In my last few posts on Romans 5, I’ve claimed that Paul isn’t necessarily recounting salvation history. He’s speaking of these things to fully describe the two realms up and running within creation—the cosmic realm called “Adam,” and the cosmic realm called “the grace-gift.”
In “Adam,” the cosmic power of Sin reigns, Adam’s transgression dominates and effects the condemnation of everyone in that sphere.
Verses 20-21 have usually been interpreted as a salvation-historical account of the Law’s entrance onto the redemptive stage. Paul appears to speak negatively of its introduction: it led to the increase in transgressions (v. 20). Lutheran and Reformed theologies rely upon this statement to support various purposes or functions of the Law.
I don’t think Paul is speaking salvation-historically here, however. I think he’s referring directly to the situation the Roman churches are facing.
He’s referring to the renewed emphasis on the Law and Jewish identity with the return of Jewish-Christians from expulsion in 54 CE. They have returned to find the corporate life of the Roman church(es) far less Jewish than when they left five years earlier, so they are re-emphasizing the Law, along with the Jewish calendar and Jewish patterns of community life.
Because of this, however, the mixed-race Roman Christian community is divided and discouraged.
Romans 5:20-21 can be read as follows:
The Law came in (to Rome) with the result that transgressions would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded even more, so that as sin reigned in (spreading) death (throughout the Roman community), grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul is not referring to how the Law reveals human sinfulness in light of the revelation of God’s righteous character. He’s talking about how the renewed emphasis on the Mosaic Law is making the Jewish Christians constantly point out how the non-Jewish Christians fall short of their standards. They are creating an endless list of “transgressions” of the ways that the gentiles among them don’t conform to the Jewish practices they are re-instituting.
They are using Scripture to drive the gentile Christians back into their previously subordinate position in the church(es). Paul’s argument in Romans 5-8 is that such a strategy is an unintended alliance with the aims of Sin and Death, cosmic powers seeking to destroy the Roman community through discouragement and division.
So, when Paul says that “the Law came in,” he’s not referring to the original giving of the Mosaic Law, but to the return of the Jewish Christians after being banished, and their re-emphasis on the Mosaic Law to restore the largely Jewish character of the Roman Christian community.
Tomorrow, I’ll cite some historical evidence to back up this reading of vv. 20-21.
But for now, this reading once again highlights how Romans is a resource for conflict resolution, especially for churches that are divided with various factions seeking to endorse their claims by citing Scripture.
Using the Bible to marginalize others or to exalt ourselves at others’ expense is using Scripture within the cosmic realm called “Adam,” with the result that Sin hijacks it and turns it into a means of discouragement and division. As Paul will argue in Romans 7, that’s not a problem with the Law, but a disastrous situation that reveals the sinfulness of Sin.