The Root of Desire (II)

The Law: God’s Instrument to Reveal the Universal Problem of Desire

As most of us know, the real purpose behind the law is to show us that we are sinners: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

In the final analysis, the law was not given to be kept but broken, showing us that we are in need of a savior. “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin”, Paul says (Romans 7:7). In this sense the law was the “schoolmaster” that led us to Christ (Galatians 2:24). Of course this does not reveal any deficiency on the law’s part. The deficiency is with us, as we shall promptly see.

The problem is that this phenomenal truth of Scripture is usually proclaimed up to the point that I have just made, and then left for all kinds of conclusions to be drawn. And so it is assumed that the “knowledge of sin” brought about by the law is a “knowledge of sins”, that is, a revelation of all the wrong deeds that we are prohibited to do: As we struggle to live up to all these moral commandments we eventually become despondent, and so we are led to Christ who will then save us and empower us to live up to God’s holy commands.

This is not the teaching of the Bible, and our understanding of Christianity is sadly lacking if that is the way we understand the law, sin and redemption.

The Man in Romans 7

Two paragraphs earlier I quoted the apostle Paul as saying “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” This statement comes from Romans 7, a chapter that is devoted in its entirety to illustrating that those who are “in the flesh” cannot live up to the law’s righteous requirements.

Paul’s famous statement “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” comes from this chapter. Paul does not speak here about his Christian experience, as is oftentimes assumed, but about the experience of a man in the flesh who tries to keep the law but cannot. The result is that he cries out at the end of the chapter “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

It is this cry of despair that ultimately causes Paul to look away from himself and to Jesus Christ for deliverance. And so Romans 8 introduces us to the “life in the Spirit”, a life that transcends the limitations of the law brought about by the weakness of the flesh.

Whilst the key to Romans 7 is “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (verse 18) and “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8), the key to Romans 8 is “but you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit” (8:9) and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

Wow. What a teaching. These two classic chapters are foundational to any discussion of the deeper Christian life. And so they should be. Yet our understanding of them is sadly lacking if we stop here.

The Meaning of Romans 7:7

Go back to Romans 7:7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Now read the rest of the verse and further: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”

Wait a minute… Romans 7 is not about the whole of the law. It is only about one, single commandment: “You shall not covet.” Paul never struggled with adultery, or murder, or lying, or theft. In fact, he wrote to the Philippians that Saul the Pharisee was “faultless” as far as legalistic righteousness was concerned.

So what happened in Romans 7? The answer is simple: Here Paul tells us about the one commandment that he could not keep: The tenth. Covetousness is not a word we use often, and is better translated today as “eagerly desirous”. Romans 7 is the biographical account of a Pharisee who kept the whole of the law, but could not curb “all kinds of covetousness”. And so, he says, he would not have “known sin” if it were not for this commandment.

Whilst the first nine commandments prohibit certain actions, the final commandmend prohibits an intention. As we saw in the previous post, desire is the root and sinful deeds the fruit. The first nine commandments addresses the fruit, the tenth addresses the root. We always break the tenth before we break one of the first nine. You first covet your neighbour’s wife (Tenth command) before committing adultery with her (Seventh command). Likewise, you first covet your neighbour’s possessions (Tenth command) before you steal from your neighbour (Eighth command). In fact, every time you break one of the first nine commandments, you end up breaking two commandments: The one in question, as well as the tenth!

Whilst it is possible to refrain from external sins, it is impossible to refrain from the motive underlying it.

As I have written elsewhere:

The real origin of sin, in other words, can be traced back to the problem of covetousness. In fact, as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, where covetousness is present sin has already been committed (Matt. 5:27-28), and the carrying out of covetous intentions is mere coincidence and formality. In this sense we can say that the command not to covet is really a summary of the Ten Commandments, for where coveting is no longer present sin would no longer follow.

The problem of sin, therefore, is an inward one, and it is the purpose of the tenth commandment to illustrate this. To put it another way: The problem of sin is a spiritual problem, and this can only be pointed out by a spiritual commandment. When the tenth commandment confronted Paul, he acknowledged it as ‘spiritual’, but in failing to keep it he had to acknowledge himself as ‘unspiritual, a slave to sin’ (v. 14). While the first nine commandments revealed to Paul his ability to meet the external demands of the law, the tenth commandment revealed to him his inability to live up to the law’s spiritual requirements. In this sense sin was ‘recognised as sin’ in his life (v. 13).

Paul’s despair, culminating in his ‘wretched man that I am’, came about solely as a result of the one commandment that he found impossible to keep. It is this experience, more than anything else, that revealed to him his need of salvation, and that prepared him for the conviction that something needed to be done about his ‘un-spirituality’.

Romans 7 is the Bible’s greatest exposition of the problem of desire, and its conclusion is clear: The most righteous Pharisee in all of history, who could boast more “in his flesh” than any other (Philippians 3:4), could not overcome desire. And so the great Saul was revealed to be a lawbreaker, for “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Of course this does not only apply to Saul the Pharisee, but also to you and I.

It would appear that the law is much more “spiritual” than what we have been led to believe. Its aim is not legal conformance to external requirements, but the revelation that we are in need of a Savior who can transform our desirous Adamic nature.

More about that in the next posts.