One feels mixed emotions toward the Law when it is encountered in the Book of Romans. For in Romans we find both “good news” and “bad news” pertaining to the Law. Consider the two very different perspectives of the Law indicated by Paul in this book:
(1) The Law contains the “oracles of God” (3:2)
(2) The Law defines sin and righteousness (7:7) and bears witness to the righteousness of God in Christ (3:21-22)
(3) The Law was given to result in life (7:10; see Leviticus 18:5)
(4) The Law is spiritual (7:14); it is holy and righteous and good (7:12)
(1) Knowing the Law apart from obeying its commands only makes one more guilty (1:32–2:29)
(2) The Law cannot save man but can only condemn him (3:9-20)
(3) The Law brings about God’s wrath (4:15)
(4) The Law came in that sin might increase (5:20)
(5) The requirements of the Law are fulfilled by those who walk in the Spirit (8:4)
(6) Sinful passions are aroused by the Law (7:5, 8)
(7) Sin used the Law to kill us (7:11)
It comes as no surprise that sinners have no love for law, especially the Law of God. All men are born sinners, dead in their trespasses and sins. They hate God and His Law (see Ephesians 2:1-3). The natural man cannot understand it (see 1 Corinthians 2) and seeks actively to oppose and overthrow it (Romans 8:7-8). Yet unbelievers’ disdain for the Law of God is not surprising. What is distressing is the number of Christians who disdain the Law of God. The Law of God is seen by some Christians as something evil, something of which we would do well to be rid. Such thinking at best perceives of the Law of God as obsolete, superseded by grace.
Many sins, on the other hand, are looked upon as something good and desirable. This is surely true of the unbeliever. But here again even Christians may be tempted to view sin as something good and desirable, just as Eve saw that deadly tree as desirable, not only to look at but to eat from so that she might be like God, knowing good and evil. God’s Law consistently receives bad reviews from the world, while sin is heralded with great reviews. The Law is looked upon with disdain, or with mere toleration, while sin is thought to be desirable and appealing. If we must give it up, for God’s sake, we will, but only reluctantly.
While our text in Romans 7 is not the only passage we could use to show the hideousness of sin and the beauty of God’s Law, it is one of the most emphatic biblical statements concerning this reality. Paul’s words in Romans 7:7-13 are intended to convince his reader that the Law is a wonderful gift from God in which the believer can and should delight, and that sin is a horrible malignancy which the world would be better off without. As we study Paul’s words, pay special attention to those things which show us the beauty of the Law and those which show us the ugliness of sin.
Paul has focused on the topic of justification in the first four chapters of Romans. Now in chapters 5-8 our attention is turned to the outflow of justification—sanctification. Chapter 5 is foundational. In the first 11 verses Paul describes the benefits of justification. In verses 12-21 he expounds on the basis for righteous living. The righteousness of Jesus Christ overthrows and overcomes the sin of Adam and its consequences for all who believe in Christ by faith. In chapter 6 Paul shows the necessity for us to live out the righteousness of Christ and the folly of persisting in slavery to sin. In Romans 7:1-6 Paul turns to another dimension of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf—His death not only to sin but to the Law. We died to the Law, in Christ, and we are freed from sin’s mastery over us (see 6:14).
Paul’s words indicate a very close connection between sin and the Law. Because of this, one might wrongly conclude that the Law itself is evil and indeed that the Law is our ultimate problem. Such a conclusion would be welcomed especially by the libertine who would like to do away with the Law altogether. If the Law is sin, then we would be right to reject it altogether.
The connection between the Law and sin is close, but to conclude that the Law is sin would be a horrible error. In verses 7-13 Paul seeks to show that while the Law and sin are associated, they are very different. The Law is righteous; sin is hideously evil. The evil nature of sin is evident in that it seeks to use the Law, which is good, to achieve its own evil purposes.
If Romans 7:7-13 clarifies the relationship between sin and the Law, verses 14-25 explore the relationship between the Law and the flesh. Here Paul contrasts the spiritual nature of the Law with the fleshly nature of man. This matter will be taken up in our next study.
The structure of our text revolves around two questions which Paul asks and answers in Romans 7:7-13. “Is the Law sin?” the first question, is found in verse 7. The second question is recorded in verse 13: “Is the Law responsible for my death?” Both questions, if answered in the affirmative, would imply that the Law is a mistake, something men would be better off without. Paul adamantly rejects both propositions and shows the goodness of the Law and the maliciousness of sin.
7 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9 And I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died; 10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11 for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. 12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Had we asked Paul the question, “Is the Law sin?” his strong and immediate response would have caused us to instantly regret asking such a thing. No one should ever conclude that the Law is sin! The Law does have a close relationship to sin and death. Why else would death to the Law (7:1-6) be the means by which we are freed from the mastery of sin (6:14) and the penalty of death (see 7:10)? Paul will demonstrate the goodness of the Law by pointing out its benevolent intent (7:7-13) and its spiritual nature (7:14-25).
Paul’s approach in our text is to contrast the Law and sin. He will first show the benevolent intent and purpose of the Law, as given by God, and then contrast the sinister use to which the Law has been put by sin. The Law was intended to define sin and to thus make sin evident (7:7-8). Sin abused the Law, using it to multiply sin (7:8). The Law was intended to preserve and promote life, but sin used it to murder us (7:10). The Law was given to men to reveal the truth to men; sin used the Law to deceive us (7:11).
Is the Law something evil, something of which we would do well to be rid? Most definitely not! Indeed, the Law is the means by which sin is identified so that we can reckon with sin. Paul insists that he would not have come to know specific sins without their being identified as sin by the Law. The Law marks out the spiritual mine fields which we will encounter in life so that we might avoid them. The Law does not identify that which is good as sin so that we might be kept from enjoying it, but that which is evil so that we might be kept from suffering sin’s consequences. The Law posts warning signs around poisoned waters so that we might not drink of them.
Paul’s words in verses 8-10 contrast the Law’s relationship to sin and the Law’s relationship to Paul. Before the Law came, sin was dead. After the Law came, sin came to life. Before the Law came, Paul was alive. But after it came, Paul was dead. This contrast can best be represented as follows:
Sin is dead
Paul is alive
The Coming of the Law
Sin is alive
Paul is dead
Paul chose a specific sin, and a specific commandment, to illustrate his point that the Law identifies sin. That commandment is: “You shall not covet” (Romans 7:7, see Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21).
Here Paul is summarizing the commandment which is spelled out in greater detail in the Law. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy where this commandment is recorded, God gives examples of the coveting which was forbidden: coveting your neighbor’s house, his wife, his servant, and so on.159 This commandment gives us a definition of coveting: to covet is to desire to have that which belongs to another, which cannot legitimately be ours. The command not to covet identifies as sin the desire to wrongfully possess that which belongs to another and instructs those who would obey God not to entertain such evil desires.
As good as this commandment is, sin twists and perverts it, using it in such a way as to produce coveting of all kinds. The very commandment not to covet, which was given to reveal the sin of coveting, sin has used to reproduce itself many times over. The commandment which was given to manifest sin was abused by sin to multiply it.
Paul’s point is thereby made: The Law is good. Sin is evil, as is evident in the way it uses the Law to produce further sin and death. The Law is not sin, because the Law reveals sin. Just as an x-ray is not a tumor simply because it reveals a tumor, the Law is not sin because it reveals sin. That which is good cannot also be evil. The Law is good.
Why did Paul choose the commandment forbidding coveting rather than some other command? Did he randomly choose this command, or was there a particular reason for his choice? I believe Paul deliberately chose the commandment pertaining to coveting for very significant reasons. Consider these reasons why coveting is such a serious and significant sin.
(1) Coveting is a matter of the heart. It is not a matter which can be judged by outward appearance. Murder and stealing are visible sins which are immediately apparent to anyone who sees the evidence of a dead body or missing goods. Coveting is a sin of the mind and heart. We can covet, and no one may ever know it. Legalism tends to dwell on externals, while true Christian liberty is a matter of the heart.160 Paul therefore avoids an external example, choosing instead an invisible, internal sin.
(2) Coveting is one of the characteristic sins of the flesh. Our flesh has its appetites which often come into conflict with God’s revealed will.161 These appetites, or desires, are often forbidden lusts (see Galatians 5:16, 19; Ephesians 2:3; 2 Peter 2:10). Sin frequently overpowers our flesh by appealing to its lusts.
(3) Coveting is a root sin which is often the cause of other sins. Coveting in and of itself seems to do no harm to anyone, but it very frequently provides the motivation for stealing and even murder. To put a stop to coveting is to “head other sins off at the pass.”
(4) Coveting is a sin which best illustrates Paul’s statement, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law” (verse 7). Not all sins are crimes. Murder, perjury, and robbery are sins, and they are also considered crimes by society. Almost anywhere in the world, one will find laws against these sins. Society’s laws serve to signal us that if these activities are crimes, they must be wrong.
Coveting is a sin which is almost never considered a crime. I know of no government which has a law forbidding coveting. Part of the explanation for this is the difficulty of identifying coveting and proving that this offense has taken place, since it is a sin of the heart and mind. Another reason is that most people do not think coveting is really wrong. In some societies, like our own, many forms of coveting would actually be commended rather than condemned.
All of this powerfully demonstrates Paul’s point. Unless God’s Law had identified coveting as a sin, we would never have recognized it as such. Coveting is like a tumor hidden inside our body. Because it is not external, like murder, we do not recognize its deadly existence and nature. The Law is like an x-ray, exposing it for what it is and warning us that we must deal with it.
(5) Coveting is used by Paul not only as an illustration of the principle he lays down in verse 7 but also as a link to his illustration from his own personal experience in verses 9-11. Coveting seems to lie at the root of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. In the account of the fall, every tree in the garden was “pleasing to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). Adam and Eve were given possession of virtually everything in the garden with the exception of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit of which they were forbidden to eat (see Genesis 2:16-17). Satan successfully focused Eve’s attention and desire on the fruit of this tree. The result was that she seemed to focus only on the fruit of this forbidden tree as “pleasing to the sight and good for food,” and, in addition, “able to make her wise” (Genesis 3:6). Her first sin, therefore, seems to be that of lust—desiring that which she did not possess, which could not rightfully be hers.
It seems in my understanding that Paul uses the sin of coveting as an illustration because it prepares the reader for his illustration recorded in verses 9-11. Consider Paul’s words in these verses carefully:
9 And I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died; 10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11 for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.
These words are indeed puzzling. There are a number of attempts to explain them. Upon reflection, however, I think Paul’s meaning can be understood162 with a considerable measure of confidence.
Verses 9-11 are Paul’s version of a “murder mystery.” Paul tells us he was murdered. He gives us all the important facts of the case and then challenges us to solve the case given these facts. Paul gives us these facts to solve the mystery:
There seems to be only one interpretation consistent with the context and the facts supplied by Paul as outlined above: Paul was speaking of his personal experience, in Adam, at the fall, described in Genesis 2 and 3 and Romans 5.
Paul, like every other human being, sinned in Adam. Adam’s experience is the experience of every human being, every son of Adam. In Adam, all sinned, and all died (Romans 5:12). In Adam, Paul was once alive, apart from the Law. Only Adam in his unfallen state could correctly be described as alive apart from the Law. Other than Adam and Christ, no other person can ever be spoken of as alive, apart from the Law. We are all born sinners (Psalm 51:5). From the day of our birth we are “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-3). We have never been alive, other than in Adam before the fall. We will never be alive, other than in Christ and His work on the cross.
The law came to Adam (and thus to Paul) in the form of one commandment:163
“From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16b-17).
To eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would result in certain death. To eat of the tree of life, which was also at the center of the garden, would result in life eternal (see Genesis 3:22). Thus God’s commandment was intended to result in life for Adam and Eve. Disobedience would result in death.164 This is just as Paul described his experience, in Adam.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam was not deceived, but Eve was (see Genesis 3:13; 1 Timothy 2:14).165 Satan deceived the woman as to the nature of God, the truth of God’s Word, and the consequences of disobedience of His commandment. Eve and her husband partook of the fruit of this tree and died, just as all those who have sinned in Adam have done ever since.
This illustration shows us how personally Paul took the sin of Adam. It also illustrates the goodness of God’s Law and the sinister nature of sin. Hindsight shows us that God was gracious in forbidding man to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was a good commandment. Obedience to this commandment would have kept Adam and Eve from tasting death. On the other hand, the fall of man in the Garden of Eden shows just how evil sin is, using God’s command to tempt men, to produce coveting, then disobedience, and finally death.
No wonder Paul can conclude his response to the first question with these words in verse 12: “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”
The Law is precisely the opposite of what the question in verse 7 implied. The Law is not sin. The Law reveals sin. Obedience to the Law was to result in life. The Law is good, righteous, and holy. Sin is evil. Sin results in death. Sin is sinister. Those who love the Law hate sin. Those who love sin hate the Law. While the Law cannot save us or sanctify us, it is a gracious gift from God.
The Law is like an x-ray. It cannot cure cancer, but it can point cancer out when we otherwise would not have been aware of its existence and its ominous threat to life. The Law points out sin so that God’s grace and mercy can provide the righteousness we lack in another way—through Jesus Christ, by faith, and apart from human merit. To those who have experienced God’s surgery, which has removed the cancer of sin and prevented death, the x-ray of the Law is a wonderful and gracious gift. The Law is not sin but a sign, pointing to sin and warning us of its deadly consequences.
13 Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
The question of verse 13 is the result of confusing the evil-doer and the instrument. It results from confusing the one who pulled the trigger with the gun which the evil doer fired, taking the life of another. Many people want to curb violence and crime in our neighborhoods by getting rid of the guns, rather than by dealing with the criminals. So it is with sin. Paul’s question indicates that some would like to do away with the Law in the hope of solving the problem of sin and death, when the source of the problem lies elsewhere. Blaming the Law for death, rather than sin, is like watching a policeman appear at the scene of a murder only to seize the murderer’s weapon and then release the murderer with a pat on the back.
“The Law is holy, righteous, and good.” Sin is incredibly evil. The fact that sin would use the Law to kill us is further evidence of the sinister nature of sin. Sin’s use of the Law to kill us is like a doctor deliberately misusing an x-ray machine to radiate a patient to death rather than locating the deadly tumor within the patient. The more holy, righteous, and good the instrument which sin uses to produce death, the more sin’s wretchedness is evident. Sin is sinister, hideous, and ugly. The Law is lovely—“holy, and righteous, and good.”
We may summarize the thrust of Paul’s words in our text this way: It is sin that is evil and the Law of God that is good. While the Law has its limitations and weaknesses, it is not evil, and it is not synonymous with sin. There is a close relationship between the Law, sin, and death, but the Law and sin are very different. The Law is “holy, righteous, and good,” while sin is sinister.
In the light of our text, as well as many other Scriptures in the New and Old Testament, this fact should not come as any great revelation to the Christian. Yet it is true that many Christians seem to have forgotten or ignored it. And those of us who may agree with Paul’s conclusion in principle are often tempted to deny it in practice.
Our culture166 would have us believe that sin is beautiful and that the Law (or God’s rule) is ugly. Consider this illustration. There is vehement opposition of gay rights and pro-abortion advocates to any legislation which would limit their freedom to do that which is not only sin but abnormal and perverted. The prohibition of these sins is seen as interference in the rights of individuals to live as they please. In other words, sinners want no laws which prohibit their sinful lifestyle or which even define their activities as sin. Any Scriptural reference to such practices as sin are written off as narrow, primitive and prohibitive (there are many, in particular and/or in principle).
It is no different today than it was in Paul’s day or at any other period of history. Unsaved men reject God’s revelation and God’s rule. They hate His Law. As Paul put it,
And although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:32).
This takes us back to the principle which Paul laid down in our text: apart from God’s divine definition of sin in the law, we would not know sin to be sin.
If this is true—and it surely is—then the Law is of great importance, not only to those who have lived before us, but for Christians today. The Law of God points out sin which we would never have recognized as such apart from His revelation.
Let us pause to pursue the implications of what Paul has said about God’s Law and our ability to recognize sin. The Law of God is necessary precisely because of our inability to recognize it in and of ourselves. The Law calls those attitudes and actions sin which we would not have understood to be sin.
Our sin often results from the deception that convinces us that a certain action or attitude cannot be sin since it does not make sense to us that it is sin. I believe a good part of Eve’s deception was that she did not really believe eating from the forbidden tree was sin. God must have been mistaken. After all, the tree was desirable. How could eating its fruit be sin? It looked so good.
This is precisely the reason God had to give Adam and Eve the commandment not to eat of this tree. If we would not recognize sin as such, and it can only be revealed by divine revelation, then we must, by faith, believe God’s revelation. To reject God’s Law because it does not make sense to us is to fail to remember why the Law was given in the first place: because we will not recognize sin apart from the Law.
How distressing it is to see the commandments of God’s Old Testament Law and even the commandments of our Lord, rejected or set aside as irrelevant by Christians today, simply on the basis that they do not make sense to us. We insist that we must first agree that the actions and attitudes God forbids are really evil before we will accept His command and obey. This is to deny the very reason for the existence of divine revelation in the first place.
Let me cite just one example. It is not enough to observe in the practice of our Lord, in the clear precepts of the apostle Paul, and in the teaching of the Old Testament that women are not to rule over men or to teach them (see 1 Timothy 2:9-15; 1 Corinthians 14:34-36). Because we do not understand why this would be wrong, many Christians today refuse to obey. This is exactly the sin of Eve which led to the sin of Adam. God’s Law is given to us because apart from revelation, we cannot recognize sin. We must, like those of every age, believe God’s Word by faith, and obey it—not because we understand why an action or attitude is sin, but because we do not and cannot understand.
The Law of God is just as vital for Christians today as it was in the days of old. It reveals sin and righteousness, which we would not otherwise know. As a means of salvation, the Law is of no value. It cannot justify men nor can it sanctify men. But the Law is of infinite value as God’s definition of sin and as an indicator that sin is present and must be dealt with.
The Law is neither evil nor obsolete. It is God’s gracious gift to man. David’s words are as true for Christians today as they were for the saints in his day:
Forever, O LORD, Thy word is settled in heaven. Thy faithfulness continues throughout all generations; Thou didst establish the earth, and it stands. They stand this day according to Thine ordinances, For all things are Thy servants. If Thy law had not been my delight, Then I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget Thy precepts, For by them Thou hast revived me. I am Thine, save me; For I have sought Thy precepts. The wicked wait for me to destroy me; I shall diligently consider Thy testimonies. I have seen a limit to all perfection; Thy commandment is exceedingly broad. O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, For Thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Thy precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Thy word. I have not turned aside from Thine ordinances, For Thou Thyself hast taught me. How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! From Thy precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way. Thy word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path. I have sworn, and I will confirm it, That I will keep Thy righteous ordinances. I am exceedingly afflicted; Revive me, O LORD, according to Thy word (Psalm 107:89-107).
The truth which David states in the Psalms is affirmed by our Lord and His apostles:
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4).
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law, For this, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).
Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says (1 Corinthians 14:34).
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
If the Law of God is so good, may I ask how much time you have spent in His Law this past year? There has never been a time when God’s standards of holiness are more needed than today.
Several other lessons may be inferred from our text as we conclude:
(1) We often fail to see our struggles with sin as having their beginning in our experience in Adam, or our deliverance in our experience in Christ. As I have interpreted verses 9-11, Paul takes the sin of Adam, and Eve, very personally. I do not think that most Christians are like Paul in this regard, and I challenge you, along with myself, to follow his example. The sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden and the righteous act of Jesus Christ in history are not just historical facts. They are our experience as well. If you are not saved—if you have never trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins—then you have only experienced sin and death, in Adam. But if you have trusted Jesus Christ, you have died and been raised to newness of life in Christ. These are more than historical facts, recorded in a book; they are your experience. It is on the basis of this experience that you must live. We must take these two historical events far more seriously and personally, if we are to be like Paul.
(2) In our text, the enemy is sin, not Satan. If indeed Paul’s experience described in verses 9-11 was the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, then “Satan” has been replaced by “sin.”167
Why is it that Satan is not described as the source of sin and death in our text? Why is it that Satan is hardly mentioned at all in Romans? Why is it that Satan is not more prominent in the Old Testament and even in the New?
I believe the reason is significant. It is true that we struggle not against “flesh and blood,” but against “the schemes of the devil,” against “rulers and powers and spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12). But this cosmic struggle is not that which receives the greatest prominence or proportion in Scripture. This is because our great struggle as Christians is with the flesh.168 “The world, the flesh and the devil” are not three independent opponents of the Christian. Rather, the devil and the world oppose the Christian by their appeal to the flesh. Thus, in Romans 7, Paul focuses in on the flesh as the great battleground for the saint.
I point out this biblical emphasis on our struggle with the flesh, rather than with cosmic forces, so that we might not lose a biblical perspective of “the spiritual warfare.” It is popular today to focus on the cosmic struggle to the avoidance and neglect of the great personal war going on within ourselves, between the Spirit and the flesh. We would rather blame the devil or the demons for our sins than our own flesh. Let us beware of giving so much attention to the cosmic struggle that we neglect that war which Paul emphasizes in our text. Satan’s victories in our lives will come through sin’s appeal to our flesh.
Incidentally, we might also imply from our text that Satan takes special pleasure in achieving his sinister work through that which is good, even more than by using that which is evil. Satan seems to find special pleasure in using that which is “holy, righteous, and good.” Would he not find great delight in using the saints to achieve his purposes?
(3) Covetousness is a key and crucial evil, and it must be taken most seriously by the Christian who desires to please God by living righteously. Covetousness is that sin which Paul chose to highlight as a deadly evil which the Law exposes. I do not think we take it seriously enough. I doubt that we understand how much our culture has incorporated coveting into the social values of our day, as though it is beneficial, even virtuous. Television give-away game shows train us to covet things. Capitalism can use covetousness as a positive force which motivates men to work hard in order to earn money. American advertising considers itself successful if it has been able to produce coveting in a potential customer.
Coveting comes in other forms, especially in those which appear to be spiritual. The preachers of the “gospel of the good life” appeal to the covetousness of men by promising them all that their hearts desire, if they but give to their ministry. Coveting can also occur when we focus our attention on that which we do not possess. How often today the word “need” occurs in the vocabulary of the Christian. We present Christ as the “need-meeter.” We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to surface and explore our needs. These “needs” all seem to be things which we do not possess. Is our “need exploration” only producing coveting? If I understand the Scriptures correctly, God has met all our needs in Christ. That which we do not have, which we think we need, may either be that which God has graciously withheld, or it may be that which He has already provided but which we have failed to receive or to appropriate by faith. I fear that we are far too “need” conscious.169
The need for a definition of sin and righteousness has been met by the gracious gift of God’s Law. Let us gratefully receive it as such.
159 There is a slight variation between the commandment as stated in Exodus 20:17 and as stated in Deuteronomy 5:21. I think this is to underscore that these specific areas of coveting are merely illustrative.
160 See Luke 16:15.
161 For example, Satan attempted to appeal to our Lord’s appetite, striving to tempt Him to act independently of the Father’s will in order to satisfy His appetite. Jesus’ response was that there were things more important than physical bread or the satisfying of physical appetites (see Matthew 4:1-4).
162 Whatever interpretation you might decide is most consistent with the context and Paul’s precise words, the point of his illustration is clear and irrefutable: sin misused the Law to bring about Paul’s death.
164 The commandment which God gave to Adam (and thus to Paul as well) is an excellent illustration of the role of the Law, which was never to save those who obeyed but to define sin, showing men their need for salvation. Law-keeping would not have saved Adam and Eve. It would not have enabled them to earn eternal life. The commandment which God gave them was not to eat of the fruit of the tree of life, which would have resulted in eternal life (Genesis 3:22), but it was to avoid eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To have obeyed God’s law would have prevented Adam and Eve from the death sentence, but it would not have provided them with eternal life. Meditating on the deeper meaning of the law they had been given would have led Adam and Eve to conclude that they should find life in eating from the fruit of the tree of life, which they could have done, by faith.
165 Paul’s statement, that sin deceived him, was the one objection I had to the interpretation that Paul was speaking of his personal “fall” in Adam. How could Paul say that he was deceived, when Eve was deceived, but not Adam? Before now, I have always thought of my sin and its consequences as coming only through Adam. Yet, in the inspired account of Genesis, Eve’s participation in the fall is prominent. Just as Adam’s sin has consequences for men, Eve’s sin has consequences which fall on all women. The fall therefore was the collective result of the sins of Adam and Eve, and the consequences of the fall come from the actions of both. Thus, Paul can rightly say that he was deceived, when speaking of his participation in the fall.
168 There is a great deal of difference between “flesh and blood” (literally blood and flesh in the text of Ephesians 6:12) and “the flesh.” “Flesh and blood” is a term used synonymously with “men,” mere mortals. “We struggle not against human enemies, but against cosmic forces of evil.” In Romans, “the flesh” is our old fallen nature which is weak and which is easily overcome by sin.