The Law in the Life of an Unbeliever

The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

- Romans 7:12

Interpreters have long struggled to square Paul’s teaching on the law of God—particularly its revelation in the Mosaic law—with Old Testament texts that praise this law (for example, Deut. 4:8; Micah 4:1–2). How can the Apostle teach that this law leads to sin (Rom. 7:7–11) when the psalmist says, “Oh how I love your law!” (Ps. 119:97)?

We can make sense of this only if we understand to whom Paul is referring with the pronoun I in Romans 7:7–25 and the history of salvation. Today, we will examine whom the I represents. It is important to note that I does not represent the same person throughout the passage. Unconverted people have “no fear of God” (3:18), so it is impossible that Romans 7:14–24 could refer to anyone except the regenerate Paul, representing all authentic believers in the living God. Some people argue that verses 7–25 in their entirety form a pre-conversion autobiography of the Apostle that shows what happens when unregenerate people encounter God’s law. Yet, if unconverted people are as bad as Paul says they are in 1:18–3:20, the Lord’s impenitent enemies cannot be the subject of 7:14–24. Such individuals have no desire to please God and do not feel the struggle with sin Paul describes in verses 14–24.

On the other hand, the I in Romans 7:7–13 is not the believer, at least not primarily. The only thing the law of God does for the person described in verses 7–13 is excite sin, but we know that regenerate people can please the Lord truly, but imperfectly, because the Holy Spirit gives them new hearts with love for God (John 3:1–8; Rom. 5:5). Because of remaining sin, this obedience is not the legal righteousness we need to become citizens of heaven. Instead, we rely solely on the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us in our justification (Rom. 3:21–26). True, the law will excite sin in us if we walk by the flesh and not the Spirit. Nevertheless, because we have the Spirit of God, the law does not inevitably excite sin in us as it does in the unbeliever. Therefore 7:7–13 must form a pre-conversion autobiography for Paul, representing what happens when unbelievers meet the law of the Lord. Paul, in Romans 7:12, asserts that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Understanding the law properly—that it is good as a guide to holiness, not a way for us to justify ourselves before the Lord—is possible only for regenerate people. This is how passages like Psalm 119:97 view the law. True love for God’s law is part of Paul’s teaching on the subject, but it is possible only for those whom God has made new.

Coram Deo

As we will see tomorrow, we cannot love the law truly unless the law first crushes us. People who keep the law in hopes that their obedience will merit eternal life do not truly love the law or the perfect Lord who revealed it. They love a false god who makes the false promise that sinners can merit heaven. Those who have been driven to Christ by the law, however, can love it as a guide to holiness.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 19:7–11;
119:126–128
Acts 25:8
Romans 13:8

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