“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)
Read: Romans 5:12-21
Devotion: Why was the Mosaic Law given? What was its purpose? Was it merely the system of law for ancient Israel? Does it have any bearing and use for either believers or unbelievers today? Is it, and has it ever been, the means by which people are saved?
There is a lot of confusion and ignorance about the law among Christians these days, and a lot of that ignorance comes from a misunderstanding of the law’s primary purpose. Thankfully, Paul explicitly tells us the law’s purpose was at the end of Romans 5: “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” (vv. 20-21). In the latter half of Romans 5, Paul established the truth that as all those represented by Adam (i.e., all mankind) are guilty and condemned in Adam, and all those represented by Jesus Christ (i.e., all those who have believed by faith in him) are made righteous and justified in Christ. If sin and its result—death—were already in the world before the law was given (Rom 5:12-14), and the law isn’t the means by which people are justified (Rom 5:1), why was it given? In what might be a shock to many, Paul writes that the law came to increase the trespass! What? How could the law increase sin? Does that mean that the law is evil, or that it makes people sin? Shouldn’t we conclude, therefore, that people wouldn’t be as sinful if God hadn’t given the law in the first place?
As Paul constantly says to his detractors throughout Romans, “By no means!” Paul affirms the goodness of the law in chapter seven, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12) What then does he mean when he says that it was given to “increase the trespass”? As he writes to the Galatians, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:23-24). The law’s purpose was to reveal just how sinful and guilty we are before a Holy God. There is no one who has a higher opinion of ourselves than us. Even if outwardly we claim to hate ourselves, deep down we truly love ourselves. That’s why it is impossible to fulfill the law as it pertains to loving our neighbor as ourselves. We love ourselves so much that we are usually blind to our faults and failures and sin, and when those sins are pointed out to us our first instinct is to deny them.
The truth is that we are far more sinful and abominable than we know. Even the most sanctified saint, the one who is far more cognizant of their sin nature than anyone else, does not know every one of their hidden sins and the depth of their sinfulness. That’s chapter seven of Romans by the way: sanctified Apostle Paul lamenting the fact that, although he delights in the law of God and desires to do righteous acts, he consistently finds himself doing things he hates—sin. By increasing of the trespass, the law is not causing people to sin, nor is it creating new categories of sin. Rather, the law exposes and provokes the depths of man’s sinful heart in order to reveal the depth of his sinfulness. As Paul writes in Romans 7:7-8,
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.
Before Paul knew of the law, he thought he was good. Sin appeared to be dead—powerless over him. But then he read the law, and, particularly, the prohibition against covetousness. As he read the commandment, just as a parent’s instruction that their child can’t have a cookie before dinner causes the child to want a cookie before dinner even more, Paul found himself consumed with coveting. Paul looked into the law, and it revealed to him his depraved and wicked heart, and it still serves that purpose today. It reveals the true depths of our guilt, and, like a guardian or a tutor, it teaches us that we’re in trouble.
Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.Rom 7:13
Before we learn the law, we might think that we’re on good terms with God, or, at the very least, that we’re good enough. But when we’re confronted with God’s righteous and perfect standard, we’re left without an excuse. And that leads us directly to the foot of the cross where God the Father offered up his Son, Jesus Christ, who was perfectly righteous and fulfilled the law’s requirements, as the final and ultimate sacrifice for sin.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.Rom 8:3-4
Thank God for his law that he revealed and gave to us—not to use as a checklist of our righteousness—but to drive us to his grace in Christ, who fulfilled the righteousness requirement of the law where we could not and freed us from the burden of our trespass!
Ponder and Pray: Consider Paul’s statement in Romans 7:7-9. How does learning God’s law cause sin to come alive and kill? How does that then drive a person to Christ?