Many Christians think the secret to being a better disciple of Jesus is to have a better rule, regulation, or practice. They want commands to obey. Maybe if they had the right commands, they would get progressively holier. “Just tell me what to do!” But is that what the law is for? Is it to make you better? Or did God have another purpose in mind?
Paul seemed extremely critical of the law. He taught the Romans that the law can neither justify nor sanctify. On the contrary, the law aroused our sinful desires (cf. Rom 7:5), so if you wanted to produce holiness, you needed to be freed from the law entirely! And that’s what happened to believers—we died to the law through our union with Christ (Rom 7:4). The result is that the believer is under grace, not law (Rom 6:14).
To a Jewish audience, Paul’s argument would sound like an attack on God’s law. He made it sound evil, as though the law was on the side of sin. “Again and again the law and sin have appeared in close bond, working together for a common end” (Nygren, Romans, p. 277). Is that right? Was the law sinful?
Paul’s short answer is “no”! His longer answer involves explaining one of the purposes of the law.
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” (Rom 7:7).
Paul asks another rhetorical question (cf. Rom 6:1, 15): is the law sin? That is, was God wrong to give us the law if it is useless for producing justification and holiness? Is it a force for evil, rather than for good?
Paul’s answer is “certainly not!” Perish the thought. That is inconceivable.
If the law is not for justification or sanctification, and it arouses evil desires within us, then why did God give it? What is its purpose?
Here’s one reason: to reveal your sin. “I would not have known sin except through the law,” Paul explains.
How do you know when you’ve done something wrong?
One way is through the law. The law points out your sins and accuses you—“You’re guilty!” As Paul said earlier in Romans, “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20).
Paul gives a personal example (the first time Paul speaks in the first person singular, as he will do for the rest of chapter 7). Although elsewhere Paul said that he was “blameless,” at least where (merely) “legal righteousness” was concerned (cf. Phil 3:6), that did not mean he was sinless. On the contrary, as Paul confesses here, he was guilty of coveting: “For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (cf. Deut 5:21; Exod 20:17). What does it mean to covet something?
Coveting is not an external action but an internal desire. You crave someone else’s possessions, and you envy them for what they have.
Coveting is all around us.
Why would that be a sin?
Think of what coveting has led to, e.g., sins such as adultery, divorce, theft, murder, and war. When your desire for something leads you to disobey God to get it, hasn’t it become an idol?
Paul admits that he would not have known that coveting was sin had the law not told him so. Do you agree? Apart from the law, would you have known for sure that coveting was a sin?
I can imagine people thinking that envy was harmless or a mistake in judgment or maybe even a healthy impulse that encourages ambition. But we would not have known for sure that God considers coveting a sin.
But did revealing sin make the law itself sinful? No. The law did not create the sin. It shed light on the sin—the evil desires—that was already within you.
The law could reveal Paul’s sin—but it did not have the power to forgive him, heal him, or to help him stop sinning. The law could only point out his moral flaws, could only point a finger and accuse.
Is that a sinful thing for the law to do?
Not at all!
So, why might God give us a law that reveals sin but cannot help us overcome it?
I think of my mother, who could not believe she had cancer and refused to see a doctor about it. But after her tests revealed cancer throughout her body, she finally understood her situation and sought help. The test could not cure her cancer. It did not have that power. All it could do was deliver the bad news that she was very sick. But that prompted her to seek help from a physician. Similarly, many people are in denial about their true spiritual condition. So God gave the law as a kind of test to reveal your sin so you might finally seek help from the Great Physician.