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. 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 through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Rom 7:7-12)The problem with the law is this...there is a problem with me. In these verses Paul tells us that "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." Similarly in his letter to Timothy he says,
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1Ti 1:8-11)So the law is good, holy, and righteous. It was given by God, after all. It is not a hindrance invented by Satan, although he may pervert it's use through wrong applications, as he has done in the past and continues to do now in many churches. Let's look at these two passages as an introduction to a Biblical perspective on the law as given from the Apostle.
First, the law is not sin. It does reveal sin, however. And where the law is, there sin will be magnified. This reality lies not in the essence of the law, but in the heart of man. With the fall of Adam, all humanity became fallen creatures. We are born with a sin nature. This sin nature is so twisted and perverted that it looks for ways to violate the commands that are given to it. Paul uses the example of covetousness. He says that he would not have known covetousness if it were not for the law. But what he does not say is, "I would never have coveted if there had been no commandment against it." Instead, Paul shows how the law revealed sin in him, and how that his sin, taking opportunity by the law strengthened its resolve to be sin in him.
It is as if we are walking down the sidewalk in the park and we see a sign that says, "Do not step on the grass." Our natural inclination is to look around to see who's watching, and then, when the coast is clear, touch our toe to the grass.
As a father of two boys, I can observe this reality with them. "Don't stick your finger in the light socket!" Zzzaaap! "Don't touch the stove!" Ssssss! Thankfully, they only have to learn those lessons once. But the reason they don't go back time after time after time and touch the stove or stick their fingers in the light socket is not that they don't want to. It's that they know the pain that comes when the stove is on. It's hot. They don't like that.
I would submit that it is the same with us. Let's just imagine that there is someone out there who has not physically broken any of the commands of the Decalogue. They have never stolen, never murdered, never committed adultery, and never lied. But there is always this one command that has been broken by every single one of us. It is not a command against a specific action, but a command against the attitude of the heart. Covetousness. And by this one command we have broken all the commandments. We have not committed adultery, but we have looked with lust. We have not stolen, but we have coveted. We have not murdered, but we have wished our enemies were dead. And the only reason we have not acted upon those desires is that we know the penalty. We know that adulterers lose their families, murderers lose their lives, thieves lose their freedom.
Second, Paul says that the law produced sin in him. Sin was made more abundant because of the presence of the law. The good, holy, and righteous commandments served only to remind him that he was a sinner, and then his sins began to multiply. I could repeat a lot of what I wrote in the last point about how we are so perverted that hearing a prohibition actually gives us the desire to break that prohibition. The point is, the law awakens my sin that had lain dormant, not because the law is evil, but because my response to the law is twisted.
Third, Paul tells Timothy that the law is good if it is used lawfully. There are two main uses of the law. First, the law shows us our sin. Second, the law is a deterrent of evil.
The first point is fairly obvious. The law shows us our own sin. When we read that we are to love God, and we see that we don't love God, the law has shown that we are sinners in that point.
The second point seems to fly in the face of what we have already said, that the law increases sin. It multiplies sin in us. But really the two go hand in hand. Just as our evil desires are awakened in us by the commandments, the commandments also deter us from acting upon those desires by imposing a penalty. So sin multiplies within us, and we are guilty of those sins, yet we refrain from acting upon those sinful impulses, because of the penalty they will bring. When the pleasure of sin outweighs the pleasure of no penalty, we will act on those desires. But the law, used lawfully, should keep mankind from extinguishing itself through our sinful actions.
Finally, Paul says that the law is not for the just, or the righteous, man. The law has been ordained by God for sinners. This is a fairly simple point, but a very important point for understanding the role of the law in the life of those who have been born again. I'm going to stop before I get to far ahead of myself, but let me conclude with this. The law is written upon the hearts of believers. The Spirit indwells believers. Paul says that those who walk by the Spirit do not gratify the desires of the flesh and that if you are led by the Spirit, then you are not under the law, which is a good place not to be. (Gal 5:16-18)