The Triumph of Grace through Righteousness

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

An Arithmetic Problem

I start with an arithmetic question. If you have an infinite number and subtract any finite number from it, what is the answer? Or to be specific: what is the answer to the arithmetic problem,

Infinity - 10,000 = ?

I believe the answer is: infinity. Only finite numbers become smaller when you subtract something from them. The very meaning of "infinite" is that when you take away from it there is no less than when you began.

So it seems that the fifth verse of Amazing Grace (a verse which John Newton did not write – but which is one of the best) is accurate:

When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun.

In this life, every day that goes by means fewer days yet to live. In the life to come, every passing day or century or millennium will mean that the amount of future left for us is never diminished.

Now why is this important?

The Infinite Reality of Eternal Life

It's important because Romans 5 begins and ends with two infinite realities that are needed to explain each other and help us sense the magnitude of God's way of salvation. The chapter ends in verse 21 with the infinite reality of eternal life: "So that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." God's aim in the work of redemption is the triumph of grace over sin and death unto eternal life through Jesus Christ. The "eternal" refers to life that never ends. It is infinite life. Life of infinite duration.

But is this infinite duration of boring life? Ordinary life? Most of the life we know – extended forever – would not be an exciting prospect. In fact, none of the life we know now would be worth extending forever. It would not be good news. The most exquisite of our pleasures on earth would be almost torture after the 10,000th repetition.

The Infinite Reality of God's Glory

This is why the other infinite reality – the one at the beginning of the chapter – is so crucial. Romans 5 begins, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God."

Here, instead of saying that our hope is eternal life, Paul says that our hope is "the glory of God." "We exult in the hope of the glory of God." This is crucial to see. Because this is the reason that our future life must be eternal and why it cannot be boring. Any amount of time short of eternity would be inadequate for a finite creature to experience the glory of God. It will take forever for us to see all there is to see and admire all there is to admire and enjoy all there is to enjoy of the glory of God. Therefore God ordains that there be eternal life for us.

We need to feel the force of this. The glory of God is all that God is for us in his greatness and his excellence. And God is infinite. So his glory is infinite. It has no boundaries, no limits, no end. Sometimes Paul stresses this with the phrase "riches of his glory." For example, in Romans 9:23 he says God's purpose is "to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory." In Ephesians 1:18 Paul prays that we would know "what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints." In Philippians 4:19 he says, "My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus."

The point of this phrase is that his glory is a God-sized treasure. It is not small and exhaustible. It will not and cannot run out. You can't spend it down. It is God-sized wealth. It is infinite. Therefore it will take us finite creatures an eternity to see it all and taste it all and admire it all and enjoy it all. A finite creature cannot take in all at once infinite glory any more than a thimble can take in the Pacific Ocean all at once. And even if you enlarged the thimble to the size of the Pacific Ocean you would need endless days to dip out the glory of God from the ocean of God's glory, which has no bottom and no shores.

So this will not be an endless duration of boring life. It will not be mere repetition of old ecstasies. It will be ever-new sights and tastes and wonders and experiences and pleasures forever and ever because the glory of God is where we will live and move and have our being.

So the chapter begins with the hope of the glory of God and ends with the triumph of eternal life – the content and duration of our future with God.

Why not Skip Human History and Go Straight to the Glory?

Now what this does to me is make me ask, If God's purpose was that we would have an eternal life spent in seeing and savoring his glory, why didn't he just skip this terrible thing called human history and go straight to the goal?

Why the creation of Adam and the fall of Adam into sin, and the fall and corruption of the entire human race, and the decline of the race to the point of the flood, and then the 2000-year history of Israel with all its sin and misery, and then the incarnation of the Son of God, and the horrific death of Jesus, and the resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and then 2000 more years of sin and misery as the gospel spreads, O so slowly, in the world through an imperfect church? Why ordain a universe like this on the way to eternal life for the children of God?

To which someone might say, Maybe he didn't ordain it. Maybe he just started it in hope of something better, but it turned out different than he foreknew. Well, the problem with that idea is the Bible's teaching that God planned things before the creation of the world. For example, the "eternal life" promised in Romans 5:21, Paul calls (in Titus 1:2) "The hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago" [literally: before the times of the ages]. God was preparing for the gift of eternal life before he created the world.

And he knew that this would come not by Adam's works of righteousness, but by the blood-bought grace of Jesus, because 2 Timothy 1:9 says that we are saved by the "grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity" [literally: before the times of the ages]. Grace was planned, and the death of Jesus was planned before the creation of the world.

Why the Law?

So the question remains, why didn't God just skip this terrible thing called human history and go straight to the goal of eternal life?

So let's answer that question – at least in part – by using Romans 5:20-21 as one window on the mind of God. Paul gives us a glimpse into the answer of this big question by answering: Why then the law? Why was the law given to Moses? Why did God do this particular thing in the way he was working out his saving plan to bring people to eternal life in the presence of his glory? If we can see an answer to this little piece of history, maybe the answer will apply to other pieces as well.

So let's read the text again. Paul is closing this great section of Romans on justification and summarizing his aim by answering the question, Why did God give the Law of Moses? Why did God pursue his goal of eternal life for his people this way? Here's what he says in 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's first answer was that the Law of Moses was given to increase the transgression. Verse 20: "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase." The "transgression" – the singular is a reference to the singular transgression of Adam that he has been talking about all along in this paragraph. Verse 15: "By the transgression of the one the many died." Verse 17, "By the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one." Verse 18: "Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men."

Now he says in verse 20: "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase." So I take it to mean that one crucial function of the law is to turn our original sin into actual transgressions of specific commandments. First, we are guilty in Adam and sinful by nature, and then the Law confronts us with the specific will of God: "Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't covet." And the effect is that it turns sinful nature into specific sinful acts of transgression. One writer said it well: the Law makes little Adams out of us all.1

So what was once "one transgression" in which we all shared by virtue of the union with Adam that God ordained for all humanity, has now, because of the law, become millions upon millions of specific transgressions, as verse 16b said, "The free gift arose from many transgressions." So the Law of Moses was given to increase the transgression of Adam into millions of specific acts of transgression in all of us who resist submitting to the Law of God because of our rebellious nature.

Super-Abounding Grace

But now why would God make that his purpose for the Law of Moses? What is the point? Where is all this multiplied sin and misery going? The second half of verse 20 takes a step closer: "But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." The point of increased sin was "super-abounding" grace. So the increase of sins – the multiplication of specific transgressions – was not the ultimate point of the Law. It was not an end in itself. It was the occasion for something God wanted to do that was more important and far greater, namely, to show his grace "super-abounding." "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more."

But that's not where Paul ends the explanation of why the Law came in. He goes on in verse 21 with the words "so that." So you can see with the words "so that" that something more is being pursued. God has a purpose for this super-abounding grace, and he tips us off with the words "so that." It's not enough to say that the purpose of God in giving the Law was that grace might "super-abound" – that's not specific enough. So he adds another purpose statement.

Verse 21: [Sin increases and grace super-abounds] "so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Here, as Paul comes to the climax of Romans 5 and of the first great section of Romans on justification, the cymbals are crashing and the timpani are rolling and the trumpets are blaring and the strings are soaring as Paul heaps together the aspects of God's ultimate purpose in the history of redemption.

It's not just that grace super-abounds, but that this super-abounding grace be seen and known as reigning triumphantly over death and sin and hell. Verse 21: "So that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign." God's purpose for the Law, and of all history, is the triumphant reign of grace.

But that is not specific enough either: his purpose is the triumphant reign of grace "unto eternal life." "As sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign . . . to eternal life." And this "eternal life," remember, is the endless duration that it will take for us to see and know and taste and admire and enjoy the glory of God – which we learn now is mainly the "glory of his grace" (see Ephesians 1:6).

"Through Jesus Christ Our Lord"

But that too is not specific enough. Paul will not stop until he has based the entire goal and experience of history and eternity on Jesus Christ. "So that as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign . . . to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." All of history aims at purposes that magnify Jesus Christ (compare the way Paul ended the first paragraph of chapter five – verses 1-11). That is why God created the universe. That's why he spent thousands of years preparing for Christ. That's why there was an incarnation and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "All things are through him and for him" (Colossians 1:16). The triumphant reign of grace unto eternal life is "through Jesus Christ our Lord."

But that too is not specific enough. There is one more part to his summary statement in verse 21. Paul won't leave it out because this has been the whole focus since verse 12, namely, the righteousness of Jesus Christ as the foundation of our eternal life – not our righteousness, but Christ's righteousness. God's purpose for the law and the increase of sin and the super-abounding of grace is "so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

I take this "righteousness" to be the same as in verse 18, "So through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life." Grace reigns "through righteousness to eternal life" means grace justifies the ungodly on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus, the obedience of Jesus (verse 19).2 In this way, grace triumphs over sin and guilt and condemnation.

So here's the summary of Romans 1-5:

There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10). All are guilty before God because of union with Adam in his first sin (5:12-14). And we all become our "own little Adams" when our depravity meets the Law of God and overflows in specific acts of transgression (5:16, 20). Therefore, there is no getting right with God – no justification – on the basis of deeds done by us in righteousness (3:20). Instead there is one and only one hope for sinners: a second Adam, Jesus Christ, has come into the world and provided both blood (5:9) and righteousness (5:18). Blood to cover all our sins, and righteousness so that our account is not empty but filled with perfect obedience – the obedience of Jesus (5:19). Therefore, it is by faith and by faith alone that we receive this grace of justification (3:28; 5:17) and obtain eternal life – the hope of glory.

The Glory of God! The Glory of Jesus Christ!

The aim of all creation, all history, all redemption, is the glory of the triumphant grace of God, through the righteousness of Christ, freeing us from sin and guilt and condemnation, and giving us a never-ending life, where, after ten thousand years of seeing and admiring and enjoying the glory of Christ, we will have only just begun.

Praise him with me:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace.
When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
Than when we first begun.

My reasons for this exegetical decision are:

Reason 1) It does not follow that, since grace is said to "reign," it is therefore necessarily thought of as a transforming power. For example, if grace is the will and act to justify the ungodly by legal acquittal and by the imputation of another's righteousness, and if that person goes free triumphantly reigning in life (5:17) over guilt and condemnation, then surely it would be natural to say that grace has triumphed there, and is "reigning" in righteousness unto eternal life.

Reason 2) The term "righteousness" in Romans 5:21 would most naturally pick up the meaning it has carried in verses 17, 18, 19 (see "gift" in 15, 16). I have tried to show in the other messages that this is not our practical obedience but Christ's righteousness and obedience imputed to us (especially verses 18, 19 and 16, "free gift resulting in justification").

Reason 3) Verse 17 is so close to verse 21 that virtually every part of verse 21 has its counterpart in verse 17, which, I believe is a statement of grace giving the gift of imputed righteousness. Hence that is the natural way to take this closely parallel verse here.

Reason 4) The issue that Paul raises in Romans 6:1 follows more naturally from Romans 5:21 if grace is God's will to forgive and declare righteous, not his act of transformation. "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?" No one would even ask this question if the grace of 5:21 were the power that keeps us from sinning, since it would not make sense to say, "Shall we continue in sin so that the power to keep us from sinning may increase?" But it makes very good sense to say, "Shall we continue in sin so that the will and act of God to justify the ungodly may increase." I think that is what Paul means in 5:21, and that is what creates the problem dealt with in chapter six.

  1. "The law has the function of turning those it addresses into 'their own Adam.'" Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), p. 348. 

  2. In this sermon (9-3-00), my interpretation of the reign of grace in Romans 5:21 is a change from what I assumed when I referred to this text in the message on Romans 5:1-2 (10-24-99). There I assumed that grace, in Romans 5:21, is a power to transform and preserve our lives. I said, "Notice that grace reigns. It is an exercise of power, not just a disposition. Grace is a sphere and reign of God's infinite power working for us and not against us." I still believe grace is indeed a power that transforms and preserves us, but I don't think that is the note struck in Romans 5:21. I think the grace here is God's will and act to justify the ungodly on the basis of the "righteousness" referred to here (and in 5:18, 19, 16, 17) through faith. In other words, I think Paul is relentlessly dealing with justification by faith in legal, not transformative, terms in Chapter Five and does not take up the issue of our transformation until the next chapter.