Here it comes again—the same temptation, the same war, and the same depressing outcome. What is it that makes sin so invincible?
The Law of God Picks a Fight
A few years ago I watched an online debate concerning the adult film industry. It was held in front of an Ivy League audience, packed with idealistic youth. The pro side advocated for non-regulation, and non-censorship, arguing that pornography had no long-term harmful effects. Its spokesman was a career porn star.
The con side argued precisely the opposite—that pornography has definite and documented long-term effects on relationships, marriage, and minors. I cringed when I saw the spokesman for that side. He was a “kid” pastor—young looking with skinny jeans and an earring. He reminded me of any number of boys picked on back in junior high school. I figured the liberal audience would chew him up and spit him out.
Instead, the “kid” crushed it. He brought charts, diagrams, and statistics from various research streams, but avoided any overt religious references. Somewhere around midpoint, he had the audience eating out of his hand, and even this bunch had to admit, if grudgingly, that he was the man.
But the moment came when a religious nuance crept in. It suggested that the motive underlying his position had something to do with the Bible. The atmosphere noticeably chilled and the whole audience seemed to shift back to a skeptical, non-committal state. It was as though God commanded something and therefore they had to disagree with it, even if their disagreement went against all other logic in the process.
Law has that effect on human beings.
“It is a distressing fact about human nature that any prohibition tends to awake in us a desire to transgress the prohibition…Foreman cites a most unlikely theologian in Mark Twain. ‘This plain-spoken American said that most idealists overlooked one feature of the human make-up which is very prominent, namely, plain mulishness or perverseness. Mark Twain said if a mule thinks he knows what you want him to do he will do just the opposite, and Twain admitted he was like that himself—often mean for the sake of meanness. But the fault lies not in the ideal but in the man who reacts against it.’” ¹
Remember the first law God ever delivered to human beings back in the garden. He told them, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat” (Gen. 2:17). Almost immediately, the Genesis narrative grinds to a halt.
The serpent draws Eve’s attention to that command, and conducts a “Bible study” with her. The forbidden fruit thus becomes the greatest issue of all, as she realizes something has been placed off-limits to her. She must have it at all costs.
God’s law to Israel had similar effects. He gave the people commandments prohibiting the worship of other gods. Yet the book of Exodus hadn’t progressed more than a handful of chapters before the people violated those commandments to the letter, with a golden calf.
Law does not produce obedience.
It is therefore troubling when we abbreviate the Christian life to believing in Jesus and keeping the Ten Commandments. In saying this, we place ourselves in a certain jeopardy we may not even be aware of.
The center of the Christian life is Christ, not Christ plus the Law, or even Christ plus an improved, idealized version of yourself. Romans 7:7-25 demonstrates what happens when we forget this fact.
Blame the Right Thing
But as Paul points out in 7:7-12, don’t make Law the bad guy. The Law is not bad; it only draws out the bad.
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Evangelicals are not used to these radical concepts. When Paul writes, “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin,” it is almost as though the Law gives a man a proper and formal introduction to the sin inside him. It said, “Paul, this is coveting, and you should stay away from it.”
Of course, it is good for God to tell us not to covet. And so a well-meaning man like Paul would agree, telling himself he should be careful not to notice his neighbor’s wife, her sparkling eyes, her charming wit, her buttermilk skin, and that he should certainly not imagine how exciting it would be if she were to belong to him. Before he knows it, his consideration has gotten him involved with sin, wrestling with thoughts and desires occasioned by the Law that says, “You shall not covet.” The commandment has become a tar baby.
Incredibly, God’s Law, the very opposite of sin, drew troublesome evil out of Paul. His sin nature had laid dead, flat, and placid, until a command contrary to it came along and stirred it to life. In the ensuing inward turmoil, the formerly peaceful Paul “died.”
Sin used Law like a freeway to enter Paul’s experience and kill him with the unrest of conscience issues. Even so, Paul reminds us, “The Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”
Why Things Come Out of the Woodwork
Texas sheet cake is a good thing (especially the kind with chocolate icing and yellow cake). But take that good thing into the most run-down house in the city. Take it down to the basement of that house and put it on the floor. Return at 2 a.m. with a flashlight, ease down the basement steps, and shine the light on that cake.
The “good thing” will probably have drawn plenty of bad things out of the woodwork. It will have created an opportunity for basement pests, more than usual. The Law of God, the good thing, stirs sin, giving it far more opportunity to act out than usual.
But don’t staple shut your Old Testament, nor refuse to read the Ten Commandments. Remember that the early church and the apostles and Jesus Himself only had the Old Testament available to them. Yet when they read it, they saw Christ, grace, the new covenant, and full salvation.
Old eyes see rules, written codes, and tablets that entangle us with the very things we were commanded to avoid. If you treat the Bible like a Christless manual, you’ll be left to your own will power and resources.
The more you try to obey, the more every rebellious impulse will become excited. Be careful how you handle the Law. If you use it like a self-improvement program, you’ll stir a lot of unwanted results.
The Ugly Indoors
Why does this happen? Because the bad is in you.
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Sin, the ultimate bad, uses the Law of God, which is good, so that it can emerge as big and dark as it can be. This is always sin’s purpose—to push the envelope of depravity as much as possible, of pressing the furthest limit of what we will allow.
God’s purpose in allowing this though, is to make clear to you that you are sinful “beyond measure.” It brings you to the conclusion that you are “sold under sin,” that is, mastered by it.
That was Paul’s conclusion, based on his personal experience of doing things he didn’t want to do and not being able to do the things he wanted to do. The only explanation for this inability was that something inside him was amiss—“it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
A corrupt immoral energy inside him compelled him to do things he knew were wrong. This was not classic demon possession, where an evil spirit forcibly takes control of one’s arms and legs and acts as puppeteer. No, this was an integrated, native evil, at once part of Paul, yet distinct. It appealed to his emotions, and eroded his will, until finally he did things he intellectually hated.
This lamentable process worked with the predictability and regularity of a law, an established existential principle. Whenever he willed to do God’s will, a reaction occurred, “waging war” against his desire to do good, and “making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
The internal experience was one of warfare, and no doubt Paul envisioned the battering rams, and catapults, and giant crossbows of those ancient times. Sin was in him, not something out there that he occasionally fell into.
Is It Better to Just Chill?
Non-Christians find our internal dilemma amusing, as it seems we are uptight about a great many things in the moral arena. They see us declare beliefs and then violate those same beliefs, although we try not to. It looks as if we are a group of people with split personalities all on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
I’ve known more than a few onlookers who found this struggle uninspiring. “Life’s too short for all these complications,” they say. “I believe in life before death.” Admittedly, there is a certain peace and simplicity about doing whatever you want whenever you want.
But this is the peace that comes from sin’s captivity. As long as you abide in your imprisonment, no drama, no trauma, no frustration exists. Since there are no efforts to escape, there is no failure. This “peaceful” scenario involves a man or woman with heads down, accepting death, and trying to make their chains as comfortable as possible.
People with religious drives will find such resignation unacceptable. They will struggle, but they fail, because they aim for perfection while being full of something that hates it. No amount of self-consolation will make things better.
A Costly Little Saying
The fact is, you need Jesus. Although this sounds like a simple ditty, even for Paul, it was a truth hard arrived at.
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
After valiant efforts, the self-loathing cry of “Wretched man that I am!” and the longing for deliverance indicates that Paul had given up on himself. Deliverance had to come from outside of him. Nor does he wonder “What will deliver me?” as if there were a technique that might enable him to do a better job of law-keeping.
The Jews were famous for creating workarounds, as they invented laws to ensure they would not break existing Law. They layered legislation around a core commandment, theoretically making that commandment more difficult to violate. Naturally, this only introduced more laws to break. Paul apparently didn’t find this approach helpful, as his famous cry was for a “Who?” not a “What?”
“Who will deliver me?” He answers his own question in the next celebratory phrase by thanking God and acknowledging deliverance comes “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It was more than an easy punchline; it was his life solution.
“Thank you, Jesus, I’ll Take It from Here”
When a person is drowning, salvation does not come through people shouting instructions at him from the beach. Any self-help will further add to his exhaustion. It takes the interference of another person to rescue him, not attempts at better breast strokes, back strokes, or dog paddling.
The sinner who is drowning in his own indwelling sin needs the Person of Jesus to deliver him.
At this point, many Christians, possibly including you, point out that they already have Jesus and that they have already been delivered, and yet still have the problems described with sin and defeat.
Yes, they have been delivered, but this is where the drowning victim illustration falls short. For the lifeguard pulls the victim onto the beach, administers mouth-to-mouth, shakes hands with the recovered person, wishes them well, and possibly never sees them again.
This unintentionally happens in evangelistic moments when people genuinely meet the Savior of the world, and receive salvation. They have been saved, and determine they want to live the right way now and prove how changed they are and how serious they are about obeying God. They learn all the things good Christians do, decide to follow the Bible, and check several times a day about whether they have fallen into any habitual sins.
Meanwhile, Christ, who should be the center of their new life, shrinks into the role of a minor character. They only seem to remember Him when they’re pleading for strength to overcome temptation. He becomes more of a tool for emergency religious use than a person with whom we are to relationally interact.
This setback is at least hinted at in the final line of chapter 7, where Paul presents a refrain of the law-sin cycle after he has celebrated deliverance. We have a habit of forgetting Christ as the central figure, and establishing our wannabe new and improved self as the centerpiece. While I would not call this the normal Christian life, I would say it is typical.
We have all wondered who the “I” is in Romans 7. Although Paul speaks in first person, is it meant to literally be him he is talking about, or a hypothetical “I”? If Paul really meant to speak of himself, is this him before he was regenerated? After? Although I lean toward the unregenerate Paul theory, the apostle seems not to be interested in clarifying.
It hardly matters, because regardless of whether it is unsaved Paul or saved Paul, or a specific person intended at all, Christians still slip into the law-sin cycle so frequently this cameo must appear in Romans. Recall the central problem of the epistle to the Galatians, Hebrews, and the enthusiastic report of James in Acts 21:20 where he said of the believers in Jerusalem , “They are all zealous for the law.”
We must remember that when it comes to daily experience, our encounter with the great deliverer, Jesus Christ, is not only something enshrined in the past. We interact with Him on an ongoing basis.
The person who delivered you, delivers you still.
¹ Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, p.280.