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."
Paul had just told us in the first clause of Romans 5:20 (v20a) that the reason God gave the Law was to increase transgression by both showing us our sin and stirring up our sin. But, praise God, this isn't the end of the story. In the rest of the passage (vv20b-21), which completes the entire section of verses 12-21, Paul is going to show us that even though transgression increased through the coming of the Law, grace increased all the more. Paul wants us to see that even though sin has abounded through the coming of the Law, grace has super-abounded through the coming of Christ. This last portion of Scripture contained in vv20b-21 can be broken down into five distinct points; we'll take them one by one:
A) The REALITY of God's super-abounding grace: “Grace abounded all the more. . .” (v20b)
B) The PURPOSE of God's super-abounding grace “. . .so that grace would reign. . .” (v21)
C) The SOURCE of God's super-abounding grace: “through [Christ's] righteousness. . .” (v21)
D) The RESULT of God's super-abounding grace: “. . .[un]to eternal life. . .” (v21)
E) The BASIS of God's super-abounding grace: “through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v21)
A) The REALITY of abounding grace: “GRACE ABOUNDED. . .”
We read in Romans 5:20, “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded1 all the more. . .” God's reaction to abounding sin was super-abounding grace.2 Now, this was true historically, with Israel. The Law came in; and showed them just how perfect God's standard for righteousness really is, and they were confronted with just how far they fell short. If they were a proud people before, who looked down on others, God's Law humbled them to the core. But even where their sin was multiplied and aggravated the most; and even where God's Law confronted them with the worst of their hypocrisy, idolatry, and self-centeredness—even there grace abounded all the more. Even in the depths of the very worst of their sin, God's grace was more than sufficient for them.
And this wasn't just true historically for Israel, it's still just as true for us today. And not just at conversion—but every day in the Christian life. The Law continues (doesn't it?) to confront us, even now as Christians, with the fact that we're much worse off than we'd like to admit. What do you do, when God takes you through seasons in your life when you just feel utterly wretched? When you just feel like a big pile of sin? What do you do on those days where you feel like instead of pushing ahead in holiness, all you seem to be doing is falling back into sin? You go to this verse, that's what you do. It doesn't say: “but where sin decreased, grace abounded all the more.” That's what we tend to think: Grace abounds to the degree that we're doing well in the Christian life. But no; it says: “where sin increased.” In other words, grace doesn't just abound on the days when we feel like we're doing great in the Christian life; where sin is decreasing. Now, God doesn't want us to sin. But what this text is teaching us is that grace abounds even where sin is increasing; even in those places or seasons of our life when we're most overcome by our sin. “Where sin increased”— the very place where sin is at its worst—it is precisely there that grace abounds.3
B) The PURPOSE of abounding grace: Grace abounded “SO THAT GRACE WOULD REIGN. . .”
We read in Romans 5:20-21, “. . .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. . .” Back in verses 14 and 17, Paul had told us that “death reigned” through Adam. Death had completely dominated us. This is one of the things the genealogy of Genesis 5 is meant to show us. Even as Moses traces the godly line of Seth, he has to keep writing, “and he died. . .and he died. . .and he died.” In verses 14 and 17 it was death that reigned; Paul's focus there was the result of imputed sin: Death dominates us. But here in Romans 5:21, Paul changes the focus. Here Paul says that sin reigned in death. Paul's focus here is the power of imputed sin: Sin dominates us. In Adam, sin always defeats you, sin always triumphs over you, sin always owns you, sin always reigns over you. In Adam, sin completely and utterly dominates you.
But now, in Christ, grace has abounded all the more, “so that. . .grace would reign.” Now, this is important. Notice, it doesn't say, “so that WE would reign,” but rather: “so that GRACE would reign.” It's not WE who reign—it's GRACE that reigns. It's not saying that sin used to defeat us, but now WE defeat our sin. It's not saying that WE now triumph over our sin—it's saying that GRACE now triumphs over our sin. Which is a really good thing, because, if we're honest, there's lots of times we still feel pretty defeated by our sin (right?). But that doesn't matter, because our conquering isn't dependent on us. Even when we feel defeated by our sin, we still overwhelmingly triumph, because it's GRACE that reigns.
Sin had dominated us in Adam. But Paul tells us that grace abounded all the more, “so that. . .grace would reign. . .” Paul's saying: grace abounded so that grace would reign. And how would it reign? “Grace abounded. . .so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign. . .” We've spent a lot of time in this lesson looking at the “just as. . .even so” parallel in verses 12 and 18-19. Well, here in this last verse, there's another “just as, even so”: Grace abounded, “so that, [just] as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign. . .to eternal life”. In other words, in Christ, grace now reigns in the same way that sin used to reign in Adam. Well, how was it that Adam's sin reigned in death? It reigned every time. Adam's sin always produced death. It always dominated; it always reigned. Well, that's the way that grace reigns now: In Adam, you were always defeated by sin; but now in Christ, sin is always defeated by God's grace. Sin had always reigned in Adam. But now it's grace that always reigns. Sin had dominated you in Adam every time; but now it's grace that always dominates in Christ. Simply put, grace abounded so that we wouldn't have to be a people defeated by sin anymore.4 Grace abounded in order that we would no longer be a people overwhelmingly conquered by sin, but now a people who overwhelmingly conquer by and because of grace. Grace abounded, “so that grace would reign. . .through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
C) The SOURCE of abounding grace: Grace abounded “so that grace would reign THROUGH RIGHTEOUSNESS. . .”
Paul goes on: “grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness. . .” The righteousness Paul is talking about here is the same righteousness he had called “the gift of righteousness” in verse 17 of our passage, and the same righteousness he's been speaking about throughout the book of Romans (see 1:17; 3:21-22; 10:3).5 It's not the righteousness that God requires of us, but the righteousness that He has provided for us. It is God's very own righteousness, the “righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9).
This clause reminds us what the power of grace hinges upon. It's wonderful news that grace reigns. But again, if this reigning grace depends in any way upon us, it's no good news at all. If grace reigns only as we follow Jesus with perfect obedience—if grace reigns only when we're doing great spiritually—then there's no hope for us at all. But what Paul's telling us here is that grace is rooted—not in our own righteousness—but in the righteousness of Christ. Just as Adam's sin mediated the curse to us, so now it's Christ's righteousness that mediates the blessing. Grace isn't based upon our subjective righteousness, but the eternal, unchanging righteousness of Jesus Christ—the same yesterday, today, and forever. Grace is founded upon a righteousness that never wanes (Isaiah 51:6) and endures forever (Isaiah 51:8); a righteousness that is not only perfectly complete but completely unchangeable: Grace hinges upon the righteousness of our Savior: As Jeremiah 33:16 says, “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the Lord is our righteousness.”6
D) The RESULT of abounding grace: Grace abounded “so that grace would reign through righteousness [UN]TO ETERNAL LIFE. . .”
Eternal life is the outcome of the reign of grace. And it's not just one possible outcome among many. It's the only possible outcome for all who are in Christ. Grace won't just reign for a short season, or up to a certain point—grace will reign “unto eternal life.” For sinners who trust in Christ, eternal life isn't just a good possibility; it is an absolute certainty. In Christ, you and I have a standing infinitely more secure than Adam had before the fall. Jesus didn't just bring us back to the glory we had in the garden of Eden. He did so much more. He didn't just give us a second chance at salvation through the cross; He won it for us. He didn't come just to make salvation possible again; He came to make it certain.
It might be asked here that if through Adam the many were sentenced to physical death as well as eternal death, then why is it not the case that believers in Christ—though delivered from eternal death—are still liable to physical death? If what Adam did brought physical death as well as eternal death into the world, should it not be the case that what Christ did would grant physical life as well as eternal life? Why is it then that believers still die physically? Paul is going to answer this question later, in Romans 8:10-11. In short, God will “give life to [our] mortal bodies,” — but not until the resurrection. When Paul describes Christ's resurrection as the “first fruits” of those who have died in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:20ff), he's saying that Christ's bodily resurrection is the guarantee of our bodily resurrection. As believers, we'll still have to pass through the reality of physical death, but praise God, the sting of death has been taken away.
A story is told of a pastor who was driving his car on the way to perform a funeral service; thinking through what he was going to say. As he's driving, out of nowhere—bam--he feels a shot of pain shoot up his leg, and he realizes that there's an unhappy bee flying around in his car. He looks down at his leg and sure enough, there's a big welt, with the stinger still stuck in the skin; and the bee is still in the car, buzzing all around like it's going to sting him again. He starts to get flustered, but all of a sudden he realizes—the bees stinger is gone. It can make all this noise and keep buzzing around, but it can't hurt me—the sting is gone.7 And this is exactly what's true for believers. Christ took the sting of death in our place. We'll have to face death one day, but praise be to God, in Christ the sting of death is gone: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sting, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
E) The BASIS of abounding grace: Grace abounded “so that grace would reign through righteousness [un]to eternal life THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD.”
This is it. This is the end of the passage, and the end of this section of Scripture, Romans 5:12-21. Paul closes it all with these words. Grace abounded, he says, “so that grace would reign through righteousness [un]to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It's all because of Jesus. He did it all.
You all know the story of David and Goliath. I don't know how you've heard it preached before. Maybe you've heard preachers tell you that you need to be brave like David and defeat the Goliath's in your life. Maybe you yourself have preached messages like that from this story. But let me suggest to you what I think this narrative is really about: the story of David and Goliath is the story of Jesus and the gospel.
God's people were helpless and hopeless before their enemy. Goliath owned them. But just when it seemed there was no hope, something happened. A father sent his son to his own kinsmen, to seek their welfare. Some of his own kinsmen were jealous of him, scolded him, and hated him for his words. But he delivered them from the hand of the strong enemy. David single-handedly ran to the battle line; this was a battle he would fight alone. David alone conquered the enemy, but when he did, it meant victory for all God's people. His victory was their victory. Does this sound familiar? This is the story of the gospel: “Jesus is the ultimate champion, our true champion, who did not merely risk his life for us, but who gave it. And now his victory is our victory, and all he has accomplished is imputed to us.”8
A Few Final Thoughts
Don't we so often live like we're under the Covenant of Works instead of the Covenant of Grace? Don't we so often live as though our relationship with God was based on what we do or don't do? On how good we're living the Christian life? Don't we so often live as though our acceptance with God was based on our day-to-day obedience? Don't we so often live as though there was no Covenant of Grace?9
But what does God's Word say? What this whole passage has been telling us, is that the entire human race was condemned in Adam. And the condemnation that came upon all humanity wasn't contingent upon the actions of anyone but Adam. The condemnation that came upon all men was based solely, exclusively, entirely—upon the action of one man, Adam. That's what Paul is saying. You could be in Adam and have a million actual sins that you committed personally, or you could be in Adam and have zero sins that you committed personally (that's Paul's whole point in 5:12-14) and you would be equally condemned. The condemnation isn't based on you at all. And you know what? The same is true for you, Christian, in Jesus. Your justification isn't based on you at all. In Adam all are condemned solely because of what Adam did. But now, in Christ, all are justified solely because of what Christ has done. We were condemned for a sin that wasn't our own—and we're justified for a righteousness that isn't our own. This is the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. It's the sweetest thing in the world.
There's a true story of a very rich man who married later in life and had just one son. Shortly after his marriage, his wife fell sick and died. His son also died within just a few years of his wife's death. Finally, the rich man himself died, literally from a broken heart, according to historians. There was an auction to sell off his entire estate; and a lot of people came to bid on his property and belongings. The auctioneer began by reading a clause in the will of the deceased, that the first thing to be sold would be a particular painting of this man's son. There wasn't anything necessarily special about the painting; so no one was really interested. But one of the maids of the rich man, who had known his son, and known her master's love for his son and all the grief he had gone through, bid what she could on the painting. No one outbid her; so she won the painting. The auctioneer then came up to the platform again. He banged his gavel and announced to everyone's surprise that the auction was now closed. He then began to read the rest of the will. As it turned out, the rich man had written in his will that the person who bought the painting of his son would also be given the entirety of his estate. Whoever gets the son, gets the fortune.10 And, my dear friends, if you belong to Jesus Christ, this is exactly what is true for you. Whoever gets the Son, gets the fortune: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
1 Literally, “super-abounded.”
2 Moo puts it this way: “the law's negative purpose in radicalizing the power of sin has been more than fully met by the provisions of God's grace.” (from his commentary on Romans).
3 A fitting illustration of all this might be how Elijah poured out buckets of water on the altar in order to demonstrate and put on display all the more the awesome power of God (1 Kings 18). God's grace is not so limited that it can only exist where there is only a little sin—the power of His grace is so great that it reigns even in the midst of the worst of our sin: Murray says: “The apostle construes the multiplying of trespass which the giving of the law promoted as magnifying and demonstrating the superabounding riches of divine grace. The more transgression is multiplied and aggravated the greater is the grace that abounds unto justification and the more the lustre of that grace is made manifest.” (Romans, p208). And Duncan says: “The more sin is multiplied, the more it is shown to us, the more aware we become of it, the more aggravated it is, the greater is the grace that conquers it. . .The reign of sin is trumped by the triumph of grace. Grace meets sin head on, and it defeats it.”
4 Paul is not talking about feeling defeated by sin—he's talking about actually being defeated by sin. Paul's not dealing with our subjective feelings—he's dealing with objective realities. This is vital. While still in our sins, we may not necessarily have felt defeated, but we were. So too, we may not always feel that we're more than conquerors in Christ, but the reality is, we are.
5 And Paul wasn't the first one to talk about it. Isaiah spoke of it hundreds of years before, often equating it to the Lord's salvation (Isaiah 45:8; 46:12-13; 51:5-8; 56:1; 59:16-17; 63:1). The Psalms are also full of the language of God's righteousness.
6 Hodge puts it this way: “As the triumph of sin over our race was through the offense of Adam, so the triumph of grace is through the righteousness of Christ.” (from his commentary on Romans).
7 Illustration taken from Phil Smuland, Romans 5:12-19 (a sermon), Covenant PCA, Harrisonburg, VA.
8 Quote from Tim Keller, Center Church, pp78-79. There's another striking illustration of all that we have been talking about in Joshua 3 and 4. These chapters describe for us how Joshua and all Israel with him crossed over the Jordan River in order to enter in to the land of promise, the land of Canaan. All God's people were standing on the eastern banks of the Jordan, and the Jordan stood in the way between God's people and the promised land. Jordan means “flowing downward,” and the Jordan River flowed downward to the south, all the way to the Dead Sea—which is called the Dead Sea not only because nothing can live there, but because there's no tributaries that flow out of it. But as soon as the feet of those carrying the ark of the covenant touched the water, Scripture tells us that the waters began to be backed up in one heap a good distance north of them—at a city called Adam. Now, the ark of the covenant was God's visible, tangible presence among His people—it was a type of Christ. And when the ark of the covenant entered the waters—what happened? The river that flowed down from Adam, sweeping everything in its path to the sea of the dead was completely cut off, and God's people were able to cross unharmed into the promised land. And this is exactly what Christ has done for all those who belong to Him. It is only “through Jesus Christ our Lord” that grace now reigns. It was Him and Him alone who caused the waters of judgment, that had been flowing down from Adam to all his descendants, to be completely cut off. “It is His person and work that has secured our acceptance with God. . .Thats how grace reigns. It reigns over sin. It reigns through the righteousness of Christ. It results in your receiving eternal life, and it is all by Jesus Christ, your Lord.” (quote from Ligon Duncan, Covenant Theology).
9 Richard Lovelace puts it this way: “We all automatically gravitate toward the assumption that we are justified by our level of sanctification, and when this posture is adopted it inevitably focuses our attention not on Christ but on the adequacy of our own obedience. We start each day with our personal security resting not on the accepting love of God and the sacrifice of Christ but on our present feelings or recent achievements in the Christian life. . .” (The Dynamics of Spiritual Life).
10 This illustration was gratefully gleaned from Phil Smuland in his sermon on Romans 5:12-19 at Covenant Presbyterian (PCA), in Harrisonburg, VA: (https://www.cov-pres.org/resources/teachings/P399). I've profited immensely from his teaching.