The Law Must Come to Us!
Last time, we concluded our look at Paul’s laying-out of the principles as to why he considered the idea of the Law being itself sin, that the Law could be in a sense evil, so very abhorrent, saying in verses 7 and 8 of chapter 7,
What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! Rather, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law. For I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.”
But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, worked out in me coveting of every kind. For apart from the Law sin is dead.
And in this, we see Paul having laid down 2 very basic principles. First, that far from being itself sin, through its utter holiness the Law is an absolutely essential part of the gospel, in that it exposes and brings us personal understanding of just what sin is, in verse 7. And then in verse 8, the second part of the answer is that Sin is so very powerful, that it can twist and use even the Law as a base of operations, a fulcrum from which sin can work even greater sin within us. The Law is indeed powerful, and because it is so very powerful, sin’s twisting of it provides such strength to sin, that sin seems dead in comparison when apart from the Law.
Now that he’s laid down his principles just as he had in Romans 6:16 where he had said, “Do you not know that when you go on presenting yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?”
Even so now, Paul is going on to work out for us the implications and particulars of how this works out for us, and he does so, you note, not in a dry and dispassionate manner, but in a remarkably personal manner, one so very personal that we can only reasonably conclude that he is giving us his own personal testimony here,
Now I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; and this commandment, which was to lead to life, was found to lead to death for me.
And of course, because of the language Paul uses, and how we are so very used to his use of words like death and life in the context of non-christian and christian, respectively, we may at once find ourselves in very real trouble if we don’t take the time and effort to realize just what it is the apostle is saying here! And once again, our context of the preceding verses are very critical in us reaching a right understanding!
But I want to call your attention to the central event of this sentence – it should be obvious to anyone, that the central even here is the coming of the commandment. And we will go very far astray indeed if we don’t get this right!
But we do get into a great deal of trouble when we don’t properly identify when the commandment came to him.
Why the trouble? Because we don’t stop and think carefully through what he is saying here!
For the Law was given to Moses, some 1400 years or so prior to Paul’s birth in Tarsus, which was probably within a decade of Jesus’ own birth in Bethlehem.
So now we have something of a problem; Paul had never lived in a time before the Law was in existence; he along with all of his playmates would have been taught the Law from the time they could haltingly put together a complete sentence!
Not only would he have been taught the Law by his parents and the local synagogue his family attended there in Tarsus, but he was brought up in the city of Jerusalem, the very center of Jewish life and Jewish Law, he relayed to the crowd outside the Roman’s barracks in Acts 22; he was even “instructed at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strictness of the Law of our fathers”, he told them.
And this, too, helps us paint this picture of Paul’s association with the Law. For Gamaliel was not an insignificant rabbi, in truth he was one of the most distinguished teachers of the Law, a person whose command and understanding of the Law was so revered and so respected by all the various parties of the Jews, that when he spoke, both Pharisee and Sadducee alike listened carefully, as attested in the case of the apostles in Acts 5. In fact, it was this same Gamaliel of whom it was later said, “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, regard for the Torah [Jewish Law] ceased, and purity and piety died." And such “regard for the Law” was certain to be passed down to his student, the young man Saul of Tarsus among them.
And so with such an education as a young man, Paul most certainly learned that the Law had been around far longer than he himself!
So how is it, then, that we read here in Romans 7, of “when the commandment came” to him? Did he refer back to when Moses gave the Law to the people at Sinai? No, that would be absurd, for then relating his condition before the Law came would be impossible. And likewise, he can’t be referring to when the Law was given to Moses or the people of Israel, on account of his specific and personal references – “I was once alive...”, “…I died...”, that the commandment “…was found to lead to death for me.” No, he’s not talking about the people of Israel or of Moses; that explanation, too, must be similarly discarded.
No, the only reasonable answer, lies in this immediately personal context he has introduced, it is the difference between knowing the words of the Law, and comprehending its full weight and depth, that moment when you discover just what it means when it says, “you shall not covet.” He’s not talking about when he came under the rule and authority of the Law, but rather he’s talking about when he himself realized that he was under its condemnation!
In other words, we are not talking from an objective perspective, rather Paul is saying this from a more personal subjective and experiential viewpoint. The key to understanding the differences, then, is in seeing when Paul finally looks at the Law of God and has that “aha!” moment, the instant he really personally comprehends the Law and all of its impact. When did this realization come to him? He doesn’t say – but, based on the rest of his teaching I think we can reasonably narrow it down to sometime prior to his conversion in the middle of Acts 9.
It is the same thing Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:14-16, “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil [speaking of the veil over Moses so the sons of Israel would “not look intently at the consequence” of Moses’ message] - the same veil remains unlifted, because it is brought to an end in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart, but WHENEVER a person TURNS TO THE LORD, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY.” The Law had not yet come to them! It was old and dead to them.
So then, with our realization that it was Paul’s personal recognition of the Law as applying to, and condemning, he himself, which is the central event he speaks of in saying “when the commandment came”, we can now begin to correctly understand what Paul is saying here.
For there is a clear and certain symmetry to what he is saying, first he speaks of the situation before the law came in such a forceful manner to him, and then after he realizes what the Law is truly saying, everything is then reversed. Before the Law? He felt he was alive. After the Law? He felt as if he were dead. But it goes even further; after his realization of the Law, sin revived, meaning beforehand sin seemed dead to him. And in point of fact, that is exactly what he was saying at the end of verse eight – “apart from the Law, sin is dead.”
So let us now look carefully at the first state, and I start at the end of verse 8: “For apart from the Law sin is dead. Now I was once alive apart from the Law”.
This first phrase provides us a most appropriate view of man in his natural state, before he realizes the terrible and eternal condemnation of the Law - “I was once alive apart from the Law!” He still has a veil over his heart, it has not yet been taken away, to use the words in Corinthians.
Now remember, he’s not speaking in terms of an objective, spiritual life! No, he’s talking about his own personal perspective in relative terms.
How ought to we understand this? Think of the common person on the street – blissfully unaware of the eternal wrath of God, they go about their days without a care in the world, their position sure and certain.
Paul himself certainly knew about this life, saying in Philippians 3:4-6, “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”
In other words, he feels himself to be full of life! He doesn’t have a worry about what the future might bring, such a man is certain that, if there is a god, he is certainly very pleased with them, they have nothing to fear! They have a view like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12, who “...stood and was praying these things to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’” This is a person who may rightly understand that some people are evil, and would most certainly not place themselves in such a category, no! For to their own mind and understanding, if they do even think of the Law, they say to themselves “look here, I already do those things, I have no need to feel like I’ve fallen short!”
And so, the terrible stain of sin is relatively muted, easily dismissed as a passing thought or fancy; so great is the tyranny of Sin that it sears the conscience of all under its thumb, it dulls those under its dominion to the awful truth of its power!
As far as he is concerned, the Law is, in a sense, dead; it can’t do anything to them. And not only that, but as we consider the opposite of sin being revived, he considers that just as the Law is dead to him, so is sin dead to him. Sin, such a man thinks, even one so theologically astute as Saul of Tarsus, sin is dead, and he himself is very much alive. Such a man can be full of strength and life, full of vigor, as William Henley proclaims it, “it matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul!”
There you see it! There you see the man in the position of Paul, before the commandment came! Such men are unable and prevented from realizing the full and terrible truth of the Law until they begin to turn to the Lord!
But then, comes understanding of the Law. Not this bright façade which, if it considers the Law at all, sees it as a means to destroy and remove sin, but the veil is lifted, the delusion is shattered, you are quickened, the Authorized says in Ephesians 2:1. "I came to understand what sin is,” Paul seems to say, “I, who formerly had no real understanding of coveting, in this instant underwent a complete reversal of my former condition!”
So where once sin seemed to be dead and he himself seemed to be alive, now it seems that sin has sprang to life, and he himself died. “sin revived, and I died!”
Suddenly, Paul is saying, his world around him was shattered, and in horror he realized how very deluded his thinking was! For when the Law came to him he realized just how very wrong he had been! Rather than being free from the condemnation of the Law, he realized that though he had thought he was free, he was in fact enslaved to sin, and on account of the Law making clear that it was sin, the Law then condemned him. He stood guilty before God! He realized that far from not having to worry about the Law, that he was alright by it – instead, all the while it had been accumulating an enormously long list of his transgressions!
In other words, when the Law came to him, when the veil was lifted and he truly understood it, he realized that his perception was entirely at odds with reality. He thought he was objective in his view of sin and the Law, but instead he realized how very subjective and flawed his view was! Instead of Sin being dead, it was alive, and causing him harm!
And, just as when he was once full of life and exuberant in his view of the world, it instead crashed down on him mightily, so very mightily that he felt as if he were dead. The world seemed to stop for him as he was brought to the depths of despair on account of understanding, “I myself covet! I covet, and therefore I stand condemned!”
He realized the very truth, then and there when the Law came to him, that he has already expressed in Romans 3 verse 10, “there is none righteous, not even one”, and again in Rom 3:20, “because by the works of the Law NO FLESH WILL BE JUSTIFIED IN HIS SIGHT, for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin”, and yet once more in Rom 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
In horror, he realized that this message applied to he himself, the Pharisee of Pharisees, who up to that point, according to his testimony in Galatians 1:14, “...was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being far more zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
And, through this new personal understanding and comprehension of the Law, “sin revived”. Instead of being muted, instead of being far from his mind and thoughts, each new thought, each new moment is held up to this fuller, more intimate comprehension of the Law, and in stark realization exposed for the sin that it is. Was it there all along? Yes! But he hadn’t been aware of it, and now that he examined everything afresh, he was driven to despair on account of realizing sin’s prevalence in his life, he’d never known the real power of the sin which was within him!
“Sin revived, and I died”, he exclaims! Not only is he now freshly and acutely aware of his condemnation, but when we understand this as the mirror-image of his feeling so very alive previously, we realize that he has been consumed with the realization of his utter hopelessness of being found righteous by God. Instead of feeling full of life and vigor, he now feels the crushing weight of sin, mourning because of it, realizing that there is no possible way which he could possibly consider himself “blameless” according to the Law ever again! Rather than being strong and vibrant, he finds himself falling to the ground as if dead, just as described in Acts 9, struck by the immensity of his debased state before God.
This is, of course, what this same apostle meant when he wrote in Galatians 3:24 where he says “Therefore the Law has become our tutor unto Christ,” for through the Law there is no possibility of justification, nor is there possibility of sanctification, there is only condemnation. And if you look at yourself, and do not viscerally understand that you stand as one who rightly ought to be condemned by God through your sin, then this critical realization has never come to you, you still feel yourself “alive apart from the law”. You still do not view the Law rightly!
The very point of the Law is for us to realize that we cannot meet God’s holy requirements! It is impossible, it is a command which no man can withstand, and we, too, must have the veil removed from our hearts that we may understand this.
We must come to view ourselves not as the pharisee of Luke 18, but as the tax collector he despised, who “standing some distance away, was even unwilling to life up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his chest, saying ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’”
It is absolutely essential to our salvation that we realize that we ourselves are utter and complete sinners. 1 John 1:10 declares, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” And God is no liar.
We must see ourselves as David saw himself in Psalm 38, declaring
O Yahweh, reprove me not in Your wrath, And discipline me not in Your burning anger. For Your arrows have pressed deep into me, And Your hand has pressed down upon me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation; There is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities go over my head; As a heavy burden they weigh too much for me. My wounds stink and rot Because of my folly. I am bent over and greatly bowed down; I go mourning all day long. For my loins are filled with burning, And there is no soundness in my flesh. I am faint and badly crushed; I groan because of the agitation of my heart.
Lord, all my desire is before You; And my sighing is not hidden from You. My heart throbs, my strength forsakes me; And the light of my eyes, even that has gone from me. My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague; And my kinsmen stand afar off. Those who search for my life lay snares for me; And those who seek to do me evil have threatened destruction, And they meditate on deception all day long.
But I, like a deaf man, do not hear; And I am like a mute man who does not open his mouth. And I am like a man who does not hear, And in whose mouth are no reproofs. For I wait on You, O Yahweh; You will answer, O Lord my God. For I said, “Save, lest they be glad over me, Who, when my foot stumbles, magnify themselves against me.” For I am ready to fall, And my sorrow is continually before me. For I confess my iniquity; I am full of anxiety because of my sin. But my enemies are vigorous and strong, And those who wrongfully hate me abound. And those who repay evil for good, They accuse me, for I pursue what is good.
And then, knowing beyond doubt, just as David, our only reasonable response, on account of discovering the terrible weight of our own, personal sin, is to abandon any hope within ourselves, and to not decide for Christ, but to throw ourselves whole-heartly at the feet of Christ Jesus with utter abandon, exclaiming with David,
Do not forsake me, O Yahweh; O my God, do not be far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!
To despise this message, to proclaim only that ‘God is Love’ and we must ‘make a decision’ to love Him back, is to fail to realize our true need for a savior, it is to remain alive apart from the Law, with the veil still over our hearts.
And so, once again, we see that although the Law is completely unable to justify or to sanctify us, it is absolutely essential that it come to us, that we discern it with unveiled hearts, and feel its condemnation!
Let us pray!