Summary: This message deals in part with Paul’s view of law and grace.
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 meaning of this section of Romans is laden with controversy. Is this an autobiographical account of Paul’s futile struggle to do what is right? If so, is Paul recounting his experiences as a morally awakened, but as yet unconverted man, or is he relating the internal conflicts of a spiritually quickened but still immature Paul? Is Paul writing about the general experience of the Christian; if so, then does he have in mind the regenerate or unregenerate? Perhaps he is thinking about the Jews. It is possible that the reader should understand Paul’s use of the first person as a dramatic portrayal of a pious Israelite (representative of Israel) who cannot fulfill the righteous demands of the Sinaic covenant. “First-century Jews were taught to think of themselves as having taken part in the historical experiences of Israel (as in the Passover ritual). Paul may then be describing in these verses, not his own personal experience, but the experience of the Jewish people corporately. What Paul would then be saying is that the giving of the law of Moses to Israel meant for them not life (as some rabbis taught) but death; for the law of Moses, by stimulating sin, ‘brought wrath’, making more clear than ever the Jews’ distance from God” (Douglas Moo, The New Bible Commentary: Romans 7.7-12). Whatever view one takes of Paul’s use of the first person (ego), it must be kept in mind that the primary subject of this portion of Paul’s letter concerns the Mosaic law. The contemporary reader frequently asks a different question than Paul is answering. Paul continues to address the issue of the law given at Sinai. The keeping of the law was central to the doctrine of salvation in Judaism and Paul is disputing this claim. Every Jew has broken the law (2.27) and no one may rightly claim to be justified by the very law (3.20) that brings about God’s wrath (4.15). Moreover, the believer is not subject to the law (6.14) because he has died to it (7.5). If all this is true, then Paul’s questions about the goodness of the law are germane to his argument. So what purpose does the law serve? If it is not sinful, then what good is it?
THE LAW IS GOOD
Paul continues to demonstrate the weakness of the Mosaic law and the power of the new life in Christ. He is not illustrating that the Sinaic covenant has the power to produce sin in him. Neither is he suggesting that Christians do not struggle with sin (cp. 1 Corinthians 3.1; Galatians 5.17; Philippians 3.12-14); that is not his present point. As in chapters 5 and 6, where Paul contrasted justification and sanctification, so now in chapters 7 and 8, he contrasts life under the law with life under the Spirit. A myopic reading of Romans 7 will lead to a misunderstanding of what Paul is trying to say: namely, that sin always yields to the authority of the Spirit (8.2-11; cp. Galatians 5.18, 22-25; Ephesians 2.2-5; 6.11-13; 2 Timothy 2.19). Still, the law is good and it was given at Sinai for the purpose of demonstrating the sinfulness of sin (8.13). It is the law that allows one to know what sin is. Paul is not suggesting that it is just the Israelites who know right from wrong; he has already shown that the Gentiles, who do not have the law, have an internal moral sense that governs their behavior (2.14-15; 5.12-14). Indeed, it is true of all people in every age; even the antediluvians (those living before the Genesis’ flood) were rightly judged for their evil deeds. But the niggling of one’s conscience or the self-condemnation of one’s moral sensibilities is different from knowing that one’s sin is a capital offense committed against the holy character of God. Paul illustrates his point by directing the reader’s attention to the last commandment: You shall not covet. This is the commandment that governs the intent of one’s heart (cp. Matthew 5.21-24) and by which the other commandments may be interpreted. The character of the sinful heart is revealed against the backdrop of the Mosaic law that exposes sin as it reveals the righteous demands of a holy God. The Mosaic law is more than a simple definition of God’s prohibitions.
The context, in which Paul stresses that the law reveals sin to be “sin” and renders sin “utterly sinful” (v. 13), suggests a stronger nuance: that through the law “I” come to “understand” or “recognize” the real nature and power of sin. The law, by branding “sin” as transgression (cf. 4:15; 5:13-14) and bringing wrath and death (4:15; 7:8-11, 13), unmasks sin in its true colors. But we should probably go further, and conceive this “understanding” of sin not in a purely noetic way but in terms of actual experience: through the law, “I” have come to experience sin for what it really is. Through the law sin “worked in me” all kinds of sinful desires (v. 8), and through the law sin “came to life” and brought death (vv. 9-11). It is through this actual experience of sin, then, that “I” come to understand the real “sinfulness” of sin. (Douglas Moo, Romans, 433-34)