Does the Law Make Me Worse?

Does the law empower our sin nature? Are we more sinful after the law arrives? It seems like that’s the case from what we read in the New Testament. The question is from a listener named Sam to Pastor John, who joins us over Skype today. “Pastor John, the more I read Paul, the more I think I see that the arrival of the Mosaic law did not weaken sin, but actually empowered and enflamed sin within us. Is that right? Can you explain this? How does the law make sin more alive and potent inside of us? I’m thinking of when Paul talks about how our sinful passions are ‘aroused by the law’ (Romans 7:5). He says the law came to increase sinning (Romans 5:20).

“Of course, the number of our sins increases as sins are named. But Paul seems to be talking about a new influence when he writes, ‘The power of sin is the law’ (1 Corinthians 15:56). Then he says, ‘Apart from the law, sin lies dead’ (Romans 7:8). Or, ‘Where there is no law there is no transgression’ (Romans 4:15). Maybe most provocatively of all, Paul speaks autobiographically in Romans 7:9, when he makes this claim: ‘I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.’ Wow! If this is true, it’s an incredible argument against legalism, and any law-centered attempts to defeat the sin within us. We’d need a far greater power! How do you explain Paul’s understanding of the law and its empowerment of our sin?”

Wow, that’s huge. That’s huge. The issue of the role of the Mosaic law in Paul is big and it is complex. So let me begin with a book recommendation because I can barely begin to dig into all those pieces that he just strung together. Thomas Schreiner, my good friend who teaches at Southern Seminary, wrote the book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. Go get that book, and then my little attempt here can be just a taste of what feast you’re going to find in that book.

Law of Moses

What I think will be helpful for me to do here, in this limited scope and on this issue for which people write volume after volume of books, is to make seven summary statements about the Mosaic law, with a couple (or maybe one or two) supporting Bible verses so people can actually hear where I’m getting the statements. And then I’ll try to end by showing practically how this makes a difference.

Now keep in mind that when I say “Mosaic law,” the law of Moses, I don’t mean the whole Old Testament. And I don’t even mean the whole five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. The law has a distinct role to play within the Pentateuch. This is important to see. It’s not synonymous with the first five books of the Bible. Paul saw justification by faith being taught in Genesis 15, and he points out that 430 years later, the law came in (Galatians 3:17). Both of these realities — justification by faith and the Mosaic law — are in the Pentateuch.

So the Old Testament has its own way, the Pentateuch has its own way, of teaching justification by faith apart from works of the Mosaic law. So don’t equate law, as I’m about to talk about it, with the Old Testament. And don’t equate law, as I’m about to talk about it, with the Pentateuch. I’m talking about the Mosaic stipulations, especially in the book of Exodus, that come in 430 years after the covenant made with Abraham, with its distinct purpose to play in redemptive history.

Seven Statements About the Law

So here are my seven statements.

1. Through the law comes the knowledge of sin, not the deliverance from sin.

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)

If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. (Romans 7:7)

2. The law, therefore, secures and increases the accountability of all the world.

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be accountable to God. (Romans 3:19)

Every mouth may be stopped” — not just Jewish mouths.

3. Without the law, sin lies dead — that is, unrecognized and unstirred by the aggravations of commandments.

Apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive [stirred up by those commandments] and I died. (Romans 7:8–9)

4. The law turns sin as a power into sin as a transgression, the actual breaking of a specific commandment.

The law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. (Romans 4:15)

Now the law came in to increase the trespass. (Romans 5:20)

So, the specific commandments of the law turned sin into commandment-breaking.

5. The law doesn’t just turn sin into trespasses of specific commandments; it actually aggravates sin itself and makes it more active.

Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased [not just where transgressions increased, but where sin increased], grace abounded all the more. (Romans 5:20)

So the effect of the law is not just to turn the power of sin into specific lawbreaking, but actually to aggravate sin into greater virulence.

6. So we see that sin is a power, a kind of slave master or ruler that turns commandments into aggravated incitements to transgress.

Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. (Romans 7:8)

It’s a kind of slave master that takes a hold — reaches out and grabs — a commandment, and instead of humbly, submissively obeying it, sin uses that very commandment to multiply sinning.

7. The law pointed toward Christ, but until Christ came, it functioned mainly to show the hopelessness of salvation by law.

So the law functioned negatively as a prison and positively as a guardian until Christ came. Paul uses both in Galatians. Here’s the key text:

Now before faith came [that is, before faith in Christ as preached in the gospel came], we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. [And then he says it a little differently:] So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:23–24)

What We Prefer

Now, I think that to benefit from these statements, we need to get at the essence of what sin is. I’ve been saying that word over and over again, but I haven’t ever defined it. What are we talking about? What is this awful power that takes this beautiful thing called “holy, good, just law,” as Paul says (see Romans 7:12), and prostitutes it, and turns it to such evil use? It’s clear from these statements that sin is the underlying force that takes something essentially holy and just and good — namely, the law — and makes it an instrument of evil.

So we really won’t make much progress, it seems to me, in holiness or freedom or a right use of the law if we don’t get at what sin is and how it works. And I think the best place to get at what sin really is, at its essence and power, is, first, Romans 3:23, and then Romans 1:23.

Romans 3:23 is really familiar. It says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Greek word hustereō, translated “fall short,” literally means “lack”: “they lack the glory of God.” Sinning, whatever it is, involves a lacking of the glory of God.

Now, what does that mean? And I think Romans 1:23 gets at the essence of what it means. Describing all of humanity, Paul says they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” Now that, I think, is what Paul means when he says, “We’ve all sinned.” And the essence of it, the heart of it, is this: we lack the glory of God — that is, we’ve traded it away. We’ve looked at it, and we’ve despised it, we’ve demeaned it, we’ve preferred other things to it. We’ve taken the infinite value and beauty and greatness of the glory of God and we’ve said,

  • “I prefer cars.”
  • “I prefer food.”
  • “I prefer family.”
  • “I prefer fame.”
  • “I prefer sex.”
  • “I prefer alcohol.”
  • “I prefer just a good name in the community.”
  • “I prefer whatever.”

We’ve just put the glory of God aside; it’s not our primary pleasure, it’s not our treasure, and we have thus despised, blackballed, committed treason against the glory of God.

So, I define the essence of sin — this is the heart of every human being born into this world — as the powerful condition of the human heart that prefers other things over God: prefers anything, any other things, over the value and beauty and greatness of the glory of God. And that preference for other things, especially our own exaltation and our own authority, is the power that takes hold of the commandment, like the commitment not to covet — and I think there’s a good reason why Paul chose that commandment to illustrate the point. It takes hold of the commandment not to covet and necessarily produces all kinds of covetousness through that very commandment, because the command not to covet is the very command not to desire anything in a way that shows we are not satisfied in the supreme value and beauty of God. So the law itself can be an aroma that stinks and kills, and it can be an aroma that is sweet and precious.

Delight in Christ — and His Law

The psalmist, in his best moments, said, “I love your law. It’s a delight to me” (see Psalm 119:35, 97). The difference is whether we have trusted Christ, turned to Christ — who’s called the goal of the law in Romans 10:4 — and have received forgiveness for our sins, have been born again, so that now we don’t use the law in our sin, preferring other things to God. We don’t use the law as a way of exalting ourselves through moral performance in the hope that we might get ourselves right with God by our own bootstraps, and thus present ourselves in some acceptable way that preserves our own ego and our own self-exaltation. No, no, no.

In Christ, we are — through the blood of Christ — already right with God. Our old, proud, arrogant, self-sufficient selves are crucified (Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20). We no longer exchange the glory of God for the glory of self-exaltation. Instead, we now treasure the glory of God. And his law, then, becomes a pleasing reflection of his character and his will, which we delight in.

Maybe the way to draw it all to a close would be to use Romans 7:6: “Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the written code.”

John Piper

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

%d bloggers like this: