Romans 7:7–25 (ESV)✞: The Law and Sin
For the last couple of passages Paul has been specifically talking about God’s Law—that is, the Scriptures He handed down to His people, the Jews—and its insufficiency to save anyone from His wrath. In fact, he [Paul] went even further, saying that not only can the Law not save, it actually adds to the guilt of those who are under it because they’re generally sinful (just like everyone else) and guilty of specific transgressions1 of the Law.
We’ve already seen how confusing this can be, though. How can the Law—something handed down by God—make people more sinful? Does that… does that mean the Law is bad?
Paul addresses this head on:
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin?
He then answers the question directly – perhaps for fear of leaving people hanging too long as he gets deep into this question:
By no means!
But… if it was that simple Paul wouldn’t be here addressing the question. So he now explains how the Law can be problematic for sinful humans, even though it isn’t sin:
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.
I think we need to be careful how we read this passage, because on the surface Paul seems to be saying that he wasn’t “sinful” before the Law; especially in verses 8 and 9, when he says that sin “lies dead” apart from the Law, and that Paul was “alive apart from the Law” but then with the Law “sin came alive” and he died. Based on everything we’ve read in the last six and a half chapters, however, we know that Paul couldn’t be saying that!
His point, I believe, is that the Law defined sin in a very particular way—or perhaps we should say it defined particular sins, since sinfulness is more than just breaking the commandments—but when our sinful hearts come across those definitions our innate rebelliousness is awakened. Perhaps, using his example, Paul might never have coveted, but when he heard the tenth commandment articulated, part of his heart thought, “Huh, covetousness – that sounds like a good idea!” The ESV Study Bible says it well when they write, “The prohibition against coveting exacerbated the desire for what was forbidden.”
They also make a case that this might go even farther; that sins against the Law aren’t just transgressions of particular rules, they’re direct and purposeful disobedience to God:
Rom. 7:7 The law defines sin and also provokes sin. Confronted by the law, sin takes on the character of rebellion, so that people enjoy transgressing commands in order to demonstrate their independence. This principle is illustrated from the tenth commandment, which prohibits coveting (Ex. 20:17).
ESV Study Bible
In essence, we’re saying to God, “You said I can’t covet? Well I’ll show you – I’ll covet all I want!”
When Paul says that sin was “dead” apart from the Law he doesn’t mean it was nonexistent, just that it was lying dormant instead of being active. Sin was always there, but the Law gave it an opportunity to spring to life.
And frankly, I think Paul is also exaggerating the point a bit; again, given all he’s said in the last six and a half chapters he’s clearly not saying that people are sinless apart from the Law, or even that people have a “dormant” form of sin that isn’t active apart from the Law! He’s been saying over and over that sin brings death, both to the Jew and to the Gentile, both to those who have the Law and those who don’t. So when he says that sin was “dead” and that the Law brings it to life, I think he just means comparatively speaking: those who are under the Law experience a much more powerful form of sinfulness because of the Law and how we react to it.
And then he says something that I find absolutely fascinating:
12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
In the context of the entire passage of 7:7–25 this sentiment makes perfect sense. However, coming at the end of the paragraph of verses 7–12 it comes out of left field! The word “so” doesn’t seem to follow; the logic isn’t there. What he has said in verses 7–12 is:
- He rhetorically asked if the Law is sin, and then said by no means is it such.
- But he then said that yes, the Law gives our hearts an acute definition of [certain] rules, which sin then uses as an opportunity to have us commit those particular transgressions.
- He gave the example of covetousness, which is a Law that then makes his sinful heart want to covet.
- In verses 10–11, in particular, he said that, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me,” because sin saw that commandment as an opportunity to deceive Paul and kill him.
So, verse 12 says, therefore, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Why is this the conclusion of all that came before?
The logic only works if you look at it in the larger point Paul is making: he’s addressing the question of whether the Law is sin, he’s positing that it’s not, and then he’s looking at the problems “caused by” the Law and coming to the conclusion that it’s not the Law that’s the problem, it’s him. God didn’t create a flawed system; He created a system for flawed people.
Paul’s sinful heart saw the commandment not to covet2 and it made him want to covet; that doesn’t mean it was a “bad” commandment. The Law says we’re not supposed to covet because it’s bad to covet – it’s against the nature of God, and we’re supposed to be like Him. The Law is holy—it’s a picture of the nature of God—and the commandment not to covet is holy and righteous and good. It’s our sinful nature that’s the problem.
Which is exactly where Paul goes next:
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
In these verses Paul speaks to the anguish of the Christian heart in a passionate way. As a Christian I want to be like God; I want to obey Him, and please Him, and emulate him. As a Christian, I hate sin. I also “do the very thing I hate” over and over again – all the time, in fact! I don’t want to do that “evil,” but it is exactly “what I keep on doing.”
I don’t want us to push verse 20 too far; Paul isn’t saying he’s blameless before God. “I didn’t do anything wrong, it was the sin that dwelt within me – you can’t blame me for that!” That’s not what he’s saying. Remember, he’s still within the context of a larger argument: the Law can’t save us from God’s wrath, in fact our sinful hearts react against the Law (even though the Law is holy and right and good), so we get more sinful under the Law than we would be without it. He’s poetically trying to articulate the point he’s been making—that he wants to obey God and yet keeps sinning anyway—but I don’t read this as Paul trying to distance himself from his sinful nature, as if there’s “Paul” and then there’s “Paul’s sin.”
So how does Paul conclude all of this? He’s got a terrible problem! He wants to do right, but he’s sinful!
But remember, God’s wrath against sinful humans isn’t all he’s been talking about so far in Romans – he’s also articulated the solution to that problem, Jesus:
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 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. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 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.
Thanks be to God indeed! This is a cry Christians have been uttering since the time Jesus left!
- “Transgression” is a specific term Paul used earlier in Romans which I think is very applicable in this passage; it just means the breaking of a particular rule – as opposed to general “sinfulness.” ↩
- Writing a long post like this, where I go on and on about a passage of Scripture, means I sometimes end up hitting the same point over and over. Paul simply used covetousness as an example, but by mentioning it over and over it makes it sound like Paul had a specific problem with covetousness! And maybe he did, and maybe he used that example because it is something he had a particular problem with – but not necessarily. ↩