The Letter to the Romans



23. Sin's Relationship to the Law


Romans 7:7-13

Paul has been explaining in this chapter that the law defines and manages human relationships. For a non-born-again person, law is the authority which both details the way he relates to others and defines the consequences for his breaking the law. The law is the impersonal guardian of society; it is people's protection from anarchy and vigilante justice. It is rigid and unwavering, however; it cannot make exceptions for individual differences, and it cannot inspire or assist a person to become obedient or compliant. It can only demand performance and mete out consequences to those who fail to meet its demands.

Further, law depends upon an administering authority to ensure its effectiveness. The Torah, God's law to the Jews, depended upon God's administration and oversight. The law was clear: obey it or die. God backed this requirement with his sovereign power; those under the law knew they were doomed to death unless they perfectly complied. This situation of God administering an unwavering law created a helpless desperation in those who tried to obey. Because they had the law, they knew what behaviors were sinful. Conversely, however, because they had the law they came face-to-face with their desperate inadequacy to obey. They had no hope of surviving the law's death decree-unless God, the Administrator, did something sovereign to relieve the situation.

Before God gave the law to the Jews, people had suppressed their knowledge of God through years of self-indulgent living. They had grown increasingly wicked as God turned them over to their natural impulses. (see Romans 1:18-28) Although their wickedness increased, God did not hold them accountable for their sins in as specific a manner as he held the Jews accountable after he gave the law, or even as he held Adam and Eve accountable for breaking His direct command to them. (see Romans 5:13) "Where there is not law, there is no transgression," Paul says in Romans 4:15. Mankind was doomed to death for being born into Adam's sin, but for those who had no law, there was no added guilt accounted to them for sins they committed without understanding them to be sins. Romans 2:12 clarifies that those who sin under the law will be judged by that law. Those who sin apart from the law, however, "will perish apart from the law." They will not be held accountable for sins they did not understand they committed.

God added the law, Paul further explains in Galatians 3:19-24, because of mankind's sin. Humanity had to learn how desperately flawed it was, and how impossible it was for them to please God or to relate to Him. The law clarified their bad behavior, their state of enmity with God, and their ultimate doom. It also called them to clean up their acts. Further, the law held them in protective custody, keeping them from destroying themselves and others until the sovereign Miracle, Jesus, would come.


Knowing the Meaning of the Law

In verses 9 and 10 Paul utters another of his debated statements: "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. "Theologians have debated the timing of the event he mentions in this passage. Some postulate that Paul refers here to the time of his bar mitzvah at the age of 13 when he assumed for himself full responsibility for the law. Others say this event refers to his conversion when he became aware of the real demands and meaning of the law and realized how completely he had failed to keep it.

The context of this statement, tucked into Paul's dissertation in chapters 6 through 8 of dying to sin, dying to law, and finally living by the Spirit, suggests the latter explanation is accurate. Paul was born a Jew and grew up carefully observing the commandments. We learn in Philippians 3:4-16 that he believed he was "faultless" in his law-keeping. He believed he was privileged because he was a Jew, he had the law, and he accomplished much "legalistic righteousness". He points out in verses 4-6 that he was "circumcised on the eighth day" in the tribe of Benjamin. He became a Pharisee and with great zeal persecuted the church. All his legalistic accomplishments that earned him status and admiration, however, he came to consider loss when he met Christ. For the sake of Jesus, he says in verse 8, "I have lost all things." He recognized, after his conversion, that what he did under the law was his own righteousness "that comes from the law,"(v. 9) and he began instead to desire to "know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead."(v. 10-11)

When Paul met Jesus, the intent and seriousness of the law became clear for the first time. He realized that through all the years when he thought he was obeying it, he had instead been sinning before God. He died to himself and his own attempts to be righteous at that point. When Paul met the risen Christ, his spiritual eyes were opened. He realized he had to abandon the self-serving life he had been living and live instead for Jesus, dying to his own understanding and desires.

Jesus demonstrated this juxtaposition of law-keeping with God's true intent for his people. A rich man came to him and asked him what to do to be saved. "Keep the commandments," Jesus replied in effect. The man replied that he had been keeping all of them from his youth up. Jesus replied, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me." The man left sorrowful, because he was very rich and did not want to surrender all he had for the sake of following Jesus. (Luke 18:18-24)

This event clarified that shaping one's life around the commandments will not produce righteousness and has never been God's intent for his people. He wants people whose hearts respond to Jesus and who will surrender whatever they have in order to follow him. Jesus' response to the rich man brought God's commandment to life before him. Merely keeping the law with behaviors does not fulfill God's righteous requirements. God's real command is for us to desire Him and to be willing to surrender whatever else we value or cherish in order to allow Him to be Lord of our hearts. It is only when we encounter Jesus that the true intent of the commandments comes to life, and we realize our sin. It is only in this encounter that we die to ourselves and to our attempts at goodness.

Paul emphasizes this reality in Romans 2:17-24 where he reminds Jews that although they have the law and think they keep it, they really are incapable of honoring it. Understanding of the law's condemnation only comes when people turn their hearts to God, not toward the law. "No one is declared righteous by observing the law," Paul says in Romans 3:19. Instead, it is through the law and its demands that we can define sin.

When Paul says he was once alive apart from the law, he can't be referring to a time before he knew the law. He grew up knowing the law. Rather, the law, its true requirements, and its condemnation because real for him when he met Jesus. He died to himself and to the authority of the law when he realized how deeply sinful he was. Paul rejected Torah as his guide and transferred the allegiance of his newly-born heart to his Savior, Jesus.


Law: Meant For Life, Vehicle of Death

Verse 10 delivers another paradox: "I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death." This statement occurs in the middle of an intricate explanation of how the law stimulates sin. The question arises: if the law increases sin in a person's life, how was it ever intended to bring life?

In Leviticus 18:4-5 Moses gave Israel God's words about the role of the law in their lives. "You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and law, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord."

Jesus revealed a deeper understanding of the reality behind the decree in Leviticus when a teacher of the law tried to trap him. The story occurs in Luke 10:25-37. When the teacher asked what he must do to be saved, Jesus replied, "What is written in the law?" The teacher replied with a quote from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all you mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' " Jesus answered, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live." Then Jesus illustrated his point by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.

In this exchange, Jesus showed that the intent of the law was not to produce objective compliance with a set of standards. Rather, it was to convict those who honored it with their need of soft hearts that operated from principles of mercy and true compassion rather than cold obedience to external standards. By telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus illustrated that the teachers of the law had never understood what it meant to love their Lord with all their hearts, souls, strength, and minds. Although the Jews had God's presence in their nation, as a people they did not allow their revelation of God to soften their hearts. They saw the law not as a shadow of their Redeemer but as their unique standard that made them special. Such an objective view of the law, divorced as it was from a response to God who lived among them, left their hearts cold and hard.

In Romans 10 Paul further explains this phenomenon of separating the law from a heart response to God. In verse 5 he quotes Moses as saying, "The man who does these things will live by them." In verse 8, however, Paul says that the message of "the righteousness that is by faith" is this: "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart." (quoted from Deuteronomy 30:14) In other words, those who focus on the law live their lives by the specific details outlined there. Further, they are subject to the curse the law carries if they do not perfectly carry out the intent of the law. When a person puts his trust in God's promises, however, and lives by faith in Jesus instead of in submission to the law, God's word and power are in that person, not outside. Through the Holy Spirit, those who live by faith in God are alive with the will of God instead of dead in legal bondage to the written code.

The law is not evil or negative; rather, it is inanimate. Apart from God, the law has no power. When a person recognizes God's call on his life, however, the law becomes a means of convicting that person of his guilt and spiritual need. In that context the law becomes a means of bringing a person towards a full life.

In Hebrews 5:7-10 the author explains that Jesus practiced reverent submission to the Father, and by so doing he learned obedience from what he suffered. God's commands do not in themselves bring people to life. Any attempt we may make to fulfill the law fails, because we cannot create in ourselves the humble heart that makes the law's requirements meaningful. Jesus did not learn obedience by gritting his teeth and resolutely obeying. Rather, he reverently submitted to God; that submission is what made his obedience perfect. It was his connection to the Father that made Jesus' obedience to God's will an act of love and sacrifice.

When Paul says he found the law "that was intended to bring life actually brought death," he is describing a paradox. The law, which convicts hearts already softened by God's Spirit of their hopeless sinfulness, drives those under its conviction to seek Jesus. As people realize their hopeless sin, however, they realize they must die to themselves in order to have any sort of hope and life. In order to get out from under the oppression of their intrinsic despair, people must give up their rights to live their lives as they want to live them and surrender to Jesus instead. It is only in surrendering one's life that one begins to experience the miracle of eternity. Being alive in Jesus is a completely new experience which the law can never give.


Law and Deception

Paul makes one more enigmatic statement in this passage. "For sin," he writes in verse 11, "seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death."

If the law is good, how can sin use the law to deceive us?

In Genesis 3 Moses tells the story of Eve being deceived by the serpent. God had clearly told his first couple they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent, however, sucked Eve into his web of deceit by implying there was reason to doubt God and by hinting that Eve had the capability to analyze for herself God's intent. "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (verse 1)

Eve would never have questioned God if evil had not focused on His command and convinced her that she needed to analyze God's words and find what really lay behind them. Paul wrote, "I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ." (2 Corinthians 3:10)

The secret of the serpent's deception was focusing Eve's mind on God's command. As she considered the words and the nature of what God had forbidden her to do, she was vulnerable to rationalizing His requirement and to "rewriting" God's intent. She began to question God's wisdom and truthfulness; she began to believe that she could explain away the details of God's prohibition. She began to believe that her experience and observations were more real than God's words. By analyzing whether or not God's command to her made logical sense, she took her attention off God, the One with whom she had a relationship. Instead of dealing with the serpent's temptation by trusting God, she responded to the serpent by examining God's command.

Sin still has the same effect on humanity. It deceives people by focusing their attention on the law instead of on the Lawgiver. When people view the law as their standard of behavior, they will always find ways to rationalize its application. Logic cannot appropriately explain God's intent or his will. When people become aware of the law's righteous requirements, they become vulnerable to spiritual deception unless they turn their eyes to Jesus. One of the great spiritual ironies is that sin deceives us and leads us into transgression by causing us to focus on the law and its requirements instead of on Jesus and his finished work.

The law, therefore, does not give life; rather, it brings death to the person who has been awakened to it requirements. In other words, when a person becomes aware of the unwavering demands of the law he can never uphold, he also realizes he is doomed to eternal death without the intervention of a Savior. Romans 6:23a becomes real to such a person: "The wages of sin is death." When a person allows Jesus to move from the center of his focus and begins to rely on the law to direct his decisions, he begins to live under the curse of the law. The law, says Paul in Galatians 3:10-12, is not based on faith. "No one is justified by observing the law." The law's job is to define the overt behavior of sin and to pronounce condemnation on those who indulge in it. The law brings home the reality of the curse for disobedience.

Paul further describes the role of the law in Galatians 3:21-24. It does not produce righteousness; observing the law cannot remove the sin into which we all were born.

The law keeps people prisoners until they come to faith in Christ. They are prisoners of their unrighteousness, condemned by the law which defines their flaws. In addition, they are locked up by the law's requirements, externally prohibited from destructive behaviors until faith comes and changes their hearts.

When a Christian turns to the law for direction and standards, he falls prey to the deception Paul wrote about in verse 11-the same deception that conquered Eve. He takes his eyes off Christ and turns his attention away from the voice of the Holy Spirit, concentrating instead on analyzing God's laws and requirements. He becomes the interpreter of God's will for him instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to have that function.

When a person turns his focus back to Christ, however, the reality of his entanglement with sin and works becomes clear. He dies to himself and becomes able to surrender his control and his future to God.

The law drives home the reality of our innate sinfulness. Jesus lifts the veil of self-deception from our eyes and reveals how paltry and powerless we are to live up to the law's standards. Through Him we realize that we are dead in our sins, yet when we acknowledge our fatal flaw, his Spirit brings us life and victory.



Many of us have believed that the law did not save us but that it did show us the way we ought to live if we were Christians. This belief produced a crazy-making dissonance: we were saved by faith, but we had to keep the law to stay saved. This law included such standards as vegetarianism at best (avoidance of unclean meats at the least), abstinence from caffeine and alcohol, correct Sabbtah-keeping (never fully defined), and much more. Many of us tortured ourselves to abide by the standards of the laws we believed were mandatory for us. As a consequence we often agonized over guilt for indulging ourselves with coffee or a turkey sandwich while never being broken over our deeply sinful hearts that caused us to focus on ourselves and resisted the truth of God's word and a personal relationship with Jesus. The unacknowledged sin in us deceived us with the law, capturing our attention and holding us in bondage to false righteousness while in reality we were falling away from grace.

Others of us looked at the law and concluded it was impossible to observe. The compulsive obsession with doing the right things suffocated us and made us angry. We believed God required the behaviors outlined in the law, but we decided that since we had already proven to be failures as law-keepers, we would have to ignore God and live according to our own wits. We turned from all we believed to be godly, including even the acknowledgement that Jesus was the divine Savior and that we were accountable to God. We immersed ourselves in indulging our urges and feeding our addictions.

Both extremes of response to the law are the fruit of sin that leads to death. Both keep us from knowing Jesus. Both extremes replace Him with a wrong focus on the law as the revelation of God to us.

God is asking you to surrender to Him all the things with which you struggle. He's asking you to let go of the law and instead to look at Him. He is asking you to listen to the Holy Spirit and to allow Him to convict you of the things that need changing in your life.

The law will lead you astray. Unless you surrender your heart to Jesus alone, unencumbered with promises to be good and to reform to the law's standards, those behaviors that bind you will keep you blind. When you surrender to Jesus and turn over to him the responsibility for calling you to obedience instead of allowing the law to guilt you into obedience, you will find that you have new power and hope that will hold you accountable to Jesus. He will teach you and show you how you need to live; He will give you his power and conviction to release your compulsions and to live in thankful response to His love and grace. He will give you the power to say No to your destructive or addictive behaviors. He will reveal himself through his word and through his love, and he will teach you truth instead of twisted doctrines and requirements.

Ask God to convict you of the sin and deception in your heart. Ask him to bring to light what is hidden in darkness, and ask him to heal you and to convict you of the things you need to acknowledge and surrender to him. Let Jesus replace the rules for holy living in your heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to teach you and to give you His power to surrender and to say "yes" to God's will for you.

Praise God that through Jesus you can die to the deception of sin and the tyranny of the law. Praise Jesus for fulfilling the law and for making his righteousness available to you. Praise the Holy Spirit for placing the resurrection power of God in you and for giving you the divine insight and power to live in victory.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Copyright (c) 2004 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted September 18, 2004.
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