Second situation. This is actually in living memory for many of us. Not long ago, the U.S. Congress had imposed a 55 mph speed limit maximum on the nation because of a shortage of oil and gas. Now, that didn’t stop people from speeding, far from it, and that’s not my point. I’ll get to that shortly. Congress eventually repealed this limit and left it up to the states to impose their own speed limits on highways and thoroughfares. Montana took an interesting stance. Because they had so much open highway and so few people traveling on it, they instituted the “reasonable and prudent” speed limit law. Do you know why it’s no longer in effect and they have posted speed limit signs now? Because some folks used this as a license to drive over a hundred miles an hour, and the number of traffic fatalities skyrocketed.
In both of these cases, laws that had a particularly noble intent were turned upside down. They failed. Why? Were they bad laws? I’d argue not necessarily. The laws in and of themselves were not bad, but the laws could not deal with something that pervades the planet. The laws were unable to deal with the power of sin, and as a result more harm came about. So, this begs the question: if the law brings about such things, is the law good?
This is the question that St. Paul now turns his attention to in Romans 7:7-13. As we turn to this text now, I just want to let you know that I will be focusing on verses 7 through 12, but I have included 13 because it serves as a bridge between this week’s verses and next week’s verses. Let’s look at what Paul says this week.
He begins asking exactly what I just asked: “7 What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” Last week, Paul made the remark that “the law aroused our sinful passions.” So, like any good rhetorician, he deals with a question before anyone else can ask it. In this case, the logic would go: if the law arouses sinful passions, then the law must be bad–the law must be sin. Paul answers with his usual: God forbid! Or you’ve got to be stupid to believe that!. Paul will now show how the law is good.
He says, “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” This is kind of a no brainer. If I am driving down the road, and there are no posted speed limit signs, I don’t know how fast I am allowed to drive. I don’t know the rules. But if someone posts a sign that says, “Speed limit 75,” then I know what is right and what is wrong. We don’t exactly come into this world knowing all the rules and regulations. We have some idea deep within us about justice and fairness and the like, but we don’t know all the specifics. They have to be revealed or taught to us. Paul says this straightforwardly, but it is interesting that he uses a particular commandment. If you remember the Ten Commandments, you will note that Paul uses the last one: “You shall not covet.” Why did he use this commandment and not the first and greatest: “You shall nave no other gods before me.”? I think there is a reason, but we have to wade through an interesting part of the text to get there.
Beginning in verse 8, “But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. 9I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived 10and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” Now, in my past years, I rushed past these verses and jumped to verse 12. Verse 12 was easy to understand. These verses were and are not. In fact, when you read through the scholars, they are all over the place here. When you dig into these verses, you stumble across several pit-falls, and in order to interpret them, no matter which way you go, you have to make some assumptions that may or may not be right. All that is to say is, what I am about to say is how I have managed to make sense of these verses. Others will disagree with me, but here is how this plays out after I have studied and thought about this a lot this week.
Paul says that the power of sin is so great that when a commandment is set forth, sin goes to work to warp things and produce in us that which the commandment forbids. In prohibition, it produces a desire for alcohol. With prudent and reasonable, it produces unreasonableness. With coveting, it produces covetousness. If we don’t know the law, sin lies dead–dormant. If there were no prohibition, we wouldn’t have that desire within us. This is what Paul I believe is saying in verse 8.
At the beginning of verse 9, he makes a rather interesting statement: I was once alive apart from the law. What in the world does he mean by this? Paul was a Jew–a devoted Jew at that, so there would never have been a time when he wasn’t exposed to the law. There would never have been a time when he was apart from the law. And how can being apart from the law be life? Early on in the book of Romans, Paul says that even though there are those who don’t have God’s law, they are still under condemnation and death. What does this mean? I think Paul is referring to the time when he didn’t quite get the 10th Commandment. I think he is referring to the time when he believed he was following the commands of God and was, as he reports himself in the book of Philipians, “as to the law, blameless.” Paul thought he was following the law perfectly, and in the book of Leviticus, it says point blank: if you follow the law, you have life. Paul thinks he is alive apart from the 10th Commandment.
However, when the commandment came, sin revived, and Paul died. Again, this is an interesting line of thinking. I make sense of it in this fashion: the ancient Jew, and many modern ones, believed that sin was a definite act. Simply thinking about murder was not a sin. If you murdered someone, that was. Thinking about sleeping with someone who was not your spouse was not adultery. Actually sleeping with someone who was not your spouse was adultery. Paul could have gone down the checklist of the Ten Commandments and said that he followed them perfectly–until he finally understood number 10. For you see, to covet is to lust after something. To desire it deeply. To want it more than anything else in the world at the time. When the commandment came to Paul, he realized that he was a sinner to his core. The command that once promised life–if he were able to follow it–now killed him. And it killed him because in verse 11, sin had deceived him.
What exactly does this mean? Again, I think there is a reason Paul uses “Thou shalt not covet” to illustrate his point. What was Paul coveting? If we read his autobiographical statements in the rest of scripture, we see that he desired to be a perfect Jew. We see that he wanted to be completely and totally righteous. We see that he wanted to follow the law above everything else. This was his goal and purpose in life. It was his god. Let me say that again, and I think you will see how sin deceived Paul. In making him coveting being the perfect Jew; a righteous Jew; Paul desired this above everything else. And if you dedicate your life to something; if that something becomes your obsession; your deepest desire, it becomes your god. Sin deceived him into thinking that by desiring to be the perfect, righteous Jew, he was actually serving God; however, Paul now saw that he actually had a false god. And that false god had led him to bear false witness against the church; had led him to kill people within the church; had led him to persecute the church. Paul suddenly knew the depths of his sin because the law; the commandment showed this to him.
And so Paul then concludes, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” The law is holy because it comes from a holy God. The commandment is holy because it comes from a holy God. The command is just because it comes from a just God. The commandment is good because it comes from a good God. There is nothing wrong with the commandments. There is something wrong with us. We are easily corrupted by the power of sin.
And we don’t want to admit that. We don’t want to admit it in the least. We want to think that we are basically good–that we are basically just and merciful and kind. We want to think that we basically follow the law. We don’t want to see the depths of our corruption. We oftentimes become self-righteous like Paul was self-righteous. We look at a select group of commandments and think: oh, I follow those. I’m good enough. It’s just those people out there who are the problem, and if we could just get those people to change; if we could just pass the right laws to reign them in, then the world would be such a better place.
News flash: it won’t be. The power of sin is corrupting how you obey the law. The power of sin is deceiving you again. If you want to start changing the world: if you want to see the world improve, you’ve got to start with your own heart. You’ve got to become convicted just like Paul was convicted. You’ve got to realize that not only do you sin, but that you are a sinner. You’ve got to realize your deepest motivations for doing what you do. You’ve got to see whether or not you are living for God or living for something else. I will not be closing this sermon out with the Gospel. I will not be quoting John 3:16 and 17 this week. Paul leaves us seeking self-reflection. He leaves us studying the law and its purpose and how it convicts us. Next week, he will reveal the solution to this problem. But for now, we’ve got to wrestle with the problem. We’ve got to wrestle with our own hearts. We’ve got to be convicted of our own sin.
And so, I am going to leave you with a series of questions. All of these questions deal with the commands of Christ. All of these questions deal with how we should live. If you fail at these questions, you can join Paul and me. You can join us in admitting that not only do we commit sin, but that we are sinners. You can join us in awaiting the remedy to our corruption. You can join us in waiting to hear the gospel.
__ I always love God with all my heart, mind, and soul. (Matthew 22:37
__ I always love my neighbor as much as I love myself. (Matthew 22:39)
__ I have given up everything I have to follow Jesus. (Matthew 19:21)
__ I never get angry with my neighbor or call him a good-for-nothing. (Matthew 5:22)
__ I never look at a person of the opposite sex with thoughts about having sexual intercourse. (Matthew 5:28)
__ I always do good to others when they do things to hurt me. (Matthew 5:38)
__ I love my enemies and pray that God will bless them. (Matthew 5:43)
__ I never judge others, but always put the best construction on their behavior. (Matthew 7:1)
__ Whenever I do something good for someone else, I keep it a secret and do not let others know about it. (Matthew 6:2)
__ I am happy when someone makes fun of my being a Christian. (Matthew 5:10)
__ I always forgive others when they do me wrong. (Matthew 6:2)
__ I never worry about food or clothing. (Matthew 6:31)
__ I love God more than my family, my friends or myself. (Matthew 10:37)
__ Whenever I see someone in need, I always help them. (Matthew 10:42)
__ I regularly feed the poor, visit prisoners, put strangers up for the night, give clothes to the needy and visit those who are sick. (Matthew 25:35-36)
__I never hold anyone to a standard that I, myself do not follow.
If you did as well as I did on this series of questions, then I look forward to seeing you next week as we hear the remedy to sin’s power. Amen.