Today, we are bombarded with warnings about the danger of opioids and narcotics. And these warnings are warranted. Narcotics are addicting and can suck you into a hole from which it is not easy to emerge. And yet, at the same time, no one wants to get rid of them. Some drugs are necessary for pain and should be used with wisdom and caution. Used properly, they are good and are God’s blessing to us when we genuinely need them. But used improperly, they can spawn addictions that will eventually destroy their users. They are bad and yet good. Bad when used wrongly, but good when used rightly.
The Law of God is the same way. Up to this point, Paul has had very little that is positive to say about the Law of Moses, God’s Law. He has argued that it is the law which judges us and by which sinners perish (Rom. 2:12). He has pointed out that the law brings the knowledge of sin, and therefore no one can be justified before God by the law (Rom. 3:19-20). He has argued that the law brings wrath, the wrath of God, upon its transgressors – which is all of us (Rom. 4:15). He has said that the law increases sin and transgression (Rom. 5:20). He has equated being under the dominion of sin with being under the law (Rom. 6:14). In this very chapter, the apostle has taught that the law arouses our sinful passions within us, and that it is only by being released from the law that we can be delivered (Rom. 7:5-6).
Now this would have immediately caused Paul’s Jewish interlocutor to be suspicious of his gospel. Everything Paul has said indicates that the law is bad. But how could that be? The law is God’s law. How could the holy God create something bad? The question answers itself. Does that then not imply that the gospel which Paul preaches is wrong?
This is what the apostle is responding to when he begins in verse 7 with the question, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin?” This is the conclusion that some who listened to Paul would have arrived at, and the apostle wants to dispel this at once.
But one has to ask why Paul would have so many negative things to say about the law when he concludes in verse 12, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” The reason is because, like medicine, the law has to be used rightly (cf. 1 Tim. 1:8). When the law is used as a way to gain eternal life, it is used in a way it was not meant to be used (cf. Gal. 3:21). But that is precisely the way a lot of people use it. Instead of receiving righteousness as a gift of the grace of God, man in his pride wants to earn it on his own. And so they turn God’s law into a means to merit God’s favor. It is an incredibly addictive path to take. But it is destructive. It cannot and will not end in eternal life. It can only end in disappointment and destruction. Paul has up to this point for the most part been talking about the law of God in light of its misuse by people. As such, it is bad.
However, that is not all the apostle has to say about the law, because that is not all there is to the law of God. The law of God is indeed good, and that is the argument the apostle is about to make. In what way is it good? Paul is going to tell us in verses 7-12.
How is the Law good for us?
First of all, the law is not sinful, because it is exposes sin and thus is good. That’s the point of verse 7: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have know what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” It is important to note that Paul is not talking about the knowledge of sin in terms of an intellectual awareness of what it is. Rather, the apostle is talking about an experiential awareness of sin’s pollution and ugliness and power. The reason we know this is that this awareness of sin here is not something Paul had until sometime later in life. He was alive without the law once, but then the law caused sin to come to life in Paul and then Paul came to realize the power and pollution of sin in a way that he had not before (10). Now, as an orthodox Jew, the apostle had spent his entire life studying and absorbing the law. And yet, even though he had been surrounded with the law and had it in his head and heart, he was without the law in some sense. Clearly not intellectually, but experientially. And that is something we all need. It is one thing to know that something is sinful. But until it strikes us as something ugly and polluted, we really don’t know what sin is. The law does that for us, and therefore the law is good.
Second, verses 8-10 tells us that the problem is not with the law, but with sin: “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” Sin is not some objective, abstract entity here. The sin here is the sin that is within us. You can call it a sinful nature, or depravity, or whatever. Give it whatever name you want; what this demonstrates is that we are not neutral people. The reason why the law produces sin in us, and the reason why sin comes alive when we are confronted with the law, and the reason why the commandment becomes death to us, is because we are sinful people. We have hearts that are, apart from the grace of God, hostile to God’s law. We want to call the shots. We want to be the lords over our own lives. It’s a matter of idolatry, ultimately. But the point is that the problem is not with the law. It’s not because the law is sinful. Rather, the problem is with us. We are what make the law go wrong in our hearts.
The third movement in the apostle’s argument is found in verse 11: “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” One of the ways sin has power over us is by deceiving us. It deceives us into thinking that God’s law is unnecessarily restrictive, as in Genesis 3, where the serpent was able to convince Eve that God was not being just and loving by refusing to let them eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But again, we are so easily deceived because so often this is a lie we want to believe.
Atheists often accuse theists that the reason why they believe in God is because they want there to be a God: it is wish fulfillment, in other words. People want there to be a God to save them from things that they fear, and so they project this wish into their belief system. The problem with this argument, of course, is that it goes both ways. Couldn’t it be just as true that the reason atheists don’t believe in God is because they don’t want there to be a God to whom they are accountable? Given our propensity for self-sovereignty, this seems to me the more reasonable explanation of things. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Why? Because “they are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good” (Ps. 14:1). Or, as our Lord put it in John 3, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20). People who are in love with their sin are easily deceived into believing that God’s law is bad for them because that is what they want to believe.
This is also Paul’s point in 2 Thessalonians. Concerning those who will follow the Antichrist, he writes, “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:9-12). How is it that people will fall prey to the deceptions of the Antichrist? It is because they will refuse to love the truth and instead have pleasure in unrighteousness. And again, we have this love for sin because we are not neutral people. We are rebels at heart, traitors against the God of heaven to whom we owe our life and breath.
Therefore Paul’s conclusion is that the law is good (12). It is not bad; we are the ones who are bad.
Why it is good for us to know our sin.
Now how should we apply this reality? The law is good, and it is good precisely because it shows us our sin. Not only because law defines sin, but because it reveals to us sin’s awfulness, its nastiness, its ugliness. But be careful here. There are counterfeits to this kind of knowledge. You don’t know sin in this way just because you regret the consequences of sin. You can deeply regret the consequences of sin and yet never truly hate the sin itself, which is what the apostle is driving at. You can weep and weep and beat yourself up over your sin because of what it has done to you. But what really needs to happen is that we need to see sin as sin against God. We need to see it is hateful because it is a slap in the face of our Maker to whom we owe our deepest allegiance and love and respect. This is what King David realized: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:3-4).
We have seen the ugliness and corruption of sin when we see sin as an offense against God, when we see it in ourselves and not in others, and when it is something that we cannot shake ourselves free from unless we get the mercy of God. I question the experience of someone who claims to own up to their sin and yet they can go on with their lives as if nothing happened. Or if they are continually blame-shifting and finger-pointing. People who are truly convicted of their sins are too deeply affected with the knowledge of their own fallenness to even want to point the finger at others. Even if they have been sinned against, it is the magnitude of their own sin that continually confronts them.
My friends, it is a good thing for us to know our sin in this way, and to recognize it for what it is. Now you may ask why this is a good thing. Let me give you three reasons why it is good for us to know our sin.
First, it is good to know our sin in this way because without an experiential knowledge of sin, we will never see our need of a Savior. In other words, saving faith is impossible without it. People who claim to believe on Christ as their Savior, and yet who have never come face-to-face with the distastefulness of sin, have never closed with Christ as their Savior from sin. Christ did not come to save people who don’t want to go to hell. He came to save sinners; people who look at themselves and see sin for what it is: an offense to God and worthy of God’s worst judgment. He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mt. 9:13). It is not the Pharisee who goes to his house justified, but the tax-collector who beat upon his chest and cried, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:9-14).
Second, it is good for us to know our sin in this way because it is only by knowing our sin as it is presented in the law that we will hate it. You cannot be holy unless you hate sin. “O you who love the LORD, hate evil!” (Ps. 97:10). “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). Holiness is impossible without conviction of sin. You will never flee what you aren’t afraid of. You will never turn away in disgust from something that you find pleasing. And so until we come to see sin as something which we fear and which turns our stomachs in revulsion, we will keep coming back to partake in sin’s lies. And this is one of the things God’s law does for us. It is a mirror that helps us to see sin for what it is. Thank God for his law!
The holiest men and women have always been those who have been the most aware of their sin. I am always a little leery of someone who claims to have their act together. This is not a sign of spiritual maturity but of spiritual ignorance. There is a really big lesson to be got from the fact that the very last verse of Psalm 119, which celebrates God’s law in the lives of his people, says, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” There is a mighty balance in those words. Someone who is not only seeking God, but who continually feels their need to be sought by God, as a lost sheep that needs to be sought by its shepherd.
William Carey, the father of modern missions, had this written on his tomb: “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On Thy kind arms I fall.” That is how he viewed himself at the end of his life! How do you view your own heart and life?
My friend, the fact of the matter is that a blind person keeps a dirty house. As long as we are blind to our sin, we will keep a dirty heart. So let God’s law speak into your life. Hear his word! Let the one who has known you perfectly reveal to you the true state of your heart and life through his holy and good law. Thank God for his law!
Third, it is good for us to know our sin in this way because it is only by knowing our sin that true joy is possible. Now I’m not saying sin can’t give you pleasure. Of course it can. It can give you the sort of pleasure that a needle gives a drug addict. It can give you the sort of pleasure that a bottle gives an alcoholic. Sin can give you a manufactured pleasure that will last a little while. But it will not last forever. And it can only come at the cost of a heart that becomes hardened from that which is truly good for your soul.
On the other side, our joy can only come as we repent of our sins, and this can only be accomplished when we let God’s law do its work in our hearts. Thomas Manton, the Puritan, wrote, “A Christian is never more joyful than after, yea, in godly sorrow.” He probably thinking of 2 Cor. 7:10 when he wrote that: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” The apostle Peter wrote, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:6). The apostle James likewise writes, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (Jam. 4:9-10). I cannot think anything more desirable than to have the God of the universe exalt you. But that is the promise for all who humble themselves over their sin. But that can only truly happen when we submit ourselves to the testimony of God’s law over us.
How can we let God’s law do its work in our hearts?
Just because there are wrong ways we can use God’s law does not mean that God’s law is a bad thing. In any case, a Christian cannot ignore God’s law. It is not just in the OT, but in the NT as well. God’s law, his commandment, is simply his will for our lives. And we therefore ought to listen to it. Moreover, we ought to immerse ourselves in God’s law. Deut. 6:4-9 is just as relevant for the Christian as it was for the Jews on the outskirts of the Promised Land. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Now, how do you do this? The answer comes in the following verses: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
The fact of the matter is that conscience alone is not enough. Our consciences can be misinformed. They can be deceived or hardened. We need God’s word to speak the truth into our lives.
But the law alone is not enough. If we just try to become the kind of people God is calling us to on our own strength, then we have fallen into the very category of bad law-keeping that Paul has been warning us about. We don’t just need God’s law; we also need the Spirit of God. The only way we can truly serve in the way God is calling us to serve him is in the “new way of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). We can be exposed to the word of God without ever gaining any spiritual benefit for ourselves. This was in fact Paul’s very experience (9). We are utterly dependent upon the Spirit of God to take God’s law and write it on our hearts. We need God’s law and God’s Spirit if we will truly recognize sin for what it is and repent of it as we should. And of course God’s Spirit comes to us through the gospel, as we embrace the Savior by faith.
Now there are some people who may listen to this and think, “You don’t really know what sin is. You have lived a sheltered life and so on, and just don’t have the experience and authority to speak to people who are really dealing with some horrible things in their lives.” Now that is just bunk. Listen: you don’t know sin in the way Paul is talking about by dabbling in it. Dabbling in it will only blind you from sin’s true nature. Those who really know the power of sin are those who have never submitted to it, those who resist it the longest, not those who give in the quickest.
John Piper once gave this illustration, which I think he borrowed from C. S. Lewis. He imagined sin as a pit, and there are a number of people who have ropes tied around their waists whereas the other end of these ropes disappears into the pit. Inside the pit, something pulls on the ropes, pulling these people into the pit. Some people resist; others don’t and disappear immediately into the pit. But of those who resist, eventually some people give up and are pulled into the pit. There is one, however, who never gives up. He keeps resisting and resisting. The power of the pull never overcomes this person. The pull of the rope is like coveting, the desire for sin that Paul is talking about in our text.
Now, let me ask you: who knows the most about the power of the pull? Is it not that person who never gave up? People who just give into lust don’t really have any true idea of the power of sin. It is the person who never gives up who knows the most about sin’s power and corruption. Which means, by the way, that our Savior Jesus Christ is the one who knows more about temptation than any other man or woman who has ever lived or ever will live. And therefore “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).
The final thing I want to leave with you is that the thing that is not called for here is self-improvement. For sin indwells us. The whole purpose of the law is to produce self-despair, not self-confidence. It is to drive us to our knees, not to cause us to try to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. It should instead drive us to Christ, both for our justification and for our sanctification. For it is only in union with him that we can be made righteous before God in any sense. My friend, have you listened to God’s law? Do you hear what it says to you and about you? Do you agree with its sentence upon your life? Do you bow before its judgment? Do you see yourself, as Carey did, as a wretched, poor, and helpless worm? Then there is hope for you. The gospel, the good news of redemption, has been delivered from heaven to people just as you. Jesus has paid the price for you sin, and he has purchased the grace that you need to be freed from sin’s power and dominion and pollution. All you have to do is to submit to him in faith and repentance, to receive him as your Lord and Savior, by faith to rest completely upon his redemptive work for you. The law is our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. Let it lead you to him.