When I was 15 years old I stole my parent’s car to hang out with this girl I was crushing on. Have you ever done something stupid like that before? Yeah, no driver’s license yet; not even a permit! But wait – it gets worse! I devised a plan to steal their 1988 Chevy Astro minivan so I could drive from where I was living in New Jersey over to Pennsylvania when my dad was out of town and my mom was working late (yeah, pretty sure that’s a felony). And I almost got away with it. In fact, I would have if it wasn’t for the guilt welling up inside me. So, the night before my dad was coming home, I fessed up. By the way, my dad’s name is Thor – so you can imagine why I was a little nervous confessing!
The next day my family had plans to go to a Yankee game in the Bronx after picking my dad up from Newark Airport. About halfway to the stadium I poked my head up into the front seat and said, “Dad, aren’t you going to talk to me about stealing your car?” And he responded with something like, “Son, mom called me and told me what you did. She said that you were in fact the one who initiated the conversation because of the guilt you felt. She said that you had asked for forgiveness and she has forgiven you. As far as we’re both concerned it’s over. You are forgiven. I had no plans to bring it up, but since you did is there anything else you want to talk about?”
I said, “No. But are you sure you’re ok with it?” To which he responded, “No, I’m not ok with it. What you did was completely wrong, but you know that and confessed that. You’ve been forgiven, and so the matter is over in my opinion.” I dropped back in amazement and looked at him once more through the rearview mirror. As our eyes met I said, “But Dad, it can’t be that easy.” And he once again replied, “Son, it is that easy. I love you. Sometimes there are consequences for the things that we do – but you’re safe, the car came back in one piece with a full tank of gas, and it’s a beautiful day to enjoy a ball game together. It’s that easy. You are forgiven.”
Romans 5:20a reads, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass...” That doesn’t mean God gave us the standard of who He is (the law) so that we’d sin more. No, it means that God gave us this amazingly impossible standard so that we would have a true perspective of how badly we don't measure up. It’s like what C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” That makes total sense, doesn’t it?
If you were driving down Main Street in a town you’ve never visited doing 50 mph (hopefully not in a stolen 1988 Chevy Astro minivan), you’d never know you were speeding unless you saw a sign posted on the side of the road which made you aware of the set speed limit. The speed limit is the law, and then as you see you’re grossly exceeding it hopefully that causes you to slow down – at least temporarily. And the same thing is true when it comes to the message of God’s law. The Apostle Paul teaches in the first half of Romans 5:20 that because there is a standard of sinless perfection that is now clearly understood, he’s telling us that our sinfulness should now be understood all the more.
Maybe this will help. Have you ever been in the presence of someone really tall? How did that make you feel? Most likely really small. Right? I once stood next to 7’6” Shawn Bradley (former NBA center) at the top of the Empire State Building, so I know the feeling. How about people who are super smart? Don’t they make you feel really dumb in comparison? I’m sure of it! My high school Physics teacher designed and produced a novel circular slide rule that was flown on the first Apollo moon mission as a computer backup. His name was Stan Arlton, and I still don’t know how I passed that class. But hopefully this truth is beginning to make sense, because this is what the whole of Scripture teaches. God gave us His law so that we could see how Holy He was, and in return, we could see how sinful we are in light of who He is.
But I can’t leave out the last half of the verse, because it’s where the goods of the gospel are delivered. "Now the law came in to increase the trespass, BUT where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Romans 5:20). Did you catch it? It's the same idea here. As the knowledge of our sin increases, so should our knowledge of God's grace. Where there’s more sin, there’s more grace! Are you comfortable with that? That the greater the sin, the greater the grace? Could it be that easy? For all that sin is there really that much more grace?
Now some of you might be thinking, “That's not fair! That's not right!” But let me tell you, that's grace. And when the Apostle Paul wrote that in the first century it was so offensive, just like it is today. This is uncomfortable for some of us to hear, let alone believe. When both my mom and dad said those words to me, “You are forgiven,” I had a hard time believing it. I had a hard time receiving it. It was almost too good to be true. “Are you sure? Shouldn't I be punished for this somehow, someway – even though I already know you’ve forgiven me?”
Ya see, this was my struggle. As a pastor’s kid, I understood the technicality of grace, but up until that point I hadn't really experienced it so powerfully. Unbeknownst to my parents, those pardoning words birthed in me a passion to declare this singular message – “You are forgiven!” And I’m eternally grateful for my mom and dad, who though imperfect themselves, were agents of God’s transforming grace in that pivotal moment of my life.
And oh yeah, in case you’re wondering – the girl rejected me, and the Yankees lost. But nothing else mattered because the radicality of God’s grace had visited me that day.