Romans 7:8-11, “8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”
Certainly, people of all backgrounds find it hard to believe that law cannot make people better. Islam essentially teaches that following the laws in the Qur’an and the oral traditions of Muhammad makes sinners into saints. Even in the secular realm, we find this way of thinking. Whenever there is a problem, the government typically responds by creating more laws, thinking that these laws will provide the solution.
Passing laws in itself is not a bad thing (unless, of course, the laws are bad). The issue is thinking that law can provide what we need for true, lasting change. Certainly, laws give people reason to restrain themselves lest they fall under the law’s punishment, but this restraint is merely external. The law cannot effect the heart change necessary to please the Lord. This is true even for the inscripturated law of God, an idea so foreign to us that Paul devotes a substantial portion of Romans to arguing that God’s law is not the solution to sin.
If the law does not change the heart, what does it do? First, the Apostle tells us that the law reveals sin, giving us knowledge of it that we would not otherwise possess (Rom. 7:7). Now, it is not the case that we lack all understanding of sin before we are presented with the full demands of the law, for the law of the conscience gives all people a basic sense of right and wrong (2:14–16). What Paul means is that the inscripturated law of God—the Mosaic law—gives an experiential knowledge of sin that is impossible without it. The law against coveting showed the Apostle what it means to covet (7:7) because it exposed the fallen desires of his heart and showed him the true extent of covetousness in a way that he never would have had if the only law he possessed was the law of the conscience.
Second, the law brings death (v. 9). Though it promises life, this life only comes to those who obey it perfectly; otherwise, it brings the curse of death (Lev. 18:5; Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10). Because no fallen person can obey it perfectly, it brings death to all sinners.
Third, this death comes because of what sin does with the law. The law of God brings sin to life. It is not that sin had no power before the Mosaic law was revealed; rather, as one commentator has said, what the law does is confirm, radicalize, and personalize the spiritual death that all people in Adam experience. This happens because of what sin does. Sin takes the law and uses it as a tool to make us even more sinful (Rom. 7:11). As Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans, our “fallen corruption” is the culprit, not the law.
In Romans 7:11, Paul says that sin uses the law to deceive fallen people. There are many ways that this can happen, but one of them is that sin often takes things that the law says are good in themselves and deceives us into making them ultimate goods, that is, idols. If we rest all our hope in achieving something that the law says is good—obedient children, a good name, and so forth—we might be making that good thing into an idol.