Theme: John Bunyan’s Text
This week’s lessons show how the abounding grace of God triumphs over the sin of anyone who comes to Jesus Christ for salvation.
Scripture: Romans 5:20, 21
The last two verses of Romans 5 are among the truly great verses of the Bible. In the midst of a book in which every sentence is great, Romans 5:20, 21 stands out like a brilliant beacon on a dark night. The dark background is sin and its horrible proliferation in the world. But the beacon flashes brightly: “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.” This is the climax of a passage that contains a greater concentration of the word “grace” than any other similar passage in the Bible, five times in verses 15-21.
Romans 5:20 is the text of John Bunyan, best known as the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. That book reflects Bunyan’s deep spiritual experience, but the details of his life are spelled out best in his classic devotional autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. The title is taken from two passages. The first is our passage this week, which says, in the King James Version that Bunyan used, “Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.” And the second part is from 1 Timothy 1:15, where Paul refers to himself as the “chief of sinners.”
Bunyan was born in 1628 of poor parents. His father was a traveling tinker, that is, a mender of pots and pans, and Bunyan practiced this trade for a time, causing him to become known as “the tinker of Bedford.” He had little education, and in his youth he was profligate. In time he became troubled by an acute sense of sin. He wrote of himself that in those days it seemed as if the sun that was shining in the heavens begrudged him its light, and as if the very stones in the street and the tiles on the houses had turned against him. He felt that he was abhorred by them and was not fit to live among them or benefit from them, because he had “sinned against the Savior.”
God saved Bunyan and gave him great peace, and the title of his book is his testimony to what he discovered. He discovered that, no matter how great his sin was, the grace of God proved greater. These verses are so wonderful that it is difficult to do justice to them in translation. In the New International Version the word “increase” is used twice in verse 20; once of sin, which is said to have “increased,” and once of grace, said to have “increased all the more.” This is reasonably accurate. But it is weak, because in Greek Paul used two different words for the two kinds of increase, and the strength of the verse is enhanced by the resulting contrast.
The verb that refers to sin, pleonatz, is based on the word polus, meaning “much” or “many.” So it has the idea of a numerical increase. The NIV translation of this word is not bad; however the second verb is quite different. It is perisseu, which means “to abound,” “to overflow,” or to “have more than enough.” This verb does not have to do with numbers so much as with excess. However, lest we miss the point, Paul adds the prefix hyper (we would say “super”), which gives the word the sense of “super excess” or “super abundance.”
Most people probably know the text best in the Kings James Version, the version known to John Bunyan. It uses the idea of “abundance” for both parts of the comparison: “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” The New American and the Revised Standard Bibles do better by using “increase” for the first part and “abound” for the second: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The New English Bible says, “Where sin was thus multiplied, grace immeasurably exceeded it.” And J.B. Phillips paraphrases the verse, saying, “Though sin is shown to be wide and deep, thank God his grace is wider and deeper still.”
Yet even these do not seem to satisfy some commentators. Donald Grey Barnhouse suggested, “Where sin reached a high-water mark, grace completely flooded the world.” D. Martin Lloyd-Jones used the word “engulfed,” calling grace a “flood” that sweeps everything before it. What Paul says of grace in verse 20 prepares us for what he is going to say in the continuation of the sentence, for he is going to show that although sin has triumphed over us, doing great damage, grace has triumphed over sin and now reigns victoriously.
Why are Romans 5:20, 21 among the truly great verses of the Bible?
What is unique about verses 15-21?
What important grammatical point does Dr. Boice make about the two verbs in v. 20?
Reflection: Like John Bunyan, have you ever felt as if you were the chief of sinners? How did God give you a transforming sense of his grace?