Strength of Sin is the Law
Jesus said, "Whosoever practices sin is the slave of sin."
John 8:34. Sin has a lot of slaves. Not one is happy. They are all
miserable. There are the willing slaves, who serve sin with both
hands greedily. There are the unwilling slaves, who weary themselves
to commit iniquity, who detest their bondage but who are slaves
just the same.
Some fool themselves in thinking that they can leave off sin as
soon as they choose. Only those who have really tried to break from
its service know that they are held by a mysterious power that no
man can master.
A mysterious power ... What is it? Is sin itself very powerful?
Most of us would answer, "Yes." We glorify sin by imputing
to it some wonderful power which it never did have. But sin has
no intrinsic power of its own.
Sin's power to enslave men is derived – derived from the
law of God. Says the apostle Paul, "The strength of sin is
the law." 1 Cor. 15:56. Apart from the law of God, there would
be no sin (Rom. 4:15; 5:13), and sin would have no power to hold
men in its service. The greatest part of Romans 7 is spent in explaining
this great truth.
First the apostle
uses an illustration to show that it is the law which binds us to
the service of sin:
For the woman
which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long
as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the
law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she
be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress:
but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that
she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. Wherefore,
my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of
Christ; that ye should be married to Another, even to Him who
is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto
God. Rom. 7:2-4.
Here is a woman who has
a husband. She may hate him and prefer to be married to a better
man. But she is held – bound – not by the husband but
by the law. It is the law which binds her to the husband.
So we by nature are "married" to sin. It is much more
desirable to be "married to Another, even to Him who is raised
from the dead." The power that holds us in that first union
is not sin but the law. In Romans 7 Paul is talking about becoming
"dead to the law" and being "delivered from the law."
vv. 4, 6. The point must be clear: We cannot escape the clutches
of sin as long as the law binds us. We need to be "delivered
from the law."
Then, in verse 5, Paul goes a step further. "While we were
living in the flesh [our unregenerate state], our sinful passions,
aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear
fruit for death." Sinful passions aroused by the law! How could
one brought up to respect and honor the law tolerate such a thought
as this! But now further: "But now we are discharged from the
law, dead to that which held us captive." v. 6. The law holds
us captive! How could those who make their boast in the law endure
the apostle's message! But further: "But sin, finding opportunity
in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart
from the law sin lies dead." v. 8. That is to say, sin has
no power apart from the law; but (if we may personify sin) sin goes
to the law and says, "Will you grant me permission to take
possession of this man?" "Yes," says the law, "you
have my permission." Sin goes off with this authority, takes
possession of the man and works in him all manner of evil desires.
The apostle anticipates our question, "Is the law sin?"
"God forbid," he replies. "The law is holy, and the
commandment holy, and just, and good." vv. 7, 12.
But now the question arises, How can a holy, just and good law
bind us to the service of sin, hold us captive and actually give
to sin power to work in us all manner of evil desires? Is this the
real purpose of the law? Did God give man a law to shut him up in
the jail house of sin?
The Purpose of the Law
And the commandment,
which was ordained unto life, found to be unto death. Rom. 7:10.
Originally the law was ordained to life. God made man perfect and
gave him a perfect law. It was a "royal law," "the
law of liberty." God promised Adam life on condition of perfect
obedience. Adam was qualified to render perfect obedience by the
very perfection of his nature. As long as he obeyed, the law justified
him. The law was his friend and protector.
Then man rebelled against the law. With all the fury and power
of divine authority, the law sentenced him to death, became his
jailer and threw him into prison.
Let me illustrate: You have good laws in this great land. As long
as you respect, honor and obey these laws, the law is your friend
and protector. But suppose you rebel and become an enemy of the
law. What then? The law will become your adversary. It will take
hold of you and cast you into prison.
So it is that the law of God was originally ordained to life. But
fallen, rebel man finds it unto death! The law has become his jailer.
He has chosen the service of sin, and now the justice of God's law
demands that he serve the master of his choice. Justice has bound
him over to the miserable service of sin.
Suppose a criminal is thrown into jail and sentenced to the hard
labor of crushing rocks till the day he dies. He may not have any
particular love for crushing rocks. He may prefer doing something
else. By what power is he kept at the miserable task? By the power
of the law. The law put him into prison, and the law keeps him in
prison. The only way he can be delivered from his miserable vocation
is to be delivered from the power of the law.
Those who remember the
world of Charles Dickens could vividly bring to mind the debtor's
prison. If a man owed a debt, his creditor could get an injunction
against him and have him thrown into prison. He could not come out
until he paid the last penny.
We are in debt to the
law of God in a twofold sense:
1. We owe it fulfillment
by a life of perfect obedience.
2. We owe it satisfaction
by the kind of death that will meet its penalty.
Justice demands that
we stay in our debtor's prison, with no hope of coming out until
we pay our debt to the law. We are shut in by an omnipotent power.
The man who thinks he can break away from the service of sin by
anything he can do, is trying to make himself greater than the law,
which is as great as God Himself. There is no human power or devising
that can deliver us from that just law, which has sentenced us to
Yet all of the human
race are "prisoners of hope."
But the Scripture
consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in
Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith
came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until
faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until
Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. Gal. 3:22-24,
comes by faith, makes the prisoner free. Not that there is any virtue
in faith itself, but there is redemption in the object of faith—Jesus
Christ Himself. The gospel is about Jesus Christ and what He has
done for us. He so loved us that He considered heaven not a place
to be desired while we were prisoners without hope. Seeing that
we were hopelessly in debt to the law and that we could never be
delivered by our own power, He stepped down and took our place.
But when the fullness
of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman,
made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that
we might receive the adoption of sons. Gal. 4:4-5.
In our name and on our
behalf, Jesus paid our debt to the law. "Christ hath redeemed
us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it
is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree." Gal.
3:13. Our debt was twofold, and He paid it twofold:
1. By a life of perfect
obedience, He fulfilled the law for us.
2. By His death on the
cross, He satisfied the law for us.
The old Scottish theologians
called these the active and passive obedience
of Christ. He was our Representative, and what He did was for us—so
that it was just the same as if we had personally done it. We were
lost in Adam but restored in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17-19). Just as
we sinned in Adam, so we lived sinlessly and died to the penalty
of the law in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:14). The good news is that
we paid our debt in the doing and dying of Jesus Christ.
Although Christ has signed
our emancipation papers with His own blood, His redemption is effective
only when we "repent ... and believe the gospel."
Repentance is sorrow
for sin, a change of attitude to the law of God. We were shut up
because we were rebels; and just as long as we remain hostile to
God's law, we will remain in prison.
I once visited the old
convict settlement in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Still exhibited is
the "dark room," where were placed incorrigible prisoners.
It was an underground room so dark that the blackness was terrifying.
An hour in it would subdue most men. But there was one defiant fellow
who was shut up in the "dark room" for a whole day. At
the end of the day, the jailer opened the door to see if the poor
wretch had had enough. But the prisoner spat in the jailer's face.
You can guess what happened. He was locked in again!
The law is our jailer,
and we may be sure that no one will get out if he is bent on despising
the law of God. No one comes out without repentance.
It is faith, however,
that frees us from the jail house of sin. Faith lays hold of what
Christ has done, and God puts the obedience of Christ to the sinner's
account. Therefore he who believes on Jesus Christ has fulfilled
the whole law (Rom. 10:4). He is no longer a debtor. Before justice
he stands as one who has borne the penalty of sin. He has died to
the law in his Substitute, Jesus Christ. And in Jesus Christ he
stands before it with a sinless life.
Therefore the law no
longer binds the believer in Jesus to the prison house of sin. The
jailer, seeing that the debt is paid, opens the jail, and the child
of faith is free to pass out. He is no longer bound by the law to
that miserable first husband. No longer can sin take occasion from
the commandment to work in him all manner of evil desires. Justification
makes the believer legally free from the old service of
Faith that Works
Bondage is the result
of a wrong relationship to the law. A rebel who hates the law has
a wrong relationship to the law. Naturally the law will bind him
as a slave to serve sin. The legalist also has a wrong relationship
to the law. The doctrine of salvation by means of sincere obedience
to the law is the worst kind of antinomianism. The man who holds
this doctrine is a debtor, and sin will get permission from the
law to stir up all kinds of evil passions in him.
means to be set right before the law. And those who are set right
before the law are not bound in prison. What joy to know that when
we believe in Jesus Christ, sin has lost all its legal rights over
us! We do not have to serve it any more. We have no need to tremble
at its power. Faith is not just a nod of assent. It works! Unless
it works, it is not faith at all but a counterfeit.
To believe the gospel
is to believe that our debt to the law is paid, the law is no longer
our jailer and sin has no more power to keep us in its service.
How may we prove that we believe this gospel? By our works —
by walking out of the prison house, by rising up in faith and going
out of the house of bondage.
The time to exercise
faith is not when we feel that sin has lost its power. No indeed!
When our sinful nature clamors for indulgence, then is the time
to prove the power in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then it is time
for faith to say, "Sin, you have lost all your power to hold
me, for I am a believer in Jesus Christ." He who then steps
forward in the faith of God's Word, will find the truth a living
reality, for the same omnipotent power that bound him in prison
is now on his side to keep him free.
Faith makes the Christian
free, and by faith he maintains his freedom. This is freedom not
to sin. With faith goes obedience, for the Christian has a new relationship
to the law. It is no longer his enemy but his friend. It has become
again "the royal law," "the law of liberty"
(James 2:8, 12). He serves it "in newness of spirit, and not
in the oldness of the letter" (Rom. 7:6). With Paul he says:
"I delight in the law of God after the inward man." Rom.
7:22. "With the mind I myself serve the law of God." Rom.
7:25. "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid:
yea, we establish the law." Rom. 3:31.