Sin Shown to be Sin
In Romans 7, Paul’s focus is on the law—on the torah, given by the Lord, through Moses, to the Israelites. We looked at the first six verses of the chapter last time. This morning we’ll look at the rest of it. But I know some people are wondering, “What’s so important about the law that Paul—or we—need to be working through what seem like complicated and unnecessary discussions for Christians—especially after Paul just said that in Christ we are free from the law. To answer that, let me give you a visual. Take your Bible. Pick up God’s Word. Now open it to Matthew 1. That’s the beginning of the New Testament. Put your finger there and close your Bible. The New Testament is on one side of your finger; the Old Testament is on the other. The New Testament is a pretty thin sliver of paper compared to the part of your Bible that makes up the Old Testament. Both are God’s Word. Both have something important to say. And looking at your Bible right now, with your finger separating the Old and New Testaments, it should be pretty obvious that God’s got a lot to tell us before we ever get to Matthew. I think of my thesis advisor in seminary. He earned a master’s and a doctorate in New Testament and by the time he was done he’d realised that to really understand the New Testament, you have to understand the Old—so he went on to earn a second doctorate in Old Testament. The Bible is one big story and the first part prepares us for the second. This is why Paul spends so much time talking about Israel and the law.
So far he’s talked about the way in which the law bound Israel to Adam. He’s talked about the way in which the law caused sin to be concentrated in Israel so that God could address it in one place, once and for all through the Messiah. The law caused sin be heaped up in that one place, but where sin abounded, grace super-abounded. Jews understood the law to be a good thing and some might have misunderstood Paul to be saying that the law is a bad thing. And Paul responds: “Not at all!” So here in verses 7-25 Paul answers the questions that someone might have raised. But Paul isn’t just talking about the law; he’s talking about Israel under the law. But, even still, he’s not so much just talking about Israel under the law. What he’s really getting at is God’s purpose. God called Israel so that through her, he could rescue all of humanity—and all of his creation—from the bondage of sin. Israel, having the law, carried the promise of God’s new creation to the world. But as Paul has been stressing in telling this story, it didn’t work out that way. The law merely exposed Israel’s own sin, showing her to have the same sin problem as everyone else in the human race. And yet, he says, even in Israel’s failure, God was at work. In 7:24 Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am!” But that’s not the end of it. Even in this, God was at work to save us.
I want to look at the rest of the chapter in three parts. Paul asks two questions and then in the third part he draws some conclusion. Let’s look first at verses 7-12:
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! 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. 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. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Before we parse out what Paul’s saying here, let me tell you about a little boy named Vinny. He and his family were the original owners of our last home. When we moved in I found a few things that were odd. I noticed that the windows upstairs and the windows downstairs were made by different manufacturers. I also noticed, when I replaced the works of one of our toilets, that both of the upstairs toilets were stamped with a date about a month after the house had been built. When we met our neighbours I mentioned these things and that’s when I learned about Vinny. Someone from the fire department had visited Vinny’s school for a presentation on fire safety and gave them the usual warnings about playing with matches and things like that. Vinny went home, put his knew knowledge to work, and promptly set the neighbour’s fence on fire. He got in trouble and decided to play with matches in the secrecy of his bedroom—and he set the house on fire. This is why everything upstairs was slightly newer than everything downstairs. My neighbour also told me to look behind the water heater. Vinny had learned about swear-words at school and his mom told him they were bad, so Vinny wrote them in secret all over the wall behind the water heater.
Vinny illustrates what Paul’s saying here. Paul talks about “sin” in an almost personified way. He also talks about “I”. Vinny is sort of a combination of both. Paul’s point is that the law is God law and that the law is unquestionable good—much as the fire fighter’s presentation at the school was good. The problem wasn’t the presentation. The problem was the budding little pyromaniac who heard it. Instead of putting him off playing with fire, it gave him ideas. And just so with the law and Israel. It didn’t just impart the knowledge of good and bad. Given to sinful people, the law gave them ideas that they put into sinful action.
But, first, what about Paul’s “I”. Through the rest of Chapter 7, Paul writs about “I” and “me”. Is this just Paul writing about his life before meeting Jesus? It’s also common for people to understand Paul as talking here about his struggle with sin as a Christian. It helps to understand that in Paul’s day it was common to use “I” when writing about something more general. We do something similar when we say “We” or when we say things like “One might do such and such”. Paul does this in Galatians 2 as well. If we work through Paul’s argument and his logic here, what we have to conclude is that when he writes about “I”, what he’s really writing about is Israel. Saying “I” actually works pretty well, because it allows him to include himself. Israel’s story was Paul’s story. And Paul was still grieving over where Israel’s story had gone. There’s a link between his “I” here and what he says in Chapters 9-11, where he grieves over the continuing sins of his own people and their continued rejection of Jesus the Messiah.
But Paul isn’t just telling Israel’s story here. He tells it in such way that he’s able to tell two stories at once. You could say that the story works on two levels to make a vitally important point. When I was in high school we had a new house built. We lived a couple of blocks away while it was being built, so every day we’d go and see what had been done. My dad took photos with his camera, usually standing in more-or-less the same spot. We were surprised by some of the photos when one of the rolls of film was developed. Somehow the partially exposed roll of film had been wound back. The end result was that a bunch of the photos were double exposures. There were photos of the foundation with the completed framing superimposed on it. There was a photo of the completed framing with a photo of the fully sided house superimposed. Same house; different stages of construction. Paul does something like that here, but in this case he’s superimposing Israel’s story on Adam’s story. Different people, similar situation, but they have the same problem.
On the surface of the story is God giving the torah to Israel. Underneath is the story of God giving his commandment to Adam: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The same thing happened in both stories. Adam was given God’s commandment and he broke it. Israel was given God’s commandments and, just like Adam, she broke it. The problem isn’t the law. As he writes in verse 12: God’s commandments are holy, righteous, and good. The problem is that because of Israel’s sinfulness, the law could never give what it promised.
We don’t have time to walk through the law this morning, but if you go back to passages like Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 30, you find God’s promise of life to Israel if she would be faithful to keep his law. Death was the penalty for those who broke it. Do you see the parallel with God’s command to Adam: life if you keep it; death if you break it? Death, more immediately, meant exile—physical death would follow in Adam’s case, because he was no longer in the presence of God—but the same went for Israel. Fail to keep the law and exile would be the penalty, just as it was for Adam. But, again, exile and death weren’t the law’s fault. The problem was sin. Think of Vinny. The fire fighter taught the kids about fire to keep them safe, but that knowledge, in the mind of a bratty little boy turned into a pyromaniac instruction manual. The serpent—sin personified—deceived Adam and its infection deceived Israel and led her astray too. So the law promised life, but because of sin, it was only capable of delivering death.
This is the second question Paul anticipates here: Is the law responsible for Israel’s death? Did she find herself losing everything and exiled to Babylon because of the law? Look at verses 13-20:
Did that which is good [that’s the law], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good [—the law], in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
In verses 7-12, Paul explained what happened when the law was given to Israel. Israel did the same thing that Adam had done. Now Paul moves to the present. This is the actual experience of Israel under the law. The more Israel tries to do the right thing, embracing God’s holy, just, and good law—think, for example of Psalm 19 where the Psalmist praises God for his law and pleads with God to keep him from presumptuous sins; think, of Psalm 119 and its twenty-two stanzas praising the goodness of the law—but the more Israel embraces the law, the more the law indicts Israel for her sin.
So the law is good. Israel was right to love the law. But Paul’s point is that the law was spiritual—it exemplifies the life of God—while Israel is of the flesh—part of Adam’s family and in bondage to sin. Paul’s expanding on what he said more briefly back in 2:17-24. He said there that while Israel thought she was better than everyone else because she had the law, the law actually served to expose Israel as being just like the rest of the human race. The law showed just how sinful Israel was.
The way Paul works this out is devastating. Remember that Paul was very well educated. He wasn’t just educated in Judaism and in torah; he was also well educated in the thought of the Greek and Roman philosophers. One of the things that the Greeks and Romans were forever trying to puzzle out, from at least the time of Aristotle, was this struggle between knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it. They taught morals and ethics, they could see that such-and-such course of action was wrong, they knew they had an obligation to avoid it, but they’d go and do it anyway. Or, they knew what was right, but when it came to do it they failed. Paul now describes Israel by expressing the plight of the pagan moralists. Here’s Israel, God’s chosen people living under his law, but at the end of the day they’re in no better position than the Gentiles. They have the law, but they’re just like everyone else.
But, in the process of all of this, Paul makes two important points. He was anticipating someone mistaking him as saying that the law is bad and here he makes it clear: Israel’s problem isn’t the fault of the law. He’s also made it clear that Israel was right to love the law. The real problem—or the real culprit—is sin. The law brought the verdict of death against Israel, but only because it exposed Israel’s sin. And Paul says that this was “so that” the sinfulness of sin would be exposed. Paul echoes his statement back in 5:20: The law came to increase trespasses, so that where sin abounded, grace would abound even more. God gave the law, not just knowing that it would cause sin to abound in Israel, but he gave the law purposefully to cause sin to abound in Israel. Why would God do this? Paul’s answer is coming in the first part of Chapter 8, but as we’ve already seen: God wanted sin to reach its height and to do its worst in one place so that he could then deal with it once and for all. And he gave the law specifically to Israel so that this would happen amongst his people. This would be how they would end up fulfilling their calling to serve and bless the whole world. In Israel’s representative, the Messiah, sin would be drawn into one place, one moment, one act where it would do its worst and, in the process, be dealt a death blow once and for all. Why has Paul spent so much time talking about the law? Why all this talk about the struggle to do the right and winding up doing the wrong? This is Paul’s way of showing us the problem and setting us up for cross of Christ.
Or course, he’s not quite there yet. We need to look at verses 21-25 first:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
The ESV has Paul saying, “So I find it to be a law…”, as if in all this talk about the law, he’s now come up with a principle about how these things work. But Paul uses the same word he’s been using all along in talking about the law. He’s not talking about some principle he’s worked out. This is his conclusion about the law, about torah. He sums up Israel’s problem under the law: She loves the law and wants to do what is right, but evil is close at hand. Paul is talking about Israel, but he includes himself in that “I”. Remember, he was a student of the law. If anyone exemplified the love for the law that we see in places like Psalm 119, it was Paul. He even describes himself as blameless before the law. But the tragedy was that the very people who loved the law the most, were the ones who recognized more and more their own sinfulness. The person most faithful to the law also knew that no matter how diligently he set his mind on the law, sin was always there fighting against that desire and holding him captive. Paul cries out with the people called and chosen by God, the one people on earth who know what holiness is and what holiness looks like: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Here was Israel, called to be the light of the world, but shown to be in bondage to the same sin as everyone else. Here was Israel, chosen to be God’s means of saving the word, from sin, but who will rescue Israel?
Paul’s answer is Jesus the Messiah, who will bring life where there was only death and bondage to sin. Jesus can do this and only Jesus can do this, because Jesus is the only one who, as Messiah, brings together in himself both Israel and the God who redeems. This is what Paul will explain and expand on in Chapter 8.
Now, why is this important for us? Why do we need to understand Israel’s problem when we’re not Jews? Well, remember where we started with our fingers between the books of Malachi and Matthew? We need to know our history. Brothers and Sisters, we need to know our history because it’s not just history. If we are in Christ, it’s our story. Paul has stressed repeatedly that to be a Christian is to be Abraham’s children and members of his family. Paul has no problem writing to Gentile Christians about “our ancestors” when he writes about the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. (He does that in 1 Corinthians 10:1.) As Twenty-first Century Christians, it’s vital that we remember this lest we cut ourselves off from the tree into which Jesus has grafted us. Don’t think it can’t or hasn’t happened. One of the first heresies the Church ever had to address was the doctrine of a man named Marcion, who cut the cords binding the New Testament to the Old, who taught that the God of the Old Testament was a different God than that of the New. That thick bundle of pages you were holding between Genesis and your finger—Marcion razored it out and threw it away. Others have been more subtle in modern times. In the last century, Dispensationalism became hugely popular amongst Evangelicals. Dispensationalists didn’t throw away the Old Testament, but their foundational belief is that the Church is not Israel. They sawed through the life-giving graft that Jesus has made. They cut the Church off from the tree that is our source of life and divided the people of God.
Paul stresses the continuity between the old covenant and the new. And he stresses the continuity between the people of the old covenant and the people of the new. God has only one people, only one Israel and that people is centred on Christ Jesus. This is central to Paul’s message in Romans. And so Paul explains here, against a common misconception, that the law, the torah was given to teach sinners how to be saints—as if all we need is the Ten Commandments to point us in the direction of holiness. Paul does away with the popular misconception that all the law needed to finish doing the job was for Jesus to come along and preach the Sermon on the Mount and to clarify a few points. Paul also does away with the popular idea that the law was God’s “Plan A” and that when it failed, he sent Jesus as his “Plan B”. No, what Paul tells us here is that our real problem was much worse than merely needing a bit of moral guidance. This monster, Sin, held us captive and we were hopelessly lost without even knowing it. God gave the law, not as an attempt to save us that would ultimately fail. No, he gave the law to expose the sinfulness of sin. He gave it to his people that the sinfulness of sin might be exposed in one place. And he sent his Messiah—on the one hand, himself, the embodiment of Israel, and on the other the life-giving God himself. The law came first to show us what was wrong. Jesus came to die for the sins of his people and to set them free from their bondage, in the process opening God’s family to all through faith. And Jesus then sent the Holy Spirit to set us right—to do what the law could never do, fixing both heart and mind on God, and writing his law on our hearts.
Brothers and Sisters, think on that this morning as we come to the Lord’s Table and are reminded of what Jesus did for us at the cross. Here we are reminded that we are sinners, but here we are also reminded that Jesus has dealt with sin once and for all. Come in faith and find assurance. Come in faith and be swept up in the great story of redemption once again. Come in faith and remember that you have been grafted into Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, the living vine and are part of the people of God, called and chosen, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. Come in faith and remember that as God’s people, his covenant renewal has given you life. In your baptism your sin has been washed and in your baptism you have been plunged into the Holy Spirit and made new. Come in faith and, Brothers and Sisters, go in faith to live the life Jesus has given and to proclaim the good news that by his death Jesus has dealt with sin and that in his resurrection he has been declared Lord of all.
Let us pray: Father, we asked in the Collect that you would ever be our help. We ask because we know that it is you alone who have cleansed us from our sin and it is you who alone who has given us life. Our sin is ugly, Lord, but we give you thanks for having exposed it, that we might see our need for a Saviour. Remind us always of the sinfulness of sin, we pray, that we might never take your grace or the cross of Jesus for granted. Remind us always of the sinfulness of sin, that we might all the more rejoice in your grace, rejoice in Jesus, and rejoice in your Spirit. Remind us always of the sinfulness of sin, that having been redeemed from its bondage, we will have a desire to proclaim your good news and see others set free as we have been. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.