The Holy and Helpless Law
March 5, 2023 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Romans
Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 7:7-13
(Read) Blame shifting is as old as the Garden of Eden. You know the story. God gave Adam and Eve one clear and simple rule, but they disobeyed it, plain and simple. But rather than owning their sin; Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.
And every child loves Adam’s strategy. They can do the dumbest thing, but somehow, it’s always someone else’s fault. And adults aren’t much better. Have you ever hit your finger with a hammer and thrown the hammer as if the hammer did something wrong? I have. The hammer’s not stupid; I am. But it feels better to blame the hammer.
And our culture has turned blame shifting into philosophical pillar. They are adamant that people are inherently good. But if that’s so, why do they do horrible things? Frankly, it’s a major hole in the secular worldview, but they try to dismiss it by shifting the blame to environment, ignorance, or biology. People are adamant, “I’m not a bad person.” “My problems are not my fault.” Everyone is victim.
Our passage begins with a question that our society would love, “Is the Law sin?” Can’t you hear people in our day complaining, “If God didn’t have so many rules, I wouldn’t break them”? It seems like a valid complaint considering what Paul just said in v. 5. In some sense the Law arouses sinful passions. “See, the Law is to blame.”
That may be appealing in our day, but it is highly offensive to any Jew and confusing to anyone who knows and loves the Bible. Is Paul saying that the Law, which God gave, is sinful? This question dominates the rest of the chapter. Paul will respond that my biggest problem is not the Law, nor is it my environment, my body, my family, or the culture. My biggest problem is me; it is my sin nature. Our passage makes 4 assertions along these lines.
I. The Law reveals our sin (vv. 7–8).
Again, v. 7 asks the big question that dominates the rest of the chapter, “Is the Law sin?” As Paul has done several times in Romans he quickly answers, “May it never be.” He will not tolerate the thought that God’s Law, or anything God gives could be considered sinful.
Verse 12 will eventually complete this thought when it strongly affirms the ultimate goodness of God’s Law. It is “holy and righteous and good.” But for now, Paul points to the Law’s goodness by asserting that…
We need to know what pleases the Lord. He answers, “On the contrary…” Maybe you aren’t sure you are thankful that God forbids coveting. Afterall, most people don’t like rules. We want to do what we want, and we don’t want anyone telling us what to do. But Paul gives thanks that the 10th Commandment, told him that coveting is wrong.
And every true believer should agree. Yes, God’s commandments are not always easy to obey, but I love the Lord, I want to please him, and I trust his will. So, it is good that God has told me what is right and wrong.
And the OT expresses this sentiment time and again. “The law of the Lordis perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes…They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps 19:7–10). We should love God’s commands because they are God’s gracious means of transforming us.
Here, Paul focuses on the 10th God said, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Ex 20:17).
It’s a fascinating command because it’s the only one of the 10 that focuses exclusively on desires. It’s not enough that you don’t steal from your neighbor; you must not envy what God has given him.
It fits Paul’s point because most people know stealing is wrong, but they don’t mind coveting. But coveting is an assault on the goodness of God’s gifts, and it is contrary to love for neighbor. We must drive it out of our hearts.
And we should be thankful that the Law commands us not to covet. It is a means of grace to help us better love God and our neighbor. So, the Law is good. But the text takes a drastic turn in v. 8 which teaches that…
Sin uses the Law against us (v. 8). This verse is in the Bible, but it doen’t sound right, do it? How does God’s commandment inspire sin? And what does Paul mean when he says, “Apart from the Law sin is dead”?
Let’s start with the 2nd We know Paul cannot mean that sin literally does not exist without the Law based on what he said in 5:13–14. Paul says that “sin was in the world” long before God gave Moses the Law. We know this because all those people died.
Therefore, we must understand v. 8 in light of v. 13. Coveting existed long before Mt. Sinai, and it was always sinful. It played a big role in Adam and Eve’s sin. But the 10th Commandment, he “showed (it) to be sin.”
God openly condemned coveting. That’s good! But it also means that now that we have this knowledge, coveting is not just an expression of evil desires; it is rebellion against God’s command, and we can see how we have rebelled. Therefore, the Law made sin come to life by creating the knowledge of sin, and by making it rebellion. We’ll say more about that later.
Beyond that, because our sin nature is so dirty and deceitful, v. 8 says that it uses God’s command to “produce in me coveting of every kind.” We talked about this last week. We have all broken rules simply because there were rules telling us not to do something.
For example, your mother has an expensive vase on the table, and you have no desire to touch it. But the moment she tells you not to touch it, you don’t just want to touch it; you want to see it shatter. Our hearts are so desperately wicked.
So, v. 8 drives home the simple fact that my sin nature, not the Law is ultimately to blame for all my sin. Yes, things like environment, lack of education, or psychological impairments might make it harder to obey. But your sin is always your fault.
James 1:12–18: In context, James has talked a lot about trials. Sometimes our trials are very difficult, and we may even accuse God of tempting us to sin by making life so difficult. But God says that we must not go there. He only gives good gifts. Nothing truly bad in your life is from God.
Even the trials he allows are good because they are for our sanctification. Therefore, God never tempts us; rather, temptation always springs from my sinful lusts. It’s not God’s fault if you are bitter at God about your suffering; it is your fault, probably for lusting after comfort instead of desiring sanctification and intimacy with God.
Similarly, the Law is good because God only gives good gifts. But my sin and rebellion can twist God’s good gift into a horrible source of rebellion. And vv. 9–11 follow with a story of how this occurs. The 2nd major assertion is that…
II. Sin abused the Law (vv. 9–11).
I must mention that Romans 7 has been the subject of massive interpretive debate because this testimony and the testimony that’s coming later in the chapter raises some big questions. Specifically, who is Paul talking about? Is he talking about himself, the nation of Israel, or Adam and Eve in the garden.
You might reply, “Duh, Paul is clearly talking about himself. He talks about “I” and “me.” But if Paul is talking about himself, how can he claim that there was a time when he was “alive apart from the Law” or that “the commandment came” after Paul was alive? Afterall, the law was around a long time before Paul was born. That’s why some people think Paul is referring to the prohibition God gave Adam in the garden or to when Israel received the Law at Mt. Sinai.
While those theories solve a couple challenges, they aren’t the simplest way to understand the text. There may be some parallels between Paul’s experience and Adam’s or Israel’s, but the simplest way to understand our text is that Paul is talking about himself. I’ll leave it there for now.
But if Paul is talking about himself, this raises another big question. What part of his life is he describing? Is he describing his life as a legalistic Pharisee, is he describing his conversion, or his he describing his Christian struggle for sanctification? And do vv. 9–11 describe the same stage of his experience as vv. 14–25?
We’ll get to vv. 14–25 next week, but for now, I’m confident that vv. 9–11 describe Paul’s legalistic struggle to earn righteousness through the Law. I’ll explain that as we go. Notice that Paul describes 3 stages in his frustrating struggle to obey the law. The first stage is…
Life: Paul says in v. 9, “I was once alive apart from the Law.” Again, that’s a curious statement because the Law was around long before Paul was born, and Romans 5 teaches that all people are born under Adam’s condemnation.
Therefore, Paul must not be speaking literally. Rather, he is remembering his childhood before he comprehended the Law’s demands and before he tried to live up to them. He wasn’t literally spiritually alive, but he wasn’t living in open rebellion against the Law because he was ignorant of it. Transgression hadn’t “increased,” as 5:20 says. But as Paul matured, he learned about the Law, and he aspired to achieve righteousness through it. The 2nd stage is…
Deception: Paul says, “The commandment came.” He understood God’s demands, and v. 10 says that he understood the law as way to achieve life. If he could keep it perfectly, he could earn a place in heaven.
It’s worth noting that Paul was technically right. God told Israel, “You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lordyour God. So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord. (Lev 18:4–5). Perfect obedience would yield life.
The problem was that Paul didn’t account for his sin nature. Sadly, multitudes continue making the same mistake. They think they can earn God’s acceptance, so like Paul, they give themselves to earning righteousness.
But tragically, the opposite occurs. Verse 9 says, “When the commandment came, sin became alive.” And v. 11 says, “For sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me.” Instead of producing life, Paul’s legalistic pursuit was a death trap, because sin deceived him.
The Law inspired rebellion, not righteousness. And sins of ignorance became transgressions of specific commands. And on those rare occasions that Paul succeeded in obeying the Law, he ruined his victories with pride and self-righteousness. Philippians 3 says that he boasted in himself rather than boasting in the Lord. So, sin deceived Paul. What he thought was a path to life was instead a path to death. As a result, the 3rd stage is…
Death: Verse 9 says, “I died.” Verse 10 says it “resulted in death for me,” and v. 11 says “it killed me.” No sinner can achieve the righteousness of God on his own. The more you try to escape your condemnation, the deeper you sink. Legalism functions like quicksand.
I doubt that anyone here is trying to earn eternal life by keeping the Law of Moses, but maybe you are trying to get there through some other religious system. You think you can say enough prayers, do enough good deeds, and live a respectable enough life that surely God won’t condemn you.
Maybe you’ve created your own Law. If I asked you if you know you are going to heaven, you’d list off all the ways you’ve lived up to the standard you created for yourself.
Regardless, God says that you are deceived. Legalism is one of Satan’s dirtiest tricks. You believe righteousness is in reach. You think you are making progress, but you don’t realize we are being pulled deeper and deeper into condemnation.
You cannot be saved by keeping any law. You must humble yourself before the Lord, admit that you can’t do enough, and rest in Christ alone. Please do that today.
So, vv. 9–11 tell Paul’s tragic personal story of attempting to earn salvation through the law. Sin abused the Law and destroyed him, and it has done many, many times. Then, v. 12 follows with Paul’s 3rd
III. The Law is good (vv. 12).
Remember that the passage began by asking, “Is the Law sin?” Paul has emphatically replied that the problem is not the Law; sin is the culprit.
The Law will not condemn anyone to hell. In fact, God will not be responsible for anyone’s condemnation either. Death and judgment are not God’s fault; they are sin’s fault. If you want to be mad at something, be mad at sin. That’s always where the Bible always lays the blame.
Yes, when someone we love dies without Christ, Satan wants us to be angry at God that they aren’t in heaven. But James 1 said that God only gives good gifts, and that sin is always to blame. Don’t let Satan twist the sovereignty of God into God being culpable for evil and suffering. James 1 is adamant that he is not.
That said, in v. 12 Paul finally gets around to completing his answer to the question of v. 7. The Law is not sin. Instead, “The Law is…” God’s Law is holy in the sense that is distinct like God is from all that is wicked, dark, and defiled. The Law is holy like God is.
It is also righteous. Are our nation’s laws of ever unjust? Do they ever reward and punish the wrong people and the wrong behaviors? Absolutely. But God’s law never does. It is always just and right.
And God’s Law is also good. It comes from God’s generosity and kindness. It’s not designed to make your life miserable, to shut down all the fun, and to torture you with meaningless demands. No, God’s law is inspired by generous wisdom. It’s the best path to knowing God and to enjoying the very best of his blessings.
Maybe you’re confused. How can the law be good while also condemning sinners? It’s at this point that I must emphasize how the new birth transforms the function of the Law. The unbeliever is dead in sin. He has no power to obey the Law. So, for him, the Law becomes an avenue to condemnation.
But if born again, you have the power to obey God’s Law. God’s Law becomes a path to blessing, safety, and joy. That’s why Psalm 19 and many other psalms glory in the goodness of God’s Law. The new birth transforms the Law’s function.
Yes, we saw last week in vv. 1–6 that we are no longer under the Law of Moses, but we are bound to the Law of Christ. At times we resist its authority. We want to do our own thing. We don’t like the cost and the complications that obedience brings.
We must remember that God’s will is always good because God is good. No pleasure of sin can match the nearness of God that we enjoy when we are right with him. So, give thanks for the boundaries God has given in Scripture. They are for your good, and they come from perfect wisdom. Finally, v. 13 concludes the passage with a 4th assertion that is very important.
IV. The Law drives us to Christ (v. 13).
This verse begins much as v. 7 began, by adamantly denying that there is anything wrong with the Law. Sin is the problem, not the Law of God.
But you might think, “Fine, there is nothing evil about the Law itself. But it has still heightened the condemnation of so many people. Does the Law only bring harm on the unbeliever? What good is the Law for the billions of people who are unregenerate?” Those are good questions. And v. 13 answers that the Law serves a gracious purpose even among those who are lost. First…
The Law reveals my hopeless condition. Yes, the purpose statements in v. 13 don’t sound good for anyone. Paul says that the Law shows us our sin. It “effects my death.” As a result, my “sin would become utterly sinful.”
The Law effectively shines a light on our depravity. It demonstrates the infinite gap between a holy God and a sinner like me. Lots of people are certain that they deserve heaven, but the Law demonstrates that they are rebels against God. 3:20 is right when it states, “Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”
But you say, “Great, but how does that do anyone any good?” The answer is that underneath the argument of v. 13 is a very important assumption.
My hopeless condition drives me to Christ. As long as someone thinks he is okay with God, he will never believe the gospel. People have to understand they are lost before they will ever be saved. We have to come to the end of ourselves before we will ever repent of our sin and rest in Christ.
Maybe that’s what you need to do today. You’ve always thought of yourself as a pretty good person. Sure, you aren’t perfect, but you aren’t that bad and your sin isn’t that bad. You don’t need to repent of your sin because you don’t see any reason to sink that low.
God says in v. 13 that you are “utterly sinful” and that any effort you make to achieve salvation only “effects your death.” That’s hard news, but it is a good grace of God that he tells you. You need to deal with reality.
Because it is only when you embrace the reality of our text and you grieve over your sin and realize how awful it is that you will rest fully in Christ for your salvation. Please admit that you have sinned against God, and let us share with you after the service how you can be put your trust in Christ alone for salvation.
And if you are saved, never forget who you were on your own. There’s no room for pride at the foot of the cross. Give thanks that God loved you in your sin, that Jesus died for your sin, and that he drew you to himself.
Then live each day in the power of God’s grace. Love God’s law, obey God’s Law, and love others enough to share with them both the hard and the happy news of the salvation that is available in Christ.
More in Romans
March 19, 2023Bewildered by Legalism
March 12, 2023The “I” of Romans 7
February 26, 2023From Law to the Spirit