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.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For 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. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13 ESV)
Paul asks a question: “Is the law sin?” “What a ghastly thought!” Of course not. The law showed him what sin was. He illustrates with coveting. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” What happened when the law said, “Don’t covet.” He wanted to covet—as a matter of fact—coveting of every kind.
In verse 9, he says: “I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” In other words, before there was a law, I had no conscious awareness that coveting was a sin. But when the law came, I became aware and I began to sin. And that sin resulted in death for me.”
Notice the purpose of the law—its purpose was to bring life, not death. However, when sin got hold of the law, sin said, “The law says you can’t do this, but you really can and you will really enjoy it. As a matter of fact, the only reason the law says, “no” is because you will have so much fun doing it. So, go ahead. Have a great time. Covet your neighbor’s wife. After all, everybody else is doing it. And your neighbor doesn’t treat her wife quite right anyway.” What has happened? Sin has taken the commandment, “Do not covet,” and turned it into the most desirable thing to do.
“Did that which is good then bring death to me? By no means!” The law did not cause Paul to sin. What then, did the law do? The law simply pointed out what sin was. And not only that. The law made sin look exceedingly sinful.
I love the way Spurgeon explains this.
Paul here calls sin “sinful beyond measure.” Why didn’t he say. “exceedingly black,” or “exceedingly horrible,” or “exceedingly deadly”? Why, because there is nothing in the world so bad as sin. When he wanted to use the very worst word he could find, to call sin by, he called it by its own name, and reiterated it: “sin,” “sinful beyond measure.” For if you call sin black, there is no moral excellency or deformity in black or white. Black is as good as white, and white is as good as black, and you have expressed nothing. If you call sin “deadly,” yet death in itself has no evil in it compared with sin. For plants to die is not a dreadful thing; rather it may be a part of the organization of nature that successive generations of vegetables should spring up, and in due time should form the root-soil for other generations to follow. If you call it “deadly,” you have said but little. If you want a word, you must come home for it. Sin must be named after itself. If you want to describe it, you must call it “sinful.” Sin is “exceedingly sinful.”
That’s what Paul is talking about. The law says, “Do not touch.” We want to touch. And deep in us is a great desire for sin (called the flesh) and the flesh longs to be satisfied. The law simply pointed out sin. Sin used the law to make sin even more attractive. Look back at verse 6. There you see the new motivation. “new way of the Spirit.”
The law is an external, objective standard to which we conform. The Spirit is an internal, subjective Person to whom we relate.