A Commentary by John Stott
We return now to the text of verses 7-13, and to the two which Paul asks, namely whether he is teaching that the law is the cause of sin and death.
*Question 1: Is the law sin?* (7:7-12).
Must the law be dubbed as being in itself ‘sinful’ in the sense that it is responsible for creating sin? After his emphatic rejoinder (*Certainly not!*), the apostle begins to delve into the relations between the law and sin.
First, *the law reveals sin*. He has already written that ‘through the law we become conscience of sin’ (3:20). Now he writes: *Indeed, I would not have known what sin was except through the law* (7a). This probably means both that he had come to recognise the gravity of sin, because the law unmasks and exposes it as rebellion against God, and that he had been brought under conviction of sin by it. In his case it was the tenth commandment prohibiting covetousness which convicted him. *For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet”* (7b).
Ever since Bishop Krister Stendahl first used the expression, it has been fashionable to speak of Paul before his conversion as having had a ‘robust conscience’, in contrast to the ‘introspective conscience’ of the West. The ground for this judgment is that he described himself when a Pharisee as having been ‘blameless’ in regard to righteousness under the law (Phil. 3:6). But is this an adequate basis for declaring Paul’s pre-conversion conscience ‘robust’? The ‘legalistic righteousness’ (NIV), in which he claimed to be blameless, was surely an external conformity to the law. But covetousness (epithymia) is internal – a desire, a drive, a lust. Indeed it ‘includes every kind of illicit desire’. and is itself a form of idolatry (Col. 3:5), because it puts the object of desire in the place of God. Paul could well have obeyed the other nine commandments in word and deed; but covetousness lurked hidden in his heart, as did other evil thoughts of which Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:21ff.). So it was the prohibition of covetousness which opened Paul’s eyes to his own depravity. The rich young ruler was another case in point (Mk. 10:17ff.). Paul’s pre-conversion conscience, therefore, was neither ‘robust’ nor morbidly ‘introspective’. That is a false polarisation. Instead, his conscience was performing its healthy, God-intended function, especially when confirmed by the Holy Spirit. That is, it was convicting him of sin.
Secondly, *the law provokes sin*. Having already said that ‘our sinful passions [were] aroused by the law’ (5), Paul now writes: *But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead* (8). *Aphorme* (‘opportunity’) was used of a military base, ‘the starting-point or base of operations for an expedition’ (BAGD), a springboard for further advance. So it is that sin establishes within us a base or foothold by means of the commandments which provoke us. This provocative power of the law is a matter of everyday experience. Ever since Adam and Eve, human beings have always been enticed by forbidden fruit. This strange phenomenon is apparently called contra-suggestibility’, ‘the propensity some people have to react negatively to any directive’. For example, a peremptory traffic signal says ‘stop’ or ‘reduce speed now’, and our instinctive is, ‘Why should I?’ Or we see on a door the notice ‘Private – do not enter’, and we immediately want to cross the prohibited threshold.
Augustine gives us in his *Confessions* a good example of this perversity. One night at the age of sixteen, in company with ‘a gang of naughty adolescents’, he shook a pear tree and stole its fruit. His motive, he confesses, was not that he was hungry, for they threw the pears to the pigs. ‘I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing, but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.’ ‘Was it possible’, he asked himself, ‘to take pleasure in what was illicit for no reason other than that it was not allowed?’
In all such cases the real culprit is not the law but sin which is hostile to God’s law (8:7). Sin twists the function of the law from revealing, exposing and condemning sin into encouraging and even provoking it. We cannot blame the law for proclaiming God’s will.