The Law as an Instrument of Grace Romans 7:7-13


Romans 7:7-13

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Remember, Paul is discussing the role of the law and its place in the life of Christians. He has said that the Christian is no longer under the law and is explaining what he meant by that. We said last week, in dealing with the first six verses of the chapter, that Paul meant that the Christian was no longer under the condemnation of the law or subject to its curse as lawbreakers and, further, that the Christian was no longer shut up to the law’s way of acquiring righteousness before God, a way doomed to failure because of man’s sinful nature. But does that mean then that the law is worthless? Paul answers that question with a bit of autobiography. Some of what Paul has said might be taken to mean that the law is a bad thing. It provokes sin, Paul said. So is the law itself sinful? Paul replies, “by no means.” The law, far from being sinful, forced him to recognize his sin for what it was. Without that recognition he would never have understood or embraced the good news that there was righteousness from God through Jesus Christ to be received by faith.

Text Comment

v.7       The rhetorical question surely indicates that some were saying that Paul’s teaching amounted to this very assertion, that the law of God was a bad thing, a sinful thing. Proof that this was and is a predictable inference may also be drawn from the course of Christian history. There have always been a great many people in the church, there are many today, even some in our own circles, who have a very jaundiced view of God’s law. They think of it as an enemy, not a friend. Paul must have been aware that the Roman Christians would have already heard this objection to his teaching, so it was important for him to explain himself and to deliver his doctrine from this reproach.

v.8       We have noticed already Paul saying such things earlier in his argument. A person doesn’t realize the true sinfulness of things until he knows them to be forbidden in the law. But, being a natural sinner, the law’s forbidding them only increases his desire to practice the forbidden behaviors. Men sin precisely because they wish to disobey! They are rebels against God. They search for a way of rebelling against God. But it is not only that forbidden fruit is the sweetest. Man in sin resents the limitations God places on his behavior. He takes God’s commandments, as Adam was tempted to take them by the serpent in the garden, as a diminishment of his freedom and dignity. In that way too the law provokes man’s rebellion, just as it did in the Garden of Eden. [Cranfield, i, 350]

The sin of covetousness is a particularly apt illustration because it directs our attention to the inner root of man’s rebellion and sinfulness. It addresses our desires before our behavior. It was far easier for a first century Jew, with a first century Jew’s view of the law, to imagine that he had kept the commandment not to kill or not to commit adultery or not to steal. But an honest man knew very well that he often found himself wanting what other people had.

v.11     Notice carefully: it is not the law that deceived Paul but sin. The original purpose of the law was to direct and regulate man’s behavior and to lead him in the paths of righteousness and so to promote his life and his communion with God. But once sin entered the picture the same law that was intended to promote life, promoted death instead because of the response it produced within sinful men. It stokes their rebellion and, in particular, it gives them a means of expressing their pride over against God. Man begins to rely on the law as a way of salvation. Everywhere else where Paul speaks of sin, the law, and grace, this false view of the law, man’s use of it legalistically as a way of asserting himself over against God is the backdrop of Paul’s. And that seems to be the case here. Sin deceived Paul by giving him the impression that by keeping the law in some superficial way he could obtain righteousness before God and so salvation. The law was taken to provide a way of making man again the captain of his fate; his own savior, in other words.

v.13     Another rhetorical question, the fourth from 6:1. The only partially stated but obvious reply, made explicit in the opening verses of chapter 8, is that had the law not done its work and made sin sinful to Paul – shown Paul what sin is and how much of it there was in his life – Paul would never have become a Christian and found eternal life.

I’ll bet you think you have a pretty good idea of what Paul is talking about here. You think that he is describing his own experience before he became a follower of Christ. He was, as he tells us elsewhere in his letters, a typical Jew. He was a legalist, imagining that by his obedience he was accumulating merits for the Day of Judgment. He was self-righteous and self-complacent, quite confident of his own righteousness and of his own standing with God. He certainly had no sense that he stood exposed to God’s wrath, was threatened by God’s punishment, and had no hope of salvation apart from the intervention of God himself and the death of the Son of God on the cross. Those notions would have seemed utterly preposterous to Paul. But, by the Spirit of God, the law came home to him. That is, he came under conviction of sin. He suddenly realized that the law required things of him that he did not do and, indeed, that he could not seem to do however hard he tried. It was the tenth commandment in particular that laid bare his sinfulness. He could indulge the illusion that he had kept the 6th commandment because he had never murdered anyone, or had kept the 7th because he had never slept with another man’s wife. But the 10th reached into his heart, his desires, his motives, his attitudes, and all of a sudden Paul realized that he was not a righteous man at all. He was comprehensively sinful, a rebel against God, and that by his very nature. Try as he might he couldn’t bring his behavior into agreement with the will of God. And it was when Paul was in this state, in this spiritual condition, that the Lord Christ met him on the Damascus Road. That seems straightforward; a natural reading of vv. 7-13.

But a great many commentators have now rejected out of hand that way of reading Paul here. One scholar speaks of that interpretation as “now relegated to the museum of exegetical absurdities.” [P. Demann in Bruce, 148] So how do they take Paul in vv. 7-13? Well, many argue that Paul is not talking about himself at all but either he is speaking in the name of Adam, or as a representative of the typical Jew, or, indeed, is speaking in the name of mankind as a whole. There is, to be sure, something to be said in favor of these interpretations. Believe me, many clever arguments are offered for all of these interpretations and others. My problem with them is that I cannot imagine an original reader or hearer of Romans understanding Paul’s words in vv. 7-13 in such ways. He uses the personal pronoun: “I.” He uses the past tense: “Once I was alive apart from law…” Who among his original hearers would have supposed he wasn’t in fact talking about himself at all, but was talking about mankind, or the nation of Israel, or Adam, or, if talking about himself, meant himself only as a representative of the nation of Israel as a whole, as if he meant to represent himself as Jewish everyman?

In my view, I find these other interpretations of Romans 7:6-13 the sort that sound very convincing in a graduate seminar and utterly implausible as soon as you imagine the letter being read out to the Roman church. So I continue to think the standard, autobiographical interpretation of Paul’s remarks here far and away the most plausible.

Now, it is true, and it has to be admitted that we do not have much other information with which to compare this autobiographical sketch of Paul’s pre-Christian experience. It has to be admitted that many suggestions that have been made on the strength of this passage are pure guesswork. We do not know that Paul’s witnessing Stephen’s execution and hearing him pray for his murderers awoke in the famous and fiery Jewish leader any pangs of conscience. We do not know that the Lord’s remark to Paul on the Damascus Road – “it is hard to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14) – indicates that Paul was already in an unsettled state brought on by conviction of sin. Those suggestions are certainly possible, but no one can say for sure that they dovetail with Paul’s account of his pre-Christian life in Romans 7:7-13.

But against those who criticize the autobiographical interpretation of these verses I point out also that far too many Christians would say that when they read Paul describing his pre-Christian life and the onset of the conviction of sin – the realization that he was not right with God after all, that he was comprehensively and viciously sinful, that he was a rebel against God’s law and hated his commandments – I say, far too many Christians find Paul describing to a T their own spiritual experience. They had the same discovery. Their self-righteousness and self-complacency was shattered just as his had been. When multitudes find these words a transcript of their own experience on the way to becoming Christians it becomes still harder to believe that Paul is, in fact, talking about something else entirely.

The chief objection to taking Paul’s remarks as personal and autobiographical is his statement in v. 9 that once he was alive apart from law. The argument is that a Jew would never, could never describe himself as “apart from law.” The law was always a part of the Jew’s life. But taking Paul’s words at face value it is not difficult to think that he means that though he had the law, he didn’t understand the law; he didn’t take its true demand to heart. He was without the law in that sense. When Paul says “when the commandment came” surely it is perfectly natural to read him as meaning “when the law came home to me, when I finally realized what it required of me, when I was made to face the fact that, far from being a law-keeper, I was in fact an inveterate law-breaker…” In other words, by saying that once he was alive apart from the law Paul is saying that there was a time in his life when he lived in ignorance of the law’s true demand; there was a time in his life when his misunderstanding of God’s law was so profound, as the whole NT says the misunderstanding of the law in Judaism was so profound, that it was if as he didn’t know or have the law it at all. In Galatians 3:23 Paul speaks of the time “before faith came…” He means there, before he became a believer in Christ. Before faith came to me, before it took possession of me! And here, when he says that the commandment came he is speaking of its subjective appearance in his conscience. The law comes and faith comes to a person when they enter his heart! He means that the law began to speak to him of his sin and guilt; it began to expose the ridiculous nature of his self-complacency and unmasked the folly of his legalism. This makes all the more sense given his specific mention of the tenth commandment, the one commandment that reaches into the motives and desires of the heart, the parts of our morality hardest to fake if only we are honest with ourselves.

And, as I said, if Paul, in these verses, is describing something other than a man coming under the conviction of sin, he has nevertheless described precisely the experience of untold multitudes of people who, once complacent and self-satisfied, were undressed suddenly by the law of God. No matter that they may have lived in the church all the years of their life up to that point, they were undressed by the law of God and left naked before his judgment.

Let us remember, by the way, that there are some things in which the Lord Jesus cannot be an example for us. He cannot be an example in the matter of conversion, of coming under the conviction of sin and turning from it to God, for Jesus never sinned and so did not come under the conviction of sin. Surely that is one reason why Paul’s personal history looms so large in the New Testament. It is the Bible’s characteristic way both to teach a truth and then to illustrate it in flesh and blood. And who better to illustrate the way the soul must be moved from complacent unbelief to humble faith than the great Apostle to the Gentiles? No wonder that the account of his conversion is given three times in the Book of Acts and is referred to several more times in his Epistles, in addition to this reflection upon his personal history here in Romans 7.

It is precisely the largeness of Paul’s personal history, its scale, that makes it so valuable for us as a paradigm or exemplar. Paul’s personal history is larger than life and so are its lessons for us. Surely we are not meant to believe that everyone’s conversion to Christ will be like Paul’s: as dramatic, as sudden, or as striking. We are not required to believe that every Christian will have once been a persecutor of the church or that his or her conversion will be brought about by the Savior appearing to him or her in blinding glory on some deserted road; of course not. Some become followers of Christ before they understand what it means to follow him; others are converted later but gently, “like the dawn of day in northern latitudes when there is no exact moment observable which separates the night from the day.” [John Murray, Works, iii, 13] All conversions, all beginnings of new life do not happen as they happened in Paul’s case.

Having said that, however, it is certainly the case that many have been converted as suddenly as Paul and that prior to their conversion went through a period of intense conviction of sin. They too could very well say, indeed they have said, in fact they thought Paul was talking about them when he said, “Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” Such conversions are demonstrations for us of the nature of everyone’s salvation. The Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, called such conversions “election-conversions” because they illustrate so clearly the nature of salvation as a work of God’s grace and power.

Many Christians have said through the ages and many will say today that they were shocked to discover, as Paul had, that they were sinners through and through; that far from storing up righteousness before God by their acts of morality and piety, they were all the while deepening the pit in which they were to be buried. They broke every commandment of God all the time. They had never realized that! They hadn’t truly kept one of them…ever! They didn’t know that either! They had glibly supposed that God had given his commandments to men so that men could earn their way to heaven by keeping them.

But when the commandment came, they discovered to their horror that far from ingratiating themselves with God, they were storing up his wrath for themselves; that the Day of Judgment would be for them the Day of Doom. Most Pharisees never realized this. The commandment never came home to them; they never died inside in the recognition of their helplessness and their guilt before God. Indeed, Paul has already described the Jewish mind as self-righteous and self-complacent in chapter 2. That had been his mind, he knew that mind perfectly; he knew what they thought about themselves, about God and about salvation. He had thought the same thing himself. Paul’s mind changed because the commandment came. The mind of most of the Jews of his day never did because the commandment never came to them. They never realized in a fit of despair that they were not on good terms with the Judge of all the earth!

They continued to think of themselves as Paul had once thought of himself: as epitomes of the religious ideal. They were, they would have said – they did say – devout, good, and honest men. They were quite ready to meet their God! Paul tells us in his letters that is precisely what he thought of himself before the commandment came. You might think this is impossible. How could one read the Bible – what we call the OT which was then the Jewish Bible – how could one read the Bible and think it possible to earn one’s salvation by righteous living? But, the fact is, most people have always thought that. Most Israelites thought that. Most people who would have called themselves Christians in the history of the world have thought that. It comes naturally to the human mind. It is the default position of the human heart to believe one not only good but worthy of God. Pride is man’s bottom sin and that is his pride talking.

I remember visiting a Scottish church pastored by a friend of mine. The church had had a strong evangelical ministry for twenty years or more, biblical preaching every Sunday. But out of the 200 or so who attended services each Sunday the pastor counted about 30 who were truly Christian people, converted people, people who were trusting Christ for their forgiveness and seeking to walk with him. For years the ministers of the church had been telling their congregation that they could not save themselves, that only Christ could make them right with God. But for all those years, nodding their agreement with sermons they did not understand, they continued in their complacency and self-righteousness, sure that they were good enough for God. The preachers preached grace at them and they heard works. The preachers showed them Christ and they saw the law. You see from Paul’s own experience that unless the commandment comes, no one dies; no one dies in that spiritual way in which everyone must die to himself in order to live forever in God.

Listen to Sheldon Vanauken describe the dawning of conviction in the heart of his wife Davy, who became a Christian shortly before he did. The experience he describes happened some time before either of them even began to think seriously about the Christian faith. Believing in Jesus Christ was on not on either of their horizons when this happened. I’m reading from that wonderful book A Severe Mercy.

“I came home to find her face streaked with tears, and she clung to me desperately and wept. It was some time before she could try to tell me what had happened. The two lines she wrote the next day of a poem that was never completed are the beginning point.

All the world fell away last night,
Leaving you, only you, and fright.

Her sins, she said, had come out and paraded before her, ghastly in appearance and mocking in demeanor. What sins? What sins could this eager, loving creature have committed? Not sins as the world counts sins. Not one person had she murdered, nor one gold ingot stolen. No unfaithfulness, no secret drinking, no dishonesty, no sloth, no kicking dogs. [Interestingly, in a later writing of Sheldon Vanauken, long after the death of his wife, he admits there were some things in her young adulthood that were more seamy than you might have thought.] But sometimes she had been grouchy or snappish. She had said cruel things to people… Now her words haunted her. Sin: she knew there was such a thing as plain sin, not something any psychiatrist could absolve or explain away. Even worse, the sins of omission [the things she should have done and did not do]. … She was shaken to the depths, shaken as I had never known her to be.

I know now, of course, that she had experienced the classical conviction of sin. Christianity knows all about it, but I didn’t know…about Christianity… the Hound of heaven was after her, following along with unwearied pace. But I did not understand. [67-68]

A terrible experience, the law, the commandment coming home; but altogether necessary, lest she remain alive apart from the law, alive in her complacency, alive in her self-righteousness, alive in her indifference to Jesus Christ and to his great sacrifice for sin. Paul, after all, knew a great deal about Jesus before he became a Christian. He knew the story; he knew what the Christians were saying about Jesus of Nazareth; the claim of his death on the cross and his resurrection. He knew all of that. What he didn’t know was that he, as every other human being, desperately needed the righteousness only Christ could give him. He would never have figured that out, never have discovered that, if the commandment had not come home and he found himself spiritually dead.

This awful awakening to one’s true moral and spiritual condition apart from the grace of God is an indispensible element in salvation. One does not stride confidently into the City of God; one is carried in by another. The man who, sure of himself, expects to walk right up to the gate, pound on it, and have it opened for him is the man who will never see the City or even its gate!

Some of you, probably mostly women, have read the novels of Elizabeth Gouge. In one of her novels, Green Dolphin Country, she tells the story of two sisters who lived in the Channel Islands who fell in love with the same man. Marianne, the older sister, was a willful, selfish and unattractive person; Marguerite was sweet and loving. William fell in love with Marguerite and that became clear to Marianne, much to her bitterness. William, whom both girls loved, went to sea to make his fortune and decided, after reaching New Zealand, to write back to Marguerite to ask her to join him. But, a lazy and careless man in any case, and that night inebriated, he wrote the wrong name in his letter and addressed his proposal to Marianne, the woman he did not love. Marguerite, of course, was shattered, believing that her love had been betrayed and resigned herself to making some kind of life for herself in England as her elder sister made plans for her great adventure.

Marianne, jubilant at William’s proposal, sailed to New Zealand exulting in her triumph over her younger sister. As soon as the ship docks and it was Marianne who debarks, William realized the mistake he made. His face paled, a fact Marianne noticed but, of course, could not understand. But there was nothing that could be done so William received her as if she were the one he was expecting and in the years that followed never let her know that his hope and intention had been for her sister, not for her.
The rest of the book tells the story, in a great sweeping narrative, of the life and dangers they faced making a life in the wilds of New Zealand and, by contrast, the quiet life Marguerite was leading back in the Channel Islands.
The story comes full circle when many years later William and Marianne returned to England and Marianne overhears William explain his mistake to Marguerite. Marianne has to come to terms with the fact that her husband had wanted her sister, not herself and that her life had been built upon a clerical error. Now, to be sure, those of you who have read the book know that there is much more to the story than that. There is in it an account of the redemption of two lives. But, for the moment, consider simply this: it is the story of a woman who thought that her life was one thing only to discover that it was another thing entirely. A woman who thought she was acceptable to her husband learned finally that her joining him, in fact, had been the great disappointment of his life; a woman who thought for years that all was well only because she was utterly unaware of what her husband had actually thought about her.
Well that is a perfect picture of human life everywhere we look. People are sure that all is well. They are confident that things are as they imagine them to be. They have no idea that they may, in fact, be unloved of God, still less that they are exposed to his terrible wrath and just punishment. They go on with their lives scarcely ever thinking a serious thought about their relationship with God. They are so complacent, so confident, and so self-righteous that they can hardly be bothered to think about why they are so little worried about death and the judgment to come. They learned early on to think that their situation is as they imagine it to be and never bother to consider that it might not be that at all. They have little interest in Jesus Christ. They hardly ever think about him. They don’t know much about him. They are indifferent. That’s the word; they don’t care. Whether religious or secular, they are satisfied with the way things are. But things are not as they imagine them to be; nothing like what they imagine them to be!
Joseph Hart in his great hymn urges the unsaved:
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness Christ requireth
Is to feel your need of him.
But that is precisely the problem! People don’t feel their need of Christ. Paul didn’t until the commandment came and until the commandment comes to them vast multitudes will not feel that need either.
Is the law sin? You better believe it isn’t. If it weren’t for the law; if it weren’t for the discovery of our moral failure the law forces upon our conscience; if it weren’t for the law in the hands of the Holy Spirit, we would never figure out that we have no righteousness of our own and that, therefore, we have to get it from somewhere, from someone else. Let a man or woman discover that, and suddenly Jesus Christ becomes the single most wonderful, essential, and absolutely indispensible person in the world!
That is what the Law of God in the hands of the Holy Spirit teaches a person to think about Jesus Christ. If you don’t think that way about Jesus Christ, that he is utterly and completely indispensable to you, that you cannot think about your life without thinking about him first and what he had done for you first, consider this. Paul was a very serious-minded man. He took great pains over his life. He was morally earnest; and probably, to be honest, a great deal more so than you are. But he came to realize that notwithstanding his moral earnestness his situation was hopeless. Far from providing a way to heaven, his morality, his law-keeping had condemned him to ever greater punishment. If Paul realized that about himself, what makes you think the same is not true of you? Read God’s law; find out what his expectations for your life actually are; to love him with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. See if you do not find your complacency melting away and some measure of deep unease, if not outright fear, taking its place. Then look up; and you will see for the first time the Lord Jesus Christ who is the only possible solution to your very great problem.