Where Sin Increased, Grace Overflowed

October 31 marks an important day in the history of the church — a day on which a monk deeply impacted by his close study of Psalms and Romans was propelled into the center of a revival of Christ-centered joy. So, before you stock the candy bowl and prepare to welcome people to your home this Halloween, consider a biblical reality that fundamentally shaped the life of Martin Luther and the course of the Reformation.

Luther understood perhaps better than anyone the personal implications of Romans 5:20–21.

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 might also reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Upside Down in Sin

In Romans 5, Paul has been showing the cause and consequence of rebellion, sin, and corruption. All humanity has been born “into Adam” — heirs and perpetuators by nature of the sinful rebellion that turned the world upside down. Through Adam’s act of rebellion, all men stand under the power of sin and the corresponding judgment of death. The many “have died” because of the rebellion of “this one” (Romans 5:15).

Humanity, however, is so poisoned by sin that even the sinfulness of sin is opaque. While mankind realizes that something is amiss (Romans 1:21–32), we don’t sense the urgent severity of our dying condition. This, according to Romans 5:20, is where God’s law figures in redemptive history — shining the noonday sun of God’s revealed will into our dark lives. The law’s arrival is not the solution; it is unable in itself to improve our serious situation. In fact, it shows that sin is not simply “doing bad things.” Sin is rebellion — deliberate offense against a righteous God. The law causes us to see our sin clearly and to realize that our problem is far more serious than we thought. The law shows sin for what it is, and where it is — everywhere. Anything not done from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

Undone by God’s Law

Luther’s own experience testified to the role that the knowledge of God’s law plays in highlighting human sin:

I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments?” (Preface to Luther’s Latin Works)

We have all had similar experiences. We read or hear a text from the Bible and realize a habit of heart that we have been cultivating is not only unhelpful, it is explicitly forbidden. Or we identify in ourselves a pattern of life described as rebellious by Scripture, seeing for the first time the depth of offense it is against a holy God. We see our sin as transgression. We are undone.

But that, praise God, is not the final word: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that as sin reigned in death, grace might also reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:20–21).

Ushered into Grace

The point is that, no matter how deep in the power of sin we have sunk, God’s grace is deeper still. The condemnation that Adam brought by rebellion, Christ has overcome by his perfect obedience (Romans 5:19). No matter how deep in the power of sin we have sunk in the rebelliousness of our lives, in Christ grace abounded all the more in order that righteousness, rather than sin (and life, rather than death) might have the final word (Romans 5:21). Luther writes,

The Law is a mirror to show a person what he is like, a sinner who is guilty of death, and worthy of everlasting punishment. What is this bruising and beating by the hand of the Law to accomplish? This, that we may find the way to grace. The Law is an usher to lead the way to grace. God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted. . . . When the Law drives you to the point of despair, let it drive you a little farther, let it drive you straight into the arms of Jesus who says: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Luther’s commentary on the parallel passage, Galatians 3:19, pages 129–130)

Luther’s first published hymn captures the beautiful reality of the super-abounding grace of God. May his words from “the devil’s dungeon” deepen your rejoicing in the God of all grace this Halloween.

In the devil’s dungeon chained I lay,
The pangs of death swept o’er me.
My sin devoured me night and day
In which my mother bore me.
My anguish ever grew more rife,
I took no pleasure in my life.
And sin had made me crazy.

Then was the Father troubled sore
To see me ever languish.
The Everlasting Pity swore
To save me from my anguish.
He turned to me his father heart
And chose himself a bitter part,
His Dearest did it cost him.

Thus spoke the Son, “Hold thou to me,
From now on thou wilt make it.
I gave my very life for thee
And for thee I will stake it.
For I am thine and thou art mine
And where I am our lives entwine
The Old Fiend cannot shake it.
(Luther, “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” 1523–1524)