SERMON FOR MAY 30, 1999 FROM ROMANS 7:7-12
This week, we continue our trek through Romans chapter seven. Last week, we saw in the first six verses that Paul makes a very tight connection between the controlling power of sin, which he discussed in chapter six and the tyranny of being under the law in chapter seven. Remember that for Paul, a person is “under” the law when he tries to be pleasing or acceptable to God on the basis of his performance. “God will love and accept me if I’m a nice person or read my Bible or pray”…or whatever standard they establish for God. A person who tries to obey God for the purpose of getting God to love them is “under the law.” God’s intention is that we obey Him by what 1:5 calls “the obedience of faith.” That is, we are to obey God NOT to get HIM to love US, but our obedience is an expression of OUR love and worship TO GOD in response to what God has done for us in Christ. To be under the law is to be under the power of sin. If you are trying to be pleasing to God by what you do for Him, you are in bondage to sin.
We said being under the law brings this bondage to sin for at least two reasons. First, verse five says our “sinful passions [are] aroused by the law.” In other words, (as we will talk more about later) the law actually stimulates the desire to sin in us. Second, anyone who is trying to be acceptable to God on the basis of what they can do for Him is rooting their service to God in SELF-centered pride. God will never accept any ministry done for Him rooted in pride. Trying to please God by what we do presupposes that we are CAPABLE or QUALIFIED to do ANYTHING that pleases him. It is the height of spiritual pride to think that we, by our own works, can offer anything holy and acceptable to God. If that were true, we would actually be able to EARN God’s love and that would put God in debt to us. That’s impossible! That’s why to be “under” the law will bring nothing but frustration and ultimately, condemnation. Until you, by faith accept God’s love for you and from that faith (not works) express your love to God through obedience you will not be free from the frustration of never feeling good enough for God and even feeling condemned by God.
Paul also says that when a person is released from the enslavement of being under the law, then they are freed to live a supernatural, empowered, godly life. In verse four he says, “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body [death] of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dad, [why?] so that you might bear fruit to God.” The reason we died to the law was so we could (ultimately) “bear fruit to God.” And verse six explains what it means to bear fruit to God. Paul says, “…we have been released from the law SO THAT [why have we been released?] we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not the old way of the written code.” Bearing fruit to God means serving God in the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s complaint with the law is not that it tells you to do WRONG things, but instead it tells you WHAT to do, but doesn’t give you any power to do it. Its like a navigator in an airplane with no gas and you are the pilot. The law tells you exactly the right place you are supposed to go, but it doesn’t give you any fuel to get there. Consequently, a person under the law is like the pilot of a airplane with no gas, but with a navigator repeatedly telling him where he needs to go to successfully carry out his mission. The pilot is in a perpetual and never ending tailspin while the navigator keeps repeating the way to get to his destination a thousand miles away. That’s a picture of frustration. It makes you want to haul off and smack the navigator because he is telling you to go to exactly the right place, but it is impossible for you to get there—he can’t give you any power. That’s what the law does for those who are under its control. The person is perpetually falling down, but the law relentlessly hounds them, constantly reminding them of the fact that they are terminally deficient and defective. If you want to meet an unhappy person, meet one who is trying earnestly to please God, but is under the law.
With that as introduction, let’s read Romans 7:7-12. What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet." 8But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
Paul here feels a need to clarify his position on the law. In the first six verses of the chapter, he has taken pains to show the tight connection between the controlling power of sin and being under the law. Now, he wants to make sure that his readers don’t get the idea that he is EQUATING sin and the law. In verse seven he clarifies that the law and sin are not the same thing. But in verses 8-12, he further defines the connection between the law and sin. The broad, over arching truth of this text could be stated this way: The law plays a crucial, indispensable role in a person’s salvation. Those of you who have been here lately on Wednesday nights and seen the Ray Comfort teachings have seen the crying need in evangelism today is to get back to making the law a part of the evangelistic message. Without it, the church is over-run with false converts. In this text, Paul gives an autobiographical account of the role the law played in his coming to know the truth. Because the law does the same thing to everyone, this text also describes what happened in the fall (in a limited way), what happened in the history of Israel and what happened in our lives with the law. Paul, for the rest of chapter seven however, is speaking of his own personal experience.
As Paul clarifies the important part the law plays in salvation, his first point is the law reveals to people their sin. Let’s trace the role the law played chronologically in Paul’s life to get a better picture of this. We actually see the beginning point for Paul in verse nine, chronologically speaking. He says, “Once I was alive apart from the law;” This is a very curious statement. Taken at face value it would mean this, “Before I was exposed to the law, I had spiritual life, sin was not separating me from God.” We know this cannot be true because he has already said in 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one;” Every person comes into this world chocked full of sin. In 3:23 he has said, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We know that there was sin before the law was even instituted from 5:13, “for before the law was given, sin was in the world.” That also implies that even before a person becomes a acquainted with the law, they still have sin and if they have sin, they are spiritually dead, not alive.
Given that, why does Paul say in verse nine, “Once I was alive apart from the law?” A key to interpreting Romans seven is, we have to understand that Paul is giving a personal account of his own journey. That means we must see his language as a testimony and in testimonies we speak personally, not technically. Even theologians when they give their testimony don’t say, “Prior to the regeneration of my inner man, when I by His grace responded to his eternal, effectual call, I was in a state of total spiritual decay marked by wanton and habitual transgression of God’s righteousness both in deed and in disposition.” That’s enough to bring tears to your eyes, isn’t it? It sounds like he swallowed a textbook. That is accurate theologically, but its not the vocabulary of personal testimony. He’s not going to say that. He—even a theologian will say something like, “Before the Lord saved me, I was so lost in my sin, my life was a complete mess.”
So, when Paul here and in other places in this text shares his testimony of the law’s role in his life, we should understand he’s not using words in a technical sense, but he’s using the language of shared, personal experience. So when he says, “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. ” What he is saying in the personal language of 2000 years ago is simply, “before I came to know the law, I thought I was doing pretty well with God—I thought I was ok spiritually. But then I discovered to my horror that, instead of being alive to God, I was deader than a hammer.” The sin, which had been in Paul all the time, was actually stimulated, enflamed by the law and burned up the illusion that he was right with God. The law, by pointing out his sin (which had been there all along) incinerated his false hope. He saw that instead of being alive and sensitive to God as he had thought, he was in fact spiritually dead in his sin. The law wakes people up to the fact that, instead of being alive, they are dead. The law makes people who wrongly think they are saints realize they are sinners. He says it this way in verse seven, “I would not have know what sin was except through the law.” This is what the law does, it reveals sin. As the Holy Spirit’s convicting power gets hold of them, the law shows lost people who think they are doing alright with God that they are in reality at war with God and headed for judgment. The law says, “If you want to be right with God, here’s the standard, perfection.”
Paul is specific about which law God used this way in his experience. He says, “For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do now covet.” For Paul, what brought him to see his spiritual deficiency was the law, which revealed that he had a covetous heart. We don’t know when this happened. But he saw that, instead of desiring to know and love God with all his heart mind, soul and strength, (which is the commanded to be the goal of every believer in both testaments) the law revealed that in reality, he desired other things more. In Colossians 3:5 he tells us to put to death many sins including “evil desires and greed which is idolatry.” The law revealed that Paul’s covetous heart made him, a believer in the One true God, an idolater. When He met Jesus Christ on that Damascus road, he finally discovered the One who could cleanse and forgive his covetous heart, but also the only One worthy of his deepest desires. The law showed Paul his desperate need for a Savior.
In Acts chapter nine, he found the only One who could fill the God-shaped void he had been covetously trying to fill with religion, religious zeal and training. He met Jesus Christ. Paul says in effect, “I thought I was doing alright with God until God, through the law showed me that my heart’s desires were all wrong—As much as I was serving God, I wasn’t on the same page with Him at all.” Do you suppose that the law against coveting is something God will use to reveal the sinfulness of other people besides Paul? I think Paul uses himself here as an example because he is typical of all people who think they are good, when they are really dead in sin. And God will use this law to effectively expose the true motives and desires of any such heart, not just Paul.
The law showed Paul that, though he thought he was right with God he was in fact horribly wrong with God. He may have been keeping some of his commandments in some outward sense, but his agenda in life—what he really wanted was opposed to God. His heart was not at all in line with God. Isn’t this true of every sinner who thinks they are saved, but are really lost? They think they are alright with God because they have selectively chosen to focus on a few of their virtues and assumed that means they are right with God. “God loves me because I’m basically a nice person” (which usually means they are nice to the people who are nice to them). They highlight their good external qualities, compare them with people who aren’t as strong in those areas and conclude that as a result of this unbiblical and narrowly defined goodness, God just has to love them.
People who think that way are believing several lies. First, they believe that God doesn’t require perfection, only niceness in certain areas. Second, even if those areas of so called strength were perfect, they believe God will just let the other sinful areas of their life just slide by some how. And third, they fail to understand that, even thought they may do certain outwardly nice things, their own agenda for their lives is radically different from what God’s agenda is—they are on a completely different page than He is. They don’t love God more than anything else. In reality, He’s way down on their list—they are covetous idolaters. They believe the lie that to be a Christian is essentially about being a nice person rather than what you truly desire internally. That’s a lie. The law, when applied to their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit reveals those lies and forces them to the conclusion that instead of being alive, they are dead.
This use of the law in the lives of unbelievers is almost unheard of today and yet, by implication it is a main application of this text. When we see a lost person who thinks they are ok with God, do we ever use the Law to get that person to see, by the Holy Spirit that they are in reality, lost? Do we ever appeal to this issue of what they really want? Proverbs 16:2 says, “All a man's ways seem innocent to him, but his motives [what is driving that person—what they want] are weighed by the Lord.” What God requires is more than external expressions of niceness or so called goodness is a heart which passionately wants Him more than anything else.
This is exactly the way Jesus used the law in the case of the rich, young ruler. This man comes up to Jesus and says that from his youth he has kept all the laws that Jesus had tested him with. The sin in his heart is still unknown to him. What law does Jesus use to reveal to this “nice, upright” man that he is a sinner? He uses the law against coveting. He says to him, “If you want to be perfect [right with God] go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me.” “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Here was a guy like many people we see every day. He was basically a very nice person who thought he was just fine with God, but Jesus implicitly uses the law against coveting to expose that he was at war with God.
He doesn’t specifically quote the tenth commandment, but its clear that Jesus knew this guy’s big problem was with what he desired in life. This nice, good man was disqualified from heaven because he wanted wealth more than God. Do you suppose this use of the law against coveting to expose sinners would work today? You better believe it will. We all know so many people who are “Minnesota nice,” who have no rampant, disgusting sin in their lives and we wonder, “How will this person ever see they are NOT right with God when they are so sure they are?” Have we ever asked them the simply question, “what do you want most out of life? Or, if you had to narrow it down to one thing, what is most important to you?” Some of the people will respond with things like, “My house, my family, my marriage, my job, self respect, whatever.” When they say that we need to tell those people that God only accepts those who love HIM more than anything else. And because you love …(whatever you just mentioned) more than God that means you are an idolater. That is, you have an idol and the first two of the ten commandments forbid idolatry. You’ve broken three of the ten commandments. You don’t suppose a holy God would allow idolaters into heaven do you?
That’s the law. We don’t like to say things like that. The question is, do we believe this text that says the law is needed to bring people who think they are Christians to a point where they see they are lost? Do we believe this? If we believe it and if we want to see that person saved more than we want them to like us, we will be willing to use the law in the hopes of burning up their false assurance of salvation. Many people, when asked what they want most will say things like, “I want happiness or significance.” On hearing that response, most of the church would say, “Well, you are going at that pursuit all wrong—Jesus Christ is true happiness.” Then they will try to convince them they need to simply pray a prayer and Jesus, the Author of true happiness will come into their heart, thus making them happy people. Folks, that is so wrong and, as we’ve been reminded on Wednesday evenings, it produces false converts who come to Jesus with all their sinful baggage, believing He will make them happy in the midst of that sin. There is no law in that message which means there is no heartfelt knowledge of sin. Therefore there is no deeply felt need for a Savior and in the process Jesus is demoted from Savior to the blue bird of happiness.
It is NOT wrong to tell people the way to true happiness is Jesus, but you have to say something more and it is frequently over-looked today. It should go like this, “You say you want to be happy or significant or full of peace or joy. Well, the only way to true joy is to by faith, love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Let me ask you, if you were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, if He were your over-riding, consuming passion, would you be spending your time, energy and money the way you do now? The truth is the reason your life doesn’t reflect this kind of joy-inducing passion is because you’re an idolater and without Christ and his sin-paying death, God’s wrath rests on you.” Do you hear how that approach forces the person, by the Holy Spirit to look beyond their pathetic expressions of external goodness and shows them that their so called good life is not being lived for God at all? It’s really all about them and they are believing a lie.
We’ve seen that the law is indispensable to get people to see their sin and be ready to see their need for Christ. In Galatians 3:24, Paul calls the law “our tutor to lead us to Christ.” We’ve seen that the law against covetousness, as it was for Paul, is crucial in helping nice people who think they are doing fine spiritually to see that they are not right with God at all. Now, let’s apply this. First, as we’ve said before, we need to use the law of God in our evangelism. This can be done in any number of ways as the Spirit leads, but people must come to Christ for the right reasons if they are to become genuine believers. Jesus didn’t die on a cross because he saw that people’s lives were hopelessly shallow and unfulfilled. NO. He died on a cross for the sins of the world because, as George Whitfield said, we are “monsters of iniquity” apart from his grace. If people are coming to Christ to add zest to their life or give them a healthier self-esteem, they are not coming for the right reasons and Jesus didn’t die for those reasons, he died for sin and what reveals sin is the law. And that means that if we are sharing our faith with a sinner who needs a Savior, the law must be a part of that message or we are selling people who think they are ok with God a pig in a poke.
Second, there are people in this room who think they are right with God because they are nice people, go to church or have served on the church board or taught Sunday school. You may be a very nice person and admired by many fine people. But when it gets down to what your deepest desires are, they don’t include God. And to be honest, you feel uncomfortable around people whose deepest desire IS God. You wonder why their zeal runs so much deeper than yours. You have made a lifetime out of excusing away your lack of God-centeredness and your ravenous hunger for what this dark world offers. Your deepest yearnings and desires aren’t about God at all. They are about the things of this world and the law calls you an idolater. “Friendship with the world is hatred toward God,”
I’m not talking about people who are sincerely and intentionally fighting against the pull of this world’s idols. That’s part of the Christian experience. I’m talking about those who have God neatly compartmentalized, shoved into a small box they pull out when they want to, or when they feel they need Him. God is not Lord of your life, He’s a spiritual prescription with unlimited refills, to be taken as needed. When you are sad or scared, you pull out reassuring thoughts of Him to make you feel happy but when the crisis is over, you put Him back on the shelf until you need Him again. The law says you are an idolater because God is not at the center of your life, he’s conveniently shoved to the edges and that is not what it is to be a Christian.
If you want to be a real Christian, allow that law to, by the Holy Spirit, work its way into your heart and grieve the fact that you have believed a lie and are a lost as any sinner in any gutter. Then, come to the Christ—He is your only hope of salvation from the holy wrath of God. May God give us the grace to allow God’s word to do its work in others…and in us.
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
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