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. 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. 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.
I just returned from vacation in Northern Ontario. Our family has an island on Lake Temagami. This year, my dad told me about a great opportunity. There is a long access road to reach the lake, and a couple miles away from the landing, there is a dump directly off of the road. There, in big red letters, is a sign that reads “NO BEAR WATCHING.” Naturally, my dad had seen the sign and decided to stop and look for bears. After he saw a bear there, he recommended that we stop there as well. So, on the way home, we stopped in. Once again, there was a decent sized black bear, just wandering around the dump. We all watched it for a minute and then continued on our trip. My three-year-old son continues to use these words to tell the story: “The sign said ‘No Bear Watching’ but we did it anyways!” The funny thing is this: there is more bear watching because of that sign than there would be without it. In fact, if a bear had eaten me while I was watching it (which is of course ridiculous), it would have been a direct result of somebody’s decision to protect us by posting this sign!
As I drove away from the dump (just in time to watch my cousin and his two children pull into the dump to look for bears as well), I realized that this is precisely what St. Paul is talking about above in Romans 7. He is showing that, without the aid of the Spirit of God, those who have the Law aren’t any better off than those who don’t. In fact, they can be worse off. This isn’t because there is anything wrong with God’s law, Paul argues. No, it is because sin uses the law as an opportunity. We hear “You shall not covet” and immediately our minds start coming up with new ways to covet. We hear “Don’t eat the fresh-baked cookies in the cookie jar” and we say, “Ooh, cookies!” We read “NO BEAR WATCHING” and immediately say, “Let’s stop and look for bears!” That’s the problem with giving sinful people an absolute standard of right and wrong… it gives us too many bad ideas.
St. Paul isn’t just giving us bad news… he is preparing us for Romans 8, one of the most uplifting sections of Scripture, describing life in the Spirit. But before he can introduce this, he needs to make us despair of the alternatives. If we want to be holy, the law is not enough. Good preaching is not enough. No amount of information is enough. The Jews are not even a step ahead of the Gentiles, despite the many gifts given to them. Without the active power of the Holy Spirit, we are still nowhere, if not worse off than before. But, when the Spirit of God dwells in us, God does what the law could never do. Then we have the power to really break free of sin… the infinite power of God dwelling in us.