Pastor David B. Curtis


Is The Law Sin?

Romans 7:7-12

Delivered 08/21/2011

If you were a Jew in the first century reading Paul's letter to the Romans you would have been shocked at the way Paul speaks about The Law, the Torah. The Jews of Paul's day highly esteemed The Law of God in every sense. So what Paul has said thus far in this letter would have troubled them, to say the least:

because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. Romans 3:20 NASB

You can't become right with God, can't be made just by The Law. All The Law can do is bring a knowledge of sin:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, Romans 3:21 NASB

Being made right with God is apart from The Law:

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Romans 3:28 NASB
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world 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 4:13-14 NASB

It is those who are made heirs by faith that receive the promise, not by Law:

The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, Romans 5:20 NASB

The Law was given by God to increase the transgression!

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:14 NASB

This would have stunned them, not under the Law? Doesn't that make us Gentiles?:

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 order that we might bear fruit for God. Romans 7:4 NASB

In other words, The Law bared them from marrying Christ. Only death to The Law can free them from The Law to belong to Christ. In Paul's marriage analogy he is talking about Israel being married to the flesh, the body of Adam. Living under The Law brings about sinful passions. You cannot obey The Law while in the flesh. But wait, there's more:

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. Romans 7:5 NASB

The Law arouses sin and links up with sin to bring about death. And finally . . .

But now 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. Romans 7:6 NASB

The Law hinders life in the Spirit. You must be released from it "so that you may serve in the newness of the Spirit."

It sure sounds like Paul has a negative view of The Law. Hasn't Paul implied that The Law is not something good, but something evil? Isn't this precisely what his Jewish opponents accused him of doing?:

When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, "Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place." Acts 21:27-28 NASB

It sounds like Paul is antinomian. It sounds like he is against The Law. This would have inflamed the Jews of his day who highly esteemed The Law of God. When we talk about The Law we are not referring to just the Ten Commandments. The rabbis had gone through the Hebrew Scriptures and found six hundred and thirteen commands that had to be kept. This was The Law, all six hundred and thirteen commands There were 248 mandatory things to be done. These commands related to God, to the temple, to sacrifices, to vows, to rituals, donations, Sabbaths, animals for consumption, things you ate, festivals, idolatry, war, social issues, family issues, judicial matters, legal rights, slavery, on and on; 248 mandatory things that had to be done. There were also 365 prohibitory things not to be done. And these commands related also to idolatry, to historical events, blasphemy, temple worship, sacrifices, priests, vows, agricultural, loans, business, slaves, justice, and relationships.

So if you were a god fearing Israelite, you spent all your time trying to keep the 248 and avoid the 365. To first century Judaism The Law was the most precious gift God had given them, safeguarding their relationship with Him.

Then along comes Paul and connects The Law to "the sin" and says that they are not under The Law, and that they had died to The Law. A thoughtful listener to the apostle may have thought something like this: Now, Paul, you just said in chapter 6 that the believer has died in respect to sin, and now in chapter 7 the believer has died with respect to The law. If the believer has died with respect to sin, and he had died with respect to The law, are you not, Paul, putting the two in the same category? Are you not saying that The Law stands in the same category that sin stands? Is God's Law sinful? That brings us to our text for today:

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know the sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "YOU SHALL NOT COVET." Romans 7:7 NASB

In diatribe style Paul raises another question. "Is the Law sin?"--Paul had preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ all over the eastern world. He spent many hours on the street corners, in the synagogues, in the schools as in Ephesus and in other public places debating the truths of Christianity, and he undoubtedly had heard all of the objections that can be lodged against the Christian truth. So he continually raises the questions that his Roman readers may have had. He brings up these questions so that he can answer them.

"Law" here can only be the Mosaic Law. In order to make Paul relevant, theologians have read Law as though it referred to a general moral law which all human beings lived under. For Paul The Law is Torah, the Jewish Law. We cannot, we must not change the meaning of Law to attempt to make Paul's words relevant to us. We must understand Paul in context and then seek to make application.

Paul's response to this question is, "May it never be!"--when Paul uses this expression in Romans he is saying: This is a false conclusion based upon a correct premise. The premise is we are dead to sin and to The Law so the conclusion is The Law and sin are in the same category, and therefore, The Law is sinful. Paul's answer to the question is found in verse 12:

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Romans 7:12 NASB

The Law is an expression of the character of God, it is not sin.

Who is the "I" here? The identity of the "I" in verses 7-25 has generated much controversy. There are three main views on this. One view is that the "I" is autobiographical, denoting the experience of Paul. This is by far the predominant view; stating that Paul describes from his own experience how sin took advantage of the entrance of The Law. Paul relates his experience as a young Jewish boy when he became a "son of the commandment" at the age of 13. Until this time, Paul had not realized his own sin, but once he became aware of the requirement of The Law he saw himself as a sinner.

S.L. Johnson, reflecting this view, writes: "Here is the Apostle Paul, one of the leading representatives of the leading religion of the day, Judaism, and he is a man who confesses he had not known sin, "I have not known sin but by The Law." That's an amazing thing. He goes on to say, "Finally, God spoke to the apostle, torn away all those things that prevented him from seeing himself as he really was, and he saw that he was a sinner."

A second view is that the "I" refers to Adam's experience with God's commandment in the Garden of Eden. Kasemann writes: "There is nothing in the passage which does not fit Adam, and everything fits Adam alone." We'll look at how this view fits or doesn't fit as we deal with these verses.

A third view is that the "I" refers to Israel's reception of The Law at Sinai, their transgression, and their subsequent death. This explanation would account for the historical narrative and progression found in verses 8-10.

I see Paul here as not talking about himself, this is not autobiographical. Paul uses "I" as a rhetorical device, personifying both Adam and Israel. So I think a combination of the second and third views best fits the text. N.T. Wright says: "Paul's point is precisely that what happened on Sinai recapitulated what happened in Eden...What he has done here is to tell the one story, that of Israel, that echoes of the other, that of Adam."

In the rhetorical letter-writing skill in the first-century it was common practice to "put on a character," so to speak, especially a character renowned in biblical history. It is a fact, too, that Jews relived the Passover account in the first-person, even if they didn't experience it themselves, all in the effort to identify with their people. They would say things like: "I was held in Egyptian slavery. God delivered me through His servant Moses." In other words, speaking in the first-person could be a way of creating solidarity with others by taking on a character. Paul is telling here the story of Israel in the first person singular. He is identifying himself with his people Israel, so he cannot be accused of being anti-semitic.

"I would not have come to know 'the' sin except through the Law"--notice that it is still "the sin," the sin of Adam, which goes back to 5:12 and 20. I would not have known that I was in Adam and condemned had The Law not revealed that to me.

The Law is not sin, but The Law reveals sin. It's the same thing that he said back in chapter 3 and verse 20. I would not have come to know sin except through The Law.

Reformed theologians like to distinguish the moral from the ceremonial parts of the Mosaic Law at this point. Many of them contend that God has only terminated the ceremonial part of The Law.

S.L. Johnson writes: "So when he says, 'Is the law sin?' he's speaking specifically of the moral law incorporated into the Law of Moses; those Ten Commandments which are not to ever be separated from the whole of the Mosaic Law but what Reformed expositors call the moral part of the Mosaic Law."

John MacArthur writes: "Paul gets very personal, back in Romans, very personal, and you see the first person pronoun "I," "I would not have come to know sin except through The Law." He's talking about the moral Law here, not ceremonial Law and ritual Law which had been set aside, was being, of course, set aside first when Jesus came and was really finally crushed in His death and eventually obliterated in the destruction of Jerusalem, all of that went away. But he's talking about the moral Law."

As I said in our last study, there is nothing in Scripture to support the idea that The Law should be divided into three parts, such as the ceremonial Law, the civil Law, and the moral Law. This is an unbiblical division. To the Jews The Law was the 613 commandments.

Paul's first argument is that The Law has made Adam/Israel know what sin is. The Law is in direct conflict with sin. It presents the very standard that sin opposes, i.e., God's standard. It is like light, and its introduction into darkness shows what was hidden. The problem is not The Law; the problem is the condition of man, he is in Adam, a slave to sin.

To think The Law to be sinful is like calling an x-ray evil simply because it has some kind of relationship to cancer. An x-ray is good and beneficial simply because it exposes what is fatal to man if not dealt with. So, too, The Law exposes sin in man, which must be dealt with through the blood of Jesus Christ.

Augustine's fourth century mentor, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, summarized Paul's concern in these verses, "The Law is the discoverer, not the begetter of sin" (editor's note in John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries, XIX, 252).

"For I would not have known about coveting if The Law had not said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COVET'"--the intention of The Law is to prevent sin. The Law says, "You shall not covet," rather than, "You can covet."

The word "known" here is gnosko, which is normally reserved for experiential knowledge rather than academic, intellectual knowledge. The Law did not merely give a correct "academic" understanding of sin; it made Adam/Israel aware of its power and authority. The light of The Law exposed the full horror of sin's true nature.

The word "covet" is from the Greek word epithumeo, which means simply: "desire" --it can be desires we should have as in Hebrews 6:11, or desires we should not have. Here it is used of wrong desires.

The desire to eat the forbidden fruit was the root sin of both Adam and Eve. We see this in Genesis 3. The serpent asked Eve:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, "Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden'?" Genesis 3:1 NASB

In effect he was asking, "Did God command that all the trees are off limits?" Eve corrected him, but in doing so, she added to the command:

The woman said to the serpent, "From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'" Genesis 3:2-3 NASB

Actually, nothing about touching it was stated in the original command in Genesis 2:17. The subtle twisting of God's commands, viewed as denying Eve of something pleasurable, was at work. The serpent continued:

The serpent said to the woman, "You surely will not die! "For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Genesis 3:4-5 NASB

Satan said: God is lying to you! Eating of this tree will be to your advantage. It will make you happy and wise. So Eve began to desire or covet:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Genesis 3:6 NASB

The word "desirable" here is from the Hebrew word chamad, which can be translated: "covet." This indicates that Eve's desire can be traced to a desire to be like God.

Coveting shows we have lost our contentment in all that God is for us. Some desires show that we have lost our satisfaction in God and what He is for us, and are yearning for other things to make up for the fact that God is not the treasure for us that He ought to be.

Discontentment with God and His provisions is at the root of coveting. No wonder Paul compared it to idolatry (Eph. 5:5), because he understood that man often worships his desires, not God.

So we see in 7:7 that The Law reveals sin. Apart from God giving a command, we would have no knowledge of sin. Maybe this is why there is so little knowledge of sin in our society, because there is so little knowledge of God's word.

Back in 1973 Karl Menninger, who is a psychiatrist, wrote a very influential book, entitled Whatever Became of Sin? The whole burden of this book is to document the disappearance of sin from American society. In that book, Dr. Menninger says: "The very word 'sin,' which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. It described a central point in every civilized human being's life plan and lifestyle. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared--the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn't anyone sin any more? Doesn't anyone believe in sin?" (p. 14).

I would have to say, "Not many do believe in sin any more. And this is because God's Word reveals sin, and we have done away with God and His Word in our society." Joel Osteen, who is the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which is the largest congregation in America with over 30,000 members, doesn't talk about sin. Larry King asked him: "Is sin a word you don't use?" Osteen responded, "I don't use it. I never thought about it. But I probably don't. But most people already know what they're doing wrong. When I get them to church I want to tell them that they can change. There can be a difference in their life. So I don't go down the road of condemning."

Believers, it is our job to hold up the Word of God, to be the conscience of our society, so people will be made aware of their need for God.

Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president, once visited a church and was asked what the preacher spoke on. He simply said, "Sin." What did he say about it? Mr. Coolidge was asked. "He was against it," said Mr. Coolidge. We need more churches today who are against sin.

But the sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. Romans 7:8 NASB

Again, it is "the sin" taking the opportunity. Sin is seen here as a principality that uses the commandment to arouse sin. In Adam's case sin did not exist in the human race before the giving of the commandment. Before God gave the command in Eden, Satan had no opportunity to seduce Adam. But the giving of the command changed that, and Satan seized his opportunity to challenge man's love for, and obedience to, his Creator.

Through Adam's disobedience, he acted like an adulterer by rejecting God's love and embracing sin, the covenant with God was terminated. And man entered into a relationship with sin, and The Law was powerless to change it:

I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; Romans 7:9 NASB

This can only be true of Adam. We know from 5:12 that all men are born dead in Adam. No one since Adam was alive in the theological sense.

How is Paul using alive and died? It seems to me if we keep this verse in its larger context, going back to:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned-- Romans 5:12 NASB

The death here is the same death as we see in our text. Adam was alive--he was in fellowship with God. When he sinned, he died--he lost fellowship with God. He died spiritually.

John MacArthur writes: "Listen how personal Paul is, and he's describing his pre-salvation experience...When he says I was once alive, he doesn't mean I was possessor of spiritual life, he doesn't mean I was a possessor of eternal life, he's simply saying, 'I was free.'" That is not what Paul says! Paul could have said "free." but he said "alive."

Tom Constable writes: "Paul was relatively alive apart from The Law. No one is ever completely unrelated to it. However in his past, Paul had lived unaware of The Law's true demands and was therefore self-righteous."

John Piper writes: "'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."

They all know that Paul was not spiritually alive apart from The Law. so they have to make "alive" mean something other than spiritually alive. Paul, as Adam, remembers the start of the story, before the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had been mentioned. As soon as the command was given, temptation presented itself and lured him to disobey the command of God. When Paul says in verse 8: "sin taking opportunity," and in verse 9, "sin became alive," those are military terms. They're terms for waiting in ambush. Paul is referring to Satan, who took the opportunity to seduce Adam with false promises. This brought an end to fellowship with God and established humanity's bondage to Sin.

MacArthur, because of his view that Paul is talking about himself in Romans 7:9, says this: "True believers, even though they are new creations, and because they are new creations have a built-in nature that despises remaining sin. And no matter how they would want to feel good about their spiritual progress, they continually feel like disappointments to God, hating the flesh that clings to that glorious new creation." If that isn't a sad statement I don't know what is. What kind of a relationship can we have with God when we "continually feel like disappointments to God?" I am not a disappointment to God, I am in union with His Son, I am righteous, holy, I have perfectly obeyed The Law. Believers are not disappointments to God, we are His holy children! I hope you can see from this that misinterpretation leads to bad theology.

and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; Romans 7:10 NASB

I don't think that this is a good translation. The Greek word translated "result" here is eis (ice). This word eis is found 146 times in the New Testament, and it is translated: "result" only here and in 1 Peter 1:7.

Life did not come as a result of the commandment. The commandment was there to protect the life that Adam had. Young's puts it this way:

and the command that is for life, this was found by me for death; Romans 7:10 YLT

He knew the command was given for positive reasons, to bless and protect man. Adam's perversity in believing Satan's lie and in accusing God of malice was the problem. Thus humankind, through its disobedience, died to the relationship with God for which it had been created.

Originally The Law was ordained to life. God made man perfect and gave him a perfect law. God promised Adam life on condition of obedience. As long as he obeyed, The Law justified him. The Law was his friend and protector.

Then man rebelled against The Law. With all the fury and power of divine authority, The Law sentenced him to death, became his jailer and threw him into prison.

It's like our state or federal laws. As long as you respect, honor, and obey these laws, the law is your friend and protector. But suppose you rebel and become an enemy of the law. What then? The law will become your adversary. It will take hold of you and cast you into prison.

Obedience to The Law brings life, but fallen man, man in Adam, cannot obey The Law. This is why when Jesus was asked by the rich young ruler, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" Jesus' response was, "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." Jesus was using The Law to point out this man's sin. But the man didn't see his sin and responded, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?"

for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. Romans 7:11 NASB

This is clearly talking about the serpent in The Garden. The word "killed" here is apokteino; it is used 70 times in the New Testament and always of literal killing.

Paul sees Sin as a predator, waiting to attack and kill. Satan saw his opportunity in Eden when the command was given, and realized that The Law of God--given for man's blessing--could be used against Adam. By enticing him to disobey, he secured the decisive victory that he wanted. He turned man against God and put him into a position of guilt before the one who loved him.

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Romans 7:12 NASB

So then (hoste) brings this section to a conclusion. Paul is answering the question raised in Romans 7:7, where he asked, "Is The Law sin?" Far from being sinful, The Law is holy. It comes from a holy God and searches out sin. It is righteous because it lays just requirements on people and because it forbids and condemns sin. It is good because its purpose is to produce blessing and life (v. 10). Holy, righteous, and good; Ultimately, these attributes express the character of the Living God whose commandment it is.

Paul is going to tell us that the problem is not with The Law, it's with the flesh:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, Romans 8:3 NASB

The Law could not produce God's righteousness. It wasn't The Law's fault, the problem was in the flesh. What The Law couldn't do, God did.

In this text, 7:7-12, Paul is describing the arrival of Torah in Israel and saying when Torah came Israel recapitulated The Sin of Adam. Israel pictures to the world what happened in the Garden of Eden. This is what Paul was saying in miniature in Romans 5:20.

So Paul has exonerated The Law as being identical with sin. The Law is holy, just, and good. In our next study Paul asks and answers another question: "Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me?"

Continue the Series

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