At the last church I worked for, I met up with someone over a whole year who’d have said he wasn’t a Christian but wanted to sort out where he stood with Jesus. So once a week, the deal was that he came with questions and I came with lunch. And finally he had no more questions, and seemed to be right on the edge of coming to faith. So that week I gave him a question: I said, ‘Why don’t you try to work out what’s now stopping you putting your faith in Jesus?’ And he came back the next week and said, ‘It’s very simple. I’m not good enough. And I can’t change.’
And that was the great breakthrough. Because he wasn’t just admitting he had a problem – ‘I’m not good enough’ (and therefore I deserve God’s judgement). Much more importantly, he was admitting he was powerless to solve that problem – ‘I can’t change.’ Now in my experience of sharing the gospel, I find most people are ultimately prepared to admit they’re not good enough in God’s judgement – even though that hurts our pride. But admitting that there’s nothing you can do to solve that problem is quite another thing – because that more than hurts pride, it demolishes it. But it’s only when we admit that second thing that we’ll be prepared to look outside ourselves for a solution, and to put our faith in the solution that God has provided, through his Son the Lord Jesus.
Now for some of us, the big issue is that we still haven’t admitted that Jesus is the only solution to the problem of being in the wrong with God. And, sadly, some of us will probably leave this morning still thinking, ‘I need to try harder,’ or, ‘I need to get more involved in church,’ when what you really need is Jesus. But then for those of us who have put our faith in Jesus, the big issue is not so much believing he’s the only solution, but believing that he’s the completely sufficient solution – because every day of your Christian life, you’re faced by the fact of your sin and you find yourself asking, ‘Can I really be in the right with God? Has he really accepted me – and can he really go on accepting me – given my ongoing sinfulness?’
Well, today’s passage in our series on Romans speaks to both those issues. It was written primarily to assure believers that Jesus is the completely sufficient solution to the problem of sin. But to those who don’t yet believe, it also says loud and clear that there is no solution within ourselves, and that Jesus is the only solution there is. So would you turn in the Bible to Romans 5, and let me remind you what we saw last week. Look at Romans 5 verse 1 and 2:
“Therefore, since we have been justified [i.e., declared by God to be in the right with him] through faith [i.e., by looking outside ourselves and trusting in his solution in the death of Jesus], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access into this grace [i.e., undeserved love and acceptance] in which we now stand. And [he adds] we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God [i.e., in the certainty of being with God in the glory of life beyond this life. And we can be certain of that because, thanks to God’s solution in the death of Jesus, once he’s accepted us, he will never change his mind or give up on us from now till the day we die].”
And unless your psychology is very unusual, that is not easy to believe. Because every day of your Christian life you’re faced by the fact of your sin and the fact that, on the basis of what you’re like, God ought not to accept you. And that’s why Paul spends Romans 5 giving believers assurance – assurance that the basis of our acceptance with God lies not in us, but in Jesus and his death on the cross. That’s what last week’s passage, vv1-11, was about. And this week’s says the same thing from a different angle because it’s so important for us to grasp it, for our spiritual sanity and security. And in Romans 5, verses 12 to 21, Paul basically says, ‘Yes, the fact is that we are thoroughly sinful – even as believers – and that on the basis of what we’re like, God ought not to accept us. But [he goes on] our situation is determined by an overwhelmingly bigger fact – namely, that in his grace, God gave his Son to die for us so that he can and will accept us forever.’
To put that another way: the problem of sin is completely beyond our solving; but the solution is in Jesus and is completely sufficient. And those are my two headings this morning. So,
Firstly, THE PROBLEM OF SIN IS COMPLETELY BEYOND OUR SOLVING (vv12-14)
To begin with, let me help us get our bearings in this part of Romans. So look down to verse 12:
12 “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-”
So in verse 12, Paul starts a comparison: between Adam – the one through whom ‘sin entered the world’ – and Jesus – the only one who can solve the problem of sin. So you expect him to say, ‘Just as sin entered the world through one man, so also the solution to sin came through one man.’ And he does finally say that in verse 18. So look down to verse 18:
18 “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [i.e., Jesus’ death for us on the cross] was justification that brings life for all men.”
But now look back to verse 12, and you’ll see that at the end of the verse the translators have put in a big dash to show that Paul breaks off to say more about the depth of the problem of sin before going on to say, ‘But the solution in Jesus is completely sufficient.’
Now at this point, take a look at this picture:
It’s a picture of the history of sin and salvation from sin that Paul is drawing in these verses. The box stands for human history where we live and the crown above it stands for God. And at the left hand end is the event Paul is talking about in verse 12, when Adam rebelled against God – when he rejected God’s right to rule his life and decided to rule his own (hence the little crown on his own head once he’s taken that catastrophic step which Christians often call ‘the fall’).
At this point, let me make two quick asides. One is that this shows we’re to believe that Adam (along with Eve) was a real, historical figure and that the rebellion against God described in Genesis 3 was a real, historical event. The other is: if you’re thinking, ‘But wasn’t Eve the first to sin?’, the Bible’s view-point is that Adam was ultimately responsible for the sin of them both – a) because he failed to lead his wife in obeying the command God had given him for them both; and b) because he allowed her to mislead him.
So now look back to verse 12, and notice how Paul talks about sin. You’d expect him to say, ‘Therefore, just as the first man sinned...’ But he actually says, ‘Just as sin entered the world.’ Which is typical of the way that, throughout Romans, Paul talks about sin as something much deeper than just wrong actions. He talks about sin as a power that has completely got the better of us and, apart from Jesus, completely determines our present standing with God and our final destiny on judgement day. So if you look down to verse 21, it begins,
“so that, just as sin reigned in death…”
And if that sounds extreme, can I say: doesn’t experience confirm it? Why else do we say things like, ‘My temper got the better of me,’ or, ‘Jealousy made me do it.’ And the extremes of human experience show it most starkly. E.g. one ex-alcoholic I know once said to me, ‘I thought I could control the bottle when, in fact, all along the bottle was controlling me.’
So, Adam swapped God as his ruler not for freedom (that’s the big lie), but for sin as his ruler. And verse 12 reminds us that death followed. Because God had basically said, ‘If you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – i.e., if you reject my rule so as to decide for yourselves what is good and evil – you will surely die’ (see Genesis 2 verses 15 to 17). And death in the Bible is not the end of existence; it’s existence under the judgement of God, separated from God. Now that includes physical death, which happens at the far right hand end of the box of human life in my picture (see above). But I’ve represented ‘death’ by that black bar of judgement hanging over our whole existence. So, back to verse 12 again:
12 “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-”
Notice that phrase ‘in this way.’ It’s saying that ‘in this way’, ie, in and through Adam’s original step of rebellion, the experience of being under the power of sin and death became the experience of us all: his step involved us all, implicated us all, dragged us all in. So on my picture (see above), the next two stickmen to the right of Adam represent all the generations after him. Which illustrates that the little ones in the crèche this morning weren’t born like Adam at the far left hand side of the picture, any more than we were. They’re not ‘little innocents’ or ‘little angels’; they were born like Adam after his rebellion – born sinners. Which is why, eg, you’ll never have to teach your children to lie or to be selfish – that’ll come naturally to fallen human nature.
Now, no illustrations of verse 12 get it exactly right. But this is one of the best: imagine a head of state declaring war on another country. Because he’s the head of state, that step of his involves and implicates and drags in all those he represents. So if you’re in his state, you are now at war – and if it lasts long enough, your children and their children will also be. And the truth in verse 12 is like that: Adam is the head of our race, and in his step of declaring hostilities towards God, he involved and implicated and dragged in all of us. So verse 12 is not just saying that we copy his sin – although that’s true. It’s saying something much deeper. It’s saying we copy his sin because in some profound way, we were caught up in it. And if that raises questions, which I know it does, all I’ve got time to say for now is: that in my view, that is what the Bible teaches; and that, even if it’s not easy to get our minds round, nothing better explains human experience.
Now I said that in verse 13 Paul then breaks off to say more about the depth of the problem of sin. So look at the end of verse 12. He’s just said that ‘all sinned’ – all were in some profound way caught up in that original sin of Adam’s, and to support that he goes on, verse 13:
13 “for before the law was given, sin was in the world.”
Remember that throughout Romans, Paul has in his mind the Jews and their objections to the gospel. And one issue was that they had a superficial view of sin. So if you’d asked them, ‘What is sin?’ they might well have said, ‘Sin is breaking the law – e.g., committing adultery.’ But Paul says: defining sin merely as actions which break God’s law is completely superficial. After all, he says in verse 13: sin was around before there was a law to break, so it must be something deeper than just law-breaking. And the truth is: it’s the attitude of rebellion against God deep in our hearts which then explains why we break the law. So, the Jew might have said, ‘You’re a sinner because you’ve broken the law; Paul would say, ‘No, you’ve broken the law because you are a sinner’ – men commit adultery because they are adulterous. So, verse 13 and 14 again:
13 “for before the law was given, sin was in the world.[It’s just that] sin is not taken into account when there is no law [i.e., it’s not recognised and condemned as sin]. 14Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses [i.e., the visible sign of physical death clearly showed that men were sinners under judgement], even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”
And it’s as if mentioning Adam reminds Paul that he’s broken off the comparison he was making between Adam and Jesus, which is what the rest of the passage gets back to. But the first part of it – verses 12 to 14 – is to underline that the problem of sin is completely beyond our solving. So if you’re not yet a believer here, can I ask: are you prepared to admit not just that you’re in the wrong with God, but that it is totally out of your power to do anything to solve that? And can I say that, in light of verses 12 to 14, the worst possible thing you could do is to go away thinking, ‘I need to try harder.’ Please, please don’t think we’re saying, ‘Come and join us in trying to be good.’ Because we don’t have it in us to be good as we should be. We’re saying, ‘Come and join us in admitting that you’re a sinner under judgement, in desperate need of the solution that only Jesus can bring to that problem.
So onto my other heading:
Second, THE SOLUTION IS IN JESUS AND IS COMPLETELY SUFFICIENT (vv15-21)
And this is the whole point of the passage. The point of the passage is not verses 12 to 14, although it calls for a lot of explanation. The point of the passage is verses 15 to 21. The point of the passage is to say, even though the problem of sin and judgement is enormous, the solution that God has provided is even bigger – completely sufficient to deal with all your sinfulness and mine. And if we grasp that, and that it’s nothing to do with us, we’ll experience the assurance of God’s acceptance that Paul wants us to have. So look on to verses 15 to 17:
15 “But the gift [i.e., of God’s Son to die for us] is not like the trespass [in the sense that the solution is overwhelmingly more powerful than the problem]. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! [And you can hear his emphasis, there. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘This is completely sufficient to deal with all your sinfulness: name me the worst sin on your conscience; name me the most discouraging, habitual ongoing sin in your Christian life – this more than covers it all.’ Read on, verse 16:] 16Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
So look back at my picture (see above). Paul moves from Adam and our situation in him, to Jesus and our situation if we’re ‘in him’ (to use a phrase Paul often uses) – i.e., if we’ve come into relationship with him, by faith. Now there’s no ‘if’ about whether we’re in Adam – we are, from the moment of our conception. The ‘if’ is whether we’re also in Christ. So at the left hand end of the picture, Adam acted as our representative and dragged us all in to what he did. But there towards the right hand end is the cross, where Jesus died as our representative and substitute – not dragging us in to what he was doing, but undergoing what we deserve so as to get us all out of it; taking on himself that black bar of judgement in my picture, for all our sins, past and future. So that, in the words of verse 17, if we ‘receive’ the results of his death by faith – by holding out an empty, guilty hand and saying to the risen Lord Jesus, ‘Please will you forgive my sins because you’ve died for them?’ – he will. And I’ve tried to picture that relationship by that dotted line between the person who’s in Christ and Christ who’s back in heaven. And notice that, within that dotted line, within that relationship with Christ, there is now no black bar of judgement. Because later in Romans it says,
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.1).
There’s still physical death to face at the end of the box of life – but that’ll just be a ‘blip’ in a relationship with God that lasts through into eternal life. Because if you’re in Christ, there won’t be any condemnation waiting for you then, because in God’s reckoning it fell on Christ 2000 years ago and was dealt with once and for all.
So let’s read to the end of the chapter. Look on to verses 18 and 19, where Paul finally draws the comparison he broke off in verse 12:
18 “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification [ie, a present status of being securely in the right with God] that brings life [ie, eternal life] for all men [i.e., all people who receive what Christ has done for them – see v17]. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”
And here again, Paul remembers his imaginary Jewish objector, who’s saying, ‘But Paul, in your picture of sin and salvation, you’ve left out the great gift of God’s law. Surely that was meant to be part of the solution.’ And Paul says, ‘No. It was meant to show up the problem of sin even more sharply. Look at verses 20 to 21. He has more to say about the law in Romans, but here he says:
20 “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. [Ie, so that in trying to keep the law, and in failing to, people would realise that their sin-problem was far deeper than they ever thought.] But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign [ie, have the final, decisive word on our lives] through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And for the sake of our assurance, that’s the point of this whole passage: the solution is in Jesus and it’s completely sufficient. Let me make two final applications:
I’ve said the solution is in Jesus. The application of that is to get our eyes off ourselves. My old vicar in Cambridge had several favourite sayings about the Christian life, one of which was that, ‘A fresh look within is always a fresh look at sin; look out and up to Jesus.’ Ie, there is no solution to the sin-problem within you. You’ll never find within you reasons why God should accept you; only reasons why he should judge you. So don’t try. Christians do tend to spend much time preoccupied with whether they’re doing enough – reading the Bible enough, praying enough, evangelising enough, being holy enough. And the very question often shows we’ve slipped back into thinking that the solution lies within ourselves – that if we’re ‘good enough’, God will accept us. But we’re never ‘good enough’, so let’s get our eyes off ourselves.
The other thing I’ve said is that the solution is completely sufficient. And the application of that is to trust it fully. And that, as I’ve said, is not easy. Because the fact of our ongoing sin stares us in the face every day. Our conscience says we’re wrong and that God should judge us. And the law part of God’s Word says we’re wrong and that God should judge us. But v21 is saying that, having listened to both conscience and God’s law, we should remind ourselves that they are not the final, decisive word on our lives. The final, decisive word on our lives is God’s Word of grace to us in the gospel. And Paul says that if you’re trusting in Christ, then grace reigns, grace has the final, decisive word, grace determines that you stand right with God now and that you will live accepted in his presence forever.
So the message of Romans up to the end of chapter 5 is simply this: believe God. Believe what God says about you in judgement – because only then will you look outside yourself to Jesus. But then believe what God says to you in grace, in Jesus, in the cross. Because if you’re believing in Christ, God’s final word on you is that you’re in the right with him forever.
Just look, to finish, at Romans 6 verse 1:
1 “What shall we say, then? [I.e., what shall we say if our standing with God depends on his grace and not on anything in us?] Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? 2By no means...”
Because the kind of assurance that Romans 5 talks about doesn’t foster sin; it motivates obedience, as we’ll see in Romans 6.