What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. No, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust…
I. THE LAW VINDICATED. The apostle had affirmed that the law constituted that to be sinful, that without the law could have had no such character — nay, that the law called forth sinful affections which, but for its provocation, might have lain dormant. And he seems now to feel as if this might attach the same sort of odiousness to the law that is attached to sin itself. This he repels with the utmost vehemence.
1. The law acts as a discoverer of sin (ver. 7). But it is no impeachment against the evenness of a ruler, that by its application you can discover what is crooked. On the contrary, its very power of doing so proves how straight it is in itself. The light may reveal an impurity which could not be recognised at night; yet who would ever think of ascribing to light any of that pollution which it reveals. It were indeed strange if the dissimilarity of two things should lead us to confound them. When one man stands before you full of moral worth, and another full of vice, the presence of the first may generate a keener repugnancy towards the second; and this not surely because they have anything in common, but because they have everything in wide and glaring opposition. And the same of sin and of the law.
2. The law aggravates this deformity by making sin more actively rebellious (ver. 8). The law not curing the desire of man's heart towards any forbidden indulgence, this desire is thereby exasperated. The man who sins and thinks no more of it may never repeat it till its outward influences have again come about him, it may be, long after; but the man who is ever brooding under a sense of guilt has the image of allurement present to his thoughts during the whole time when they are not present to his senses. And thus the law turns out an occasional cause, why with him there should be both a more intense fermentation of the sinful appetites than with another, who is reckless of law and undisturbed by its accusing voice. And what adds to the helplessness of this calamity is, that while the law thus gives a new assailing force to his enemies, it affords no force of resistance to the man himself. Depriving him of the inspiring energy that is in hope, it gives him in its place the dread and the desperation of an outlaw. And yet the law here is not in fault. It is sin which is in fault, which, at sight of law, strengthened itself the more in its own character.
3. And it is in this sense only that the law is the occasion of death.
(1) This sore infliction is due to sin, which taketh occasion by the law. The very company of a good man may so degrade in his own eyes a bad man as that, with the desperate feeling of an outcast he might henceforth give himself over to the full riot of villainy, and even become a murderer; and so entail upon himself a death of vengeance. But who would ever think of laying either his own blood, or the blood of his victim, to the door of him whose excellence had only called out into display the hatefulness of his own character?
(2) Then again, sin slays its victim by a process of deception of which the law is made the instrument. It may do this in various ways —
(a) As the man's remorse broods over the transgression, so sin may take advantage by leading the man to dwell as constantly on the temptation which led to it.
(b) Or it may represent the man to himself as the doomed victim of a law that can never be appeased, and thus, through means of this law, may drive him onward to recklessness.
(c) Or it may soothe him by setting forth the many conformities to honesty, or temperance, or compassion, or courteousness, by which he still continues to do the law honour.
(d) It may even turn his very compunction into a matter of complacency, and persuade him that, in defect of his obedience to the law, he at least gives it the homage of his regret.
4. "For without the law sin is dead" (ver. 8) — dead in respect of all power to condemn, and in respect of its inability to stir up the alarms of condemnation: and as to its power of seducing or enslaving you by means of a remorse or terror. And in the next verse Paul is visited with the remembrance of his own former state, when, ignorant as he was of the exceeding breadth of God's commandment, he looked forward to a life of favour here and of blessedness hereafter, on the strength of his many outward and literal observations. He was thus alive without the law once; and it was not till the commandment came — not till he was made to see what its lofty demands were, and what his wretched deficiencies therefrom, that sin revived in him, and dislodged him from his proud security, and made him see that, instead of a victorious claimant for the rewards of the law, he was the victim of its penalties. This state (see also ver. 9) is the prevalent state of the world. Men live in tolerable comfort and security because dead to the terrifying menaces of the law. It is because the sinner is thus without the law that he sees not the danger of his condition. And thus it is that it is so highly important when the Spirit lends His efficacy to the Divine law — when he thereby arouses the careless sinner out of his lethargies, and persuades him to flee for refuge to the hope set before him.
II. THE LAW COMMENDED. The apostle having cleared the law from all charge of odiousness, now renders it the positive homage which was due to its real character — as the representation of all moral excellence. If the law be the occasion of death, or of more fell depravity, it is not because of any evil that is in its character, which is holy and just and good (ver. 12). This may lead to the solution of a question by which the legal heart of man often feels itself exercised. Why should the law, that is now deposed from its ancient office of minister unto life to that of minister unto death, still be kept up in authority, and obedience to it be as strenuously required? In order that God should will our obedience to the law, it is not necessary to give to it the legal importance and efficacy that it had under the old dispensation. At the outset of our present system, the Spirit of God moving upon chaos educed the loveliest forms of hill and dale and mighty ocean and waving forests, and all that richness of bloom and verdure which serves to dress the landscapes of nature. And it is said that God saw everything to be good. Now there was no legality in this process. The ornaments of a flower, or tree, or the magnificence of outspread scenery, cannot be the offerings by which inanimate matter purchases the smile of the Divinity. The Almighty Artist loves to behold the fair composition that He Himself has made; and wills each of His works to be perfect in its kind. And the same of the moral taste of the Godhead. He loves what is wise and holy and just and mood in the world of mind; and with a far higher affection. And the office of His Spirit is to evolve this beauteous exhibition out of the chaos of ruined humanity. And to forward this process it is not necessary that man be stimulated to exertion by the motives of legalism. All that is necessary is submission to the transforming operations of the Divine Spirit, and willingness to follow His impulses. And must God, ere He can gratify His relish for the higher beauties of morality and of mind, first have to make a bargain about it with His creatures? So, then, though the old relationship between you and the law is dissolved, still it is this very law with the requirements of which you are to busy yourselves in this world; and with the graces and accomplishments of which you must appear invested before Christ at the judgment seat. It was written first on tables of stone, and the process was then that you should fulfil its requisitions as your task, and be paid with heaven as a reward. It is now written by the Holy Ghost on the tablets of your heart; and the process is now that you are made to delight in it after the inward man. With gold you may purchase a privilege or adorn your person. You may not be able to purchase the king's favour with it; but he may grant you his favour, and when he requires your appearance before him, it is still in gold he may require you to be invested. And thus of the law. It is not by your own righteous conformity thereto that you purchase God's favour; for this has been already purchased by the pure gold of the Saviour's righteousness, and is presented to all who believe on Him. But still it is with your own personal righteousness that you must be adorned.
(T. Chalmers, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.
WEB: What shall we say then? Is the law sin? May it never be! However, I wouldn't have known sin, except through the law. For I wouldn't have known coveting, unless the law had said, "You shall not covet."