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…
We have here —
I. THE GOOD OPINION WHICH PAUL ONCE HAD OF HIMSELF, WHILE HE WAS IN AN UNREGENERATE STATE. "I was alive." This is no uncommon thing. Many have deceived themselves with a name to live, while they are dead. He doubtless refers to the time when he was a Pharisee; and there were such persons long before the Pharisees (Job 30:12; 2 Kings 10:16-31; Isaiah 29:13; Isaiah 58:1, 2; Isaiah 65:5). Concerning Paul himself, read Philippians 3:5. And yet, when it pleased God to call him by His grace, he saw himself "the chief of sinners." What an amazing change was here! Though once alive in his presumptions and performances, he finds himself dead in law, dead in sin.
II. THE GROUND OF THE APOSTLE'S MISTAKE. "I was without the law."
1. Not that the apostle could be so ignorant as to imagine that he was without law; for as a Jew he had the written law, and as a Pharisee he made his boast of it, and expected life by his own obedience to it.
2. He means, "I was alive without the law in its purity and spirituality. I only considered the letter, especially I fell in with the glosses of our Rabbins. But when I was led to view the law in all its extent and spirituality, I saw my mistake — I condemned myself as a most miserable sinner."
3. While men aim only at the external law, there is little difficulty in obeying its precepts; but when they consider it as the very image of God Himself, it is no wonder if their fears begin to be awakened. Without the law, separated from and uninfluenced by it, the sinner receives no uneasiness; but if it be impressed upon his conscience, all his vain hopes are at an end. So, then, the true reason of the apostle's mistake was the want of better acquaintance with the law. They who have most light have the lowest thoughts of themselves. Hence we see —
(1) That there is much carnal security in every unregenerate man (Luke 11:21). The children of God may be often in fear and doubt. If they look to the glories of heaven they think themselves altogether unworthy of them: if they look to the horrors of hell their hearts die within them: while sinners have none of these sorrows; securely they live, and, very often, peacefully they die (Psalm 73:4). Now and then their consciences may render them uneasy; but the old stupidity returns, and there may be little interruption as to their quiet. Oh, but it would be their greatest mercy to have it interrupted by the coming of the law in its purity and power.
(2) There is much presumption as the ground of their security (John 8:41, 54, 55).
(3) There is also much false joy, as the offspring of groundless hope, built upon their religious education, church privileges, pride, self-love, and their self-comparison with those that are more grossly wicked; but all this is being without the law, or the not judging of themselves by the right rule.
III. THE MEANS BY WHICH HIS MISTAKE WAS RECTIFIED.
1. The commandment came, the law, in its pure and holy precepts. Now, if it be inquired how it is that the law comes home to the conscience, we answer, It is by the Spirit of the Lord. He opens the blind eye to discern the purity of the object presented, and exerts His almighty power to put the sinner upon comparing his heart and life with this law, and to hold him to it.
2. Sin revived.
(1) Sin more and more appeared, and made itself manifest.
(2) It awoke and more powerfully exerted itself. While Satan can keep men quiet in carnal security he is content; but no sooner does a man begin to be weary of his yoke and cry out for deliverance, than Satan apprehends the loss of a subject. Then he endeavours to excite and provoke his lusts to the uttermost, in order to overwhelm his soul with despair.
(3) It revived as to its guilt, or its condemning power. He once thought that sin was dead; but the law, when it came, plainly discovered to him its sting, "For the sting of death is sin."
3. "I died." "I saw myself to be in a state of death and condemnation. I found myself insufficient to anything. All my attempts were fruitless, and I lay at the foot of mercy without any claim or plea." In this hopeless and helpless state does Christ find us when He comes to bring us salvation. Oh, how precious is pardon to the ungodly, hope to the hopeless, mercy to the miserable!Conclusion: A word —
1. To such as are dead, while they think themselves alive, How necessary is self-examination! The apostle, having been convinced of his past mistake, earnestly recommends this (2 Corinthians 13:5).
2. Those that feel themselves dead, bless God for the discovery. Where God hath made this discovery of sin, He will lead the heart to Him who is able to subdue sin.
3. Let all who have received life from Christ seek daily supplies from Him. Guard against all sin as contrary to that new life you have in and from Christ (Colossians 3:1).
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."