Is it possible to break a law when there is no law against what you have done? Or, is it possible to infringe upon a law even if you are unaware of it? Suppose I live in a country where stealing is permissible. Have I broken the law if I steal? If we believe God has ordained moral standards, then the answer is yes.
Sin and the Law (vv. 13-14)
In building his case for responsibility to God and in favor of the sinfulness of humanity, Paul says sin did not arrive after God gave the law to Moses or when people broke that law. Sin arrived long before. Sin began when Satan rebelled against God, and his influence was then permeated throughout the human race through his temptations, beginning with Adam and Eve. Their acquired sinful nature because of their disobedience was in turn transmitted to their posterity.
An example of Paul’s conclusion is the commandment prohibiting murder. The command had not been issued when Cain killed his brother Abel, but it was still a sin and one God charged him with. Nor does the law have anything to do with the loss or attainment of salvation. Obedience to the law does not issue in salvation as some of the Jews supposed. Disobedience to the law does not lead to death. Sin is the baseline problem. It brings death, and the only way to escape its consequences is by forgiveness and God’s grace. Physical death—what some believe to be one of the consequences of sin—took place long before the law was given.
What then was the purpose of the law? The law’s purpose was not to lead to salvation or to take away the experience of death. Paul will explain in verse 20 that it was given to show what God’s standard was, and by comparison, to show us how far we have missed God’s mark. The law was also designed to drive those now aware of their sinfulness to God for mercy and pardon. God’s law also reminds us we are responsible for our sinful actions. The disadvantage of the law is that it offers no remedy for our problem. With that in mind, it was designed to drive people to Christ.
Adam and Christ’s Contributions (vv. 14-19)
Adam’s contributions to humanity are somewhat negative. Adam brought death by his sin. This death was spiritual—and possibly physical—and extended to their children and all their descendants. Not only was there spiritual death, but there was also condemnation for the sin that brought death. Since God cannot look on or accept sinful people, and since sin is an affront to his law, it must be punished. It also places us under a sentence of condemnation. Death and condemnation rule over us like the most despicable despot we could ever imagine. We cannot escape it, and in our fallen state there is no hope. Adam’s sin meant all who were born from him were sinners also.
Christ’s contributions were and are all positive. A significant contrast exists between the work of Adam and Christ. The gift of Adam was a sinful nature, but the gift of Christ involves the opportunity to have our sins forgiven and the relationship destroyed by Adam and Eve restored. When Paul says Adam’s decision brought death to many, this is not to be taken that some escaped death but rather many is a general reference signifying that the number of people affected was great. In fact, all were. In like manner, Jesus’ gift of himself on Calvary brought forgiveness to many.
The contrast somewhat breaks down at this point. No one escapes the consequences of Adam’s sin. All receive a sinful nature. Believing some escaped leaves open the possibility of not needing Christ’s forgiveness. On the other hand, all are not automatically forgiven simply because Christ died on the cross. The atonement was sufficient to save all and will affect the salvation of all who turn to Christ.
All have been infected by Adam’s decision and all who ask will be affected by Christ’s work on Calvary. Condemnation and forgiveness are the polar extremes of the gifts given by Adam and Christ. Although condemned for our sins, we have the condemnation removed through forgiveness. Even though we are guilty of many sins, God’s forgiveness means we are not held accountable for those sins. God sees the blood of Christ covering them. Not only does he take us into his family, but he also refers to us as his friends.
The curse of death no longer rules over believers. We still die physically, but we do not die spiritually. Our state of spiritual death is rectified. In Christ, we live triumphantly over sin and death. Physical death may take our bodies, but it cannot prevent our spirits from rising to our heavenly abode or prevent Christ from infiltrating our dead bones with resurrection life.
Verse 18 must be tempered by verse 19 and the overall message of the Bible. Just because Christ died on Calvary, all people are not automatically forgiven—but it does create that possibility. Paul recognized this in verse 19 when he acknowledges many will be saved because of what Christ has done. Further, to be made right with Christ involves repentance and faith.
And the benefits of knowing Christ are not reserved entirely for heaven. We enjoy many benefits now. Among them, abundant living. We do not just live; we have the opportunity to live with fullness and completeness. God also promises to supply all our needs. He will sufficiently give us everything we need to exist and carry out his will. We have power. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
The Purpose of the Law and Christ (vv. 20-21)
Paul’s Jewish hearers would certainly not appreciate what he had to say about the law. Not only was it not effective for salvation, but it was also not an antidote for sin and in fact increased acts of sin.
We can understand Paul’s point by looking at our own nature. At least in a child, but sometimes even as an adult, we want to do exactly the opposite of what we are told. Touching an area where the sign reads “Wet Paint” entices us. The freedom to do what we want often aligns with the argument that morality cannot be legislated. This doesn’t mean we don’t need laws dealing with moral issues. We simply cannot force people to be moral.
God’s purpose in the law was to point out sin which would make people aware they had sinned, giving us a greater knowledge of sin, which would lead to more conviction. This in turn w, in turn,e people aware of their responsibility for sin.
God’s grace, on the other hand, outpaces the consequences of sin. God’s grace became more apparent as people sinned. This is not an excuse to sin more so we can see more of God’s grace. Sin simply magnifies God’s grace or puts the spotlight on it. Paul refutes this philosophy of sinning more so we can see more of God’s grace in chapter six.
Sin is an example of how God can take something evil and bring good from it. By his grace, we have right standing, forgiveness, justification, and eternal life. The power of sin is devastating, but the grace of God conquers the power of sin and ushers in forgiveness and abundant living.