“What should we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin if it were not for the law. For example, I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, Do not covet. And sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind. For apart from the law sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. The commandment that was meant for life resulted in death for me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (Romans 7:7-12 HCSB)
In addition to being a pastor, I also work as a technology professional. I provide support, guidance and leadership in the area of computer systems, networks and information management. In the early years of my career, the Internet was just beginning to emerge from the dark recesses of the Department of Defense and the research institutions that supported the Department’s research efforts. I had the challenge and privilege of designing and building the first network at the University where I worked. As a part of that process, I had to learn from scratch how computers on a network were “addressed” and communicated over the wire that served to connect each of the computer systems to one another. At the time, I had little knowledge of these protocols and even less on how the nodes and their assigned address patterns worked.
I remember reading and re-reading the documentation. Scratching my head, and then reading it, again. As a believer, I knew that I was working and serving in the place were God wanted me, but I sure didn’t understand this “new” thing called a computer network. So as a part of my efforts, I also began to pray for insight and understanding. I needed to understand this and I asked God for His help. Now, some might find it odd that I would seek God’s guidance and help with a job related issue, I don’t. As I studied and tried to make sense out of this network addressing scheme, suddenly it “clicked” and I understood the very issue that had eluded me for days. I give God all the credit and I readily admit, I could never have done my job without Him.
Have you ever had a similar experience? Have you ever struggled for understanding and then had something happen that suddenly made all of the questions and answers fall into place? I’ve heard it referred to as an “aha” moment. Aha, it now makes sense. I get it. The light has turned on and now I understand. Now, I understand! In today’s focal passage, Paul relates a similar experience in his understanding regarding the Law and sin. Let’s take a look…
In last week’s focal passage (vs. 1-6), Paul tells us that we can die to the Law and be alive unto Christ. The relationship between the Law and ourselves was like a struggling marriage and we sought a way to end the relationship – but that could only come through death since marriage is a lifelong covenant relationship. He begins this section anticipating the question from his readers, “then is the Law sin? Absolutely not!” The Law is good and holy because it reveals the truth about sin. Notice, Paul has switched to a first-person past tense narrative in his answer. “On the contrary, I would not have known sin if it were not for the law.” So, the law is the means by which God reveals the true nature of our actions and desires.
Paul then gives an example, one that he seems to have personally struggled with – coveting. The tenth Commandment states, “do not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animals or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Some scholars question whether Paul’s first-person response is truly an autobiographical account of his personal struggle with sin or just an example. I can find very little reason why Paul would suddenly slip into a first-person narrative if he weren’t relating his personal struggles, but I also think that whether it is or isn’t is really irrelevant – it describes the human condition. I don’t recognize my thoughts, feelings, desires or actions as wrong unless I have an external and authoritative source by which to measure myself. Notice, I said external and authoritative source of comparison. Let’s delve a little deeper into those ideas, but separately and then together…
An external source of measurement is sometimes and, I believe, often necessary. Why? Because we seek out ways to validate our thoughts, feelings, desires or actions when they are questioned. Sometimes we seek validation internally, but when someone questions or challenges our view then we generally seek out an external source to validate them. Now, our external source of validation or approval doesn’t have to be correct it just has to “agree” with us – that’s usually enough. We call this “validation or information bias.” If the other source is in agreement then the response will often be, “See, I was right. They agree with me.” In this instance, the authority of the source is not even considered. We are only seeking someone who validates our preconceived notion or belief.
The authority of the belief, information or standard comes into play only when someone challenges or questions us or our source of validation. For example, if we make a choice and someone questions it, we might respond “well, everyone I know is doing the same thing.” Of course, I can hear my mother’s voice responding, “if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?” She would be questioning the authority of “everyone” to render a decision wise or correct for my life choices. And she would be right, wouldn’t she? Here’s a better example, if someone asked “how long is that stick?” You might take a glance at the stick and say, “oh, about 18 inches.” Are you sure? You have two choices, you could ask the other guy standing nearby and he might say, “yeah, it’s about 18 inches.” Or you could take a tape measure and check it and respond, “it is exactly 17 and three quarters of an inch.” The difference? One person confirmed your guess, the other gave you a precise, authoritative answer. Does it make a difference? It depends… if I were asking just to make sure I could burn the stick in my fireplace, probably not. It really just needed to be less than 24 inches to fit. However, if I’m needing one that is exactly 18 inches for a wood project, then the estimate and the affirmation from your friend are not helpful but measuring with a tape is accurate, helpful and authoritative.
So, is an external and authoritative source of validation for sin, like the Law or Scriptures, really necessary? That depends on who you ask and what they believe. If you don’t believe in God, then you are probably willing to accept your friend’s opinion regarding your choices or actions and are likely going to decide they aren’t sin or wrong. If you do believe in God and still ask your friend about your choices or actions and they validate your choices (or feelings, desires and actions) then you’ve simply sought to affirm them, failed to seek a valid, authoritative source and fell into the affirmation/validation/information bias trap.
I hope you stayed with me and followed my argument through those last few paragraphs. I went into that lengthy explanation because Paul assumes the Roman church would value the authoritative position the Law held in their lives. But that’s not true in my culture and, perhaps, your culture. That’s why I said, “it depends on who you ask and what they believe.” In my culture, the Scriptures no longer hold the dominant place of authority by which most people judge their feelings, choices, desires or actions. For some, it has authority but not always the highest place of authority. For most, it has little or no authority. What is authoritative? Personal feelings. Public opinion. Celebrity, social media or popular trends. If you only seek affirmation, these are excellent external sources that will provide all of the affirmation bias you could possibly desire. However, if you really want to know the truth then I suggest you seek the One who is TRUTH, Jesus Christ.
I recognize that you can say “that” is simply my affirmation bias responding – telling you what I think is correct, but hear me out. If I want confirmation on a measurement then I will seek the authority of the tape measure. If I want confirmation about a fashion trend, I would seek out an expert in fashion. If I want confirmation on a legal matter, I’m going to ask a lawyer or judge. If I need confirmation on a matter of sin or the soul, I had better have a talk with God. So, if you believe there’s more to life than just your physical body you need to seek out the expert – God. He created you and He knows what you need, more than anyone else.
So, Paul says that when the Law made him aware of his sin then his sin took on a life of its own – “it sprang to life and I died.” Just a few sentences earlier he said, “sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind.” Sprang to life and sezied an opportunity – sounds like things got a little out of hand when it came to the issue of coveting, doesn’t it? Coveting is just the example he uses, sin takes on all forms and leaves no area of life untouched. There’s a saying, “sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” Jesus put it this way, “A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10 HCSB)
Notice, Paul doesn’t say the commandment seized him and brought death, he says sin “seized an opportunity through the commandment (or Law), deceived me, and through it killed me.” What does that mean? It means that sin doesn’t show its ugly side at first, it makes itself appear attractive and desirable – it deceives us. Remember how the serpent lured Eve? He said, “You won’t die. You’ll be like God.” Then she saw how desirable it was and how good it looked, and she bit! Satan is a master at affirmation bias. He tells us what we want to hear. He shows us what we want to see. He makes it smell good, look good, feel good. He makes certain that it appears to satisfy our desires, make us happy, meet our needs and then, we bite. Only later do we realize what it has done to us, sometimes not even then – still blinded by our desires – but dying, nonetheless.
Some scholars debate over whether this passage is Paul’s personal experience. Me, I’ve never questioned it. Why? Because even if it isn’t Paul’s personal experience, it IS mine. Personally, I believe it is Paul’s experience, and mine, and yours. In fact, I think it is everyone’s experience with sin – or will be. If not in this life, definitely in the next. While I believe in the reality of hell, I also know that the deepest, darkest hell that anyone can experience is in themselves. The most devastating loss is the one we feel, deep in our own soul. The most painful experience we’ve ever endured is in our heart, not our hands. The most excruciating death we will face is not physical, it is spiritual.
So, I’ll end by asking you a question. Do you really want to trust the opinion of your friends or some “hyped” celebrity when it comes to personal sin and its impact on your soul? In fact, I would say that you shouldn’t even believe me. Go to the source. Go to God. Dive into His Word. Pray. Seek Him. The answer to this question is far, far too important to trust Twitter, TikTok, SnapChat, Facebook or any other external, non-authoritative source. You need to ask the One who knows, then listen to Him. Believe Him. Trust Him. Follow Him. He knows where He’s going, and He knows the way.
“Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also. You know the way to where I am going.” “Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way? ” Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:1-6 HCSB)