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."
Paul begins verse 7 with some degree of emotion and two quick questions: "What then shall we say? That the law is sin?" He answers with a strong, "By no means!" You can sense his emotion: "No way! Of course not!" But we can understand why a reader from a Jewish background would have this urgent question. All though the Old Testament the Jews had read repeatedly how delightful and treasured the law was.
"This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success" (Joshua 1:8).
Or Psalm 119:97: "Oh how I love your Law! It is my mediation all the day."
In fact, all 176 verses of Psalm 119 give high praise to God's law. So naturally the reader of Romans from a Jewish background would be puzzled when he read comments like the following.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (3:20).
Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (5:20).
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (6:14).
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God (7:4).
For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death (7:5).
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (7:6).
Paul needs to clarify. How do these statements in the book of Romans fit in with the high praise to the law in the Old Testament?
In the rest of this paragraph Paul will make it clear that the problem is not the law. Rather, the problem is our sin. The law reveals our sin: "Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin" (7:7b). So the law shows us our sin. It shows us the sinfulness of sin.
He then gives an example: "For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet'" (7:7c). Paul is quoting the 10th commandment about coveting. We should not covet or desire things that belong to our neighbor. His point is that the law about coveting exposes our sin of coveting. It reveals that we sin. It's a bit like an x-ray machine that reveals a tumor. The machine is not bad because it reveals something bad.
In the same way, the law is not bad because it reveals something bad. The law reveals to us our sin, but the law in itself is good.
Lord, I know that the law is good and it shows me my sin. Thank you for the mercy in this.