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…
Attend to —
I. THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE STRUGGLE OF SIN IN THE VERY FORMATION OF THE CHRISTIAN CHARACTER. In this process there are three features.
1. The rectification of our judgment on the subject of our relation to God. This is what is called conviction of sin. It arises from a perception of the meaning of the law of God, attention to the Scriptures. Things once deemed innocent are now seen to be evil, and sins once deemed trifling are now fell to be awful. The law appears with its avenging eye, and reiterating its demands. The mind is stripped of its vain hope of escaping Divine justice. This conviction may be produced gradually, or suddenly. It may be attended with terror, or it may be serene.
2. A strife on the part of the mind to get out of the state. That conviction of sin which has no influence on the conduct, is not a true conviction. Now the most painful part of the Christian life commences. The individual, from a perception of the holiness of God and the evil of sin, sets himself to avoid sin. But sin, indignant at the restraint, like a mighty torrent before a feeble barrier, collects all its strength, and bears all down before it. It makes him sensible of its strength by the vanity of his efforts to check it. Temptation takes him as easily as a whirlwind lifts a straw. He returns to renew his defeated resolutions, but only to have them defeated again. In what a state must this leave the mind!
3. A clear discovery of the gospel mode of deliverance, and the full application of the mind to it. Now commences the life of faith; for as that which is sown is not quickened except it die, so the faith that gives the mind up to Christ, to be saved by His merits and sanctified by His grace, arises out of the death of self-conflict. What is the consequence? Peace takes possession of the mind. There is a principle formed in the mind, and fixed there, directly opposed to sin, and getting the mastery over it. The struggle may be violent, but grace is sure to prevail, and every fresh victory leads to a further one; until the very habits and tastes of the mind become on the side of piety, and the man feels as in the firm grasp of the hand of his God. This is regeneration.
II. THE ILLUSTRATION AND CONFIRMATION OF ALL THIS IN THE CHAPTER BEFORE US.
1. The opinion of several eminent commentators is that Paul here refers to himself and men generally in an unconverted state, and under the law, and of that natural approbation which they have of what is good, though quite unable to follow it. They maintain that the language would not suit any other than an unconverted man, inasmuch as in the conflict sin is represented in every instance as getting the victory. But I think this opinion to be wrong, for —
(1) It is contrary to all that we know of the apostle and his history. When was he ever in this state of bondage to sin? Before conversion he was a Pharisee of the strictest sort: he was not only in his own opinion free from this miserable bondage, but he imagined that he was able to keep all the law of God.
(2) The language employed is far too strong for any man in an unconverted state. Can any such man say, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man"?
2. There is another opinion totally adverse to this, viz., that the apostle is speaking in his state as a Christian at the time he wrote this Epistle. This opinion, however, I conceive to be equally wrong.
(1) It does not agree with the design of the apostle, which was to convince that the law of God was neither an instrument of justification nor of sanctification; but the gospel of both. He has shown in the previous chapters that it was not an instrument of justification. In this chapter he begins to show, that neither was the law an instrument of sanctification, in that it was "weak through the flesh"; that it could only stir and goad sin by being used to oppose it; that, therefore, we must look out for something else, the gospel of Christ. Now how would it have accorded with this design, to have shown that the mature Christian would not be able to keep the law, nor to become sanctified? That would be proving too much, in that not only the law but the gospel could not be the instrument of sanctification, and would be quite foreign to his design.
(2) And as it does not conform to his design, so neither does it agree with the progressive representations of this and the following chapters. The seventh chapter should never have been separated from the eighth. And who does not see that the man in the eighth chapter is in a very different state from the man in the seventh, though the same man?
(3) It is not agreeable to truth and experience. It is not true of confirmed Christians that they always do the evil they would not, and fail to do the good that they would. Some half-hearted and sluggish Christians may be "carnal, sold under sin"; their "old man" may be as strong in them at the last as it is at the first. But it is not true of such Christians as Paul, who tells us that he "kept under his body," and "brought it into subjection." It is not true of such Christians as John describes when he says, "Whoso is born of God, doth not commit sin." Nay, David says of good men that "they do no iniquity; they walk in Thy way."
3. Then what is the alternative? Look at the person whom I described in the incipient stages of the formation of the Christian character. See if his case does not agree with every part of the representation and design of the apostle. There is one objection, however. Was he not Paul a Pharisee up to the time of his conversion? And did not that in one instant change him into a decided disciple of Jesus Christ? How then can the representations of this chapter be true of him in this point of view? Answer:(1) He is speaking of what is common to converted persons at large. If, therefore, his extraordinary conversion had not allowed him to go through that precise experience, he would not be prevented from speaking of himself in this manner, as that which belongs to all converted persons. Such a mode of speaking is common in the Scriptures.
(2) It is not improbable that the apostle did go through something of this kind during the interval which elapsed between his saying, "What wilt Thou have me to do?" and Ananias coming to give him sight along with the gift of the Holy Spirit. He might learn in those three days and nights all that about sin, about the excellence of the law, about human imbecility, and about the mode of Divine deliverance which he here describes, and which many often do not learn in as many years. Conclusion: Is it asked, Why dwell on such minute parts of Christian experience? We think them of importance to correct false views of religion. How many are apt to suppose that religion consists in a few feelings and sentiments of a religious nature, and in a superficial change of the mind and of the behaviour! But religion is a change of character; it is the death of sin in the soul, commencing with a painful conflict, but proceeding to an habitual and a general victory: and nothing short of this will warrant the hope of a state of salvation.
(J. Leifchild, 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."