The Greatness of God’s Grace

Romans 5:20-21

October 29, 2006 | Brian Bill

Good morning.  My name is Marty.  I’d like to tell you a little about my story.  I grew up knowing about God but when I was 21-years-old I had a life-changing experience.  One day I was out walking on the road during a thunderstorm and was struck by lightning.  I knew I wasn’t living like I should and believed that God was trying to get my attention so I left everything and joined a monastery.

Life as a monk was anything but easy.  We’d get up about 2:00 a.m. every day – that’s even earlier than your pastors wake up!  As soon as we crawled out of bed we would pray and sing, followed by a time of meditation.  We’d then pray some more and sing some more.  Next we’d have breakfast and then morning prayers.  We’d work all morning and then after lunch we had another time of prayer and singing followed by a brief nap.  Then came more prayer and singing and meditation, after which we had supper.  In the evening we’d pray some more and sing some more and then meditate one last time.  My life was filled with religious ritual, ceremony and solitude, penance and poverty.  

I was willing to live like this because I was on a desperate search for peace.  Some days I felt that all these rituals were helping me but most of the time I was gripped with fear that I wasn’t doing enough.  I knew I was a sinner and that God was holy and that I would never measure up.  But I kept trying my best.  In fact, my brothers referred to me as “a monk of the monks.”  When praise and prayer didn’t rid me of the dread in my life, I started confessing every sin I could remember.  This might be hard for you to believe, but there were times I would spend six hours a day in confession!  This only led to more guilt and despair because I knew I couldn’t remember all my sins.  And if I couldn’t remember all of them, how could I truly be forgiven?  My transgressions were tearing me up and my wayward heart was wiping me out.

In my despair I decided to travel to Rome, which in my day was the center of the religious world.  But I was surprised and then shocked and then sickened by what I saw.  I won’t go into it all now but I remember thinking, “If there was a Hell, Rome was built upon it.”  Outside one of the buildings I saw some ancient stairs that had been transported from Jerusalem.  Apparently Jesus had walked on this same staircase outside Pilate’s hall.  Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would come and climb those 28 stairs on their hands and knees.  I decided to do the same thing, hoping this act of devotion would help alleviate my agony.  I got on my hands and knees and started crawling up each stair, kissing each one as I recited the Lord’s Prayer at each stop.  When I got to the top I questioned what this had to do with appeasing a righteous and holy God.  I felt foolish and emptier than ever.

The turning point in my life came when my friend Johann asked me to teach the Bible.  Ironically, I had never really studied the Bible before.  I was excited because I could use my Hebrew and Greek and Latin to really dig in.  The first book I was assigned to teach was the Book of Psalms, followed by Romans and Galatians.  It was when I was studying the Book of Romans that I came across this phrase in the first chapter: “The righteous will live by faith.”  I was both excited and yet skeptical because it all seemed too simple.  I understand you’ve been studying Romans as well.  I hope that it has radically redirected your life, like it has mine.

Allow me to read from my journal: “My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him…then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sincere mercy God justifies us through faith.  Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise.  The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning…this passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.” 

I tried to change things within the church because I had been changed within but after much study and prayer, 489 years ago this Tuesday I posted 95 statements on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  That might sound strange to you but that’s how we did it back then.  Today you’d probably just post something like this on an online discussion board.  I was hoping to engender public comment and discussion.  It worked.  I had no idea that these statements would bring forth a movement that would change the course of world history.  If I were to read these theses to you, you’d find most of them to be out-of-date, but I have to tell you that they were burning issues in my day.  I was particularly upset about the sale of indulgences, which was a system whereby people could pay their way out of purgatory, and I also addressed the abuse of authority by religious leaders.

I’m not going to read all of them to you, for if I did you would be here longer than Pastor Brian normally keeps you – I hear he is a bit long-winded at times!  I do want to share with you what I consider to be the most important one, its number 62 if you’re counting: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”  By the way, if you’ve not figured it out yet, my name is Martin Luther.

[Thanks, Marty.  We’ll hear from you again at the end of the sermon.]  

On what is recognized as Reformation Sunday, our focus is on the gospel of the glory and grace of God.  It truly is our greatest treasure.  Please turn to Romans 5:20-21: “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.  But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I see three facets of grace in the closing verses of Romans 5.

1. Grace is greater than our sin (20). 

Follow along as I read the first part of verse 20: “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.”  Surprisingly, the Law does not restrain or subdue sin.  Rather, it excites and increases it.  Just ask Martin Luther.  The Law of God was a good thing but it is interesting that the word “added” that Paul uses has a negative connotation the only other time it is used in the Bible.  Galatians 2:4 uses this word to speak of sneakiness, of “slipping in unawares.”  When God gave the Law, it was intended to be secondary not primary.  It came in beside sinners to show how huge our lack of holiness really is; it was given not to make us sinners for there was sin long before Sinai smoked, but to show us the depth of our depravity.  One writer said it well: “The Law makes little Adams out of us all.”

As Paul says in Romans 7:7, the 10 Commandments convince us that we are sinners: “…Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law…”  We can’t get right with God by keeping the Law because it’s actually impossible to keep.  It won’t commend us because it condemns us.  We saw this in Romans 3:20: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”  That’s what happened to me when I started reading my roommate’s Bible when I was in college.  The more I read, the more I realized what a rebel I was.  Actually, after I became a Christian, my conscience and the Holy Spirit using His Word convicted me of sin I wasn’t even aware of before.  For example, before I was saved I swore a lot; after I became a Christian, every curse word out of my mouth convicted me of my unholy heart.  God’s commands convince and convict us of sin, and that’s a good thing.  James 1:23 refers to God’s revelation as a mirror that reflects what we’re really like.

Phillip Malanchthon, Luther’s young helper during the Reformation, expressed his exasperation with trying to keep all the commandments with these words: “Old Adam is too strong for young Phillip.”  Notice the word “trespass” is in the singular.  I believe this is still referring to Adam’s sin and thus to our very nature, or condition as sinners.  The word “trespass” refers to crossing the line, or breaking God’s boundaries while the word “sin” means to miss the mark of God’s standards.

Chuck Swindoll tells the story about his days as a paper boy.  He rode his bike on the sidewalk and whenever he would come to a sharp corner, he would just ride on the grass so he wouldn’t tip over trying to make the turn.  He had done this so many times on one particular corner that he had actually made a dirt path in the grass.  One day he noticed a new sign planted on the corner that read, “KEEP OFF THE GRASS.  NO BIKES.”  Swindoll says that he just kept doing what he had always done until the homeowner came out and had a talk with him.  The next day he was back to tracking across the path.  The sign, representing the Law, did not change his behavior.  But it did identify the offense and gave the owner a clear basis for judging his deeds.  

Let’s look now at the second phrase of verse 20: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”  It’s difficult to get the full meaning of this verse in the NIV because the two uses of “increase” are not the same word in the Greek.  The first “increase” speaks of addition.  But when he says “grace increased” he uses a prefix that means multiplication.  Where sins are added one by one, grace is multiplied a thousand times over.  Sin abounds and adds up but grace super-abounds and expands exponentially.  Check out these words from the hymn, “Grace Greater Than My Sin.”  

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.

Church music over the centuries has been saturated with the theme of God’s great grace.  Listen to the words of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.”

Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus,
Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
Wonderful grace, all sufficient for me, for even me.
Broader than the scope of my transgressions,
Greater far than all my sin and shame,
O magnify the precious Name of Jesus.
Praise His Name!

I like what Corrie Ten Boom once said: “There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”  It’s been said that Christianity is supremely a religion of grace.  And that is certainly true. But, even so, grace is not well understood and often not embraced.  We use the word a great deal but rarely think about what it means.  Words like favor, beauty, thankfulness, gratitude, delight, kindness, benefit— all come from the same root that gives us the word “grace.”  It is easy to see why grace as a concept gets so diluted.  Webster’s New World Dictionary alone gives six different definitions.  Grace literally means “a free gift” and is defined as the unmerited favor of God.  But grace is more than that.  God’s grace causes Him to pardon guilty sinners who deserve damnation and a home in Hell.  

Grace shocks us in what it offers

In his book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace,” Phillip Yancey points out that part of our problem is in the nature of grace itself.  Grace is scandalous.  It’s hard to accept, hard to believe, and hard to receive.  Grace shocks us in what it offers.  It is truly not of this world.  It frightens us with what it does for sinners. 

Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them.  We would save the not-so-bad.  God starts with prostitutes and then works downward from there.  Grace is a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver.  It is given to those who don’t deserve it, barely recognize it, and hardly appreciate it.  That’s why God alone gets the glory in your salvation.  Jesus did all the work when he died on the cross.  Jerry Bridges once said, “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace.  And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”

In the end grace means that no one is too bad to be saved.  God specializes in saving really bad people.  Do you have some things in your background that you would be ashamed to talk about in public?  Fear not.  God knows all about it, and His grace is greater than your sin.  Grace also means that some people may be too good to be saved.  That is, they may have such a high opinion of themselves that they think they don’t need God’s grace.  God’s grace cannot help you until you are desperate enough to receive it.  I like what William Shakespeare once said: “That word ‘grace,’ in an ungracious mouth, is profane.”

If grace does nothing for you, maybe it’s because you’ve never embraced God’s grace

Brothers and sisters, we need to put the “amazing” back into grace.  We’ve allowed grace to become blasé and even boring.  Many of us think that it’s our right; that God somehow has to show us grace.  We’re no longer surprised by grace because we’ve gutted its meaning.  And we don’t marvel over it because we’ve marginalized it.  Actually, if we’re not stunned by the grace of God, perhaps we’ve shunned it.  If grace does nothing for you, maybe it’s because you’ve never embraced God’s grace.

This passage shows us that grace is multiplied a million times over and is exceedingly greater than our sin.  It’s surprising and amazing and utterly unexpected because by its very nature it is underserved.  Paul never got over grace and neither should we.  Listen to his words in 1 Timothy 1:13-14: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man…the grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly…”

Let me make two related points.

  • Grace is great but sometimes sin still has consequences.  After being made right with God, we often have to make things right in other ways.  Faults can be forgiven but consequences still come.  Grace is amazing but wrong actions often come with a reaction.  We need to strive for the balance of grace and truth, following the example of our Savior.  John 1:14 says that Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” 
  • Don’t presume upon grace and just do what you want.  I’ve been asked a couple times this week why we don’t just sin more if grace is going to abound anyway.  Look with me at how Paul addresses this issue in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  By not means!  We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”  Romans 6:12-14: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.  Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.  For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”  Sin is still a sinister force for the believer; don’t play around with it!

2. Grace reigns through righteousness (21a). 

We see the purpose behind the multiplication of grace in verse 21: “So that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life…” There are three contrasts in this verse

  • Sin vs. Righteousness
  • Reigned vs. Might Reign
  • Death vs. Eternal Life

The word “reign” means to rule as a king with absolute authority.  Paul is reminding us one last time that the dynasty of depravity is death.  Apart from Christ, you and I are “in Adam” and therefore are controlled and ruled by the reign of unrighteousness.  In his book “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” Brennan Manning writes: “Though lip service is paid to the gospel of grace, many Christians live as if only personal discipline and self-denial will mold the perfect me.  The emphasis is on what I do rather than on what God is doing.  In this curious process God is the benign old spectator in the bleachers…”

But here’s the really good news.  Just as we were automatically placed “in Adam” at birth, as we learned last week, when we are born again we are transferred to a different domain, where grace has the highest place.  Before you know Jesus Christ, sin is your master and you were handed over to the domination of death.  At conversion, you are granted grace and you are placed “in Christ.”  Grace is given so that it rules and reigns in your life and brings you to eternal life.  1 Corinthians 15:54-55: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”  Someone has said that “grace gives us something and takes us somewhere.”  For the believer, eternal life begins at conversion, as Jesus longs for us to live the “abundant life” referenced in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” 

The reign of grace, properly understood, does not lead to a sloppy spiritually that minimizes sin.  In fact, according to Titus 2:11-12 grace empowers us to avoid sin: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It [grace] teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”  The puritan Thomas Brooks put it this way: “As heat is opposed to cold, and light to darkness, so grace is opposed to sin.  Fire and water may as well agree in the same vessel as grace and sin in the same heart.”  Grace then, is not some static principle but rather a dynamic life-changing reality.  Phillip Bliss penned these profound words: “Free from the Law, oh happy condition; Jesus has bled and there is remission.”

It can be argued that grace is not just a presence or a principle; it is a power that reaches out to save the perishing and sanctify believers so that we become more like Christ.  Charles Wesley knew all about the triumphing power of grace when he wrote these words:

O for a thousand tongues to sing

My great redeemer’s praise,

The glories of my God and King,

The triumphs of His grace.

3. Grace comes through Christ (21b). 

This past Thursday night Beth and I attended the 50th Anniversary Banquet for Christianity Today International at the Hilton Hotel in Lisle.  When I received an invitation to attend, I thought there must be some mistake so I sent in our R.S.V.P. quickly in case they changed their mind.  When we arrived the first person I met was a board member who started the magazine called “Christian History.”  We then met the editor of “Today’s Christian Woman.”  Later I found out that I’d be sitting right next to the editor of “Christianity Today” and one of the heads of Intervarsity Press.  Beth sat next to a professor at Wheaton College who has written nine books on church history.  John Ortberg, the keynote speaker walked past us and later we caught a glimpse of Twila Paris in the hallway.  Billy Graham, the founder of Christianity Today, was unable to attend but he sent a letter that was read to everyone.  Even President Bush sent a letter congratulating Christianity Today on this milestone.

We immediately felt out of place and quite insignificant, thinking that there had to be some sort of mix-up in the mail.  When people starting asking us about our connection to Christianity Today, I told them that I’m a pastor at a great church located in the flattest regions of the Land of Lincoln; I quickly added that I read the magazine, I have a subscription to Leadership Journal and I enjoy listening to sermon CDs from Preaching Today. 

I still wasn’t sure why we were there until I saw my old friend Brian Ondracek, who is one of the Vice Presidents.  I took Brian aside and asked him how we got an invite to this exclusive gathering.  He smiled and said, “Because I put you on the list.”   The saying is really true: “It’s really not what you know but who you know.”  Without a friend in high places we never would have gotten in.  We had done nothing to warrant our access to this anniversary banquet.  We were there only because of an invite, generated only by the grace of my friend.  We had a very enjoyable time, had a great free meal, and received some complimentary copies of some of their products.  We gave nothing and received much.

Friend, if you are a born again believer, you have given nothing to God and you have gained much.  Notice the last phrase of verse 21: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  It’s as if Paul can’t resist saying the name of Jesus one more time!  This section crescendos with an emphasis on Jesus Christ, through whom we are granted grace, if we but R.S.V.P. to His invitation.  Did you catch that Jesus Christ is “our” Lord?  He is not a generic Jesus; He is the only way, the only truth and the only life.  He will share His throne with no one.  I went back and counted how many times Paul said the phrase “our Lord” in Romans and came up with twelve!  Which leads to a question: Is He your Lord?  Jesus is the King of the kingdom where grace reigns.

On our car ride back home, it struck both of us that while many of the people we met are famous Christians, if it were not for the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God, none of us would have been there, and no one would be in the kingdom of God.  It really has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Jesus Christ our Lord.  Paul said it this way in Colossians 1:16-17: “All things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  We’ve all received an invite to a bountiful banquet where we have a reservation to be seated next to the guest of honor, Jesus Himself.  

Brothers and sisters in Christ, allow these truths to permeate and percolate through your soul:

  • Grace is greater than our sin
  • Grace reigns through righteousness
  • Grace comes through Christ

Are your sins piled before you like a mountain?  Are you burdened and broken by the bondage of sin?  If so, make a place for God’s grace in your life.  It’s time to embrace the grace of God that comes only through a relationship with Jesus Christ, inaugurated through the new birth.

[Let’s go back to Marty for some closing comments…]

Boy, I didn’t think your preacher would ever wrap up today.  Actually, if the truth be known, I used to preach much longer sermons than he does!  You have it better than you think (he told me to tell you that).

Loved ones, it boils down to this.  You can continue to follow a performance-based religion like I did for way too many years and end up in a ditch of despair.  Or, you can enjoy a pardon-based relationship and embrace the grace that is yours in Christ.  I used to come back to this phrase many times: “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.”  I would also tell people who wanted to put off a decision for Christ that they were on dangerous ground.  As I recall I said this: “How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never.’”  Receive the grace of Christ right now.  Ask Him to forgive you and cleanse you and make you into the person He wants you to be.

One of the distinctives of the Reformation was music.  I understand you still sing some of those hymns that were our lifeline in those dark days.  I have always appreciated music and did what I could to take contemporary tunes and add deep meaning to them.  I went back and read part of my journal again and came across this sentence that I know many of you will appreciate: “My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.”  

Here’s something else I wrote: “I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music, grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ!  I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy and costly treasure given to mankind by God…A person who gives some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of donkeys [I changed that word for you] and the grunting of hogs.”  I guess I’ve never had trouble saying what I think!

Take a listen to this closing song sung by a mother and her son.  We’re reminded that we can start over because of grace.  When we fall, we can reach out and take the hand of Jesus.  There’s no guilt or shame or blame because of the greatness of God’s grace.  And if you need a reformation in your life, by all means ask Jesus to first give you rebirth and if you’re already a believer, then ask Him to revive you by His grace.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?