More sin, more grace? A comment on Romans 5:20 and the primacy of Christ

In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes, “But where the offense has abounded, grace has abounded yet more” (Rm 5:20) – more commonly translated, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” This inspired phrase of the Holy Apostle is frequently presented as meaning that the more sin there is, the more God piles on His grace and mercy.

After all, in the episode of the Gospel of St. Luke with Our Lord, Simon and the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed them with costly ointment, Our Lord seems to have taught this very message in the form of a parable: “A certain money-lender had two debtors; the one owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. As they had no means of paying he forgave them both. Which of them, therefore, will love him more?” And the response indicates that the more sin-debt one has, the more forgiveness and grace he receives, and therefore the more he will love the Divine Master who pardons: “Wherefore I say to thee, her sins, many as they are, shall be forgiven her, because she has loved much. But he to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (cf. Lk 7:36-50).

Does grace and our loving response to the Incarnate Word depend upon sin? Does sin increase grace, love and mercy in His disciples?
St. Paul makes it clear that his statement about the abundance of grace where sin is abounding does not mean we should therefore sin all the more, as if sin increased grace in our souls and the world around us. He writes, “What then shall we say? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means. For how shall we who are dead to sin still live in it?” (Rm 6:1-2). Clearly, then, he does not intend to link the superabundant grace of Jesus Christ with our measure of sin.

Rather, the Apostle indicates that the reign of justice in Christ Jesus exceeds the reign of sin. This superabundant grace is not because of sin – as if the grace of Christ was a consequence of sin, but – as I will propose – it is superabundant because it precedes, excels and repairs sin. The largesse of divine grace can be understood from the preceding primacy of Christ (sin or no sin). Our justice before God (sin or no sin) comes through the grace of filial adoption in Christ Jesus. Here are Paul’s words, “so that as sin has reigned unto death, so also grace may reign by justice unto life everlasting through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rm 5:21). If Adam had not sinned, the Franciscan perspective is that grace would have reigned by justice unto life everlasting through Jesus Christ just the same.

Meet the fully-graced one: χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη
A case-end-point is the Immaculate Virgin Mary. She was neither contaminated by sin nor committed any personal sin, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (490-493) teaches us:

To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”. In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace. Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”. The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.” The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia), and celebrate her as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature”. By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.

The Blessed Virgin was sinless, and yet she alone is the human person who is fully-graced. Indeed it is a greater grace, a greater mercy, to be preserved from sin (preservative redemption) than to be liberated from sin (liberative redemption). She, above all creatures, is indebted to Jesus for His grace; she, more than all of the Angels and Saints put together, could rejoice in the Divine Mercy – not because she had sinned much and been forgiven, but because she had received a greater grace to be preserved from all stain of sin (original and personal). Certainly the Mother of Jesus did not love Him the less for not having sinned!

Meet St. Therese
Even among the Saints there is an awareness of this. One recalls St. Therese of Lisieux whose Confessor “spoke the most consoling words I ever heard in my life: ‘In the presence of God, the Blessed Virgin, and all the Saints, I DECLARE THAT YOU HAVE NEVER COMMITTED A MORTAL SIN. . . . Thank God for what He has done for you.’ … and gratitude flooded my soul.” She points out emphatically that “… Jesus has forgiven me more than St. Mary Magdalene since He forgave me in advance by preventing me from falling. I was preserved from it only through God’s mercy!” (You can see my full article on St. Therese and the Virgin Mary here: Mirror of the Blessed Virgin)

The point here is that grace and mercy do not become more abundant simply because we are pardoned for more sins. The greater grace is that of not sinning, of being preserved from sin like Our Lady (original and actual sin) and like St. Therese (from mortal sin). This is Divine Mercy in its fullness.

Meet the Holy Angels
In support of this we can also consider the grace of the Angels. According to the absolute primacy of Christ, the Angels fall under the headship of Christ. Those who submitted and served Jesus and Mary are the good Angels; those who rebelled and said non serviam are the damned spirits. How is it that the good Angels did not fall into the sin of pride and disobedience like Satan and the other demons? St. Bernard provides an interesting answer:

You say, ‘I don’t see how it could be possible that there was a redemption for the Angels. The authority of the Scriptures, in fact, does not seem to uphold anywhere that they were imprisoned by sin or subject to death so as to need redemption – except, perhaps, those who were carried away by the irreparable sin of pride and do not merit to be redeemed. If, therefore, the Angels were never redeemed – the good because they had no need of it, the bad because the do not deserve it; the former because they did not fall, the latter because they are not capable of forgiveness – in what sense do you maintain that Christ the Lord was redemption for them?’ Listen for a minute. He who lifted fallen man up again assigned him to an Angel who is at his side so that he may not fall, thus freeing man from slavery and preserving the angel from entering into it. In this sense He was redemption equally for both of them, freeing the former and preserving the latter. It is clear, therefore, that Christ the Lord was, for the Angels, redemption, justification, wisdom and sanctification. (Sermon on the Song of songs, XXII, 6).

Conclusion: grace precedes sin and therefore is superabundant
The conclusion is that the reason grace abounds all the more is because of the primacy of Christ and of His grace. The elect have been predestined in Christ before the foundations of the world (Eph 1:4) and neither the sin of Adam nor his progeny is greater than the grace of Christ. Bl. John Duns Scotus and the Franciscan school uphold that Christ’s coming did not depend on sin, that His primacy is absolute (sin or nor sin, Christ was willed as King of all creation). As a result, sin does not have the upper hand. Nonetheless, sin is a reality and to remedy this breech God the Father freely willed that His Son would ransom us from the slavery to sin and preserve Our Lady and the Holy Angels from sin through the merits of His Passion.

In this world “the offense has abounded” (and continues to do so), but the grace of Christ the King preceded the offense, excelled it, repaired it and will always be superabundant when compared to sin.

Laudetur Jesus Christus!