Paul is using his own life as a Pharisee (seen through the eyes of a Christian) to illustrate the futility of a legalistic attempt to become righteous. Personifying sin throughout, he said that sin used the law to produce death (vv. 7-13). Indwelling sin made it impossible for him to achieve the righteousness which he desired (vv. 14-20). And life under the law led to despair, a despair from which only Christ can deliver one (vv. 21-25).
What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.—7:7-8
If the law connected us to the sinful realm, and sin used it to stir up sinful passions in us (v. 5), is the law itself an evil power? No, however, sin manipulates the law, like the serpent manipulated God’s commandment in Eden (Genesis 3:1). The experience of knowing “what coveting really was” (Romans 7:7) focuses on the negative side of what sin does with the law, though in verse 13 Paul will talk about God’s intention. Verse 8 explains the cause of this negative experience of the law. In fact, sin needs the law to work with, just as the serpent would not have had any raw material to manipulate if God had not told Adam and Eve to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.—7:9-12
Paul might not be talking about his own individual experiences directly; rather, he may be imagining the Garden of Eden, where there was life before the commandment came, or he may be evoking Israel before the law came. At one level, the commandment that God gave in Genesis 2:17 was designed to persevere Adam and Eve, a was the Law of Moses, since “the person who obeys [God’s decrees and laws] will live by them” (Leviticus 18:5). But these commandments, which promised life, became the death of Adam and Eve—and of Israel—because they disobeyed. This is because sin made use of the commandment in the garden and then, on a larger scale, the Sinai law, manipulating through the law, the law then had no choice but to pronounce the verdict of death, which accompanied its commandments. But the law is only a tool in the hand of sin; it does not itself produce evil desires.
Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.—7:13
As a result of the argument in verses 7-12, Paul has shown that the law itself is not to blame for transgressions. The power of sin is to blame. Paul’s view of the nature of the law is the same as God’s people have always viewed it (Psalm 19 and 119). Having proved his argument that the law itself is holy but is used as an instrument of sin, Paul shows how even this manipulation by sin was part of God’s providential revelation. There are two different purposes in using the law—sin’s and God’s. The purpose of sin in using the law is to bring about death. The other purpose in using the law (that sin might be recognized as sin) is definitely not sin’s purpose in using the law, because sin likes to cover its tracks. But God’s purpose in using the law is to shine the spotlight on sin. The final clause in Romans 7:13 could refer to sin’s purpose in using the law—that sin might really flourish. Ot it could be of God’s purpose in using the law—that sin overreaches itself and so becomes too big to hide.
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.—7:14-20
These verses are not a description of Christian experience (found in Galatians 5:17). In Romans 7:9-12 Paul puts himself in the position of Adam or Israel before the law (“once I was alive,” v. 9). In Romans 7:14-25 he looks back on his condition before he became a Christian, when he was under the law: unspiritual, a slave to sin (v. 14) and wretched (v. 24). In other words, this is not how Paul felt before he was a Christian but how he really was. He did not understand that he was sinning in arresting Christians. His intention (which was to honor the Lord and keep the law) was very different from what he actually accomplished (v. 15). All along, though, Paul has known the law is good (v. 16). The reason he is not conscious of sinning is that sin is pictured as working through him, covering its tracks. Paul realizes now that there was nothing good in his nature; he wanted to fulfill the law, but failed to achieve that; instead, he achieved the opposite of his intention. Again, this is the result of sin at work and covering its tracks.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.—7:21-25
Paul summarizes the situation he was in before Christ, though he did not realize it at the time. At the level of his conscious desire and even delight (vv. 21-22), he willed what was good, yet evil was right there with him (v. 21). Prior to God’s rescue of him, he unconsciously fulfilled what he describes in verses 5-6.
In verses 24-25 Paul comments on the need for rescue from his body that is subject to death, the old self or the body ruled by sin, which is put to death at baptism (Romans 6:4 and 6). Paul therefore thanks God for delivering him from this situation of serving both the law and sin simultaneously (Romans 7:25b).
What then is the take away from this passage: We all desire a higher life, a life of acceptance with God. We must not approach the unconverted as if there were no striving for good in them. We must help everyone to see that Jesus is the answer to their own striving. Only then will they accept him. We must remember this: What man cannot achieve by their own efforts, God can bestow by his wonderful grace.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Isaiah 33:10-36:22, Galatians 5:13-25, Psalm 64:1-10 and Proverbs 23:23
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