The Law’s Relationship to Sin and Death – Romans 7:7-13
Pastor Mark Hardy September 16, 2012
Two elderly men, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Thayer, were both seriously ill and shared a small room in a hospital. Mr. Wilson’s bed was next to the window and as part of his treatment he was allowed to sit up in bed for an hour in the afternoon to drain the fluid in his lungs. However, Mr. Thayer’s bed was next to the door and he had to spend all his time flat on his back.
The two men talked about everything, but for the hour that Mr. Wilson was propped up in bed, he would describe what he saw happening outside the window beside his bed. He said there was a park with a lake that had ducks and swans, there were children playing, and adults relaxing and having fun. Mr. Wilson would describe what he saw in graphic detail and color, so that Mr. Thayer could get a clear mental picture of what he saw. Mr. Thayer always looked forward to that hour and hung on every word.
One afternoon as he was listening to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Thayer said to himself, “Why should Wilson get to be next to the window and not me? I want to see those things for myself.” As he continued to think that way, within a few days Mr. Thayer became very resentful. One night Mr. Wilson awoke, coughing and choking as the fluid filled his lungs. Although Mr. Thayer saw Mr. Wilson trying to reach the call button to get help, he just laid there and did nothing. Not too long later, Mr. Wilson died in his bed.
When the nurse found this out on her rounds, Mr. Wilson was taken from the room. The next morning Mr. Thayer asked the nurse to move him to the other bed next to the window. When the nurse had left, he now did what he had been desired to do so badly. With great anticipation he painfully and laboriously propped himself up on one elbow and looked out the window. And what he saw was nothing but the wall of the building next door.
All this time he had been selfishly coveting Mr. Wilson’s bed only to find out that when he finally got what he wanted it wasn’t what he thought. This morning we are going to look at the impact that coveting had on the apostle Paul. Turn with me to Romans 7 as we now come to vv. 7-25, which is another difficult passage because there are so many different views. This morning we will only be looking at vv. 7-13.
In Romans 7:7-13 Paul explains four functions of the Law as he defends it from the charge that it is sinful.
The first function of the Law is this:
I. The Law Reveals peoples Sin
A. Look at v. 7: What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! (Stop there)
1. When Paul says “Law” (nomos) he is referring to the Mosaic Law, the body of instruction and commandments given to the people of Israel through Moses at Sinai. Now up to this point he has presented a seemingly negative assessment of the Mosaic Law.
2. Paul said in v. 4 that believers “were made to die to the Law,” in v. 5 “the sinful passions were aroused by the Law,” and in v. 6 believers are “released from the Law,” as well as other things earlier in the letter (3:20; 4:15; 5:20). Therefore, anticipating a swelling tide of wrong assumptions about the Law, Paul states the question “Is the Law sin?”
3. He then turns around and emphatically rejects such a thought saying, “May it never be!” As we have seen before (3:4, 6; 6:2, 15) this is the strongest negative expression in the Greek language that indicates shock, abhorrence, disgust, and outrage.
4. To Paul, the very suggestion that the Law of God is sinful is absurd! Perish the thought!
5. In the following verses he then launches into a defense of the Law and the inherent goodness of it.
B. Having declared the Law is not sinful, Paul goes on to say in v. 7: On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.”
1. Although the Law itself is not sinful, it does have a close association with sin in that it reveals peoples sin. Paul says, “I would not have come know sin except through the Law.”
2. He is referring back to 3:20 where he said, “…for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” For Paul to “come to know sin” he is not talking about a general awareness of right and wrong (2:15), but the personal experience of realizing the rebellious nature and power of sin in his own life.
3. Notice the first person singular “I” (ego) used twice in this verse and 28 times in vv. 7-25. Scholars have hotly debated the identity of Paul’s “I” in this chapter, some saying that he is speaking only of his own personal experience; while others say he uses “I” to represent others: Adam or mankind in general, Israel in particular, or other Christians.
4. Personally, I believe Paul is primarily speaking of his own personal experience. And yet, his experience is also representative, which we will see as we go through this chapter.
5. Now here in vv. 7-13, Paul as a Christian is reflecting back on his life experience before Christ when God was beginning to work in his spiritually dead heart and he tells us about this because his personal experience is a pattern that shows the fate of everyone who is under the Law.
6. Leon Morris states, “It is best to see the apostle as identifying himself with the sinner. He is speaking from the standpoint of a convinced Christian and telling us from his own experience what happens to any sinner who is confronted with the law.” (pg. 277)
7. However, although this is a very personal passage we must keep in mind is that the central theme of these verses is the Mosaic Law and Paul’s defense of its inherent goodness although it is subverted by sin to advance its evil purposes.
C. Paul now gives a specific example to show how the Law exposed him as a sinful, externalistic Pharisee. Look at the end of v. 7, “…for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COVET.’”
1. The last of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:17 says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Deut. 5:21)
2. The word “covet” (epithumeseis) means to have a strong desire, longing, and craving for something. Since the word can be used of a good and godly desire (Lk. 15:16; 16:21; Phil. 1:23; 1 Tim. 3:1) or a bad and illicit desire the context must determine the meaning. Here it is bad and illicit desire.
3. Paul uses the personal example of coveting because it is the only commandment that explicitly went beneath his religious external actions to the internal desires of his heart.
4. The real battle with sin in everyone’s life is internal. It is our sinful heart desires (Gen. 3:6; Jam. 1:14-15; 4:1-2; 1 Jn. 2:16) that express themselves in outward actions.
5. Therefore, coveting is the fundamental sin, the root of all other sins. The central issue with coveting is that it puts oneself and the object of one’s desire, whether it is a person or thing, above the one true God in our heart.
6. This always violates the two supreme commandments to love God supremely and others sacrificially (Matt. 22:27-40). This is why covetousness is elsewhere called “idolatry” (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).
7. Paul’s point is that it was this tenth commandment prohibiting covetousness that functioned like a spiritual MRI (Heb. 4:12) of his heart and revealed to him the sin in the core of his being.
8. The second function of the Law is this:
II. The Law Provokes sinful Activity
A. Look at v. 8: But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.
1. Here “sin” is personified as a wicked and powerful military commander engaged in battle and “taking opportunity through the commandment.”
2. The word “opportunity” (aphormen) is a military term that refers to capturing a strategic bridgehead, which is an advanced position seized in hostile territory as a foothold and base of operations for further advance.
3. Sin uses God’s commandment as a base of operations in our lives to accomplish its evil purposes. The word “commandment” (entoles) is used six times in vv. 8-13 and refers to each precept that comprises the Law, although it can also at times represent the Mosaic Law as a whole.
4. Paul then says that the result of sin’s high jacking the commandment for its own evil ends is that sin, “…produced in me coveting of every kind.” Because of his indwelling sin this tenth commandment provoked—aroused, exacerbated, stimulated, and stirred up in Paul all sorts of coveting or illicit desire.
5. This is how he came to recognize covetousness in his heart. Isn’t it a distressing fact about sinful human nature that any prohibition tends to provoke in us a sinful desire to do the very thing that is forbidden!
6. Put anything into the category of “forbidden”—a speed limit, being told we can’t do something, a sign saying “Keep off grass” and what happens within us? How often do you catch yourself saying, “Yea, well see!”
7. The forbidden thing immediately becomes desirable. That’s our sin “taking opportunity through the commandment.”
8. This is described in Proverbs 9:17, “Stolen water is sweet; and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
9. In other words, there is a perverse excitement and pleasure in rebelliously doing what is forbidden. Although it may temporarily feel like life, in reality sin always leads to death (Prov. 16:25).
10. Therefore, although we may think the Law restrains sin, it only provokes it (Rom. 5:20; 7:5; 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 3:19-22). Only the Holy Spirit can restrain sin in the life of the believer (Gal. 5:16).
B. Paul then clarifies what he has just said at the end of v. 8, “…for apart from the Law sin is dead.”
1. When Paul says “sin is dead” he isn’t saying that without Law sin doesn’t exist or that people don’t sin (2:14-15; 4:15; 5:13-14). He is saying that “sin is dead” in the sense that although it’s still there it lies dormant and inactive.
2. C.E.B. Cranfield says it this way, “In the absence of the law sin is relatively powerless.” (pg. 351)
3. Apart from the Law people don’t see sin in their lives as it really is—a deliberate and rebellious violation of God’s revealed will. It is the inflexible standard of God’s Law, like a carpenter’s level, which shows us just how far off our heart and life really is.
4. Therefore, though sin lay dormant, inactive, and “relatively powerless” in Paul life apart from the Law, when the tenth commandment entered into his consciousness sin was provoked to sinful activity.
5. The third function of the Law is this:
III. The Law Condemns every Sinner
A. In vv. 9-11 Paul further explains in more detail what he has just said. Look at v. 9: I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died;
1. Everyone is born into the world spiritually dead with an inherent sinful nature (Eph. 2:1) and under the wrath of God (Jn. 3:36). But until the Holy Spirit enlightens people’s hearts and minds to that reality they actually think they are doing pretty good.
2. In vv. 9-11 Paul as a Christian is looking back on his pre-Christian experience when he was a self-satisfied, happy Pharisee who felt confident in his external self-righteousness (Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:4-6). Therefore, when Paul says, “I was once alive apart from the Law” he’s talking about seeing himself as being really good morally and spiritually, when in fact he’s not.
3. But then something happened. Paul says, “…but when the commandment came.”
4. The conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit was at work in his heart through the Law. At that time the Law’s demands were brought home to consciousness and conscience.
5. When this happened in Paul’s life was probably sometime before and during his Damascus road encounter with Christ and the days of blindness that followed (Acts 9:1-18). Some say it might have also happened during the three years he spent in Arabia (Gal. 1:13-18).
6. Whenever it happened, Paul says, “…when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died.” Sin was always there in his life relatively dormant, inactive, and powerless, but when the commandment came “sin became alive,” in other words, it sprang to life.
7. The image is of sin being like a wild beast or poisonous snake poised or coiled and ready to leap upon or strike its victim.
8. Paul when sin sprang to life and struck him Paul says, “I died.” He is not talking about “death to sin” (Rom. 6:2, 7,-8; 7:4), but death because of sin.
9. This is his death as the self-confident, self-satisfied, self-secure, elf-reliant, and self-righteous person he once was. Now for the first time in his life he realized that he was truly spiritually dead, and all of his religious accomplishments were nothing but rubbish as he stood condemned before God (Phil. 3:7-8).
B. Paul then says in v. 10: and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me;
1. This “tenth” commandment probably represents the whole Law here. At one time Paul honestly but wrongly believed by keeping the Law it would result in eternal life.
2. But in reality this only turned out to result in his death, in all of its manifestations. Even in the Old Testament when Israel was exhorted to obey the Law and live (Lev. 18:5; Deut. 4:1; 30:11-20) this was never intended by God to solicit a self-attained justification because He knew fallen, sinful man could never perfectly keep His Law.
3. Ken Barker correctly states, “that the Law was given to the redeemed people of God as a means of expressing their love to God as well as a means of governing their relationship to God and to each other. It was not a way of salvation but a way to enjoy an orderly life and God’s fullest blessing within the covenantal theocratic arrangement.” (Zemek Sovereign Grace pg. 233)
C. Look at v. 11: for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
1. Since the commandment resulted in the opposite of what Paul wrongly expected, he felt deceived. And yet, the perpetrator of this deception was not the commandment but his indwelling sin.
2. Once again sin is personified as a wicked and powerful military commander using the commandment as its base of operations to “deceive” and “kill” Paul spiritually. The word “deceived” (exepatesen) here means to thoroughly beguile, to hoodwink and dupe.
3. That’s exactly what sin does! Sin always promises what it can never fully deliver.
4. Sure there are temporary “pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25), but the satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness that sin promises it can never provide. Only living for Jesus Christ can satisfy our eternal souls.
5. Sin used the commandment as an instrument to deceive Paul into thinking that he could keep it. And having first deceived him, it then killed him.
6. Sin is ever and always the ruthless killer. The first part of Romans 6:23 declares that, “The wages of sin is death…”
7. And James 1:14-15 states, “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”
8. Sins objective is to bring about death in our lives in all its manifestations: spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, and ultimately eternal death for all those who reject Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.
9. Charles Hodge summarized this verse well saying, “(Paul) expected life and found death. He expected happiness, and found misery; he looked for holiness, and found increased corruption. He fancied that by the law all these desirable ends could be secured, when its operation was discovered to produce the directly opposite effect. Sin therefore deceived by the commandment, and by it slew him, instead of being to him the source of holiness and blessedness.” (pg. 225)
10. Never forget that the primary function of the Law is not to save but to condemn. The Law condemns every sinner.
11. The fourth function of the Law is this:
IV. The Law Manifests sin’s Heinousness
A. Paul now concludes in vv. 12-13 by declaring the Law’s goodness and showing that it is not to blame. Look at v. 12: So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
1. Once again the “Law” is the Mosaic Law as a whole and the “commandment” is each precept that comprises the Law, although it can also represent the Law as the whole.
2. By saying “the Law is holy” Paul puts it as far away from sin as possible. It and the commandment are “holy” (agios)— set apart, sanctified, and sacred because it originates from a holy God, whose character it reflects and whose will it declares (Lev. 11:45; 19:2).
3. God’s Law and all of its commandments bear the imprint of its divine Author.
4. Paul then says that the commandment is “righteous” (dikaia) in that it reflects the righteousness and justice of God. The commandment forbids and condemns sin and lays out just requirements upon men (Ps. 119:137, 144, 172).
5. And the commandment is “good” (agathe), which means morally perfect and ethically pure. It is always intended for the benefit and welfare of people.
6. Therefore, Paul absolves the Law of all blame and boldly states that the problem is not with the Law itself. The problem is with sinful people.
7. Sin alone is the culprit because it has used the Law as a bridgehead to accomplish its evil purposes of producing more sin that leads to death.
B. Now anticipating that some might misunderstand from vv. 10-11 that the good Law is responsible for death, Paul states another question in v. 13: Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin… (Stop there)
1. This verse is the final conclusion of vv. 7-12, as well as the introduction of vv. 14-25. Here Paul hammers home the point that the good commandment of God is not the cause of his death or anyone else’s.
2. Notice how he once again emphatically rejects such a thought by proclaiming, “May it never be! God forbid! Perish the thought!
3. Then he states what the real cause is. It’s not the Law, but “Rather it was sin…” Paul places full responsibility for death on sin, which only employs the Law as an ally to advance its evil purposes.
4. He then states two purposes for which God allowed sin’s destructive use of the Law: The first purpose is: To expose sin’s true character.
5. Look again at v. 13, “Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good.” (Stop there)
6. God has “shown” (phane) or manifested sin to be the rotten evil that it is by the way it uses what is holy, righteous, and good and intended for life as an instrument of death in people’s lives.
7. The second purpose is: To expose sin’s utter sinfulness. Look at the end of v. 13, “…so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.”
8. This further elaborates on the first. Since God allows sin to use the good commandment to accomplish its evil ends then sin is manifest as being “utterly sinful,” which speaks of its exceeding heinousness.
9. Although the powerful force of sin is evil and exceedingly heinous, praise God that by His grace He sovereignly overrules sin. God takes sin’s misuse of the Law and turns it around, so that this same Law can now as a death notice show people that they are sinners in need of a Savior and drive them to saving faith in Jesus Christ, who alone fulfilled the demands of the Law on behalf of all those who trust in His righteousness instead of their own.
In closing, as we look at Paul’s reflection on his own life experience before Christ from a Christian perspective, every one of us as believer can identify these same things in our lives in different degrees. The holy, righteous, and good Law of God is not the problem, but our own indwelling sin.
Although in our spiritual blindness we thought we were doing fine without Christ, in reality we were spiritually dead. But praise God for His grace in the Spirit of God using the Word of God to take the initiative to enlighten our hearts and minds with where we really were and through the gospel of Jesus Christ lead us to salvation in Him.