Watchman Nee tells a wonderful story about a clumsy servant. As long as the servant sits still and does nothing, his clumsiness is not apparent. But the moment you ask him to serve, trouble begins. He knocks over furniture, drops plates, and makes a frightful mess. In Nee’s parable, we are the clumsy servant because
we are all sinners by nature. If God asks nothing of us, all seems to go well, but as soon as he demands something of us, the occasion is provided for a grand display of our sinfulness. (The Normal Christian Life, p.157)
The problem is that we think we’re free but we’re not. We’re prisoners of sin but we don’t know it until the law comes along and asks us to do something we cannot do. The law reveals our bondage to sin.
I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not … I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. (Rom 7:14, MSG)
Picture a prisoner living in a small cell. He’s been there so long he’s become institutionalized. His cell is all he knows. He thinks it’s his home and has decorated it with flowers made out of toilet paper.
Then the law comes along and says, “You think this is real life? Freedom and flowers are just outside this wall. Pass through and be free.”
The prisoner says, “I’ll do it,” and walks smack into the wall. The prisoner remains as confined as ever, but now he’s had some sense knocked into him. He sees the stone walls of his cell as if for the first time. He realizes, This is not my true home. I want to be free.
We are the prisoners, and our bodies are the prisons. Our bodies aren’t inherently evil or sinful, but they are the place where we encounter sin. The effects of sin are felt in our bodies and minds. This is why Paul refers to “sin in me” and “the body of sin.”
Since we experience sin in the flesh, the temptation is to respond in the flesh. But sin is stronger than our flesh. We may think we can resist sin through sheer determination, but it’s a lost cause. This is why we need the law—not to help us win against sin but to help us lose and lose quickly.
The four purposes of the law
First, the law reveals our sinful state. It draws attention to our confinement under sin.
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. (Rom 3:20)
Before he came to Christ, the apostle Paul had a problem with coveting. But he didn’t know he had a problem until the law revealed it to him.
I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Rom 7:7b)
It’s the same with us. We don’t know what sin is until the law tells us. We don’t know we’re not free until the law dares us to act free and we find we cannot.
You may have thought, “I’m basically a good person,” but the law says, “You don’t know what good is. No one is good except God alone. You have fallen short of the good life for which he made you. You are less than what God intended you to be.” As we listen to the accusations of the law we realize this is true. “I covet. I lie. I slander. I’m not such a good person after all. I’m guilty as sin.”
The second purpose of the law is to inflame sin. Upon discovering he had a coveting problem, Paul resolved to fix it. “I didn’t know I was sinning, but now that I do, I’ll stop.” Problem solved. Only it wasn’t. To his dismay, Paul found that his law-keeping efforts only made things worse.
But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. (Rom 7:8)
If you have ever tried to overcome sin in your own strength, you will know that the harder you try, the harder it gets. You resolve to be pure but you stumble. You promise to do better but you fail again. You hear an inspiring sermon about giving God your best, and your flesh responds, “Jesus, I’ll do it for you.” So you charge hard at that stone wall like a bull. “This time I’m gonna make it.” Bam! Down you go again.
“Why is it that the harder I try the harder I fail?” Because you’re relying on the flesh and the flesh is weak.
The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase … (Rom 5:20a)
The harder you try to keep the law, the stronger sin becomes, for the power of sin is the law (1 Corinthians 15:56). The problem is not the law, which is holy, righteous, and good; the problem is you. As sin’s prisoner, you are simply not capable of freeing yourself. The harder you run into that wall, the harder it’ll smack you down. This leads to the third purpose of the law.
I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. (Rom 7:10–11)
God didn’t give us the law to help us overcome sin. The law is meant to help sin overcome you. The law ministers death. It does this by demanding that we perform day in and day out, with no time off for good behavior. “Come on you sinner! Try harder. Don’t you want to do your best for Jesus? Don’t you want to be free?”
Urged on by the merciless law, we run into the stone wall again and again until we are smashed and broken and our pathetic promises are exposed as futile. Eventually we collapse, spent and hopeless. From our once-proud mouths we whisper words of defeat. “I can’t do this. What a wretch I am. Who will rescue me from this prison of death?”
And this leads us to the fourth and finest purpose of the law.
Why do we need the law?
So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. (Gal 3:24)
The ultimate purpose of the law is to point you to Jesus so that you may be set free from sin and live in it no longer (Rom 6:2). The law is not your teacher, your friend, or your protector. The law is a guide who leads you to Jesus.
For Christ is the end of the Law [the limit at which it ceases to be, for the Law leads up to him who is the fulfillment of its types, and in him the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled. That is, the purpose of the Law is fulfilled in him] … (Rom 10:4a, AMP)
If you have met Jesus, the law has fulfilled its purpose. You have no further need of its aid. You can dismiss it as a good and faithful servant.
Thank God for the law that leads us to Christ.