Romans 5:12—21

Paul has gone to great lengths to show that all men are sinners. Without exception, every human being is born a sinner. And the only answer to man’s sinful condition is Jesus Christ, who was born sinless, remained sinless, but was more than a mere man. He alone can redeem even the worst. The question Paul now endeavors to answer is one as old man himself: How is it that all men became sinners? To answer that question, the great apostle goes as far back in time as you can go: to the very beginning, to the first man, Adam. We will learn that what Adam did affected every single human being that followed him.

This whole section of Romans is so difficult to read in English, that many Bible readers (and Bible teachers, too) gloss right over it, never stopping to discover the very deep and rich truths in it.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. (vs. 12, 18b)

Here begins Paul’s extended contrast between Adam, the first man, and Jesus Christ, the “Second Man.”Or, if you please, the contrast is between “two ages.” Adam symbolizes the old age, Jesus Christ the new age. But in dealing with these two ages, we must understand that they are not really datable. It is true that at the death and resurrection of Jesus the new age was begun, in a very real sense we are living in a period of “overlap.” That is, there are those who are living today who remain entrenched in the “old age,” not having claimed Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. That claim is what moves a sinner from the old age to the new age. Every single human being is either in Adam (by birth) or in Christ (by faith). God’s act of justification removes us from the old Adamic order and makes us a “new creation,” part of the new order. So all human beings alive right now are either under the headship of Adam or of Christ.

Technically speaking, verses 12 and 18 are connected, separated by a very long parenthetical thought. Within the parenthesis, thoughts pour out of Paul’s mind like wet cement. For that reason, coming up with any kind of sane outline is difficult. The best way to study this section is to just “let Paul be Paul.” If anything, this part of Romans is an excellent example of “inspiration.” Here we see Paul being carried along by the Holy Spirit, writing what He wanted Paul’s readers to read.

For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

Verse 12. Here is where it all fell apart. Through the act of the first man, Adam, “sin entered the world.” A new concept is introduced: he hamartia, “the sin.” Up till now, Paul has been writing the guilt associated with sin, but now he deals with sin as an outright rebellion against God. The Greek he hamartia refers to “the principle of revolt whereby the human will rises against the divine will.” (Godet) This is the sin that entered the world: willful rebellion against God. The thing is, Adam’s rebellion was not just an act which affected himself alone as an individual; but by his act, he set the course which every human being after him would follow. But how do we know that Adam’s rebellious nature was passed on to all his descendants? Because all his descendants die! Adam’s act of rebellion opened the door for death to enter the world of man. The proof that all men are sinners is that all men will eventually die.

Verse 12 really teaches us three things:

  • Through Adam’s fall, “sin entered the world.”
  • As a consequence, “death came to all men.”
  • This is because “all have sinned.”

But in what sense have “all sinned?” We need to understand this in order to understand the nature of sin. There are three possibilities as to what Paul meant:

  • All men sinned implicitly in Adam. Just as Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek because he was Abraham’s descendant (Hebrews 7), so every human being sinned when Adam sinned because we came from Adam. Since the days of Augustine, this has been a popular view. There is some truth in it; Adam is considered as the representative of the whole human race. The Hebrew word ‘adam, in fact, means “humanity.” But can one be guilty of something they didn’t do? Can I be deemed guilty of Adam’s sin? This seems to be the basic problem of this position—the idea of “inherited guilt.”
  • All men die because they personally sin. Pelagius taught that all men die because the imitate Adam; they follow his example and therefore die because of their personal sins. Even Calvin taught that all of Adam’s descendants are subject to death because we have all sinned. However, this idea seems to contradict the whole idea of the passage, which is that the death of all men rests squarely with Adam, just as the righteousness of all men rests squarely with Jesus.
  • The consequences of Adam’s sin and fall are what was passed on to the whole human race. It wasn’t his bad example or his quilt that was passed on, it was the consequences of death, spiritual and physical. And we might also say that the urge to sin was a further consequence inherited by all men.

It seems that the context of this section of Romans favors the third possibility. It must also be acknowledged that there is grain of truth in each position.

Verses 13, 14. Here begins the great parenthesis. Paul sort of stops in midstream to deal with something that, perhaps, some of his Jewish readers may have struggled with. What about all the people who lived between Adam and Moses? What about the reality of sin before the Law was given? Paul makes it abundantly clear that long before the Law was given, sin was in the world, but then turns right around and seems to contradict himself by saying this:

But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. (vs. 13b)

Paul’s point seems to be is that from Adam to Moses the Law was not yet given and so sin was not present in mankind in the sense of transgression (ie., the breaking of a certain law or code). Men had not been given either the Law by God or instrucions by God, like what was given to Adam to follow. But, the very fact that people were dying from Adam to Moses proved that there was sin present in mankind in some form, for death is the consequence of sin.

Adam is described by Paul as “the pattern as the one to come.” Adam, in other words, is a type of Christ, which may seem odd, given that Adam is so different from Christ. There is, however, one very important similarity between the two. Just as Adam passed on to those he represents what he possessed (the consequences of sin, and to a different degree the urge to sin), so Jesus Christ passes on to those He represents what He possess (righteousness and eternal life).

Verses 15—19. Even though Adam is a type of Christ, Christ is as different from Adam as night is from day. In these verses, Paul shows that the parallel between Adam and Christ is one of contrast, not similarity. The good that came into the world and into every redeemed man through Jesus Christ is vastly superior and far outweighs the evil that entered the world through Adam. This is why Christ’s “free gift” is “not like the trespass.” It is, in fact, far more effective than the trespass.

Notice the power of the words “how much more” as they relate to “grace” and “the gift.” Adam’s sin and its consequences were horrendous, affecting not only each and every human being, but also the nature of the world itself! And yet, Christ’s work produced results that were “much more” significant than those of Adam. Our Lord’s work on the Cross not only effectively neutered the effects of Adam’s transgression, thus putting man back in a state of innocence under probation like Adam had before he sinned, but gave redeemed man much, much more than even Adam ever had. This “free gift” was prompted by God’s grace, and includes things like righteousness and eternal life and the fact that believers will eventually share in God’s kingdom and His glory.

With verses 18 and 19, Christ is considered to have been “the obedient man,” as opposed to Adam, who was the disobedient one. Man is declared to be righteous in Christ because of Christ’s “act of righteousness.” But something important is declared about the state of man: every man stands either condemned in Adam or justified in Christ.

Maybe the best commentary on this section of verses, and verse 18 especially is one Paul wrote himself:

For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Romans 11:32)

Verse 19 presents a challenge both for translators and interpreters of God’s Word:

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.

Two questions come to mind: In what sense did Adam’s sin make us sinners? In what sense did Christ’s obedience make us righteous? The Greek is of no help in this. Most scholars agree that we are “made” either sinners or righteous through our relationship to and with Adam or Christ, but we are not “made” so in actuality. “Adam’s sin” simply means that every human being is born into a race that is in a state of rebellion against God. If, however, we side with Christ, we are able to enter into a whole new relationship with God. We are no longer viewed as rebels, but as rebels saved by grace.

Verses 20, 21. Readers of this letter have learned that righteousness is by faith, not by works or the Law. But where does the Law come into play? The Jews understood that they had been given the Law by God with the expectation that it would guide their life and their conduct. But now Paul gives his Jewish readers a blunt explanation of the Law’s purpose:

The law was added so that the trespass might increase. (vs. 20a)

This curious verse may sound like God acted in a nefarious way by giving the Law, but what Paul is teaching is something so simple it’s profound: God gave the Law to make sin even worse. The Law was never intended to save anyone, but to convince the people of their sin and to make them aware of their need for salvation. That’s what the second part the verse says:

But where sin increased, grace increased all the more… (vs. 20b)

When man became aware of how bad off he was, God was able to shed His grace on him like never before. God’s amazing grace far exceeds the extent of sin. Sin is made to stick out like a sore thumb because of the Law.

so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (vs. 21)

Here is a succinct statement of the purpose of God’s grace: to enable man to triumph over death, just as Jesus Christ did.

Summary. In the first five chapters of Romans, we are taught two great truths: salvation is desperately needed by every human being, Jew and Gentile alike; and salvation is provided by God freely to those who come to Christ by faith. Adam bequeathed to his descendants a sin nature and death. Christ, on the other hand, through grace, provides a new life for believers, deliverance from the sin nature and, as we shall learn more in depth later, a victorious life. Up until we confess Christ as Lord and Savior, we are under the complete dominion of our sin nature and in a constant state of rebellion against God. But when Christ came into our lives, He changed us and enabled us to live according to our new natures. How this incredible victory over sin is achieved, and how we are able to live lives that please God every day will be discussed at length in Romans 6, 7, and 8.


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