Law and Sin


“So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12 ESV).
“What then shall we say? That the law is sin?” (Rom. 7:7).

One of the apparent contradictions or paradoxes of the OT is that it is dominated by a holy law on the one hand and by sin on the other (cf. Rom. 3:9-20). Why is this so?

(The) law first appears in the embryonic or rudimentary form of the commandment given to Adam in Genesis 2:17. While it warns of death, it is in fact a promise of life (WCF, 7.2. A.A.Hodge, The Confession of Faith, repr. London, 1958 and E.J.Young, Genesis 1, pp.113ff., strongly insist on this). The point is heavily underscored in Deuteronomy 11:26-31 and supremely in 30:15-30 (cf. e.g. Isa. 1:19f.; Jer. 21:8f.). Since God’s basic requirement of his people is that they should be holy and righteous like him (Gen. 17:1; Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16), we should not be surprised to find Moses claiming that the law is no empty word but their  very life by which they will live (Dt. 32:46f., cf. 30:15-20; Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Mt. 19:17; Luke 10:28; Rom. 10:5, etc.). On the other hand, transgressing the covenant or breaking the law brings spiritual and ultimately physical death (Rom. 8:10), the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). Clearly this is no trifling matter (Dt. 32:47 NRSV), and, in view of that fact, it is worth exploring the connection between law and sin.

First, Scripture normally defines sin as breaking the commandment or transgressing the covenant (e.g. Dt. 28:15; Jud. 2:20; Neh. 1:6f.; 9:16f., 26,29,34; Isa. 24:5; Dan. 9:5,11), but in 1 John 3:4 (cf. v.8; 5:17; Jas. 2:9-11; 4:17) it is described as lawlessness suggesting defiance, even refusal to recognise the very existence, of (the) law. The seriousness of deliberate transgression of the covenant (Jos. 7:11,15) or rebellion against the commandment (1 Sam. 13:13f.; 15:11,19,22-24,26) is highlighted by the harsh punishment meted out to Achan and Saul.

In Romans 1:18-3:20 Paul goes to great pains to show that both Gentile and Jew have failed to keep the law in whatever form they know it (cf. 3:23). In 3:19-20 (cf. 2:12f.) he terminates his demonstration by asserting that it is precisely by the law that all without exception are held accountable to God and that by it no one will be justified before him (cf. 9:31f.). Thus he concludes that justification is by faith in Christ alone (3:21-31) who is the end of the law (10:4).

Since sin assumes in principle a definite legal standard and is defined by law even in the case of the heathen (Rom. 2:14-16), it follows logically that where there is no law there is no sin; and this is precisely what Scripture teaches (Rom. 4:15; 5:13; 7:1-13; Gal. 5:23, cf. John 9:41; 15:22,24; 1 Cor. 15:56). Thus children who do not know the law until they are taught it (Dt. 4:9f.; Ps. 78:5-8, cf. 1 Kings 3:7,9; Isa. 7:15f., cf. 8:4; 28:9; Heb. 5:12-14, etc.) are necessarily innocent until they learn it and break it. This is borne out first by the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Later, in Numbers 14 it is made plain in verses 3 and 29-33 (cf. Dt. 1:39) that, though children suffer for the sins of their guilty fathers, they are not punished for them (cf. Dt. 24:16; 29:19ff.; 2 Chr. 25:4; 2 Sam. 24:10,17 and note Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Lev. 26:39; Num. 14:18; Ps. 103:8). It is exclusively the soul that sins that dies (Ex. 32:33; Dt. 7:9f.; 18:19ff.; Ezek. 3; 18; 33, etc.). Wages can only be earned by personal transgression (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 4:4; 6:23; 2 Pet. 2:15), by what is actually done (Luke 23:14f.,22,41, etc.), and the vicarious punishment implied by the imputation of Adam’s sin is out of the question (Job 21:19-21; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18:2, cf. 14:14,16, etc.). Only Jesus, in voluntary submission to the will of his Father (John 10:11,17f.) and as a lamb without blemish (John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:19) was capable of receiving by faith the sins of his people and bearing them (Isa. 53:12; 1 Pet. 3:18). Or, to express the issue another way, just as we who are sinners are justified by faith so he who was innocent was condemned by faith as our sin-bearer and so effected atonement. This is the essence of the great exchange (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18).

In Romans 7 Paul is at pains to underline the fact that sin does not exist apart from (the) law. First, in verses 1-6 he calls attention to the fact that a widow who remarries does so without guilt (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39). The death of her husband has brought about the abolition of the law that bound them together, so a charge of adultery is nullified at the outset. Of course, Paul’s basic point here is that we who have died to the law and are now married to Christ serve under the Spirit (v.6, cf. 8:2; 2 Cor. 3:6).

Next, the apostle states explicitly that sin apart from the law lies dead (v.8, cf. vv.2f.). Indeed, it cannot come to life until it is given its opportunity by the advent of the law (vv. 8,11). In verses 9 and 10 he uses his own experience to highlight the fact that, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, he was “alive” so long as he was without (understanding of the) law; but when it came, presumably through his parents, again like Adam and Eve he was deceived, broke it and earned its wages in death (cf. 9:11). The implication of this is that we all follow suit (John 8:34; Rom. 3:23; 5:12), that is, all apart from Jesus who as the second Adam committed no sin (1 Pet. 2:22; Heb. 4:15, etc.), kept the law in its entirety and thereby pleased his heavenly Father (Mt. 3:17; John 8:29; 15:10). By this means he was constituted righteous (Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7, but note Heb. 7:19) and ultimately, having fulfilled all righteousness (Mt. 3:15; 19:21), was made perfect (Heb. 2:9; 7:19; 9:28; 5:9, cf. James 3:2 and Mt. 5:48).

It is commonly held that law restrains sin or, as the Jews maintained, forms a hedge against it (cf. Ps. 78:7; 1 Tim. 1:8ff.). In many cases it does. Most of us are in general law-abiding citizens. But even with the best of intentions (cf. Rom. 7:15ff.) we all come short, and the attempt to justify ourselves in the flesh is fraught with failure (1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; Rom. 7:14ff.) as God intended (Gal. 3:22; Rom. 3:20; 11:32). While we may avoid adultery, we do not necessarily avoid murder, robbery, lying or cheating (cf. Jas. 2:10f.). The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In view of this, it is not all that surprising to find Paul asserting in 1 Corinthians 15:56 that the law is the power of sin (cf. Rom. 3:19f.; 7:1,7). Indeed, he emphasises his point by maintaining in Romans 5:20 that it actually increases sin (cf. 7:13). While the letter kills, the Spirit gives life (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6, cf. John 6:63).

In view of all this we might well be prompted to think that the law is itself sinful (cf. Rom. 7:7). So we must ask with Paul, Why then the law (Gal. 3:19)? The apostle’s answer is that it was added (to the Abrahamic covenant) because of transgressions. What did he mean? Perhaps it is best with the RNEB to say that it made transgression a legal (or technical) offence showing it up for what it was, that is, disobedience of the express word of God (Rom. 3:20; 7:7) leading inexorably to increased liability (cf. Amos 3:2; Jer. 22:6-9; Rom. 2:9).

In this same passage of Galatians 3 Paul indicates that in salvation history the law had another purpose: it not only increased (the seriousness of) sin (cf. Rom. 5:20) but imprisoned all who were bound by it so that they might ultimately receive their inheritance through faith in Christ (3:22; Rom. 11:32). In other words, the law acted as a custodian or guardian pending the coming of Jesus who was the end of the law, that is, both its terminus and its goal (Rom.10:4; Gal. 3:24f.).

If this is so, then it is crystal clear that the law, though spiritual, was not eternal but merely provisional and transitory (2 Cor. 3:11; Heb. 8:13). It exercised its influence only during the lifetime of those who were under it (Rom. 3:19; 7:1). When a person died it ceased to apply (Rom. 7:2, cf. Mt. 5:18 with 24:35). One of the remarkable features of NT theology, however, is that we can die to the law (Gal. 2:19) through faith in Christ even while we are still alive in the flesh (Rom. 6:3,5). This means that as Christians we are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:15; 7:6; Gal. 5:18). Paul makes this plain also when he refers to the provisional nature of the old covenant with its ministry of death (e.g. 2 Cor. 3:11, cf. Heb. 8:13). So long as people are under the law, however, sin reigns, and only cleansing through the blood of Christ can bring, first, redemption (Heb. 9:15), then sanctification by the power of the Spirit.  It follows from this that sin and grace are like oil and water – they cannot mix. Since God’s nature or seed remains in the believer who is born of God (John 1:13), he cannot live habitually in sin (1 John 3:9); like flesh and Spirit (Gal 5:16f.; 1 Pet. 2:11) sin and grace are mutually antithetic (Rom. 6:12-14). Sin and the law that spawns it through the weakness of the flesh (Rom. 8:3, cf. Gen. 3:6) belong exclusively to this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) which is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Cor. 5:17; 1 John 2:17; Rev. 21:1-4), and believers in Christ die to both as they prepare for a sinless eternity in the presence of their holy God.

It is vitally important to recognise that in principle both justification (Ezek. 5-9; Rom. 2:13; 10:5; 1 John 3:7) and condemnation (Ezek. 18:10-13; Rom. 2:1-12) in Scripture are by the works of the law (Rom. 2:6-11, etc.). However, since our works are universally defective and we all come short (Rom. 3:9,19f.,23; 5:12), this would normally lead to universal condemnation. But as Paul strongly emphasises, God has displayed his righteousness by justifying us by grace through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21-26; 2 Cor. 5:21) apart from the law (Phil. 3:9). Does this mean that the law is sinful after all? Not at all! Faith in fact upholds the law (Rom. 3:31) not least because God is at once just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus who fulfilled the law (Rom. 1:17; 3:26; Mt. 5:17f.). In fact, Jesus himself as a true son of Abraham was uniquely justified both by works and faith (cf. Jas. 2:14ff.; 1 Sam. 26:23).

Finally, it is necessary to assert that if sin is a work that involves active transgression of the law in some sense, its imputation apart from faith is a contradiction in terms. (Note that Jesus vicariously bore our sin by faith, John 10:17f.; 1 Pet. 3:18.) It should occasion no surprise therefore that it is implicitly denied in Scripture (e.g. Num. 26:11; Dt. 24:16; 2 K. 14:6, etc.). As Paul indicates in Romans 4:1-8, imputation (free gift) and wages (earnings or desert) are mutually exclusive (cf. Rom. 6:23). While we are clearly all too capable of earning and deserving our own condemnation by the works of the law (Rom. 2:6; Gal 5:19-21, etc) thus rendering the imputation of sin redundant, we are equally clearly incapable of achieving our own righteousness (Jer. 4:22) thus making an “alien righteousness” indispensable (Phil. 3:9). That is why it is the righteous by faith who will live (Rom. 1:17).

Note: It needs to be insisted that just as sin does not exist apart from the law (Rom 4:15) neither does righteousness (Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7, cf. Rom. 9:11). The idea that Adam who at first like a baby (cf. Dt. 1:39) did not know the law was righteous but “fell” is therefore nonsense. Like children who are made in his image (Gen. 5:1-3) he simply lost his innocence.