By the Law Is the Knowledge of Sin

The apostle Paul gives testimony of his own experience of the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul—in applying God’s moral law.

By Simon Padbury 23 February 2019 7 minutes read

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). As the “apostle of the Gentiles” (see Romans 11.13; 1 Timothy 2.7; 2 Timothy 1.11) Paul has a lot to teach Christians about the law of God, and he has included his teachings in his epistles.

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:”2 these comprise God’s own revealed, and precise, definition of what is righteous and what is sin—what is morally right and wrong.3

So, we are all subject to the judgment of God.

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 that all mankind has 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).

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 good;5 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 back 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, that seems to be a contradiction but it is not. For although Paul6 had been a Pharisee of the Jews, yet he confesses that in those days 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 had 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 righteousness (John 16.8-10)6:1 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, we strive to sin all the more! And though observing this devastating fact in his own case, Paul came to understand how sinful his fallen nature really was.

Paul (or Saul7, as he was then called) could not stop himself sinning (see Romans 7.15,23). And now, by the reproving of the Holy Spirit, he was painfully aware that he was deliberately sinning against God and against his own renewed, tender conscience.

Paul’s pretense and sanctimonious pride was stripped away when “the commandment came” to him. Now he 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, awakened and lively within his heart.

His own sinfulness, by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, now “appeared sin” to him—it had “become exceeding sinful” (Romans 7.13), in his own opinion.

And so Paul says about himself, “I died.” Here is where Saul the self-righteous Pharisee (or so he had thought) gave up all hope in himself. His eyes were now opened, and he could see his 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).

These heart-experiences of the apostle Paul, which he described in general terms without going into the details of his own particular sins, 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 at all, and I cannot be good at all. For unless God has put new life into my soul, I am spiritually dead in my sins, and I remain a Hell-deserving sinner.

The Holy Spirit shows us our awful predicament before the holy and just God. This is how we come to understand how burdened down we are with our sins.

Paul concludes that the lesson God’s law 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.

  1. The New Testament Greek word translated “law” is νόμος (nomos), which 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, Greek Dictionary, number 3551). Besides the familiar Jewish and Christian usage of the word νόμος to mean the law of Moses, Paul also sometimes used the same 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). ↩︎

  2. Besides the moral laws, the Hebrew Torah (the first five Books of Moses, containing what is often called the 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 Torah) ↩︎

  3. The moral law of God is summarised in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20.1-17; Deuteronomy 5.6-21) (Or, to be more precise, the moral law is “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments, as is said in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer to question 41.) 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). ↩︎

  4. The word “world” is used to translate the New Testament Greek word κόσμος, kosmos (Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, number 2889). ↩︎

  5. By “that which is good,” Paul obviously means the Law. See also Romans 7.12,16; 1 Timothy 1.8. ↩︎

  6. See When the Comforter Has Come. ↩︎ ↩︎

  7. Paul was previously known as Saul when he was a Pharisee (see Acts chapter 9; 13.9; Romans 1.1). ↩︎