“When The Commandment Came”
"For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died." -- Romans 7:9
In this text the Apostle Paul, writing by divine inspiration, tells us of three things he experienced, three things by which he was brought to faith in Christ. These three things are experienced, to a greater or lesser degree, by all of God’s elect. Here are three things that happen to every truly converted soul.
1. “I was alive without the law once.”
When Paul says that he was alive without the law, he does not mean that he had never heard or read the law before, or that he did not know it. Of all men in his day, Saul of Tarsus was probably more fully acquainted with and knowledgeable of the law of God (in the killing letter of it) than any other. He knew and understood the letter of the law very well.
When the Apostle says, “I was alive without the law once,” his meaning is this - “There was a time when the law of God had never come home to my heart and conscience, I never knew the spirituality of the law. I never knew what the law demanded.”
Saul of Tarsus was a lost religious man. He was zealous, devoted, and strict. He kept the law, in its letter, all the days of his life. Yet, he was as lost as the most debased barbarian who ever lived in the darkest corners of Africa. Like all in that state and condition, he was totally convinced that everything was well with his soul.
Though he was dead in sin, he was full of religious life. He had great joy; but it was a false joy. He enjoyed great peace; but it was a false peace. He walked with great confidence; but it was a false confidence. Saul of Tarsus was a man of steadfast hope; but it was a false hope. He had great faith; but it was a false faith. He lived with complete assurance that all was well with his soul; but it was a false assurance. His religion was altogether a satanic delusion. He was deluded by a false security.
Saul’s proud, self-righteous security made him very zealous in his religion. He looked down upon others with disgust and scorn. He held those whom he looked upon as sinners in utter contempt. He became a ferocious persecutor. As soon as a person thinks he is better than others, he becomes the judge of others; and the next step is to carry out his sentence upon others.
There are many things which support men and give them security in self-righteous religion. Saul of Tarsus lacked none of those things which give men a false security. First and foremost, that proud Pharisee was ignorant of the law’s spiritual character (Rom. 7:7). “Like the rest of the Pharisees,” wrote John Gill, “he thought the law only regarded the outward actions, and did not reach to the spirits or souls of men, the inward thoughts and affections of the mind.”
Self-righteousness stems from a failure to understand the spiritual character of the law of God. Uncleanness of mind in God’s eyes is as obnoxious as uncleanness of life. An unclean thought is adultery. Anger is murder. Covetousness is theft. Love of self is idolatry.
Saul had the respectability and esteem of high office in the church. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He came behind no one in matters of religious devotion. Read the third chapter of Philippians. Saul of Tarsus was a remarkable, highly respected figure in the religious world.
This man rested in a false evidence of God’s love and favor. He thought external reformation was an indication of God’s favor (John 8:39-41). The fact is, evidence based assurance is false assurance. The believer’s assurance of salvation is Christ. It is the assurance of faith (Heb. 11:1).
Saul strengthened his carnal security by comparing himself to those who were, in his opinion, outwardly more profane and wicked than he was. He was one of those men, utterly repugnant to God, who thought he was “holier” than others (Isa. 65:1-5). Saul the Pharisee had that love of self which causes a man to overlook his own faults and exaggerate the faults of others (Matt. 7:3-5).
Moreover, he was deceived with a wrong idea of God’s justice. He did not realize that the law of God demands perfection and that the justice of God requires an infinite atonement for every deviation from his holy law.
Through all of these things, the god of this world had blinded his mind, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ should shine unto him. Like some of you, Saul of Tarsus was a man lost in religion. His religion kept him from Christ. He said, “I was alive without the law once.” Saul of Tarsus had such a high opinion of his own personal holiness that he actually presumed that he was good enough to meet whatever demands the holy Lord God required! He was alive without the law. He felt perfectly comfortable with himself. He was, in his wonderful opinion of himself, good enough for God!
2. “When the commandment came, sin revived.”
Before the commandment came, piercing his heart and soul, sin was a dead thing to him. He had mortified the flesh. He had sanctified himself, at least outwardly. He did not believe that there was really any great sin in him. In his own estimation, and in the eyes of others, Saul was a truly holy man.
What does Paul mean by this statement? -- “When the commandment came, sin revived?” He means for us to understand that the law exposed his sin. The law came crushing into his soul, exposing his inward lusts. He particularly uses the expression of the law, “Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7), as the thing which stirred up his lusts, the enmity of his heart against God. The law aggravated his sin. Thus, “sin revived.”
For the first time in his life, Saul felt himself to be a guilty sinner. This conviction of sin is not an easy thing to experience; but it is necessary. Without it, no man will ever be saved. A person’s sin must be exposed to himself, or he will never come to Christ.
3. “And I died.”
At last, Saul was slain by the law. His mouth was stopped. He stood guilty before God. But what was it in this man that died? It was that which ought never to have lived. It was the great “I”. “Sin revived, and ‘I’ died.” The law killed it. “I” was so secure. “I” was so proud. “I” was so holy. “I” was so zealous. But now “I died.” Any man whose heart has been exposed to the light of God’s holy law sees himself as a vile, obnoxious, rotting corpse of human flesh.
What does the Apostle mean by this statement - “I died”? He means for us to understand that he was made to see, for the first time in his life, that he was justly condemned to die. All his hopes from his past life of self-righteousness died. All his hopes regarding the future died.
He had broken the law of God, and all his efforts to keep it in the future could never atone for his sin. All his tears of repentance, all his sorrowful cries, all of his sincere confessions, all his best deeds, could not mend God’s broken law.
“Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no langor know,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save and Thou alone.”
The thunderous bolts of Sinai dashed all his hopes to the ground. The iron cold sword of the law had wounded and slain his spirit. Then, but not until then, did this broken man cry, “Lord, what wilt thou have me do?”
Have you ever been slain by God’s holy law? I hope you have. Perhaps, even as you have read these lines, God the Holy Spirit has slain you by the law. Has he made you to know yourself a sinner, a real sinner, utterly lost and undone before God? If so, read on. I have got good news for sinners. Christ died for sinners. God, for Christ’s sake, saves sinners. May God graciously compel you to fall down before the throne of the sovereign Christ, suing for mercy, crying like the needy publican of old, -- “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” -- “Lord, if you will, you can make me whole.”
In Galatians 3, this same man declares, “I through the law am dead to the law,” because he had been crucified with Christ (Gal. 3:19-21). Once his carnal hopes were slain, once he was made alive by grace, once Christ was revealed in him, he saw and rejoiced to see that he was “dead to the law”. The same is true of every believer.
How can we be dead to the law? Once the law has exacted all its demands, once all its justice has been executed and the criminal is dead, he is dead to the law. The law cannot require anything more from the executed felon. That is exactly what happened at Calvary. All the sins of God’s elect were imputed to the Lord Jesus Christ. When he was made to be sin for us, the fire of God’s holy wrath fell on him, and fell on his people in him. When he died, all his people died. Thus, when the fire of God’s law and justice consumed our Substitute and he consumed it, we became “dead to the law – through the law!”
“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law" (Rom. 3:31). By faith in Christ, we who believe fulfill the law of God. That is the only way any sinner can fulfill the law. Being freed from the law in Christ, being dead to the law and married to Christ, we must never allow anyone to bring us back under the yoke of the law (Gal. 5:1-4).
 The only time in the entire Word of God where the word “holy” is used in a relative sense when applied to man is found in Isaiah 65:5, where those who vainly imagine that they make themselves “holier” than others by what they do or do not do are exposed for what they really are, -- “a smoke in God’s nose!”