A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 7:1-25. b). The law, sin and death (continued).
Thirdly, *the law condemns sin* (9-11). We have already looked at verse 9 and asked whether its four stages – *I was alive apart from law, the commandment came, sin sprang to life*, and *I died* – are intended as a description of Paul, Adam or Israel. Our conclusion was that they refer primarily to Paul, but Paul in solidarity with both the human and Jewish race. Through this personal experience, he continues *I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death* (10). In other words, the law condemned sin. To explain this further, Paul first repeats the sentence from verse 8 that *sin* seized *the opportunity afforded by the commandment* (he mentions ‘the commandment’ six times in these verses because it is the role of the law which he is unfolding), and adds that sin first *deceived me* (presumably by promising blessings it could not deliver) and then *through the commandment put me to death* (11). Thus, all three of these verses (9, 10 and 11) speak of the commandment in relation to death; they anticipate verse 13, in which Paul will clarify that what caused his death was not the law but sin which exploited the law.
Here then, are the three devastating effects of the law in relation to sin. It exposes, provokes and condemns sin. For ‘the power of sin is the law’ (1 Cor. 15:56). But the law is not in itself sinful, nor is it responsible for sin. Instead it is sin itself, our sinful nature, which uses the law to cause us to sin and so to die. The law is exonerated; sin is to blame. The teaching of this paragraph is well summarized in the question of verse 7 and the affirmation of verse 12. Question: *Is the law sin?* (7). Affirmation: *So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good* (12). That is, its requirements are both holy and righteous in themselves and also good (*agathos*), meaning ‘beneficent in their intention’. This brings Paul to the objectors’ other question about the law.
Question 2: *Did the law become death to me?* (13).
Certainly verse 10 seemed to implicate the law as being responsible for death, stating that the commandment which ‘was intended to bring life actually brought death’. So was the law guilty of offering life with one hand and inflicting death with the other? *Did that which is good, then, become death to me?*
The apostle answers the second question as he has answered the first, with his emphatic *me genoito*, ‘God forbid!’ The law does not cause sin; it exposes and condemns it. And the law does not cause death; sin does. *But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good* (viz. the law), *so that* (this was God’s intention) *through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful* (13b). Indeed the extreme sinfulness of sin is seen precisely in the way it exploits a good thing (the law) for an evil purpose (death).
In answer to both questions, then, Paul has declared that the culprit is not the law (which has good designs) but sin (which misuses the law). Verse 8 and 11 are closely parallel. Both describe sin as *seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment*, either to produce sin (8) or to inflict death (11). Take a criminal today. A man is caught red-handed breaking the law. He is arrested, brought to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to prison. He cannot blame to law for his imprisonment. True, it is the law which convicted and sentenced him. But he has no-one to blame but himself and his own criminal behaviour. In a similar way Paul exonerates he law. ‘The villain of the piece is sin’, indwelling sin which, because of its perversity, is aroused and provoked by the law. Those antinomians, who say that our whole problem is the law , are quite wrong. Our real problem is not the law, but sin. It is indwelling sin which accounts for the weakness of the law, as the apostle will go on to show in the next paragraph. The law cannot save us because we cannot help it, and we cannot keep it because of indwelling sin.
Tomorrow: Romans 7:14-25. 3). The weakness of the law: an inner conflict.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.