The Deadly Team of Sin and Law
From Gospel Translations
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." 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11 for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 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, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
Some They Will Kill, and Some They Will Persecute
It is a sobering thing that the bearers of good news can be treated with contempt and rejection. For example, Jesus said, "I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute" (Luke 11:49). And in another place he said, "Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name" (Matthew 24:9). And maybe most shocking of all: "An hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God" (John 16:2).
"Gospel" means good news. It means "good news" in Old English, "god spel," and it means "good news" in Greek, "euanggelion." The Christian gospel is good news. And the sad fact is that you can bring good news – the best news in the world, the best news that ever was, the best news that ever will be – and cause people to rage and swear and seethe with anger and scoff at you and even kill you.
But our greatest danger in this situation of misunderstanding or distortion or rejection or persecution is that we ourselves would stop believing that our message is good news, and start treating it as a provocation or a disputation or a legal summons to appear in court. Oh, how easy it is to lose the sense of wonder at the preciousness of the gospel – the good news of Romans 1-5 – that God justifies the ungodly by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from works, on the basis of Christ's work alone, not ours, for the glory of God alone – that "while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" – that "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
These truths are not mainly for provocation or disputation or a legal summons to appear in court. They are mainly for proclamation and celebration and liberation and jubilation. And so it should jar us – even though Jesus said it would happen – it should jar us when the best news in all the world is scorned and ridiculed and distorted and perverted and rejected.
The reason I start this way is because in Romans 6 and 7 I don't want us to lose sight of what it is really all about. It's about the gospel of justification of the ungodly [!] by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ's work alone, for the glory of God alone. It's all about the good news that sinners can have hope that God will save us from his own wrath on the basis of what Christ did for us, not on the basis of what we do for him.
Distortion of the Good News
And yet when Paul announces and unfolds this glorious good news in Romans 1-5, he has to deal immediately with distortion and rejection of the message. When Paul says in Romans 3:28, "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law," and when he says, in Romans 5:20-21, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord," there were people who said, "Paul you are making grace into license and you are making Law into sin."
And so Paul writes Romans 6 to defend grace. And he writes Romans 7 to defend Law. That is where we are now. Romans 7:7: "Is the Law sin?" he asks. Answer: "May it never be!" But the objector goes on: "Paul, look what you say in verses 9 and 10. You say, 'I was once alive apart from the Law [that is, he once had little or no consciousness of sin or condemnation or slavery; he just did what he felt like doing; it seemed like freedom and felt like being alive]; but when the commandment came [perhaps as a child or an adolescent waking up from the obliviousness and freedom of self-centeredness; or perhaps at his conversion seeing for the first time the true nature of his spiritual deadness], sin became alive [that is, he experienced sin as sin and the rebellion it really was] and I died [he experienced subjectively the objective reality of his true hopeless condition of slavery to sin, spiritual death]; and this commandment, which was to result in life [the commandments pointed to life, offered life, and couldn't give life – too weak and too powerless], proved to result in death for me.'
"There, you see, Paul, you said it again. You said that God's commandment killed you. You make a murderer out of the Law. You make the Law sin." So Paul continues to explain his meaning in verse 11. "No," he says in essence, "what I mean is this. When I say that the commandment became death for me, I mean, 'Sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.' Sin killed me. Sin brought about my deadly condemnation. Sin brought about my experience of spiritual doom. Sin used the commandment of God as the weapon, but sin is the killer." So he concludes in verse 12: "So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good."
And in verse 13 he repeats in the strongest language possible that sin, not the commandment, killed him. "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." This is verse 11 all over again: "Sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me."
That's not What the Law Is for
Picture the Law as a surgeon's scalpel. It is meant for life and healing. And here comes sin and takes the scalpel of God's commandments and slashes people's throats with it. It reminds me of the line in one of Michael Card's songs – the words to Judas: "That's not what a kiss is for." The commandment – holy, just, good – was to be life to me, and it became death for me, because sin took the scalpel out of the surgeon's hand and with it slashed my throat and killed me (verse 10). That is not what a scalpel is for.
Why would God allow this? Paul answers at the end of verse 13: "so that through the commandment sin would become utterly [=exceedingly, immeasurably] sinful." It is sinful to murder; it is doubly sinful to force innocent people to help you murder. It is sinful to poison a child; it is doubly sinful to trick a mother into giving the poison to her own child. You don't boil a baby goat in its mother's milk. That is not what a mother's milk is for. It is for life, not death. It is sinful to break God's Law; it is doubly sinful to use God's Law to break God's Law.
So the bottom line so far in Romans 7 is that the reason we need to die to the Law is not because the Law is sin, but because the Law is weak and vulnerable, and we are utterly sinful. Therefore, the Law cannot be the first and decisive means of our justification or our sanctification, because "when the commandment comes" our sin rises up, comes alive, and uses the commandment to kill us, not save us.
How does sin do that? Verse 11 gives the key word to explain how sin does this killing work through the commandments. "Sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me." Sin uses the commandments to deceive us. Sin is fundamentally a liar. Sin kills by deceit and superficial logic. It says things like: "You're tired. You need a good night's rest. But you are tense and can't sleep. A sleeping pill might help. The instructions hold out hope for pretty good rest if you take a pill. Wouldn't you really like one really wonderful night's sleep, a hundred times better than average? Yes? Well then, take a hundred pills." Sin is a murderer, and it murders by making promises it cannot keep.
If you are perishing under the guilt and power of sin, it is because you are being deceived. Sin is lying to you, and you are believing it. Sin is making promises to you that it cannot keep and you are trusting in these promises.
But, you say, how does sin do that with the Law? What deception does sin use when the commandment comes? Verse 11 says, "Sin, taking opportunity through the commandment deceived me." What lie – what tricky half-truth – does sin speak, when it meets the commandment of God? I think the deception of sin when it meets God's commandments can be boiled down into two basic lies. They sound almost like opposites; but they are, at the root, the same.
On the one hand, sin might say when it meets the commandments of God: "You can't keep these commandments, and you wouldn't want to if you could. And so there is no hope for you if there is a holy God, and you may as well put all that out of your head and get as much pleasure in this life as you can."
Or, on the other hand, sin might say when it meets the commandments: "You can keep these. So muster all your willpower and show yourself as good as the next guy to get ready for the judgment."
In other words, sin takes the Law in hand and kills us with one of two kinds of deception about our future. It either offers hopelessness relieved by self-indulgence, or it offers hopefulness supported by self-righteousness. One by telling you that you can't keep the commandments and so you should be hopeless. The other by telling you that you can and so you should be hopeful. They are both lies. And to believe either of them is suicide.
What Is the Remedy?
What is the remedy? Die to the Law and live to God through the crucified and risen Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the remedy. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). It is the only message in the world that gives hope to both the ungodly self-indulgent and the ungodly self-righteous.
It says to the hopeless self-indulgent, there is hope for you, because, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, because God will forgive you for Christ's sake, if you will receive him as a treasured gift and trust him.
And the gospel says to the hopeful self-righteous, there is true hope for you, because, though your righteousness be as filthy rags, the perfect obedience of Jesus will be credited to your account, if you will receive him as a treasured gift and trust him.
So I bring you good news today, whether you are hopeless and self-indulgent or you are hopeful and self-righteous. Jesus lived and died for both kinds of sinners. Believe in him today. Trust him as God's provision for your salvation. Receive him as the treasure of your life.