The 15th Sunday after Pentecost September 6, 2015
Romans 7:7-11, 24-25
38, 325, 389, 409
“You shall not covet…”
—9th & 10th Commandment
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me…O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
Dear friends in Christ,
We have come to the final two commandments of the law: “You shall not covet…” Now where shall we put the Ten Commandments? In front of our court-houses, libraries, and other public buildings for all to see? Do we think, as so many do, that if the Ten Commandments are publicly displayed, they will be obeyed—that knowing the Law’s letter we will keep it better?
The Apostle Paul blasts this notion in Romans 7. Paul, that “Pharisee of Pharisees,” who knew the law as well as anyone, testifies that God’s law was never meant to be placed by man outside of Him for others to look at. Rather, God would work inside man by the law to reveal his own sin.
Twenty-five hundred years after man fell into sin, God summarized His moral will in the Ten Commandments when He gave the written Law to Israel on Mount Sinai (cf. Exodus 20:1ff, Romans 2:17-20). To this day every religion of natural man has a list of do’s and don’ts which closely resembles the Ten Commandments. By the law-lists of their various religions, natural men—Jews and Gentiles—seek by external obedience to gain acceptance before man and God.
But neither the written Law given to Israel, nor the natural law of the Gentile’s conscience are able to save anyone (cf. Romans 2:11-16). The Law—all law—speaks “to those under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin…. For all have sinned and fall sort of the glory of God” (Romans 3:19-23). Therefore, what every person needs is not more Law, but deliverance from the Law which works through sin to bring forth death! Who Shall Deliver Us from This Body of Death?
Now, it may seem reasonable, that if the Law kills us by bringing us the knowledge of sin, then the Law itself must be sinful. Indeed, our fallen world tries to make every Law of God “sin,” thinking that escape from conscience and condemnation comes from denying the existence God and finding fault with His Law.
But the Apostle will not let such thinking stand. In the first verse of our text, Paul says that the law is certainly “not sin.” How can that which comes from God be sin? To say that the Law “is sin” because it exposes sin, is like saying that the God-created sun “is darkness” because it exposes the darkness!
No, the Law is not sin! Rather, the Law exposed the sin that was already working in Paul’s unbelieving heart. Paul says that he “would not have known sin except through the Law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the Law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’” [v. 7]
There was a time when Paul was a devout, self-righteous Pharisee by the name of Saul who sought to gain a right-standing before God by his obedience to the Law. Along with the great majority of the Jews, he believed that the Law actually gave him life. Was he not outwardly obeying the letter of the law?
But the essence of obedience to the Law rests in the heart, not in outward obedience. For this reason our Lord summarized obedience to the Law in this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-38). In rebuking the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said: “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘these people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me’” (Matthew 15:7-9).
Suddenly, Paul had been brought to the heart of the matter! The Holy Spirit, using the ninth and tenth commandments, lit up Paul’s heart, exposing how dark and sinful he really was in his covetous heart. “Apart from the Law,” that is, when the Law does not penetrate the heart of the self-righteous, “sin” is “dead” to him—it does not appear to be alive and working in him. [v. 8b] “But sin,” actually used the commandment: “You shall not covet,” to “produce” in Paul “all manner of evil desire.” [v. 8a]
So Paul had a false sense of security in the letter of the law. He had once felt “alive without Law.” “But when the commandment came” to his heart, saying, “You shall not covet,” then “sin revived”—sin came to life in Paul! What was the result? “I died,” Paul says. “And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.” [vv. 10-11]
In the ninth and tenth commandments God says: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).
To “covet” means to desire anything that is our neighbor’s from a sinful heart that loves oneself more than our neighbor and more than God. But God Himself tell us in Jeremiah 17 that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the LORD, search the heart…” (Jeremiah 17:9-10a).
How did Jesus reveal to the self-righteous rich man that he had not kept the Law, even though he claimed to have obeyed the commandments? The list of the commandments in Matthew 19:16-22, included all of the commandments, except “You shall not covet.” When Jesus commanded him to give all that he had to the poor and follow Him, the heart of the young man was exposed, and he went away sorrowful because he loved his riches more than his neighbor or God. His sinful heart had deceived him!
As a young boy, I and all the other boys in my neighborhood competed every day to get the best Topps baseball bubble gum cards. Since our mothers wouldn’t let us buy all the cards we wanted, we thought it was OK to get the younger boys to give us their Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron cards in exchange for two or three cards of little value! We didn’t think we were covetous when we tricked others out of their “star” cards—we were just smart!
However, God’s Law commands me to love my neighbor and to give to him in need. Am I acting in love toward the rich man if I want to take his money and give it to the poor? Is not the sin of covetousness encouraged by the politician who tells me that “income distribution” is only “fair” and that the rich man should pay more taxes so that I can have more of what is his?
Likewise, there are people who say they play the lottery in order to get more for God, which sounds so godly! Yet, their heart covets more than God has given them. The sin behind all forms of gambling is the desire of the heart to have more than God has given and to get it from someone else!
No wonder Paul says that sin uses the law to deceive us! Think of how Judas, the disciples’ treasurer, argued that the precious ointment poured out on Jesus, ought to have been sold and the money given to the poor! We know where his covetous heart would have put the money!
So Paul wrote to Timothy: “godliness with contentment is great gain…but those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1Timothy 6:6-10).
In the 9th and 10th commandments, God requires that our hearts be grateful for all that He has given us. Grateful hearts are so overwhelmed by God’s undeserved goodness and provision for them in this life that they do not go after what He in His wisdom has given to others. They are content with the content of their lives as God has apportioned it to them. Rather than seek to get their neighbor’s things by trickery, force, or a “show of right,” those who are content in God will try to help their neighbor in every way to keep what is his.
Martin Luther understood the blessing of being content in God. His motto was: “For what God gives I thank indeed; What He withholds I do not need.” But our covetous hearts, like Paul’s, deceive us into thinking that we need more than God has given us, whether our neighbor’s baseball cards, his money, his land, or his wife!
Do you remember how King David coveted Uriah’s wife for himself, even though he already had many wives? David’s lustful heart deceived him into thinking that since he was king, he could take her away from Uriah out of sight for a night—and one loveless sin followed another!
Later, after the Law got through to his heart by the words of the prophet, Nathan, David confessed his sin. In Psalm 51 he prays: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your loving-kindness…wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me…” (Psalm 51:1ff).
Are any of us better at keeping the Law than David was, even though we know all the law’s letters? No, we are not! Surely, we must say with David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me!”
If you pull a cereal bowl out of the dish washer and find that the outside is clean but the inside is not, do you eat from it? Certainly not! The inside of the bowl must be clean. So, our God, who searches the heart of a man, is not impressed by how good and clean we appear to be by external obedience to His commandments. He is looking for a clean heart—free of all sinful desires!
Paul has testified in the first five verses of our text that when the Law, especially the commandment, “You shall not covet,” was brought by God to his heart, sin used the Law to incite and encourage all kinds of evil desires in his heart! Suddenly, Paul knew that his heart was not only dirty, but he was “dead” because of sin!
In the rest of Romans 7, Paul speaks of his desire and “delight” in the Law of God since his conversion to Christ. But he complains, as all Christians do, that there is “another “law” or operating principle “of sin” in his bodily “members,” which wars against his inner man’s desire to obey God’s Law (cf. Romans 7:23). The result is that he does not do what he wants to do according to God’s Law, but ends up doing evil because of his no-good flesh which still dwells within him (cf. Romans 7:14-19).
Finally, there is only one way to a clean heart. That’s why we still plead with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” As often as we fall to the sins of our bodily members in the flesh, we need cleansing and a renewed spirit to war against the sins of our bodily members. Like David, we place our hope in “the sure mercies of God,” (Acts 13:34, Isaiah 55:3)—that is, Jesus Christ!
Only Jesus, God’s Son, has delivered us from the Law, which works death in us because of sin. For He alone kept the law of love perfectly, and then sacrificed Himself on the cross for all our sins, so that they might be washed away and cleansed by His precious blood. Far from coveting what God had given mankind in this world, He “who was rich became poor,” for our sakes, so that “through His poverty” we “might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Only Jesus sends His Spirit to clean and renew our hearts by continued repentance and faith in our Savior. And in our resurrection from the dead Jesus will finally free us from the flesh of our mortal bodies and the working of sin by the Law. Then we shall live with Him in holiness forever! Again and again, the Christian asks: “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” May Paul’s answer always be ours: “I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.
You shall not crave your neighbor’s house
Nor covet money, goods, or spouse.
Pray God He would your neighbor bless
As you yourself wish success.
Have mercy, Lord!
God gave these laws to show therein,
O child of man, your life of sin,
And help you rightly to perceive
How unto God you should live.
Have mercy Lord!
Our works cannot salvation gain;
They merit only endless pain.
Forgive us, Lord! To Christ we fly,
Our mediator on high.
Have mercy, Lord! [CW 285:10-12]
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.