As we approach our text today I do wonder whether or not you’ll think it’s relevant to you. Paul has spoken much about the Law of God in this letter to the Romans and now that it’s before us once again in 7:7-12 will you be tempted to check out? Perhaps grow frustrated thinking to yourself that we should just move ahead past it and get to the famous verses that come next and deal with our struggle with sin as believers in v13-25? This might not be your response today, but I’m sure for many of you it is because the subject of the Law of God isn’t a common topic of conversation today and the Law of God isn’t expounded very often even in the best of pulpits. In this light John Wesley’s words are fitting to hear. Preaching on the Law of God he once said, “There are so few subjects within the whole compass of Scripture so little understood as the Law…Therefore if we’re to have a high regard for the Law we must explain and enforce these deep words before us today.”[1]

That indeed is what’s before us in our passage, so let’s ask for God’s help as we begin.

Our first heading comes from v7a…

Our Question about the Law (v7a)

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!”

Yet again, before us is a new section beginning in a similar manner as many other sections have before. A volatile question, followed by an emphatic denial, then followed by an explanation, and conclusion. Note the question in v7a. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Let’s trace out what Paul said so far about the Law. Back in 3:20 Paul said, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Then in 3:30 after a glorious discussion on justification by faith alone Paul says, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary we uphold the law.” Then in 5:20 he says, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more…” Then in 6:14 we find him saying, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Then finally we come to what we covered last week in 7:1-6 where Paul states the law worked within us to bring forth fruit for death. After all of these comments about the law, you can imagine someone reading this, being a bit provoked, and then thinking, ‘Well, I think Paul’s been pretty clear. There’s only one real conclusion to draw from what he’s said. The law cannot save us, so it must be something evil, something bad in and of itself, something sinful, something at best that leads to death. Or something at worst that serves no purpose for me at all.’[2]

As he’s done before Paul doesn’t just ask the question, he answers it. So what’s Paul’s answer to his readers, both past and present, who might be arriving at such a wrong conclusion about the Law? “By no means!” It’s as if Paul’s saying, ‘If you’ve heard what I’ve said and believe I’m saying the Law is useless, or a bad and sinful thing…you’ve misunderstood me completely.’[3] So after this emphatic denial that the Law is sin, clearly there is need of further explanation. So to clarify what he’s saying and make the purpose of the Law clear, Paul, in v7b-11 sets forth his own experience with the Law.[4] How it worked with him, and really, how it works with all mankind.

Look with me now to our next heading…

Our Experience with the Law (v7b-11)

Let’s begin with v7-8, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.”

Remember, Paul’s aim in v7-12 is to clear the charges brought against the Law, that it is sinful. But, while Paul’s eager to show how the Law is not sin, he does tell us the Law has a close relationship to sin.[5] This is what v7b means when it says, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Through the Law Paul came to know his sin. Knowledge, then, is in view. But this knowing isn’t academic or just mere awareness, rather this is knowing sin in the depth of the soul, knowing sin internally, in a raw, visceral, experiential manner. Paul gives an example of this next by bringing up the tenth commandment. He says he only knew what it was to covet because the Law says, “You shall not covet.” This is one of those moments where we pause and ask questions. Wait, wasn’t Paul a Jew? Even more, wasn’t he a Pharisee? Yes he was. From Paul’s own mouth we hear this many times. In Acts 26:4-5 Paul says it, “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.” So, from the beginning Paul was raised as a Jew and grew up to join the strictest sect within Judaism, the Pharisees. Because of this Paul would’ve been intimately familiar with the Law, and likely would’ve had the whole God’s Law memorized.

So the question is clear isn’t it? How is it that he can say here in v7 that he didn’t know what it was to covet? Surely he already knew it and wasn’t ignorant of the tenth commandment, but he says he didn’t know. What are we to do with that? I think we can understand it like this. Paul, like many Jews and Pharisees of his time, believed sin was mainly a matter left to behavior, an issue of external significance. Which means, as long as one didn’t commit sins externally or do sinful actions they saw themselves and believed themselves to be obedient and righteous.[6] Ok, I think we can get that. But from this we must press on and ask something else. What happened to Paul that so transformed his view of Law that all of the sudden he can state that he never really knew it before? What happened to him, that for the first time in his life he knew his own sin as an internal reality? Simply put, he met Jesus. And Jesus teaches sin isn’t just a mere external or outward reality but an internal reality that exists deep within us at the level of our thoughts, motives, and desires. That’s how we understand this. Paul, who thought he knew God, who thought he knew the Law, met Jesus and for the first time in his life he truly came to know three things: 1) who God was, 2) who he was, and 3) how the Law pointed out both of these things to him.

To explain this you see where he goes next? He goes to the tenth commandment. Why does he do that? Of all the places he could’ve gone in the Law he goes to “Thou shall not covet”? Well, I think he goes here because the sin of coveting isn’t a sin that remains outward or external, no, coveting has its sights set inward, aiming squarely at the desires of the heart. Coveting, in other words, teaches us quite powerfully that desiring to sin, is to sin.[7] This is why many believe the entire Law of God is contained within the tenth commandment, that it functions as a kind of summarizing prohibition. Look at v8. Before the tenth commandment landed on him in power, he felt fine and content, and in a true sense, sin was dead or dormant in him. But through the commandment…now he says commandment while before he said Law. I think this shows us that what’s in view is the Law of Moses here. Well, through the commandment sin seized its opportunity in Paul, and pointed out to Paul how covetous he truly was. It’s like the little boy who hears his parents say, ‘Don’t jump in that mud puddle.’[8] When the boy hears this he thinks to himself, ‘I hadn’t even thought of jumping in the mud, but I hear them telling me not to jump, and now that I’m thinking about not jumping in the mud, all I want to do is jump in the mud!’ And sure enough, the parents look around to see him covered in mud. This is what the Law does. It commands us, and by commanding us it stirs up the sin already present in us, fans it into flame, and awakens its desires.

So in v7-8 Paul tells us the Law not only gave him a true knowledge of sin but it outed him as a sinner as well, specifically in regard to coveting. He doesn’t stop here, he goes further in v9-10 and tells us, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.”

Interesting how he puts this isn’t it? The Bible tells us all men are dead in sin and hostile to God by nature, but here Paul says he was alive before the commandment came. Only after it came to him does he say he died. Is Paul contradicting other passages of Scripture? No, he’s speaking of his how these things played out in his own life here. Perhaps an illustration will help.[9] People often come to me after the service and say, ‘You know, I never realized what you said before. I’ve read that passage a thousand times but I’ve never really seen it like that.’ We know what is meant by comments like this. We’ve all experienced moments like this before, wonderful moments, aren’t they? We’re reading the Bible, we’re in small group, or we’re hearing a sermon and a passage so familiar to us all of the sudden launches off the page and grabs ahold of us with power. And what was once just a passage we’ve known, now becomes a passage that has opened up its treasures to us, a passage that has illuminated our understanding in a lively manner and awakened us to see more of God!

That I think, shows us something of what Paul means here in our text. The commandments have always been there, nothing had changed about them, but in all his Judaism and Pharisee-ism the commandments never before came to Paul in the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit. But upon meeting the Lord Jesus they now have. And what was the result? A complete reversal has occurred. Paul once lived in religious self-confidence feeling fully alive. He didn’t think he was a sinner, not at all! But when the commandment came, it knocked the life out of him and he was hopeless, lost, condemned. Sin revived and he died.

That’s how v9 puts it. Look how v10 puts it. Through his obedience to the commandments Paul thought he could truly have life and know God. And it would’ve been life for Paul if he was able to obey the Law, just like Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler, “Do this and live.” The trouble for Paul was when the Law came to him in power and he saw it for what it truly was, he realized he couldn’t ever fulfill, he couldn’t ever obey, what the Law required and he learned how utterly short he fell of the standard it puts forward. So if the Law didn’t bring Paul life what did it do? The Law searched him out, discovered what was hidden in him and drug it all out into the open.[10] In other words, it brought death to him. Which means, one of the first signs of true spiritual life is to feel that you’re dead.

That’s how v10 says it, look now to v11 expand on it saying, “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” Again through the Law sin was at work, seizing an opportunity. To do what? To deceive and to kill. Do those two words remind you of anything or anyone? Deceive and kill? It should bring us back to the Garden. The serpent came and deceived them and what happened? Death entered in. Paul chooses his words wisely here to describe his own experience with the Law of God and by choosing such words he points out that his experience with the Law has been the experience of all men with the Law ever since the moment our first parents were deceived and died.[11]

But wait, does that mean the Law is bad? Just a weapon in the hands of the enemy? No indeed. The Law belongs to God. He is the One making commands of us in it. Why then would He do such a thing if it deceives us and kills us? Because, ever since our first parents were deceived and died, the one thing we we’re very slow to admit about ourselves is how fallen and sinful we truly are. Pride has hardened our hearts and seared our consciences, but praise God…by revealing our sin through the Law, by revealing that we can’t save ourselves by our best efforts through the Law, by revealing the misery and judgment to come through the Law, by slaying our pride with the Law, God reveals our need for a Savior. Church, the Law can’t save us, but it does chase us to the feet of the One who can. To Jesus Christ, the perfect Law-keeper. We now see what those previous passages about the Law in Romans are all about. 5:20, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more…” The Law reveals and exposes our problem, which brings us to our solution, the gospel of grace!

So how then should we view this Law? See our last heading…

Our Conclusion on the Law (v12)

“So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

From what we’ve seen here today in v7-12 we can now affirm with Paul that the Law is not sin, no. The Law is holy, righteous, and good because it shows us our sin, because it shows us what we ought to be, and because it reveals to us the very nature and character of God Himself. It is nothing less than the heart of God disclosed to men, a transcript of the divine nature, and the overflow of his infinite wisdom. The Law displays the kind of life our Savior came to live for us Law-breakers.

Conclusion:

I’ve called this sermon ‘The Needle and the Thread.’ Strange title perhaps. But does anyone now know why? The Law is the needle that prepares the way for the thread of the gospel. That’s why God gave it, and that’s what God intends to do to us with it.

So Church, “…does the Law of God not convince you of your sin this morning? Under the hand of God’s Spirit, do you not feel your guilt, that you deserve to be lost, and that you have incurred the fierce anger of God? Have you not broken all the commandments? Who among us has forever perfectly loved the Lord? Who among us has always kept Him first above all other things? Who among us has always honored father and mother? Who among us has never lied? Who among us has not coveted what doesn’t belong to us?”[12] As Paul says in Romans 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” If we really recognize the Law. If we truly know the commandments, we’ll feel our danger and fly to Christ!

May you fly to Him today.


[1] John Wesley, quoted in The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law, from Comfort & Cameron, The World’s Greatest Preachers (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2003) 16-19, emphasis mine.

[2] Ibid., 112. See also, Charles Spurgeon, The Uses of the Law, in Comfort & Cameron, 39.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Murray, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), 248.

[5] Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 456.

[6] Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, God’s Word For You (The Good Book Company, 2014), 165.

[7] Lloyd-Jones, Romans, 118.

[8] Moo, Romans, 460–461.

[9] Lloyd-Jones, Romans, 134.

[10] John Wesley, The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law, 24-25.

[11] Robert W. Yarbrough et al., ESV Expository Commentary: Romans-Galatians, ed. Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020), 110–111.

[12] Charles Spurgeon, The Uses of the Law, in Comfort & Cameron, 42-43.

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