Knowing Sin

“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’” (v. 7).

- Romans 7:7

Commentators have endeavored for centuries to understand Paul’s view of the law of God. This is no easy task, as the Apostle’s understanding is complex and nuanced. There are, however, a number of points on which Paul is quite clear.

First, God’s law does not solve the problem of sin. As we have said, this idea conflicted with the prevailing view of first-century Judaism that obeying the Lord’s statutes was the way to secure a right relationship with Him. Yet Paul was adamant that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight” (Rom. 3:20). “Works of the law” in this verse has reference to any attempt to earn righteousness by doing the law, whether it is the Mosaic law or the law written on the conscience. The fact that the law does not solve the problem of sin should not be surprising, because the Lord never intended His law to be the solution to sin. Instead, God revealed His law to point us to the solution, namely, Christ (Gal. 3:19–24). How does the law direct us to Jesus? There are many ways it does this, but perhaps the most striking of these is that the law increases sin, showing us our desperate plight that we might rest in Christ alone for our righteousness (Rom. 7:8–11).

Second, because the law increases sin, our relationship to the law must change. While we are under the law’s condemnation, we cannot please God. When unconverted people receive law, their existing bondage to sin only gets worse. As we will see next week, God’s law reveals sin for what it is, and unregenerate people respond with greater hatred of the holy Lord. “The power of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56). Unless the Holy Spirit regenerates us, our breaking of the law and the ensuing guilt result in our defiantly sinning even more. Since the law and sin’s power are connected, we cannot be loosed from one without being loosed from the other. Escaping the law is not lawlessness. We may not sin that grace may abound (Rom. 6:1). Still, we must come out from under the law to be freed from sin’s dominion. We must die, for the law cannot condemn dead people and sin cannot use the law to increase wickedness in the hearts of those who have died to the law. In Christ, we die to the law and sin. Loosed from the law’s condemnation and burden, we are free from sin’s power (vv. 1–14; 7:1–6).

Finally, the law of God in itself always remains good despite the aforementioned truths (7:7). It is not the fault of the law that it ends up leading to the increase of sin in fallen people; rather, sinners are to blame. Because it is God’s law, it is always holy and pure.

Coram Deo

When we see that Paul refers to the law of God as good and holy (Rom. 7:7–12), we can better understand how the psalmist can declare his love for the law (Ps. 119:97). The holiness and goodness of the law elicit praise in the hearts of converted people. Although in Christ we no longer stand under the law in the same way that we did before conversion, it remains to guide us, and we learn to love it in a way that was impossible before we were saved.

Passages for Further Study

Nehemiah 9:13–14
1 Timothy 1:8

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.