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The Role of God's Law: Romans 5:20-21 (Lesson 3.8)

ROMANS 5:20-21: "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

There's four things we need to mention here about the Law:

A) The MEANING of the Law: It may seem obvious to some, but it's important to note that the law that Paul is speaking about here is the Mosaic Law. There are some who maintain that Paul is referring not only to the Mosaic Law but to the moral law. But the moral law has been written on the heart of man since the dawn of creation. Paul is speaking exclusively about the Law of Moses—which did not enter into the world until a later time in redemptive history; hence Paul's words: “the law came in. . .” (v20).

B) The REFERENCE to the Law: We might ask, why would Paul finish his discussion of the parallels between Adam and Christ with the Law? What in the world does the Law have to do with imputed sin in Adam and imputed righteousness in Christ? Well, that's actually a good question. A really important question. It was a question Paul wanted to ask his hearers. Because the context in which Paul lived and ministered was a Jewish context. He was always responding to the questions that came from the Jews. Throughout the book of Romans, Paul is constantly answering the objections that would inevitably come from the doctrines he was expounding.1 And it seems that this is exactly what he's doing here. As he finishes his discussion, he can imagine how contemporary Jews might object to what he had just said. He knows that some of them would object to what he just said about our need for Christ by making the claim that God sent the Law in order to restore righteousness (see Galatians 3). And so Paul feels the need here to address a truth that is vitally important: just how is it that the Law relates to our salvation? And what Paul says is that the purpose of the Law was never to increase our righteousness—it was actually to increase our sin: “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase” (5:20). In other words, the Law was never meant to make us righteous—it was actually given to do the opposite: to show us just how sinful we really are. Paul wants his hearers to understand that the Law was never meant to be our Savior.

So, that's why Paul is bringing up the Law of Moses here at the end of this passage. Now, there's two things in particular that we need to mention here as we talk about Paul's reference to the Law:2

1) FIRST, Paul's reference here to the Law is PARTIAL: This is not everything that Paul says about the Law. His mention here about the Law is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment on the nature and purposes of the Law. He says a lot more about the Law in a lot of other places in Scripture.3 So, don't think that Paul is implying here, for instance, that the Law's only purpose is to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ, but that it has no role in the life of a New Testament believer. Paul's not saying that. He's simply describing here for us one specific purpose of the Mosaic Law—namely, to drive sinners to Christ.

2) SECOND, Paul's reference here to the Law is PROVOCATIVE: Paul's statement here about the Law would have been incredibly offensive to the ears of many of his contemporary Jewish hearers. Why? Because ethnic Jews prided themselves on the fact that of all the nations on the earth, God had chosen them to be His people and had given them His Law. And Paul's saying, look, the reason God gave you the Law wasn't to vindicate your righteousness—it was to expose your sin; it wasn't to show the world how wonderfully righteous you are—it was actually to show you how wretchedly messed up you are. What Paul says here is shocking. And he means for it to be shocking. He wants to shock his hearers into life.

C) The PURPOSE of the Law: Again, the Law was never meant to be our Savior. It was meant to lead us to the Savior but it was never meant to be our Savior. It was never meant to restore Adam's fallen, sinful race to God. The ten commandments were never meant to save us.4 But if the Law was never meant to save us, what was it meant to do? Paul tells us in Romans 5:20, “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase.” 5 Now, biblical scholars and theologians will tell you that the “so that” of this clause is a “so that” of purpose or design.6 Paul's saying here that the Law was given with a purpose—but that its purpose was actually to increase transgression—NOT to remove or lessen it. The purpose of the Law was not to remedy the disaster Adam created—it was actually to make it worse. The Law wasn't meant to remove the judgment that came upon us through Adam's sin—it was meant to increase it. The Law wasn't given to save us, but to further condemn us. God gave us the Law to convict us of our sin and to show us just how sinful we really are, in order to drive us to Christ to find salvation in Him alone.

D) The METHOD of the Law: So again—we need to be absolutely clear on this—the Law is not our Savior and it was never meant to be. Rather, the Law was given in order to multiply and aggravate our sin, so that we would flee to Jesus, the Savior for sinners.7 But how exactly does the Law do this?8

1) FIRST, the Law SHOWS us our sin: The Law shows us how sinful we really are. James likens the Law to a mirror—you look at it and see yourself—and its not a pretty picture! “The law [does] not put sin into the heart, but it [is] an instrument to display the depravity already existing in the heart.”9 The Law exposes our sin for what it really is—and in doing so it confronts us with just how sinful we really are.10

I absolutely love how Martin Luther describes it: “As long as a person is not a murderer, adulterer, [or] thief, he would swear that he is righteous. How is God going to humble such a person except by the Law? The Law is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of God's wrath to bring down the proud. . .When the Law was instituted on Mount Sinai it was accompanied by lightning, by storms, by the sound of trumpets, to tear to pieces that monster called self-righteousness. . .The Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins through Christ will never appeal to the self-righteous. This monster of self-righteousness, this stiff-necked beast, needs a big axe. And that is what the Law is, a big axe.”11

2) SECOND, the Law STIRS up our sin: This is the second way that the Law causes sin to increase (5:20), and thus drives men to Christ. Paul talks about this more in Romans 7:7-8: 7Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, 'You shall not covet.' 8But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.

Now, in the first verse (v7), Paul is referring to how the Law shows us our sin: “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law.” This is the Law acting like a mirror, exposing sin for what it really is. But in the second verse (v8), Paul is referring to how the Law actually stirs up our sin: “But sin. . . produced in me coveting of every kind.” Sin is being stirred up, it's being provoked by the Law. The last clause, “for apart from the law sin is dead” doesn't mean that sin is actually non-existent before the Law; but that sin is inactive and dormant before being confronted with the Law. In other words, sin is there—you just can't detect it. But when a sinner is confronted with the law, sin is provoked and comes alive.

So, according to Scripture, the Law doesn't just show us our sin—it stirs it up. Think of your children. The Law stirs up our sin in a similar way that our children do. Now, children are a good thing, they are a blessing; just like the Law. But what happens when you start having them? More and more of your sin begins to come to the surface! Before you had children, you never struggled with things like anger or impatience. But now you're repenting of those things daily. What happened? Your sin and selfishness were there before, but they were dormant. Your sin of selfishness wasn't being challenged, it wasn't being provoked. It took children to draw it out, to provoke it, to stir it up. Caring for small children causes us to love in ways that are much more sacrificial than our flesh wants to. And so children—in themselves a good thing, a blessing—become a means of provoking our dormant, sleeping sins to new life. In a very real sense, God gives us children for the same reason He gave us the Law: to stir up our sin in order to show us our (continual) need for Christ. We could paraphrase it this way: Our children came in so that transgression would increase—but praise God—where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.12


1 See for instance Romans 3:1,3,5,8,31; 4:1; 6:1,15; 7:7,13; etc.

2 These two truths gratefully gleaned from Ligon Duncan's course on Covenant Theology.

3 See Romans 7; Galatians 3:17-25; 2 Corinthians 3:6-11; and 1 Timothy 1:8-11. We'll talk more about this later.

4 Ligon Duncan puts it in his course on Covenant Theology: “The law, coming along in the time of Moses, does not solve that problem that Adam plunged you into. The coming of the law with Moses was not God's great solution to the Adamatic problem of sin, God's great solution to the Adamatic problem of sin was Christ and grace.”

5 One question that arises here is: When Paul says, “so that the transgression would increase”, is he speaking of the one transgression of Adam, or transgressions in general? Ultimately, both these views seem to lead to the same conclusion. If we take the first position, that Paul is speaking of the transgression of Adam, and we ask: How can it be that the Law increased Adam's transgression? The only reasonable answer is that the Law increased the continuing effects of Adam's transgression; IE, it increased the many and various actual sins that would spring forth from Adam's one transgression. Which means that the Law was given in order to make actual sins increase; which, is just another way of saying that the Law was given in order that transgressions in general would increase, which is, in fact, the second view. So, both views seem to express the same truth.

6 IE, Hodge on Romans 5:20; Murray, p208; Moo, p347.

7 Hodge puts it this way: “It was not intended to give life, but to prepare men to receive Christ as the only source of righteousness and salvation.” (from his commentary on Romans).

8 Along with emphasizing that the Law SHOWS us our sin as well as STIRS UP our sin (below), some also add to these two aspects an additional third notion; namely: The Law MULTIPLIES our Sin: When God, through His Law, begins to show us our sin, we not only begin to possess a greater apprehension of it—we also begin to come under a greater accountability for it. When God, through His Law, begins to unfold for us what His perfect standard for mankind really is, we're not just confronted with how sinful we really are—we're also held accountable for what we've now come to know: As Murray says: “The more explicit the revelation of law the more heinous and aggravated are the violations of it.” (Romans, p208). So, it's not just that the Law increases our knowledge of sin—but that our sin is increased by the knowledge of the Law. As Hodge says (Romans): “the result of the introduction of the law was the increase of sin. This result is to be attributed partly to the fact, that by enlarging the knowledge of the rule of duty, responsibility was proportionably increased [cf. 4:15], and partly to the consideration that the enmity of the heart is awakened by its operation, and transgressions actually multiplied [cf. 7:8].” It does seem important to stress that the increasing of the transgression must, at the least, mean more than (but not less than) the fact that the Law shows us our sin. Why? Moo says (347-48) that the corollary increasing grace later in verse 20 would seem to necessitate sin actually increasing: IE, if Paul is only saying that we apprehend our sin more and more, it seems then that the increasing grace would mean only that we apprehend grace more and more. And at the least, if the first clause means nothing more than: “The Law came in so that knowledge of our sin would increase”, then the first part of the second clause must mean: “but where knowledge of our sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The passage can't mean less than this, but it must mean so much more. It's not just the increase of the knowledge of sin that's met and defeated by grace—it's the increase of sin itself. So, another way to describe how the Law causes the transgression to increase, is that through the Law, our sin is: 1) APPREHENDED more and more; 2) ACCULUMULATED more and more; and 3) AGGRAVATED more and more.

9 From Haldane in his commentary on Romans, p228. Note: the quote is in the past tense; I put it into the present tense. Another illustration might be light (cf. Proverbs 6:23): light doesn't make your house dirty! Rather, it shows you that it's dirty.

10 An interesting side-note here: Ligon Duncan points out in his course on Covenant Theology that the Greek word used in Galatians 3:24 to describe the Law as a “tutor to lead us to Christ,” (Gr. paidagogos) was a term used for the household slave who took the children to school: “he's the one who led you to the one who was going to give you what you need. . .Paul is saying that the revelation of the law that God granted to us especially in the days of Moses was designed to show us our sin, not to be the instrument of salvation. It's not our Savior; but if properly understood, it leads us to our Savior.”

11 From his commentary on Galatians.

12 What Luther says here about the Law fits perfectly (and humorously) with our analogy of children: “Before that he was a very holy man; he worshipped and praised God; he bowed his knees before God and gave thanks, like the Pharisee.” But now it is very different!! (quote from commentary on Galatians). The analogy isn't perfect, but I believe it's fair. It might be objected that the Law stirs up sin because it obligates us to obey new requirements, but we can also say the same of children, for now we are obligated to perform duties that were never before required of us. We must note here also that as it relates to both God's Law and our children, this is not by any means the only purpose. We mentioned earlier that this is just one purpose God has for the Law—it's by no means the only purpose. And the same is true for our children: I am by no means saying that this is the only reason that God gives us children! But, in my experience at least, it is truly one of His purposes.


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