In the earliest chapters of Romans Paul has shown that the law cannot justify a person. In the later chapters of Romans he has shown that neither can the law sanctify anyone. Therefore, if we are to be delivered from sin’s penalty and power, it must be by the work of God in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. Since the law is from God, and God cannot do evil or produce anything that is evil, the gospel Paul teaches seems to collapse. The verses to which we come now show emphatically why the law is not sinful. In particular they speak of three good things the law does, even though it is powerless either to justify or sanctify a person.
The first thing the law accomplishes, according to verse 7, is to reveal sin as sin. There are two problems here, and it’s important to understand both. The first problem is that if left to themselves, people never naturally think they are sinners. Genesis 6:5 is a description of sin as God sees it – every inclination of the thoughts of our hearts only evil all the time. But who believes that his or her every inclination is to do evil? No one believes that unless from a supernatural illumination of his or her mind by the Holy Spirit. The second problem is this: Even if, by some means, we are able to admit that we have done bad things, we are never able to recognize those things as “sin” unless we can also be shown that they transgress the law of God. We don’t call either morally wrong behavior or the criminal acts “sin” unless we see that these also violate God’s law. So the first good thing the law does is reveal that we are sinners. It does this by showing that the bad things we do are an offense to God.
The second good thing the law of God does is provoke sin, thereby drawing forth the realization of how bad sin really is (v. 8). This is what I call “sin’s sad use of God’s good law.” We see it in several areas: (1) Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, creates a surge of rebellion in our hearts. The rebellion has been there all along, of course. That is what it means to be a sinner. It means to be a rebel against God. But when the law comes, this dormant rebellion is aroused from its slumber, as it were, and we discover what we are at heart. (2) Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, creates a desire to sin in ways that were not even thought of before. In telling us not to do something, the law actually sets us to thinking about it, and because we are sinful people we soon find ourselves wanting to do that very thing. That is what the law does. It provokes wickedness. Moreover, in doing so, it shows us not only that sin is sin, a violation of the law of God; it also shows how strong sin is. It must be very powerful if it can use even God’s good law for such ends.
The third good thing the law does is bring us to the end of ourselves – to “death.” This is what Paul is talking about in verses 9-11. There was a time in Paul’s life when Paul thought he was in good standing before God. When the law finally began to get through to Paul to do its proper work, he saw (1) that he was guilty of having broken it and (2) that his nature was such that, instead of wanting to keep it, he actually wanted to break it. Instead of driving sin out, the law awakened sin. He saw how hopeless his sinful condition was. But that was a good thing! As long as Paul thought he was doing all right, he was on his way to perdition. It was only when he learned he was lost that he was ready to hear God’s words about the Savior.
So is the law sin, then? That is the question with which Paul started out. Here is his answer: “Certainly not!” (v. 7). Rather, as we have seen, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (v. 12). The law does exactly what God sent it into the world to do, and that purpose, actually a threefold purpose, is good.
This leads to a couple important conclusions: First, the law can never save anyone. It never has saved anyone and it never will. It was not meant to. Therefore, if you have been thinking of yourself as a fairly decent person – who generally measures up to whatever moral standards seem reasonable – and believe that God should be glad to accept your self-assessment, bless you in life, and in the end receive you into heaven, it is not the case that you have been hearing and obeying the law. Rather, you have not really begun even to understand it. The law is condemning you, but you, in your ignorance, are supposing that everything is all right. What is happening to you is what Paul describes in verse 11. “Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived” you. How? By making you think that everything is fine, when actually you are perishing.
Second, we need to teach the law to awaken people to their sinfulness and show them their need of a Savior. People need to know the uselessness of their own good works and so-called righteousness. They need to know how utterly hopeless the situation is without a Savior. They need to be convinced in their bones that Jesus Christ is the only hope they have. The law was given to drive out all self-righteousness so that we might embrace Jesus Christ alone as our Savior.
Romans 7:7-12 Reflection Questions:
How can the law as depicted in verses 7-12 be holy, good and upright while also producing death at the same time?
Inn verses 7-12, Paul describes the time when the law arrived in Israel in such a way as to reflect also the time when Adam was given the commandment in the Garden (Gen. 2:15-17; 3:17). What are the similarities between the story in Genesis and Paul’s argument here?