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.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
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. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 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. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 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. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 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.
- The law is not sin.
- Paul would not have known what sin was if it was not for the law.
- Paul would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said not to covet.
- Sin took advantage of the law to produce all kinds of covetousness in Paul.
- Separate from the law sin lies dead.
- Paul was once alive separated from the law.
- When the law came to Paul sin became alive and Paul died.
- The law promised life but provided death to Paul.
- Sin deceived Paul and in doing so killed Paul.
- The law is holy.
- The commandment is holy, righteous and good.
- The law did not bring death to Paul.
- Sin produced death through what was good.
- Sin was shown to be sin by producing death through what was good.
- Sin became sin beyond measure through the commandment.
- The law is spiritual.
- Paul is flesh and sold under sin.
- Paul does not understand his own actions.
- Paul did not do what he wanted to do.
- Paul did the things he hated.
- By doing what he did not want Paul confirmed the law was good.
- It is not Paul who does the things that he does not want to do. It is sin that is within him.
- Nothing good dwelt in Paul’s flesh.
- Paul had the desire to do what was right.
- Paul was unable to do what was right.
- Rather than doing good, as he wanted, Paul did evil which he did not want to do.
- It was not Paul who did what he did not want to do; it was sin the lived within him.
- It is a law that whenever Paul wanted to do good, evil was close by.
- Paul delighted in the law of God in his inner being.
- Paul’s body was at war with his mind.
- The war between Paul’s body and mind made him a captive to the law of sin.
- The law of sin dwelt within Paul’s body.
- Paul was a wretched man.
- Jesus Christ delivered Paul from his body.
- Paul referred to his body as a body of death.
- Jesus Christ is our Lord.
- Paul served the law of God with his mind.
- Paul served the law of sin with his body.
In the previous passage Paul said our sinful passions were aroused by the law. Therefore one could conclude that the law is the problem. The law was itself sin. Paul wanted to address that directly. He asks the rhetorical question “Is the law sin?” The answer is swift and direct. No! The God-ordained role of the law was to reveal our sinful nature. Paul is not to be understood here to say we do not know the difference between right and wrong without the law but that we do not understand the level of our depravity. We completely deceived ourselves through self-flattery. We tell ourselves that we are basically good. Paul’s point is we are not basically good. We are basically sinful. Sin dwells in us not in the law.
When Paul says “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet,’” does not mean he would not have coveted if it had not been for the law. He means he would not have recognized he was coveting if it had not been for the law.
I believe Paul chose coveting as the example sin because it is insidious. It is a sin where hypocrisy abounds. It is a sin where we allow self-indulgence and false assurance. “Oh, it’s not really bad.” “It is personal and private. No one is harmed by it.” “Since it isn’t that bad I am not really sinning.” “It’s natural you can’t help it so it can’t be sin.” It is a sin where we delude ourselves easily. In forbidding covetousness God requires we are not to desire what is not ours regardless whether or not we even attempt to obtain it by any means legal or illegal, moral or immoral. Paul uses the first person but it is clear that he is really speaking about all of us. He is simply using himself as an example.
Paul says that without the law sin lies dead. It is clear from Paul’s previous statements in Romans Paul is not to be understood to mean that there would be no sin if the law had not been given. (Romans 2:12) Or that those who have not heard the law of God are blameless. (Romans 2:14) Rather Paul is referring to the fact that sin would be dead in this sense, the real offensiveness of sin would not be recognized without the law. Both we and Paul think of ourselves as alive before we have the law. We all vainly think of ourselves as righteous. We all believe we are good deep down inside. But the law shows us to be the sinners we truly are. Then once we have the law, we try to obey it. Only then do we realize that it is a futile effort. We are dead men walking. We cannot keep the law. It sets a standard we cannot attain. So as a result, the more we know the law the more we realize how condemned we are. So it is not the law which brings about death. It is the law that makes us realize we are dead. It is sin that brings death.
In verses 14-20 Paul shoots the popular understanding of free will in the head. The popular understanding is, if we have free will we can choose whatever we want. But Paul says quite plainly that is not the case. I do not do what I want to do and what I do want to do I do not do. We cannot choose unless God in His sovereignty He allows us to choose. Mind you, in these verses Paul is referring to a regenerated person. This is clear because Paul is still using himself as the example and the tense has changed from past tense to present tense. There is a sense in which the unregenerate man has free will and the regenerate man does not. The unregenerate man chooses and does what he wants. He wants, chooses and sins. The regenerate man can choose righteousness but cannot do it without the aid of the Holy Spirit. And when we realized that the regenerate man is regenerated by the work of Christ, it is Christ that chooses righteousness not us.
The conflict Paul talks about does not exist in a man prior to being made new in Christ. Man left to his own nature is carried along by his own desires. The ungodly may be tormented by occasional pangs of conscience, but they do not hate their own evil, nor do they love the good. They justify their actions in an attempt to make evil seem good.
Paul is specifically referring to a Christian, someone who has been regenerated. Paul says it is not him but the sin that is dwells within him, i.e. his flesh. In saying it is the sin within us that causes us to sin; Paul is not making excuses for us. In the beginning of chapter 6 he asks, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” We are dead to sin. Sin is dead to us.
Paul in recognizing the state we live in cries out that he is a wretched man. We are all wretched creatures. This is a very different message the one the world teaches. This message does not do a lot for my self-esteem. But it is true. Who can save us from death? This is not a cry of despair on Paul’s part. He knows and provides the answer. It is Christ.
Paul concludes this chapter by acknowledging that as long as we live in this body the Christian will never reach the goal of righteousness. This is our desire but not something we will attain.
The law shows what is required for righteousness. That is the good news. We know what is required. The bad news is we cannot fulfill the requirements. But praise God for Christ’s sacrifice. Christ fulfilled the requirements. It is His righteousness that is imputed to us. We do not have to rely on our own righteousness.
This passage shows the struggle of the Christian to follow the will of God and at the same time it demonstrates how we are continually drawn back to sin. We are not perfect. The law requires perfection. We will never attain righteousness in this life. We do however continue grow in Christ. And our sanctification is a process, not an instantaneous act.