The Law and Our Powerlessness

“I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (v. 18).

- Romans 7:14–25

Few subjects have created as much heated debate as the place of the moral law in the Christian life. On the whole, the Reformed tradition views the law positively, noting its harmony with the gospel as long as it is used properly. Some people, on the other hand, reject the law as having no place in Christian discipleship.

Part of the reason for this rejection has to do with the negative statements about the law in Romans 7. A surface-level reading of this chapter can make people think the moral law is bad. But digging deeper, we find that the Apostle’s teaching on the law and how it reveals and exacerbates sin does not blame the law for transgression. In fact, Paul says that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (v. 12). The problem is sin, not the law—our fallenness takes hold of the law and uses it to make us sinful beyond measure (v. 13).

In itself, the law is good; the trouble is that the law demands obedience but does not give us the power to obey. This is certainly true of sinners before conversion, the plight of whom Paul describes in verses 7–13. But even after we come to Christ, the law is still powerless to make us obey. The power of sin is broken but not eradicated at our conversion, so even believers can find the law inciting them to sin when they are walking according to the flesh and not according to the Spirit. Believers engage in a lifelong struggle against sin after they come to Christ, their redeemed nature desiring to do good but the remnants of sin fighting against their new, godly desires. Sometimes the sin will temporarily gain the upper hand, and they will engage in further transgression. Often, they will find themselves loving the law and yet breaking the law. Paul describes this struggle with sin and the law’s place in the fight in Romans 7:14–23, noting that even for us as believers, the law reveals the depth of our depravity, inspiring our frustration that we cannot obey it. But again, this is not the fault of the law. As Martin Luther comments in the introduction to his translation of the New Testament: “The law is not itself evil; it is our evil nature that cannot tolerate that the good law should demand good from it. It’s like the case of a sick person, who cannot tolerate that you demand that he run and jump around and do other things that a healthy person does.”

So, the law reveals sin in both the Christian and the non-Christian. Even after we come to faith, we must be reminded of our sin and powerlessness to obey God. Only then will we continue to look to Christ alone for salvation (vv. 24–25).

Coram Deo

The struggle that Paul describes with the law does not end in defeat. Rather, he says the answer is Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:25). In Christ we receive both forgiveness and the power to resist sin. We must turn to Him daily, asking God to forgive us in Him and to give us the grace we need to grow in holiness.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 51
Romans 3:20
1 Corinthians 15:56
James 2:8–9

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