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!