Romans 7:13, “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.”
Moving forward in our study of Romans 7, we are endeavoring to determine why Paul says such seemingly negative things about God’s law when old covenant people seem to have had nothing but positive things to say about the law. Knowing something of the corporate nature of Jewish thought and the history of ancient Israel will help us in this effort. Historically, the Jews have shared a significant group consciousness. The best way to illustrate this is to consider the Jews’ celebration of the Passover. In retelling the Passover story, Jews today speak as if they came out of Egypt under Moses even though they live thousands of years after the exodus. This is how the Passover has been celebrated for generations, reflecting a corporate solidarity that means every Jew who has ever lived has, in a sense, participated in all that has ever happened to the Jewish people.
Corporate solidarity shapes the approach of the Apostle Paul—a Jew himself—to the Mosaic law. Passages such as Galatians 3:15–29 indicate that Israel’s life as a collective nation under the law of Moses determines Paul’s theology of the law. His negative statements about the law’s stimulation of sin are not primarily about the many Jews before Christ who loved the law rightly as a guide to holiness. Such statements do not refer to those who trusted in the Lord alone for their justification and obeyed the Lord by His Spirit in order to thank Him for His grace. The Apostle’s teaching reflects what happened to old covenant Israel as a whole, and his use of the pronoun I in Romans 7:7–13 is his very Jewish way of putting himself in the experience of the nation. All people have a basic sense of right and wrong, but Israel alone had the benefit of additional light from God via the inscripturated Mosaic law. However, instead of living more righteously than the pagans, the nation of Israel sinned greatly after receiving the law of the Lord. Sin came alive for the nation in a new way after it received the Mosaic law. For proof of this, we need look no further than the worship of the golden calf, which occurred as God was giving the commandments to Moses (Ex. 32).
Israel’s collective experience with the Mosaic law is a microcosm of what happens when the fallen nature of humanity comes into contact with God’s moral law, whether people discern it from nature or have it in written form. Sin takes the law, encourages us to break it, lowers its requirements, and turns it into a means for self-justification. None of this is the law’s fault. The law is good; it is sin that twists it (Rom. 7:13).
Augustine of Hippo writes, “The law is given not to take away sin nor to deliver us from it but to reveal what sin is before grace comes. The result is that those who are placed under the law are seized by an even stronger desire to sin and sin even more.” Sin’s twisting of the law means we cannot obey it truly if we put any stock in our ability to do so. But if we confess our sin and rest in Christ alone for salvation, He empowers us to keep it truly, but imperfectly, in gratitude for His grace.