Last week we learned some important background info concerning Paul’s law-talk in Romans.
- Jew’s, and so Jewish Christians, had a variety of views on the “works of the law”.
Apparently, the two most prevalent views were:
- Ethical/Works View – Law was the way to salvation.
- Ethnic/Badge View – Law, like circumcision and Sabbath keeping, was one of the badges that designated membership of the people of God – a people God already saved.
Jewish Christians of either view had problems with the implications of the Gospel for the law.
- In their eyes, Paul was throwing the law under the bus.
- They charged Paul (Acts 21) with rebelling against Moses and Jewish customs like circumcision.
- Romans 7:7 and following is Paul’s hashing out a response to these charges.
To get us started we need to review what Paul has said about the law thus far:
- Romans 2:13 (ESV) — 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous [ethnic Jews] before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
- Attack on Ethnic/Badge View
- Romans 3:20 (ESV) — 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
- Attack on both views?
- Romans 3:28 (ESV) — 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
- Attack on both views?
- Galatians 3:21 (ESV) — 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.
- Attack on both views?
If these attacks weren’t bad enough, Paul also taught the following about the law:
- “the law brings wrath” (4:15)
- “law came to increase the trespass” (5:20)
- “sinful passions, aroused by the law…bear fruit for death” (7:5)
Paul, acutely aware of how he was being heard, addresses his critics in our text.
- That Paul addresses the charges shows us a couple of things…
- Paul listened to and understood the charges of his critics.
- Paul provided a reasoned response to their objections.
- Paul knew the Gospel, if true, could/would withstand its critics.
Romans 7:7–12 (ESV) — 7 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.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
The way Paul deals with his critics is to explain that he hasn’t thrown the law under the bus.
- “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!”
Everything revolves around Paul’s Gospel view of the law — “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (vs. 10).
- Paul fleshes out his defense of this proposition with a contrast between sin and its power with…
- The law and the 10th commandment specifically – “You shall not covet”.
What is fascinating about Paul’s argument is how it can be understood visually.
- If one parses out the law and its commandment (green) and sin (red) and what each does (bold verbs), it becomes really clear what Paul is doing.
Paul does not ascribe any evil to the law/commandment.
- He is not questioning the wisdom of God’s giving the law.
- The law is not the problem.
As evident by the visual picture of the text, Paul shows that the law was neutral.
- The law “came” and the law “said”.
- It made known the will of God.
- It was an expression of the wisdom of God.
By contrast, sin is not neutral at all.
- What does Paul mean by sin here?
- This is the “under sin” dominion he has been referring to since Romans 3.
“A force, which is essentially opposed to God’s creation. It is bent on spoiling the world God made, the humans who reflect his image, and the chosen people called to be the agents of redemption” – N.T. Wright.
Paul says sin has an agenda and it takes advantage of the law/commandment to achieve its aims.
- “Seizing” the commandment.
- “Produced” the very thing the commandment condemned – coveting.
- Sin “came alive” in the presence of the law.
- Paul’s words do not mean that before the law, sin was non-existent.
- Romans 5 obviously makes clear that it was – “in Adam”.
- Paul means that “it was not as ‘active’ or ‘powerful’ before the law as after” – Douglas Moo.
- “Deceived” God’s people.
- “Killed” God’s people.
Sin’s action is why his main point is, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (vs. 10).
- This is the thing the Jew’s found so offensive.
After all, Moses said the complete opposite.
- Leviticus 18:5 (ESV) — 5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.
But the reason, Paul says, the law doesn’t accomplish “life” is because the context in which the law was given.
- The law was given to a people in Garden Exile because of Adam’s sin.
- A people born into the dominion and power of sin.
- And, “human beings are not freed from sin’s dominion while living under the domain of the law” – Tom Schreiner.
And under the dominion of sin…
- “The power of sin made it impossible for any human being to fulfill the law and so attain the promised life” – Douglas Moo.
So, the law doesn’t grant life!
- The law is “the occasion or operating base that sin has used to accomplish its evil and deadly purpose” – Douglas Moo.
This means that, “Those who believe that the answer to human evil is to teach the Torah are deeply mistaken, according to Paul” – Schreiner.
- The law is not “the antidote to human evil” – Schreiner.
Whether by the “law” we mean the ethical/works view or the ethnic/badge view…
- It does nothing to bring about dominion transfer – from “under sin” to “under grace”.
So Paul is not throwing Moses and Sinai under the bus.
- He is revealing just how severe the problem of being “under sin” actually is.
This is why Romans 3:21-22 continues to be the most important verses in Romans.
- Romans 3:21–22 (ESV) — 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Purpose of Law:
So if the law didn’t/doesn’t bring life, what was its purpose?
- Paul says the law served to teach Jews about sin – the act and the power of sin.
- He says the commandment brought sin to life and made it know – intellectually and experientially.
- The law made sin evident.
Douglas Moo puts it this way:
- The law helped the Jew “to understand the real ‘sinfulness’ of sin” – Douglas Moo.
- This itself is an act of grace!
This is the reason that Paul can finish out our text today with:
- Romans 7:12 (ESV) — 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Paul’s Gospel View of the law highlights the question:
- “If the law doesn’t give life and domain transfer, what does?”
- His answer is, of course, Jesus – not any ethnic/ethical relationship to the law.
Given this view of the law – Paul’s Gospel View – how should David be read in Psalm 19?
- Psalm 19:7–10 (ESV) — 7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
David’s words about the law seem only to make sense in light of Jesus Christ and Paul’s Gospel View of the law.
- If David sees the law here as his means to salvation, he is deluded isn’t he?
The power and appetite of sin is something even the believer must remember.
- “When we, too, are faced with sin, whether in our own lives or in the wider world, we should not underestimate it. Evil is real and powerful. It is opposed to God, his world, his human creatures, and not least those who are called to follow his son. We dare not trifle with it. It is deceitful. It is deadly” – N.T. Wright.
- “The experience of Israel with the law should also remind Christians never to return to the law—whether the Mosaic or any other list of “rules”—as a source of spiritual vigor and growth” – Douglas Moo.