7 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. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12 (ESV)
“The very commandment that promised life proved to be death for me.”
The law is good and holy, but sin takes advantage of the law to work death within us, to kill us. The law doesn’t do what it promises to do. The promise is tacit, yet sometimes explicit. “Do this and you will live.” But the futility of it! The dos and the don’ts pile up and pile up and a person suffocates under the weight of it all, and it traps you anyway. But more than that, it causes sin to come alive, and it lives at your expense. Its life means your death.
It isn’t that the law is evil, or bad. But sin takes advantage of the law to kill, something the law could not do if it wasn’t actually holy and good, something it could not do if it was not an expression of God’s will. For God alone is judge. It is God alone who is able to kill and raise up. It is in God alone that we live, move, breath and have our being. Our life is in his hands. But our will is not his will. Our will is against his will, and chafes at his will.
But this is a problem in the church today, and a very hard one for us sinners to avoid, especially as pastors. The law easily deceives us with its promise. When things are going wrong we think more law is needed. We think law will solve the problem. And it never does. It can diagnose the problem, but it can never solve the problem. Most often it complicates and exacerbates the problem.
Sometimes I read articles about Christians and their shortcomings as compared to others. The articles are always problematic on many different levels. But I do tend to think perhaps there is a thread of truth to them, and perhaps directly related to what this passage tells us about the law and how sin works. Today, too many pastors are afraid of the gospel. They won’t preach it. Or they will make you earn it with your repentance. (They need to see it before they will give it, and they determine what it is that will show repentance…) In short though, they will not preach the gospel. They will not preach the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ’s death and resurrection. Why? Because they are afraid it will allow for sin. On the other hand, they will tell you they are preaching the gospel which they confuse with the promise of the law, do this and you will live. The result is, not only do their people go home unforgiven, but they go home with sin aroused and made alive with in them. Ad despair to that cocktail, and they may never come back to church. But just as the law does what is counterintuitive to the sinners mindset, awakens sin, so the gospel does what is counter intuitive, it makes us alive which is the death of sin. If sin lives to our expense, we live at the expense of sin. The gospel awakens faith, which is ultimately the greatest expression of repentance there is. The gospel pours the life and love of Christ into our souls and hearts that it my flood over into every aspect of our life, and restore to us the joy of salvation.
When a pastor preaches the death and resurrection of Christ for you. When the pastor freely forgives the sins of his congregation, then yes, they go home and still find sin in their lives. This will be a reality for our entire journey in this world. In fact, they may even find more sin than they previously knew existed. Paul speaks about coveting in this way. He didn’t know he was guilty of it, the law came and he became more guilty of it. The devil has a way of throwing obvious and manifest sins in our face to cause despair in our lives, but often this is just as much his way of distracting us from sin in our lives. The Holy Spirit on the other hand, doesn’t through sin in our face, but leads us to confront sin in ever darker recesses of our souls. Things we don’t think of as sin get brought to our attention, we realize how arrogant and rude we are in our shows of earthly righteousness, often confused in Christian circles with sanctification that pastors try to manufacture with the preaching of the law. We begin to see the lies we tell ourselves to convince us that we are really good, or doing the right thing. And in all this we are put to death by the law. But when we are in Christ this death is a good thing, because only when the kernel of wheat dies and is buried can it be brought to life. And in Christ we are resurrected to walk in the newness of life, to walk in the newness of the Spirit, in the joy of our salvation.
Yes, preach forgiveness of sins and your people will still sin. This is true for the law too. Both congregations will go home that afternoon as sinners. But preach forgiveness and your people go home forgiven, and forgiven they are given a good conscience, and a clean heart from which love issues, and that is the aim of our charge.