Far and away, the best explanation of this entire dynamic that Jesus brings up … both for personal application and theological argument … is found in the book of Romans. In large part, the book of Romans exists to explain the theological and practical dynamic of what Jesus means for our relationship to the law. Romans 2-7 is the full run, but we are going to focus on 2 verses in Romans 5 and a few in Romans 7. It’s important that we understand what “righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes” looks like … that which comes from reading and responding to the law and the prophets the wrong way … and what a true understanding of the law should be.
What does the Law really do? It multiplies sin.
The idea … the truth … that the law cannot justify us before God raises some questions about the law. If neither possessing nor attempting to keep the law can put us in right standing with God, then what does the law actually do?
That’s the question Paul answers in Romans 5:20-21.
20 The law came along to multiply the trespass. But where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness, resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Did you catch v. 20? “The law came long to MULTIPLY THE TRESPASS (emphasis mine).” When the law showed up, “SIN MULTIPLIED.”
Now THAT is a statement that raises all kinds of questions to a Jew or Jewish convert who holds the law of God in very high regard. Specifically, two questions are raised.
The first is this: If the law caused sin to multiply and “grace multiplied even more,” Paul, then you’re effectively giving humanity a license to sin and be anti-law. Paul’s answer is like that of Jesus in Matthew 5 … NO! Grace doesn’t lead to licensure to sin, but promotes holiness and the death of sin. We become like the One with whom we are in union.
And the second question raised by Paul’s statement in 5:20 is this: If the law caused sin to multiply, doesn’t that effectively mean that the law is somehow sinful? Clarify for us, Paul, how exactly the law and human beings relate, because it sounds like you think the law is sinful and can even be blamed for our sin.
That question is what Paul answers in Romans 7:7-11.
7 What should we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! But, I would not have known sin if it were not for the law. For example, I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, Do not covet. 8 And sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind. For apart from the law sin is dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life again 10 and I died. The commandment that was meant for life resulted in death for me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.
Our sin is exposed for what it is.
Our sin exploits the law to have us do the very thing the law says not to do (v. 8, 11).
So nothing was wrong with the law, and everything was wrong with the people to whom it had been given. We see this at work in our lives all the time.
Rob is Teaching Pastor at Blackman Baptist Church.