Look at your life. Is it the way you want it to be? I do not mean do you have the possessions you want or have you accomplished what you want. I mean, how is your inner self? Are you the kind of person that you want to be? Do you find it easy to do the things you are supposed to and avoid the things that are wrong? Sometimes living the Christian life is like trying to do something in the mirror. You want to move your hand to the left, but you move it to the right. When you try to fix your mistake, you just move it even more to the right. It can be a frustrating situation. We can find some consolation in that the Apostle Paul shares something similar from his own experience. Paul has already shared that sin is something that affects the entire human race. It is one thing to say that as a theological statement. It is another thing to make it personal. What does it mean for us as individuals to acknowledge our sinfulness? Are we prepared to confess that even our good deeds are touched by sin? And does admitting these things lead naturally to a hopeless situation? Let us take a look at what this means.
One of the things that Paul is really interested in is that of the Law. This would seem to hold great promise for dealing with the sin problem that Paul has been talking about. The Law was not something that some smart people thought up. They were not just some nice religious ideas. The Law was revelation from God. The people of Israel had just escaped slavery in Egypt. They were just about to begin their history as a nation. Moses went up Mount Sinai and met with God. God had no intention to abandon Israel after rescuing them from slavery. God revealed to Moses the Law, a comprehensive set of commandments that covered almost every area of life. This Law has helped define the Hebrew people and continues to be central to Jews to this day. Well, this would seem to be the answer to the sin problem. We naturally sin. God gives us a list of rules and all we have to do is obey. We do the good things and avoid the bad things. Simple. But there are some problems. One is that this is very hard to do. But in another way, the Law seems to make things worse. This is what Paul seems to be saying. In a way, Law is responsible for sin. If there were no rules to break, then there would be no wrong doing. You would not know something is wrong unless someone told you. I remember working for some Christians as I was making movement toward faith. I was trying not to swear but one of the phrases that I used and saw as an innocent alternative was “O my God.” I never thought anything of it. Then my manager snuck up behind me and scared me and I yelled it. He was horrified that I would say such a thing and I was surprised that he was offended. I did not know it was against the rules. If it was not against the rules, I wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong. In a way, the rules were responsible for my sin. If you drive at a high rate of speed on the autobahn in Germany where there is no speed limit, you are not doing anything wrong. Rules help to define what is right and wrong and if there are no rules, there is no way to say someone has done something wrong. But there is something else going on. It is not just that the Law identifies sin, in a way it provokes sin. How is that? What is your first thought when you see a sign saying “Do not touch”? I want to touch. If there had been no sign, it would not even enter my mind to touch it. It is the holding out of something forbidden that makes it desirable. The rule awakens something in us, a rebelliousness that desires to go against the system. So you can see why Paul does not present the Law as the solution to our sin problem. There is one nagging question though. Why did God give the Law if the Law does not help but makes things worse? Well, the Law does do some good. The Law provided limits to behaviour that was especially required as Israel began as a nation. While the Israelites often broke the Law, their attempts at following the Law were at least better than if there had been no Law. The Law is also good in that it points toward the holiness of God. Many of the things found in the Law are not wrong simply because they are found in a piece of legislation. Why is murder wrong? Why is adultery wrong? They were wrong long before Moses. They are wrong because they go against the character of God. The Law gives us a glimpse of that character. Finally, the Law points us to the need for Christ and that is what we are now going to look at.
We often hear people say “Where there is a will, there is a way.” What does that mean? All we have to do is put our will to something and we can make what we want to happen. With enough effort and determination, we can take control of our destiny. But is that the case? Paul gives his view. He tries to do what is right and it doesn’t work. He tries to avoid what is wrong and it doesn’t work. It is not about effort, it is about something deeper. No matter how hard we try to be good, we will never achieve the standard we are aiming for. We may do something completely selfless. Then we notice that we did something selfless. Then we feel pretty good about that selfless act. Then an unhealthy pride creeps into our hearts and the next selfless act is done hoping that people will see and praise us for how selfless we are. This is the trap that Paul is identifying. We want to be better but we can’t. There is something within us that brings us down. The Law does not help us, it only shines a spotlight on what we already know. We try and try and only dig our hole deeper. This would seem to lead to a hopeless situation. We get a sense of despair from Paul when he says “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24 NIV) It is a terrible trap to be in but it is not a hopeless trap. Paul does not go into detail here, but he does give us a quick answer to the question he asked: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25 NIV) This is one of the uses of the Law. The Law reminds us how sinful we are. We try to remedy this by working harder. We get frustrated that our hard work does not pay off. We are put into a position in which the only answer is to rely on Jesus. But that is a story for another day.
It is a terrible feeling to be trapped. To be put in a place where you cannot escape. Sin is such a trap. There is the Law but the Law only provides definition to the trap. It helps us to see the details of the bars of our cage but it does not provide the keys to unlock the cage. We are trapped. The Law cannot get us out. Our will cannot get us out. But Jesus can get us out. What Paul wants us to see is that we will not even want Jesus‘ help until we get to the place where we know how trapped we really are. When we come to the end of our abilities, that is when the grace of God takes over.