Romans 7:7 “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.’”
There’s a word that you don’t meet very often these days, the word ‘sin.’ I didn’t hear it on the lips of any politician in the recent General Election. And I don’t hear it coming from Washington D.C. either.
1. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIN.
25 years ago an America called Karl Menninger wrote a book called, Whatever Became of Sin? In that book he said, “The very word ‘sin,’ which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. It described a central point in every civilized human being’s life plan and lifestyle. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared – the word, but along with that, the notion of sin itself. Why? Doesn’t anyone sin any more? Doesn’t anyone believe in sin? (p. 14)” His book documents the disappearance of sin from American society. He basically argues that in place of the historic concept of sin, we now speak of crime and symptoms of human behaviour. Ray Pritchard says that this is his analysis: “Whenever you look at sin as either crime or human symptoms, you are missing the essence of man’s right-and-wrong behaviour. Whenever you take sin and turn it into crime, what you’ve done is taken God out of the picture because sin is committed between a person and God. Crime is a wrong action between two human beings. So if you call bad behaviour a ‘crime,’ you’ve really defined it downward. Or if you take sin and turn it into symptoms, you’ve gone even lower because then you’re talking about things like outward indications, you’re talking about heredity, you’re talking about environment, lack of education, poverty, you’re talking about early life choices and factors that infringe all from the outside.”
What Ray Pritchard then did was to go to the local library and make a computer search on the Infor-Trac computer through tens of thousands of articles written in every major magazine in the past decade to discover how many of them referred to ‘sin.’ Just a tiny number had. Then he examined the American Presidents from the time of Abraham Lincoln to today to discover which of them had used the word ‘sin’. Lincoln had in 1863, and then you waited decades until President Eisenhower used it once in the 1950s on the Presidential Day of Prayer. Kennedy didn’t use the word ‘sin’ when he spoke at that gathering, Johnson didn’t, Nixon didn’t, Carter didn’t, Ford didn’t, Reagan didn’t, Clinton didn’t, Bush didn’t and Obama hasn’t. Our British politicians – of every single party – are characterized by the same omission. The word ‘sin’ – like a number of other non-politically correct words – may not be mentioned.
My father, born 110 years ago, couldn’t speak the word ‘homosexual,’ while politicians and educationalists and doctors today cannot say the word ‘sin.’ And that difference in speech reveals a difference in heart attitude to ourselves and to our Creator. We are living in a society that has lost the concept of sin, but it has not lost the practice of sin. In Britain we are ignoring the concept of sin, but the practice of sin continues unabated. And what happens in a society, or civilization when sin is practiced but is not admitted? What happens when you sin but don’t admit that that is what you’re doing? I’ll tell you what happens. That nation, that society, that culture begins to deteriorate. Why? Because there is dishonesty at the core. That’s what’s happening in the western world today.
But in the Bible sin is all important. When Paul refers to sin then the grand assumption underlining it is law. The Creator of the universe has revealed his will to his creatures. And his will is found in his law. When it is defied and broken, there is real guilt and real condemnation and real punishment. So the existence of law in the universe – the revealed will of God – creates the foundation for law-breaking and guilt, and law-keeping and righteousness, and courts and judges, the divine assize and the divine mercy seat, justification and condemnation. All of these great realities rest on this one assumption: there is law. So when Paul proclaims that there are lawbreakers and there is guilt, and there is appointed a day of judgment, and there is a Judge, and there is a guilt-bearing substitute and there is faith, and there is justification by faith alone apart from law-keeping – when Paul proclaims this, the grand assumption behind it all is law! No law, no law-breaking; no law-breaking, no guilt; no guilt, no court; no court, no judge; no judge, no justification and no need for incarnation or crucifixion. The whole reality and the whole glory of redemption hang on the existence and excellence of the law that the Creator of the universe has given to the world.
2. ‘IF ALL ELSE FAILS READ THE INSTRUCTIONS.’
You have heard the phrase, “If all else fails, read the instructions.” Good advice, and often we need it. Sometimes we need the advice because we started putting an Ikea cupboard together and we failed miserably. The reason was that we thought we could do the job without first looking at the instructions. Sometimes we need a word about “the instructions” because we have failed in something much more important. For example, some people have relationships that are in deep trouble because they thought their feelings were strong enough to support any strain whatsoever, without consulting the instructions. Others of us have failed in dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, or with a relative suffering with dementia, or with debt, or with our response to drugs that are offered to us. So, it’s often said, “If all else fails, read the instructions,” and when it is said, it is generally said with a smile and with a knowing wink – we all know that it isn’t very smart not to consult the instructions before we begin a project rather than consulting them after we see the wreckage of failure all around us.
But human nature being what it is we all have a tendency to plunge into a project without reading the instructions. Sometimes we try to put a complex piece of machinery together without consulting the accompanying booklet because we’re confident we’re able to work it out and get it done. And then, when we find out that we’re in trouble, sometimes we don’t have the humility to admit that we were foolish. We should have read what the designer and maker had to say about what we were going to do.
Maybe we’ve come to that point concerning some of the biggest things that have faced us. Maybe if you’d consulted the instructions with respect to some of the major challenges in your life and in your world then you’d have avoided a lot of pain. What I mean is this: there are massive and exasperating problems in our world these days that seem to be without solution. People are beginning to admit this. Whereas it used to be that we assumed that our leaders would sit around a table – the best brains in the country – and they’d find solutions for our problems, such optimism is now in short supply. Thinking people, the experts, the newspaper columnists, the TV commentators, are beginning to admit that we are facing problems that are quite unsolvable. How can a National Health Service find the money for the expensive drugs and costly operations and constant care needed by the senile and those with learning difficulties? Where are we going to put more and more violent criminals? Why do men and women behave as dastardly as they do when the country is so affluent? How can we deal with a fifth column in our society of men and women who are prepared to kill themselves if they can destroy us? How can our cities be safe and habitable? How can we deal with all the rubbish that we dispose of each day? How can we handle the millions in North Africa who are seeking refuge in Europe? What can be done to resist the spread of militant Islam? How will peace be preserved in our nervous world when more nations are demanding nuclear arms? What about the problem of human greed and its impact on solving our economic problems? What about unemployment? What about our continued slaughter of unborn children? And I could go on.
Then there are problems in our personal lives. What about them? Why are so many people unhappy and increasingly dependent on drugs? All I’m asking is this, haven’t they arrived today at this point, where all else has indeed failed? Shouldn’t all of us go and read the instructions? Now, you might agree that this would be a good idea, but where in the world, you ask, are we going to find the instructions that we need? It’s one thing to fail at getting your wife’s computer to work and then going back to the instruction booklet, or failing in cooking a new dish and turning to an illustrated cookery book. But where can we go in connection with the great problems, understanding ourselves and the world, the morality and the ethics to answer such questions as how then should we live, what is the good life, who is my neighbour, what is the purpose of our existence on this planet, how can I know God? How can I get right with him? Where are the instructions for mankind?
The Bible very vividly and unforgettably tells us that the Creator of the universe, the one who made us in his image, is a personal, speaking, loving, omnipotent God and he has given us commandments and instructions telling us how we are to live. You will remember the incident how Jehovah called his servant Moses to meet with him on Mount Sinai. God there gave him two tablets of stone on which were written the Ten Commandments. You shall have no other God before me. You shan’t make an idol and worship it. You shan’t take the name of the Lord in vain. You remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Honour your parents. Do nothing violent. You keep yourself pure without sexual sin; no lying, no stealing, no coveting but rather contentment with what you have. How simple and straightforward those laws. Can you truthfully say, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about”? God himself inscribed those commandments to their jots and tittles, and they were kept in a special box, called the ark of the covenant, in the centre of the people, in their camp or in their capital city.
Think of how different our town would be if men read those instructions, thought about them and obeyed them. Let me meditate on that scenario for a happy moment. Consider with me the benefits: we could walk home in the dark at any time. We wouldn’t be afraid of footsteps behind us or a figure in a doorway. We wouldn’t need to lock our doors. There’d be far fewer police and solicitors and traffic wardens, no bullies in school, no cheating in exams, no drug taking, no football scandals, better health, less obesity, less drunkenness, less lung cancer, less sexually transmitted diseases, no members of parliament fiddling their expenses, no banks ripping off their customers, no vandalism, no cruelty to animals, no graffiti; husbands and wives would keep their marriage vows, the unborn child would be safe from harm in its mother’s womb, elderly people wouldn’t fear euthanasia, no drunkenness and so on. It would be an immeasurably happier town if people read the instructions.
Old Testament Christians knew and loved the law of God. HYPERLINK “http://biblia.com/bible/esv/Psalm%20119.97” \t “_blank” Psalm 119:97, “O how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long,” And the psalmist in Psalm 1 and the 2nd verse tells us; “His delight is in the law of the Lord, And in his law he meditates day and night.” Does Paul care what people thought about the instructions? It mattered tremendously. It mattered to him what people thought of God’s Law, and what you do with the Law. It really mattered, and it matters to us too as a congregation today.
3. THE LAW IS NOT SIN.
Let’s ask the apostle. “What do you think about the law Paul? Is it sin? His answer is given immediately in verse 7, “God forbid! May it never be!” No! The Law itself isn’t sin. That is his negative answer. If you don’t read the Ikea instruction book before building the cupboard you’d be a fool if you blamed the book! You failed to build it properly because you thought, “I’ll do it my way.” And so you found yourself with a pile of brackets and screws and no place to put them, and the cupboard was wobbly. “What a bad instruction manual!” you muttered. “Did you read it?” “No.” The presence of the law in this world is not sinful. You can sing until you’re hoarse, “All you need is love,” but the law is love’s eyes and without law love is blind.
Then even more powerfully, in verse 12 Paul states very positively his view of the law of God, and remember this man was confronted and converted and authorized by Christ the Son of God to be his spokesman. This is what he says about God’s great instruction book to us whom God has made in his image and likeness: “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Be sure you see the force of what he is saying. Not only is it not sin, but neither is it not only holy, and not only is it righteous; it is also good.
John Piper helpfully points out, “There is one other place in Romans where Paul puts the words ‘righteous’ and ‘good’ together, namely HYPERLINK “http://biblia.com/bible/esv/Romans%205.7” \t “_blank” Romans chapter 5 and verse 7, where he says, ‘For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.’ This means that a man, simply considered for his righteousness – his justice and integrity – might be admired enough that someone would die for him. But a ‘good’ man – a man considered mainly for his goodness and kindness and love, not just his righteousness – he is a man that has so endeared himself to you that you are more then ready to die for him. ‘Justice’ or ‘righteousness’ seems to focus on what is legal and right to do. ‘Goodness’ seems to focus on what is helpful and caring to do. They aren’t in conflict. But they are two ways of seeing and acting –each appropriate in its own way.”
So when Paul says the Law is holy and righteous and good, he means that the Law is not only a rigorous standard of what is right and just, but also of what is helpful. The Law expresses care as well as correctness. The law protects the fate of dumb animals, unborn children, frail old people, elderly couples in their homes, women walking home at night, and a solitary policeman facing a crowd of rioting teenagers who have been drinking, taking drugs and holding bottles in their hands. Those threatened creatures are all thankful for a law that helps erect a shield between them and lawless cruel men.
4. THE VALUE OF THE LAW.
How does Paul stand up for the law? He says this “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’” (v.7). What we see here are two truths that Paul came to know. There is first the broad principle – you must know sin! Know the sins that so easily beset us. And then there is this particular commandment we need to know, what actually is the sin of covetousness. Let’s look at those two
i] The first thing in Paul’s defense of the Law is that we need to know what sin is. It is important for us to know our sin. It is more than the neglect of ecology and racism. It is good for us to know what sin is. Paul assumes this, doesn’t he? To defend his statement that the law is not sin he adds that it’s holy, just and good. So it can’t be sin, because, he says, by it I’ve learned an invaluable lesson. I have learned what sin is. The law has been an excellent teacher to get my thick skull to learn this lesson. Imagine if I hadn’t learned what sin is, if most of you hadn’t learned it. How good and right and helpful and important for us all it’s been to know our sin. You say, “if ignorance is bliss it’s folly to be wise.” Paul tells us that that is a load of rubbish. Knowledge of what sin really is is in fact the first step to grace. You say, “I don’t care to know it. Who cares if I know my sin!” Well, Paul cares. God cares. Jesus Christ cares, your neighbours and colleagues will care, your family cares, and I care that you know and care about your one life that is soon over. A lot of people will no longer be hurting so bad if you know what sin is.
You protest that everyone knows what sin is. No. You are mistaken. The prodigal son as he took his inheritance from his father and wasted it in wine, women and song didn’t know what sin was. King David, the peeping Tom, staring at Bathsheba from the vantage point of his roof and allowing his imagination to run away with him – he didn’t know what sin was. The drunkard spending so much of the family money on alcohol and ruining his own health and giving his wife sleepless nights – he doesn’t know what sin is. Do the ISIS murderers know what sin is? Does the modernist preacher know what sin is? The drug addict, the gambler, the worshipper who refuses to pay attention to the word of God – don’t you see that one great problem in the world is mankind ignorant of what sin is. They don’t know that unbelief is a sin. They don’t know that not loving God with all your heart is a sin. They don’t know that failure to love your neighbour as yourself is a sin.
O the perils of not knowing our sin! There is a great pain that comes to the soul and to the marriage and to the family and to the church and to the world from not tasting the pain of knowing our sin. There’s an eternal loss coming from refusing losing our pride by confessing our sin. If you’re to know any hope and any faith and any joy and any peace and any love, it will come first from knowing your sin. Read the ten commandments as Jesus explains some of them in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel chapter five. Our Lord shows the inwardness of sin, that anger is sin, and lust is sin, and contempt for another is sin. Though it never registers on your face, in your voice or in any action, if it is tolerated in your heart then it is sin.
So I have made just one point from verse 7 so far, namely, it’s important for us to know our sin. Know your sin! This is Paul’s first defense of the Law. He says, “The Law is not sin! On the contrary, the Law helps my understanding. It helps me to know the difference between right and wrong. And this knowing is a holy thing. This knowing my sin is a righteous thing. This knowing my sin and myself as a sinner is a good thing. A precious thing. A caring, loving thing. It sends me to the Saviour of sinners, to the one who knew no sin. The Lord Jesus Christ can help me. Come to me, he says and learn from me. I am meek and lowly of heart. I am more than pleased to teach you about sin and about how you can find rest from your ignorance and guilt. It’s by coming to me.” We deserve judgment for our sins, but he bore their guilt and shame in his own body in the darkness of Golgotha. There is pardon for us because there was condemnation for him.
ii] The second thing in the defence of the law is that we need to know what specific sins are, such as this particular sin of covetousness. Paul was a Pharisee, but not just an ordinary Pharisee. He refers to himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. If there were particular characteristics of the Pharisees, zeal for the law of God, tithing the herbs in your garden and giving a tenth of the mint to Jehovah, not walking more than 100 paces on the Sabbath, praying on the street corners then Paul outdid all the other Pharisees. I guess he meant by that that he’d give a fifth of his herbs to Jehovah. He would only walk 50 paces on a Sabbath, he would pray for an hour on a street corner, and so on. He considered himself blameless in keeping the law of God. He came to the First Commandment—No other gods. “No problem. I’ve got that one.” No idols. “I don’t have any idols.” Don’t take God’s name in vain. “I don’t ever do that.” Keep the Sabbath. “The Jews love to keep the Sabbath!” Double check that one. Honour your father and mother. “I always do that.” Don’t murder. “Wouldn’t think of it.” Don’t commit adultery. “No way.” Don’t steal. “I’m okay there.” Don’t bear false witness. Check. He always told the truth.
Then Paul came to number ten – “Thou shalt not covet.” BOOM! Direct Hit! Clean bowled, middle stump knocked clean out of the ground! Walk back to the pavilion. You are dismissed from the Law Keepers Team. You are a Law Breaker. You thought you had kept all the commandments because you had kept them outwardly, then God bowled the tenth commandment at you and you were caught and bowled by the Lord, because by its very nature the Tenth Commandment is different. It probes. It asks where do you covet? With your voice, or your hands, or the turn of your head – yes, with all those thing, but not just by your outward behaviour. You can claim truly, “Well, I haven’t shot anybody, so I haven’t committed murder, and I haven’t actually jumped into bed with anyone, so I haven’t committed adultery,” so you can rationalize those away. But you can’t rationalize the Tenth Commandment. It’s talking about what goes on in the heart, your imagination, your feelings, your intellect.
When Paul read “Thou Shalt Not Covet” suddenly he realized, “I covet all the time. I want stuff I know I shouldn’t have. I’m greedy for things. I see what other people have and I wish I could have it. I am restless and dissatisfied. I am not a contented man.” That’s the way coveting works. Coveting simply means uncontrolled desire. Either wanting something you shouldn’t have or wanting more than you have or wanting what rightfully belongs to someone else. What Paul is saying is this: That the law catches us all. It forces us to look not simply on the outside where we may look pretty good but at the inside at the ravenous monster within. The law of God teaches us that sin is something inward.
So if that is true for the tenth commandment it is also true for the other nine commandments. Let me remind you again what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. He reminded people that the Bible says, “Don’t commit adultery.” Then he explained what that meant. “If you look at a woman to lust after her, you’ve committed adultery already in your heart.” Adultery is not confined to the physical act of unlawful intercourse. It also includes what goes on in the heart. Then he said, “If you hate your brother without a cause, you’re a murderer.” You don’t have to shoot somebody. You can just hate them. You can kill their reputation, you can murder them with your lips, you can kill them in your thoughts.
The law of God does me a great favour. It becomes my school teacher and the first lesson it teaches me is that I am a sinner. If you understand the law of God, you understand that you can’t sing “How great I am” because you ain’t much. You’re not so great. The law reveals to you the fact and reality of sin in your own heart. Sin is any transgression of the law of God, but also any want of conformity to the law of God.
One of our hymns contains the telling line: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” We are wanderers with wandering eyes. We have what the Eagles wrote and sang, we have ‘lying eyes.’ Another hymn contains the line: “Take away our love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be.” You gather together all of that life where Jesus Christ is everything to you, the first and the last, Alpha and Omega. You gather all of that together where Christ is Lord, and then all the rest of your life – out of which he is locked and where he has no influence at all – is sin. Your life which is not under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a sinful life. If you don’t believe that, it’s only because you haven’t come close enough to the law yet. When the law of God is rightly understood it forces you to face the fact and the reality of your sinful condition. The law reveals the fact of sin.
We are living in a society where there are many people who are seeking freedom from what I can call ‘driveness.’ They are self-driven in their studies, in their business, in their investments. There are those who have been driven by their parents. They are conscious of their parents’ great expectations of them, that they will excel in school and university, and excel in work, and in marriage. They often feel that nothing they can do can match their parents’ desires for them. Now this has resulted in their developing an instinctive revolt against such pressures, against any authority over them, and, with authority, rules and commandments and laws – they are all a bane to them. They long to be free spirits, and they believe that true freedom is freedom from those kinds of restraints and prohibitions and laws. They vow never to bring any pressure on their children – should God gives them any – like the pressure they’ve had to live under.
They think that the real life is freedom from laws, freedom from rules, and freedom from commandments. When they think like that then they show how far from true religion, from Christianity they’ve moved. They grossly misunderstand the Gospel, and they grossly misunderstand the purposes of grace in the Christian life. And that is why their first need is to understand the role of the law in the Christian life.
The apostle John is called the apostle of love. Some people want to set him up against the apostle Paul. What does John says in his first letter and in the opening verses of chapter five? He starts like this this: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” How do we know that a person has been given a new birth, a radical new beginning by God, that he is a born-again Christian? It is not that he does miracles and sees visions. It is simply this. He believes that Jesus is the Christ, that God has sent his own Son, the Lord Jesus, to be the Messiah, the one who will crush the devil’s head – the serpent’s head – that he is the final prophet and he has told us all we need to know to know regarding who we are, what’s wrong with us, how we can be saved from sin by trusting in the Lamb of God who died on Calvary as an atonement for our sins. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ then we can say of him, “Well he has been born of God. God has done a mighty work in his heart and life.”
But John goes on to add this, “everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” John is basically saying that a person who has faith in Jesus Christ loves God the Father, but he also loves all those who are the children of God as well. He loves those who are born again. He wants to meet with them, and talk with them, and he enjoys being with them, and he is sad when he can’t be with other Christians.
But John doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say something else. This is what he says: “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” Do you hear what John is saying? The evidence that you are in fact a child of God, born again, is that you are this very moment trusting in Jesus Christ. You say, “I don’t trust in myself. All my hopes of eternal life are that Jesus loved me and he lived and died and rose, and now reigns from heaven over me.” But then there is also this, that you love God the Father too and that you love all God’s children, your fellow believers. But you show the love of God for his people by this, so John says, and here he is one with Paul and one with the Lord Jesus, by keeping his commandments and you don’t view the commandments as burdensome. You don’t say, “I don’t mind keeping some of God’s commandments. No. You love them all. I don’t keep them perfectly, but I would, because they are the words of my Lord to me, and I love my Lord and I don’t want to grieve him by doing things he tells me not to do.
Well that is huge. For that reason alone, as a mark that we have been born from above by the grace of God, we need to understand the functions of the commandments in the Christian life. Keeping them is one of the proofs that God has saved us. And that is Paul’s point in this passage. He is not going to tell you everything about the law in the Christian life, but he begins by telling you that the law is important because it tells us what sin is and what we need to be saved from. Go to the great law of the living God. But don’t go alone. You must go with Jesus. He will help you understand and keep the instructions. That is why we need the Saviour from guilt and sin, the sinless Son of God, Jesus Christ.
7th June 2015 GEOFF THOMAS