Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Listen to the Psalmist as he exclaims: “God’s laws are pure, eternal, and just. They are more desirable than gold. They are sweeter than honey dripping from a honeycomb. For they warn us away from harm and give success to those who obey them. But how can I ever know what sins are lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults. And keep me from deliberate wrongs; help me to stop doing them. Only then can I be free of guilt and innocent of some great crime.”1 So Paul joins the Psalmist by saying that if he had not been introduced to the Law, he would not have known that what he thought was only a natural longing or desire, was, in fact, inexcusable greed.

This was where sin began in the Garden of Eden after Satan tempted Eve to try the forbidden fruit. We read this account: “The woman was convinced. How lovely and fresh looking it was! And it would make her so wise! So she ate some of the fruit and gave some to her husband, and he ate it too.”2 Her greed came from the fact that the fruit was not hers, it belonged to God, but she wanted it anyhow because Satan promised it would make her as wise as God.

In the text here, Paul refers back to the Old Testament. In particular to Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21 where God explicitly forbids wanting what belongs to someone else without earning it or it being given as a gift. The Complete Jewish Bible uses the term, “covet” in both scriptures. The Amplified Bible renders the text in both places this way: “You shall not covet [that is, desire and seek to acquire].” Based on this, Paul makes note that without this revelation of God’s law against such desires he would have never known that what he was doing was wrong. And so it goes with all the laws of God. So don’t blame the law for your ignorance to cover up your sin. Acknowledge your sin as being intrinsic and only with help from God will you be able to win the victory over its power.

In his writings against the teachings of Marcion,3 early church scholar Tertullian wanted to make the point that we have no reason to give high praise to the law because it serves to bring to light the latent presence of sin in our lives. It isn’t the law that leads people astray, it’s sin that uses the commandments to evoke a response that leads to sinning.4 On the other hand, we have the Bishop of Paul’s hometown of Tarsus who thinks that Paul believed, even without the law the Gentiles knew what was required of them as preferred conduct in any situation.5 So we cannot excuse them, while they didn’t know everything, they knew enough to tell right from wrong. Even the Gentiles distinguished the difference between what was good and proper, and what should be considered as bad and unlawful. But God wanted people to know what He thought was right and wrong, good and bad. That’s why the law was given to define those things that should and should not be done. That way, people could distinguish between the behavior of a righteous person and unrighteous person.6

Then Ambrosiaster notices that Paul shows why the law is not sin; it is the yardstick by which sin is measured. It’s clear from what Paul said that from the day we were born the tendency to sin lay dormant inside us and had to be dealt with by God. When a person finds this out, they immediately feel guilty and see no reason to thank the law. After all, who would be grateful to anyone who tells them they are an accident just waiting to happen? But Paul does give thanks to the law of grace because the person who was convicted under the law of Moses for sinning against God can now be reconciled to God. In such cases, the law of Moses can be considered just and good in itself because it warned us that danger is near. But is it not enough to forgive us. For that, we need the law of grace.7

Augustine was convinced that the law was not given to introduce sin or even to exterminate it but simply to make it known. By such a demonstration of what sin really was, it gave the human soul a sense of its guilt instead of letting it continue going down the road toward punishment without being aware of its danger. Sin cannot be overcome with human effort, it’s only with faith and by the grace of God. That’s why the law was given to convict the soul by making it troubled about its guilt. But that’s not all, it also made the soul aware that it needed salvation because it could not escape on its own. That then opened the heart to receive God’s grace and forgiveness. This desire to find peace with God was not implanted by the law, it was brought by the work of the Holy Spirit.8

Early church Patriarch Cyril points out that Paul did not say that he never sinned, only that he wasn’t aware of it until the law made it plain to him. Therefore, the law is not the cause of sin but rather points it out so everyone will be aware of what it really is. It did not do this so that once a person was aware of their sinning, they should continue on down the same path toward ruin. On the contrary, its intention was to cause people to turn around and go in the direction where redemption can be found.9 Perhaps now we can see why people hate the law so much. Not because it is bad, but because it shows them just how bad they are.

John Calvin agrees with Paul. Everyone should know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. But that would have been impossible without the law making them aware of it. So it goes without saying that without the law no one would have been able to discern their depravity. It would have also kept them from finding out that all along they had been anesthetized through self-flattery to the point they didn’t know how miserable and painful their condition really was.10 Calvin indicates that this statement by Paul actually gives an explanation of the previous sentence in which he spoke about his inability to perceive the sin of greed in his character. That’s why it took the Law to awaken his conscience. Therefore, since the Law is holy, knowingly breaking that law is then identified as sin. For Calvin, Paul only discovered this hidden disease when it was revealed by the law. Therefore, it follows that all those who are convicted of sin by what the law says, can by no means be free from condemnation unless God pardons them. And God will not pardon them until they ask forgiveness.

Adam Clarke agrees that the giving of the law was the only means by which people could be awakened to their sinful tendencies. It doesn’t mean that the law produced those inclinations, only that it shined a beam of light so it could be seen. It’s the same as when the sun shines through a window in a house and reveals millions of dust mites which appear to be dancing all around the room. And just as the sunbeam did not create those mites because they were there before, it was only by the help of the light that they became manifest. In the same manner, those evil tendencies were inside us all along, but we could not see them because we wandered around in the darkness of ignorance. It was only when the light of the Gospel shined into our souls that we saw them for the first time.11

It’s like the song sung by country and western singer Hank Williams, “I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin, I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in. Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night. Praise the Lord, I saw the the light. (Chorus) I saw the light, I saw the light. No more darkness, no more in night. Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight. Praise the Lord, I saw the light.” In other words, just as when you turn on the light in a dark room and notice mold on the wall or bugs running for cover, the light did not create these entities but merely revealed them. In many cases, when this happens people just turn off the light hoping it will all go away. This does not work in the physical world, nor will it work in the spiritual world.

Robert Haldane notices how the law revealed sin to Paul. Paul did not say that he wouldn’t have been a sinner without the law, but that he wouldn’t have known what a big sinner he really was until the law pointed it out to him. Even though no one is without sin, yet the proud Pharisees of Paul’s day considered themselves sinless because they were keeping the law. But they were only looking on the outside, not in their hearts. Paul mentioned, back when he was a Pharisee before his conversion, that he considered himself as being blameless.12 It was only after being made aware of the law as explained by Christ in His teachings, that he finally understood the law to its fullest extent. That’s when self-condemnation set in.13 The same can be said of those who thought they were morally pure and righteous because of their virtues and ethics, only to discover after hearing the Gospel they were just as lost as the most lawless sinner.

Albert Barnes doesn’t think anyone would try to say that Paul was advocating that sin and the law are the same thing. That would only be done by a skeptical mind with very little prodding. For instance, the Jew might ask: Are we to suppose that the holy Law of God is not only insufficient to sanctify us but that it is really meant to increase our sinning? Is it the law’s goal to simply awaken our sinful passions so that we end up being worse off than we were before? Paul would answer this with great wisdom by showing that the law was not evil, neither was there any evil in the law. Evil resides in the person, not in the law. And even if the effects of the law were to produce sin and more sin, the law itself is good and pure.14 Put another way, don’t blame the policeman who stopped you for speeding, for making you speed. You saw the Speed Limit sign and the tendency inside you caused you to disobey. The policeman is only informing you that you violated the Law. You have no one else to blame but yourself for being stopped, not the policeman or the Law.

Charles Hodge feels that the kind of knowledge Paul is speaking about is not mere intellectual cognition, but also conviction. It includes the consciousness of guilt and impurity. The law awakened in Paul the awareness of his own state and character. He realized then that he was a sinner. And by sinner, Paul did not mean that he saw himself only as an occasional transgressor, but one in whom sin had taken up permanent residence. It was the corrupt nature inside him that the law revealed to Paul.15 We should take from this that God was not using the Law merely to condemn us so He could punish us, but to awaken in us the need for a Savior so that we would turn to Him for forgiveness.

1 Psalm 19:9-13

2 Genesis 3:6

3 Marcion of Sinope (84 – c.160 AD), the son of a bishop, he traveled to Rome circa 135 and became a member of the church there. Developing some eccentric theological views, he eventually taught that the god of the Old Testament was not the true God but rather that the true and higher God had been revealed only with Jesus Christ. He, therefore, rejected the theology of the Old Testament completely.

4 Tertullian: Against Marcion, Bk. 5, Ch. 13 [14]

5 See Romans 2:14

6 Diodore: On Romans, loc, cit.

7 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, loc. cit.

8 Augustine: To Simplician on Various Questions 1.1.

9 Cyril of Alexandria: On Romans, loc. cit.

10 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

11 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

12 Philippians 3:6

13 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 285

14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit

15 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 343

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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