Romans 7:8-12 “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.”
These words of Paul are most fascinating; they tell us something of the human psychology, of what makes us tick as fallen men and women, and of how we operate in God’s world. They tell us that the natural man is living in continual tension. Remember the larger picture we have been presented in this letter. Paul has told us that we human beings are confronted with the glory and power and Godhead of God that is revealed to us night and day in the creation all around us. The natural man’s response is to clamp down on that sight, and deafen his ears to that voice. We turn away; we defy; we ignore; we will not have the God of creation as our God. We refuse to recognize that we are his creatures and the heavens are declaring to us his glory. Men are yet given many a sunset touch that stills us and humbles us with a sense of awe.
Then each of us creatures also has the voice of conscience, judging us, warning us, rebuking us, and also commending us when we do right. That voice is saying that this glorious and powerful God of creation in whom we live and move and have our being is also a moral being. God is light and “holy, holy, holy.” He is a God who hates all that is disgusting and cruel and mean and vile and tawdry. And men and women are living daily in defiance of the revelation of God that they can see outwardly and inwardly. Of course there are many of them who have far more knowledge of God than what they see in creation. They’ve had some exposure to the gospel of Jesus Christ perhaps by an earlier grace in the land in which they live, in their family, in contact with Christians, in reading the Bible, in attendance at church. God has his ways of speaking to them, of disturbing their peace and poking them in the ribs.
This last Thursday there was the official British commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. It was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral where, incidentally, the Duke of Wellington is buried. The Prince of Wales and the leading nobility of the land and the leaders of the armed forces were gathered there. What happened? The good and great of the British Isles meeting in St. Paul’s were called upon to worship God. They sang a metrical psalm, “All people that on earth do dwell sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.” They also sang, “Thou whose almighty word chaos and darkness heard and took their flight, hear us we humbly pray that where the gospel ray sheds not its glorious ray let there be light.” They also sang, “Ye holy angels bright.” The choir sang some verses from of Psalm 119, and Paul’s letter to the Philippians was read and there was a sermon. The battle of Waterloo was not being commemorated by a firework display and by people saying, “Hooray we beat Napoleon, weren’t we lucky, but life has no meaning.” That was not the message, rather, that all the past events that have occurred in our country have been under the authority of the God of heaven, not under meaninglessness, and not under the devil but our God is the God of history and our God reigns. And that is the God we come here to hear about week by week. So men and women who will not repent and trust in Christ are defying the God who speaks to them every day. But now Paul explains what in addition to that God is doing by his law to stir them and convict them.
THE SPIRIT OF SIN REACTS WITH ALL KINDS OF EVIL DESIRES WHEN IT’S CONFRONTED BY GOD’S COMMANDMENTS.
This is what any one of the ten commandments does, “Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire (v.8). This is my experience, says Paul, and he sees himself as typical of any man coming under conviction. We human beings are so perverse that one easy way to get some people to do something is by telling them not to do it. Don’t they call it ‘negative psychology’? Many parents use it all the time and it can work with their children 80-90% of the time. A little boy stamps his foot; he doesn’t want to go to church and so his parents say, “Church is only for grown up boys, older and mature boys, not little boys.” The boy says, “I want to come to church. I’m not staying home.” That is one of the uses of the law of God; it also works that way. God says “Don’t,” and he says it for our good. “Thou shalt not . . . thou shalt not . . . thou shalt not . . . Don’t.” When men hear the word ‘Don’t,’ something in them begins to say “Do, do, do.” Or when they hear somebody say “Do, do, do,” there’s something in the natural man or in remaining sin that says, “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.” There is something within us that makes us fight against anybody who feels they can tell us to do or not to do something. That spirit reflects the bent to sin that’s inside us all.
We see a sign on the fence that says ‘Wet paint. Do not touch.’ All normal people do the following. They look around. No one is looking and then they touch the fence with a finger. Yes, it’s wet. Then they try to reach into a pocket for a handkerchief without getting paint on their trousers. Your finger now has wet paint, but the notice had told you it was wet! But you weren’t satisfied until you’d touched it, even though it said, “Do not touch.” You touched! Again the sign says, “No fly tipping” but it’s an invitation to some men with their white vans. They empty the contents of their vans onto the ground under the sign and drive off. The sign says ‘50 mph.’ What a joke! You can’t find anybody on the motorway going 50. You say to yourself that to be safe on the road you’ve got to keep up with the flow of traffic. The slowest person is going 58 miles per hour! But the sign said 50.
We all know you shouldn’t throw rocks through shop windows. Why is it that there is no notice in the Christian Book Shop window saying, “Don’t throw stones through these windows?” That has actually happened a couple of times. Because there wouldn’t be a single window unbroken in a month if we put up that sign. It would be a provocative sign to some people. There is something in us that makes us ‘Do it’ when a sign says ‘Don’t do it’. That is what Paul is saying here; “Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire (v.8).
This is nothing new. Augustine wrote about this tendency to disobey 1500 years ago. This is what he wrote; “There was a pear tree near our vineyard, laden with fruit. One stormy night we rascally youths set out to rob it and carry our spoils away. We took off a huge load of pears, not to feast on ourselves, but to throw them to the pigs, though we ate just enough to have the pleasure of forbidden fruit. They were nice pears, but it was not the pears that my wretched soul coveted, for I had plenty better at home. I picked them simply in order to become a thief.” Augustine in his Confessions confesses that his desire to steal was awakened simply by the law that said, “Thou shalt not steal.” Things haven’t changed much in 1500 years, have they? You pick the pears not to eat them but to throw away, not because you need pears but because you just want to show that you don’t have to follow that dumb rule! You’re a bigger man than one who has to follow rules. We have all seen and heard it. A man is being questioned for som horrible act. “Why did you do it?” He says, “Because I could do it.” That’s the power of sin. It seizes any opportunity afforded by a pear tree, or a Wet Paint sign, or a vote on the legalizing of the marriages between two men or two women as the Roman Catholic church discovered in Ireland last month. The more it says ‘Don’t,’ the more the prohibition will produce every kind of covetous desire to defy the rules.
THE SPIRIT OF SIN ACTUALLY SPRINGS TO LIFE WHEN IT MEETS GOD’S PROHIBITION, “YOU SHALL NOT . . .”
This is what Paul says at the end of verse 9 “sin sprang to life.” It was playing possum, pretending to be dead, and so the life of the heart and its subtle sinfulness was ignored and certainly underestimated. What brought remaining sin to life? It was the commandment, “Do not! . . . Do not drink more than 2 units of alcohol . . . Do not smoke as it is bad for your health . . . Do not take your dog on this beach . . . Do not use your mobile phone when you are driving the car.” Sinful resentment springs to life and we defy the commandment. It is in fact a military term. It refers in fact to waiting in an ambush. The S.A.S. is hidden in an ambush; it is finding the moment, and then it springs into life and without warning strikes and captures the enemy. Paul says, “When I saw the law – when I really could see what it was saying to my spirit and soul, BOOM! Then suddenly sin – that was already within me, sprang to life and ambushed me.” Suddenly I heard what one of God’s laws was saying, “Don’t covet,” and then it was all up, coveting was all I wanted to do. I looked at my neighbour’s car in a new way. I looked at my fellow student’s lightweight lap-top. I looked at a fellows preacher’s suit. I looked at my buddy’s girl-friend, and I wanted them all! Why couldn’t I have what they had? The law said, “Be content with what you have and dont covet! But now coveting was all I wanted to do! The law said ‘Don’t’ and I realised what it required of me and I couldn’t stop because the sinful desire inside me was so powerful. I ached and itched and longed for and dreamed about having what I didn’t have which everyone around me seemed to have but me.
3. APART FROM THE LAW THE SPIRIT OF SIN WAS DEAD: WITH THE LAW YOU WERE DEAD
Now Paul talks about himself. This was his experience. He does this not because he was special and unique. The very opposite. What Paul was like, and the change that took place in him is archetypal of the journey of every single man and women moving from ignorance, and from alienation from God to becoming a child of God. This is what Paul says; “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (vv.8&9). Paul is comparing his life (before God began to work in his heart and soul) to what his life was like after the Holy Spirit came and really laid on him the commandments of the law. Before the Damascus road transformation Saul of Tarsus was bursting with native vitality and self-satisfaction and ego. He’d read the Ten Commandments and he said, “Done them all! Blameless. God loves me for my high standards. God knows my name and likes me.” But then God shot the tenth commandment like an arrow right into Paul’s heart. That commandment said “You must not covet,” and Paul was smitten by it. He realized that he certainly did covet in his heart his neighbour’s gorgeous wife, and beautiful house, and vineyard, and horses, and brains, and library, and good health, and easy pleasant manner, and his particular neighbour was just one single person whose personality and possessions Paul coveted. As he moved about there was scarcely a person Paul worked with and knew who didn’t have things Paul coveted, and once he realized that coveting was a sin and tried to stop it his coveting took off and he found he could covet for Jerusalem, or for the whole Jewish race! He was a champion coveter! Every kind of covetous desire was there, he confesses (v.8). He coveted when he walked the street, and when he lay awake in bed at night. He coveted round the clock, and this great vision of himself as a fine, upstanding, righteous man died and withered away.
Once he had been alive, because he didn’t consider what the law of God was saying, that it searched the actual motives and desires of the heart. It showed to Saul of Tarsus that he was a sinner like all the rest of us. The commandment came to him so that the sin that had been lying dormant, in a sealed coffin, not bothering Saul at all, inert and moribund, never want to draw attention to itself. It simply wanted Saul to go on stroking his own affections, and deluding himself into believing he was simply the best so much better than the rest. Then God stuck him with the tenth commandment and suddenly the coffin door was open, and out sprang sin, alive and fit and energetic, and Saul the self-conscious godlike man was no more. He discovered that sin was not dead in his life, not dead at all but very much alive. It was Saul who now realized that he was as dead as mutton. Saul was a sinner. Saul minus the law equaled life. Saul plus the law equaled death.
4. A COMMANDMENT INTENDING TO BRING LIFE ACTUALLY BROUGHT DEATH.
This was Paul’s great discovery; “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” (v.10). Right up to the Damascus road Saul thought like this, “Jehovah has given us the Ten Commandments as a rule book. We keep them and then we’ll know what life is all about.” So with the most superficial understanding of the will of God he went through all the motions of living a legal life, keeping the traditions of the fathers as one mighty consistent Pharisee. Then God got to work in his life and Saul discovered the most tremendous reality of all, something that most people never discover and so they go to hell. Saul discovered that he was a sinner. By the Law came the knowledge of sin. He did not and could not possess life by his vain attempts to keep the law. No one has ever possessed life by law keeping. The law in fact showed Saul that he needed life, the life of heaven, the life of forgiveness and mercy and grace that is the gift of God. C.S. Lewis recalled that when he went up to Oxford as a student he was virtually as completely lacking in a moral conscience, as any teenager could be. He saw no need of having a Saviour. Why should he be troubled about not possessing a Redeemer? He had always lived a decent life. But then the Spirit came into his life, sent by merciful, seeking, saving Jesus, and awakening in his heart an awareness of what his true state was, and convicting him of sin, righteousness and judgment.
But Paul did come to recognize that the commandment of God was intended to bring life. Of course it does have that intention. Thank God that the commandment is holy, righteous and good (v.12). But how does the law bring life? By restraining evil in Aberystwyth, and everywhere else. Men do not constantly try to break into my home when I am in church because they are conscious of a law that says, ‘you shall not steal.’ My daughters have been protected, my grandchildren, my friends have all enjoyed a much greater quality of life by the restraints that the law brings to criminally minded men and women. The things of the law are written on every person’s heart, and their consciences bear witness with the things of the law telling them to keep God’s commandments. So what the law does is this – it chains the wolf. It curbs our sinful instincts. Men are held captive by the law. They are afraid to shop-lift lest they be caught on the CCTV security camera and a policeman comes knocking on the door and they appear in court charged with theft. The law does not make a person a new creation; it does not give him love for the Lord; it does not give him eternal life through Jesus Christ, but the shop owner’s goods are protected, and my car is safer, and my children’s property in school is less likely to be stolen. The law encourages a happier life, and that was one reason God gave his law to Moses on Sinai, but at the same time it also kills the self-sufficiency and pride in a man’s heart who hitherto has been content to live without God’s forgiveness and salvation.
5. SIN BY THE LAW DECEIVES US AND PUTS US TO DEATH.
That’s what Paul says, “For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death” (v.11). Sin is the great deceiver, and it is the law that reveals the deceitfulness of sin. Ray Pritchard says this striking word, “If I could say anything that will be helpful in this message, let it be this one sentence. Sin always deceives.” Think of the Garden of Eden. There you can see the deception of sin right at the very beginning. There are three ways in which sin deceives.
i] First, sin deceives us by promising what it can never deliver. Sin says, “Go for it! It will be great.” Sin says, “Go on, you’ll enjoy it!” Sin says, “It can’t be wrong for it feels so right.” Sin says, “You’ll feel more fulfilled, and complete. Life will be better for you. Go ahead and take it. Go ahead and tell the lie. Go ahead and say that dirty word. Go ahead and jump into bed with that person. Go ahead and visit that website. Go ahead, you need this. It will bring you happiness.” Don’t we find that reality right at the beginning there in Genesis 3 in the fall of man? What was it the serpent said to Eve? “Eat this fruit and you’ll be like God.” Sin deceives us by promising what it can never deliver.
ii] Second, sin deceives us by convincing us that what happens to others will never happen to us. Let’s say that we know that ten times out of ten, people get caught when they sin. “Can any hide himself in a secret place that I cannot see him? says the Lord. Do not I fill the heavens and the earth? says the Lord.” Ten times out of ten we are caught red-handed by God, and yet standing on the precipice of sin we are convinced that we’re going to survive the fall. We are the exception. We know that for 2000 years people who have done this very same sin have suffered for it. But sin says, “Wait a minute. Are you kidding me? You’re going to be different. You’re going to get away with this!” As the serpent said to Eve, “You won’t die.” But what had God said? The day that you eat of that fruit you shall surely die.” So here was a direct contradiction. Here was A and there was Non-A. There is no way that both could be right. One alone was right and the other was wrong. Two choices, one or the other. One speaking to our first parents was the Creator of heaven and earth, the God who met with them and spoke to them in the Garden, the God in whose image they were made, the God who had given her such a wonderful husband as Adam. He had told them their mission in life to replenish and subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing. They first heard the cultural mandate from him. They had no indwelling sin, no bias to sin whatsoever. So would they listen to God, or would they listen to a snake? A talking snake? You would hardly have to think a minute before shaking your head. In the perfection of Eden with such a loving blessing God they will never defy him and obey a snake! If I told this story to the children and asked them which one did they think Eve would obey? They would all say, “There’s no problem here. We know the answer. She is bound to obey God the Creator not a snake, bound to . . . bound to.” But sin is deceitful and Eve weighed it all up in 30 seconds and she took the forbidden fruit. She listened to the serpent. Sin is that deceitful.
iii] Thirdly, sin deceives us by creating in us a desire for that which we know can only hurt us. A little voice says, “Go ahead.” And we stupidly go ahead even though we know we’re going to suffer for it. When Eve looked at the fruit she saw that it was beautiful to look at, pleasant to touch and delicious to taste. So she went ahead and took it, and she ate it, and she gave it to her husband, “Oh! You’ve got to try this honey!” and we’ve all been taking and eating the forbidden fruit ever since. We’re no different even though we know that every time we take and eat that it’s going to hurt us. Think of the way the smoker ignores every warning about the danger of tobacco, or the addict shrugs about the dangers of taking drugs. That’s the deceitfulness of sin. Do you think those three mothers from Bradford who’ve taken all their nine children to the ISIS war zone in Syria don’t know the danger, that going there they are more likely to be killed than staying in Bradford? Of course they know it, but sin has deceived them by creating in them a desire for what can hurt them. Do you think that the student who killed the pastor and men and women in that Methodist church in Charleston, USA on Thursday didn’t know that many people including himself were going to be hurt? There was no way he was going to carry a pistol to a meeting and do such a heinous action without tons of pain falling on them all, pain that would last as long as the relatives of the people concerned would be alive, and he would neverleave prison and be hated for the rest of his days? Yet sin deceived him by creating in him a desire for what he knew could only hurt him and them. Sin deceives us and then death follows in its train like night following day. What happened to Judas after he betrayed Jesus? Sin deceived him and put him to death, physical death in this world and the second death in the world to come. Sin always sends in the bill. Sin always pays the wages of sin, and that is death. But what of the law itself. Is Paul embarrassed by it, and does he say, “Beware of the law. Don’t mention it. Don’t preach it. Just grace. Preach grace only”? Listen . . .
6. YET THE LAW IS HOLY, AND THE COMMANDMENT IS HOLY, RIGHTEOUS AND GOOD.
That is Paul’s great conclusion to our text here; “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (v.12). The reasons for this are that the law protects mankind by reminding people how they should live. The law convicts favoured people of their sin and it leads them to salvation in Christ. The law also tells us how we should live. That is why the Lord Jesus preached on the law in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, and why the last sections of such New Testament letters as those to Rome and Ephesus and Colosse explain Christian conduct in terms of precepts and commandments. So the law is not bad. The Ten Commandments remain a reliable guide for living. I rattle them off in my preaching quite often. I did so in a funeral last year and a grateful Christian came to me to thank me for doing that. She had not heard them proclaimed from the pulpit for years.
So the law is holy and righteous and good. It is like a window that shows us the character of God, and it is also like a mirror. When you stand before the mirror, you see yourself. You’ve heard the expression “the mirror doesn’t lie.” A Papua New Guinea headhunter a century ago was show a mirror and saw his face for the first time and he retaliated by smashing the mirror in his anger. His problem wasn’t in the mirror. The problem was in himself. Consider the person who’s sick and goes to the hospital for an x-ray. The x-ray shows that he has cancer and so he begins to curse the x-ray machine. It’s not the fault of the x-ray machine. The machine didn’t cause the cancer. It just revealed what was already there. The law of God is a mirror that shows our souls. The law of God is the x-ray of the soul. It shows the deceit and sinfulness of sin.
We no longer hear the word ‘sin’ because men have no effective standard to define to them what sin is. We have rejected the law of God and then we’ve lost the concept of sin. Situational ethics don’t define what is right and wrong. Give up the law and you’re going to lose sin, and then family life and morality are going to disintegrate. What’s wrong with Wales? Many suggestions will be made, but the fundamental answer is simple: what’s wrong with Wales is us. We’ve gone wrong. That’s why we are a troubled nation. We have lost God, we have lost his word, we have lost sin, we have lost Christ the Saviour, we have lost the gospel, we have lost heaven and we have lost hell. Those are huge losses. They are enormous. So what conclusions do we come to concerning all we have learned from these verses in Romans chapter 7 today?
i] The law can never save anyone. The great Welsh preacher Daniel Rowland had to learn that lesson. When he had a new grasp of the character of God then he thundered out God’s holy law to the increasingly convicted people in his congregation. Many of his hearers were in despair, and one non-conformist minister named Philip Pugh saw what was happening and he spoke to Rowland about it. He said this; “Preach the gospel to the people, dear sir, and apply the balm of Gilead, the blood of Christ, to their spiritual wounds, and show the necessity of faith in the crucified Saviour.” Rowland thought for a moment and then said quietly, “I’m afraid that I don’t have that faith myself.” Philip Pugh replied, “Then preach on it till you have felt it in that way; no doubt it will come. But if you go on preaching the law in this manner you will kill half the people in the county, for you thunder out the curses of the law, and preach in such a terrific manner that no one can stand before you.”
No one was ever saved by hearing and trying to keep the Ten Commandments – nor ever will there be one such person saved by the law! The law reveals sin, but it does not redeem from sin. The law shows the problem but it cannot speak of grace and mercy and forgiveness. “Do this! Do not do that!” it says. The law is just and its condemnation is just, but it cannot redeem. If you’re thinking, “I’m going to go to heaven because I’m basically a good person and I keep seven, eight, maybe nine of the Ten Commandments. God’s going to grade me overall for how I have lived and I feel he’s going to let me in,” then you don’t understand what the law of God is all about. You’ve never come face to face with the truth of what God’s law requires. It demands truth and righteousness in our inward parts. A summary of the Ten Commandments is this – love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself, and sin, measured by that standard renders us all as hopelessly lost. Imagine you were drowning in Cardigan Bay and your friends to help rescue you threw out to you as you were sinking the two tablets of stone on which are written the Ten Commandments. Those tablets would only hasten your destruction. They don’t take us up. They take us down and down and down. The law alone can rescue no one.
ii] We should preach the law to the proud, and grace to the humble. I am applying this to myself as a preacher and evangelist. We need to be discriminatory in our preaching. Often we get this backwards. Men are preaching law to the humble, and grace to the proud, and they might wonder why no-one ever gets saved. Martin Luther made this clear; when you’re dealing with someone who’s proud, don’t talk to him about the love of God or the death of Christ. Preach the law to him so that he will see himself in the sight of a righteous God. Then when he is humbled, preach the gospel to him. Think of Nathan the prophet going to talk to unrepentant adulterer and murderer King David. He didn’t arrive in his presence and say to him, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” He nailed him with the wickedness of his action. “You are the man whom God has seen and judged.”
Francis Schaeffer said in one of his books, “Suppose you were taking a one-hour train journey and sitting next to you was a modern, post-Christian secular man. He’d never been to church and never been exposed to the things of the Lord. If you had only one hour to share Christ with him, how would you use your time? Here’s what I would do,” Schaeffer said, “I would spend 45 minutes showing him his conduct in light of the high standards of God’s law. I would speak to him of sin, of righteousness, of judgment. I would show him that there is a holy God against whom he has sinned and how his life falls short of God’s holy demands. Once I had convinced him of that, then, and only then, would I spend the last 15 minutes sharing the grace and love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Why? The law of God is given to humble the proud and show them that they need mercy and salvation through Christ alone.
iii] The law reveals our sinful condition which drives us to the cross of Jesus Christ, the only place where we can find complete forgiveness and deep inner cleansing. Someone has said, “Being saved is like taking a shower on the inside.” That’s true. Coming to Christ is like taking a shower on the inside. Do you see that your greatest problem is not on the outside. Your greatest problem is on the inside. You need to get cleaned up on the inside. You need a shower that will wash your heart and soul thoroughly. It is on the inside that it begins. God has provided a way to do that through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. There are only three things you can do about your sin. You can deny it and say “I’m not a sinner.” You can try to deal with it yourself (which doesn’t work), and patch up your life, crisis by crisis, or you can walk the way of Jesus. Acknowledge that you are a sinner and turn to Jesus Christ. Put your faith in his all-sufficient sacrifice, for the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin. Put your trust in the righteous life of Christ, that God will impute that righteousness to you, and clothe you from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet with the perfection and acceptance of the Son of God. We are saved by law-keeping, but it is Jesus keeping the law that saves us. His keeping it fulfils the righteousness of every believer who has been joined by faith to him.
21st June 2015 GEOFF THOMAS