Romans 7:13&14 “Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognised as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual.”
You can readily see what Paul is talking about from the context of this verse in this chapter. He has just been magnifying the law of God; see it in the previous verse, where he tells us that God’s law is holy, righteous and good. A single one of those adjectives would have been sufficient, two would have been convicting, but three glowing testimonies to the perfection and usefulness and necessity of the law of God makes us very, very careful of ever being dismissive of the law, and thinking, let alone teaching, that through the grace of God we Christians have got nothing to do with it today. So that glowing testimony to the law is in the verse preceding our text, and then have you noticed the verse following? See the bookends of this 13th verse! The end of the 12th verse; the law is holy, righteous and good. The beginning of the 14th verse; “the law is spiritual.” In other words, the law is of the Holy Spirit. Here is another unrequested testimony to the power and usefulness of God’s law.
In the news this week was a description of what’s been happening in New Quay, Cornwall in the past year. That famous seaside town has become the centre in the county for stag parties, under-age drinking and anti-social behaviour. This has been accompanied by the appearance of most inappropriate clothing. There is a garment called a mankini, a skimpy, bikini-style bathing costume for men. One policeman said about this garment, “It is disgusting.” Many in the town have risen up and protested about all this. The garment has been banned. The hotels and caravan parks and shopkeepers have put up notices warning men against wearing it. Groups of people staggering and shouting under the influence of excess alcohol have been stopped and arrested. The authorities are determined that the town (where Iola and I spent our honeymoon – and my parents before us) should once again be a family-friendly place. Parents have organised protests bearing placards with such slogans as, “We want sleaze-free New Quay! Give us back our town! Protect children from harm! Bring back law and order! Don’t bury the problem, solve it! 2530 petitions so far.” The leader of these protests is now the town’s mayor. All this use of the law has had a good impact on New Quay. The town seems to have turned the corner. The law is righteous.
In other words it is a good example of why we don’t say, “Well, everyone can choose the lifestyle and morality that they desire, and we don’t forbid them. Who are we to judge and criticize?” That is certainly the spirit of our age, to say, “Well, some people are exhibitionists, and some people have a voracious fleshly appetite, some go to massage parlours, and who are we to condemn them?” No. No man is an island. What you do as a creature of God bearing his image, living in his creation does matter. How much you eat and drink and smoke and snort and inject, and how you speak and dress, and what you purchase, and how you spend your leisure time, and your Sundays – all that impacts others. It impacts the children in your home who see and hear you constantly, and your neighbours, and the people you work with. It also impacts God himself. We have the right to raise our voices in concern and say to the world, “There are lines, and we judge that in such-and-such a case you’ve crossed them and we won’t tolerate this.” The law is good. That is what verse 12 declares, and then we have our text in verse 13 where Paul raises this question, “Did that which is good, then, become death to me?” What is he saying?
SIN, NOT THE LAW, HAS BECOME THE DESTROYER.
“By no means,” says Paul. “God forbid!” Saul of Tarsus the Pharisee, the righteous and holy man, who would love God and love his neighbour was destroyed and killed by sin, not by the law. Sin was the cause of Paul’s demise; sin became death to him; sin was allowed to produce sinful actions, and sin led to the death of old Saul of Tarsus. It was, for example, Paul’s acknowledged covetous heart and mind that killed this formerly self-conscious and blameless Pharisee. Paul tells us in our text that it was sin that produced death in his life, and it did so by using something that in itself is good.
Let me illustrate this by telling you this parable. A married surgeon becomes infatuated with a nurse, but she refuses to have anything to do with him. Finally his obsession with her turns to hatred, and one day he reaches for a scalpel. It is new and essential for fine surgery and he takes it out of its packet and he kills her with it. He has taken something that is good but he has used it for something evil. Do we say, “Ban scalpels!” Of course we don’t. The scalpel did not murder her; he murdered her – using that instrument. Hammers and nails have no moral quality at all, and every house has them. They are good in themselves, but men have used a hammer and nails to crucify our Lord. That which was good produced death in the Son of God.
Paul is saying, “I want to show you the sinfulness of sin in this way. Think of it, that sin will use anything and everything to destroy people, even things that are good – even the ten commandments – sin will appropriate them as a weapon against us to destroy us.” That is the sinfulness of sin, the insidiousness of sin. It takes something good and holy and honourable and pure and it aims it at us and fires it and kills us.
Let me open that for a moment in a number of ways. It means that the law will have the following negative effect on our unbelieving world . . .
i] The natural man will resent the law. He hears the Ten Commandments and he reacts against them with hostility. The spark of autonomy and self-sufficiency that was already there in his heart becomes aggravated when he hears, for example, that it was a sin even to being angry with your brother and calling him a fool, that it’s a sin not to be offering forgiveness to those who’ve hurt you. It is sin that makes him act in that way, not the law. The law came right up to him, searching him with its prohibitions, and sin will use the very law of God as a fulcrum and it presses down on the man constricting him, limiting his expression of his own feelings. The result of this is that there was greater sin than ever before. What the good and holy and righteous law has done is to aggravate the man’s feelings because of this spirit of lawlessness that’s in us all. So our resentment at the magnificent 10 commandment actually incites us to sin. That is how it is.
ii] The natural man will declare that the law is extreme. When he hears that it condemns his feelings of anger, and his lusts, and his coveting, man in sin reacts in another way. He says, ‘This is ridiculous. This is going too far; this is unfair. We’re all different personalities. I am prepared to agree that there are certain things that I shouldn’t do; and that if I do them I’m wrong. But that’s a matter of actions, and a man is responsible for his actions. But now you tell me that the Law says “Thou shalt not covet”, that I’m even forbidden by God to desire; that if I have within myself a longing for those things, a hankering after them – even though I don’t actually engage in them – then I’m guilty of sin?’
I am speaking here, of course, about that which really comes out of the heart and not about a temptation from the outside. I am taking the case of a man who gives way to sinning in his mind, in his imagination and in his heart, but who feels that because he has not actually committed an outward act of sin that all’s well with him. Then when the law comes and says to the man ‘Thou shalt not covet’, and tells him that the very desire to sin is a sin, there’s this immediate reaction. He says, ‘Now that’s going too far, that’s an impossible standard, that’s quite unfair to me. The law is not unreasonable – just as long as it stops at actions, but if it’s going to examine my thoughts and judge my secret innermost imaginations, why, that’s a sheer impossible position. I object to that. I’m willing to go on living a moral life, but my own inner life is my own, and no outside authority shall come in and jump around on that.’ He hates the notion that a man’s innermost thoughts are open to God, and that evil thoughts are as reprehensible in God’s sight as are outward deeds and actions. So when the law comes into his life in that searching and condemning way sin uses it as a fulcrum, and it aggravates the situation. It puts a man into a bad temper, he is annoyed, and he feels that he is being dealt with unfairly and unjustly; and in that state he is going to sin more than he ever did before.
iii] The natural man fantasizes about what the law condemns. We all have this problem virtually every day when we personally confess our sins to God. We start by saying, “I confess to you so and so . . .’ and then we think about that particular sin, and the situation we were in, and what happened, and we dwell on it, on the action instead of dwelling on the vastness of God’s mercy. In such a way the law of God can put ideas into our minds which were not there before. The law comes to me and it forbids some particular things; but in so doing it sets me off in considering those actions. I wasn’t thinking about it before, but now I begin to do so. And as I begin to do so I feel drawn to those ideas; that behaviour actually entices me. And so lust is kindled, I being to want to do this, and I proceed to do it. The law, by telling me not to do it, planted those actions in my mind; it was the law that introduced me to sin.
For example I might read the Longer Catechism’s explanation of what the eighth command requires, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ It says that it forbids theft, robbery, kidnapping, receiving stolen goods, fraud, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, unfaithfulness in contracts between men, oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, depopulating areas, monopolizing commodities to put up the price, withholding from our neighbour what is his, covetousness, prizing worldly goods, distracting cares about money, spending time and energy in thinking about how to get and keep and use money, envying the prosperity of others, idleness, gambling, and finally defrauding ourselves of the comforts of using all that God has richly given us. How searching the law of God! You can imagine how it opens up what is forbidden in some of the other commandments.
So the law’s condemnation may introduce me to thoughts and ideas about which I was completely ignorant beforehand. I may be reading a newspaper or watching a documentary about the abuse of children in a certain northern town. It tells me certain things, for instance, about horrible perversions of which I’d never considered and which had never bothered me before that moment. They had never tempted me because I wasn’t aware of their existence. But if now I read a government report on what happened in such a place, alerting me to those shocking things, then the moment I read and see the images of that documentary, something stirs within me and my curiosity is aroused. I ask myself, ‘Why do people do this? It must be exciting, it must be attractive.’ My curiosity then begins to work and I begin to see myself participating in all of this. I’m actually doing it in my imagination, and I am starting to enjoy it. That’s how sin works. I may be a school teacher; I may be a clergyman; I may be a politician; I may be a policeman. None of that will protect me from dwelling on those forbidden actions that God’s law condemns.
The classic statement of all this is found in the epistle to Titus, chapter 1, verse 15 : ‘To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.’ If your mind is defiled, the most pure and accurate report that comes into it is going to be defiled and twisted. Nothing will come in that is absolutely objective; it will have a particular angle on it, and it’s going to be coloured by the spectacles of your impure heart. Purity is pure just to the undefiled, to the little girl or boy who has no notion of such vileness. It is unimaginable to her and him, but to those who are corrupted the information provided by the mere law becomes impure ‘In fact both their minds and consciences are corrupted.
Paul’s testimony in this chapter is that this was true to his experience. It happened to him because it’s true to every man and woman born into this world since the Fall. The pure law of God came with its prohibitions and its restraints and its commandments, and one consequence of that was that it inflamed his passions, and roused within him a desire to do the very things that the law prohibits. It introduced him to things he never knew of before.
What is the result of this? “It produced death in me – through what was good!” The law of God is not sin; it is purity itself. But it reveals to us the nature of sin, it helps us to see that coveting is sin. So you see what has happened? The terrible truth about man by nature is that this powerful thing called sin is able even to use that pure law of God as a fulcrum to produce all kinds of evil in me. It provides it with a base of operations, the enemy ‘comes in as a flood’, and I end up being worse that I was before. That is the explanation, says the Apostle. So sin has become the destroyer not the law.
SIN MUST BE RECOGNISED FOR WHAT IT IS.
What does Paul write here? That “sin might become utterly sinful.” In other words, you’ve got to know your enemy. That must come to you. You must realise how dastardly and merciless and wicked it is, that it is not some option, that you don’t very much like this or that, it’s not your personal choice, but you are being confronted with something horribly sinful. That is crucially important. If we’re not clear as to the nature of sin then we’ll never really understand the teaching of the Bible. It is a trunk and branch doctrine; it is not a leaf and twig doctrine like the meaning of the millennium or some aspects of church government. I can use my old story of John Reisinger who was getting up one morning and dressing and his wife took up her cardigan and she put the first of 14 buttons into the second button hole, and then she did the remainder of the button holes up. How many mistakes did she make? She made 14 because she made one fundamental mistake at first. So men have to face up to the biblical teaching concerning their plight, in other words, man’s total depravity and his utter inability, and his complete dependence on the grace of God to redeem him. ‘Thou must save and thou alone.’
The whole of the Biblical teaching concerning salvation is based upon having a clear understanding of what sin really is, that it is utterly sinful, in its root and in its fruit and in its merciless power and vigour, in its relentless determination to kill us. It cannot be removed by some cosmetic treatment. You cannot cure sin by putting a sticking plaster over it or by a visit to the world’s various beauticians. There is no hope of our understanding anything of the gospel apart from a grasp of the sinfulness of sin. We shall never see why we have to die to the law if we don’t understand the nature of sin. We shall never see why the Son of God had to come and shed his blood on the cross; we shall never see the necessity of being regenerated, experiencing a rebirth, raised up by the power of the Holy Spirit and given a new heart. That is why so many people think that they can ‘decide for Christ’ just as they are, by repeating a formula prayer, by the touch of a bishop’s hands, and then glossalalia to be Spirit-filled. How can this be, if sin is exceeding sinful? This controls everything. Most of the church’s troubles today are due to a failure to grasp and understand this biblical doctrine of sin. Here in this one verse we are given a view and an exposure of sin such as you will scarcely find anywhere else with such clarity. It is this terrible power that can even use God’s law as a fulcrum to bring to pass its own nefarious ends.
SIN IS UTTERLY SINFUL, BUT NOT SOVEREIGN.
Here is the heart of this text. How does Paul show it is utterly sinful? The apostle tells us this, that sin will actually dare to use something as holy and righteous and good as a commandment of God, even such a one as this; “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and with all thy might.” Sin will seize such a commandment, or any of the others (for they are all windows showing us the character of God). “Be like God,” they say to us. But sin will take them and sin will say, “Your God is power hungry. He wants all the glory. He is selfish. Ignore him and his commands.” The devil will dare to use even the greatest of the commandments which are the very transcript of the character of God to encourage us to sin. That is like a man grasping the blade of a razor sharp sword in his bare hands. It is like someone standing in the heart of a blast furnace. Sin is not afraid of doing that, and that is what sin does when it takes the holy law of God and dares to use it as a weapon to destroy men. But God is in control.
You might think that that would overthrow the plan of God. How could the cause of God and truth prosper if the enemy of our souls dares to use the holy law of God to thwart God and destroy us? What a merciless enemy we face and we so helpless before it! But God is even more powerful and that is our salvation! God displays his sovereignty in actually using sin, and using the devices of the devil for the good of his people. That would be like us swimming in a cesspool. That would be like us jumping into a bath of the most corrosive acid, yet God can use sin and the devil for his own purposes without himself becoming defiled by them.
We all know that God keeps a tight hold on the chain to which the devil is attached. God never ever lets go of it, and so he controls everything the devil does. If the devil gets too close to a little one in Christ’s flock then God yanks his chain. Now some servants serve their masters with gritted teeth, and they hate their servitude, but nevertheless this is what they’ve got to be, mere servants. Our God reigns! He is the Lord God Omnipotent. At his will devils fear and fly. God is in control.
The devil has never done anything to bring glory to God. Everything he does is done because he hates God and hates his people and wants to destroy them, but God overrules and in the end whatever the devil does has to further the purposes of God. Every time the devil prodded Saul of Tarsus with a goad and Saul kicked against it then Saul became a humbler and more convicted man. When God gave Paul a thorn in the flesh (which was also a messenger of Satan) there was a purpose to God allowing that. It was to prevent Paul becoming puffed up with the blessings he’d had. Paul became more usable and sweeter and more Christ-like by the messenger of Satan. In other words, the devil can’t win against us. We are more than conquerors always. If ever there was a born loser it’s the devil himself. God is in control.
We see it in the sinful Assyrian’s language in Isaiah 10 and verses 7 through 11. He is not thinking about God; his one thought is to destroy the people of God. But God has other plans for the very activity of conquest and slavery, rape and plunder that he is engaged in. God is going to use Assyria in order to chastise his disobedient and defying people. We read “But this is not what Assyria intends, this is not what he has in mind; his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations. ‘Are not my commanders all kings?’ he says. . . . “Shall I not deal with Jerusalem and her images as I dealt with Samaria and her idols?’” (Isa. 10:7,8, &11). “No,” God says, “You shall not.” The Assyrian wanted to annihilate the people of God, but God wouldn’t let him. God will use the Assyrian’s hateful anger to humble the wandering people of God and save them from their idolatry. God is the one directing the thinking and the emotions of sinning Assyria. So we discover that the devil is the hardest working servant of God. He does everything out of pure hatred but God is directing and checking and guiding him to accomplish God’s plans. God is in control.
Let me tell you a simple fable of John Reisinger. A very wealthy man we will call Mr. Rich had a beautiful estate covered with every kind of tree. Mr. Rich was a bachelor and treated his arboretum as if it were his family, even giving the trees names. He had one tree that was his favourite. But Mr. Rich also had an enemy whom we will call Mr. Evil. He hated Mr. Rich and desired to hurt him. But try every way he failed to hurt a hair on his head, until one night when he worked out a scheme to break his heart. He got into the grounds of Mr. Rich’s house and he chopped down his favourite tree. Then his troubles started, for the tree fell the wrong way and pinned Mr. Evil to the ground.
Shortly after daybreak Mr. Evil under the tree saw two men walking towards him as he was pinned down. He shouted out to them, “I know I’m caught. I know I’ll be punished, but I don’t care. I destroyed your favourite tree.” The poor man was full of pathological hatred of Mr. Rich. All he could say was, “I destroyed your tree. I ruined your tree.” Then Mr. Rich spoke to him. “Let me introduce you to my friend. He’s a building contractor. I had to cut down one of my beloved trees to build a summer house for my parents, and I had chosen this spot right here. I brought this friend of mine to show him what tree we’d have to cut down, but I see that you have saved me the trouble. Thank you.”
I’m sure you see the point of that little parable. Everything that sin and the devil do will always in some way further God’s plans – we often don’t know how. God treasures up his bright designs and works his sovereign will. But God must accomplish his purposes in a world of sin. There’s a lot of very dirty work that has to be done. God never gets his own hands dirty because the devil will unknowingly take care of all the dirty work. Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. They meant it for evil but God meant it for good. By Joseph’s slavery he brought to pass what God had ordained, that the line of the seed of the woman would be maintained. The Assyrian was motivated by lust for power and conquest. The chief priests and the Pharisees were motivated by hatred of the Lord Jesus, but God determined that by the death of the Lamb of God the sin of the world would be taken away. They condemned him and crucified him, but they did what God determined beforehand should be done. What God sovereignly decrees in eternity man will always demand in time, but man is always held responsible for what he’s freely chosen to do. And the devil is going to be cast into the lake of fire, the cosmic incinerator of all wickedness. Sin is utterly sinful, but it will be treated as it deserves. And sin is not sovereign. God alone is omnipotent. I have just told you this, that if Satan uses the law to thwart the purposes of the law and promote sin and death then God trumps him by using even evil for ends which are ultimately to his glory and for his people’s good.
Finally I would say that this one verse is sufficient in and of itself to show the final and complete futility of what is being said by many learned, well-meaning, moral people. They say to us, “Ah yes, I was brought up in the Christian faith and religion; but of course I have developed since then; and have read a great deal. I still hold to the Christian ethic, but of course I had to say farewell to the doctrines.” Poor blind men! They know little about sin, and especially about the power of sin. The Christian ethic without the Christian doctrine is valueless; it is perhaps the most hopeless situation of all. For it does not provide us with divine energy to change, to break our habits and dependencies and addictions. Our greatest need is a power that is great enough to counteract this other power that can even use God’s holy Law as a fulcrum, and a base of operations. Such power is to be obtained only through ‘the precious blood of the Lamb’. “Would you be freed from your burden of sin? There is power, power, wonder-working power, In the precious blood of the Lamb.”
If I did not know that the Son of God had died for me and my sins, and had given me new life; if I did not believe that I am ‘in Christ’ and married to him, I would be of all men most hopeless and miserable. I cannot live a truly good life, or practice any true morality or ethic, in my own strength and power, because of this terrible, devastating, awful power which is called sin. The love of Christ must be the constraint to help me love my neighbour as myself and love my enemy, and love God whole-heartedly.
So thank God for Romans chapter 7, which not only illuminates the doctrine of this particular chapter for us, but also helps us to understand something of why life is as
it is today. Here alone are we able to see why we have this mounting problem of juvenile delinquency, increase in sex crimes and in crimes of robbery and violence, and why more and more men and women are objecting to discipline and the punishment of crime. Here is the explanation of it all. The modern man does
not understand the biblical doctrine and teaching concerning sin. But as Christians we have been enlightened; the light of truth drives us to Christ, and makes us reioice that we are in him, married to him, and that we no longer live ‘in the oldness of the
letter, but in the newness of the Spirit’.
June 28 2015 GEOFF THOMAS