The Reign Of Grace

Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. —Romans 5:20

In this section of Romans Paul is daring us. He is daring us to believe that God does not treat us as we deserve but God treats us as Christ deserves. If you are in Christ – and how do you get there? just by being willing to be loved by Christ – if you are in Christ, God wants you to know that you are righteous in his sight not because of your obedience but because of the obedience of Jesus Christ. God wants you to know that he has put you in his witness protection program. You’re bearing witness to your sins, you’re hiding nothing, and God is protecting you even from his own law. God has relocated you under the reign of grace (5:21). The gospel announces the reign of grace, the royalty of grace, the authority of grace. In 6:14 Paul says, “You are not under law but under grace.” God himself is saying to us, “You are not under law but under grace.” And we say, “Thank you, Lord. You’ve made it clear. I understand. I’m not under grace but under law.” God says to us, “Read my lips. You are not under law but under grace.” And we say, “Right. Got it. I am under law and under grace, the two mixed together.” The gospel is so surprising, we need continual re-saturation in the good news. I see myself as under law when I’ve been bad, because I deserve it, and under grace when I’ve been good, because I’ve earned it. Martin Luther had me in mind when he wrote, “The gospel cannot be beaten into our ears enough or too much. Yes, though we learn the gospel and understand it well, yet there is no one who takes hold of it perfectly or believes it with all his heart, so frail a thing is our flesh and disobedient to the Spirit.”

I want today’s sermon to re-introduce us all to the grace of God. That’s where Paul wants to take us: “You are not under law but under grace.” Let’s go there together.

The grace of God is what we find so hard to believe. It’s easier to believe in the wrath of God than the grace of God, because we know deep inside we deserve his wrath. I hope you know that. Not everybody does. William Kilpatrick at Boston College writes about one of his colleagues there:
He once asked members of his philosophy class to write an anonymous essay about a personal struggle over right and wrong, good and evil. Most of the students, however, were unable to complete the assignment. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” they said – and apparently this was said without irony – “We haven’t done anything wrong.” If you haven’t done anything wrong, I don’t know what to say except “Congratulations, and good luck.” If you do ever stumble and fall, call me and I’ll have good news for you. But for the rest of us sinners – it’s not all that hard to believe in the wrath of God and to fear the judgment of God. We know we deserve it. But that God is gracious to people who deserve his wrath – that takes some getting used to. So let’s get used to it all over again. I’m going to ask three questions today. One, what is the law of God and what does it do? Two, what is the grace of God and what does it do? Three, why does the grace of God succeed where the law of God fails?

What is the law of God and what does it do?

Now the law came in to increase the trespass. —Romans 5:20 

The law of God is his will for how we should live. My most natural and immediate thought always is how I want to think and feel and live. But God’s law changes the subject to radical God-centeredness. In fact, the law of God is the lifestyle of Jesus. The law describes and demands the only life worth living. God says to every one of us, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). So you can see, that way of life is not bondage. God gave his people the law after setting them free: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Not into the house of slavery but out of it. So keeping the law wasn’t a new bondage; it was living proof that the old bondage really was past. Here’s how we can tell if we’re free today. People freed from their old compulsions keep the Ten Commandments:

Their hearts are free to love God passionately.
Their hearts are free to worship God as he deserves.
Their hearts are free to revere God’s Word.
Their hearts are free to rest in God deeply.
Their hearts are free to honor their imperfect parents.
Their hearts are free to breathe life into people.
Their hearts are free not to sexualize people.
Their hearts are free to be generous to others.
Their hearts are free to build up other people’s reputations.
Their hearts are free to be content with what they have.

Imagine the world waking up this morning with every heart free from dark, negative, demanding, self-centered compulsion. It would be heaven on earth. The law is so desirable, even obvious. So where’s the breakdown? Think about yourself. Has your heart been free this past week? How about the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet”? Were you so content this past week with what you have that you were thrilled to see other people succeed? Or did it depress you and leaving you feeling left out? Did you envy someone’s career or health or car or wife or brains or looks or whatever? Did you feel self-pity? Did you complain? Or was your heart overflowing this week with love for God and everyone else? And if this wasn’t a good week to judge yourself by, what about this next week? Why not keep God’s law for just one short week? God’s law is a perfect way to live – for perfect people. But Paul himself is going to say later in Romans: “Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24). Maybe you don’t see yourself as a wretch. But God did not say, “You shall be average, for I the Lord your God am average.”

Thursday was Johnny Cash’s birthday. I read this in a blog post about him:

All around us there are empires of dirt, and billions of self-styled emperors marching toward judgment. Perhaps if Christian churches modeled themselves more after Johnny Cash, and less after perky Christian celebrities such as ___, we might find ourselves resonating more with the MTV generation. Maybe if we stopped trying to be “cool,” and stopped hiring youth ministers who are little more than goateed game-show hosts, we might find a way to connect with a generation that understands pain and death more than we think. Perhaps if we paid more attention to the dark side of life, a dark side addressed in divine revelation, we might find ourselves appealing to men and women in black. We might connect with men and women who know what it’s like to feel like fugitives from justice, even if they’ve never been to jail.

The law of God tells us the dark truth about ourselves. Let’s admit that truth and our fugitive ways, right down to the details. It is so freeing to open up and confess our sins.

The law of God is his high call and his absolute claim upon us. What does his law do? Paul says in verse 20: “The law came in to increase the trespass.” Notice the past tense verb: “came in.” What is Paul thinking of? He’s thinking back in history to two major events. First, when God made a covenant of promise with Abraham – not a covenant of law but promise. God said in Genesis 12, “I’m going to create a new world overflowing with my blessing, and I’m going to do this through you, Abraham.” All Abraham had to do was believe this promise. He did. And God set everything in motion, moving toward Christ. Then secondly, about 600 years later at Mount Sinai, God gave Israel the law through Moses. “Now the law came in.” The law was a sidebar to the main story, which was all about promise. The promise came first, in Genesis 12. The law was added in later, in Exodus 20. God said to his people, “Now that you’re about to enter the Promised Land, here’s how I want you to live. If you obey me, I’ll bless you. If you disobey me, I’ll curse you. It’s that simple.” That’s the law. But what did the law do? The law increased the trespass. The law pulled up out of the people all the more sin, revealing up at the behavioral surface what was already down deep in their hearts.
Look at our own history. The 18th Amendment became law in 1920, prohibiting alcoholic beverages. Did it work? Will Rogers said, “The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls.” 1520 federal agents were assigned to enforce prohibition. But this was the time in our history when organized crime gained their power base. There were 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago alone – all of them run by Al Capone. The social problems caused by alcoholism were real, but so were the problems caused by prohibition. The year before it was repealed John D. Rockefeller Jr. wrote,

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

Every society needs just laws. But laws don’t change people. Law doesn’t win anyone’s heart. So we will defy the law, because we are law-breakers – bad to the bone.

Thursday morning I got pulled over by a cop. I was speeding. I didn’t realize it. And maybe that makes me a worse criminal. Anyway, the police car pulled up behind me with his lights flashing and I had that sinking feeling in my stomach, the feeling of getting caught. But he was a nice cop and didn’t give me a ticket, just a warning. He was lenient. But no matter how lenient he was, our relationship was still of the nature of law. He was an officer of the law, and I was a law-breaker. And that is how so many people in Nashville today see God. He might be lenient. Maybe he’ll let you off with a warning this time. But the relationship is of the nature of law. So many people in Nashville this morning are in church trying to be nice back to the lenient Cop. And others in Nashville this morning are not in church because they’re tired of playing that game. At Immanuel, we’re here to say, “Nashville, there’s another way entirely. And it works.”

What is the grace of God and what does it do?

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

There is only one power in the universe that can bring down the reign of sin and death, and that power is the grace of God in Christ. Immanuel Church is here to prove that grace reigns, that grace changes people, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Bible is clear. You can dare to believe that God’s grace, and his grace alone, is all you need to become a new person. You don’t need rules; you need grace. Paul set this tone in chapter 1: “Grace to you” (Romans 1:7). That is how God greets us this morning: Grace to you. Grace to you who are in sin. Grace to you who think you’re not in sin. Grace to you who have failed and are still blaming everyone else. Grace to you who don’t know how badly you’ve failed. Grace to you. That is God’s message to you today. The gospel is not his advice about how we can improve ourselves; it’s his announcement about what he has already done for us at the cross. When God announces grace, he means it and he’s got it. When we believe his announcement of grace, we start changing – as no law can change us.

What is the grace of God? We find the Hebrew word for grace in 1 Samuel 19, where Jonathan is protesting Saul’s hostility toward David. Jonathan asks him, “Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?” “There’s no reason for you to hate David,” he’s saying. That phrase translated “without cause” is the Hebrew word for grace – with a suffix added. What’s the point? Grace means that God loves us without cause. God loves us for no reason – no reason in us. God loves because God is love. All the incentives he needs are deep within himself. God is enough for God to come down as a man and live for us the perfect live we’ve never lived and die for us the guilty death we deserve to die. He died on that cross, because we hated him. But at the heart of the universe is a love too great to be limited to what we deserve. Anselm, the medieval theologian, said to God, “Surely in the deepest and most secret place of your goodness there lies hidden the source from which the river of your mercy flows.” That’s who God is. That’s how good he is. Believe it. It’s the truth.

Romans 5:20 is all about that: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” I ask you to receive it into your heart. It will not hurt you. Here’s where it’s going in the next chapter: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14). God is inviting us and imploring us to believe that grace, and grace alone, has his power in it.

Why does the grace of God succeed where the law of God fails?

The answer is right here in verse 21: “that . . . grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” He is the reason. We’re not dealing here with abstract principles but with Jesus. The Bible says, “The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). He is why grace succeeds. He knows how to win hearts as no law can. All the love God wants to give you, all that you long for, comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. You don’t need to wonder how to access the love of God. The Bible says, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1), “We also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:11), “. . . much more will the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). And we know we’re starting to get it when we bow down before him and say, “Lord, it’s too much. But how grateful I am for you.”

Don’t overlook that word “through.” Jesus is the ticket to all that God’s grace can do: “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Monday night Jani and I went to a movie. We got in by showing our tickets. Many people think of Jesus as their ticket into heaven, and they’re right. We enter into all of God’s grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. He’s the ticket. He’s all you need to get into heaven forever. God says, “I’m going to love forever everyone who is willing to be loved through Jesus Christ. I will give them my best. There will be nothing too good for my children. I will lavish upon them the best my love can do.” That is the future we gain through Jesus Christ our Lord. He’s the ticket, and there is no other way. But Jesus is more than the ticket into heaven. We come under the reign of grace “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Don’t overlook those last two words: “our Lord.” He’s more than a ticket. And those who value him as nothing more than a ticket are in for a surprise. The heaven they want is not the heaven that’s out there. If you want Jesus only as your ticket into heaven, then you don’t want heaven, because heaven is Jesus. What if Jani and I walked into the theater with our tickets Monday night and found that the room was filled with piles and piles of thousands of tickets, with one huge ticket right in the center? That wasn’t what we came for. We’d be asking, “Who made the mess? And how can we see the show with all this clutter?” Jesus is the ticket, but he’s also the show. He is God’s grace. He is heaven in himself. He brings broken sinners under the reign of grace, to love them forever beyond all they could ask or think. He is the King of grace and glory, and it’s under him as Lord that we experience his love: “. . . that grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” When you come under the lordship of Christ, you come under the reign of grace.

The Lord Jesus wants to intervene graciously in your life. He wants to do this himself, directly and personally. It’s between you and him. He’s not like the security systems we subscribe to. There’s a computer in an office somewhere that receives a signal when your home is broken into and the computer passes the alert on to the local police, who drive by to see if there’s a problem. Jesus is not like that. He is not even like a workman coming into your home to fix an appliance and then it’s okay again and walks out and shuts the door and is gone until something else breaks down. The Father is so pleased with the Son that he gives him to law-breakers like you and me, and Jesus becomes a living Presence. You don’t want a repairman to move in and live with you. But you can have Jesus Christ the Lord living with you, so that your life comes under the reign of grace and you start changing. That’s how he loves. That’s how he gives himself. He doesn’t offer you grace as something apart from himself. He says to you, “If you want the grace of God, I’m it. Take me in. Receive me in that very place where you have sinned the worst. And where sin increased, I will abound to you all the more there, I will comfort you all the more there, I will heal you all the more there.”

Would it be so bad to be loved the most at the very place where you’ve sinned the most? Are you willing? Here is what he wants you to know: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”