law. It uses the law against us.
Nevertheless — and Paul will eventually get to this — God is able to rescue us from our sin which misuses the law. He rescues us by his Son who died for us and by his Spirit who works in us.
So, the law is good. But sin misuses it. But still God delivers us, because nothing can separate us from his love and nothing will prevent us from coming into his presence one day.
So, in verse 7 Paul does what he has done before: he raises a question, an objection, that might possibly be in the minds of his readers or which may even have been made against Paul by some of his opponents. It’s this:
Paul, you’ve spoken about Christians being released from bondage to the law. Are you then saying that the law — God’s law — is sinful? Is that what you’re saying?
And Paul’s response in verse 7 is emphatic:
The law is certainly not sinful. However, there is a connection between the law and sin and in the verses which follow he unfolds what that connection is. And we can divide verses 7 to 12 into three sections. First of all, the law reveals sin. Secondly, sin uses the law to cause us to sin against the law. Thirdly, the law therefore condemns us because of our sin.
The law reveals sin
So, first of all, the law reveals sin. Look with me at the middle of verse 7. Paul writes:
I would now have known what sin was except through the law.
So, we can imagine someone hearing the Ten Commandments for the first time and discovering that something they have been doing every day, without giving it any thought, and without being concerned about it at all, is in fact sinful. You know, someone grew up, misusing the Lord’s name, for instance. They never gave it any thought before, because, sure, everyone does it and it’s just part of everyday language. But then they hear the commandments, and suddenly, this person realises it’s wrong. What I’ve been doing all this time is offensive to God and it makes me liable to his wrath and curse.
I’ve used the example of misusing God’s name. Paul uses another example. He tells us that he wouldn’t have realised what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ Now, some of the commentators explain that in those days the tenth commandment forbidding coveting was used to summarise or to represent all of the commandments. So, by mentioning coveting here, Paul is not only referring to the tenth commandment, but to all of them. So, whichever commandment we hear reveals sin to us. It defines sin for us.
However, it’s possible that Paul is referring to his own experience and to how, on some occasion — and we don’t know when — but on some occasion he heard this commandment and it really touched a nerve. It really hit home. This one commandment was like a sharp needle which convicted him of his sinfulness and it suddenly hit him:
Oh, I’ve been sinning against the Lord.
And, of course, coveting takes place in our hearts, doesn’t it? You now, the other commandments are about what we say or about what we do. But coveting happens inside our hearts. It’s about our desires and inclinations and about what we long for. So, whenever we realise that we’re guilty of coveting, then we also learn that we’re sinful deep down inside, in our hearts, at the core of our being. That’s what the law does. It reveals sin: it makes us know what sin is; and it makes us know just how sinful we really are.
Sin uses the law to cause us to sin
The second thing though is that sin uses the law to cause us to sin against God’s law. So, look with me at verse 8. Paul says: Not only does the law reveal sin, but sin — and Paul pictures sin as a powerful enemy — sin seized the opportunity afforded by the commandment, and produced in me every kind of covetous desire, says Paul. So, sin used the commandment to make me covet even more. And then he adds at the end of verse 8:
Apart from law, sin is dead.
Or perhaps it’s better to translate that as:
Apart from law, sin was dead.
Sin was dead in the sense that it was inactive. It was asleep. It was a sleeping lion. But when the law came, and announced God’s will for us, then sin woke up and it was stirred into action. And what does sin do whenever it’s stirred into action? Well, sin makes us sin even more.
John Stott, in his commentary, reminded me of the story of Augustine as a young man who, when he was 16, sneaked into a neighbour’s orchard to steal pears. And, reflecting on it afterwards, he said that he didn’t steal the pears because he was hungry, because afterwards he threw them away. And he didn’t steal the pears because he didn’t have any of his own. Apparently his family had their own pear trees with better pears. No, he stole them because it was exciting to steal something and it was exciting to do something wrong. The command forbidding theft provoked him to go and steal.
When the children were small, and misbehaving, we’d take them aside and speak to them about the proper way to behave. And I remember warning them about the little voice in their heads, telling them not to listen to me or their mother. You know the little voice I’m talking about, because you’ve heard it too. When someone tells us to do one thing, there’s a little voice inside us, telling us to do the exact opposite. Well, Paul is referring to that as well. Sin uses the law to cause us to sin. We hear God’s law, his commandments to us. He says to us:
This is what I want you to do.
And sin inside us says:
No, don’t do what he says. Do this instead. God says ‘Don’t covet’. But look at all these nice things you can have. Aren’t they lovely? God says ‘Don’t steal’. But won’t it be exciting and daring to take that?
The problem is not the law. The law is good. Sin is the problem, because sin misuses the law.
The law condemns
So, first of all, Paul tells us that the law reveals sin. Secondly, Paul tells us that sin uses the law to cause us to sin against the law. Thirdly, Paul tells us that the law condemns us because of our sin. It leads to death.
‘Once I was alive’, Paul says in verse 9. And he probably means he was living a quiet, unperturbed, contented life. He felt guilt-free. But then the commandment came, and sin sprang to life. In other words, sin was stirred up to action. And then what? Well, ‘I died’, Paul says. And when he says ‘I died’ he probably means either that it was the end of his quiet, unperturbed, contented life, because now he realised like never before that his heart was a house of horrors full of all kinds of sinful thoughts and desires. Or else he died in the sense that he now realised that he stood condemned before God as a guilty sinner.
And look what he says in verse 10:
I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.
Think of what we read in Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
The Psalmist says that the one who meditates on God’s law is like a tree planted by streams of water, full of life. But Paul’s experience was entirely different, because sin deceived him. He thought knowing the law would lead to life, but it only led to death because of the way sin used the law to stir up his own sinfulness.
Is the law sinful? No, says Paul. But there’s a connection between the law and sin, because the law reveals sin: it shows us what sin is and it shows us how sinful we really are. And sin uses the law to stir up the sin inside us and to provoke us to greater sinfulness. And because of the way sin misuses the law, then the law ends up condemning us for our sin, instead of leading us to life.
The law is holy, and righteous and good. But, by itself, it can’t lead to life. By itself, it only leads to condemnation. But the good news is, and Paul will get to this, the good news is that whoever is united with Christ through faith, is not condemned. Even though we may have done everything wrong, God treats us as if we’ve done everything right. And more than that, whoever is united with Christ through faith receives the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit works inside us to make us more and more willing and able to obey God’s commandments. By itself the law only commands and demands. It can’t help us to keep it. But the Holy Spirit enables us to do what the law commands.
This shows us that we need to be careful when we’re teaching the faith to others, and especially to our children and young people. The Christian faith is about both law and gospel: what we’re to do and what Christ has done for us. And we need to get the balance right. We need to strike a right balance between the law and the gospel. If we only teach the law, and not the gospel, then all we’ll be doing to our children and young people and to others is we’ll be exposing their sin, because the law reveals what sin is and how sinful we really are. If we only teach the law, then they’ll only hear that they’re sinners.
And if we only teach the law, then we shouldn’t be surprised if our children and young people and the others we teach fall deeper and deeper into sin, because sin uses the law to cause us to sin. It stirs up our sinfulness and our sinful desires.
And if we only teach the law, then our children will only feel condemned. And who wants anything to do with Christianity if Christianity only makes us feel condemned?
So, as well as preaching the law, we must also preach the gospel which reveals the love of God to sinners.
We must preach the law to show us the power of sin in our lives. But we must also preach the gospel which reveals that Christ died to save us from the power as well as the penalty of sin.
We must preach the law because it does condemn us. It humbles us. But we must preach the gospel which reveals that all who are united to Christ through faith receive from him the forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life.