Do your very best for a moment not to think about a pink elephant. It’s not so easy, is it? In fact, you probably wouldn’t have ever thought about a pink elephant if I hadn’t mentioned it. Now, though, you have to work to push it from your mind.
For Paul, the law works a little bit like that. The law calls our attention to sin – it defines it – but it ultimately leaves us powerless to master it. Just as I named the pink elephant and told you to stop thinking about it, so also the law names sin and then tells us to avoid it. The problem is that the very act of naming gives the pink elephant and sin a new power in our lives. In the very moment we become aware of them, we struggle to put them away.
With sin, it’s more twisted, though. Scripture – and particularly Romans 7 – tells us that sin has taken up residence in humanity and wields great power in our lives. 7:14 goes so far as to say that we are sold as slaves to sin. Thus, when the law names sin, sin itself steps in to take advantage. That’s what Paul means in verses 7 and 8, when he says:
For I would not have known what coveting really was had the law not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in my every kind of coveting.
Notice what is happening here. The law names sin, but sin is so powerful that instead of dying it actually multiplies. This leaves us in a tough situation. In our minds we can love God’s law, but because sin is so powerful within us we can’t follow God’s law. As Paul so famously put it in verse 15:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but I hate what I do.
Any number of Christians will testify to feeling this way at one point or another. But here’s the thing – we need to be careful how we understand this passage. Here we see a person under law who is unable to conquer sin. Yet, chapter 6 just told us things like:
For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
Note the difference. In chapter 6 we aren’t under law. In chapter 7 we are. In chapter 6 we have been set free from sin. In chapter 7 we have been sold as slaves to it. What gives?
What we need to understand about Romans 7 is that Paul is describing humanity before Christ. The idea is that before Christ we were powerless to master the sin even when we knew the law. After Christ, though, all of that changes. To put that another way, before Christ, the struggle described in Romans 7 was a permanent state, while after Christ, it is simply a stop on the journey to the glories of chapter 8.
“Who will deliver me from this body that is subject to death?” Paul exclaims in verse 24. His answer comes immediately in verse 25: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
While we can identify with the struggle described in Romans 7, we need to understand that this description is not meant to define our lives. Instead, it shows us ourselves without the power of Christ. Once that power becomes active within us, we, by God’s power, put away sin and embrace a life of righteousness. Now, this isn’t automatic, and it may be that we never fully overcome the struggle on this side of glory. At the same time, a power is at work within us that is greater than the law. Thanks be to God in Christ!