ROMANS, vii, 7 - 13.
"What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin but for the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. 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."

THE apostle had before affirmed as much, as that it was the law which constituted that to be sinful, that without the law could have had no such character ascribed to it - nay perhaps, that even the law called forth into living energy and operation, certain sinful affections, which, but for it acting as a provocative, might have lain within us in a state of latent and of unobserved dormancy. And he seems to feel in this verse, as if this might, in the apprehension of his readers, attach the same sort of odiousness to the law that is attached to sin itself. This charge against the law, he repels with the utmost vehemence and decision, and that sort of readiness whuich carries somewhat the expression of indignancy along with it.

And the first consideration that he calls to his aid is that the law acted as a discoverer of sin. He had not known sin but by the law; and he had not known lust, or as some would understand this clause, he had not known the sinfulness of lust, or he had not known lust to be sinful, except the law had said ‘thou shalt not covet.' It is no impeachment against the evenness of a ruler, that, by the application of it to any material surface, you can discover all that is crooked or unequal thereupon. On the contrary its very power of doing so proves how straight and unerring it is in itself; and the more minute the deviations are which it can manifest to the eye of the observer, the greater is the evidence that is afforded to the perfection of the instrument that you are using. The light of day may reveal a place of impurity, or a soil in the colouring of the object that you contemplate, which could not be recognised under the shade of midnight - nor yet in the duskiness of approaching even. Yet who would ever think on that account, of ascribing to the beautiful element of light, any of that pollution or deformity, which the light has brought forth to observation? The character of one thing may come more impressively home to our discernment, by its contrast with the character of another thing; and the stronger the contrast is between the two, the more intense may our perception become of the distinct and appropriate character of each of them.
But it were indeed very strange, if the dissimilarity of these two things, should be the circumstance that led us to confound them; or if when because placed beside each other, the one became more palpably an obiect of disgust than if viewed separately - the other should not on that very account, became more powerfully the object of our admiration. When one man stands before you in the full lustre and loveliness of moral worth, and another loathsome in all the impurities of vice and wickedness - the very presence of the first, may generate in the heart of the observer, a keener sensation of repugnancy towards the second; and this not surely because they have any thing in common but because they have everything in wide and glaring opposition. It were indeed a most perverse inference to draw, from the fact of virtue having shed an aspect of greater hatefulness on the vice that is contiguous to it - that therefore it must gather upon itself, the same hue and the same hatefulness which it has imparted to the other. This were altogether reversing the property of a foil, which is certainly not to obscure but to heighten the opposite excellence.

And the same of sin and of the law. The law is the ruler which marks and exposes the crookedness of sin - not because crooked itself, but because precisely and purely rectilinear. And it is the light which reveals the blackness and the darkness of sin - not because these are its own properties, but because of its clear and lucid transparency. And it is the bright exemplar of virtue, which rebukes and vilifies all the wickedness that it looks upon, - not surely because of any vileness imputable to it; but because of the force wherewith it causes this imputation to descend, from the elevation of its own unclouded purity, on the dross and the degradation and the tarnish by which it is surrounded. So that to the question, ‘Is the law therefore sin because it makes sin known,' - the answer is No. It makes sin known, not because of any participation at all in its character, but because of its strong and total dissimilarity.

Ver. 8. But from the first clause of this verse it would appear, that the law does more than make the deformity more noticeable and more odious than before. It is even the occasion of aggravating that deformity, by making sin more actively rebellious, and causing it to be the more foul and more abundant in its deeds of atrocity. There can be no doubt of the fact, that the law of God does not cure what the apostle here calls the concupiscence of men, or in other words the desire of man's heart towards any forbidden indulgence; and this desire not being cured by the law, is just thereby heated and exasperated the more. The very remorse that follows in the train of any violation, is of itself a constant feeder of the mind with such suggestions and images, as serve to renew the temptation to what is evil. It is ever bringing the thoughts into contact with such objects as before overcame the purposes of the inner man, and may again overcome them; and the very consciousness of having broken a law', by perpetually adhering to the heart and pervading it with the conviction of sin, is just as perpetually operating on the heart with the excitements of sin. The man who does what is morally wrong, and thinks no longer of it, may never repeat the trangression till its outward influences have again come about him, after it may be, the interval of many days or months, and prevailed over him as before. But the man who is conscience-stricken because of his iniquity, and who is ever brooding under a sense of guilt and degradation, and who ever and anon recurs to it as the creaseless topic of his many cogitations and many cares - Such a man has the image of allurement present to his thoughts, and that too during the whole extent of those frequent and lengthened intervals of time, when they are not present to his senses.

And thus does the law turn out an occasional cause, why with him there should be both a more intense and a more abiding fermentation of all the sinful appetites of our nature, - than with another, who, reckless of law and undisturbed by its accusing voice, just lives at random and more under the impulse of outward events than of his own inward propensities and inward processes. And, what adds to the helplessness of this whole calamity is, that, while the law thus scourges the unhappy victim of remorse, it gives him no strength and no encouragement for the warfare. It gives a new assailing force to his enemies, but no force of resistance to himself, - because depriving him of the inspiring energy that is in hope, it gives him in its place the dread and the desperation of an outlaw. It tells how by its unrelenting power and its irrevocable curse, that he is undone; and he, by a process that in fact is oft exemplified in the sad history of many an apostate, may, just because of his sensibilities at one time to the law of God, have now become the more sunken in all profligacy, the more daring and determined in all wickedness. And yet the law here is not in fault. It is sin which is in fault. The law is not the proper and primary fountain of all this mischief. It is sin which took occasion by the law - which, at sight of the law, strengthened itself the more in its own character; and felt a more decided impulse than ever, to the emission of all those evil influences on the heart of man, by which all manner of concupiscence is wrought therein. ‘Which of the two parties then, whether is it sin or the law, that deserves the blame and the odiousness?

It is conceivable of the worthless reprobate, that he may be brought into the presence of him who stands high and pure and undoubted in all moral estimation; and that he sickens, either with envy or in despair, at the contemplation of an excellence which he cannot reach; and that the reaction which descends upon him from the elevation of another's virtue he is now looking to, may but fortify him with greater spite and tenaciousness than ever in all his purposes of evil. Though such be practically the result of such an interview, will not the sainted holiness and integrity of the good man, still shine out in the same cloudless and unimpeached lustre as before? and will not all the hardening and all the resoluteness of depravity which his presence has created in the bosom of another, just serve to bring down upon that other a still feller and heavier imputation ?

And it is just so with the two parties, whose merits the aposthe is employed in adjusting in the passage before us. It is not the commandment which works all manner of concupiscence. But it is sin which taketh occasion by the commandment; and it all goes to aggravate the moral hideousness of our nature, that, on the approach of so pure and righteous a visitor as the law of God, it is thereby prompted to break forth into more audacious rebellion, and to give itself up to the excesses of a more loose and lawless abandonment. And it is in this sense, and in this sense only, that the law is the occasion of death to those who have disobeyed it. This sore infliction is primarily and properly due to sin, which taketh occasion by the law. It is conceivable, as we have already said, that the very company of a man of righteousness, might so distance and so degrade in his own eyes a man of iniquity - as that, with the desperate feeling of an outcast from all honourable estimation, he might henceforth give himself over to tlue full riot and extravagance of villany. He might even under this process of depravation have become a murderer; and so entailed upon himself a death of vengeance, for the death of violence that he inflicted upon another. But who would ever think of laying either his own blood, or the blood of his victim, to the door of him whose excellence had only called out into more open decision and display the hatefulness of his own character? Even though this man of righteousness had been his judge, and had passed upon him the sentence of execution for his crimes - yet who does not see, that his crimes are all his own and that even though provoked unto being by the view of another's worth, or by the inhibitions of the righteous example of the righteous authority that had been brought to bear upon him - that still this only served to blazon and to enhance his own turpitude, without transferring one particle either of its guilt or of its foulness to the pure and honourable arbiter of his destiny.

And so again of the parties - even sin and the law. The law is the exemplar of perfect virtue, and it is the expounder of perfect virtue; and she may further be regarded as the executioner of virtuous wrath on all who have disowned and have defied her. And if so be, that they have been excited to a prouder and more tumultuous defiance, by the very restraints which the presence of the law has imposed upon them - this just makes their sin more exceeding sinful; both bringing it out, to more glaring exhibition, and stamping a deeper atrocity upon its character.

Thus much for the first clause of this 8th verse - and, as we want not to repeat more than enough, we would make these illustrations serve for the 10th, 11th, and 13th verses, which we now read out in your hearing - only adding one observation about sin taking occasion by the commandment to deceive in order to destroy. It slays its victim by a process of deception, of which deception the law is made the instrument. It may do this in various ways and by various wiles. As the man's remorse is continually leading him to brood over the transgression - so sin may take advantage of this employment, and follow it up by leading the man to dwell as constantly on the temptation which led to it. Or it may represent the man to himself as the doomed and irrecoverable victim of a law, that can never be appeased by any subsequent obedience - and thus, through means of this law again, may it drive him onward to the profligate excesses of a ruthless desperado. Or, changing its device and its policy, may it soothe him in a favourite though forbidden indulgence, by setting forth to his remembrance the many offerings which he hath already rendered to this same law; and the many conformities of honesty, or temperance, or compassion, or courteousness, by which he still continues to do it honour.

And lastly, it may even turn his very compunction into a matter of complacency; and persuade the man, that, in defect of the homage of his obedience to the law, it is at least well that he gives it the homage of his regret for his many violations - amid so with a feeling of very tolerable security, may he spend his life in a constant alternation of sinning and sorrowing; of first offending his conscience by the freedoms of his life, and then of quieting it again by the feelings of a bosom, where all sense of the commandment and of its obligations has not yet decayed into utter annihilation. And in these various ways, may a process of depravation be going on, under the guise of much solemn and reverential acknowledgment; and the man be betrayed into peace where there is no peace; and sin be ripening into full ascendancy, even where its triumphs are mingled with the terrors and the sighs of penitency; and at length, through the medium of many legal formalities and legal feelings, acquiring a supreme authority in that heart which is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. We now direct your attention to the last clause of the eighth verse. ‘For without the law sin was dead‘ - dead in respect of all power to condemn you, had there been actually no law, or had its authority been really extinguished; and dead in respect of its inability to stir up the alarms of condemnation in your heart, had the sense or feeling of its authority been extinguished: and, in both cases, dead as to its power of seducing or enslaving you, by means of a remorse that were thus obliterated, or of terrors that would thus never agitate the bosom.

All this, on the supposition of being without the law, or without any sense in your heart either of its high requisitions, or of the high and unalterable sanctions which enforced the observation of them. And in the next verse Paul is visited with the remembrance of his own state, in a former period of his history - when ignorant as he was of the exceeding breadth of God's commandment; when unaware of the reach which it took, into the very secrecy of his affections and desires; when, not adverting to its character as a searching and a spiritual law, he looked forward to a life of favour here and of blessedness hereafter, on the strength of his many outward compliances and his many literal observations. He was thus alive without the law once; and it was not till the commandment came - not till it revealed to him the whole extent of its authority and its cognizance - not till he was made to see what its lofty demands were, and what his wretched and irrecoverable deficiencies therefrom - Not till then was it, that sin revived in him ; that its terrors and its convictions awoke upon his soul; that it stirred him up to such restless and unavailing struggles, as shortened not his distance from perfection: And perhaps while it whetted his remorse, gave a darker and more desperate character to his rebellion; or at all events disposted him from the proud security of his old imaginations; and made him see, that, instead of a victorious claimant for the rewards of the law, he was the trembling victim of its menaces and its penalties.

Ver. 9. The state that Paul here describes as being at one time his own, is in fact the prevalent state of the world. The men of it live in tolerable comfort and security all their days; and that, just because blind to those awful and besetting realities by which they are encompassed - and dead to the tender invitations of the gospel, only because dead to the terrifying menaces of the law. They are without all adequate sense of its obligations, or of the power and certainty of His wrath who established it; and who will see to it that its authority shall be maintained, and its many threats and many proclamations shall one and all of them be verified. It is because the sinner is without the law, or without any strong and affecting conviction of all the places in his heart and in his history to which its government extends - that he sees not the danger of the condition which he occupies, nor reflects upon himself as a transgressor, whose condemnation even unto spiritual and everlasting death is altogether due to its violated honours. Not till the law came, did Paul look upon himself as a doomed and devoted malefactor, thankful for the offered pardon of the gospel, and humbly acquiescing in its proposals and its ways for his acceptance with God.

And thus it is that we count it so highly important, when the Spirit lends His efficacy to our demonstrations of the might and majesty of the divine law - when He thereby arouses the careless sinner out of his lethargies, and causes him to see that there is a coming wrath from which there is no escaping but by an offered gospel - when by the terrors of the Lord, He persuades the man to flee for refuge to the hope set before him there - when He opens his eyes to the dread exhibition of his own guilt, and of the fiery vengeance that out of Christ and away from His cross is sure to overtake it - when He thus pursues him as with an arrow sticking fast, and lets him not alone, till, an awed and a humbled penitent, he is glad to stretch forth his hand to the propitiation which God hath set forth unto the world, and so to wash out his sins in the blood of the Lamb.

Ver. 12. The apostle had already delivered the law from all charge of odiousness, because of the death which it inflicted; and because of the sin which it exposed, and even excited with greater fierceness and power in a sinner's heart. And now does he render it the positive homage of all that acknowledgment, which was due to its real character - as the tablet or the representation of all moral excellence - bodied forth from the conceptions of the Divinity Himself, into an authoritative model of perfection - and had man taken upon his soul the fair and the full impression of it conveying from Him who is the fountain-head of virtue, the lovely impress of its accomplishments amid its graces to the creatures whom He had formed. If the law be the occasion of death, or of more fell and frightful depravity, to its subjects - it is not because of any evil that is in its character; but because of the evil of that sin which is in their nature. Such an effect may demonstrate the malignity of sin, or show more strikingly than before the exceeding sinfulness thereof. But it can in no way be construed into an impeachment against the law - which stands exonerated of all the mischief, that ought properly and primarily to be referred to the corruption of our own hearts. That vice should gather itself into an attitude of more stout and shameless defiance, at the sight or at the bidding of virtue - is indeed a fell aggravation of all the enormities, wherewith it is chargeable; but still virtue shines forth with untarnished lustre, or rather enhanced in all fair and righteous estimation, when, thus placed by the side of this contiguous worthlessness: Or the law by which virtue is pourtrayed, and virtue is enacted, still retains her primitive and endearing characters of being wise and holy and just and good.

This may lead to the solution of a question, by which the legal heart of man often feels itself embarrassed and exercised - a question which we have often attempted to treat and to resolve in your hearing; and by which we may have succeeded in laying for a season the obstinate legalism of nature. But it recurs again with its unquelled difficulties, and its unappeased longings after a reward and a righteousness of its own; and with its eye open to the palpable truth, that God still urges upon us that very law, by which our justification is impossible - that, under the economy of the gospel, works are still in imperative demand, even after. grace has been proclaimed to us as the only way of salvation - the perplexity from which it wants to be unriddled is, why should the law that is now deposed from the office to which it was at one time ordained of being a minister unto life; and has now become a minister unto death - why should it still be kept up in authority and importance, and obedience to it be as strenuously required, and a conformity of character to it be held as indispensable, under our present dispensation as under the old one?

In order that God should will our obedience to the law, it is not necessary to give to obedience the legal importance and efficacy that it had under the old dispensation. All that is necessary to make God delight in the morality of His creatures, and that He should please their observation of it, is that this morality be to Him in itself a gladdening object of contemplation. There was a material chaos at the outset of our present system - out of which the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters, educed the loveliest forms of hill and dale and mighty ocean and waving forests, and all that richness of bloom and verdure and vegetable beauty which serves to dress and to diversify the landscapes of nature. And it is said that God saw everything to be good, and rejoiced over the works of His creative hand.

Now there was no legality whatever in this most obvious and intelligible process. The ornaments of a flower, or the gracefulness of a tree, or the soft magnificence of a whole extended and outspread scenery - these are not and cannot be the offerings of inanimate matter, by which it purchases the smile and the regards of the Divinity. And yet it is with the smiles of complacency, that the Divinity does regard them. The Almighty Artist loves to behold the fair composition that He Himself has made; and wills each of His works to be perfect in its kind; and dwells with satisfaction and joy on the panorama of visible excellence, that He has spread before His throne; and rather would He look to the freshness of its many decorations, than to a universal blight of nature, when every flower should sicken upon its stalk, and all those pencilled hues by which the surface of our earth is adorned should be swept away by the pestilence of a tainted atmosphere above it. So that in a case to which legality is quite inapplicable, does God prefer His creatures to be of one form and comeliness rather than another - does He love beauty rather than deformity, and harmony rather than confusion; and when He did put forth on the dark and chaotic mass of warring elements the power of His transforming hand, it was to spread out a scene of loveliness before Him, and to lavish upon it the gayest and the goodliest adornments.

And the same of the moral taste of the Godhead. He loves what is wise and holy and just and good in the world of mind; and with a far higher affection too, than He loves what is fair and graceful and comely in the world of matter. He has a pleasure in beholding what may be styled a moral comeliness of character; and the office of His Spirit at this moment, is to evolve this beauteous exhibition out of the chaos of ruined and rebellious humanity. And to forward this process, it is not necessary that man be stimulated to exertion by the motives of legalism. All that is necessary is, that man be submitted to the transforming operations of the divine Spirit; and that he shall willingly follow His impulses, at the wil1 of that God who requires it of him. And must God, we ask, ere He can gratify His relish for the higher beauties of morality and of mind, first have to make a bargain about it with His creatures? Is not His creative hand as free to follow the impulses of His taste for the beauties of moral, as for the beauties of material landscape? Out of the corporeal chaos did He, in obedience to His love of order and gracefulness in our visible world, educe all that symmetry and splendour and perfect organization by which we are surrounded, and rejoices over them. This was His will of matter, even its har- monization.

And in like manner, does He now operate on a spiritual chaos; and out of the malice and impurity and rebellious deviation from God, and all the jarriug influences by which it is agitated and deformed, does He educe love and peace and beauteous accordancy with the perfect law of heaven. This is His will of mind, even its sanctification. He does not need to truckle or negotiate with us upon the subject, or to enter into any such legal understanding on the matter, as in fact to lay the burden of an impossibility on the whole process - for, in truth, man has forfeited every legal reward; and incurred every legal penalty - So that the whole of this economy must be set aside, and man be approached by some new power, and be plied with some new expedients, ere he can be restored to the holiness and the excellence in which he was created. Meanwhile it is the will of God that he should be restored; and just as He rejoiced at every step in that process, whereby the chaos of matter was evolved into a fair and orderly system - so does He rejoice in that process by which we grow unto the stature of perfect men in Christ Jesus; and He looks with intent eye on the church that He is now forming out of the world and on every member of it - So that, released though you all be from the old legal enforcements of that commandment which is contained in ordinances, still is it the thing which His heart is set upon, and still do you testify your love to God and your desire to comply with His will, that you keep His commandments.

It is thus, and on this principle, that God wills you to be holy and just and good; but these are the very attributes which the text gives to the law, or to the commandment - so that though the old relationship between you and the law is dissolved, still it is this very law with the requirements of which you are to busy yourselves, during the whole of your abode in the world; and with the graces and accomplishments of which you must appear invested before Christ at the judgment-seat. It was written first on tables of stone, and the process was then that you should fulfil its requisitions as your task, and be paid with heaven as a reward. It is now written by the Holy Ghost on the tablets of your heart; and the process is now that you are made to delight in the law after the inward man - and when released, as you will be by death, front the corruptions of the outward man, heaven will be open for your admission as the only place that is fitted to harbour and to regale you. You know of gold that it has two functions. With gold you may purchase a privilege, or with gold you may adorn your person. You may not be able to purchase the king's favour with gold; but he may grant you his favour, and when he requires your appearance before him, it is still in gold he may require you to be invested.

And thus of the law. It is not by your own righteous conformity thereto that you purchase God's favour; for this has been already purchased by the pure gold of the Saviour's righteousness, and is presented to all who believe on Him. But still it is with your own personal righteousness, that you must be gilded and adorned. It is not the price wherewith you have bought heaven, but it is the attire in which you must enter it; and thus do we answer the question, why it is that the law is still kept up in authority and importance, and obedience to it is as strenuously required, and a conformity of character to it is held as indispensable, under the new dispensation as under the old one.
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