The Importance of Knowing Our Sin
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written
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.
There Is Law!
The main point of the book of Romans up to this point is that God is gloriously righteous in justifying the ungodly by faith alone apart from works of the Law. Romans 4:5 says, "To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness." How can this be? How can God justify – declare as righteous – the ungodly who simply look away from themselves to Christ and trust him? How can he acquit the guilty?
The answer came in one of the most important statements of the Bible, Romans 3:24-26. God put forward Jesus Christ, his Son, to die in our place "so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." There is the high point of the book so far: Jesus, who was crucified, is the sin-bearing Redeemer; we, who trust him, are justified; God, who gave him, is righteous. That's the glorious gospel of Christ.
Now, there is a massive assumption underneath this gospel. The assumption is this: there is law. The Creator of the universe has revealed his will. And it is law. When it is not done, there is real guilt and real condemnation and real punishment. So the existence of law in the universe – the revealed will of God – creates the foundation for law-breaking and guilt, and law-keeping and righteousness, and court and judge, and justification and condemnation. All of these great things rest on this one assumption: there is law.
So when Paul proclaims that there are lawbreakers and there is guilt, and there is court and there is Judge, and there is a guilt-bearing substitute and there is faith, and there is justification by faith alone apart from law-keeping – when Paul proclaims this, the grand assumption is: law!
No law, no law-breaking; no law-breaking, no guilt; no guilt, no court; no court, no judge; no judge, no justification and no need for incarnation or crucifixion. The whole reality and the whole glory of redemption hang on the existence and excellence of law.
Paul's Shocking Way of Speaking about the Law
The reason I stress this is to throw into stark relief the fact that Paul says so many negative things about the Law. It's amazing. It should make us tremble. To speak the way Paul speaks about the Law of God is shocking.
- Romans 3:20, "By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin."
- Romans 3:21, "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested."
- Romans 3:28, "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."
- Romans 4:13-14, "The promise to Abraham . . . was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified."
- Romans 5:20, "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase."
- Romans 6:14, "For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace." It gets worse . . .
- Romans 7:4, "Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead." In other words – and we say it with trembling care – the Law bars us from marrying Christ. Only death to the Law can free us from the Law to belong to Christ. There's more.
- Romans 7:5, "For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death." The Law arouses sin and links up with sin to bring about death. And finally . . .
- Romans 7:6 "We have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter." The Law hinders life in the Spirit. You must be released from it, "so that you may serve in the newness of the Spirit.
That's amazing coming from the mouth of a mere man – even an inspired man.
I lay it out before you so that you will feel the urgency of the question that begins today's text. Romans 7:7, "What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?" There were saints in the Old Testament, you remember, who loved the Law of God. Psalm 119:97, "O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day." Psalm 1:2, "His delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night." The words of Paul must have landed on some humble saints like an utterly unjustified indictment.
Does this matter to Paul? Does he care what people think about the Law? It matters tremendously – which is why we are going to spend several Sundays on this question. It matters to him what you think of the Law, and what you do with the Law. It really matters. So today, we'll just make a start in answering Paul's question.
The Law Is Holy and Righteous and Good
His answer is given immediately in verse 7: "What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?" Answer: "May it never be!" No! The Law is not sin. That is his negative answer. But even more powerfully, in verse 12 he puts it positively: "So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." Be sure you see the force of what he is saying. Not only is it not sin, and not only is it holy, and not only is it righteous or just, but it is also good.
There is one other place in Romans where Paul puts the words "righteous" and "good" together, namely Romans 5:7, where he says, "For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die." This means that a man, simply considered for his righteousness – his justice – might be admired enough that someone would die for him. But a "good" man – a man considered mainly for his goodness, not just his righteousness – is a man that has so endeared himself to you that you are more ready to die for him. "Justice" or "righteousness" seems to focus on what is legal and right to do. "Goodness" seems to focus on what is helpful and caring to do. They aren't in conflict. But they are two ways of seeing and acting –each appropriate in its own way.
So when Paul says the Law is holy and righteous and good, he means that the Law is not only a rigorous standard of what is right and just, but also what is helpful. The Law expresses care as well as correctness.
So let's listen to Paul's defense of the Law as holy and righteous and good. Everything from the middle of verse 7 to the end of verse 11 is Paul's defense of the Law, after all his seemingly negative descriptions.
He begins in the middle of verse 7: No the Law is not sin, "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.'"
Know Your Sin
The first thing I see in that defense of the Law is that we need to know sin. It is important for us to know our sin. It is good for us to know our sin. Paul assumes this, doesn't he? To defend his statement that the Law is not sin – it's holy, just, good – he says: it's not sin, because without it I wouldn't know sin. Now if it weren't good and right and helpful and important for you and me to know our sin, this would be no argument. We would simply say, "Who cares if we know our sin!" Well, Paul cares. God cares. And I care that you care.
O the perils of not knowing our sin! There is a great sadness that comes from not being saddened by knowing our sin. There is a great pain that comes to the soul and to the marriage and to the family and to the church and to the world from not tasting the pain of knowing our sin. There is a great self-destruction that comes from not experiencing the self-devastation of knowing our sin. There is an eternal loss that comes from not losing our pride in the knowledge of our sin.
If there is any hope and any faith and any joy and peace and love, it will come from knowing our sin. So get to know your sin!
And do you know one of the clearest evidences of sin in this room right now? Some of you have just interpreted what I said me to mean: experiment with sin. The pastor just said try a little pornography, try a little fornication, try a little lying and stealing and swearing. See what it feels like. Get to know it. The pastor said so. You know that's not what I mean, but sin, always looking for a way to exploit the mind for its own desires, takes your mind captive and makes some of your most foolish thoughts look plausible. O how subtle and devious is our sin!
Who Understands the Full Power of Sin?
No, you don't need to experiment with particular sins in order to know the power of sin in your life. Think of it this way. Someone says: How can you really know the power of the temptation to lust – say to look at Internet nudity – if you've never given in and experienced it? Let me give an answer in a parable. There are three men – women, you supply the necessary changes to make the parable fit your situation – and each of the three stands beside a pit of lewdness and sin. Three ropes extend out of the pit, one bound around each man's waist. The strength of this narrow cord is one-hundred-pound test.
The first man begins to be pulled into the pit that looks exciting, but that he knows is deadly. Five pounds of pressure, ten pounds, fifteen pounds. He resists and fights back. Twenty pounds, twenty-five. He digs in his heels with all his might. Thirty pounds, thirty-five pounds, and the rope starts to squeeze and he stops resisting and jumps in. Click goes the mouse button.
The second man begins to be pulled into the pit. Five pounds of pressure, ten pounds, fifteen pounds. He resists and fights back. Twenty pounds, twenty-five pounds. He digs in his heels. Thirty pounds, thirty-five pounds, and the rope starts to squeeze. He says, No! and fights back. Forty pounds, forty-five pounds, fifty pounds, fifty-five pounds. It's harder to breathe as the rope tightens around his stomach and it begins to hurt. Sixty pounds, and he stops resisting and jumps into the pit. Click.
The third man begins to be pulled into the pit. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five pounds of pressure. He resists and fights back. Thirty, thirty-five, forty, and the rope starts to squeeze. He says, No! and fights back. Fifty pounds, sixty. It's harder to breathe as the rope tightens around his stomach and begins to hurt. Seventy pounds and his feet start to slip toward the pit. He cries out for help, and reaches out to grab a branch – shaped like a cross. In the distance he sees his wife going about her business, trusting him; he sees his children playing, and in their hearts admiring him. And beyond them all, he sees Jesus Christ with a gash in his side standing, with both hands lifted and fists clenched and smiling. And filled with passion, the third man holds fast. Seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five pounds, and the rope cuts into his sides and the pain stabs. Ninety, ninety-five and the tears flow unbidden down his cheeks. One hundred and the rope snaps. No click.
Question: which of these men knows the full power of temptation?
If this were a message on lust I would look around this room and say, "Are there any soldiers here? Does anyone in this room have blood on his shirt and scars on his side? Do you know the power of temptation? Or do you just jump in before its power is spent?"
But this is not a message on lust. And all I am doing right now is answering the objection that the only or the best way to know your sin is to give into temptation and experiment with sin and taste the pit. Not true.
So I have only made one point from verse 7 so far. And that's all I am going to make today, namely, it's important for us to know our sin. Know your sin! This is Paul's first defense of the Law. He says, The Law is not sin! On the contrary, the Law helps me know my sin. And this knowing is a holy thing. This knowing my sin is a righteous thing. This knowing my sin and my self as a sinner is a good thing. A precious thing. A caring, loving thing. That's my point this morning.
The Pleasure of Knowing Our Sin . . . Forgiven
But why? Why is this good? And precious? What's good and precious about the sadness and pain and loss and self-devastation and humiliation of knowing my sin – not my sins – but my sin? And why in verse 7 does Paul focus on covetousness (desire) in particular? What does that tell us about ourselves and the condition of our heart?
That's next week. And if you wonder whether it is a suitable topic for Palm Sunday, remember this. Some of the people who were waving palm branches on Sunday were shouting, "Crucify Him!" on Friday. Figure that out. All those stories are told for our sake. Because that's us. And that's sin. And I say again, "O the pain of not tasting the pain of knowing our sin!" And – as we will see next week – O the pleasure that comes through knowing our sin – forgiven. If you try the shortcut around the pain of knowing your sin – as sin! – you will not know the pleasures of those who cherish Jesus. You will barely cherish him at all. In fact, you will wonder, "Why do people use words like 'cherish' for Jesus?" O come and let's find out together!