The Perversion of the Moral Law
Romans 7:13
Was then that which is good made death to me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good…

I. THE FORM OF EXPRESSION IS OBVIOUSLY INTENDED TO THROW EMPHASIS ON THE FALSE AND ABNORMAL RELATION OF CAUSE AND EFFECT HERE SPOKEN OF. We do not wonder at evil producing evil, and good good; but the cause to which the apostle here points us is like that of wholesome food producing the effects of poison, of pure air and other conditions of health issuing only in disease and death, and the idea he wishes to bring out is, that it is the worst and most appalling characteristic of sin that it sometimes manifests its presence by a result of this unnatural kind. It is sad enough when men become vitiated and degraded by the operation of influences that appeal directly to their evil desires. But we are here taught of a more subtle manifestation of sin. It is possible for sin to get hold of the very instruments of goodness, and to turn these to its own ends. The law of God instead of enlightening and quickening, may lead to destruction.


1. By awakening in the soul a discord which the law itself cannot heal.

(1) Conscience, i.e., the sense of right in us, appealed to by the moral law, may be strong enough to disquiet where it is not strong enough to rule. The eternal realities present themselves in many instances under form of an outward law, which secures the consent of our reason and conscience, but which has no power to subdue the passions or govern the will.

(2) Now for the man who is in this state of mind, the law, in itself good, becomes a minister of death and not of life. It has killed out the lower life and happiness, and yet it has not borne to the blessedness of the life of the spirit. There are many people who would have been far happier as animals than as men; and better to be a mere animal, with the animal's untroubled satisfaction, better to be a creature without reason and conscience, if reason and conscience cannot control your life, for then you would be no longer humiliated by the ever-recurring feeling that you cannot keep out of degradation; then you would be free to revel in the lusts of the flesh without one pang of remorse.

2. By infusing a new intensity into our sins.

(1) We become worse people because we have a moral nature. The barren or scanty soil will grow neither a good crop nor a bad, but if a rich soil is left uncultured its very fertility and richness may manifest itself by the rampant growth of noxious weeds and thorns. So it is with man's spiritual nature. In the merely animal nature the passions are natural tendencies seeking their own needs, but in man they cannot remain as they are in the animal. They draw unto them a kind of false boundlessness stolen from the higher nature. If you ask me how this comes about, I answer that the sinful man is ever trying to find in sinful gratification the happiness which God and goodness alone can give him. Evil inclinations and desires would never be so intense in us, if it were not that we are trying to obtain a fictitious happiness out of them. The spiritual nature, capable of Divine satisfaction, could never be happy in the pleasures of the brute, if it were not that insensibly we made these things assume a deceptive show of the blessedness for which as spiritual beings we were made. But these earthly pleasures can never be commensurate with a nature made in God's image, capable of sharing in a Divine and eternal life. You have something in your craving for spiritual food which these husks can never satisfy, but we may make them seem to satisfy.

(2) I may illustrate this by what sometimes happens in our social relations. We sometimes see a man of a refined nature wreck his happiness by union with a woman immeasurably his inferior, and we explain the mistake by saying that it was not the weak, silly creature that the man really loved, but a being of his own imagination, invested with ideal charms, into which he had unconsciously transformed her, and in that ease it may be said that it was the very elevation of the man's nature that made him capable of forming such an ideal that was the secret of the wreck of his happiness and the ruin of his life. In like manner may we pronounce that all men who seek their happiness in the things of the world are the fools of their fancy. The very infinitude of our nature makes it possible for us to paint the idols of time and sense with imaginary glory, and to waste upon them a disproportionate devotion.

III. THE FOREGOING TRAIN OF THOUGHT FINDS CONFIRMATION IN ONE PECULIAR FEATURE OF THE TEACHING OF ST. PAUL. In treating of particular sins it is his characteristic to place by the side of the sin of which he is speaking the grace of which it may be said to be the counterfeit. We find him rebuking the sin of drunkenness not by simply denouncing it as bad, but by contrasting the false and spurious illusion of the drunkard with another and legitimate means of spiritual exhilaration. "Be ye not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be ye filled with the Spirit." Again, with regard to the sin of covetousness. "Trust not in worldly riches, but in the living God." The covetous man is unconsciously trying to find in money the happiness that can be found only in God. Let me illustrate this.

1. There is a sense in which so common a vice even as drunkenness may be said to work death in us in virtue of its likeness to what is good. The capacity of religion is a capacity to forget and cast behind us the stains of the past, to feel no more the earthly troubles, and to rise into a region where the interests and agitations of time become dwarfed, to an ecstacy of spiritual emotion where we can have communion with things eternal and unseen. It is of this experience of religion the vice I speak of can give a spurious imitation. It can make us forget for a moment the past; it can lift for a time into a rapturous elevation above care and sorrow, and transport the sin-stained soul into a sham heaven of sensuous enjoyment. Ah! it is but a sham self-forgetfulness, and its joyous transports are succeeded by an awakening to more hideous realities. In salvation through Christ can we find complete obliteration of the sins of the past, and "the peace of God that passeth all understanding."

2. The secret of the mastery which covetousness gains over so many minds. Paul finds in this, that the love of money is misdirected worship. The covetous man is an idolator, and gives to mammon the trust, homage, and surrender that are intended for the living God. In its seeming omnipotence, in its capacity to gain us all our hearts can wish, money may present a certain sham resemblance to that to which our capacity of religion points. Now the one thing which makes man a religious being and shows that he was made for God is the capacity of absolute trust. I want in my conscious helplessness some presence near me in whose all-embracing power I can find — come good, come ill, come life, come death — the rock and refuge of my soul. Ah! but it is this capacity which can find its true object only in God, that makes it possible for me to waste on all manner of objects a boundless devotion. We cannot serve God and mammon, yet mammon presents to many a strange resemblance to Him who has power to prostrate and save. Sin, again, working ruin and death in us by that which is good.

(J. Caird, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.

WEB: Did then that which is good become death to me? May it never be! But sin, that it might be shown to be sin, by working death to me through that which is good; that through the commandment sin might become exceeding sinful.

The Monster Dragged to Light
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