I can still picture his face in my mind when he walked through the door. I’m sure he doesn’t remember that precise moment. He didn’t know what was coming. But I remember it because this was a meeting that I was dreading. I was about to share some news that I felt certain was going to arouse sadness, disappointment, and maybe even anger.
It was a meeting that took place more than a decade ago with a student. He was studying at Union in pursuit of pastoral ministry. And he had joined us here at Cornerstone because he knew that we wanted to invest in training guys for pastoral ministry. The problem is that I knew after a few months of being around this student that he didn’t need to pursue pastoral ministry. The problem wasn’t some moral failing in his life. In fact, as far as I knew, he wasn’t rebellious and was serious about obeying Christ. The problem is that he simply lacked almost every gift necessary for pastoral ministry. He didn’t like being around people a whole lot, he didn’t want to talk much (especially in front of people), he preferred just to be alone (without being disturbed), and after months of talking to him about growing in these areas, it was clear that the Lord simply hadn’t given him the gifts necessary for what he desired to do.
And it was fine. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with realizing that if you’re built like me you’re never going to be a body builder. When I first hit over six feet tall, I needed to cross “being a horse jockey” off my list of dreams. But he didn’t see this for himself (as far as I could tell), and I needed to tell him. So, I set up a meeting with him at Chick-fil-a. And I was more than a little nervous, feeling bad about breaking the news to him.
So, as I saw him walk into the restaurant, I remember seeing him and thinking, “I hope this isn’t a crushing day for him.” But, to my pleasant surprise, though the news I shared with him did arouse some disappointment in him, he eventually found himself in agreement and even thanking me for it, setting out that day to pursue something other than pastoral ministry.
I thought of that conversation recently when Tom shared with me a story he heard while he was at the assessment meeting for church planters recently in New York. One of the guys doing the assessment mentioned that churches will sometimes send guys up there, knowing they don’t need to be planting churches, and when the assessors break the news to them, “Your guy just isn’t ready to be a church planter,” they respond, “I’m so glad you said that. We didn’t think so either. We just couldn’t break the news to him.” And as Tom mentioned that, we both agreed that it was simply unloving not to have the courage to tell those guys the hard truth.
I was also reminded of that conversation in studying our text this week, Romans 7:7-12. The reason is because just as someone could have looked back at that conversation I had with that student and thought, “If you’re going to say something to the student that will cause him to feel sad, disappointed, and angry, then isn’t your conversation a bad thing?” so Paul answers a similar question about the law. After all, Paul has just told us back in verse 5 that when unbelievers are confronted with the law, the law actually arouses their sinful passions to carry out acts of sin. Thus, Paul begins our section this morning by asking the question that naturally follows: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? (v. 7).
His short answer is right there in verse 7, as he answers, “By no means.” And he comes back around to a very clear answer at the end of our text as he writes in verse 12, “So the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”
But why is that the case? I mean, think about what we’ve seen so far in Romans. Paul has made clear in the first few chapters of the book that no person is justified by the works of the law (3:20), that the law increased transgressions (5:20), that as long as we’re under the law, we’re enslaved to sin (6:14), and that the law aroused our sinful passions to carry out acts of sin (7:5). So, we might find ourselves asking at this point in the book of Romans, “Now, why is the law good again?” And I want to try to answer that question this morning by showing us what Paul argues about the law.
First, Paul argues that the law is good because:
The law shows us our sin
Paul makes this point right out of the gate. After saying, “By no means” is the law sinful, he says, “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’” (v. 7). In other words, the law shows us our sin.
We can see how this works by thinking back to the illustration we used last week. You set your baby in the living room where you have your nice Christmas tree, and your baby is turned away from the Christmas tree, facing the other direction, playing with a toy. If your baby could think in this moment, he’d be saying to himself, “I am a really good, obedient baby. Look at me.” And then, you say to him, “Hey, Daddy is about go into the other room for a bit, so don’t go over there and play with the Christmas tree and all of its shiny ornaments.” And so you leave, come back after about ten minutes, and it looks like someone tried to murder the Christmas tree. What happened? Well, what happened is that your command revealed sin that was in the heart of your baby. Before the command not to touch the tree came, your baby may easily have thought himself good. He might not even understand what the word “disobey” means. But the command not to touch the tree brought to life some sinful desire within him that wasn’t even stirred up before he was told not to touch the tree.
That’s how Paul says the law works. He says that he wouldn’t even have known what coveting was before the law. He would have said, “I’m pretty good.” But then the law comes and says, “Hey, see your friend’s riches over there, don’t covet that. See that person’s recognition and prestige, don’t covet that. See that individual’s talents, don’t covet that.” Then what happens? Paul says, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in my all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law sin lies dead” (v. 8).
It was like covetousness was dormant within him, not even recognized by him, until the commandment came saying, “Don’t covet that, or that, or that.” Then the sin that was in him came alive, aroused by the commandment, and Paul saw that he was full of covetousness. That’s how the law works. It shows us our sin.
And if we’re following the logic of Paul’s argument, the fact that our sin is revealed to us is a good thing. Look at how he illustrates this: Is the law sinful? By no means. How can you say that, Paul? Well, because without the law I wouldn’t know my sin.
Thus, we can say that knowing our sin, having it shown to us, is a good thing. But why is that good. The reason it’s good is the same reason that a medical scan that shows us that we have cancer is a good thing. The scan simply reveals bad news. It can’t heal you. But, without the scan revealing your cancer, you can’t pursue healing, can you? Without the scan you wouldn’t even know there’s something that could lead to your death. Revealing the bad news enables you to see that you are not okay and need to seek help.
That’s how the law works. By showing us our sin, it helps us to see that we’ve got something wrong with us. Well, what do we do? We’ll get to that, but let’s first see a couple more things the law does.
The law enables us to die, be condemned, and bear the penalty for our sin
You might think that the law reveals our sin but could theoretically say that it’s not a big deal. We might think of it as a medical scan that reveals a tumor but then we find out it’s benign, no threat to our lives. Similarly, maybe the law could reveal our sin but then tell us it’s not a big deal. But that’s not how this works.
Paul writes, “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” (vv. 9-11).
What does Paul mean when he says, “I died,” or “the commandment . . . proved to be death to me,” or “sin . . . killed me”? Well, he’s referring to the reality he noted earlier in chapter 6, namely, that the wages of sin is death (6:23). In other words, sin isn’t benign. It brings a penalty with it. When the Lord said to Adam that in the day he ate of the tree that the Lord had forbidden him to eat from he would die, the Lord was saying that Adam’s sin would bring a penalty—divine judgment, death.
The law not only shows you that you sin but it tells you that those who sin deserve to die. Thus, Paul notes that once his sin came alive, aroused by the commandment, he died. The very commandment that promised life, saying, “Obey these things and you’ll live” actually proved to be his death because, far from being able to obey these commands, he found himself aroused to carry out sin and found himself under judgment.
But, the odd thing is that this was part of the intent of the law. In the text we heard read earlier from 2 Corinthians 3, Paul speaks of the law having a “ministry of death” (v. 7) and “ministry of condemnation” (v. 9). We usually don’t think of death as a ministry. And technically speaking, it isn’t the law that kills. It’s sin. Paul makes that clear in verse 11, noting that “sin . . . killed me,” and he’ll make that extraordinarily clear in verse 13 when he asks if the law brought death and then answers, “By no means! It was sin, produced death in me through what was good . . .”
The law, however, does bring a sentence of death and condemnation the same way the doctor might say after that medical scan that reveals cancer, “If we don’t do anything, you’re dying.” It’s not the scan or the doctor threatening your life. It’s the cancer. But without the scan or the doctor, you wouldn’t know that you had this life-threatening issue, and you wouldn’t get the news that you were heading toward death.
Thus, the law not only reveals our sin but pronounces us guilty, condemned, and under the penalty of death should we remain where we are. But that’s not all. There’s one more thing I want to note that the law does.
The law shows us what is necessary for life
I kind of skimmed over this note earlier, while emphasizing that the law proved to be death to Paul, but note that Paul says in verse 10, “The commandment that promised life . . .” What is Paul referring to? He’s referring to the reality that the law does indeed promise life to anyone who will obey in perfect righteousness. He’ll note this explicitly a bit later, writing in Romans 10:5, “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” And he’s right. The law says, “Do this and live” (Leviticus 18:5).
In other words, just as we could say that without the law we wouldn’t know what sin is, we can also say that without the law we wouldn’t know what is demanded of us if we’re to be declared righteous and have eternal life.
Wouldn’t that be terrible, not to know the standard of righteousness? What a terrible home it would be to have parents who are eager to discipline you for not living up to their standard but never telling you what their standard is. You could think you’re doing good only to find out when the punishment comes that you were far short of goodness.
But the law is helpful in this way. It tells us in precise detail what God demands. He demands of us that we love him and our neighbor with all of our being and do it perfectly. And the particular commandments we find in the law are pictures of what that looks like. Loving God means, for example, not worshiping any gods before him, and loving your neighbor means, for example, not stealing from him, bearing false witness about him, or murdering him. And we know that the list goes on and on.
But, the good news is that the law gives us a picture of what is needed for righteousness and life. That is good. What is bad is that we also see very clearly that we can’t do it. In other words, the law not only says, “Do this and live” but also says, “You can’t do it, haven’t done it, and deserve to die.” This is why Paul says that “the very commandment that promised life provided to be death to me” (v. 10).
So, to this point, we’ve seen that the law reveals our sin. The law shows that we’re condemned, deserving of that condemnation, and ready to face divine wrath—carrying out a ministry of death and condemnation. And the law shows us what is demanded for righteous standing before God and eternal life, while also showing us that we can’t do it. So, we might ask, how does all of this prove Paul’s conclusion in verse 12, “So the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good”? And the answer is my last point.
The law points us to Christ, through whom we’re justified by faith alone
Now, to be fair, Paul doesn’t draw this conclusion explicitly in the text we’re looking at this morning, but I think this is what Paul is driving at because he says so elsewhere. In Galatians 3, after arguing for justification by faith alone (as we’ve seen in these first few chapters in Romans), Paul begins to ask why God gave us the law. And he mentions much the same kind of language that we’ve seen in our text. He says that it was added “because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19), meaning, I believe, that it made sin to be labeled transgressions as well as actually revealing and increasing sin. He mentions that it “imprisoned everything under sin” (3:22) and that it “held [us] captive” (3:23). Again, all of this sounds very much like what we’ve seen this morning.
But there Paul mentions specifically that the law imprisoned us in sin and held us captive “in order that we might be justified by faith” (3:24) and “so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (3:22). In other words, one of the greatest benefits of the law is that it makes clear to us that there is no hope for standing before the Lord in righteousness if we merely look to ourselves. If we think that there’s enough good in us, the law arouses sinful passions within us that carry out sin and show us to be sinful beyond measure. If we think that we’re probably deserving of eternal life, the law shows us that we’ve done plenty to deserve death and pronounces us condemned before God. If we think that we’re able to meet the Lord’s demands, the law comes along and shows us that what the Lord demands is perfect righteousness.
And the law does all of that so that we would stop looking at ourselves for any hope of righteousness or life but instead would look to another. And that other is Jesus Christ, who was born under the law and obeyed it perfectly. When the law brought its commandments, it aroused in him acts of obedience, revealing his perfectly righteous character. When the law showed what was demanded for perfect righteousness, he measured up. When the law pronounced a sentence upon Jesus for his life of works, the sentence is that he was deserving of life. He’s the one individual who perfectly obeyed the law’s demands.
But his good works didn’t stop with perfectly obeying the Father’s demands, as shown through the law. He came to seek and to save that which was lost. He came to save us. Therefore, he took the penalty of death and condemnation that we deserved because of our sin, and he bore it for us on the cross, drinking down the wrath of God that we deserved. Thus, as he died on that Friday, bearing the wages of sin—death—it looked like to those around him that he was very much like us. Here is another sinner, bearing divine wrath for his sin and lack of obedience to God’s commands.
But that Friday was not the last word. On Easter Sunday morning God raised him from the dead, showing the world that his Son had been perfectly righteous, actually earning eternal life. He’d merely died as a sin offering for us. And here’s the good news. The law is constantly telling us, “Quit looking to yourself, and look to him.” Because if we place our faith in Christ as our only hope, then his payment for our sin counts for us. Our debt is marked “paid in full.” But not only that, his perfect righteousness and reward of eternal life are credited to us so that we get to stand before God in his righteousness and are rewarded with eternal life because of what he has done.
You might imagine walking down a road that divides, where one side leads to death and hell and the other side to life and eternity with the Lord. The law, graciously, says to us, “Don’t go down this road of death and hell. There is no hope here.” And with every step we take in that direction, the law shines a light on our sin. With every impulse we have to go there, the law says, “This road leads to death.” With every effort we make down that path, the law says, “You can’t measure up. But look over there. Look to Christ. There you will find life.”
That’s why Paul says that the law is holy and righteous and good. It reveals sin, condemns us to death, and shows us we can never be good enough so that we’ll look to Christ in faith. What a blessing then God has given us in his commands. It is no wonder that Paul, after asking if the law is sin, answers, “By no means!” Without it, we would not have been directed to Christ, whom we come to remember and worship now as we come to the table. Amen.