Shall We Sin That Grace May Abound: A Formula for Discerning Authentic Christianity

Paul seems to be identifying the deep grammar of a system antithetical to his Gospel in the question “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” This is not a simple aside (he repeats it and reformulates it 4 times) but may represent what some are teaching in the name of Christ. It goes to the heart of Paul’s argument and counter-argument in Romans in which he is laying out the sinful logic of both Jews and Gentiles. Whether judged by the Mosaic law or the law of the heart, all are unrighteous and this unrighteousness is not simply a failure of will but a failure of thought. That is, the conscious or unconscious logic of sin is to transgress the law so as to attain the good.  The very point of the Gospel, in Paul’s explanation in Romans and elsewhere, is deliverance from the misorientation to the law due to sin. If I am correct, this means that where this misorientation is incorporated into the religion, though this religion may call itself Christian, it is in fact antithetical to the Gospel. This is not simply a technical argument in that this un-gospel will show its true nature in the presumptions it makes and the fruit it produces. Just War Theory, Calvinist notions of predestination and the necessity of evil, penal substitution, or whatever doctrine or theology allows for evil, is operating according to the logic of Paul’s sin formula. There are forms of the faith that justify systemic evil (violence is a necessity, the Fall was part of God’s plan, Jesus is punished by God, or I am justified in hurting some for the greater good, etc.) and this self-justifying engagement with evil (whether personal or corporate), embraces Paul’s depiction of what is absolutely forbidden (“God forbid, it shall never be,” he says in Ro. 7.7).  Unfortunately, this failure of thought definitive of sin gets at the controlling logic of multiple forms of perverse Christianity. Recognizing this bleak reality though, comes combined with the possible realization of a faith that involves total (psychological and corporate) recreation.

It may be necessary, however, to dwell with Paul’s negative point so as to comprehend how it is the Gospel dissolves the false world of sin (under multiple names such as “wisdom,” “law,” “ego,” etc., to which I turn below). The law, due to the perversion of sin, generates its own transgression and this is the point of Paul’s argument culminating in Ro. 7:7 in which he is explaining the inner working of the logic of sin. What he will call “the law of sin and death” embraces his various formulas which fuse sin and the law (e.g. “Is the law sin?” or “Shall we sin that grace will abound?”). The Jews would establish their own righteousness on the basis of the law (Ro. 10:3ff), and this is the very definition of sin. They would gain life through misuse of the law – “establishing their own righteousness” (Ro. 10:3ff).  But this is not just the Jewish problem, this is the universal problem which Paul is getting at in his formulas equating law and sin. Paul’s argument throughout the letter is that the law (whether the Mosaic law or universal law) is not an end in itself and when it is made its own end it becomes sin. At the origin of the Jewish law is the faith and example of Abraham and at its end is the fulfillment of Christ. Law alone, apart from this faith, is void and nullifies the promise (4.14) and can thus be fused with sin.

The original sin of Adam and Eve is repeated in the sin of the Jews (and all people). We might say that the original couple had a zeal for the law, but the law which Adam and Eve seek to establish is not God’s; they seek to transgress God’s law and enact a law which is their own (they seek to establish their own righteousness). Their desire is for the tree of knowledge of good and evil or for an ethic/righteousness that is “their own.” Far from drawing one closer to life and to God this law, put into place subsequent to sin (Rom. 7.23), displaces God. This is clearly the case in Genesis but the reification (absolutizing) of the law definitive of sin always performs this same displacement. Where the law is absolute, God is equated with the law and one presumes, thus (as in 3:5-8) to enact the law through transgression (one “must do evil that good may come from it”). One presumes to enact the law through its transgression and in the process has become the unquestioning subject of a law which requires transgression to complete it or enact it.

Apart from God man can enact the law (the knowledge of good and evil) and in doing so he presumes to be both subject and object of the law (partaking of the surplus enjoyment of desire – “I did not know desire apart from the law”- 7:7) and suffering its punishing effect (Paul says, “I died”). As Bonhoeffer notes, what is being described is the moment when man has presumed to become an ethicist – he has become the arbiter of the law which divides from within.  The good can be known through the evil and the evil through the good, but the problem is that the contrasting pairs depend upon one another and this difference is taken up in the self. (This manifests itself in the yin/yang symbol and in the universality of identity through difference – male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile – as Paul describes it.) The good cannot stand alone as it needs the evil as its point of reference. There cannot be an absolute incomparable difference or there would be no point of comparison. The evil must inhere in the good and the good in the evil (in yin/yang the small circles within the larger circle) so that the binary pair is interdependent and bound together. To enact this law is not only to have rejected the prohibition from God but it is to put into play a law which is transgressive (death dealing) in the keeping. The good and evil are necessary to one another, so that one side of the pair is in the service of the other. Doing evil is a means of establishing the good, and doing the good is realized only in its identity with evil – “evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (7.21). Where the law is sin (7.7), sin will establish the law – “the law of sin and death” (7.23). One who embodies this law is split in an agonizing struggle of law keeping and transgression: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (7.19).

Bonhoeffer recognizes this system, in Ethics, and poses the possibility of a prior alternative: “Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men of things, and of himself.”[1] The reconciliation to be had in Christ is describable then, in terms of a counter knowledge or counter logic renewed through faith (as seen prior to the Fall). Law alone, apart from this faith, is void and nullifies the promise (4.14) but the faith of Abraham returns us to knowing all things through God. The natural progression of this argument culminates in Ro. 8 but my presumption is that Paul is always pitting the “law of life in the Spirit” (8.1) against the “law of sin and death” (explained throughout chps. 6-7).  In Corinthians though, he calls this law by various names: knowledge (gnosis), wisdom, natural understanding, which seem to be various descriptions of the false world which he calls elsewhere “the present evil age” (Gal. 1.4). His formulaic summation of his Gospel (the equivalent of “the law of life in the Spirit”) is the “logos of the Cross.” He pits this logos against the logos of the Greeks and the Jews.

The evidence suggests the Corinthians are fascinated by Hellenistic philosophy combined with Jewish and Christian ideas. As Alexandra Brown describes it, “Chief among the traditions they call upon are those associated with wisdom and the order of the cosmos. In these traditions the world is ordered in discernible patterns—e.g., paired opposites—that are everywhere evident.”[2] In other words, we are back to identity through difference in that the wise person will discern the good over and against the evil, life over and against death, and law over and against sin. On this basis the Corinthians claim a superior knowledge founded on their “possession of knowledge” (8:1). Once we are attuned to the nuance we can hear echoes of Genesis and Romans – law made one’s own is synonymous with wisdom grounded in the order of the cosmos. This identity through difference, which Paul explains in Romans as creating a division within the self, in the context of Corinthians divides the community of believers: “each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided” (1:11-15)? They are divisive and contentious regarding spiritual gifts and in their display of wealth during communion, such that worship has become theatrical, dramatic and more of an entertainment and competition than anything else. Some are boasting of their superior knowledge and of their exclusive access to spirituality. Where Paul, in Romans, depicts the corporeal “body of death” or “body of sin” as creating an antagonistic self-relation, in I Corinthians, this dis-community has created a corporate failure in the body of Christ.

In all of this they have devalued the power of the cross and the resolution Paul sets forth is the shared “mind of Christ” (as in Philippians 2:5). Just as in Ro. 6 where he depicts “dying with Christ” as the resolution, in Corinthians it is the “logos of the cross” Paul leverages as the corrective to their contentious notions of success: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). Cleverness and wisdom, according to the natural man, will void the power of the cross (1:17). A “natural man” cannot comprehend this mode of power (2:14). The cross destroys the valuation system of sin and death (the world of the “perishing”), freeing its captives, and at the same time creates a new world (the world of the “ones being saved”) through the self-giving love of God in Christ. The cross frees us from the hostile powers of the old world and draws us into new creation as it defeats the logic of sin.

The wisdom of the world sacrifices (others) so as to establish the law (“sin that grace abound”).  “Being saved” for Paul means that one is delivered from this logic and power of sin.  The wisdom of this world (the body of sin) is undone through the “logos of the cross” as evidenced in a unified body and mind (the cruciform mind both corporate and corporeal) which enables and nourishes the “obedience of faith.” The “logos of the Cross” deconstructs the logos or logic of wisdom and the law. It is a “scandal” for Jews (a curse according to the law) as the logos of the law is the height of Jewish wisdom. It is foolishness to Greeks as it nullifies their very mode of knowing and wisdom: “God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are” (1:28). To run a series of Paul’s idioms together: the “logos of the cross” is one that creates the possibility of unity as thoughts are taken “captive” and “obedience” to God is made possible as the “body of Christ” displaces the “body of sin” (2 Cor. 10,5; Phil. 2:5;4:2; I Cor. 11).

The ultimate oxymoron for Paul would be a “Christ follower” who embraces the logic which killed Christ (i.e. the logic of sin seen in various notions that evil is necessary). While the discussion can be made to appear trite, Paul’s most prolonged effort in his letters is in detailing an authentic Christianity and differentiating it from the counterfeit form of the faith which would presume the logic of sin: “And why not say…, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just” (Ro. 3.8). “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!” (Ro. 6.1-2). “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (Ro 6.15). “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be!” (Ro. 7.7).

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 21.

[2] Alexandra R. Brown, “Apocalyptic Transformation in Paul’s Discourse on the Cross,” in Word & World Volume XVI, Number 4 (Fall 1996).

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

2 thoughts on “Shall We Sin That Grace May Abound: A Formula for Discerning Authentic Christianity”

  1. The hard thing I think we have to deal with in American Christianity are traditions that have arisen, either from a misunderstanding of the Bible, a misuse of the Bible, or traditions that arise simply because of those infamous words, “we have never done it that way before,” or worse yet, “we have always done it this way.”

    1. I think you are absolutely right. The early Church and the Eastern Church understood the meaning of the work of Christ as exposing the lie – the logic of sin. With the tradition from Augustine, to Anselm and to Calvin, there has been an obscuring of this simple and key biblical understanding.