Years ago, while driving somewhere in Pasig City, a traffic enforcer stopped my car. I was not sure why he did that because at that time I am not over speeding, I am in the right lane and I am pretty sure that I am not committing any traffic violations. So, I opened my window and irritatingly asked “Ano bang problema sir?” And then the traffic enforcer politely answered “Pasensya na sir, coding po kayo eh. Di nyo po ba Nakita yung malaking sign doon sa Buting?”
I recalled that there was a huge signage in Buting but I did not bother reading it because there are a lot of things written in there, and I thought to my-self that no driver will read a one paragraph rule written in a signage while driving. Apparently, the ordinance regarding the number coding system of Pasig is written in that huge signage.
In apologized to the traffic enforcer and told him that I am honestly not aware that there is a separate number coding in Pasig City. He let me go without issuing me a violation ticket after knowing that I live in Cavite, but even after that I still feel like I am a victim of injustice because I am being punished for violating a rule that I am not aware of.
This experience made me ask if this is also the case in the Kingdom of God. Will God punish people for violating His law even though they are not aware of them.
Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 2 question number 3 asked, “How do we come to know of our misery?” and the answer is “The Law of God tells me.”
Zacharius Ursinus, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, stated that the concept of misery is more comprehensive in its signification than that of sin. Man’s misery does not only pertain to man’s sin but to both guilt and punishment. So, to say that a person is miserable, in the sense provided by the Catechism, is to say that a person is guilty of sin and is now being punished here in this life and will eventually be fully punished in the life to come.
A person may be miserable and not be fully conscious of his own misery. However, for those who are aware of their miserable state, they obtained that consciousness from the Law of God. When we say Law of God, we are particularly pertaining to the Moral Laws of God which are summarized in the Ten Commandments and further summarized in Matthew 22:37-40 which is loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The Law and the Knowledge of Sin
In the text that we have read this afternoon (Romans 7:7-11), particularly in verse 7, Paul said that if it had not been for the law, he would not have known sin. And then he went on to make an illustration by using the tenth commandment in the Ten Commandments by saying “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.””
From this text, 3 important questions may arise. First, does this mean that apart from knowing the law by hearing or reading it, a person will not be aware that he is committing a sin? Second, if a person violates a moral law of God, either by commission or omission, without knowing that his action or omission is a violation of the moral laws of God, can we say that he is sinning? And third, if a person, by commission or omission, violated a moral law of God without being aware of it, will he be punished for it.
To answer these questions, let us turn our Bibles to Romans 2:14-16. It reads: For when Gentiles who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
It is very clear in that text that we have just read that the Gentiles, even though most of them have not heard or read the moral laws of God as laid down in the Scriptures, by nature do what it requires. And even their conscience and conflicting thoughts either accuse or excuse them when they obey or disobey the laws of God even though they don’t have the codified copy of it because the Moral Laws of God is written in their hearts.
With this clarification, we can also easily answer the second and third questions. A person who by his act or omission, violated the moral laws of God, without ever hearing or reading it, would still be considered sinning and will be punished therefore because the moral laws of God is written in his heart. In other words, there is no such thing as a violator of the moral laws of God by ignorance.
Because God created human beings according to His image, we have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. It is like having a built-in compass inside of us. So, when humans stray from the right path, it is not because they don’t know which way to go, or how to distinguish right from wrong. As moral agents, with the law of God written in our hearts, we know the right thing to do but we always choose to do otherwise because our corrupt nature inclined us to sin.
In Romans 2:12, Paul said, “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned by the law will be judged by the law.” Here, we can see that even the people who do not have the law, or who have not heard or read the law, will still perish if they sin because they too are without excuse. The only difference that they have compared to the sinners who have read and heard the law is that the offense of the latter will be aggravated because aside from having the law of God written in their hearts, they also have the physical copy of the law with them to remind and warn them not to sin.
So, God is not like the human governments or institutions who hold their subjects liable for violating rules that they are not aware of. In law school, one of the most popular legal maxims that we memorize is ignorantia legis neminem excusat or in English, ignorance of the law excuses no one. A state, before it binds its citizens with a new law or rule, doesn’t have to make sure that everyone is already informed of the same. In the Philippines, a law becomes effective and binding to all its citizens 15 days after its publication in the Philippine Official Gazette which almost no one actually reads. This procedural publication creates a presumption that everyone is already informed about the new law even in reality they are not.
But God is not like that. None of us has an excuse for violating the laws of God because they are written in our hearts. No one can raise the alibi that he has not received the memo. So, the legal maxim “ignorance of the law excuses no one” is not applicable to us because no normal human being is completely ignorant of the moral laws of God.
Okay, the point was made. A person can be aware of his sin even apart from the law. But, does this not only make Paul contradict himself when he said in chapter 7 that if it had not been for the law, he will not know sin while in chapter 2 he said that even the Gentiles who do not have the law know that they are sinning because the laws of God are written in their hearts?
The key to reconciling this apparent contradiction is to understand what degree of knowledge is being spoken of in Chapter 2 and Chapter 7. In chapter 2, the Gentiles who do who do not have the written law in them have a general awareness of what is right and wrong, and a limited knowledge of the possible consequences of their actions. This knowledge of sin that they have, although not extensive, is enough to render them accountable for their actions.
On the other hand, the knowledge of sin in Chapter 7 is more specific and extensive. The written law of God unmasks sin for what it is by telling us specifically which acts or omissions are sinful with greater detail and by also telling us the full consequence of our sins which is spiritual death.
To understand the difference between the knowledge of sin that we have internally and the knowledge of sin that we have through the written law of God, let us take as an illustration the case of a person with a fatal disease like cancer.
A gentile who does not have the written law of God but is aware of what is right and wrong because God’s laws are written in his heart can be liken to a person who is dying of cancer but does not know it because he has no formal diagnosis from a doctor. He knows there something wrong about him because he experiences the symptoms. Perhaps he is sensing pain in a particular part of his body. Or maybe he is also losing weight, his appetite and his strength. Yet, he is not fully aware of what his disease is. He might even think that this is just one of the sicknesses that he had in the past and he will eventually recover from it. Little did he know that he is already dying, and without proper medication or therapy, his chance of survival is getting smaller and smaller.
A person who knows the law, like the Jews and the Christians, on the other hand is like a person who experiences the symptoms of his disease but nevertheless went to the doctor for a check-up. After undergoing several laboratory tests, the doctor gave the person a formal diagnosis that he has cancer. The doctor explained the seriousness of the disease, the possibility that he might die from it and the possible cure for it.
So, both the person who has cancer but did not go to the doctor and the other one with the same condition but went to the doctor have a knowledge about the anomaly in their health. However, their knowledge of their sickness is not of the same degree and specificity. It is the same with the person who does not have the law and the person who has the written law. They both have a knowledge of their sin and their miserable state, but not to the same degree. The knowledge of the person who does not have the law about his sin is only enough to make him accountable of his actions, while the knowledge of the person who has the law about his sin and misery is enough to convict him and direct him to Christ.
And then we will read in verse 8, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law sin lies dead.” Now what does Paul mean when he said that sin seized an opportunity through the commandment to produce covetousness? What is the meaning of his statement that apart from the law sin lies dead? Does this mean that without the law sin would not exist?
In criminal law, we are also made to memorize the legal maxim nullum crimen nulla poena sine lege which means there is no crime to speak of when there is no law punishing it. Is this also what Paul meant when he said that apart from the law sin lies dead? Definitely not. If we will go back to Genesis, we will read there that after the creation of the world, God gave Adam and Eve only one negative rule, and that is to not eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. God did not give them the law not to steal, kill and etc. and yet, when Cain killed His brother Abel, God cursed him because he committed a sin. Cain’s sin of killing his own brother is already a sin even before the 10 commandments was given. So, to say that sin was not yet sin until the law defining it was given is clearly unbiblical and certainly not what Paul meant in Romans 7:8.
What Paul meant in verse 8 is that our knowledge of the written law of God arouses sin in us. When Paul said that sin was dead apart from the law, he does not mean that sin was inexistent. Sin was already there but it was inactive until the knowledge of the law aroused it in us. In Filipino we have this saying, “Masarap ang bawal.” The more we know that a specific practice is unlawful or taboo, the more we have an urge to do it.
It may not be the case for all sins, but surely there are sins that we only thought of committing after we just heard the prohibition about it. The usual thinking of our depraved minds is that if something is prohibited, then there must be something fun or pleasurable about it that God doesn’t want us to experience. If we will remember, prior to the giving of the 10 commandments, the Israelites are not yet as notorious as they are in the practice of idolatry, but right after the God gave them the 10 commandments through Moses, they immediately fell into idolatry and made a golden calf.
Then verse 9 to 10 says, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” The word alive here does not mean having spiritual life. If that would be our interpretation then the implication would be is that prior to knowing the written law of God, Paul has spiritual life. This interpretation is unbiblical because we know that all men after Adam are all dead in their trespasses and sin and are considered children of wrath prior to being saved in Christ. As R.C. Sproul once said, when a person is born on earth, he is dead on arrival. We are not born Tabula rasa or like a clean slate that is only marred by sin after we came to know the law. From the moment we are born, we already have the original sin of Adam and because of that we are spiritually dead.
Furthermore, if we will follow this interpretation, then we can also say that as long as a person is ignorant of the written moral laws of God, he is safe from eternal damnation. That is a very absurd interpretation of the Scriptures.
When Paul said that he was once alive apart from the law, he meant that he was in a state of security and comparative exemption from the turbulence or manifestation of sin in his heart. He had no dread of punishment or painful consciousness of sin. But when he heard and understood the commandments of God, sin was aroused from its stupor, he lost his state of security and he became more aware of his miserable state. And then he realized that the commandments of God that promised life to him actually brought him death and misery, not because the law is evil, but because his sinful nature makes him violate the law.
Then verse 11 says, “For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” Here, Paul meant that sin seized opportunity in the commandment by using the arousing effect of the law to activate itself in the life of the sinner. Sin deceived Paul by making him believe that he will obtain life through the law, but on the contrary, sin killed Paul through the law by making itself more active in his life, by taking away his security and making him aware of his miserable state and by aggravating his sin because he knows better about the law now than before he had the written law.
So, the law is not capable of saving us but only of making us aware of our miserable state. But praise God because what the law cannot do, Christ did for us. Romans 3:20-22 says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
Although we cannot satisfy the full demands of the law, our Savior Jesus Christ did it for us. He lived a perfect life in order to obtain an actual righteousness that he will impute to his elect. And after perfectly obeying the law, he died on the cross as one who is curse under the law while bearing the sins of his elect. And now the He imputes His perfect righteousness to his people through faith, that is why we say that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.
As Christians who are already delivered from our misery, we still have to read and listen to the preaching of the law in order to remind our selves of the depths of the misery that we are rescued from. This is the only way for us to appreciate the preciousness of the grace that God has extended to us through His Son. As one preacher said, we can only fully appreciate the beauty of the stars in pitch black darkness. In the same way, we will only fully appreciate the grace of God in the backdrop of the darkness of our sin and misery.
Aside from the fact that knowing our misery through the law makes us grateful, a proper understanding of the demands of the law makes us humble. As we go through our journey to the Celestial City, we learn how to perform works of piety that makes us stand out from the wicked world we live in. However, as we learn do more good works, we also have the tendency to compare our accomplishments with that of others. And in doing so, we sometimes see ourselves as better persons compared to the unbelievers and those who are still infants in Christ. But this should not be our attitude as recipients of the grace of God.
So, in order to humble ourselves, we ought to examine our lives and compare it, not to the lives of other people, but to the standards of the law. The more we understand the demand of the law and how we fall short of its standards, we will realize that after all, we people who are in need of grace. This way, the law will reveal to us our arrogance and pride, point us to Christ not only for our justification but also fo our sanctification.
And since the law gives us the knowledge of our misery, we must always include the law when we preach or share the gospel to unbelievers. The modern way of sharing the gospel today usually does not mention the law. It usually starts with God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, then followed by a vague and general statement that we have sinned and we are separated from God. But without explaining the holiness of God and the standard of His moral laws, it is nearly impossible for a man to realize his need of the gospel. Unless a man is convinced that he is sick and dying, he will not decide to look for a cure. In the same way, unless a man realizes his miserable state through the law, he will not go to Christ.
And for those who are not yet believers of Christ, I know that the law of God is written in your hearts. You know that there is something wrong in your life. You might be a respectable person in the society and many may consider you as a good person, but there are moments when you feel a sense of your own sinfulness. That is your guilt bothering you. Its not a mental problem that you have to cure with therapy, but it is the law of God written in your heart that you violate every day. You may not have read the Bible but your conscience is already accusing you. If you want to have more clarity as to why you are feeling this way, go to the law of God. Read the Bible. Read God’s commandments, and you will know who is the God you have offended and how miserable you are right now.
And when you have come to know your misery, don’t stop with the law because the law cannot save you my friend. Good works will never save you, in fact, without the help of God you cannot even do one good work. Instead, go to Christ. Salvation has been purchased for you and all you have to do is to go to the Savior, repent of your sins and put all of your trust in Him. That’ is the only way to escape your misery.
So ZCRC Imus let us go to God’s law, not for salvation, for by the works of the law no man will be justified. But let us go to the law to remember the depths of our misery and realize how precious our salvation is. Let us be grateful to God for the salvation that we have in Christ.