Romans 7:7-8, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.”
Scripture addresses the problem of covetousness in many places, including today’s passage. Paul addresses the question as to whether there is a problem with the Mosaic law itself since it arouses sinful passions (Rom. 7:5–6). The essence of Paul’s answer in Romans 7:7–8 is, “No, the problem is not in the law, the problem is in us.” God’s law is holy (v. 12), but our sinful hearts twist it and turn what could restrain us into an avenue by which our desire for sin is strengthened.
Paul emphasizes the law’s role in encouraging him to covet. His point is not that he had no intellectual awareness of the sin of covetousness before he read the tenth commandment; rather, he speaks of experiential knowledge. The Apostle knew it was wrong to covet before He studied the Law, but reading the Law exposed how covetous he truly was (v. 7). He began to feel His wickedness in a new way once he read the tenth commandment, seeing how much he coveted things that were not his and how he actually relished covetousness instead of hating it (v. 8).
All sinners can testify to this reality. There is just something about the wicked human heart that loves sin in itself and not simply the fleeting pleasures it provides. We sin simply because we can and because we enjoy it. Augustine captured this well in book two of his Confessions when he spoke of stealing pears as a youth. His “pleasure was not in those pears, it was in the offense itself.”
In conversion, the Holy Spirit breaks this hold that sin has on us, but when we are not walking in the Spirit, our flesh can seize the law to encourage sin in us once more (Gal. 5:16). If we have trusted Christ, the only way we can fight this is to “walk by the Spirit,” pursuing fruit such as joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control, among others (vv. 23–24). Such things are possible only when the heart is content, so the pursuit of contentment is the best way to slay our urges to covet.
Scripture’s answer to the problem of covetousness in Christian hearts is not to abandon all desire. Neither is it to view material goods as evil and look down on those whom God has richly prospered. Instead, the Bible calls us to “be content with what [we] have” (Heb. 13:5). We are to cultivate contented hearts that are happy when others flourish and know that Christ Himself is sufficient whether we own many things or not.
Western culture does everything it can to stoke the fires of discontentment. Politicians pander to class envy. Advertisers depict products in a way that makes us think we must own them if life is to be worthwhile. Hollywood tells us that we must be young and beautiful to have any dignity at all. God, however, calls us to be content with what He has given us. As we walk in His Spirit and encourage one another, we can be satisfied with whatever we have.