“But the free gift is not like the trespass” (Rom. 5:15).
The beginning of Lent this year gives us a chance to say something about grace, the power and presence of God in our lives. This may seem roundabout, because the season is marked by liturgies of contrition, by expressions of sorrow for sin, and acts of repentance. On Ash Wednesday, we confessed that “we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” In our liturgy this morning we prayed, “Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers; neither reward us according to our sins. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare thy people…” Sin is the problem. It separates us from God.
But as St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). If human sin is foregrounded by the season of Lent, then that much more does God’s grace come into play. It’s his power and presence in our lives. God’s grace that is the remedy for sin, because he is the source of our forgiveness and the means of our transformation. If sin separates us from God, then only the gracious action of God can restore the relationship. It’s God’s free gift, as St. Paul says in our reading today.
First, let’s back up and see how Paul characterizes the human situation. He says in our reading from Romans that sin entered the world with the first man, Adam, and his trespass, and that since then human beings have been under the dominion of death. As we heard in our first reading, from Genesis, Adam and Eve literally trespassed, crossing a boundary set by God, and discovering for themselves what it means to have the knowledge of good and evil.
“Many died through the one man’s trespass” (Rom. 5:15), St. Paul writes, indicating the scale of the disaster. Sin and death have a ripple effect, like a stone dropped into the depths: again, as we prayed this morning, “Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers…” The echo of that ancient catastrophe continues to rebound in the lives of every member of the human race. We feel it in our bones, in our disquiet and dismay at our own situation. That is: unable to do the good we would do (as Paul says in the eighth chapter of Romans); at the same time, in thrall to the dominion of death.
“Dominion” here is a word with political roots. The dominion of death conjures up the predicament of the People of Israel in Egypt, laboring for generations under Pharoah’s yoke. As the story goes, the dominion of ancient Egypt was built upon slavery and oppression: a kind of dominion that is still exercising power in all sorts of places. Think of Ukraine today, a year after invasion: sin and death are exercising real dominion there, and having a field day.
The promise of the Gospel is that Adam was only the foreshadowing of the one who was to come: Christ Jesus himself. “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many” (Rom 5:15). By his death and resurrection, the power of sin and death has been destroyed, just as surely as Pharoah’s army at the Red Sea. St. Paul says that “death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses” (Rom. 5:14), reminding us of the moment of liberation as Moses led the People out of slavery into freedom in the promised land. The dominion of sin and death has been undercut by the power of new life.
In this great reversal, those who are in Christ now exercise dominion in life, as St. Paul says. God gives us the free gift of grace, and it gives us the gift of freedom. No longer under the slavery of sin and death, we are now free through “the abundance of grace” and “the free gift of righteousness” that comes from God (Rom. 5:17). “But the free gift is not like the trespass” (Rom. 5:15), because the free gift brings life. Lent foregrounds sin, but only that grace may abound more.
This is a season of preparation for the Easter feast: a time to recall the promise of the Gospel and to live more fully into the liberty and life that Jesus Christ has won for us by the offering of himself. It’s a free gift that we claim each time we renew our baptismal vows and recommit ourselves to God. Today members of the church are renewing those vows and receiving the laying on of hands in confirmation. Dominion of a different sort is being exercised today, as God’s own People gather around the altar to celebrate new life. May this Lenten season of grace lead us to the Easter feast.