What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! (Romans 7:7)
This is the question that naturally arises from all that we said last week in Romans 7:1-6. “If being bound to ‘Nomos’ is a miserable marriage, if the law beats up on you, it sounds like you are saying that the law is bad.” That is what any thinking person would say after grasping verses 1-6, and some of you asked this question last week.
It’s a pattern in the letters of Paul, and especially in Romans, that he makes a case and then answers questions. You know that you have correctly understood what Paul is saying if you are left with the question that he raises and answers next.
Notice the question in Romans 7:7. “What shall we say then? That the law is sin? By no means!” So what is a proper Christian view of the law? “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12).
The commandments were given by God himself. They reflect his character. They lay out for us a way of life that is holy and righteous and good. When God gave the law, he gave a good gift to his people.
Think of what a marvelous world this would be if everyone kept the law of God! What a marvelous city Chicago would be if everyone obeyed the law, “You shall not murder.” How marvelous it would be to do business in this city if everyone you did business with spoke the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
The Law Is Good
Paul identifies two particular ways in which the law is good:
1. The law is good because it reveals sin.
If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. (Romans 7:7)
I think the question I have most often been asked in casual conversation about coming from Britain to America (even after 20 years of being here!) is “How did you get on with driving on the right side of the road?” A good answer to that is, “I’m just glad that someone told me.” Driving on the right or the left is fine just so long as you know which side you are supposed to be on!
If you are driving in Britain, you might be glad to see a sign that tells you what is required of you! I am thankful for the “Illinois Rules of the Road.” If no one told you what is required of you when you are driving, you would be in trouble.
I’m also thankful that the law of God has been written on tablets of stone, and that it does not change. Thinking about driving – this is a sign that you do not want to see: “Drive on the left on Mondays. Drive on the right on Tuesdays!” Thank God his law never changes and he has told us what it is.
The law is good because it tells us what a righteous life looks like. Nobody wants to go through life thinking you are getting it right, and then on the last day to stand before God and find out that you got it completely wrong.
2. The law is good because it promises life.
The…commandment that promised life. (Romans 7:10)
The rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him about the commandments. The rich young ruler recited them to Jesus.
Then Jesus said, “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Fullness of life lies ahead for those who live according to all the commandments of God.
The law is good. It reveals sin and it promises life. It tells us what God requires of us. It comes with a marvelous promise for those who keep it. The law is not the problem – sin is! Martyn Lloyd-Jones says of this chapter, “It is beyond any doubt the profoundest analysis of sin, and of its ways and its results, which is to be found anywhere in the whole of Scripture.” 
What Sin Is
If you were to do some ‘man in the street’ interviews and ask people what sin is, one answer you would get would be that sin is doing bad things – like lying and stealing. But sin is much more than doing bad things. If you think of sin only in terms of actions, you have not yet understood its nature. Sin is a power or impulse that, by nature, resides in our hearts.
This is the big truth that was missed by the Pharisees and is missed by many people in church today. The Pharisees were committed to a moral life. They were very serious about avoiding sin. The problem was that their definition of sin was limited to evil actions.
Jesus told a story about a Pharisee who went to the temple to pray. He could honestly say to God, “I don’t steal and I give myself to prayer. I fast twice a week. I practice generosity. I give 10%, not only of my salary, but of everything that I get.”
The rich young ruler was working with the same definition of sin. He thought of sin simply in terms of actions. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “You know the commandments.” He recited them: “Honor your father and mother,” etc., and then he said, “All these I have kept since my youth!” He was saying to Jesus, “I am committed to living a good moral life.” Exactly the same as the Pharisee in the temple.
When Paul looked look back at his earlier life, before his conversion, he saw the same pattern. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more” (Phil. 3:4). “As to righteousness under the law, blameless” (3:6). “Was I the kind of person who lied, cheated and stole? The answer is ‘no!’ I lived a moral life.”
But the next thing he says is very significant. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (3:7). Being a moral person kept him from seeing his need of Jesus Christ. His morality blinded him to his need!
Friends, this is really important because, in large measure, we are people who are committed to a moral life. We raise our children to live moral lives. And it is very hard for a moral person to grasp that he or she is a sinner. If you are a moral person, it will take a miracle of grace for you to see the extent of your need before God.
I’m praying that this miracle will happen right here for some of us today. It begins with settling in your mind this truth from Romans 7 – that sin is more than wrong actions. This was crucial in the experience of the apostle Paul: “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’” (Romans 7:7).
“The thing that got me was the tenth commandment” (that’s the one that says, “You shall not covet”). The tenth commandment was the one that changed my whole view of myself, which was: “I’m a moral person.” Why this command? Because the tenth commandment is the one that speaks not to the actions, but to the desires. Coveting is a desire.
The tenth commandment anticipates the teaching of Jesus that all the commandments go to the heart. The sixth commandment says, “Do not murder,” but Jesus traces that back to the roots of being angry with your brother in your heart. The seventh commandments says, “Do not commit adultery,” but Jesus traces this back to the roots of looking with lust in your heart. God is not simply looking at actions, he is looking at the heart.
So Paul says, “The tenth commandment was the one that got me because it showed me that I was working with the wrong definition of sin. I had limited it to certain actions that I did not do. There I was with my moral checklist, thinking I was doing quite well – I don’ kill; I’ve never murdered anyone. And I don’t steal; I’ve never robbed a bank.”
“Then one day I came face-to-face with the tenth commandment. And when I saw that sin includes the impulses of the heart, I could no longer regard myself as the moral person I had imagined myself to be.”
Sin is a power. It is an impulse of the heart that gravitates toward what God forbids. This impulse is in all of us by nature. That is what we need saving from.
Here’s why I say that Romans 7 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible: If you’re working with a limited definition of sin, you are not likely to come to Jesus. If you buy into the Pharisees’ definition of sin, you will feel, as they did, that you do not need what Jesus offers. But when you see that sin is an impulse that resides in your heart, you will begin to see why you need a Savior.
What Sin Does
Paul identifies three activities of sin: Sin produces. Sin deceives. And sin kills.
1. Sin produces.
But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. (Rom. 7:8)
The word ‘produced’ is important here. Think about a fire throwing up flames or water bubbling up in a spring. Think about a fountain producing water. That’s what sin is like. It produces all kinds of desires. It is always throwing up new impulses and inclinations towards sin. We call this temptation, and it comes from within. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own evil desire” (Jas. 1:14).
This is the teaching of Jesus: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23).
As parents, we rightly want to protect our children from the many evils that are out there in the world. But if you grasp what our Lord is saying here, you will see that the bigger problem is the impulse toward sin that resides in your children’s hearts, as it resides in yours.
Those moods, those tempers, and those hurtful things that you say – where do they come from? They came from within. The impulse to sin is produced from your own heart.
2. Sin deceives.
For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Rom. 7:11)
This goes back to the Garden of Eden when Eve said, ‘The serpent deceived me” (Gen. 3:13).
Sin has an allure. Every temptation holds out a promise of happiness. But sin deceives. It makes promises that it cannot keep.
Sin deceives in the prospect that it offers, and in the outcome that it conceals. The prospect offered to Eve was: “You shall be as God. Why would you not want that – to be the lord of your own life? Why would you want God running your life, when you can run it yourself? It’s your life, so you should be your own god.”
“Taste the evil as well as the good and then you can make up your own mind and pursue what you choose.” That was the first temptation. But when Eve tasted the evil, she found that she had been deceived. She did not become God. She became a sinner. Sin deceives in the prospect that it offers.
Then sin also deceives in the outcome that it conceals. The woman said to the serpent, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden… lest you die’” (Gen. 3:3). But the serpent said, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). Sin conceals its own outcome. It closes your eyes to where it will lead you.
The impulse or inclination of sin in you will produce these two deceptions: If I do this, I will be happy (the prospect). If I do this, it will be ok. Nothing bad will happen to me (the outcome).
Sin is a powerful impulse. Its power is so great that it can draw you to things that made you miserable last time you did them. How can you explain that? Why are we drawn to the same sins again and again? Because sin deceives you over the prospect and over the outcome.
3. Sin kills.
For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Rom. 7:11)
Sin produces, it deceives, and it kills. Sin sucks the life out of you. It kills the ability to love and it deadens responsiveness toward God.
Sin puts you in a position where your heart becomes dull (Mat. 13:15). You come to church and are always hearing but never understanding (Mat. 13:14). You honor God with your lips (that is, you say the right things about him), but your heart is far from him (Mat. 15:8). Jesus said these things about the people who were the custodians of the law of God! They were committed to living a moral life.
Sin is an impulse of rebellion against God that lies within you. It sucks the life out of you. It produces, it deceives, and it kills.
Where Sin Leads
I do not understand my own actions. (Rom. 7:15)
If all you have is the law, you will always be a mystery to yourself. You won’t be able to make sense of what you do or why you do it.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:24)
If all you have is the law, if all you have is a sustained attempt at living a moral life, the best you can hope for is a life of confusion and frustration.
A sustained attempt at living a moral life cannot change who you are. Becoming religious won’t do it either – praying, fasting, solitude, serving, giving back to the community – none of these things has the power to deal with this impulse of sin in you that produces, deceives, and kills.
Morality cannot be the answer. If we call people to morality but do not lead them to Christ, we lead them into confusion and frustration. So the message of the church to the world must be more than a call to morality. Calling lost people to a moral life is like telling a man who is dying of lung cancer to stop smoking. The damage is already done!
A call to morality, on its own, will only lead people to the place of saying, “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” If the message of parents to our children is simply a call to morality, we set them up for frustration and water the seeds of rebellion. We have to explain this doctrine of indwelling sin, how it produces, deceives and kills – how it is in them, as it is in us.
There’s only one way to deal with this impulse to sin. You have to become a new creation. You have to die and rise. That happens in this second marriage, when having died to the law, you are brought into a new and living union with Jesus Christ.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:24-25)
Thank God that being a Christian is more than a sustained attempt to living a moral life. Thank God that being a Christian is much more than vaguely believing in Jesus and then going out to try harder. Thank God that being a Christian is a living union in which the presence and the power of Jesus Christ comes to indwell you by the Holy Spirit to enable you to stand in this battle that you have with sin that resides within you.
A Final Appeal
I want to end with this appeal. I am increasingly burdened for the many folks in our congregation whose best understanding of Christianity is that it is a sustained effort to live a moral life.
You have seen that Jesus can forgive what you have done, but you have not yet seen that he can change who you are! You come to church faithfully, and each week you go out, white knuckled, to attempt this good moral life for another week. What you experience on the inside is a great deal of confusion and a great deal of frustration.
I’m praying that this series will be the place where God will shine the light into your heart and you’ll begin to say, “Ah! I see in a way that I never saw before! I need a Savior! Not just a Savior who I vaguely believe in from afar, a Savior that is actually with me, a Savior who by the power of his Holy Spirit will work within me.”
I want to say to you today, Jesus Christ is able to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.
Come and confess to Christ today that your best attempts to change on the outside can’t change what you are on the inside. Cast yourself on the mercy of Jesus Christ. Ask him to bind you to himself, to make you a new creation, and hope will begin for you, in him, today.
© Colin S. Smith
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By Colin S. Smith. © Colin S. Smith. Website: UnlockingtheBible.org
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 7:1-8:4, p. 7, Banner of Truth Trust, 1973.