The Abundance of Grace and Its Power
Scripture: Romans 5:12–21
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 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. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
When my older two children were much younger, we took them with us to our monthly neighborhood association meeting at a nearby local church. As the meeting progressed, our kids were quietly playing behind us. But after the meeting had concluded, I turned around to see that they had colored with markers all over the wall. I was really upset. I didn’t know what we could or should do.
And what upset me even more was the fact that Mindy was not upset at all. As we drove home, I was getting angrier by the moment, but Mindy told me not to worry. She went into the house and came out with a little white sponge called a Magic Eraser. I had never heard of these things. We drove back to the church, went into that room, and right before my eyes, the Magic Eraser made the whole mess vanish! I was astonished! Over the years I’ve now seen these things clean up all kinds of messes. The Magic Eraser can erase anything! They are more powerful than the artistic messes any kid can make.
But in this passage, we find something even more amazing, something even more powerful than the Magic Eraser. In this passage we find a series of contrasts between sin and death on one side and grace and life on the other. Here are two competing powers. Both are very strong powers. But the power of grace and life is infinitely more powerful, and it is the undefeatable power that comes to us and is offered to us only in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It cleans up the mess that sin and death have brought and creates and even more beautiful world than there was before.
So consider this morning, first, the ruthless reign of sin and death. Second, the greater power found in Christ. And, third, the righteous reign of grace and life.
The Ruthless Reign of Sin and Death
The central point we encounter first, in verses 12 to 14, is the ruthless reign of sin and death.
The Entrance of Sin and Death
According to the Bible, neither sin nor death were operative in the world God made. Instead, as verse 12 says, sin entered the world through one man—this is the third chapter of Genesis—and along with that sin came death, as God had warned. The second part of verse 12 is interesting because it tells us not only that death results from sin but also that sin is explained by death. In other words, because, as verse 15 says, we all died in Adam’s sin, we are all born dead in our relationship to God. The reason why we sin is because of this spiritual state of death. We know that this spiritual alienation from God, this death, has spread to all “because all sinned.” We sin because we are dead to God, separated from his life.
We do not need to concern ourselves here with questions about how life as we know it could exist without natural death. There are various Christian answers to that question, but these are not our present concern. The point is simply to be conceded that death reigns; it is as natural to us now as anything. We all die. Death reigns. And the reign of death also explains why sin is so natural to us, too. Everyone sins. We die because we sin, and we sin because we are dead.
Counting History’s Sins
You’ll notice that verse 12 sets up a contrast but it doesn’t bring it to completion. The “just as” doesn’t have a “so also.” Paul hasn’t forgotten; he will complete the contrast a little later in our passage. But first, he wants us to feel the force of the devastation that has come to every single one of us through one man’s sin. Just consider how much sin and death there has been throughout history. What explanation can there be for history’s horrors?
We cannot blame it on the law of God revealed to Israel at Mount Sinai, “for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given” (v. 13). The revelation of the law allows us to “count” sin. You can’t identify and register violations if there is no law that defines them. But we know that sin was still pervasive because “death reigned from Adam to Moses.” Because people died even before the law of God was revealed to Moses, this is all the evidence we need to see the ruthless reign that sin and death has held over all human beings, whether they knew God’s law or not, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.
Religion Can’t Save
Many secularists today want to say that one of the great problems in our world is religion. Religion, it is said, is what makes people think themselves better than others. It is religion that causes people to look down on others and oppress them.
But what will we get if we take religion away? What if we have no rules, no law from some higher power? Verse 14 suggests that even in the years between Adam and Moses, before the law of God was revealed at Sinai, death still reigned.
These secularists are right that religion cannot save us, because even the law of God cannot get us out of the mess we are in. All it can do is heighten the sense of how bad we truly are, how hopeless we are, how pitiful is our natural condition. We dare not find any hope in our religious practice or moral judgment. We, like everyone else, share the common descent of Adam and his fallen, dead state.
Again, we need not get into the debates here about the existence of Adam and Eve and the origins of human beings. The point is that we human beings share this common characteristic not just of death but also of sinning, of running in the exact opposite direction of the way that God tells us to go. But, incredibly, the solidarity we find as human beings points us in a new direction. Our common ancestor, Adam, “was a type of the one who has to come.” In other words, there was to be a new Adam in which a new epoch of history would begin, a new epoch that would be characterized by the action of the new Adam. The reference is of course to Jesus. And just as sin and death mark the epoch of the first Adam because of his rebellious action, so this new epoch would take on a new character because of the second Adam’s righteous action.
The Greater Power Found in Christ
Next, having explored the ruthless power of sin and death (vv. 12-14), Paul turns to the contrast of the greater power found in Christ. What we find in verses 15 through 17 is a negative comparison, a contrast, between these two powers, both of which originated in “one man” and his representative act for all who are united to him. These two competing powers are similar enough to compare but different enough to contrast.
The Miracle of Grace
Verse 15 sets up the contrast between “the free gift” and “the trespass.” We have just explored the latter, but it is restated here. The trespass is the sin of Adam, and the result of his trespass is the spread of death to all men, as verse 12 says.
In contrast to this one trespass and its effects is the “free gift.” What is this free gift? The Greek word is charisma, and what Paul has in mind becomes clearer as we read on. “For if many died through one man’s trespass”—here we might expect him to say, “much more will many live through one man’s obedience.” He will in fact say that in verse 19, but here he wants to contrast the effects of Adam’s sin on us all and “the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ.” The effect of setting up the contrast this way is to show us that what has triumphed over sin and death is the astounding miracle of divine grace. It is this grace which is powerful enough to triumph over the greatest enemy known to every one of us, the power of sin and death.
Grace in Christ
But what is divine grace? What exactly is meant by it? We must not conceive of God’s grace as anything other than what has come to us in “that one man Jesus Christ.” Grace is not a thing that exists separate and apart from Jesus Christ. God is gracious only in and through his son. For grace is not a subjective experience of encountering God and finding him to be kind. Grace is the objective reality, the gift that has come in the person of Jesus Christ. What is the grace of God? It is the gift which has come freely to us because of Christ.
This gift, this grace-in-Christ, is what is contrasted with the results of “that one man’s sin,” as verse 16 emphasizes. The results of Adam’s sin, we’ve already been told, is death. Here it is called “condemnation,” a word that signifies the penalty, the sentence upon the convicted criminal. That penalty is indeed death, the ultimate sentence from which there can be no chance of parole. What would be the opposite of this penalty, this condemnation? The contrast to this sentence of death is found in the word justification at the end of verse 16. To be justified in this context is to be given a different verdict, a verdict of “not guilty,” and thus to be vindicated and cleared from all guilt and set free from the sentence of death.
How Much More
But here the main point of contrast that Paul is making is elsewhere. The main point is found in the “much more” of verses 15 and 17. This “much more” is also to be seen in verse 16. The sentence of death comes after just one man’s trespass. But the free gift, the vindication came “following many trespasses.” Let that sink in for a moment. One commentator puts it this way:
That one single misdeed should be answered by judgment, this is perfectly understandable: that the accumulated sins and guilt of all the ages should be answered by God’s free gift, this is the miracle of miracles, utterly beyond human comprehension.
It simply is what no one could expect, certainly could never predict. When we read the story of Genesis 3, we are not surprised to hear God pronounce judgment on the sinners. But what do we expect to hear after Genesis 4 when one man murders his brother, and after Genesis 37 when ten brothers sell the eleventh as a slave, and after Exodus 32 when the Israelites worship a golden calf after being dramatically rescued from slavery in Egypt, and after 2 Samuel 12 when King David commits adultery and then murder to cover it all up, and after Ahab has Naboth murdered in 1 Kings 21 so he can steal his vineyard, and after countless other sins of biblical history, and after billions of other sins in history, and after the secrets of your heart and mine have been exposed? What would we expect?
Certainly not this. Certainly not grace like this! This is a verdict of vindication that does not merely make up the ground that has been lost but completes and restores the destiny of which we have all fallen short. The gift of God which is the only remedy for sin and death is the infinitely superior, abundantly greater power of grace-in-Christ that “does not balance the act of sin” but overbalances it.
What does this mean? It means—look at verse 17—that “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” have not merely escaped the condemnation of death but will now “reign in life.” From death row to the royal throne! That is how much more the superior power of God’s grace-in-Christ is to all who will receive it.
The Righteous Reign of Grace and Life
We are now ready, with verse 18, to see the comparison started in verse 12. We have seen what it is that has come to us through one man’s sin, through one trespass. These effects are what we live in day after day. But things can be different, and in Christ, things are different. Consider what is different when the righteous reign of grace and life is realized. This is the gospel promise. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (v. 18).
The Problem Points to the Solution
The story of God in the Bible is summarized well by Romans 5:19: “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.” If you can see the problem, then you should be able to see the solution. If you will accept the Bible’s account of the relationship between sin and death and how these have come to all by one man’s disobedience, then you should be able to see that the only possible solution is in what might come to all by one man’s obedience.
Even a non-Christian or a non-religious person can see the problem. I was fascinated recently to hear an unbeliever on a political podcast I listen to say that the problems we have in this world are largely caused by seeing one another as an “other.” The problem, he said, is found “in the human heart.” And since “we live separately and we’re educated separately and we worship separately,” we become fragmented from people who are not like us. We lose these important human connections and we start seeing one another as an “other.” So we are doomed.
Yes indeed! The solution does lie in human connection, but something has to change the heart to get us together in the first place. We are the problem; the remedy needs to come from the outside. Disobedience is the problem; obedience is the solution (v. 19). Yes, we need human interaction, but just as one human interaction ruined us, there is one human interaction we need to save us. We need to be united to a second Adam, a greater Adam, whose obedience is enough to save. What was Christ’s obedience? It was his death and resurrection, viewed as a single act sufficient to save just as Adam’s single act was sufficient to condemn.
Sinners Made Righteous
Now noticed carefully what verse 19 says. Adam’s one sin is what has made us sinners. We are not condemned only because of Adam’s sin, but because of our own sin resulting from his. And in the same way, we will not find life merely because of Christ’s obedience, but also by in some way being “made righteous” as a result of his obedience. How does that happen?
To be made righteous here is something still in the future, as the tense of the verb indicates. But justification is not only a declaration of status. It is that, but we cannot separate the declaration of righteousness from its outcome. To be justified, to be declared not guilty—that is, to be vindicated—means that the outcome is vivification, life rather than death. We who are declared just by faith in the Just One will also “be made righteous” and the evidence for this is not to be seen in reaching moral perfection however much that maybe our destiny, but rather in being raised from the dead when Christ returns.
This is what we are to see in this passage. In the same way that sin and its effects become highlighted and made more apparent by the presence of the law (v. 20), so the power of justification by faith in Christ becomes even more apparent too. For the grace of God, which is Christ-for-us is even more abundant where sin and death seems most obvious and most prevalent.
The end result, as verse 21 says, is that just as “sin reigned in death”—that is, death as the objective evidence of sin’s reign—so now also grace will reign—and reign forevermore—through the “righteousness unto life” that is found only in Jesus Christ. Where grace reigns life is the result. If you and I are united to Christ by faith, then righteousness and resurrected life—immortal life, eternal life—is what we can expect.
Too Good to Be True?
Now one of the reasons we struggle to believe this is because it seems like one of those “too-good-to-be-true” offers. My youngest kids always get excited when they see a flyer that comes in the mail or a text they see on my phone saying we have won a free video game system. But I never get excited because I know it just isn’t true. And the pervasive power of sin has yielded to us the world as we know it, and we just can’t imagine it being any other way. We’re not pessimists, just realists, we tell ourselves. There might be marginal improvements here and there, but life goes on and people suffer and others are lucky and eventually we die and maybe, just maybe there’s an afterlife, but that’s the stuff for religious people to debate. But this earthly mortal life is what we care about because it’s the only life we know, and we really want hope for this embodied, material life.
The gospel of Jesus is fundamentally about this life we know. And its promise is that there is real, lasting hope for this world, a hope that has a future aspect still to be seen, but that has also already been inaugurated.
As we drove home from the local church that day, after my kids had written all over the wall, my wife and I got into one of the biggest fights in our entire marriage. I was upset at her for not preventing the mess, upset with her that she was not as upset about this problem as I was. That Magic Eraser not only cleaned up the mess on the walls but also brought reconciliation to our marriage. And in Jesus Christ, where the mess of this world has been resolved, we find ourselves in a new world, where there is reconciliation even for the bitterest of enemies. All brokenness finds resolve in him. Here is the hope the world is looking for, but this hope comes only by the grace of God in Christ, a greater power than the mess of sin and death.
 Verse 15 says “many died,” but it is meant to be read in the inclusive sense it has in Hebrew and Aramaic and so is functionally equivalent to the “all” in verses 12 and 18. See Joachim Jeremias, “Πολλοί,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 6:536.
 David Plotz, “The ‘Death of Democracy Edition’,” Slate Political Gabfest, October 14, 2021, www.slate.com/podcasts/political-gabfest/2021/10/big-lie-republican-orthodoxy.