Law and Gospel: Feeling the Force of the Law
Not very long ago, I couldn't sleep so I turned on the radio and heard Ray Taliaferro, an all-night talk show host out of San Francisco, ranting and raving about Christianity (which is par for the course for Mr. Taliaferro). He stated that he was not a sinner and challenged the listeners to tell him how he had sinned. He also challenged the listeners to tell him how a three month old baby who dies had sinned and deserved to be killed by God.
Mr. Taliaferro apparently doesn't take sin seriously. God left us with two commandments (not suggestions): love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Whenever you breach these two commandments by action or inaction, you have committed a sin against God. God takes sin very, very seriously, and Mr. Taliaferro’s attempt to claim to be without sin completely ignores the reality of sin!
The Apostle Paul, as we know, was raised in a godly home. He was raised a Jew in the city of Tarsus. He was brought up to be a typical Jewish son, and he was taught the Law from birth. So when he says he was alive "apart from the Law" (Romans 7:9) he doesn't mean that he didn't know what the teachings of the Law. He simply means that there came a time when the Law came home to him ("the commandment came," he says), i.e., a time that the weight of the law became felt by him. In effect, Paul thought he was righteous because he was keeping the law. Maybe he didn't think he was without sin, but he certainly felt that he was living consistent with God's expectations and that was tantamount, in his eyes, to being without sin.
Many of us have had that experience. We have read Scripture that was just words to us, but we didn't understand them. Then, years after, an experience that we go through makes those words come alive. This is what Paul is talking about. He knew the Law from birth, but he did not know it in the sense of understanding what it was saying until he went through a certain experience.
In this home in which he was raised, Paul, like many of us today, was protected and sheltered and kept from exposure to serious temptations. He was raised in the Jewish culture, where everyone around him was sheltered also. Therefore, he grew up relatively untroubled with problems of sin.
Many "Christians" in the church, as well as non-Christians, suffer from this deluded belief. Many grow up in homes where they have been protected and sheltered, and they have run with a crowd of friends who, likewise, have been kept from exposure to various things. Our present church culture that asks us to be in the world but not of the world has been interpreted by many to mean that we ought to separate ourselves and our children from society so that they are not exposed to the sinful elements of the world. This separation leads them to the erroneous belief that they haven't fallen into evil. Many young people, like Saul of Tarsus, think they have handled the problem. What about keeping the Law? It's not hard! Hardly any temptations come under these circumstances. These people think they have no struggles along this line. They have the world by the tail they can handle it. As Paul describes it, they are alive apart from the Law.
But then comes a time when they are exposed. They are thrust out into a different lifestyle, a different crowd of people. They move out on their own and suddenly they find themselves removed from the shelter and protection and love and cultural defenses that have been theirs from childhood on. Perhaps the new crowd -- as a way of life -- does things that these sheltered young people have been taught are wrong.
Now, for the first time, they feel the force of the prohibition of the Law. The Law says, "Thou shalt not covet, commit adultery, murder, steal ..." whatever it may be. And yet the crowd around them says, "Let's do it it's fun!" For the first time, they begin to feel the prohibition of the Law. Then a strange phenomenon happens. Something about that situation arouses within them a strong desire to do the things that are prohibited. Maybe they are able to resist them for awhile, but, nevertheless, they find themselves pressured, pushed by something within them that wants very badly to do these things.
This same feeling is what Paul discovered. It may have been the tenth commandment, "Thou shalt not covet", that got to him. He thought he had been keeping all the Law because he had not done some of the external things prohibited in the other commandments. But this one commandment talks about how you feel inside, your desires, your imagination, your ambitions. It says, "Thou shalt not desire what another has." Paul may have found himself awakened to this commandment and discovered that he was coveting, no matter where he turned. When the Law came, he found himself aroused by it and brought under its power. It precipitated an orgy of desire. Many of us have felt this same way.
When young people, raised in sheltered homes, move out on their own perhaps when they go to college, or get a job, or move to another city they can find that suddenly all the control they had seemed to be exercising over evil vanishes. They give way and are plunged into evil, in one form or another.
Sin lies silent within us. We do not even know it is there. We think we have got hold of life in such a way that we can handle it without difficulty. We are self confident because we have never really been exposed to the situation that puts pressure upon us we never have to make a decision against the pressure on the basis of the commandment of the Law "Thou shalt not... "
But when that happens, we suddenly discover all kinds of desires are awakened within us. We find ourselves filled with attitudes that almost shock us unloving, bitter, resentful thoughts, murderous attitudes. Lustful feelings that we never dreamed were there surface and we find that we would love to indulge in them if only we had the opportunity. We find ourselves awakened to these desires. As the great engine surges into life at the touch of the accelerator, so this powerful, idling beast within us called sin springs into life as the Law comes home to us. We discover something that we never knew was there before.
Now, is this the Law's fault? No, Paul says, it is not the Law's fault. According to Romans 7: 12 13:
So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful [exceedingly sinful].
That is what the Law is for. It is to expose the fact that this evil force is in every one of us, waiting only for the right circumstance in order to spring into being, overpower our will, and carry us into things we never dreamed we would do. Many of us experience this. According to this passage, the great power of sin is that it deceives us. We think we have got life under control and we are fooled. All sin is waiting for is the right occasion when, like a powerful, idling engine, it roars into life and takes over at the touch of the accelerator and we find ourselves helplessly under its control.
The Law is designed to expose that sin, and to make us feel this way so that we begin to understand what this evil force is that we have inherited by our birth into this fallen human race. The Law shows sin to be what it is, something exceedingly powerful and dangerous, something that has greater strength than our willpower and causes us to do things that we are resolved not to do.
I feel sorry for Mr. Taliaferro and anyone like him who does not recognize the extent of their own depravity. But the power of the Gospel only becomes powerful to a person who recognizes that he or she needs a savior, i.e., who recognizes that they have sinned and cannot keep the Law. We cannot do it on our own, but need the outside assistance of God through the life, death and resurrection of His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.