The Reign of Grace

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.

- Romans 5:20–21

Throughout Romans 5:12–21, the Apostle Paul sharply contrasts the sin of Adam that led to condemnation for all men and the obedience of Christ that leads to righteousness for all men. As we conclude our study of this important passage, let us remember two key points. First, the work of Jesus does not achieve justification for each and every person who has ever lived. Paul is no universalist who believes Christ saves every human being. That is clear from his warnings of divine judgment in his preaching ministry and his teaching that many are predestined for destruction (Acts 17:30–31; Rom. 9:1–24). Even the passage in question indicates that one must receive Christ in order to benefit from Him (Rom. 5:17). The word all in Romans 5:12–21 does not mean “all men without exception.” This is even true when Paul is speaking of Adam, for Jesus is a man and He was not born in Adam and under the reign of sin. However, every other human being is born in Adam, and every human being stands condemned apart from Christ. That all men are justified in Jesus means that all men who are in Jesus are justified by Him. And the only way that one can be in Christ is by faith.

Second, Paul’s stress on the obedience of Christ as necessary for justification shows us that our righteous status before God is indeed a works-righteousness (vv. 18–19). The issue is that the only works-righteousness that avails before our Creator is the works-righteousness of Jesus, which we can only possess by ceasing our efforts to add our own obedience to it and by resting in Him alone for salvation. In the end, the doctrine of justification by faith alone tells us that we are justified by the works-righteousness of Christ alone. Because it looks away from what we have done to what Jesus has done, the principle of faith alone preserves the biblical truth that only Christ’s righteousness can save sinners.

Our keeping the law cannot help us at all before the bar of God’s justice, and the Apostle makes this clear once more in verses 20–21. The law was added to “increase the trespass.” Sin existed during the era between Adam and Moses, for people died, but the Mosaic law— as an inscripturated witness to the Lord’s eternal moral law—took transgression to a whole new level. Contrary to popular Jewish belief at the time, it was not the means of salvation but the means of revealing the depth of sin so that we might turn to the Savior. The law was not an end in itself but the means to the end of salvation in Christ alone.

Coram Deo

Paul has more to say about the law that we will consider in due time. Today, we note that the law is not contrary to grace but allows us to see it more plainly. For justification, the law multiplies transgression, revealing it for what it is and driving us to Christ for the righteousness that alone can justify us. Where the law shows the gravity of sin, the awesome grace of God is seen in contrast. As the law shows sin’s darkness, we rejoice that the light of God’s mercy and grace overcomes evil.

Passages for Further Study

Ezekiel 39:25–29
Daniel 9:18–19
2 Corinthians 9:8
1 Timothy 1:12–17

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