9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.
10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
With dramatic language, Paul portrays sin as a conniving and deceiving power that feigns death until it finds opportunity to tempt and destroy its victim. Using the rhetorical “I,” Paul seems to personify Adam, as allusions to his fall abound in the passage. The “I” can also be Paul himself as a representative of Israel (see fuller explanation in previous message). One thing is clear: Sin uses the law—in particular, covetousness—as its opportunity to entice humanity to rebel against God.Commandment as the ally of sin
In verse 8, the setting seems to be the Garden of Eden when the serpent appeared at an opportune time. The crafty serpent, knowing the usefulness of law both to arouse sin and to condemn the lawbreaker, lay in wait until the commandment was given. Charles Cranfield pictures the “serpent lying motionless and hidden, and then stirring itself to take advantage of its opportunity.” This is the meaning of the phrase “For apart from the law, sin lies dead.” Archibald Robertson says Paul’s intent was not to say sin did not exist but rather that it “was there in a dormant state.”
Richard Longenecker quotes Joseph Fitzmyer as saying sin without the law is “as good as dead”—“a corpselike being, powerless to make the evildoing of humanity a flagrant revolt against God’s will.” Where there is no law, sin lacks the power to increase transgression (see 5:20). As Joseph Lightfoot put it, “definite prohibition is necessary in order to produce definite transgression” (cited by Longenecker). The instigator of sin is, of course, the devil, whose rebellion against God motivated the attack on the new race of people God created in his image.
“Opportunity” translates a Greek word sometimes used of a bridgehead or foothold. Robert Utley says Paul characterized sin as a military operation led by a military leader. The commandment itself did not produce covetousness, but the power of sin worked through God’s prohibition to bring sin to life in Adam, and by the same process in Paul, Israel, and humanity in general.Deadly as a cobra
Ironically, sin seems dead until it leaps into action and brings about death (verse 9). Sin’s malevolent power to deceive and destroy is evident in verse 11. Of “killed” Robertson says that Paul is the only New Testament writer to use this stark word that means “‘killed me off,’ made a clean job of it.”
How can sin take advantage of the good and righteous law to deceive humans? Cranfield cautions against settling for a mere psychological explanation such as the proverb that forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest. He explains:
The root of the problem is humanity’s tendency to rebel against authority, even the sovereign Lord who created humans and gave us good things to enjoy. So, for example, after God freed the young nation Israel from Egypt, supplying them with food and water on the way, and commanded them not to make any idols, Aaron sculpted a golden calf that they worshiped.Law points to Christ
In verse 10, Paul is struck by the paradox that the commandment promises life but brings about death. He means that the law’s promise of life could be realized if it were perfectly obeyed, but the impossibility of doing so (because of sin) dictates certain death. One good purpose of the law, however, is to serve as a tutor or guardian to point us to a better promise—available to us now through a Savior who did perfectly obey and now offers life through faith (Galatians 3:22–24).
This assessment applies to verses 7–12. A shift from past tense here to present tense in 14–25 is one signal that Paul has someone else in mind with his “I” there.