Romans 5:18-21 | Josh Feil
This an exegetical sermon of Romans 5:18-21 looking at our experience of Adam’s sin, the role of God’s law, and Jesus obedience for us given by God’s grace. This sermon was originally preached on April 3rd, 2011 at The Resolved Church in San Diego, CA.
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I. Prologue: Adam’s Sin, My Reality
II. The Law of God, My Death Sentence
III. Jesus’ Obedience, My Possession
IV. The Reign of Grace, the Kingdom of the Son
I. Prologue: Adam’s Sin, My Reality
Open to Romans 5:18-21.
If you drive up the freeway about 6-7 hours you get to the Sierra Nevada mountains and Sequoia National Park. And there is a part of the national park where there are these enormous trees. Giant redwoods. The oldest and largest tree on the earth, General Sherman, is found there. Around 2500 years old. 36ft wide, 275 ft tall. That’s basically a football field in height. Some of the trees can be driven through, driven under, etc. They are big. But they are part of a bigger forest.
Here in Romans 5 we are surrounded by the great redwoods of theology. Giant, heavy, thick, dense OLD trees. Why do I bring this up? Well, if you’ve ever been hiking in the forest, you know how hard it is to see very far in any direction. We face a similar problem standing here in Romans 5: Paul, the author, has said a lot leading up and will say a lot after these verses. That’s important to realize. In light of that I have two goals: I want to DIG into this text, and I want you to see that these 4 verses don’t stand alone. I want to show you the tree, show you the detail of the bark, the dark rich color of the wood, the smell of the leaves, the height of the tree, the depth of the roots, and then I want to show you the grandeur of the forest.
Let’s read our text, Romans 5:18-21. Therefore, as one trespass[a] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness[b] leads to justification and life for(A) all men. 19For as by the one man’s(B) disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s(C) obedience the many will be made righteous. 20Now(D) the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased,(E) grace abounded all the more, 21so that,(F) as sin reigned in death,(G) grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let’s get into the story. Paul is a Jew, writing to a mostly non-Jewish church. He used to kill Christians until God saved him and sent him to preach the gospel.
Here’s the quick summary of Romans chapters 1-4. Humans are in darkness because of sin, we are condemned to death because we violate God’s law, Jesus came to live and die in our place, and now it’s possible to have peace with God because of what Jesus has done. That’s the supersonic spy jet 80,000 feet version.
That brings us to our text for this morning. Here’s the prologue to the main part of the sermon. Adam, our first parent, sinned. Because of his sin, the whole Human race was plunged into darkness, and now we are born sinful, heading for death. This isn’t hard to prove, just watch any kids who are told to share and you can see this play out. They always share any toy that anyone else wants to play with right? No! Of course not, they’re little sinners! Or for that matter watch any adults who are told to share and you’ll see that we haven’t made a lot of progress.
STORY: My wife and I will be watching TV and she’ll say “Josh can you share some of your blanket with me?” At this point I have two options before me: 1) stay under this blanket by myself OR 2) share the blanket, thereby getting blanket and woman at the same time … Even in this situation my sinful heart is saying, “but then you have to share.” Idiot! I could get two of the best things in life: warmth and woman. I’m really dumb. PAUSE. And really sinful.
And that’s a story where I don’t really look that bad, I just look kind of, slow. But I could tell you plenty of stories where I’ve completely abused the power and leadership that God has given me in our marriage. Where I’ve said the most hurtful things possible to my wife. Where I’ve seen the life leave her eyes and tears well up because of one poisonous remark. Where instead of cultivating her gifts and desires by pointing her to Jesus, I breed death and disease in our marriage by making myself the savior, pointing her to my façade of consistency and flaunting my contrived obedience. Trying to convince her and everyone else I’m something that I’m not.
How wicked are we? Paul knows. This is where I want to work on this first point.
II. The Law of God, My Death Sentence
He has made it very clear that, left to ourselves, the NECESSARY and UNAVOIDABLE results, the places we tend to go are dishonorable passion, intense shame, things that ought not to be done. We tend to be foolish, faithless, heartless and ruthless. Without something fundamentally changing in our souls, we’ll take what we can get for ourselves however we can get it, and leave everyone else in the dust. We turn ourselves into gods. The creature rebels and revolts against the creator. Us. We. You and me. All of us.
(A brief aside. Romans is a letter, it would have been read to the church, probably lasting between 1.5 and 2.5 hours. It builds on what came before. Paul is shaping an argument.)
And so look with me at chapter 5 verse 20 “Now the law came in to increase the trespass…” What is the trespass? Ultimately it’s sin, all the things we just mentioned and that we’re all guilty of. What is the law? I’m going to ask for you to give me 60 seconds here of focused attention. I need you to pretend to be good Jews for a minute.
The first time Paul mentions the “law” in Romans is 2:12. The question is: what law is he referring to? You have to remember that there are Jews in the audience, and even the gentiles would pick up this word, law. There were a lot of different sets of laws in their day, but if you’re a Jew in the 1st century, you hear the word “law”, you are thinking of one law, the law of Moses. It’s the most important to them, the most significant for their culture. It’s the same as if I say “9/11.” There have been a lot of September 11th’s in the history of America, but there’s only one that really matters to us. The same with the Jews. You hear law, you’re thinking law of Moses.
We don’t have time to get in to the details of the law of Moses, but it was big and it was extensive. Over 600 commands to keep if you were to be a faithful Jew. It was meant to set apart God’s people as holy and different. Ultimately it was meant to bring glory to God as Israel’s protector and provider and point forward in time to Jesus and Israel’s need for a savior. Alright, you can stop being a Jew.
This is the law of God. Now, I think this applies to us in a couple ways. There are probably a couple groups of people here today: You love rules. You won’t play a board game if the rule sheet is missing because then someone might cheat. You align yourself with the rules, you see yourself as a rule keeper. You feel good when you keep the rules, you feel bad when you don’t keep the rules, and you get angry when other people break the rules, especially if they rules you made. You might have one of two views of God lawgiver who is keeping track of your work and is pleased with your obedience OR a headmaster who never fully accepts you. Your acceptance relies on your continual, daily obedience. You hate rules. It’s not as if you disliked curfew as a kid but followed it anyways, you were the kid that responded, “I don’t think it’s gonna be that way.” If someone wants you to do something, they tell you the opposite of what they want. If you are forced to comply, it’s just really miserable for everyone around you.
You might have one of two views of God: He is a cosmic grandpa who “loves me anyway” so I can do whatever I want OR He is a sovereign slave driver, and if you follow him you might as well kiss joy and pleasure goodbye.
The question is: why does this matter? Why should you care which group you fall into? Because God, through Paul, just said that the law came in, the law was created to INCREASE the trespass. To increase! Look at me. This doesn’t make sense. Does it make sense to anyone else? This is like saying, “There’s a leak in my plumbing, there’s a little bit of water coming out, what should I do to fix it? I know, run more water through it.” “My car is overheating, there is smoke coming out from under the hood, what should I do? I know, drive faster!”
It seems like God is just pouring gasoline on the fire. I don’t know about you guys, but normally when I’m told to do something or not to do something, my first thought is “Naah I’d rather do the opposite.” So why would you put this law on Israel God, why would you burden them with rules and regulations if you KNOW they are going to buckle under the pressure. Things are just going to get worse! He’s like a kid with a magnifying glass, scorching ants on the sidewalk. Why won’t you give them a break?
Maybe some of us have asked the same question. If God loves me, then why does he make me do all this stuff? Why does he, and why do his people push me, correct me, rebuke me? If he is so loving, then why does he bury me under a mountain of rules?
BECAUSE, and let me say this as gently and directly as possible: if we don’t see ourselves as sinners under a death sentence, then we will never treasure the death of Christ on our behalf. If Paul stopped at the first half of verse 20, if all we had was that we’re bad and God’s law makes it even more obvious, then we might as well give up. But that’s not where he stops. Read from verse 18 with me.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came it 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.
III. Jesus’ Obedience, My Possession
It is through the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ in his life and death that I am justified. That I am vindicated. That I am brought from death, to life. There was a price on my head. I had a death sentence. Did it disappear? Is it erased? No. It was laid on Jesus, my savior. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” When it comes to God, no debt is erased. No debt vanishes. He cannot deny his justice. He cannot look at me, snap his fingers and make me righteous. The debt must be paid. And Jesus pays it. He keeps the law.
There is never a point in Jesus’ life where he doesn’t keep the law. He is perfectly obedient, and joyfully so. Theologians call this the active obedience of Christ. That at every point where we fail, Jesus succeeded. Every time we turn from worshipping the creator to worshipping created things, Jesus gives God the praise he deserves. Every time our minds wander, our eyes wander, our hearts wander, Jesus was like a rock. And instead of being judged by our own obedience, if we have faith, God sees the obedience of Jesus in our place.
It’s kind of like this. It’s march madness right now, college basketball, two big games last night. Baseball’s opening day was last week, the NBA and NHL playoffs are coming up, and football season is about as far away as possible. I feel like it’s sermon suicide to mention sports while you’re preaching. Anyways, I know there’s plenty of sports fans out there, and even if you aren’t you’ve probably observed what I’m about to describe.
Have you ever been at a game or talking to someone about a game and you say something like “Man if we had just completed one more pass we would’ve had a shot.” “If we had kept our composure, the ref wouldn’t have called those technicals.” “We only need two more wins to make the playoffs.” How about this one: “We destroyed you guys!” “We’re number 1, we’re number 1!” No you’re not. The team is. You didn’t suit up to play, the linebacker did. I didn’t see you on the floor for the game winning shot…
Why does Christ’s obedience matter for us? Paul tells us why in Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8).”
Why does Christ’s obedience matter for us? Because if we don’t have his life and death, all we have is ours, and that is bad news.
I’ll say it like this, which is a clear as I know how: If you don’t have the obedient life of Christ, you don’t have the gospel. Let me say it again: If you don’t have the life of Christ, you don’t have the gospel!
And what is the gospel? That I’m a sinner deserving of death, and Jesus lives the perfect life I constantly fail at, and takes on the wrath of God that was meant for me. He takes on my shame and guilt, he nails it to the cross, and sees it no more. By faith, I am united with Jesus. He takes me from death and gives me life!
How good and loving and gracious is our God? That he would make a way for us to be accepted by him, and it doesn’t depend on our behavior. Paul says earlier in Romans 5 that “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In Ephesians 3:12 he says that we have boldness and confidence in the way we approach God because of faith in Jesus and his life, death and resurrection.
Where are you failing, where are you in sin, where has the holy spirit been convicting you? Repent. Repent and don’t try harder to do it right. Rather find more joy in the life and death of Christ, look to his obedience rather than trying to perfect your own. One pastor has said it like this: “The Christian life requires work. BUT, are we working hard to perform? Or working hard to better understand Christ’s performance for us?” I hope you see the beauty and depth of the gospel that Jesus comes down to us, because we can’t get up to him.
Well I want to conclude here with this final point.
IV. The Reign of Grace, the Kingdom of the Son
Paul says in verses 20-21 “Now the law came it 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.”
I don’t want to make this more complicated than it is. Because of Jesus life and death, we are under grace. Because he took on our sin and our punishment, we are alive. We don’t have to keep earning God’s favor, we don’t have to keep reaching up for his grace. God’s not standing in the corner, waiting for you to slip up, waiting for you to do something bad enough to deserve punishment. Jesus paid all that.
One of the most encouraging things about this text is actually found at the end of verse 20. It says that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. If you have the NIV it says that grace “increased” all the more, NKJV “much more” NLT “God’s wonderful kindness became more abundant.”
The English translations don’t communicate the beauty of this Greek word. The word can mean 1) to be in great excess or 2) to supply lavishly. I would translate it like this: Where sin increased, grace EXCESSIVELY increased! God’s grace toward us, his former enemies. This is the good news of the gospel, that no matter how much we sin, God’s grace will always be greater!
If you are here and you’re crippled by guilt and shame, hold tight to the life of Jesus. Put your faith in Him.
If you are here and your heart is hard toward God, you are stuck in your sin and rebellion, then I pray that the Holy Spirit would do what no man up here can do: that he would soften your heart to the gospel. That he would give you faith.
The writer to the Hebrews has better words for you than I could ever speak: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:15-16 “… who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2b
God’s grace takes us from death, to life. This is salvation. In this new kingdom Jesus is king and we live in his kingdom of grace. How do you get into this kingdom? By repenting of your sin and believing that Jesus life and death are enough to pay your debt and give you life.
I’ll finish with this:
• When we run away from suffering, He endures suffering.
• Where we deny that we are sinful and wicked, Jesus takes on our wicked sinfulness
• Where we disobey and serve ourselves, Jesus obeys for us as a suffering servant.
• Where we abuse the grace of God, Jesus points to himself and says “I paid for that too.”
• Where the law of God hands us our death sentence, Jesus takes it and puts it on himself.
• Where we fail to take up our cross, Jesus takes it up for us. He hauls it up the hill and hangs on it in our place.
• Where we speak words of hate and death, Jesus IS THE WORD of life for us.
So how should you respond this morning? See your guilt under God’s law, and see the grace of God, see the gospel that overwhelms your guilt. Respond in praise, respond in worship. Have faith that Jesus really is enough.
If you’ve learned something about God or about yourself this morning, won’t you tell someone? If God has been revealing his grace and goodness to you, if he’s been working on your heart, share that with your family here. We grow by the Word in community.