Scripture Text: Romans 7:7-15
What Good is the Law? (Sermon Text)
Lately as we have gone through Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have read a lot about ourselves, about God’s grace, and about God’s Law. We have read that to be declared right with God does not require us to follow a bunch of commands, but rather to have faith in Jesus Christ. Last week we read how we must be freed from the Law and bound to Jesus Christ in order to “bear fruit” for God. To say our relationship with God depends on our trust in His Son and not obedience to His Law raises the question, “Why have the Law? What Good is the Law of God?” That is the issue before us in this passage. Paul spent some time in chapter six writing about grace. In chapter seven, he spent some time defending the Law of God and placing it in the proper perspective in relation to the Gospel. In verse five, Paul made an interesting statement about the Law:
Romans 7:5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.
How does the Law arouse our sinful passions? Why do people walk on the grass where there are signs which read KEEP OFF THE GRASS? It is pleasurable to walk on the forbidden grass. Why do people trespass where they are clearly told not to trespass? We like to go where we should not go. What do people do when they see a WET PAINT sign? They touch it. There is a presumption with the sign to not touch it (otherwise why have the sign!), but we touch it anyway. Why? We do not want to be told what to do. If we are told to do something, or not to do something, our natural inclination is to disobey that command. We want to be free and independent. We want to do what we want.
We could boil the problem down to this: each of us wants to be god. That was the problem with Adam and Eve and that is our problem. We want to be our own masters. We refuse to submit to authority. God has given us His Law and has told us what to do, but like Adam and Eve, we desire the forbidden fruit that looks good to our eyes. People enjoy breaking commands in order to show their independence — to do what they want to do. This is sin, but the Law is good. In this passage, Paul defended the goodness of God’s Law in light of the grace of God. I think we see four truths mentioned here.
- The Law Reveals Our Sin
- Our Sin Condition Produces Sinful Acts
- Sin is Really About Wrong Desire
- The Law Shows Our Need for Christ
The Law Reveals Our Sin
While we want to be masters of our destiny, we are bound to something else. Paul’s teaching that all humans are bound by the Law and that the Law aroused sinful passions that led to death (Romans 7:4-6) quite naturally raised the question of whether the Law is bad. If the Law of God was our master and provoked the sin within us, wouldn’t it be sinful itself? Paul’s answer was “Certainly not!” He wrote the following:
Romans 7:7 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.”
The Law of God is essentially a teacher. It teaches us about sin. Paul already wrote something similar in chapter three, where he said, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20) The Law of God is not sinful, we are. The Law of God is not the problem, sin is. Through the Law of God, we can see who we really are. This is a good thing. God’s Law is like a mirror which reveals our inner self. Have you ever looked at the mirror and did not like what you saw? That is the Law. It is a reflection of who we are without Jesus Christ. It reveals to us our condition and it is not pretty. We could be really deceived about ourselves if it were not for the truth of God’s Word about us.
The issue, however, is that our sinful inclinations are not overcome by the Law’s demands on our life. The Law tells us what is wrong with us. The Law spells out what God’s expectations for us are. It commands us to do what is right, but it does not overcome the sinful condition we all have. That is why we cannot rely of the Law of God to put us in a right relationship with God. People who trust in themselves to keep the righteous demands of God’s Law, who try to use the Law to justify their relationship with God should know that they cannot do whatever good they may want to do by following God’s Law. The Law defines sin, but it is not sinful.
Our Sin Condition Produces Sinful Acts
It would be a mistake to believe that Jesus came to forgive or fix your individual sins. That would be like putting duct tape on a plumbing leak. It might fix the problem for a while, maybe a very short while, but the leak is going to happen again unless the broken pipe is fixed. Humans have a broken pipe, a condition, that gushes out flooding everything around it. We have a sin condition that produces all sorts of sinful acts. Paul mentioned this in verse eight of this passage:
Romans 7:8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.
Sin, seizing an opportunity, uses God’s Law to motivate our fallen nature to action. Our sin condition provokes us to be independent of God, like that child who wants what he wants, no matter what mom or dad have said. We each have inherited this condition from our ancient forefathers that causes us to desire the wrong things and then do the wrong things. You might ask, “Where is this condition I am mentioning?” Verse eight says “sin” not “sin condition”. Look at the verse again. Paul mentioned that sin produced “all kinds of covetousness,” but isn’t coveting a sin? How does coveting produce all kinds of covetousness? Paul was referring to the condition of sin within himself that produced all kinds of sinful acts, for example, covetousness.
I have been saying that this is a condition of sin, and indeed some people call it that. Others call it a “sin nature.” Another term to describe this condition is depravity. We are a depraved people who from our depraved state produce various acts of depravity. The Law of God does not cause us to sin, but our sinful condition does. Paul wrote that sin takes advantage of us and the legal demands of the Law and motivates us to commit sinful acts. It is like that desire to walk on the forbidden grass. The desire to walk on the grass is awakened by the command to not walk on the grass. The command was good, but our sinfulness used that command to motivate us to do what we ought not to do. Our sinful nature motivates our desire to break the legal demands of God’s Law. The desire to dishonor your parents is awakened by the Law’s command to honor your parents. The desire to steal is awakened by the prohibition of stealing. Our sin condition produces sinful acts that are awakened by the righteous demands of the Law.
Sin is Really About Wrong Desire
Have you thought why Paul mentioned covetousness? Why not murder, stealing, adultery, or most importantly, having no other gods? What was so important about coveting? Some think this section of the letter is a personal account of Paul’s life, like Paul is recounting his earlier life and struggle with a particular sin. Paul may have begun to seriously reflect on the Ten Commandments, and he found that he did pretty well until he came to the Tenth one which says, “You shall not covet …” (Exodus 20:17). Maybe he saw that his inner life was filled with coveting. Maybe he saw that the rest of the Ten Commandments are broken through sins which originate in coveting.
That is because coveting is really about wrong desire. It is desiring the wrong things. It involves not just our external compliance to the Law, but touches upon our inward desires and affections. In Jewish tradition, covetousness was “the root of all sin” and “the core and sum of the law.” James wrote that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14–15) All sin originates from a wrong desire. We covet what we should not have. Last week, we read from one of Paul’s other letters that speaks to this:
Galatians 5:17For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.
There are competing desires in our lives. There are desires of the flesh and desires of the Spirit. There are desires for what we want and there are desires for what God wants. The conflict is that what we naturally desire from our sinful condition is opposed to what God desires for us. Parents should recognize this condition. When you tell a child to do something, what will you likely hear in response? But, I want it. The child desires what he wants. Tell a child to stay out of the cookie jar and all that child can think of is cookies. He desires what he has been told not to have. Thus, the prohibition against coveting in the Tenth Commandment heightened the sinful desire for what was forbidden.
This might seem to suggest that God’s Law is bad. We have this desire but God gives the Law saying that what we want is wrong, which then results in death. Paul reminded us that it is the sin nature within us that is the problem, not the Law which is the good teacher showing us our true nature:
Romans 7:13–14 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.
The Law of God reveals what is sin, thus the Law of God is good. We, on the other hand, are not. We are bound to sin until we are bound to the Son.
The Law Shows Our Need for Christ
Though the Law makes sin known and is in fact used by sin to produce death, it is nevertheless holy and just and good. Since the Law is God’s Law, it must be consistent with His holy nature. A righteous God decrees commandments that are righteous. The Law, however, does not save us. It only exposes our sin condition and our inability to meet its demands. If the Law reveals our sin, and our sinful, depraved condition produces all sorts of sin, and the Law does not save us, but only reveals our pitiful condition, then what hope do we have? What can we do? Do you remember the theme verse of Romans, the passage I said we would go back to over and over again?
Romans 1:16-17 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Although Christians are free from the condemnation of the Law, sin nonetheless continues to dwell within, and all genuine Christians should be profoundly aware of how far they fall short of God’s standard of righteousness. Thus Paul cries out later, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). The answer follows immediately: the One who has delivered Christians once for all and the One who will deliver them day by day is “Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). God’s Law is good. It shows our condition. It also shows our desperate need for Christ. Thus the Good News of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation to everyone who gives up believing they can fulfill the demands of the Law. The Good News of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation to everyone who turns from working their way into God’s favor and relies upon Jesus Christ. God’s Son, not God’s Law, saves us.
In closing, how shall we respond to this passage? I offer three things.
First, acknowledge your sinful condition. As the saying goes, “You can change what you do not acknowledge.” You are more sinful than you realize. The problem is so much more than the individual sinful acts you commit. It is bigger than lying, cheating and stealing. It is the condition within you that produces all sorts of bad things. The Law of God reveals this condition. Trust what God has said about you, not what Satan deceives you to believe. The fruit on the tree is not nearly as appealing as it may seem to be.
Second, accept that you are completely incapable of keeping the righteous demands of the Law. While the Law of God is good and reveals our condition, trying to follow it is futile. Trying to work yourselves into God’s favor by following the letter of the Law will result in death. You will literally work yourselves to death and for naught. Trust in Jesus Christ and His work on the cross of Calvary as your sole means for righteousness. There is no other way!
Third, pray for the desires of God’s heart. Your sinful nature is at its core a battle of desire. It is the unhealthy desire for what you should not have that causes problems. What do you covet? What do you desire more than Jesus? Do not pray to God that He would help you do better things, but rather pray that He would give you new desires, new affections, and a greater love for Him. Only from God given desires will we truly produce the Fruit of the Spirit that pleases God. Pray for Godly desires to replace those sinful ones.
This is Good News. Thanks be to God. Amen!
This sermon was delivered at Good Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC. More information about Good Hope may be found at the following site: www.GoodHopeBC.org.