What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! 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.”
(a) Is the Law sin? The law and sin are related in the same way that a policeman and a criminal are related. The former is good and necessary; the latter is destructive and dangerous.
(b) I would not have come to know sin. The law serves several purposes and the first thing it does is reveal our sinful state (Rom. 3:20). The law draws attention to our bondage to sin (Rom. 7:14).
Before he came to Christ, the apostle Paul had a problem with coveting. But he didn’t know he had a problem until the law revealed it to him. “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.” It’s the same with us. We don’t know what sin is until the law tells us. We don’t know we’re not free until the law dares us to act free and we find we cannot.
You may have thought, “I’m basically a good person,” but the law says, “No one is good except God alone. You have fallen short of the good life for which he made you. You are less than what God intended you to be.” As we listen to the accusations of the law we realize this is true. “I covet. I lie. I slander. I’m not such a good person after all. I’m as guilty as sin.”
Further reading: “What are the three uses of the law?”
But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.
If the first purpose of the law is act like a mirror and reveal our sinful state, the second purpose of the law is to inflame sin. Upon discovering he had a coveting problem, Paul resolved to fix it. “I didn’t know I was sinning, but now that I do, I’ll stop.” To his dismay, Paul found his law-keeping efforts only made things worse. “Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting.”
If you have ever tried to overcome sin in your own strength, you will know that the harder you try, the harder it gets. You resolve to be pure but you stumble. You promise to do better but you fail.
We fail because the power of sin is the law (1 Cor. 15:56). The problem is not the law, which is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12); the problem is you. As sin’s prisoner, you are not capable of freeing yourself.
I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
The law does not help us overcome sin; the law helps sin overcome you. The law ministers death (2 Cor. 3:7) and it does this by demanding that we perform day in and day out, with no time off for good behavior. “Come on you sinner! Try harder. Don’t you want to do your best for Jesus? Don’t you want to be free?”
Urged on by the merciless law, we run into the prison wall again and again until we are smashed and broken and our pathetic promises are exposed as futile. Eventually we collapse, spent and hopeless. From our once-proud mouths we whisper words of defeat. “I can’t do this. What a wretch I am. Who will rescue me from this prison of death?” (Rom. 7:24).
Further reading: “What is the purpose of the law?”
So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
There are many things that are good which are not good for you. Everything God made in the Garden of Eden was good, but the fruit of the forbidden treat was not good for you. It’s the same with the law. It is good, but only if used properly (1 Tim. 1:8).
The law is not your guide for holy living or a substitute teacher for the Holy Spirit. Try and live under the law and you will put yourself under a curse (Gal. 3:10). The problem is not the law; it is you. Your flesh cannot cope with the law (Rom. 8:3). Put law on yourself or your marriage and family, and you will be sowing death into your life (Rom. 7:5). This happens because the law stimulates and inflames sin (Rom. 7:8).
Further reading: “When doing good is bad for you”
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, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
(a) That which is good is the law (see Rom. 7:12). Paul takes great pains to show that the law is not sin (see Rom. 7:7).
(b) Sin would become utterly sinful. The law is the x-ray that reveals the cancer of sin.
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
One of humanity’s biggest problems is we think we’re free when we’re not. We’re prisoners of sin but we don’t know it until the law asks us to do something we cannot do. The law reveals our bondage to sin.
Picture a prisoner living in a small cell. He’s been there so long he’s become institutionalized. Then the law comes along and says, “You think this is real life? Freedom and flowers are just outside this wall. Pass through and be free.”
The prisoner says, “I’ll do it,” and walks smack into the wall. The prisoner remains as confined as ever, but now he’s had some sense knocked into him. He sees the stone walls of his cell as if for the first time. He realizes, This is not my true home. I want to be free.
We are the prisoners, and our bodies are the prisons. Our bodies aren’t inherently evil or sinful, but they are the place where we encounter sin. The effects of sin are felt in our bodies and minds. This is why Paul refers to the “sin in me,” “the sin in my members,” and “the body of sin” (Rom. 6:6, 7:17, 20).
Since we experience sin in the flesh, the temptation is to respond in the flesh. But sin is stronger than our flesh. We may think we can resist sin through sheer determination, but it’s a lost cause. This is why we need the law—not to help us win the war against sin but to help us lose revealing our need for grace.
Further reading: “The purpose of the law”
The Grace Commentary is a reader-funded website. Got something to say about the commentary? Please use the Feedback page. To report typos or broken links or give feedback on this specific page, please use the comment form below.