(Rom. 5:20) Is Paul saying that the Law makes us want to sin more?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase” (Rom. 5:20). This seems to imply that the Law actually caused us to sin more. However, many commentators disagree:

Everett Harrison writes, “The law also serves to restrain evil in the world.”[1] [Citing Romans 6:15 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11]

F.F. Bruce writes, “Law increased the trespass by providing opportunities for violating a multiplicity of specific commandments.”[2]

Grant Osborne writes, “The point is not so much an increase in the number of sins but in the seriousness of sin. The law showed people that moral sin transgresses the laws of God.”[3]

Douglas Moo argues that this verse refers to greater judgment for sin: “As we commented on verse 4:15, Paul believes that the Mosaic law, by making people accountable to a specific and detailed series of commandments, brings greater judgment on those sins.”[4]

Does this passage teach that the Law causes us to sin more or less?

RESPONSE: We respectfully disagree with these commentators above. We take Paul’s statement at face value: Falling under law causes us to sin more—not less. Paul uses the word “increase” (epleonasen) two verses later in Romans 6:1 (“Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”). Thus this word refers to more sin—not less. Later in Romans 7:8, Paul explains that the law actually provokes sin: “Sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.”

To a legalistic Jewish reader, this statement would be highly counter-intuitive and even offensive. As Paul has already argued, the Jewish people were counting on the Law to be their deliverance from sin, but instead, Paul says that the Law actually increased sin. John Stott writes, “Paul will add that the law even provokes sin. These statements must have been shocking to Jewish people, who thought of the Mosaic law as having been given to increase righteousness, not to increase sin. Yet Paul says that the law increased sin rather than diminishing it, and provoked sin rather than preventing it.”[5] Thomas Schreiner concurs, “The Jews believed that God’s covenantal promises would be fulfilled through keeping the Torah, but Paul argues that God’s purpose in giving the law was to increase sin in Israel (Rom. 5:20). The deliverance from sin that Israel hoped for has come about not through the law but through the second Adam, Jesus Christ.”[6] Schreiner holds that this could refer to the “gravity” of sin, but also contends that this could refer to the “number of sins” as well.[7]

For more on the Reformed “third use of the law,” see comments on Romans 7:6.

[1] Harrison, E. F. Romans. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians (Vol. 10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1976. 65.

[2] Bruce, F. F. Romans: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 6). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1985. 136.

[3] Osborne, Grant R. Romans. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2004. 146.

[4] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 185.

[5] Stott, John. The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2001. 157.

[6] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 298.

[7] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 296.