What Is the Problem?
Scripture: Romans 7:7–7:13
I was sitting in my dorm room one night at university when one of my roommates burst through the door. He had been at a campus meeting discussing the Vietnam War and the student movement to protest the war, and he was extremely agitated. This is what he said: “Questions, questions, questions! Everyone’s got questions, but nobody has any answers.”
I sometimes think of his comment: Questions, questions, questions! Everyone has questions. I wonder if Paul felt that way at times, as he traveled through the Roman empire, preaching the Gospel of Christ; the radical doctrine of justification by faith. Questions, questions, everyone has questions. I am thankful that through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Paul did have answers.
In Romans 6 and 7, Paul has paused in his writing to deal with questions about the doctrine of justification by faith. In Romans 6, Paul has dealt with a question that might have been raised in reference to the godless, irreligious man Paul described in Romans 1: Does the doctrine of justification by faith encourage such a person to continue in a sinful lifestyle? Paul’s answer: “No way!”
In Romans 7, Paul is dealing with a second question. In first addressing this question, Paul had the Jews in his audience in mind; the people he described in Romans 2, who were relying on the law as their basis for a right standing with God. Their question is this: what about the law? If we can be justified by faith, apart from observing the law, then what was the law’s purpose? What was that all about? And what is our relationship to the law now as Christ’s followers.
Last time, in the first 6 verses of the chapter, Paul told us that we are free from the law. We died to it, and like a woman whose husband has died, we are now free to enter into a new relationship; a new marriage to Christ. We are not under the law any longer.
But once again, Paul anticipates questions from his readers. Paul has made a couple rather inflammatory statements. In verse 4 he spoke of sinful passions being aroused by the law. And in verse 5 he spoke of the law as something which once bound us or held us in bondage. Paul can now see the hands going up once again. “Paul, are you saying that the law was the source of our problem? Are you telling us that the law was a bad thing?”
Look at the opening of verse 7: What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? The wording is precise. He doesn’t ask, “Is the law sinful?” He asks, “Is the law sin? Are they equated in some way? Are they one and the same? Is the law the problem? Paul answers immediately: By no means! Certainly not! No way!
I have summarized my message today in three short, propositional statements. Here is the first one: THE LAW IS NOT THE PROBLEM. Is the law sin? No way! The law is not the problem. In fact, the law does exactly what it was intended to do. Paul goes on in these verses to describe three things the law was intended to do; three functions it was to fulfill.
The first thing he points out that the law does is: the law reveals sin. In the rest of verse 7, we read: 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.” Paul actually said something very similar a few chapters earlier, in Romans 3:20: …rather through the law we become conscious of sin.
The law of God serves as a kind of moral “plumb line.” Do you know what a plumb line is? It is a very simple device, actually. Just a string or cord with a heavy metal knob hanging on the end of it. Because of gravity and the weight of the knob, the string hangs straight down. So the carpenter or builder can hold the plumb line next to the wall or cupboard he’s building, and he can tell whether it is straight or not. But it is important to understand that the plumb line itself does not make the wall straight or crooked. It only reveals whether it is straight or crooked. That is what the law does for us. It is God’s holy and righteous standard. When we hold it next to our lives, we are made aware of our sin. We become conscious of how crooked we are. We discover that we are “out of plumb”.
Let’s look at verse 7 again. Why does Paul pick on this one commandment, the tenth one: “Thou shalt not covet”? The word used here for “covet” is used to mean either to strongly desire to possess something which belongs to someone else, or a strong desire for a forbidden or taboo or immoral action or object. I believe Paul chooses this one, because it is the commandment that takes the other commandments and reveals their inner source and nature. For example, the seventh commandment tells us “Do not commit adultery.” But the tenth commandment tells us not to covet the neighbor’s wife. The eighth commandment tells us not to steal. But the tenth commandment tells us not to covet “anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The tenth commandment goes beyond the sinful action to the sinful intention, the sinful desire which gives rise to the sinful action. It is a crookedness within us of which we might have remained ignorant without the law which says, “Thou shalt not covet.” It is a plumb line which reveals the crookedness of our hearts as well as our actions.
But the law doesn’t just reveal sin. According to Paul’s teaching here, the law stirs sin up. Let’s keep reading in verses 8-10: But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.
We will look at this in detail in a moment. But for now I simply want to emphasize that one of the effects of the law is to stir sin up. Sin might be lying dead, not in an absolute sense, but relatively speaking. Then the law comes. And when our sinful heart hears those hated words, “Thou shalt not”, we immediately rise up and say, “Who says?”
During our first ten years living in Abu Dhabi, the area where the Emirates Palace Hotel is now located was just a long stretch of undeveloped, empty beach. I used to go there occasionally and take long walks along the beach to think and pray. One day as I was walking along the beach, I came upon a sea snake about a meter long, lying dead on the shore. I hadn’t seen one before, and the markings were quite interesting, so I stood looking at it. Then I took a little piece of wood and tossed it at the snake. Suddenly the “dead” snake came alive, writhing wildly about as it thrashed itself back into the shallow water and swam away!
That’s the effect that the law has on sin. Sin and sinful tendencies may lie dormant, undiagnosed and unidentified for long periods of time. Then the law comes and stirs them up, and our natural sinful nature comes flailing into life.
The third thing the law does is the law exposes sin in its true character. Look down to verse 13: 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.
Through the law, we become aware of the true character of sin; its terrible rebellion, its awful grip on our lives, its invasiveness, and its final effects. Think of the law as a broom. Now imagine that you live in a house with a dirt floor. I don’t mean a dirty floor; a simple thatch house with a dirt floor. Now take your broom and try to sweep the floor. How long will it take before the floor is clean? The answer is never. It will never be clean. Because with every sweep of the broom you simply bring up more dirt. Now, here’s my question. What is wrong with your broom? The answer is, there is nothing wrong with the broom. The problem lies in the nature of the dirt floor.
What Paul is telling us is that the law is not the problem. The law is doing what it was intended to do. Paul even goes on to make some very positive statements about the law in verse 12: So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
There is nothing wrong with the law, So if the law is not the problem, what is? That brings us to the second of our three propositional statements: SIN IS THE PROBLEM. As we see the way Paul speaks of sin in this section as he compares sin and the law, we learn some very important truths about sin and about ourselves.
What the Bible teaches on this subject is in stark contrast to man’s thinking and particularly contemporary thinking about man’s nature and the nature of sin. In contemporary thinking, if sin is considered at all, it is an act; something external. Maybe we could describe it this way; sometimes good people do bad things. Those bad things could be called sins. But they are external acts, somehow separate from the basically good person who did them in a moment of weakness. And of course, those bad things are really only truly bad if they involved hurting someone else. That is modern man’s concept of sin.
Paul paints a very different picture in these verses. First of all, he does not talk about “sins” at all, but about “sin”. He uses a singular noun and he personifies sin as an evil entity or presence. In fact, we can discern five truths about sin from these verses.
First, sin is an active, causative force. We find this in verse 8: But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. Sin is depicted as active and as actually producing covetous desires in us. Sin is not just an act we commit in a moment of weakness. It is a force, a sinister power which actually produces evil desires and evil deeds. The language is actually quite interesting here. The phrase “seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment” is used to describe the starting point or base of operation for a military expedition or attack. The commandment is used almost like a Trojan horse to slip inside our defenses, and once within the walls, sin uses it as a base to launch an attack against us, stirring up sinful desires within us.
The second point I find here is that sin is reactive and rebellious in nature. Verses 8-9 again: But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.
Think with me. What was the first sin? The sin of Adam and Eve? It was a reaction to and rebellion against God’s rule. All sin is ultimately rebellion. That is why the law stirs it up. The law is God’s revealed will. It expresses what God wants. But sin reacts and rebels against what God wants. “I want to do what I want to do. I want to be God in my own life.”
What is Paul telling us in verse 9 when he speaks about once being alive apart from the law? I believe Paul is speaking about his own perception and his experience, not actual reality. After all, Paul also wrote in Ephesians 2:1 that we were all “dead in our trespasses and sins.” What he is saying here is that there was a time when he thought he was OK. He thought he was alive. All was well. Then the law came, or at least his own awareness of a particular commandment. And as he considered this commandment, it was as though sin sprang to life. Once he saw it, it was everywhere. He could not overcome it. He could not stand up against it. He died, or at least, he realized he was dead. He realized how hopeless his condition was and how rebellious he was at heart.
The third thing we are told is that sin is deceitful. In verse 11 we read: For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. I have been thinking about that one. How exactly does sin use the law to deceive us? I am not sure I’ve figured it out, but here are a couple of suggestions. Sin deceives us by leading us to think that just having the law is enough to save us. You may recall the moral man in chapter 2 whose claim to righteousness was simply that “I have the law. I have high standards. I have high goals and aspirations”, whereas the passage goes on to tell us that we will be judged, not by our aspirations but by our actual deeds. Romans 2:13 says, For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Sin may also use the law to deceive us when we start thinking like the Pharisees and begin to see righteousness and law-keeping as a purely external thing, rather than as a matter of the heart as Jesus taught.
The fourth thing we are told here is that sin produces death. Verse 9, verse 10 and verse 11 each end with death. It is not the law that kills us. It is sin, as we are told in verse 13. But however we look at it, the end result is clear: death.
I just want to make one final point about sin, which is not found in this section, but in the next one. But looking forward to verses 17 and 20 we read: As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. And: Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Here is the final point: Sin lives in us. We will explore this further next week. But it is important to understand it here. Sin is not something out there; some act external to us. Sin actually lives in us.
When I was growing up in Tanzania, we lived in an area that was home to a number of types of snakes, most of them poisonous. It was not unusual to see them crossing the road or the path ahead of us. Normally it was not too traumatic. As long as we saw them first, it was easy enough to avoid them, or if they posed a threat, to kill them. But there was always one particular cry we dreaded: “There is a snake in the house!” Suddenly, everything changed. The snake was no longer out there. It was in here. Now, nowhere was safe. The snake could be under the sofa, in the closet, in that drawer, behind the curtain.
In regard to sin, my friends, I have bad news. The snake is in the house. It lives in us. This is our problem. So let’s summarize where we have been. The law is not the problem. That is proposition #1. Sin is the problem. That is proposition #2. But that brings us to one final proposition in our message today.
THE LAW IS NOT THE SOLUTION. This is really where Paul has been headed throughout this chapter and where we will go next week. But let’s just do a quick preview in our thinking. Knowing what we now know about the law and about sin, let me ask you a couple of questions.
Can the law conquer sin? Can we bring sin under control by making rules; by coming up with longer and longer lists of dos and don’ts? Can we change people through moral teaching and by educating people in ethics? Can the law produce a righteous life?
We should know the answer by now. No way! In fact, sin is so powerful and so deceitful that it actually uses the law as a staging ground to launch its attacks against us. So, what about the law? The law is not the problem. But nor is the law the solution. Paul will go on in the rest of chapter 7 to explore what happens when we treat the law as the solution and try to produce a righteous life in our own efforts.
But while the law is not the solution, it does have a role to play. Have you allowed the law to do its work in you? Have you used it as a plumb line to hold up alongside your life, to show you just how far short you fall of the righteous standards of God?
Jesus told a parable that beautifully illustrates what happens when the law is allowed to do its real work and what happens when sin uses the law to deceive us. It is the story of two men who went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. The other was a tax collector. In the temple, the Pharisee stood up and began to pray: “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
How did this man respond to the law? He became proud. Sin took the law, and deceived this man into self-righteousness, self-reliance and pride.
It was in the heart of the other man, the tax collector, that the law of God had done its true and intended work. This man stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Have you allowed the law of God to do its work in you? If you have, then you know that you are not a righteous person. You are not a good person. You are a sinner. If you have allowed the law of God to do its work in you, then I hope and pray that you have also allowed it to lead you to the cross of Christ, to the one who died as the sacrifice of atonement for your sins.
Jesus concluded that parable by saying, “This man (the tax collector) is the one who went home justified before God.”
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- How does Paul’s description and understanding of sin and human nature in these verses contrast with popular understanding today?
- Why doesn’t the law solve the problem?
- What is the law’s role? Can you explain and/or give examples of how this works?
- Pastor Cam used several illustrations in the sermon (the snake on the beach, the snake in the house, the broom and the dirt floor). Which one did you find the most helpful and why?