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.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. – Romans 7:7-12 ESV
In Paul’s assessment of man’s relationship between the law and sin, he strongly emphasized that these two things were not synonymous. In other words, he did not want anyone assuming that the law must be somehow sinful itself because it caused man to sin. He clearly states: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (Romans 7:7 ESV). The law simply revealed man’s sin, in the same way that a speed limit sign exposes a driver who is exceeding the legally enforced and visibly posted limit. The infraction is the responsibility of the individual, not the sign. Sin cannot be blamed on the law because, as Paul says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12 ESV). God’s law was given in order to show man his incapacity to live up to the righteous standards God required. It was man’s sin nature that was the problem. The law simply exposed it. Paul states that “apart from the law, sin lies dead” (Romans 7:8 ESV). The Greek word for “dead” that Paul uses is nekros and while it can be used to refer to actual death or lifelessness, it can also mean “destitute of force or power, inactive, inoperative” (Outlines of Biblical Usage). Paul was not saying that sin was completely dead and impotent, but that until the law came, it remained dormant. Then “when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (Romans 7:9 ESV). He was also not saying that man was sinless before the law came, but that man sinned in ignorance. There were no speed limit signs, so to speak. So man went as fast as he wanted with no feelings of regret or remorse. But when the law was given, God’s limits became known and man’s true nature became exposed. Using one of the Ten Commandments as an example, Paul says that prior to the command, “You shall not covet,” he would not have known the coveting was wrong. His sin nature would have coveted in ignorance and without any conviction of having committed an act of wrongdoing. But when the law came, clearly revealing that coveting was against the will of God, man’s sin nature resisted that command and produced an increased desire to covet. There is within man, because of the presence of his sin nature, a predisposition to rebel against the will of God. You can see it in a small child when you tell them that they are not to touch a hot stove. Suddenly, everything in them wants to do exactly what you just told them not to do. Their is a relentless attraction to the forbidden wired into each of us because of the fall.
God gave the law to show mankind what was required in order to maintain a right relationship with Him and, as a result, to experience true life. Because God is righteous and holy, He requires that those who come into His presence be holy. He cannot tolerate sin. Just as light cannot coexist with darkness, neither can God coexist with sin. And Paul explains that God’s good, holy and righteous law, which promised life to anyone who could keep it, ended up bringing death to mankind. Why? Because sin, “seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Romans 7:11 ESV). Sin was the problem, not the law. St. Augustine describes man’s predicament this way: “The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.” Paul said, “had it not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Romans 7:7 ESV). It is our awareness of our sinfulness as revealed by the law that should create in us a desire for God’s help. But sadly, many just attempt to work harder at keeping God’s law. Their guilt increases their self-effort. Rather than throwing up their hands and saying, “I can’t”, they stubbornly refuse to ask for help from God and push themselves harder, thinking they can somehow earn favor with Him through their own strength. Sadly, there are others who, when convicted by God’s law, refuse to acknowledge its authority over them. Sin, “seizing an opportunity through the commandment” ends up producing a growing list of infractions and transgressions. They knowingly and willingly break God’s “speed limit.”
In the very next chapter, Paul gives us the great news regarding God’s law. He writes, “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT). The law showed me my sin. It also showed me my need for a Savior. And God sent His own Son to do for me what the law was never intended to do. He came to save me and free me from the condemnation of the law. My righteousness is found in Him, not in my efforts to keep the law. God did for me what the law could not do. He did for me what I could not do.