Limits of the Law: The law serves a good purpose—up to a point

Verse: Romans 7:1-32

Romans 7:18  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

One issue surfaces in virtually every one of Paul’s letters: What good is the law? To most of Paul’s audience, the word law stands for the huge collection of rules and rituals detailed in the Old Testament. Whenever he starts talking about “the new covenant” or “freedom in Christ,” his Jewish listeners want to know what he thinks about Moses’ Law. Does God still require obedience?

Thanks to his years as a Pharisee, Paul knows Moses’ Law well. This chapter, the most personal and autobiographical in Romans, discloses exactly what Paul thinks about this issue.

When the Law is Helpful

Paul never recommends discarding the law. He sees that it reveals a basic code of morality, an expression of behavior that pleases God. The law is good for one thing: exposing sin. “Indeed I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law” (Romans 7:7). To Paul, rules such as the Ten Commandments are helpful, healthful and good.

When the Law is Helpless

The law has one major problem: After proving how bad you are, it doesn’t make you any better. As a carryover from his days of legalism, Paul has a very sensitive conscience. Yet, as he poignantly recounts, it mainly makes him feel guilty. The law that bares his weaknesses cannot provide the power needed to overcome them. The law, or any set of rules, leads ultimately to a dead end.

Outside Help

A strict disciplinarian like Paul has little trouble keeping most of the Ten Commandments. Outward actions such as swearing, murder, adultery, stealing and lying can be measured and controlled. But an internal, invisible sin, such as coveting, proves far more bedeviling. As Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, invisible sins like coveting, lust and anger can have the same toxic effects as the more outward manifestations of stealing, adultery and murder.

Romans 7 gives a striking illustration of the struggle that ensues when an imperfect person commits himself or herself to a perfect God. Any Christian who wonders, “How can I ever get rid of my nagging sins?” will find comfort in Paul’s frank confession. In the face of God’s standards, all of us feel helpless, and that is precisely Paul’s point. No set of rules can break the terrible cycle of guilt and failure. We need outside help to “serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). Chapter 8 celebrates that help.

Life Questions

What personal struggle makes you feel most helpless? Where do you turn?

This devotion is from the NIV Student Bible by Zondervan. Used with permission.