For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But 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. (Romans 5:17-21)
The problem Jesus solved on the cross was not that God needed someone to punish for our sin and so have his honor satisfied before he could forgive us. The problem was that sin and death reigned over us. However, Jesus did not die on the cross because death was the punishment for our sin. He did not die to overcome a penalty, he died to overcome sin and death itself. He died to overcome the very one who had the power of death, which was not God but the devil:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)Death is not a thing in itself but, rather, the absence of life, just as darkness is the absence of light. God is not the God of death, or of the dead. He is the God of life and of the living. What the devil did was draw humanity away from God and in doing so drew us away from life. Death is what happens when we are drawn away from life, and it leads to the bondage of fear. But Jesus came precisely to break the power of the devil, who holds the power of death, and indeed, to break the power of death itself, freeing us from bondage and fear.
In Romans 5, Paul draws a sharp contrast between what Adam did and what Christ did, and what each led to. When Adam turned away from God, he turned away from the source of life and so was left with death instead. His broken relationship with God soon led to broken human relationships, one with another. Through the unfaithfulness of Adam, everything became brokenness and death. But through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, even to the point of death on the cross, God’s grace abounds to life and right relationship with God for all trust him.
“The law was brought in,” Paul says, “so that the trespass might increase.” He is talking about the Law of Moses. The law could no more create unrighteousness that it could create righteousness. But the law reveals the terrible nature and extent of sin, the depths of the brokenness of our relationship with God and each other. As Paul said earlier, “Through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20).
Likewise, when sin increased, it became an occasion for the even greater abundance of God’s grace to be revealed. For God was not willing that unfaithfulness and human brokenness should reign, producing death. His desire and design was that grace and favor would reign through restored relationship and covenant faithfulness, producing in us now the life of the age to come. So instead of being under the dominion of sin and death because of Adam, all who take hold of God’s abundant grace in Jesus the Messiah now have dominion in life.
That is the work of the cross. The expression of Roman wrath became the sign of God’s grace. It was where Lord Jesus broke the power of sin and death and manifested the overcoming power of God’s favor and faithfulness.