Have you ever read through the book of Romans and come across a phrase like, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass…” (Romans 5:20)? Confusing, right? What on earth does that mean? What exactly is the purpose of God’s law? My hope in writing this article is to help bring light to the grace God has shown to the world by giving us the law. That might sound a bit contrary at first, or as if I am playing with words, but I assure you I am not. God’s law is a gift of his grace, a symbol of his desire to show mercy, and a publication of how he intends to save repentant sinners from the wrath to come. Let’s unravel what I mean…
A Powerful Lesson From A Bad Professor
During my second year of college I nearly failed one of my classes. The hardest part about it was that it was a subject I had always scored well in, a subject I typically enjoyed. All semester in my English course I had been turning in papers and receiving A’s, so in my mind, things were going great! I had no stress going into the final exam. But then it happened. I got my final paper back and there were these strange marks all over it. Red ink was everywhere! And this obscure symbol was on the top of the paper, a big letter “D” with a circle around it. My heart sank. “What happened?” I though to myself. My only reasonable conclusion was that my professor had made a mistake. So I made an appointment to meet with her and discuss my paper. As I sat in her office she explained to me, “You’ve been making these mistakes all semester… your grammar is very poor.” All semester? Really? I wanted to shout, “Why didn’t you tell me!?” Instead, I did my best to a put a smile on, thanked her for her time, and went back to my dorm room to sulk. Thankfully, I ended up passing the class, but my overall GPA was lowered significantly as a result. And yet, as disappointing as all this was, God used it profoundly in my life to help teach me a much more important reality.
My professor didn’t give me the correction I needed until it was too late for me to do anything about it. All semester I received A’s and pats on the back. I had no idea my grammar was horrendous, (and still is: my apologies to all you grammatical elites reading this). Why? Because she didn’t lay down the rules for me. She apathetically assumed that I would somehow figure it out for myself along the way. What I needed from her was instruction and correction, but what she gave me was a strange mix of flattery and perfunctory service. We ought to be extremely thankful that God is not like my professor. Instead we learn in Romans 3:20 that, “…by works of the law no one will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Catch that last phrase, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” What I needed from my professor were some edits and critiques over my poor use of commas and semi-colons, not ‘ada-boys’ and fluff. What I needed was the “laws of english” so that knowledge of my errors could be realized. Do you see the beautiful connection? The world often looks at the law of God as cruelty and meanness, but it is actually the complete opposite.
So What Is The Purpose of God’s Law?
Romans 3:20 helps us see that the law’s purpose is not to oppress us with harsh standards, but to reveal the truth. We must understand that the law is not medicine, it is a thermometer. It reveals the fever, but it can’t take away the illness. A great illustration I once heard compared the law to an MRI machine: If something is wrong an MRI machine cannot do anything about it. If a person has an MRI and finds out that they have a tumor, what do they do? Get back into the machine for another round? No. They can have 1,000 MRI’s and all that each will do is confirm the same objective reality. So what do they need? They need a doctor. The MRI reveals their illness and points to their need for a doctor. This is how the law of God brings grace into our lives.
We have also mentioned in the beginning of this article that Romans 5:20 says that God gave the law “to increase the trespass.” What a seemingly bizarre thing for a holy God to do… If, as many people believe, God gave the law as his answer for the sinfulness of humanity, or the cure for the problem of sin, why does the Bible say that his law was given so that the sin might increase? In order to understand the grace of God’s law we need to understand what this means. God knows how prone we are to think of the law as a doctor and not an MRI machine. He is fully aware that we want to try to be our own professor, and ignore the red marks all over our paper with a big “F” circled at the top. Humanity has rebelled against God in sin, and yet God in his mercy has endured our rebellion with great patience. Rather than leaving us with our failing grades until the end of the semester, he has marked up our hearts with the red ink of his law. He gave us the law, that “the trespass might increase.” In other words, the law was given so that humanities awareness of their need for Christ might resound.
You might think of the way a smoke detector works. Have you ever noticed that smoke detectors signal one another with their unique sound? When one goes off in proximity to another, it triggers them both to begin resounding with the loudest and most annoying noise you have ever heard. Pretty soon, your whole house is booming with this noise which was triggered by the problem detected by the first. Think of this as a picture of the “trespass increasing”. Once, through the law, we begin to realize that we all fall short of God’s holy standard we begin to see that reality everywhere in our lives. It seems like one alarm triggers another until we can plainly hear our whole life shouting, “I need help!” This is the sense in which the law makes the trespass increase, it amplifies and magnifies the reality within; that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy and grace. But there is more: why is a fire alarm so loud and annoying? The answer is simple: because something is terribly wrong. The house is on fire! Does anyone just roll over and go back to sleep when they hear the alarm? Does anyone ignore the problem and pretend like it isn’t there? No. They get up and act. You might say that the smoke detector is an extremely annoying grace. But if you pay attention to it, it will lead you to safety. The smoke detector can’t save you, but it can point you to salvation. And if you ignore it, rest assured that the fire won’t be stilled by your refusal to listen to the alarm.
In the same way that the MRI nor the fire alarm can save you, neither can the law of God. But what it can and does do is point loudly and clearly to the person who can. “Jesus Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes,” (Romans 10:4). The grace of God’s law is that it prods our hearts and pokes our souls toward the truth that without faith in Jesus Christ we are lost and hopeless, deserving of God’s justice against sin. The grace of God’s law is that it points us to the hope of the gospel. Jesus Christ lived the life that you and I have utterly failed to live, a life of perfect obedience to God. And he died the death that you and I owe for our failure and rebellion, a sinners death upon the cross. But the gift of God is this: Christ lived that life for you, and he died that death for you so that you might receive salvation through faith in him. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” (Romans 3:28).
God’s law is a gift to the world of his patience and grace.
His law is meant to sound an alarm in our souls that we are lost in sin and separated from God.
His law is meant to reveal that we are incapable of saving ourselves and point us to our need for we the Savior.
Jesus Christ is the Savior. For he is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
Believe in Christ today.