Is the Law Sinful? (Romans 7.7-13)

Is the law of God sinful?

Paul asks this question in Romans 7.7-13. It’s a very strange question. After all, since God is not sinful, nothing he says is sinful. The law is one of the things God says, so obviously, it cannot be sinful. Why, then, does Paul ask the question in the first place? Because the logic of his argument in Romans requires him to do so.

Remember, the theme of Paul’s letter is justification by faith. In Romans 1.17, Paul puts it this way: “in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” It is by faith rather than works because we are inveterate sinners. As Paul puts it in Romans 3.20: “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” The law, in other words, has a negative function: it defines our sin and highlights our guilt.

So, when Jesus Christ saves us, he simultaneously releases us from the power of sin and the power of the law. Just as “we died to sin” (Romans 6.1), so we “also died to the law” (Romans 7.2). Because of Christ’s death, according to Romans 7.6, “we have been released from the law,” which Paul further describes as “the old way of the written code.”

I cite all these passages to make a simple point: For Paul, sin and the law have a symbiotic existence. If Christ does away with one, he necessarily does away with the other. But doing away with the law might lead some people to the false conclusion that the law, like sin (which is also done away with), is sinful. So, Paul writes in Romans 7.7-13:

What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

In other words, the law is good, but it highlights our badness. It is a diagnosis of spiritual cancer, but not the cancer itself, and certainly not the cure. For a cure for the sin that ails you, you must look beyond the diagnosis to the healing hands of the Great Physician. And when he heals you, the diagnosis no longer makes you afraid.

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