"The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But 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" (Rom. 5:20-21).
How many Christians (never mind people who are not yet Christians) do you suppose misunderstand grace? Surely there are tons.
One problem, as I've heard it put, is that law is our native language. We speak law fluently. There exists a native tendency toward self-righteousness, toward punitive justice, toward dead external works. Though the law should condemn us-and condemn us good!-we unwittingly believe ourselves able to rise up to the demands of the law. Of course, we would never say such a thing. We just live that way. We would never resort to the law for justification-we're not legalists, after all. But, we do imagine perfection a genuine possibility. We make it a goal to "always strive for perfection." What is that, but the law pronounced with more syllables? Surely the older we get the less confident we ought to be of ever attaining perfection. But we remain confident and committed to the goal of perfection because grace is not our native language; law is.
But there are other problems, too. Other ways we misunderstand grace. If we insist that grace is greater than sin, some think that "grace" becomes license to sin even more. The apostle Paul encountered those problems during his ministry. He anticipated those objections in Romans 6, where he asks rhetorically, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" (v 1) And a little later, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" (v. 15) Having anticipated the misunderstandings, the apostle doesn't leave these rhetorical straw men standing in the field. He burns them down with a scorching, "By no means!" "By no means!" Grace is not license.
Well, why not? Why is super-abounding grace not license and enticement to sin? Paul develops a longer, wonderful argument in chapter 6. But for this post, I want to identify something he says at the end of chapter 5. Specifically, "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."
Notice: Grace increases all the more in the presence of sin so that grace might reign through righteousness. It's as though sin and grace are two warring kings, clashing in armored conflict for supremacy. Wherever sin rallies its knights, grace arrays its pikemen and archers to quash sin's rebellion.
Can you tell I like movies set in the Medieval period of kings, castles, knights, and battles? The problem with those movies, however, is that once the king has defeated his enemies, the movie fades to black and we're left to imagine what his peaceful and benevolent reign entails. We've not seen the movie about the king's perfect reign. That's partly the problem with our discussion of grace. We're quite versed in grace's victory over sin. We speak much of saving grace. But then the movie fades and we hear little of "reigning grace."
But because of God's victory over sin, we who believe are "under grace" as Paul explains in chapter 6. But what does that entail? Well, it entails being ruled by grace. Grace reigns over us. "Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace" (6:14). Sin does not master us because grace masters us. Grace reigns. It rules.