MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 22, 1998 FROM ROMANS 5:20-21
This week, we return to finish our look at the fifth chapter of Romans. We have said that in this second half of this chapter, Paul shines the light on the two main figures in Salvation history. There is Adam, who through his sin brought death into this world. And there is Jesus Christ who, through grace seen in his life, his atoning death and resurrection brought righteousness and spiritual life into this world. Paul has been contrasting these two figures and emphasizes that the gift given by Christ is far more powerful than the sin brought by Adam. As we come to verse 20, its as if Paul anticipates a very logical question. If one of the Jewish Christians in Rome were to read Paul’s treatment here where he narrows all of salvation history down to Adam and Christ, he might very well ask Paul, “Haven’t you left one, small element of salvation history out, Paul? You’ve talked about Adam and the Fall, Christ and his work, but what of Moses--what of the Law? Where does the law fit into this picture you have drawn for us?” In verse 20 he answers that question and in verse 21, which we looked at two weeks ago, he once again states the superiority of grace over sin as he concludes his argument.
In verse 20, Paul says, “The law was added so the transgression would increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that. just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The truth which Paul brings out is this: Even though the law increases the power of sin, the grace of God is still far more powerful than sin. Paul answers the question as to what place the law has in salvation history and his answer, I am sure, blew the minds of many of the good Jewish believers he was writing. It was commonly held within Judaism that the law was something God gave to restrain the sin of his people--to hold their sinful impulses in check. Paul completely destroys that line of thinking by saying just the opposite. Not only does the law not restrain sin, it actually increases its power.
This is a consistent theme for Paul and the purpose of the law. In chapter seven, verse eight he says in relation to coveting, “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire desire, for apart from the law, sin is dead.” Paul says in effect, “I had a covetous heart--that’s just the way it was. When I understood the law of God to forbid coveting, rather than restrain my covetous heart, the law’s prohibition against coveting actually intensified my desire to covet. Without the law’s prohibition, the sin of coveting is still in my heart, but it is far less powerful--even dead in terms of its expression.” Think of it this way. In chemistry, you put two chemicals together and they exist just fine--there is no reaction. But when you add a third chemical, a catalyst, immediately the chemicals get hot--even explode. The catalyst causes them to react.
That’s the way the law is. On the one hand, you have this evil human heart, stuffed full of sin. On the other, you have all the stimuli to sin--the expensive homes to covet after, the women to lust after, the difficult people to hate. Those things are there, and at some level you react to those things. But what really intensifies those reactions is the law--the catalyst which heats up or intensifies those sinful passions. The law is a catalyst. Now, how does this work that the law, which is a good thing should be used as this kind of catalyst. The answer is simple. We know that the fallen human heart is in rebellion against God--complete, no-holds barred rebellion. These people may go to church every Sunday, but they are in rebellion against God because when its all said and done, they are living for themselves and not for God and his kingdom. That is rebellion.
Into that fallen context you inject the law of God. What is the law of God? Nothing less than an overt, explicit, specific expression of his holy character expressed through his will for humanity. Now, how are those whose hearts are conditioned through the fall to be in complete rebellion against God--how are they going to react against the overt, explicit, specific expression of his holy character? As we’ve said before, its like pouring gasoline on a fire!! If a person is in rebellion against a God they have never seen, they will rebel with much greater intensity against an explicit, specific, overt expression of his character. In this way, the law greatly intensifies the desire to rebel--to sin against God. To use Paul’s words here, “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” Several questions arise at this point.
First, why would the law increase the power of sin within the covenant people of God, the Jews? Well, the Old Covenant did nothing to change the rebellious heart. The heart still rebelled against God. It is the New Covenant in Christ which changes the heart--which takes out the heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh--which takes the law from being an external expression of God’s holiness and moves it inside the new heart which has the law of God written on it. This is much of what chapter six discusses--this change of heart that occurs in a new person in Christ. A second question is: why would God give a holy law to people simply for the purpose of intensifying the power of sin? The answer is complex, but in Galatians 3:23-23, Paul says, “we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.”
The law was put in place as it relates to us to show us how sinful we really are--to magnify our sin. If we walk around with a vague sense of sin, there will be no need for us to come to Christ. But when we see the holy standard of God’s law and find that, instead of being able to obey it, our evil hearts are actually inflamed to sin by it, we see how sinful we really are and humbly throw ourselves on God’s mercy at the foot of the cross. Paul says in Romans 7:13, “But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” How bad is sin? How powerful is sin? Here’s how powerful sin is--it takes the law of God which is holy and good and uses it to inflame the passions of a sinner’s evil heart. Such is the power of sin.
But the part of the good news of the gospel and the point that Paul makes here in the second half of chapter five is this: as strong as the power of sin is, the power of grace is much greater. In the second half of verse 20 he says, “But where sin increased grace increased all the more.” Grace always stays ahead of sin where God’s people are concerned. Think of sin and grace as water and a bobber. If you have a shallow puddle and throw the bobber in, it will float on the water. It will not be drug down by the water--it will rise to the top and look down on the water. If you add enough water to make that puddle the size of Lake Superior, the bobber is still in the same position in relationship to the water. If you add enough water to make the lake the size of the Pacific Ocean, the bobber still stays above the water. It still dominates it, in that sense--it remains above it.
Without pressing the illustration too far, that’s the way grace is in relationship to sin. No one ever sins enough to conquer the power of God’s forgiving grace because grace dominates sin. You could no more sin enough to eclipse God’s grace than you could add enough water to that ocean to bring that bobber down. It is the nature of the bobber to stay above any amount of water. It is the nature of grace to cover any amount of sin. If you sit here this morning wondering if you have sinned so cataclysmically that you have exhausted God’s grace, you are believing a lie. God’s grace is greater than all our sin. To repeat something we have said before, look at the origins of sin and grace. Sin is authored ultimately by Satan. Grace comes from God. If you could sin enough to outdistance grace, then you would be forced to conclude that Satan and his sin is stronger than God and his grace. Can that be true--may it never be!!
The power of grace triumphs over the power of sin and we need to remind ourselves that every time we sin and come to God and confess our sins to him. First John 1:9 is a testimony to the power of grace over sin. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Here, let me say something about the trap that some people fall into about this issue of grace. There are several Christians, and I have been among them, who have a fear of this miraculous, sin covering, abounding grace. Even though they would probably never admit it, grace as I have just described it makes them nervous. It scares them. Here is what I mean. These people are often spiritually sensitive folks (often they are either converted as adults or have their first powerful understanding of God as adults). They read the Bible and see the high and lofty expectations God has for his people, the church. They see God’s call to obedience as at the core of faith. They embrace the truth that there is a duty in the Christian life and as the Catechisms say, “the duty that God requires of man is the obedience that comes from faith.” They see that there is a cross in Christianity and that Jesus said the Christian life is one marked by self-denial, not self-indulgence. They read first John with texts like, 2:3 where he says, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.” and 2:6, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” These people take these texts very seriously and sincerely want to apply them to their lives. These people deeply desire to live disciplined, sacrificial lives marked by self denial and obedience.
At the same time, these people are seemingly surrounded by people who go to the same church they do and these people, most, though not all of whom grew up in the church but who live their “Christian” life very differently from this. They don’t seem to be all that dissatisfied with the low state of the church. They don’t seem to be bothered much by that. Their lives are not marked by any overt forms of self denial. They do pretty much what they want to do most the time from all appearances. When they hear someone emphasizing the obedience and repentance aspects of the faith, it either rolls off their back completely or they get uncomfortable with it and may even equate all those kinds of emphases with legalism. Their Jesus seems to be in a very neat little box for them. He’s in heaven and he loves them and they live their nice, though self-centered lives feel good about how much he loves them. They enjoy the freedom He gives them to live their lives as they please. Texts like those in first John and the hard teachings of Jesus are not areas they spend any time in. They bear little if any dynamic, Spirit empowered fruit in their lives.
Their faith is superficial and on a practical level is not much deeper on a practical level than the fact that they know they love Jesus and Jesus loves them no matter what. They don’t see the need for spiritual disciplines--they occasionally read the bible, but its mostly to receive comfort and feel close to Jesus. And they don’t feel any strong NEED to be more disciplined in their spiritual lives because, after all, they are a Christian and as a result, a very nice person. When they are pressed about their highly explainable, self-centered, superficial lives, they invariably respond by saying, “Well, you know, God is a God of grace.” That is their standard response whenever they are pressed to give an account of why they live their so called Christian lives so far from the biblical call--GRACE.
Here’s is where Satan traps the other people to be afraid of grace. These folks look at the superficial folks (who, in some form make up the majority of North American Christianity) and they think something like this, “I don’t want my Christian life to look like that!! I DON’T want to be self-deceived into thinking the Christian life is mostly about praying a prayer with grandma at age four, getting my ticket to heaven and living predominantly for myself the rest of my life as a “nice,” but spiritually insipid, powerless person.” Then they take it a step further. They think to themselves something like, “One thing I will never do is live like those people with that kind of grace--if that is grace, I want no part of it!!!” When they hear messages on grace, their strongest, overriding and first response is, “Yes, we’re free, BUT.....you’re not telling the whole story...what about obedience? what about commitment, what about sacrifice?” When they hear about grace, there is a fear associated with that because grace has been so often used as an excuse for spiritual mediocrity and self deception, even as a license to sin and live a lazy, self-centered “Christian” life, they begin to compensate against that abuse by being afraid of grace and by reducing it to less than it really is.
The reason they can be caught in this trap is because somewhere along the line, their desire for God and a desire to please him has been mixed with a desire to be better than someone else and that my friends is self-righteousness any way you slice it! God doesn’t call us to be one of the few, the proud, the committed. He calls us to live by grace. People who are afraid of grace have been so busy trying to avoid the trap of cheap grace, they’ve fallen into another trap brought on by your
pride, self-righteousness. If you don’t believe me, listen to some symptoms of this ailment which are taken from the book cover of Jerry Bridges book, Transforming Grace. These symptoms are really signs of anyone who does not understand God’s grace as Paul lays it out here in Romans 5:21. Listen to them and see if any of these fit you. By the way, Jerry Bridges is a good Reformed theologian who, several years ago wrote two very challenging books called “The Pursuit of Godliness” and “The Practice of Holiness.” This is NOT a man who preaches cheap grace.
If these statements are true of you, you don’t understand grace, “You live with a vague sense of God’s disapproval. You feel sheepish bringing your needs before Him when you’ve just failed him. You think of his grace as something that makes up the difference between the best you can do and the what he expects of you. You feel you deserve an answer to prayer because of your hard work and sacrifice. You assume that God’s promise to forgive all your sins no longer applies to you, since you’ve sinned so much and used up all your credit. You feel more confident before God if you’ve been “faithful” with your Christian disciplines (prayer, bible study, witnessing, etc...). You can’t honestly say you see yourself as “blameless” in His eyes. You don’t really believe that God likes you. You can think of someone you look down on. You shy away from asking Him for things because you think it annoys him. You haven’t recently been tempted to go ahead and sin because you know your performance has nothing to do with your standing before Him. You think of the Christian life predominantly as “the cost of discipleship” rather than the chance to experience an unending supply of His goodness toward you.”
If you meet yourself in that list, make the number one priority of your Christian life to get hold of grace and to ask God to free you from the Satanic trap you are in. In our zeal to avoid the trap of cheap grace, we can fall into the bondage of legalism and no one wants to live there. That is the place of the hypocrite. If we don’t understand and live by grace and grace alone, all of our highest aspirations to be obedient--all our great desires to pick up our crosses, all our noble ambitions to practice spiritual disciplines will result in nothing more than self righteousness and we will be nothing more than a Pharisee--a wolf within the church who preys on the sheep. Do we want that? The first thing we can do in our pursuit of grace is to stop looking down on everybody else who isn’t as radical in their Christianity as we are. That is self-righteousness and it is sin.
We mustn’t abuse grace-that is Paul’s point in the next chapter. But we must not be afraid about the freedom of grace which Paul points out here. Just because there are people who abuse grace, should not keep us from living in the riches of God’s grace! The minute we look down our nose at someone else, is the minute we invite pride into our life and pride will shut the flow of God’s grace off into our life every time. The grace contained in the gospel is risky. Martin Lloyd Jones said in his commentary of Romans chapter six, “The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge [of cheap grace] being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace.”
Paul’s gospel of grace was attacked as a license to sin and so was Luther as he preached it. For those who are self-centered, grace will be abused. But that should in no way keep those who, by God’s grace want to live for Him from drinking deeply and lavishing the grace he has provided for us. May God give us the grace to understand and walk in this grace which triumphs over all our sin.
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