If you were a Jew who cherished the law God gave to Moses, you probably would have been offended by Paul’s repeated associations of the law with sin. So far in this epistle Paul has said that the law brings knowledge of sin (3:20), wrath (4:15), many trespasses (5:13–16), an increase in sin (5:20), and the arousal of sinful passions (7:5). And you were probably familiar with Paul’s earlier claim that the law is “the power of sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56).
Like many Jews in his day, you would say that Paul blames the law for sin and thinks the law itself is sinful. Thus you would reject his gospel hands-down as heresy.
Now comes Paul’s response in his familiar question-answer-explanation format. Is the law sin? “By no means!” The law has a life-saving purpose, Paul explains. Charles Swindoll says the law is “God’s diagnostic tool. Its purpose is to expose the disease of sin and to confront us with the prognosis: the disease is deadly if not treated, but it’s completely curable.” The law, he says, causes death no more than the MRI causes cancer. It tells me I am a sinner needing a Savior.
All along, Paul’s critique of the law has had nothing to do with its content or with the Lawgiver. Rather, he has found it to be impotent against the power of sin. Not only that, but the law’s weakness weakens those who rely on it. J. I. Packer quotes Augustine: “The law bids us, as we try to fulfill its requirements, and become wearied in our weakness under it, to know how to ask the help of grace.”
One role the law does perform well in regard to sin is to reveal it. Paul’s reference to the sin of covetousness—a direct violation of the 10th commandment—is masterful for three reasons.Revealing the sinful heart
First, Paul knew it is possible to live one’s life without committing murder, theft, or adultery, but unlike these external sins, covetousness is a matter of thoughts, desires, and affections. Robert Utley says the term covet meant “to set one’s heart on” or “to desire strongly.” It lies at the root of all wickedness, the heart, and is the springboard for other sins. David coveted Bathsheba and Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard, and both became murderers.
In addition to violating the 10th commandment, covetousness treads on two others as well. By elevating another person or thing above God, it violates the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before Me”). And it entails idolatry, breaking the second commandment. Both in Ephesians (5:5) and Colossians (3:5–6) Paul calls covetousness idolatry, adding that it is as serious as to exclude a person from the kingdom of Christ and God. Idolaters self-select out of the kingdom, like the rich young ruler who valued his possessions over King Jesus (Mark 10:17–23), or Demas, who was “in love with this present world” and deserted Paul (2 Timothy 4:10).Defense of the law
Another mark of Paul’s brilliance in this passage is that his reference to covetousness was a persuasive counter-argument to his Jewish critics. Colin Kruse notes that Jewish tradition held covetousness to be “the root of all sin” and “the core and sum of the law.” Paul demonstrates to these lovers of the law his appreciation of the law’s ability to expose this important sin.
The original coveter
Third, Paul displays his proficiency as a rhetorician by linking covetousness to the origin of sin. Charles Cranfield, like many other commentators, sees verses 7–11 as Paul’s exposition of the Genesis narrative where Adam followed his wife in succumbing to the temptation to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). As Douglas Moo says,
Adam’s sin was to disobey God’s commandment not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and Paul likely discerned that Adam’s disobedience, viewed retrospectively, put him in violation of the commandments later given to Moses. Covetousness was at the root not only of Adam’s desire to be like God but also his apparent valuing of Eve over God. In the next couple of messages, I will expand on the Adam reference, along with other details that Paul brings to this passage through his artful use of the rhetorical “I.”