The apostle Paul was still interested in the law of God as a Christian—the same law as he had studied and sought to live by as a Jewish Pharisee (see Acts 26:5; Philippians 3:5). The “apostle of the Gentiles” (see Romans 11:13; 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11) has a lot to teach us all about the law of God.
When he wrote about the “the law”, Paul usually1 meant that body of laws revealed by God and contained in the five books of Moses—which the Jews call the Torah (this word means the Law in Hebrew). He focused his reader’s attention upon the moral laws within “the Law” (the Torah) 2: these comprise God’s own revealed, and precise, definition of what is righteous and what is sin—what is morally right and wrong3.
Both Jews and Gentiles are held accountable by God to his moral law. The truth is as Paul teaches us: “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19).
The Jews were “under the law”—the Law of Moses, which we also know as the Old Covenant. But here Paul affirms that the scope of the core morality of the Torah includes all the “world”4, both Jew and Gentile. For the same moral law is part of the basic innate knowledge of all mankind in the human conscience, even where it is suppressed and rejected (see Romans 1:18; see also Romans 1:28-32; 2:1-3, 14-15).
So, we are all subject to the judgment of God.
I had not known sin, but by the law
The apostle gives testimony of his own experience of the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul—in applying God’s moral law.
He says, “I had not known sin, but by the law…For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me… sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good5; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (Romans 7:7-13; the reader should find it useful to study the whole chapter).
Paul refers to his own pre-regenerate state as being “alive without the law” (v.9). We need to understand what he means by this unexpected statement. For although Paul6 had been a Pharisee in those days, yet he admits that he hadn’t applied that law so rigorously to his own soul as the Holy Spirit would do upon regenerating him. For in his fallen nature (same as with all of us) Paul rejected his predicament as guilty before God, whether as understood by the revealed law or by his conscience.
He describes the time when the Spirit reproved him of righteousness7 (John 16:8-10) as the time when “the commandment came” to him. His conscience was made tender through his regeneration—but at the same time the response of his fallen nature was an even greater rebellion against God; as he said, “sin revived, and I died” (v.9).
That is how man’s sinful nature manifests its enmity against God (Romans 8:7): when confronted by the moral law, it strives to sin all the more! And this is how Paul came to understand how sinful his fallen nature really was.
Paul could not stop himself from sinning (see Romans 7:15, 23). And now he was painfully aware that he was deliberately sinning against God and against his own tender conscience.
His pretence and sanctimonious pride had been ripped away, now that “the commandment came” to him. He now faced the fact that he was indeed a Hell-deserving sinner; and he knew that could not help himself. And now his sins were all, as it were, awake and lively within his heart.
His own sinfulness, by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, now “appeared [to be] sin” to him—it had “become exceeding sinful” (Romans 7:13), in his own opinion.
And so Paul says about himself, “I died.” In other words, Saul the self-righteous Pharisee (or so he had thought) gave up all hope in himself. He now saw his spiritually dead, hopeless, lost, fallen nature for what it was.
He was made to understand that all his so-called righteousnesses were indeed as filthy rags in God’s eyes, and he began to truly hunger and thirst after that righteousness which is “without the law,” namely the righteousness of Christ (Isaiah 64:6; Matthew 5:6).
The knowledge of sin
These experiences of the apostle Paul, which he described in general terms, are the experiences of all the Lord’s people.
If the Holy Spirit applies the moral law to our hearts, so that we know in our own experience what Paul was talking about here, then it stops our mouths boasting about how good we are, because it slays our self-righteous pride. It shows us what we really are—how the righteous God sees us (unless we are saved).
We will no longer think of ourselves with pride for our moral goodness—because now we know the truth: “There is none righteous, no not one…” (Romans 3:10-18)—so, no, I am not righteous, and I cannot be good.
The Holy Spirit shows us our awful predicament before the holy and just God as Hell-deserving sinners. This is how we come to understand how burdened down we are with our sins.
Paul concludes that the lesson the law of God should teach us is this: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his [God’s] sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
But we have not finished learning the lesson of the law if we are left there.
- The Greek word translated “law”, νόμος (nomos) is derived from a word that meant to parcel out or establish areas of land for grazing stock animals. νόμος meant anything that has been established, such as a law, custom, command or designated area with boundaries (Strong’s Concordance). Besides the familiar Jewish and Christian usage of the word νόμος to mean the law of Moses, Paul also sometimes used the phrase the word to mean a part (portion) of his soul, or of the Christian’s soul. Christians have two opposing “laws” within them: an evil one from their old fallen nature, which Paul refers to as the “law of sin”, “law in my members” and “law of sin and death”; and a good one from their new (regenerate) nature—“the law of my mind”, “the law of faith” and “the law of the Spirit of life” (compare Romans 3:37; 7:5,21-25; 8:1-4; Galatians 5:16-18; Ephesians 4:22-24).↩
- Besides the moral laws, the Torah (Mosaic Law) also contained numerous judicial laws pertaining to the societal rule under the governors and magistrates of the Old Testament nation of Israel; and ceremonial laws pertaining to Israel’s religious worship and observances (clothing, food, hygiene, feasts, sabbaths, etc.) and to the Tabernacle (later, Temple) and its sacrifices, under the Levitical priesthood. Compare the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 19, and the Congregationalists’ Savoy Declaration, chapter 19.↩
- The moral law of God is summarised (or, as more precisely stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer to question 41, “summarily comprehended”) in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). It is expounded and applied to the people and nation of Isarael in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and its spiritual depths are revealed by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7).↩
- The word world is used to translate the New Testament Greek word κόσμος (kosmos) (Strong’s Concordance).↩
- By “that which is good” Paul obviously means the Law. See also Romans 7:12, 16; 1 Timothy 1:8.↩
- Paul was previously known as Saul when he was a Pharisee (see Acts chapter 9; 13:9; Romans 1:1).↩
- See chapter 24, When the Comforter has Come.↩