Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
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. ROMANS 5:20-21
The last two verses of Romans 5 are among the truly great verses of the Bible. In the midst of a book in which every sentence is great, Romans 5:20-21 stands out like a brilliant beacon on a dark night. The dark background is sin and its horrible proliferation in the world. But the beacon flashes brightly.
This is the climax of a passage that contains a greater concentration of the word grace than any other similar passage in the Bible — five times in verses 15-21.
John Bunyan’s Text
Romans 5:20 was a favorite text of John Bunyan, best known as the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. That book reflects Bunyan’s deep
spiritual experience, but the details of his life are spelled out best in his classic devotional autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. The title is taken from our passage, which said, in the King James Version that Bunyan used, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,” and from 1 Timothy 1:15, where Paul refers to himself as the “chief” of sinners (KJV).
Bunyan was born in 1628 of poor parents. His father was a traveling tinker, that is, a mender of pots and pans, and Bunyan practiced this trade for a time, so that he became known as “the tinker of Bedford.” He had little education. In his youth he was profligate. In time he became troubled by an acute sense of sin. He wrote of himself that in those days it seemed as if the sun that was shining in the heavens begrudged him its light and as if the very stones in the street and the tiles on the houses had turned against him. He felt that he was abhorred by them and was not fit to live among them or benefit from them, because he had “sinned against the Savior.”
God saved Bunyan and gave him great peace, and the title of his book is his testimony to what he discovered. He discovered that, no matter how great his sin was, the grace of God proved greater.
These verses are so wonderful that it is difficult to do justice to them in translation. In the New International Version the word increase is used three times in verse 20: twice of sin, which is said to have “increased,” and once of grace, said to have “increased all the more.” This is reasonably accurate, but it is weak, because in Greek Paul used two different words for the two kinds of increase, and the strength of the verse is enhanced by the resulting contrast.
The verb that refers to sin (pleonatzo) is based on the word polus, meaning “much” or “many.” So it has the idea of a numerical increase. The NIV translation of this word is not bad. However, the second verb is quite different. It is perisseuo, which means “to abound,” “overflow,” or “have more than enough.”
This verb does not have to do with numbers so much as with “excess.” However, lest we miss the point, Paul adds the prefix hyper (we would say “super”), which gives the word the sense of “super excess” or “super abundance.”
Most people probably know the text best in the King James Version, the version known to John Bunyan. It uses the idea of “abundance” for both parts of the comparison: “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” The New American and the Revised Standard Bibles do better by using increase for the first part and abound for the second: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
But how about this? The New English Bible says, “Where sin was thus multiplied, grace immeasurably exceeded it.”
Or this? J.B. Phillips paraphrases the verse, saying, “Though sin is shown to be wide and deep, thank God his grace is wider and deeper still.”
Even this does not seem to satisfy some commentators. Donald Grey Barnhouse suggested, “Where sin reached a high-water mark, grace completely flooded the world.” D. Martin Lloyd-Jones used the word engulfed, calling grace a “flood” that sweeps everything before it.
What Paul says of grace in verse 20 prepares us for what he is going to say in the continuation of the sentence, for he is going to show that although sin has triumphed over us, doing great damage, grace has triumphed over sin and now reigns victoriously.
No Withholding of Grace
These verses say several important things about grace. First, grace is not withheld because of sin. We need to understand this clearly, because in normal life you and I do not operate this way.
If we are offended by somebody, we tend to withdraw from the person and withhold favor. If people offend us greatly, we find it hard even to be civil. God is not like this. On the contrary, where sin increases, grace superabounds.
What happened when Adam and Eve sinned? We saw the answer in the first chapters — they feared that grace would be withdrawn. God had been good to them. They had rebelled against his law concerning the forbidden tree, and God had said, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). When God came to them, calling in the Garden, they hid in terror, thinking that the judgment God had threatened would now be executed. Instead, they found grace. God did not withhold grace because of Adam and Eve’s sin. He made great promises of grace, announcing that the Messiah would come to destroy the work of Satan and bring the man and woman back to Paradise. Adam and Eve tried to cover their shame with fig leaves, but God clothed them with the skins of animals, which represented Christ’s righteousness. Grace was not withheld from Adam and Eve; grace was given in spite of sin.
It was the same in the days of Moses, when the people had come to Mount Sinai and the law was being given. On the mountain God told Moses, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). But while God was saying that, the people he had brought out of Egypt were breaking, not only this command, but also all the other commands he was giving. They were taking his name in vain, dishonoring their fathers and mothers, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, coveting, and doing many other wicked things besides. Was this a barrier to God’s grace? Not at all. On the very mountain from which he had looked down on the sin of this people, God gave specifications for the construction of the
tabernacle with its altar and laws concerning the priesthood. He instituted ceremonies that showed the method by which sinful men and women could approach the holy God. Grace was not withheld from Israel because of sin. On the contrary, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.
We come to the New Testament, and the principle unfolds with even greater splendor. The Son of God appeared on earth as the perfection of every grace. But instead of receiving him, his own people, urged on by their corrupt spiritual leaders, shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” So Pilate did. But even as he was being crucified, Jesus prayed for those who were causing his pain, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). And it was by his death that Jesus made atonement for our sins and opened heaven to those who should believe on him as their Savior. Even so great a sin as crucifying the Son of God did not cause grace to be withheld. Rather, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.
What of the disciples? Peter had denied his Lord with oaths and cursings. But Jesus did not condemn Peter. Instead, Jesus appeared to him personally following the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:5) and later recommissioned him to service (John 21:15-22).
“Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” asked Jesus.
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter answered.
Then you must “feed my lambs,” Jesus countered.
Paul experienced the same thing. Paul’s testimony is nearly identical to Bunyan’s, which is why Bunyan used Paul’s words to depict his experience. Paul told the Corinthians,
I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No,
I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Cor. 15:9-10)
Near the end of his life Paul wrote to his young coworker Timothy:
Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1: 13-16)
Now we come to you.
Today most people have very little awareness of their sin, which shows how desperate their condition has become. But perhaps you are one who, like John Bunyan, is aware of it. You may consider yourself to have forfeited all hope of salvation by some sinful action that rises up before you like a great concrete dam against grace. I do not know what that sin is. It may be some gross sexual sin or adultery.
It may be a perversion.
Perhaps you have stolen from your employer or your parents or someone else who is close to you.
Could you have murdered somebody? Destroyed somebody’s life work or reputation?
Perhaps you remember a time in your life when you were so tyrannized by sin that you lashed out against God with blasphemies. Perhaps you cursed God. When you think back on those days — they may not be far in the past — you shudder and tremble. You are sure you have passed beyond all bounds of hope, that you are destined to be lost eternally.
If you are such a person — fortunate at least in your knowledge of your sinfulness — then this text is a proclamation of hope for you: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Where sin multiplied, grace overflowed! No dam erected by sin can stop the abundant flow of God’s grace. Grace is never withheld because of sin — not Adam’s sin, not the sin of the people at Sinai, not Israel’s sin. You may come to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Right now. Regardless of what you have done. In Jesus you can find full and immediate forgiveness.
No Reduction of Grace
The second thing these verses teach about God’s superabounding grace is that it is not proportioned according to sin. There are two errors corrected here.
First, there are people who suppose that God is looking down on mankind and that he sees a great variety of people. One man is fairly good, but he is not perfect. He can only be saved by grace. So God dips into his bucket of grace and splashes out just enough for this man to find Christ and salvation. Here is another person, a woman. She is not so good. She needs more grace. Finally, here is a terrible person. He has committed every sin in the book, and he is not the least bit inclined toward God or godliness. By grace this man is also saved, but it takes a lot of
grace to save him. God has to scrape the very bottom of the barrel to get this profligate in.
This is a gross misunderstanding. Grace is not something that makes up for our deficiencies. By grace God provides 100 percent of what is necessary for the salvation of 100 percent of the people he is saving. Grace is not measured out in proportion to our misdeeds.
Second, there are people who think like this: Here is a person who was once walking close to God but who fell into some great sin. I do not care what sin it is. It may have been Moses’ sin, David’s sin, your sin. But having fallen into sin, this person now thinks that he has forfeited something of God’s grace. It is as if he had been given 100 percent of God’s grace originally but supposes that now he is slowly wasting away this treasury of grace by his transgressions.
Do you ever find yourself thinking that? Are you thinking that now? That once you were a first-class Christian, but now, having sinned, you are condemned to be only a second-class or third-class Christian forever? Forget that. Your sin did not keep God’s grace from flowing to you in full measure when you first came to Christ. It will not keep grace from you now.
I do not mean to suggest even for a moment that God condones sin. God hates sin so much that he sent Jesus Christ to die to rescue men and women from its destructive rule and tyranny. He hates sin in you. He will work to remove it and give you victory over it. In fact, if you do not grow in holiness and progressively triumph over sin, you are not regenerate. You are not a Christian. But the point I am making is that God will never diminish his grace toward you because of some sin. In fact — can I say it this way and not be misunderstood? — it is in your sin that you will most find grace to be abundant. The reason Paul was such a champion of grace was that he had been forgiven a great deal.
The third point Romans 5:20-21 makes about grace is that grace is powerful and triumphant. Sin triumphed for a time, but although “sin reigned in death,” grace is destined to “reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The illustration Paul uses is of two rival kingdoms, of grace and of sin. By personifying the power of sin, on the one hand, and the power of grace, on the other, he compares them to two kings. One king is a tyrant. He has invaded our world and has enforced a ruthless control over men and women. The end of this king’s rule is death, for us and for all persons. This king’s name is Sin. The other king is a gracious ruler. He has come to save us from sin and bring us into a realm of eternal happiness. The end of this king’s rule is eternal life. His name is Grace.
The illustration tells us that grace is a power. We tend to think of grace as an attitude; and, of course, it is that. I have even defined it that way. I have called it “God’s favor toward the undeserving,” in fact, toward those who deserve the precise opposite. But more than an attitude, grace is also a power that reaches out to save those who, apart from the power of grace, would perish.
This means that grace is more than an offer of help. It is even more than help itself. To use the illustration of the two rival kingdoms, it would be possible to say that grace is an invasion by a good and legitimate king of territory that has been usurped by another. The battle is not always visible, because this is a matter of spiritual and not physical warfare. But the attack is every bit as massive and decisive as the invasion of the beaches of Normandy by the Allied forces at the turning point of the Second World War. The Allies threw their maximum combined weight into that great military encounter and won the day. Similarly, God has thrown his weight into grace, and grace will triumph.
All earthly kingdoms have a beginning: a military victory that brings a new monarch to the throne, a peaceful succession in which a new and able ruler takes over the helm of government and begins a new era of influence and prosperity, or an election of an outstanding ruler in a democratic land. So also with the kingdom of grace.
When was the kingdom of grace inaugurated?
The answer is “before the creation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20). In that verse Peter is referring to the decision made in the eternal counsels of the Godhead in eternity past to send God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be our Redeemer. Theologians call this the Covenant of Redemption. It took place before the world was created.
In that eternal covenant between the persons of the Godhead, God the Father said, “I want to demonstrate the nature and power of my grace before the hosts of heaven. To do that I am going to create a world of creatures to be known as men and women. I am going to allow them to fall into sin. I am going to allow sin to reign over them, enslaving them by its power, and leading them at last to physical and spiritual death. But when sin has done its worst and the condition of the race seems most hopeless, I will send a heavenly being of infinite grace and power to rescue them and effect a new kingdom of love. Who will go for us? Who will accomplish the salvation of this yet-to-be-created race?”
The Lord Jesus Christ responded, “Here am I; send me. I will do what needs to be done. I will take the form of one of these creatures, thereby becoming man as well as God. I will die for them. I will bear the punishment of their transgressions. Then, when I have paid the penalty for their sin so that they will never have to suffer for it, I will rise from the dead and be for them an ever-reigning and ever-gracious Lord.”
Earthly kingdoms also have a period of growth in which
territory is conquered and those who are to be part of the new kingdom are drawn into it. The kingdom of grace is the same. It also has grown and is growing. The stages have been something like this.
1. The announcement of the kingdom.
On the same day that Adam and Eve sinned, thus welcoming the contrary reign of sin and death into the world, God appeared in the Garden of Eden to foretell the coming of his Son. The words were spoken to Satan, who had caused Adam and Eve’s fall.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15)
This was a prophecy of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the Atonement, and although Adam and Eve did not understand it fully, they understood enough of it to believe God and look for the coming of the Redeemer. As a result, they became the first citizens of the kingdom.
2. Preparation for the kingdom.
The Old Testament records a period of preparation for the new king’s coming. God established a godly line in the midst of the world’s ungodliness, a line in which his name was remembered and faith in the coming Redeemer was kept alive. Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, who replaced godly Abel after Cain had killed him, was the first of this new line. From Seth came the line of the godly antediluvians, including such persons as Enoch, who “walked with God,” and Noah, who received grace at the time of the great Flood. Later Abraham was chosen, and from Abraham came Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons, the twelve patriarchs of Israel. There were priests like Aaron, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, and godly kings like David. On the eve of
the birth of Jesus, there were people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna, and others, all of whom looked forward to Christ’s coming.
“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (Hebrews 11:39). They were saved by grace. They were part of the preparation for God’s kingdom. But “the true light that gives light to every man was [only then] coming into the world” (John 1:9).
3. The launching of God’s kingdom.
Since the death of the Lord Jesus Christ for sin is the launching of the kingdom we are not surprised to find Paul thinking of it as he unfolds his illustration. Grace reigns “through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
His words remind us that grace does not mean setting aside God’s law or the waiving of justice, as if God were merely to have said, “Well, you have been bad, but it does not matter; I forgive you.” Sin does matter. It leads to death, death in this life and death in the age to come. God does not overlook sin. He deals with it. Christ died for it. Do you want to to see the nature of God’s kingdom? There is no place you will see it better than at Christ’s cross. There grace and righteousness come together. Each is satisfied. It is by Jesus’ death that eternal life is given to many.
4. Citizens of the kingdom.
It takes more than territory to make a kingdom. A kingdom requires subjects. Therefore, God is in the business of providing subjects for this kingdom. How? Theologians speak of it as the ordo salutis of the “order of salvation.” It refers to the steps God takes to bring individuals into the kingdom of his Son. The Bible describes these steps as: foreknowledge, predestination or election, effectual calling, regeneration, repentance and
faith, justification, sanctification, and, finally, glorification. No more glorious unfolding of the kingdom of grace toward individuals can be imagined. It is the power of God, providing for and then actually saving those who apart from it would certainly be lost. If grace were only a handout or an offer to help, we would perish. The only reason any of us are saved is because grace provides the way of salvation and then actually reaches out to turn us from sin and draw us to Christ.
Grace to a Slave of Slaves
In the first chapters we alluded to John Newton because of his well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” but I did not tell his story. Newton described himself in his autobiography as one who was, for a time, a “slave of slaves,” and he was miraculously delivered by God. His deliverance is a great illustration of the power of God’s abounding grace.
Newton lived from 1725 to 1807. He was raised in a Christian home in which he was taught verses of the Bible. But his mother died when he was only six years old, and he was sent to live with a relative who hated the Bible and mocked Christianity. One day, at an early age, Newton went to sea as an apprenticed seaman. He was wild and dissolute in those years, as John Bunyan had been. He had a reputation for being able to swear for two hours without repeating himself. At one point he was pressed into the British navy. But he deserted and was captured and then beaten publicly as a punishment. Eventually he was released into the merchant marine and went to Africa. Why Africa? In his memoirs he wrote that he went to Africa for one reason only and that was “that I might sin my fill.”
In Africa Newton fell in with a Portuguese slave trader in whose home he was cruelly treated. This man often went away
on slaving expeditions, and when he was gone his power passed to his African wife, the chief woman of his harem. She hated all white men and took out her hatred on Newton. He tells us that for months he was forced to grovel in the dirt, eating his food from the ground like a dog. He was beaten unmercifully if he touched it with his hands. In time, thin and emaciated, Newton made his way to the sea where he was picked up by a British ship making its way up the coast to England.
When the captain of the ship learned that the young man knew something about navigation as a result of being in the British navy, he made him a ship’s mate. But even then Newton fell into trouble. One day, when the captain was ashore, Newton broke out the ship’s supply of rum and got the crew drunk. He was so drunk himself that when the captain returned and struck him on the head, Newton fell overboard and would have drowned if one of the sailors had not hauled him back on deck just in time.
Near the end of a voyage, as they were approaching Scotland, the ship ran into bad weather and was blown off course. Water poured in, and it began to sink. The young profligate was sent down into the hold to pump water. The storm lasted for days. Newton was terrified. He was sure the ship would sink and he would drown. But there in the hold of the ship, as he pumped desperately for his life, the God of grace, whom he had tried to forget but who had never forgotten him, brought to his mind Bible verses he had learned in his home as a child. The way of salvation opened up to him. He was born again and transformed. Later, when the storm had passed and he was again in England, Newton began to study theology and eventually became a great preacher, first in the little town called Olney and later in London.
Of this storm William Cowper, the British poet who became
a personal friend of Newton and lived with him for several years, wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Newton was a great preacher of grace, for he had learned that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. He is proof that the grace of God is sufficiently powerful to save anybody.