Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Law Came in to Increase the Trespass: The Story of Two Falls in Romans 5:20

What does Paul mean in Rom 5:20 when he says that “the law came in to increase the trespass”? A common interpretation of this explains Paul as saying here that God’s law functions to give us a standard against which we rebel. Another common interpretation says that, once the condemnatory function of the law is understood, God’s law makes us realize how sinful we are.

Charles Spurgeon is an example of someone who interprets Rom 5:20 in the second way described above: “When once God the Holy Ghost applies the law to the conscience, secret sins are dragged to light, little sins are magnified to their true size, and things apparently harmless become exceedingly sinful … The heart is like a dark cellar, full of lizards, cockroaches, beetles, and all kinds of reptiles and insects, which in the dark we see not, but the law takes down the shutters and lets in the light, and so we see the evil. Thus sin becoming apparent by the law, it is written the law makes the offence to abound” (http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0037.htm). Spurgeon obviously understood Rom 5:20 as describing the psychological effect of divine law on the conscience.

These common interpretations of Rom 5:20 are consistent with the truths of systematic theology, but it seems to me that they pay scant attention to the actual context of Rom 5:12-21, which is the immediate context of Rom 5:20. We need to ask the question: What law is Paul talking about in Rom 5:20? Is he talking about the law of God in general, or the law of Moses? The answer to this question is found in the context. Romans 5:13 talks about sin being in the world before the law was given. Even though “there [was] no law” (Rom 5:13), “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (Rom 5:14). Surely the law in question here is the law of Moses. The time frame corresponding to “before the law was given” is the period of time “from Adam to Moses.” So the law that comes on the scene in Rom 5:20 is not God’s law in general; it is specifically the law of Moses! Paul’s argument here is really about the place of the Mosaic law in salvation history, not about the psychological effects of God’s law on individual sinners throughout history.

A further question: What is the trespass that Paul mentions in Rom 5:20? Psychological interpretations of this verse say that the trespass is the concept of sin in general. Either God giving commandments made rebellion against him possible, and even more likely in that a knowledge of what is right and wrong in God’s sight actually leads to more sinfulness on the part of unregenerate individuals; or else, God spelling out his standard of right and wrong brings our consciences to a knowledge of sin, once the significance of the law is understood. But we need to ask: What is the meaning of the trespass in the context of Rom 5:12-21?

The context gives us the answer. The trespass of Rom 5:20 is nothing other than the trespass mentioned in Rom 5:15, 17, 18, namely, the trespass of the one man, Adam. The trespass that Paul has in mind in Rom 5:20 is the trespass of Adam, not the concept of sin in general! Once again, Paul’s argument is a salvation-historical one. In effect, he is saying that the law of Moses was given to Israel with the express purpose in God’s salvation-historical plan of compounding the problem of sin in Adam through Israel’s disobedience to the Mosaic covenant.

Romans 5:20 shows us that Paul understood the story of Israel in the Old Testament as a story of failure. In other words, the Old Testament is basically a story of two falls. We have the fall of humanity in Adam, and the fall of Israel in Moses. If the “sinning [of those from Adam to Moses] was not like the transgression of Adam” (Rom 5:14), whose was? Adam disobeyed the commandment; Israel disobeyed the law. The sin of Israel “was … like the transgression of Adam.” So Adam is not only a contratype of Christ (Rom 5:14), but he is a type of Israel. The fall of Israel compounds the problem of the trespass of Adam by pointing out the terrible effects of rebellion against God in a much more dramatic and wide-ranging way than the story of the expulsion of Adam from the garden of Eden does. Think about the tragedy of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians: the fear, the starvation, the pain, the suffering, the cannibalism, the sickness, the death and destruction. Surely the tragic history of old covenant Israel speaks poignantly of the awful consequences of sin!

But there is a polemical edge to what Paul is saying in Rom 5:20 as well. Far from ameliorating or solving the problem of human sin, the law of Moses compounded the problem of sin, because the majority of Israel did not have the law written on their hearts, and disobeyed God as a consequence. Paul’s Jewish opponents thought that Mosaic torah could liberate them from sin, but Paul understood that its function in the purposes of God was actually the opposite for the nation considered as a whole. Mosaic torah actually functioned primarily to bring condemnation and death to Israel.

The fall of Israel in Moses compounded the problem of the fall of humanity in Adam, yet this does not mean that God’s intentions for Israel and the world are primarily negative. The failure of Adam and Israel was part of God’s plan for highlighting the grace of God in Christ! Just as darkness makes us appreciate light, it is failure that makes us appreciate success. Similarly, it is in the context of death that we truly appreciate life. In God’s wisdom, he has chosen to move in history from darkness to light, from chaos to order, from death to life. Without the negative, we cannot appreciate the positive. In this way the failure of Adam and Israel forms the historical backdrop against which the grace of atonement and empowerment in Christ can be appreciated for the astounding superabounding hyper-reality that it is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Regarding the word trespass in Rom. 5:20. It is only referencing Jesus' crucifixion which is the trespass of murder caused by bloodshed. What your are misunderstanding is that by Jesus' crucifixion a Word has been added to the law ref. Heb. 7:12b By adding this law the grace of the faith to obey God by the law will be imputed as righteousness.
"It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. For this statement to be true, which it is, it would not be true if a law had not been added in regard to Jesus' crucifixion as a sin ( a sacrifice of life by bloodshed) which has been sufficient to cause the sin of his crucifixion to increase. No other act of sin related to any sacrifice, causing the loss of life by bloodshed, has or will have the exponent of law attached to it as a residual requiring the obedience of a law to receive the grace of God to be declared righteous. Every animal or human sacrifice to any god, or God even, has been insufficient for making a change to the law. But the crucifixion of Jesus, taking the life of God's only begotten son by bloodshed, is the residual issue that by the addition to the law this law has made every individual man accountable directly to God by God's oath to only Jesus as a man.
"And for Your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from EACH man too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man." Therefore the only possibility any man has for escaping the wrath of God is by the faith of obeying God according to a law which has been added to the law. The only Way this law can be obeyed is by confessing directly to God that you are sorry Jesus' life was lost by bloodshed when he was crucified and be baptized into this Way to save your life. Or you commit a sin for which there is no possibility of being forgiven.
Theodore A. Jones