How We Come to Know Sin

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 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 an 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.

Romans Explains Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday marks the day Jesus entered Jerusalem near the end of his life with people waving palm branches and children shouting, "Hosanna – salvation – hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." But this triumphal entry into Jerusalem gets all its significance from the reason Jesus is coming to Jerusalem; namely, he is coming to be killed. Mark 10:33-34, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again."

That is why he is coming into the city. Luke 13:33, "I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem." Palm Sunday is all about the voluntary death of Jesus. He came to die. He planned to die. He intended to die. And why did he intend to die? Here's what he said, in Mark 10:45: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." He said that he came to give his life as a ransom. That is, we are enslaved to sin and death and hell, and to free us from this slavery, Jesus pays a ransom for us, his life.

That is what the book of Romans is about – explaining why we need a ransom, why it had to be Jesus Christ the Son of God, how the life and death of Jesus demonstrate the righteousness of God and set us free from bondage to the guilt and power of sin through the Spirit. So Romans is a commentary on the meaning of Palm Sunday and why Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.

Up through chapter 5 of Romans, Paul makes a case for the justification of the ungodly by grace through faith alone apart from works of the law. In other words, he shows that, because of what Christ did as God's obedient suffering servant, ungodly sinners may have peace with God by grace alone through faith alone apart from the works of the law. Romans 4:5, "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness."

Now by the end of chapter 5 Paul is in trouble with some of his listeners because of what he says about grace and law. He's in trouble about grace, because he says it justifies the ungodly and so he seems to open the door to license and lawlessness. And he's in trouble about law, because he seems to say that keeping the law it is not necessary for justification and because the law even joins hands with sin to defeat its own demands.

So in chapter 6 (6:1-7:6) Paul defends grace. And in chapter 7 (7:7-25) he defends law.

Grace Is the Base of Lifelong Warfare against Sin

How does he defend grace? Well, the accusation is that if we are justified by grace through faith alone, then we may as well say, "Let's sin that grace may abound" (6:1). Or: "Let's sin because we are not under law but under grace" (6:15). Paul's answer in chapter 6 is this: No, justification by grace through faith does not lead to more sinning. On the contrary, it is the only sure and hopeful base of operations from which the fight against sin can be launched.

All the bombers that go out to drop bombs on the strongholds of sin remaining in our lives take off from the runway of justification by faith alone.

The missiles that we shoot against the incoming attack of temptation are launched from the base of justification by faith alone.

The whole lifelong triumphant offensive called "operation sanctification" – by which we wage war against all the remaining corruption in our lives – is sustained by the supply line of the Spirit that comes from the secure, unassailable home-base of justification by faith alone. And it will be a successful operation – but only because of the unassailable home base.

In other words, Paul's defense of grace in chapter 6 is that this justification by grace through faith alone never leads to a life of increased sinning, but becomes the secure, unassailable, triumphant base for the lifelong warfare against sin in our lives. That's his defense of grace: Sin will not have dominion over you.

The Law Exposes Sin

What then is his defense of the law? Well, the accusation is that Paul makes the law out to be sin because not only is it not necessary to keep the law to get right with God – that happens through faith alone – but the law seems to arouse sin and become the partner of sin in defeating its own demands (5:20; 7:5). His defense begins in Romans 7:7, and that's where we started last week.

The only point we made from this verse last week is that it is important and good for us to know our sin and that we don't have to experiment with sinning to know our sin.

Now today we go one step further in understanding Paul's defense of the law in Romans 7:7-8. Let's read it:

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." But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.

His argument here is that the law is not sin, because it makes us know sin. It exposes sin as sin. In the process, sin may flare up even more than before it was exposed (that's what verse 8 says), but that does not make the one who exposes it sinful.

Most of you have experienced this if you care about helping others fight sin. You see some sin in a person's life whom you care about. You humble yourself as Galatians 6:1 says you should and admit that you have your own sinful faults. You take the log out of your own eye the way Jesus says you should (Matthew 7:3-5). Then, after much prayer, you go meekly and confront your friend about this sin. And sometimes the very sin you are seeking to help him overcome flares up all the more and you get blamed for the flare up. And you feel unjustly blamed.

So it is with the law. The law, Paul says, is unjustly blamed as sinful when its exposure of sin as sin results in a flare up of more sin. The law is not to be blamed or accused as sinful. Verse 8 says, "Sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind." Sin is the culprit. Sin is to be blamed. The law pushed its hot button. But that is not sin.

How Does the Law Help Us Know Our Sin?

So let's ask today, How does the law help us know our sin? I ask this because I want to benefit as much as possible from the good purposes of the law. I don't want to miss this blessing. I don't want you to. I expect that it will be a painful blessing – to be exposed by the law as a sinner, but we saw last week that this is all good for us. Exploratory surgeries, biopsies, diagnoses, treatment – these may all be painful, but they are all good for us in the hand of a skilled physician. And God is the most skilled physician.

So how does the law help us know our sinful condition? Notice I ask about our "sinful condition," not our "sins." I do this because of something that you can see in verse 8: "But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind." Sin produced coveting. Wait, I thought coveting was sin. But in Paul's mind there is something beneath the sin of coveting, which is producing coveting. And that something he calls sin. He treats it like a power – almost like a person. It looks for opportunities – it will even look in God's holy law – and then uses those opportunities to produces sins like covetousness.

That deeper thing that produces sins is what I am calling our "sinful condition." You could call it our depravity. You could call it our fallenness. Believers could call it our "remaining corruption." Paul simply calls it sin. But he makes it clear that it is deeper and more pervasive and productive than the sins that it produces, like covetousness.

This sinful condition is what we need to get to know. And according to verse 7, we get to know it by knowing what it produces and how the law exposes that. "I would not have come to know sin [my sinful condition] except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting [which is what this sinful condition produces, according to verse 8] if the Law had not said, "you shall not covet." So we get to know sin – our deep sinful condition – by getting to know the sins that our sinful condition produces. And we get to know those sins and that connection with sin through the law.

Now how does it work? How does the law show us our sinful condition and what it really is?

Using Covetousness as an Example

Paul takes the last of the Ten Commandments (see Romans 13:9) "You shall not covet," and uses it as his illustration. Why this one? I think the reason is that it is the clearest commandment dealing with the desires of our heart, as opposed to external behavior. The other commandments assume desires behind them – "you shall not steal" (the desire for something that's not yours); "you shall not commit adultery" (the desire for illicit sex); "you shall not murder" (the desire for revenge or money or the like), and so on. But "you shall not covet" is the clearest command relating directly to the desires of our heart.

The word "covet" in verse 7 (epithumēseis) means simply "desire" – it can be desires we should have (Hebrews 6:11) or desires we should not have. Covetousness is desire that we should not have – desire that shows we have lost our contentment in all that God is for us in Christ. Many desires reflect how valuable God is for us. And those are good. But some desires show that we have lost our satisfaction in God and what he is for us, and are yearning for other things to make up for the fact that God is not the treasure for us that he ought to be.

Now Paul says, "I would not have known coveting if the Law had not said, "you shall not covet." And thus I wouldn't know my sinful condition that produced this coveting if the law had not said, "You shall not covet."

Now why is that? Does he mean that I am not coveting before I hear the law say, "You shall not covet"? No. You might think that from the words at the end of verse 8: "apart from the Law sin is dead." But we know from all of chapter 6 and things he said in chapter 2 and 5 that Paul does not mean there is no sin and no coveting before we hear the command not to covet (see Romans 5:13). I think what he means when he says, "apart from the Law sin is dead," is that sin is imperceptible as sin, before the law calls it sin by prohibiting it. It's there. It works. We experience it. But we don't see it as sin. It's dead in our minds as sin. We don't see our sinful condition. We don't see our desires as illegitimate – unless a law has come in to call us into question. So it's all dead to us as sin.

So how does the law help us know our covetousness and our sinful condition? It does something very profound.

It tells us that our own desires are not the measure of right and wrong. Our own desires are not the measure of what is good and bad. Our own desires are not the measure of what is true and false. The law comes in and says, there is a standard outside us and above us, namely God and his revealed will. God is the measure of right and wrong. God is the measure of what is good and bad. God is the measure of what is true and false.

God, not Our Desire, Is the Measure of Right and Wrong

That's what the law does. It tells us this. It contradicts the sovereignty, the deity, of my desires. Until the law comes, our desires are our law. We come into the world assuming that we ought to get what we want to have. Until the law comes, "want to" equals "ought to" – "desire" equals "deserve." This is very obvious in children, and they must learn that there is another law besides the law of their own desire.

This is what God's law does: it exposes the sinful condition beneath all our desires for what it is. It is independence from God, rebellion against God. At root, our sinful condition is the commitment to be our own god: I will be god to me. Or I will make sure the god I have is the kind of god who never vetoes my legislation. That is, I will be the final authority in my life. I will decide what is right and wrong for me, and what is good and bad for me, and what is true and false for me. And my desires will express my sovereignty, my autonomy, and – though we don't usually say it – my deity.

We need to know this about ourselves. I'm not picking on anybody here. Or any group of people. I am saying this is what it means to be fallen human beings. This is what we are dealing with in ourselves and in the world. This is why the church is the way it is and why the world is the way it is.

And our only hope is that the Holy Spirit of God would humble us, so that we can see the folly of trying to be our own god and treating our own desires as law: "If I want it I ought to have it." This is what we have to be delivered from. This is why we need a Great Physician. This is why Jesus came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This is why he died in our place and rose again and sends the Holy Spirit into the world and offers us forgiveness for rebellion, and justifies by faith in Jesus Christ.

'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,

And to take Him at His Word;

Just to rest upon His promise,

And to know, "Thus says the Lord!"

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!

How I've proved Him o'er and o'er

Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!

O for grace to trust Him more!