Sin, the Deceiver
Not it’s important that we remember we have been working out the implications of the principles Paul laid down in Romans 7:7-8, in which the apostle Paul wrote:
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.
Far from being evil toward us, the Law is an absolutely essential part of the gospel, in that first it exposes to us in the most personal manner what sin is, and second it is able to use even the Law of God as a fulcrum to work even greater sin within us.
And moving on, Paul speaks from his own life to work out for us the implications of these principles, starting in verse 9,
Now I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died;
The Law has acutely made Paul himself aware of his own condemnation; where once he felt alive, that Sin was held at bay, that it was in a sense, dead, there was no life to it; but now, now that the commandment came to him, now that he understands exactly what it is that the Law means when it says “do not covet”, he has realized that far from being dead, he had been deceived, for sin had always been there, lurking below the surface, and when the Law came to him, it seemed to revive, it became aroused to the point all he could see was coveting of every kind! And the crushing weight of his sin was absolutely overwhelming, and just as he had once felt full of life and vitality, so now he felt full of death and condemnation!
And now, he continues his testimony in verses 10 and 11, saying,
and this commandment, which was to lead to life, was found to lead to death for me. For sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
On the surface, when Paul writes that this commandment – by commandment meaning, of course, the Law – when Paul writes that this commandment was to lead to life, this seems to be contradicting what he has said earlier in this chapter regarding the Law; in verse 5 saying it aroused our sinful passions, in verse 6 constrained us by the oldness of its letter, in verse 8 it seemed to bring life to sin, and in verse 9 it revived sin! Even going back to Rom 3:20, Paul had declared that “...by the works of the Law NO FLESH WILL BE JUSTIFIED IN HIS SIGHT...”
So when he now says that the commandment was to lead to life, we realize that we should not simply accept it at face-value, but must of necessity work out what he means here so that the seeming contradictions become instead harmonious with each other – the text demands we do this!
And I think that perhaps the best way to understand this is in looking forward to what Paul writes regarding this same Law in Romans 10:5, in which he says, Romans 10:5 “For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of law: 'THE MAN WHO DOES THESE THINGS SHALL LIVE BY THEM.'”
And in fact, that is only a partial quotation of what God had declared to Moses in Leviticus 18:5,
‘So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does them, he shall live by them; I am Yahweh.
This same statement is repeated in Nehemiah 9, and Ezekiel 18, being witnessed also in Deuteronomy 6 and Exodus 19. In each case, you will note that the promise of life is ever and always preceded by an if, “if a man does them, he shall live”, this is the principle characteristic of the righteousness according to the Law; to secure such justification demands perfect obedience to all of the commands – not just occasionally but throughout a person’s entire life; “…whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point,” James 2:10 declares, “he has become guilty of all.”
So, even though the Law – the command – held the promise of life, that promise was conditional on a person keeping the Law, something that Paul has been explaining to us here in Romans 7 is absolutely impossible on account of Sin, he will say later in chapter 8 verse 3, that it was “weak through the flesh”.
Is the Law able to lead to life? Absolutely! That was the promise of the Law; that if a person through their entire life keeps the commandment, it would have led to life; for the Law describes a manner of life filled with the pure and absolute holiness that is pleasing in the sight of God.
And so, rather than contradicting himself when Paul writes in Romans 7:10...
and this commandment, which was to lead to life, was found to lead to death for me.
…he is instead reminding us of the epitome of what the Law is capable of rendering when the righteousness which is of the Law is fulfilled wholly and completely. And yet, even and perhaps especially with such a great and noble potential, this commandment “was found to lead to death for me.”
Paul had once thought he had that life, that it was “in the bag”, as it were. But then, the Law had come to him, and he realized just how impossible it is to get there from here; for when the Law came to him, he realized that his desire of what was forbidden was as much sin as was unlawfully taking what was not his.
To live by such a Law as the Law of Moses, requires that law to be perfectly obeyed. Scottish theologian Robert Haldane, in his excellent commentary on Romans, writes of this Law, saying,
The law knows no mercy; it knows no mitigation, it overlooks not even the smallest breach, or the smallest deficiency. One guilty thought or desire would condemn for ever. Whoever, then, looks for life by the law, must keep the whole law in thought, word, and deed, and not be chargeable with the smallest transgression.
In other words, when the Law came to Saul of Tarsus, he realized that instead of being blameless according to the Law, it instead condemned him; rather than leading to life for him, it led instead to death.
And rather than leaving it at that, the apostle went further to ensure we understand how this happens in verse 11, and I think you will come to agree with me that this is a most fundamental and foundational statement regarding the Law, and holiness, and salvation!
For sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
The trouble, the apostle is telling us once again, is not the law, but rather the problem is one of sin.
Back in verse 8, Paul wrote that sin had taken opportunity through the commandment to work out coveting of every kind, using the commandment as a fulcrum or base of operations. And now here, he goes beyond even that to say that sin kills through its deception.
When we think about deceiving, our minds tend to automatically gravitate toward Satan, who in John 8:44 is rightly called by Jesus, “a liar and the father of lies.” We tend to focus on this one great deceiver who in Revelation 12:9, “deceives the whole world.” We tend to try to distance ourselves from the idea of deception, often glossing over any idea that it is far nearer to us than having some ethereal external and distant presence.
But what Paul is saying is that the deception of sin in our lives is a very clear and present reality that each one of us must face.
Isn’t this what the apostle has been saying all along? Hasn’t he been telling us that he once thought that he was righteous before God? Of course! He once thought he was alive, and that sin was dead in him, before the commandment came to him, before he understood what it required. He was deceived, and what he is telling us here is that deception was not by happenstance, but it was intentional, that sin desired to deceive him!
And this isn’t just a minor deception, a thinly veiled fuzziness that you can still see through, like a child’s costume; you know the kind I mean, where your child comes to you with their little pirate get-up on, and you pretend to be frightened and confused until they take the hat off and exclaim “surprise, it’s me!” and you pretend to be surprised at the revelation that it wasn’t a old-time pirate! This is no trivial of laughable situation, such a view is a caricature of deception, it is to over-emphasize an obvious falseness to the point of absurdity that is obvious to everyone.
And more often than not, this caricature is what we point to when we refer to sin’s deception in the Law. It’s obvious, we say, it is a trivial matter to distinguish between the false view and the true view.
But what Paul is telling us here is that nothing could be further from the truth! Sin “took opportunity the the commandment” in order to utterly and thoroughly “deceive me”, and through that deception it used the Law to bring about my death!
This isn’t a trivial deception that is shallow and light, but rather the deception runs deep into my soul. It is a complete and utter deception; we get a result entirely different than the result we were expecting.
Paul himself understood this; when he wrote to the Philippians believers that in his former life under Judaism he felt himself blameless, he wasn’t kidding! Saul the Pharisee was “far more zealous for the traditions of [his] fathers”, far beyond many of his fellow Jews, he had written to the Galatians in chapter 1 of that epistle. He felt that he was keeping the law, and therefore he felt that he was alive. Perhaps turning back to Genesis 3 will help us understand just how thoroughly sin deceives, as we look at the interaction between the woman and the serpent. After all, Paul uses this same word, ἐξαπατάω, to describe how thoroughly Eve was deceived by the serpent in the Garden in 2 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2, being deceived by his craftiness unto corruption and trespass. In fact, when confronted by God, Eve pointed to the serpent and said “he deceived me!” But let’s look to the actual event itself at the beginning of Genesis 3, and see how this applies to the “deception of sin” as applied to us:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which Yahweh God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?”
From the first, we see that the serpent, just like sin, magnifies a view of what is prohibited, to the point of absurdity. Much like a “straw man” argument, sin deceives us by making God out to be some overbearing and unreasonable tyrant, such that we who have an affinity toward God either feel that we need to defend Him, or otherwise explain Him to those who seem to be attacking his character. Alternately, for those who dislike even the notion of God, those who are disposed toward openly hating Him, this only serves to cast God even more as a autocratic tyrant instead.
Further still, sin attacks and casts suspicion upon the goodness of God. Adam and Eve, together in the garden, visiting with God as He walked in the garden with them, had ample proof of God’s love and provision for them, and yet from the very start, this particular deception throws doubt on His word to us. “Did God really say that, did He really mean such a thing?”, this deception openly asks.
But also notice the particular avenue of attack used here. This is no frontal assault! There is no direct attempt here where the serpent lays out his position plainly and openly, and demands that Eve makes a clear choice here and now; there is no attempt to persuade Eve to disobey here. That is what many people, even many believers who should know better, seem to expect! Instead, this is the opening salvo of a line of reasoning coming in by the side, laying the foundation necessary to insinuate a possible unjustness or unreasonableness on the part of God.
Let’s move forward to see how this deception progresses, shall we?
And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God said, ‘You shall not eat from it, and you shall not touch it, lest you die.’”
Of course, the effectiveness and the breadth of the serpent’s deception begins to become even evident to us in Eve’s initial response to the serpent. It’s clear in her response that Eve had been adequately prepared for such thinking, and that she is sincerely conveying her understanding of the isolated nature of the prohibition – effectively saying, “nope, we really can eat from the trees, there’s just a tree we need to stay away from!”
But if we were to carefully inspect her response, it reveals that she is beginning to lose sight of the boundless goodness of God. Genesis 2:16-17 reads, “And Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may surely eat; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat from it; for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’ ” But Eve has lost the perspective that she may eat from any tree of the garden except for the one tree. There was certainty and assuredness in what God had declared, but now, she is beginning to hedge, to allow for the possibility of eating rather than resting in the certainty of eating from all of the other trees. In other words, there has been a deception of uncertainty surrounding what God had actually declared.
Not only this, but the suspicion aroused by the serpent’s deception begins to rear its head as she expands the prohibition from “you shall not eat from it” in 2:17, to “you shall not eat from it, and you shall not touch it” here in 3:3! In the same manner as the Pharisees which Paul had once epitomized, Eve has added to God’s command, not trusting that His Word itself is sufficient, but feeling there was need for yet further safeguard dared to increase the prohibition.
And seeing such an opening, the serpent at once seizes upon the unstable edge of her understanding, as if he were pressing against a tottering wall, honing his deception in on the incredibly weak spot she has now revealed to such a perceptive foe!
And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
And finally, with her defenses awry, the wall breached, only now does the serpent advance a positive denial of the word that God had declared, instead proclaiming its opposite: “You shall surely die”, God had declared; instead the deception declared “you surely will not die”. And not stopping there, but declaring that God knows and is intent at keeping knowledge from you, God is trying to keep and prevent you from something that is good. He envies His exalted position over you, and is intent in keeping you down in your place, Eve!
How, then, was the woman deceived? It wasn’t simply a deceit in the end result, but also in each step toward how that result was arrived at. It was approached carefully and methodically, always working to corrupt her mind, in order to achieve the desired result – namely, an outright denial of God’s sovereignty. “God said you would die, but you won’t die.”
In other words, you have to trust yourself, rather than to trust God.
Now, let’s look at this in light of Romans 7:11,
For sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
Eve’s deception inextricably tangled truth and falsehood, right and wrong, life and death to the point that the deception is fatal, in that Eve began to long for and desire that which was forbidden, “and took from its fruit and ate.” The act of eating was the result of the desire within her, of sin which took opportunity through the command, “you shall not eat from it”, and through that commandment she was deceived and thereby killed.
Likewise, the deception Paul speaks of in Romans 7 hinges on and finds its strength in the commandment of God, the Law, which was to lead to life for any who could keep it in its entirety.
Why? Because sin, within its very nature, is deceptive. And recognizing the strength of the Law, Sin deceives us and uses the Law as a means to kill us!
And just as in the case of Eve, sin does not necessarily come at us straight-on, but rather it comes in craftily, to the side. Can it come in an beckon us with a supposed enjoyment of outright sin? Yes, it can and it does! But just as often it comes in deceptively, getting us to think that we are following God’s command, when in fact we really aren’t doing so at all; grabbing our focus on the doing of evil deeds such as murder, or adultery, or theft, when in reality we covet our neighbor’s house, or coveting our neighbor’s wife, or coveting the things which belong to our neighbor.
Sin deceives by magnifying the view of what is prohibited, even to the point of absurdity, making God out to be an overbearing and unreasonable tyrant.
Sin deceives by casting suspicion on the goodness of God.
Sin deceives by insinuating an unjustness and unreasonableness in God.
Sin deceives by casting aspersion, confusing, and placing outright suspicion on the sufficiency of God’s word.
And yes, finally, sin does dare to directly contradict the plain declaration of God.
And so Sin, deceives us into violating the clear and holy commands of God, incurring the due penalty of that violation. We, then, do not “do the things of the Law”, and in ourselves have no right to truly claim the righteousness which is of the Law.
So then, Paul is telling us that the deception of sin in our lives is so great a deceiver, that it takes the Law which was to lead to life and turns it instead into a death sentence – as long as we are under Law, sin can and will use it to secure that death sentence.
And so once again, this serves to highlight and emphasize our need for obtaining the righteousness of another, of being joined to Him who was raised from the dead!
Our only hope rests in the finished work of Jesus Christ!
Let us pray!