Saturday, October 26, 2019

What does it mean to be dead to sin? – Romans 6:1-5

Does grace give us an excuse to live in sin?  Unfortunately, many throughout the history of the Christian church have drawn this very conclusion.  They argue that since we are justified by faith apart from works (Paul’s argument in chapter 3-4), and since this salvation is secure (Paul’s argument in chapter 5), we no longer have to worry about the sins in our life.  In fact, given what the apostle just got through saying, that where sin abounded grace did much more abound (5:20-21), it seems logical to conclude that grace is magnified whenever and wherever sin abounds.

Paul is going to argue that this isn’t the case.  Not only is the occasion for his argument rooted in a possible objection to his previous statement in chapter 5, but it is organically rooted in his argument from our union with Christ in the previous chapter.  The argument is this: just as we have union with Adam so that what he did accrues to those who are in him, even so believers have union with Christ so that what he did accrues to them.  However, Christ did not just deliver us from the guilt of sin, but also from the power of sin.  So if we claim to have union with Christ and yet go on living in sin, we are living in a fundamental contradiction to the reality of his redemptive work on our behalf.

The apostle’s answer to the objection of verse 1 is that we have died to sin (ver. 2).  Obviously, if you are dead to sin it’s impossible to live in it.  But what does he mean by this?  What does it mean to be dead to sin?  Now it’s important that we understand from the very outset what the apostle is claiming and what he is not claiming in making that statement.  Otherwise, we will go wrong in the application of the truths of this chapter to our lives.  Since this is the central thesis to Paul’s argument, it’s important that we really understand what he is saying here.

What I am going to argue is that being dead to sin does not mean moral perfection, nor positional perfection, but rather spiritual transformation.

Not Moral Perfection

First, of all, he is not saying that if you are a Christian, you become morally perfect so that you no longer have to struggle against sin.  That would contradict what he says later on, especially in verses 11-14.  We are exhorted to not let sin have dominion over us, not to let it reign in our mortal bodies.  In 8:13, we are commanded to mortify the sinful deeds of our bodies through the power of the Spirit.  Now none of this would be necessary (not to mention the exhortations of chapters 12-15!) if being dead to sin meant that we are morally perfect and without sin by virtue of our union with Christ.

Now there are some throughout the history of the church who have taught that you can be justified by faith but that later on you may just be able to break through the power of sin over your life and move to a different level so that you no longer have to struggle and fight with sin any longer.  Let me just say that that is nowhere taught anywhere in Scripture.  There is no indication that this side of heaven we can achieve a sort of perfection in which we are no longer prone to the assaults of sin.  Every believer, no matter where they are in their spiritual trajectory, are liable to fall into sin.  Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).  I don’t care how long you have been a Christian, or how many victories you have achieved, you need to be as vigilant against sin as the newest believer.  Some of the greatest moral and spiritual failures recorded in Scripture didn’t happen to new converts but to established saints.  One thinks of King David, or the apostle Peter, for example.  It was after Elijah’s greatest victory over the prophets of Baal that he sunk to his lowest level of unbelief and defeatism.

Now I am not saying that you can’t grow in grace.  Of course we should expect that.  There should be in all of us who have experienced the grace of God in our lives a measure of growth.  We are to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15).  There is something wrong with us if there we are no more spiritually mature now than we were when we were first converted to Christ.  

But what I am saying is that being dead to sin doesn’t mean that the struggle against sin goes away.  And you shouldn’t conclude that because you have these inward struggles with sin that you are not a Christian.  In fact, I would say that the fact that you are struggling against sin is evidence of life.  I would worry about someone who thought they didn’t need to worry about sin in their life.  That’s not evidence of spiritual maturity but of spiritual folly.

Not Positional Perfection

Second, neither does the apostle only mean by being “dead to sin” that we are legally dead to the claims of sin upon us, what I before referred to as positional perfection.  In other words, there are some who look at these words and think that the apostle is claiming something here about our legal position in Christ (which is perfect), even if it is not an actual reality in our lives.  This is closer to the truth of these verses, but it is not quite right.  For clearly the apostle is not just talking about what we are positionally in Christ, but also about how his atonement has been applied to our lives.  Now it is true that in virtue of our union with Christ that sin has no claims upon us, and this reality is pointed to in verse 7, but the apostle is also at pains to argue that there are definite and real differences in the lives of those who have died to sin.  

Again, we must remember that this is an argument against continuing in sin that grace might abound.  Being dead to sin is a reason why we no longer live in sin, why it is utterly ridiculous to imagine those who are in Christ continuing in sin.  Therefore being dead to sin must have some reference to the breaking of the power of sin over our lives.

Spiritual Transformation

And this is what I believe is the key idea in these words.  To be dead to sin means to be freed from the power of sin over us.  It means spiritual transformation.  Note that the entire context refers over and over again to the reign of sin, to the power of sin, to the dominion of sin, to the enslaving authority of sin (cf. 5:21; 6:6, 12, 14, 17, 18, 20, 22).  To be dead to sin must therefore have reference to the breaking of this power of sin in the life.

What does it mean for the power of sin to be broken in our lives?  Well, I would suggest that it means the following things.

First, it means that the enslaving attraction of sin has been broken in our lives.  Now of course I’m not suggesting that sin no longer has its appeal to believers.  If that were the case, we wouldn’t have to have these exhortations to beware of the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Heb. 3:13).  Sin deceives us by appealing to us.  But there is a difference.  Before we are born again, we may see that certain sins are less desirable because of the consequences that are attached to them, but when we are born again, we begin to see sin for what it is, that it is undesirable in itself.  We begin to grieve over sins in ways that we did not do before.  

One of the reasons why sin loses its appeal is because it has been supplanted by a superior attraction in the heart, namely, that of God.  The real difference between someone who is in Christ and someone who is not in Christ is the fundamental loyalty and allegiance of the heart.  Those who are still “in the flesh” and enslaved to sin are those who love themselves more than they love Christ.  They may say they love God but the priorities of their lives tell a different story.  But whereas we once loved our own sovereignty, now we with pleasure embrace the sovereignty of God over our own lives.  We begin to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).  

I often tell people that the first time I realized I was a mathematician was the first time I read the proof of a certain theorem and thought it was beautiful.  It is one thing to read proofs and understand them, but to read a mathematical proof and see the beauty in it is what sets someone who is a mathematician apart from those who simply do math.  In the same way, what sets a Christian apart from those who merely do Christianity is that the true Christian sees the glory of God and the beauty of God and the majesty of God.  This is partly what the apostle is getting at when we wrote, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  Those who see that no longer see a life apart from God as freedom but as the slavery that it is.  And in seeing that, sin loses its power over us.

Recently I picked up the Marsden biography of Jonathan Edwards.  In it he recounts Edwards’ own explanation of his conversion.  Edwards describes how as he was reading 1 Tim. 1:17 (“Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.” KJV), upon which “there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before.”  He goes on to say that “I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him.”  He described it as a “new sort of affection” toward God.[1]  That’s the difference, and what “breaks the power of cancelled sin.”  It doesn’t matter what sort of experience you have or have not had; what matters is what has the attraction of your heart: is it God or is it something else?  For until God has the love of our hearts, we will still remain in bondage to sin.

Another way to put it is that dying to sin breaks the blinding enslavement of sin within us.  Sin is attractive to us because it blinds us to greater glories.  “And even if our gospel is veiled [hid, KJV], it is veiled to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of his world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).  Sin deadens our senses to spiritual delights and realities.  It is not really primarily an intellectual problem as it is a moral and spiritual struggle.  Edwards notes that up to the point of his conversion he had had all these intellectual problems with the sovereignty of God and the gospel.  Then one day they disappeared; and Edwards, who never lost the ability to think acutely about the most knotty theological and philosophical problems of his day, couldn’t really explain how this had happened – except that one day what had once seemed unreasonable and objectionable now seemed delightful and glorious.  The blinders had been removed.

But I think being dead to sin means something much more.  What is to explain the loss of attraction that sin once had and the deliverance from spiritual blindness?  It can only be explained by virtue of our union with Christ in his redemptive work.  Because of this, there is now a power at work in us that there never was before.

This is the whole point of verses 3-5.  How can we die to sin?  Because we have died with Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  

Here is the argument: we who are believers (as evidenced by baptism) have died with Christ.  However, we not only die with him, but we share with him in his resurrection.  The result of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection is so that “we too might walk in newness of life.”  If we are united with him in his death, we will also be united with him in his resurrection, and this means a different kind of life, a new life.  We are dead to sin because we now live for Christ.  There has been a fundamental change of allegiance.  Once we were enslaved by sin; now we serve and obey Jesus as our King.

But it is utterly crucial for us to see that what makes the difference is not something in us; we are changed in virtue of our union with Christ in his redemptive work.  The life that we now experience (6:4) is the life that he gives (5:17, 21).  Our ability to fling off the shackles of sin’s dominion and power do not come from our own power or ability.  They come from Jesus Christ, and are intimately connected to his death and resurrection on our behalf.  

Here it is important to see the connection between these verses and 5:12-21.  You are either in Adam or in Christ.  If you are in Adam, then you share in his death – and that death is more than just physical death, but moral and spiritual death.  But if you are in Christ, you share in his life.  Paul is now telling us what this life looks like and what the implications are for your life.  However, we must understand that this life only comes to us as we are in Christ, united to him through the Spirit and by faith.  This life is not a product of our own willing and doing.  It is not the result of trying harder.  It is not the outcome of a decision.  Rather, it is the fruit of our Lord’s redemptive work on our behalf, of which we become partakers when it is applied to us by faith.

This is a reality for every Christian.  Paul is not describing an advanced level of Christianity, he is describing what is true of every one who professes Christ, who is baptized.  If we say we believe in Christ then we are saying that we are united to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.  We symbolize it in our baptism.  This is not graduate Christianity; this is Christianity 101.  

Paul certainly believes that if we are united to Christ in this way, then there will be some definite changes in our lives.  We will no longer continue in sin.  We will walk in newness of life.  Is there a “newness” in our lives?  The apostle assumes this to be the case for everyone who claims to be a follower of Christ.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

First, as we have already pointed out, but I think important to emphasize, being dead to sin does not mean that fighting sin becomes easy.  Perhaps more importantly, it does not mean that it is automatic.  Becoming a Christian still means dying to yourself, and it means persevering through hard times.  No one in the early church would ever have imaged that following Christ was easy.  And the process of sanctification, of becoming more and more like Christ, is part and parcel of the enduring hardness that Paul called Timothy (and us) to (2 Tim. 2:3).  Paul, in another place, likens the Christian life to a boxing match (1 Cor. 9:26-27), hardly a metaphor for an easy going sanctification.  If you are not wrestling hard with sin, you are likely not growing in grace.  More than that, you are painting a target on your back for Satan.  The fact that Paul goes on to say that we should not let sin reign in our mortal bodies indicates that we are still in the struggle against sin (Rom. 6:12).  For the fact that sin still wants to reign means that it is still fighting against us, and unless we are willing to fight back, we are going to succumb (cf. Heb. 12:4).  Also the fact that Paul mentions our “mortal bodies” reminds us that we are not yet in heaven, that we are not yet perfect.

The point I am driving at is that we should never become lazy with respect to growth in holiness.  We should never take it for granted.  The spiritual disciplines are important.  Watchfulness is essential.  Prayer and Bible reading must be cultivated.  We must avoid those things which deaden our souls to spiritual things.  Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for a major fall.  And when we fall, we usually take others down with us – very rarely do the consequences of sin stay in the tidy margins of our own lives.

Second, it means that we can never really achieve any measure of spiritual success apart from the grace of Christ.  Although it is true that our death to sin does not make fighting sin easy, yet it does make it possible because of who we are in Christ.  It is not possible for anyone to truly grapple with sin apart from the work of Christ for us and in us.  We can only put sin to death by the grace of Christ, by virtue of our being united with him (cf. John 15:1-5). 

What this means is that our spiritual journey is not just about what we are doing; it is about communion with our Lord.  It is about relying on him for grace and strength.  Our victory over sin is not a product of our sheer will power; rather it is the product of the power of Christ in us, obtained by faith.  This is why the apostle John would write, “And this is the victory that overcomes the world – our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).

Another way to put it is that the epistles of the New Testament are not self-help manuals.  Though it is vitally important to emphasize the role we play in disciplining ourselves for godliness (cf. 1 Tim. 4:7), yet we must also continually emphasize that we can only do this in a way that leads to real growth in Christ-likeness when we do so through faith in Christ, leaning upon him and trusting in him.  Our strength for the battle does not come from within, but from without – from heaven itself.  Do you want to put sin to death?  Then look to Christ!  Continually come to him for help and strength and grace.  “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

It also means that if you are not a Christian and are struggling with sin, what you need is not better advice but a Savior.  The bonds of sin that restrain us can never be broken by our own will-power.  It takes the power of God.  You need the gospel.  You need to look to the Savior before you need anything else.  

Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything.  This is no excuse for laziness.  But we must continually preserve the balance of Phil. 2:12-13: work out your own salvation, yes – but do so knowing that it is only possible because God is working in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.  

Third, it means that if we are in Christ, there will be a definite difference in our lives.  Note how Paul puts it in verse 5: “we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  For Paul, sharing in Christ’s resurrection means spiritual transformation (ver. 4; cf. also Phil. 3;10-11).  It was unthinkable for Paul to imagine a Christian whose life did not change as a result of his or her union with Christ.  Today, there are still people around who claim you can be elect, born again, a believer, or whatever, and yet go on living in sin.  This is complete and total rubbish.  If you are a Christian, there will be newness of life.  It is impossible to imagine Christ giving new life to someone and yet that person going on as if they were still dead in their sins.  I wonder if this is one reason why the apostle mentions the “glory of the Father” in verse 4.  It was the glory of the Father that raised Christ from the dead, and that same glory and power is part of our own spiritual resurrection (Eph. 1:19-20).  How can we not be completely transformed when shined upon by the glory of the Father himself?

Are you a Christian?  Then be encouraged!  Don’t think that you are on this journey alone, or that it is up to you to get to the end.  You are united to Christ, and united to him, to his power and grace for strength to fight the very thing that most threatens your joy: sin.  On the other hand, beware of a legalistic spirit that looks inward instead of upward.  Every step along the way, look to Christ, rely on him, trust in him, and love him above all things.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Kindle Edition, loc. 652).

Friday, October 11, 2019

The increase of sin and the abounding of grace. Rom. 5:18-21

Verses 18 and 19 of Romans 5 not only complete the comparison that Paul began in verse 12, but they also summarize the overall argument of the apostle in these verses.  They are parallel and state the same truth in different ways.  They tell us that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” and that “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”  The apostle here says explicitly that we are all condemned and regarded as sinners by Adam’s transgression in the Garden of Eden.  Since the human race exists in solidarity with Adam, what he did affects every one of his descendants.  It is the explanation for the sad state of the world that we see today.

But that is not the only thing the apostle says.  Adam is not the only one who has left his mark on the world.  There is another Adam, the Second and Last Adam, Jesus Christ, who has come into this world to put right what Adam messed up.  So the apostle also says that “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” and that “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  What is the “one act of righteousness”?  What is the “obedience” referred to here?  Paul is almost certainly referring to what our Lord did on the cross.  You may remember a few weeks ago, we made the case that our Lord’s redemptive work should be seen in the context of his obedience to the Father.  This is why Paul writes elsewhere that our Lord “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).  So our Lord’s obedience in yielding up his life to the Father is what stands in contrast to Adam’s rebellion against God’s authority over him.  

The apostle says that it is by virtue of what our Lord did in yielding up his life an obedient sacrifice to the Father for us that we are granted justification and life.  Now Paul’s argument all along has never been that we obey God just as Jesus obeyed God and are justified.  No, his argument is that we are justified by grace by virtue of what Christ has done for us and in our stead.  This is why God can justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).  We are not saved by our righteousness but by the righteousness of God imputed to us when we believe on his Son.  

Now this is where the comparison is so important.  Notice the words of comparison in these two verses: “as . . . so . . .”  The apostle is teaching us that Adam’s sin bears upon our condemnation in much the same way that our Lord’s righteousness bears upon our justification.  The inevitable conclusion is this: just as Adam’s sin was imputed to us for condemnation, even so our Lord’s righteousness is imputed to us for justification.

Why is this so important, one may ask.  What difference does it make?  It makes this difference: if we are really to understand just how much we need the grace of God and work of Christ on our behalf, we need to understand how deep our need is.  And our need is deeper than our sinning against God.  Now don’t get me wrong: our own sin is enough to condemn every one of us.  Our own sin definitely has to be dealt with.  But our need goes beyond the first time we sin.  It goes all the way back to the point of Adam’s sin.  It is why we are born dead in sin and slaves to sin.  It is the explanation of the universality of sin and the universality of death.  Because of Adam’s sin, we are not born into the garden of Eden.  We are born, as it were, into a graveyard.  We are broken people in a broken world.

But what Paul is saying is that our Lord has undone what Adam did.  As we pointed out last time, Christ didn’t just put us back to where Adam was, but he has put us in an infinitely better position.  In Christ, we are not only potentially able to inherit life, but we most definitely will and must inherit the life purchased for us by our Lord and Redeemer.

Now this brings us to verses 20 and 21, which is where I want to focus our thoughts this morning.  Remember that in verses 13 and 14, the apostle had explained that the Law of Moses couldn’t explain why people died, because it couldn’t explain why people died between Adam and Moses.  But what he does here is to say that the Law of Moses can’t explain why people get saved.  

You see, someone may have tracked Paul up to this point, and said, “Okay, I get that the Law is not the ultimate reason why there is death in the world.  But why did God give the Law?  Didn’t he give it in order to save people from the sin, condemnation, and death that the sin of Adam brought into the world?”  The apostle’s answer comes to us in verses 20 and 21: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  In other words, not only is not Law of Moses not the reason why people get saved, it is actually the reason why sin has increased among those to whom it was given.  The law can’t save; it only puts us in a worse condition, one where sin has increased and abounded.

The obvious question at this point is: in what ways did the offense abound through the law?  In what ways dd the law cause sin to increase?  Looking ahead, we will see in chapter 7 that the apostle spends a lot of time defending the law and arguing for its essential holiness.  The law is not the problem; we are the problem.  The law is holy and just and good (Rom. 7:12).   We are the ones who are unholy and unjust and bad.  So we can’t say that the reason why sin increased through the law is because the law is bad.  

In a sermon on this text, Martyn Lloyd-Jones argued that the law cause sin to increase in three main ways: by giving us information about sin, by moving us to the conviction of sin, and through the provocation of sin.  I think he is on cue here, and so I am going to follow his general outline in our consideration of how the law causes sin to increase.

The law increases sin by giving us information about sin.

The first way in which the law causes sin to abound, or increase, is by giving us information about sin.  Though it is true that God’s law is written on our hearts by virtue of being created in his image, and that conscience testifies to this law, yet the fact of the matter is that our conscience is not infallible, and the law of God written on the heart often gets overwritten with data that is very different from what God’s law says.  Our environment, our culture, our upbringing, our life experiences all affect the way we read what is right and what is wrong.  In the book of Isaiah, we read of those who “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20).  And so we can become blinded to what is true and pure and good.

That is where God’s law is so important.  What is sin?  The apostle John defines it for us: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin the transgression of the law” (1 Jn. 3:4, KJV).  If you really want to know what sin is, you must look to God’s word.  You must look to his law.  You must look to what he has said about what is right and what is wrong.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what society claims is just and right; what mattes is what the Lord says.  We need to understand that we can think that something is unjust not because it is but because our society has programmed us to think it is unjust (or vice versa).  We don’t realize just how much we are enslaved to the thinking of our culture.  

This is why we must constantly expose ourselves to the light of God’s word and law.  If God’s word seems strange to us, it is not because it is wrong but because we are.  And so this is, in a strange sense, how God’s law increases sin.  We suddenly become aware that there is something in our life that we thought was completely innocuous.  But there is it in the Bible: it tells us that it is wrong and sinful.  We didn’t think it was sinful before; now we are aware that an authority far above our own or that of our culture that says that this is sinful.  The law defines sin for us and tells us that certain things that we before thought were completely harmless are wrong, and in that sense causes in to increase.

Let me give you an example of one place where the law is especially helpful in causing us to see something as sin that we might not normally see on our own.  It is sin in the desires of our heart.  Paul himself confesses that, blameless though he was in respect to the external conformity to the law, the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” made him realize that the reach of the law extended to the heart and its desires.  And suddenly a million sins rose up from the shadows and stood before his consciousness.  It’s not enough to avoid committing adultery, but you must also abstain from lust.  You must not only not extend your hand to take another’s life, but you must also abstain from hating them.  God’s word condemns pride with all the ferocity as it does robbing the poor of justice.  It takes aim not only at your actions but also at your affections.

This is the way our Lord deployed the law when confronted with the Rich Young Ruler.  Like Paul, he led a morally blameless life, at least in respect of his outward conduct.  But then our Lord confronts him with his covetousness, and his greed.  He prized his wealth more than he did the kingdom of God.  When he walked away, “disheartened” and “sorrowful” we are told (cf. Mk. 10:22), he was acutely aware of the reach of the law of God in ways he had never been before.  Sin certainly had increased in its scope because his knowledge of God’s law had expanded.

The law causes sin to increase by moving us to the conviction of sin.

Sin increases not only when we become aware of sin by virtue of its definition in God’s word, but also by being brought to the conviction of sin by God’s word.  If we are just confronted with the knowledge of sin, that knowledge is likely to flit in and then out of our minds just as quickly.  It only takes hold of our imaginations and thoughts and hearts when it becomes cemented there through conviction.  

It is not enough to know right and wrong.  We must also be moved to action through that knowledge, and that is where conviction comes in.  What is conviction of sin?  I would say that conviction of sin has taken hold of us when we agree with all our hearts with the judgment of Gods word upon our lives. It happens when we stop making excuses for our sins but are convinced that what we are doing is wrong and is worthy of God’s just judgment.  It happens when we surrender to the verdict of God’s word upon our lives.  It happens not only when we are aware of God’s sentence upon our lives and deeds, but when we are willing to say “yes” to it.  In the words of the hymn by Isaac Watts: 

“My lips with shame my sins confess
Against Thy law, against Thy grace;
Lord, should Thy judgments grow severe, 
I am condemned, but Thou art clear.

  Should sudden vengeance seize my breath,
I must pronounce Thee just in death; 
And if my soul were sent to hell,
Thy righteous law approves it well.”

There are many examples of this throughout Scripture.  David, for example, after he had sinned by adultery and complicity in the murder of Uriah, didn’t just admit he had sinned, but really believed that God’s judgment upon him was completely just and that any staying of his deserved punishment was sheer mercy.  He put it this way in Psalm 51: “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (3-4).  You may judge a person’s conviction of sin by two things: by their willingness to admit that they are not only wrong but that the punishment that God’s word threatens is just, and by their desire to stop what they are doing and repent.

Now it is true that you can knowledge of sin without conviction, but you cannot have conviction of sin without the knowledge of sin.  And you cannot have knowledge of sin apart from God’s law – whether that written on the heart or that written in the pages of Scripture.  And by creating conviction of sin, God’s law in that sense causes sin to abound.  

Of course, conviction of sin is not enough for salvation.  It is necessary, because without it we will never reach for the mercy of God offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Conviction is a mercy and, painful though it can often be, we ought to be thankful for it.  But conviction is not salvation.  Our sin has to be dealt with, and this the law cannot do.  And that ultimately is Paul’s point.

The law increases sin by increasing the provocation to sin.

Now we must never say that God causes anyone to sin.  So that is not what we mean when we say that God’s law increases the provocation of sin.  This is because the reason for the provocation does not lie in God’s law itself, but in ourselves.  

What do I mean, then, when I say that the law causes the provocation of sin?  I mean that the law actually stirs up rebellion when it meets rebellious hearts.  In chapter 8, the apostle characterizes people who are not born again as “hostile to God” having hearts and minds that do “not submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7).  What does a rebel do when faced down with a decree from the king?  Does he not rebel against it?  Isn’t that what it means to be a rebel?  When a law was passed by the British parliament demanding the colonists to pay a tax on tea, what did they do?  They poured the tea into the Boston harbor!  They didn’t just not pay the tax, but committed an additional act of defiance.  When God’s law meets a rebel heart and demands its surrender, it doesn’t meekly submit.  It creates more sin by ignoring God’s authority and by doing the exact opposite of what God’s law commands.

I think this is primarily what the apostle is thinking of when he penned this verse.  This is how the law entering in caused sin to abound and increase.  So, far from promoting our salvation, by itself the law only makes the problem of sin more difficult.  The law does not draw us to heaven; it increases our transgressions and causes the separation between us and God to grow.  The law is not a bridge to forgiveness and fellowship with God; it is a barrier to it.

Now it’s very important to consider the corollary to this truth.  The law is God’s word to us on what we are to do and not to do.  The law tells us to stop sinning, to repent, to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves.  But that is all the law can do.  It cannot do more than that.  And that is the problem.  We need more than law written on a stone telling us what to do.  We need God’s law to be written on our hearts in a way that causes us to love what God has commanded.  And that the law itself can never do.  We need grace; we need the Spirit of God.  That is not a product of law, but a product of the work of Christ for us on our behalf.  

This is what Paul was getting at when he wrote to the Corinthians, “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3).  He is contrasting the power of the gospel with the power of the law.  The point is that the law is powerless to produce in us the obedience that it commands.  Only the power of the Spirit of Christ who works in and through the gospel can do that.  

So it is not enough just to tell people what they need to do.  People need the grace of God.  They need the Spirit of God working in them to produce in them the obedience God’s law demands.  That is why they need the gospel, why they need to trust in Christ.  It is only when we trust in Christ that we receive the grace needed to obey.

But more than that, it is only when we trust in Christ that we receive his righteousness.  Remember, it’s not only a problem of future obedience, it’s also a problem of the guilt of sins.  We not only need to become new people, we also need to deal with the very real guilt from our sins, past, present, and future.  We not only need regeneration; we also need justification.  That doesn’t come from the law; it can only come through Christ and what he has done for us as the Second Adam.  

The way some people use the law reminds me of a skit done some time ago (with Bob Newhart), where a woman comes to see a counselor with a phobia that she hadn’t been able to conquer.  After she comes into the office, he explains to her that he charges $5 for the first five minutes and nothing after that.  She is very happy to agree to these conditions, of course, and sits down for the therapy session.  After she explains to him her phobia (being buried alive in a box), he tells her that he has two words that should clear everything up.  Upon which he says, very forcefully, “Stop it!”  (After a bit more give and take, the session ends when he tells her to listen to 10 words that will definitely clear everything up: “Stop it or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”)  

Now that is what the law does.  It tells us to stop it, good advice of course and one that we should take heed to.  But the problem is that we are not neutral people.  We are not neutral with respect to our sins.  The problem is that we love them.  Telling someone to stop it is not going to get them to fall out of love with their sin.  That takes the grace of God, and that is something that only comes to us through Christ.

How grace abounds.

So the law causes sin to increase.  But, thank God, that is not the whole story.  For the apostle continues: “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The idea here is not that grace matches the increase of sin, so that as sin scores points grace puts the same number of points on the board.  No, the idea is that grace completely overwhelms the advance of sin.  

Is the law impotent against the march of sin?  Yes.  Does it not only not stop its advance but in some sense contribute to its ravaging the soul?  Sadly, yes.  Then how can we stop it?  Not by speaking powerless commands into the air!  The advance of sin is stopped, and along with it the condemnation and death that it brings, by the grace of God.  Paul is anticipating what he will write in the next chapter; in particular, in verse 14: “For sin will not have dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  

Grace, in this context, is all that God is for us in Christ Jesus so that sin’s penalty, power, and presence are defeated.  That is how grace comes and abounds: “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  How did our Lord do it?  By “righteousness.”  The righteousness here is the righteousness of Christ, his righteousness in obeying the Father, not only at the end of his life but from beginning to end so that he would be the perfect sacrifice.  He fully fulfilled the law, not only the types and shadows but also all the commandments, in our place.  And then he satisfied the law’s penalty by standing in for us and bearing the punishment that we deserved.  The righteousness of Christ therefore saves us.  And this righteousness is so powerful that it not only makes eternal life possible, but leads inevitably to eternal life for those who belong to him.

It’s important for us to see that in order for grace to abound where sin increased, grace must defeat sin in every aspect.  Some of Paul’s hearers apparently misunderstood him at this point, and therefore drew the false conclusion that if grace abounds where sin abounded, then let us continue in sin that grace might abound.  But that would be to misinterpret the work of Christ.  He didn’t come to leave us entrapped in the clutches of sin.  He didn’t come to give us forgiveness but leave us helpless.  No, grace does not leave a person where it found him or her.  It empowers us against sin; it does what the law cannot do.  This will be the theme of chapter 6, but we need to be aware of it as we end our consideration of this chapter.  It pains me to see people celebrate grace through the wounds that sin has given people.  Yes, grace can forgive us no matter what we have done, that is gloriously true!  But we dishonor the grace of God when we make people whose lives remain a wreck as exemplars of grace.  Grace is most honored when it not only clears our past but also makes us new people with new desires and new lives.  Like the saintly John Newton put it: "I am not what I ought to be.  I am not what I hope to be in another world.  But thank God, I am not what I used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am."  Grace does not allow sin to reign but displaces sin from its throne and reigns in its place.  Praise God for the grace of God that comes to us through Christ our Lord!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Adam and Christ Contrasted – Romans 5:15-17

At the end of verse 14, the apostle makes a comparison between Christ and Adam in the words, “who is a type of the one who was to come.”  Adam is a type of Christ.  How?  Paul makes it very clear in verses 12-19, that they are similar in that their actions affect many.  Adam’s initial sin brought death and condemnation to all who belong to him, and Christ’s righteous act in his obedient death brings life and justification to all who belong to him. 

Another way to put it is that Adams’s sin was imputed to those who are in Adam (which is the entire human race), just as Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who are in him (the elect).  Both Christ and Adam stand as federal heads or representatives of those who are “in Christ” or “in Adam.”  This is the sense in which they are similar, in which Adam is a type of Christ.

It needs to be stressed that the emphasis here is not on our sinning, for that would be to subvert Paul’s entire argument.  Paul ties the universal reality of death and condemnation back to Adam’s sin, and Adam’s sin alone.  Now that doesn’t mean that our sins aren’t significant, or that they don’t have consequences.  Of course they do.  Paul has already made that point in chapters 1-3.  But that is not his point here.  Here the apostle is arguing that we die because of Adam’s sin.  If Paul was saying that we die because we sinned just as Adam sinned, then in point of fact Adam is not responsible for our dying: we are, not Adam.  Adam would not come into the matter at all.  But the apostle ties death back to Adam again and again in this paragraph.  It can only be properly explained in light the solidarity of the human race in Adam, and his sin being imputed to all.

This is the reason we are born in a state of spiritual death, separated from the life of God, and condemned – “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).  As the hymn by Isaac Watts puts it, “Our life is ever on the wing,/ And death is ever nigh;/ The moment when our lives begin/ We all begin to die.”  Adam’s sin explains this reality.  It is the reason we are born under a cloud of sin and condemnation and death.  It is the only satisfactory explanation for the universality of death and sin.  Every generation confirms what the apostle has written here.  

But this is not all there is to the story.  Adam and Christ are not just similar; there are also very distinct and definite differences.  This is what the apostle highlights in the text before us.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to argue that these differences are what guarantee the final victory of the believer over the sin, condemnation, and death that Adam brought into the world.

I am thankful for this two-fold perspective of the apostle, the perspective of Adam and Christ.  It is the perspective of a realist, and yet it is also a perspective of hope that doesn’t give in to despair.  In our day, people generally tend to either be Pollyannaish or fatalists.  Some people have this attitude that “all will be right in the end,” without having any real reason to hope for that.  They also tend to be the type that thinks that people are basically good and that good must ultimately triumph for that reason.  But that is not a very realistic lens through which to see the world, and if you are at all an observant person, you are likely to give in to despair after a while.  The Biblical perspective, however, warns us that people are not born into this world with a blank slate, but under the condemnation of Adam’s sin, born into the world dead in sin.  The expectation is not for people to be good, but to be bad.  And that is, by the way, what we see on a daily basis.  That is why we need law, and why anarchy always tends to the destruction of society.

On the other hand, it is easy to have a doomsday perspective, and to throw up one’s hands in defeat and to become a perpetual Eeyore.  But the Biblical perspective does not allow us to embrace that narrative either.  For Adam is not the only one who defines what the world is like.  The second Adam, Jesus Christ, has come into the world to undo what Adam has done.  But he not only undoes what Adam did, he does more.  He doesn’t just put us back to where Adam was before he sinned, but he puts us in an impregnable position, one that guarantees that if we belong to him we must and shall inherit eternal life.  All that is wrong with this world will one day be swallowed up in the life that Christ has purchased for his people on the cross.  Though today death reigns, it will not reign forever.  Therefore the Christian can look at this world, messed up as it is, and know two things: it is not at all surprising that it is this way, and it will not be this way forever.  The first comes from the knowledge of what Adam has brought by his sin; the second comes from the knowledge of what Christ has accomplished by his sacrifice.  The first saves us from naivety, and the second from despair.

How then does the apostle contrast Adam and Christ?  We see it laid out for us in verses 15 and 16.  Then in verse 17, Paul sums up the previous two verses in order to highlight the ultimate triumph of the believer through Christ.  Christ is not only different from Adam – the differences are of such a nature that they make our triumph over death inevitable (see also verse 21).

The “much more” of grace – verse 15

In the first place, the apostle writes, “But the free gift is not like the trespass.  For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”  Notice that there are three “for” clauses in verses 15-17.  The first two are clearly meant to give a reason why the work of Christ is not like the sin of Adam.  I , in light of the context, that the third “for” functions in the same way.  All three verses therefore highlight why Christ is different from Adam.

So you have these contrasts.  But the first contrast in verse 15 doesn’t go quite like we might expect.  The apostle says that “many died through one man’s trespass.”  We would therefore expect the contrast to go like this: “if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have many been made alive through one man’s righteousness.”  But that is not what Paul says.  Instead of contrasting death with life, he contrasts death with grace.

Now there is no doubt that this grace leads to life.  The context makes this clear.  In the next verse, we are told that the “free gift” of verse 15 is one which brings justification and righteousness.  Of course, righteousness leads to life: “those who receive abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (17).  This is the way Paul closes his argument in chapter 5: “as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (21).

Nevertheless, the apostle chooses to focus on grace as the point of contrast in verse 15.  There are four words in this verse alone that highlight the fact that what Jesus did for us was a gracious gift.  The point is that, because of Adam’s sin, none of us deserve God’s favor.  God could have left the world in its broken condition and remained just and holy.  However, he has not done so.  But the fact that he has not done so is not because we deserve a second chance.  It is a free gift.  It is undeserved.  

We need to constantly remind ourselves of this reality.  We do not become saved because of our merit.  We do not enter into a justified state and into God’s favor and family on the basis of our works and worthiness.  The only way we can savingly relate to God is by his grace through the work of his Son for us.

This is connected to the second point of contrast in verse 15.  The first point of contrast is that whereas Adam’s condemnation was a matter of justice, Christ’s obedience for us was a matter of grace.  But the second point of contrast is indicated by the words “much more” and “abounded.”  As I said a minute ago, our Savior doesn’t just put us back to square one.  He doesn’t put us back in the Garden of Eden where we too might mess up and lose God’s favor once again.  No, what he has done is “much more” effective than the sin of Adam.  The grace of Christ “abounds.”  Verses 20-21 tell us how it abounds: it abounds by reigning where death reigned and giving eternal life to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Grace doesn’t just make eternal life possible; it makes it inevitable for those who belong to Christ.

This is due, not only to the potency of Christ’s redemptive work, but to the fact that we relate to God through Christ by grace.  This means that if you are in Christ by faith, God is not waiting for you to mess up so he can zap you with judgment.  Grace means that eternal life is secure because it doesn’t depend upon your goodness.  Grace is protection.  It is security.  It abounds over and above the sin of Adam and undoes all the death and guilt and sin that he brought into the world.

Justification versus Judgment – verse 16

In verse 16, Paul continues with the contrast: “And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin.  For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.”  Again, we have two points of contrast here in this verse.  The first is that Adam’s sin brought condemnation whereas the grace of our Lord brings justification.  The second is the contrast between the one sin of Adam and the many trespasses that had to be overcome in order to bring about the justification.  Let’s consider them in order.

Adam’s sin brought condemnation.  Now that doesn’t mean that the only condemnation we stand under is that which comes from Adam’s disobedience.  Rom. 1:18 defeats that idea.  We stand condemned by our own sins (cf. Jn. 3:18, 36).  Nevertheless, as our federal head, Adam’s failure is our failure and so his condemnation is our condemnation as well.  Moreover, this state of condemnation led to death in all its dimensions, including spiritual as well as physical death.  Because of Adam’s sin, we are dead in sins, and “by nature the children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).  We therefore go on to incur our own guilt by our own sins, the “many trespasses” the apostle mentions in the second part of this verse.

But our Lord brings justification.  Justification is the gracious declaration by God that we are right in his sight.  If we are justified, we are no longer condemned.  Thus our Lord has undone what Adam did.  And this justification is free, as the apostle has already argued in the previous chapters.  

But then there is this other point of difference.  It is this.  It just took one sin to mess up everything, to bring death into the world.  Now we live in a world characterized by death, by decay, by evil and hate, by suffering and pain.  But here is the problem: Adam’s sin led to more sins.  In fact, it led to “many trespasses.”  Our world is filled with people who sin.  It is no different, really, from the world that was destroyed by the flood, about which we are told that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).  As bad as the world became when Adam sinned; it is much, much worse now.

Though it is true that the main point of this passage is not that we copy Adam and therefore incur guilt, yet this is hinted at in this verse.  Adam’s sin did lead to condemnation for all of us.  But we have added to that condemnation.  We have added to his guilt by our own sins.  So in order to undo what Adam has done, our Lord must not only atone for Adam’s sin; he must also atone for our sins.  And how many of those are there?  Who could count even our own sins, let alone the sins of the world?  When we truly consider just how much evil Adam’s sin brought upon this world, that is daunting enough.  But when we add to that the sins of all his descendants, the problem becomes almost too much to comprehend.  How in the world could such evil be overcome?

And yet that is exactly what the apostle claims here.  The free gift which follows many trespasses bring justification.  I imagine a tidal wave 100 feet high – that’s Adam’s sin and that’s destructive enough.  But then add to this all the sins of his descendants, and you have a tidal wave hundreds or thousands of feet high.  What could stop it?  It would seem impossible,  and yet that is exactly what our Lord has done.  

How the reign of death is stopped – verse 17

In verse 17, we have the final contrast.  But here what the apostle does is to sum up the content of the previous two verses in order to establish the conclusion that what Christ has done secures our final victory over death.  Note the emphasis on the reign of death or the reign of sin in death throughout this passage (ver. 14, 17, 21).  Sin and death sit like kings over this present order.  We must remember that in that time, kings were not constitutional monarchs: they held absolute power.  Paul is saying that when Adam sinned, death came in to reign like a king over people.  The book of Hebrews presents a similar picture when it describes those who through fear of death were all their lives subject to slavery (Heb. 2:15).  This is the kind of rule that death holds over us: it is the rule of slavery and bondage.

How can we be delivered from it?  By Christ.  Because of the abundance of grace (ver. 15) and the free gift of righteousness (ver. 16) that come through the one man Jesus Christ, “much more” will we “reign in life” (ver. 17).  The dominion of sin and death is completely overturned by the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  He delivers us from death and brings us into the dominion of life.  We not only live, but reign in life.  This is not just deliverance from death; it is more than that.  It is the enthronement of the saints in eternal life, forever out of the reach of sin and death.

It is important to see that this life is both present and future.  The fullness of the life is yet to come.  We will not fully experience it until the end when death is finally defeated in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-28).  Death and sin have been dethroned, but they are still waging guerilla warfare against us.  Nevertheless, there is a present aspect to this life as well.  When we are born again, and given newness of life, we enter into the first-fruits of the life that is to come.  Thus, in 6:4, the apostle argues that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

But one of the implications of this is that once we have this life, it is not something that can be taken away.  The “much more” of Christ’s victory over Adam’s sin and the death that followed it should keep us from thinking that we can have this life and then lose it.  Thus, the overall thrust of this passage is one which should cause the saints to hope and to be assured that their hope is secure.  Adam cannot take away what Christ has purchased by his death.  We do not reign in life if we are always in danger of losing that life.  No, the saints are secure; their hope is sure and firm.  For Christ is not only like Adam, but gloriously different as well.


Now the security of our hope in Christ is certainly the proper implication to draw from this passage.  However, there is another implication that many have tried to draw from this text that is not so proper.  That is, some have argued from the parallel between Adam and Christ and the universal language that the apostle uses that every human being will be saved.  The argument is this: just as Adam’s sin brought death to everyone, even so Christ’s righteousness will bring life to everyone.  They say that because Adam’s sin is universal, so also must Christ’s salvation.  The “many” of verse 15 must be coextensive, it is argued.  And then there is verse 18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”  That seems pretty definite.

However, this is to ignore the larger context of the apostle’s argument.  Death is universal because all men are in Adam – that is, Adam is their federal head by virtue of their being related to him.  How are we related to Adam?  By birth.  Paul clearly understood that every human being has descended from Adam.  He was a real, historical figure, and along with Eve stands as the first ancestor of every person who has ever lived or ever will live.  

But how are we related to Christ?  We are not related to him by physical birth (see Jn. 1:12-13).  This is important because Christ stands as a federal head and representative for all who are related to him.  Paul again and again stresses the importance of being in Christ (Eph. 1:3-14).  As he puts it in 1 Cor. 15:22-23, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  How are you “in Christ”?  How do we belong to him?  

The answer is by new birth and by faith.  We must “receive the reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11); it is not automatically ours.  The propitiation that Christ offered on the Christ, and by which we are forgiven and reconciled to God, is available to us, not on the basis of physical birth, but through faith (Rom. 3:25).  

Therefore the “many” of verse 15 and the “all” of verse 18 are not coextensive.  They are to be understood as referring to those who are in Adam and in Christ.  All who are in Adam died and all who are in Christ will live.  But we are not in Adam the same way we are in Christ, and therefore we must not take this text to teach that salvation is universal.

That doesn’t mean, however, that salvation is not extensive.  Now I think it is silly to inquire about the relative numbers in heaven and hell.  Some have argued that the “much more” of Christ’s salvation means that there will be more in heaven than hell.  Well, I don’t think that necessarily follows.  But we do stand on firmer ground when we affirm that there will be an innumerable multitude of the saved in heaven (cf. Rev. 7:9).  Our Lord did not die for nothing.  He will see the travail of his soul and be satisfied (Isa. 53:11, KJV).  

However, what difference does it make if you are not among the saved?  Do not let this world tempt you to neglect the next.  The salvation that our Lord offers is infinitely better and enduring than anything this world can offer.  “Nothing of earth is sure,/ Vain hope soon dies;/ Things of the Lord endure,/ Christ satisfies.”

Nor let the guilt of your past sins keep you from coming.  Salvation is a gift, a gift of grace that was bought and paid for by Jesus Christ.  And the invitation is for you to come and receive this gift: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’  And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’  And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).

Finally, if you belong to Christ, take heart.  Your hope is sure.  Death has come to us because of Adam, but death will be one day swallowed up in victory because of what Christ has done.  “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

How to be blessed by the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1-4)

I have heard it said that if you were to poll the average Christian on which book of the Bible they most want to study, the answer would be ...