What is "The commandment that Promised Life" in Romans 7:10?

"The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me." Rom 7:10

Paul speaks as though perfect obedience, if it were possible, would actually lead to life. In the above text he even refers to a “commandment which promised life” (Rom. 7:10; lit., “the commandment unto life”). But when we look into the law ourselves, we soon recognize that perfectly obeying the law is an impossible supposition for fallen creatures, even though it is still held out to us as the only way to eternal life. The Scriptures expounding the nature of the Covenant of Works, expressly teach that eternal life would have been the result of perfect obedience. Consult Lev 18:5; Deut 30:15; Ezek 20:11; Matt 19:17; Rom 2:6-7; 7:10; 10:5; Gal 3:12. This knowledge leads us to despair in ourselves. But thanks be to God, for Christians, Christ has fulfilled the provisions of this covenant on our behalf successfully once for all, and we receive the benefits of it no longer by perfect obedience but in our trusting in the merits of Christ’s work. In fact, if a Christian today were to think of themselves as obligated to try to earn God’s favor by obedience they would be cut off from all hope of salvation for then we would be required to obey the whole law in all its particulars. “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them. Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law (Gal. 3:10–11).

John Calvin makes the following comments on Roman 7:10:

Two things are stated here -- that the commandment shows to us a way of life in the righteousness of God, and that it was given in order that we by keeping the law of the Lord might obtain eternal life, except our corruption stood in the way. But as none of us obey the law, but, on the contrary, are carried headlong on our feet and hands into that kind of life from which it recalls us, it can bring us nothing but death. We must thus distinguish between the character of the law and our own wickedness. It hence follows, that it is incidental that the law inflicts on us a deadly wound, a s when an incurable disease is more exasperated by a healing remedy. I indeed allow that it is an inseparable incident, and hence the law, as compared with the gospel, is called in another place the ministration of death; but still this remains unaltered, that it is not in its own nature hurtful to us, but it is so because our corruption provokes and draws upon us its curse.

William Hendricksen's commentary on Romans also makes the following comments on Romans 7:10:

The purpose of the commandment had indeed been to bring life; yes, life everlasting. It was true from the beginning and has always remained true that loving God with all of one's heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving the neighbor as one loves himself brings life, salvation. Cf. Lev. 18:5, "Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them." See also Ezek. 20:11. That Paul has in mind the quoted passage seems probable in view of 10:5.

Commenting on verse 10, the ESV Study Bible writes:

"God's commands promise eternal life if one keeps them; and yet they lead to death, since everyone violates what God ordains. This happens when sin deceives a person and uses the law as its instrument. (emphasis ESV Study Bible)

Wayne Grudem asks,

"Is the covenant of works still in force? In several important senses it is. First of all, Paul implies that perfect obedience to God’s laws, if it were possible, would lead to life (see Rom. 7:10; 10:5; Gal. 3:12). We should also notice that the punishment for this covenant is still in effect, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). This implies that the covenant of works is still in force for every human being apart from Christ, even though no sinful human being can fulfill its provisions and gain blessing by it. Finally, we should note that Christ perfectly obeyed the covenant of works for us since he committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22) but completely obeyed God on our behalf (Rom. 5:18–19). On the other hand, in certain senses, the covenant of works does not remain in force: (1) We no longer are faced with the specific command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (2) Since we all have a sinful nature (both Christians and non-Christians), we are not able to fulfill the provisions of the covenant of works on our own and receive its benefits—as this covenant applies to people directly, it only brings punishments... Christians have been freed from the covenant of works by virtue of Christ’s work and their inclusion in the new covenant, the covenant of grace."

John Brown of Haddington wisely explains our condition as follows:

“All men by nature, and even believers, in so far as they are unrenewed, desire to be under the covenant of works, and to obtain happiness by their own righteousness, or the condition of it. 1. It is natural to men, and hence men of every form or religion, station, office, education, or manner of life, agree in it (Romans 9:31,32; 10:3; Jonah 1:16; Matthew 19:16; John 6:28; Acts 2:37; Luke 15:19). 2. Our own working or suffering, in order to obtain happiness from God, is exceedingly suited to the pride of our corrupt nature, and makes us to look on God as our debtor (Romans 10:3; 7:9,13; John 5:45; Isaiah 58:3). It is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law (Romans 7:4,9; Galatians 2:19). 3. Men’s ignorance of the extensive and high demands of the broken law, and of their own utter inability to keep it, — or their care to abridge their apprehensions of them, and to enlarge their conceit of their own ability, mightily promote their desire to be under it (Romans 7:9-13; 10:3; Galatians 4:21). 4. Men have naturally a peculiar enmity against God and his gracious method of redemption, — against Jesus Christ and his whole mediation, particularly his sacrificing work; and hence love to oppose the honor of it be cleaving to legal methods of obtaining happiness (Romans 8:7; John 15:24; Romans 10:3; 9:32; 5:21; Galatians 2:21; 5:2,4).”

Related Reading

Calvin's Commentaries

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem

More essays on this topic