And so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.

Romans 5:12

All of history and the daily newspaper testify that the human race lies in ruin—spiritually, morally and physically.

The long parade of gods, both virtuous and obscene, and a thousand varieties of vain and meaningless religious practices declare our spiritual degeneration, while disease, old age and death testify sadly to the completeness of our physical decay.

By nature, men and women are unholy; and by practice we are unrighteous. That we are also unhappy is of small consequence.

But it is of overwhelming importance to us that we should seek the favor of God while it is possible to find it, and that we should bring ourselves under the plenary authority of Jesus Christ in complete and voluntary obedience.

To do this is to invite trouble from a hostile world and to incur such unhappiness as may naturally follow. Add the temptation of the devil and a lifelong struggle with the flesh, and it will be obvious that we will need to defer most of our enjoyments to a more appropriate time!

Loving Father, there is nothing more important to do while we are alive than to accept You as our Savior. I pray especially today for believers in hostile countries, that their inner joy in knowing You will override any pain that is inflicted upon them or their families.[1]

5:12 The rest of chapter 5 serves as a bridge between the first part of the letter and the next three chapters. It is linked with the first part by picking up the subjects of condemnation through Adam and justification through Christ, and by showing that the work of Christ far outweighs in blessing what the work of Adam did in misery and loss. It is linked with chapters 6–8 by moving from justification to sanctification, and from acts of sin to the sin in human nature.

Adam is portrayed in these verses as the federal head or representative of all those who are in the old creation. Christ is presented as the Federal Head of all those who are in the new creation. A federal head acts for all those who are under him. For example, when the President of a country signs a bill into law, he is acting for all the citizens of that country.

That is what happened in Adam’s case. As a result of his sin, human death entered the world. Death became the common lot of all Adam’s descendants because they had all sinned in him. It is true that they all committed individual acts of sin as well, but that is not the thought here. Paul’s point is that Adam’s sin was a representative act, and all his posterity are reckoned as having sinned in him.

Someone might object that it was Eve and not Adam who committed the first sin on earth. That is true, but since Adam was the first to be created, headship was given to him. So he is seen as acting for all his descendants.

When the Apostle Paul says here that death spread to all men, he is referring to physical death, even though Adam’s sin brought spiritual death as well. (Vv. 13 and 14 show that physical death is in view.)

When we come to this passage of Scripture, certain questions inevitably arise. Is it fair that Adam’s posterity should be constituted sinners just because he sinned? Does God condemn men for being born sinners; or only for those sins which they have actually committed? If men are born with a sinful nature, and if they therefore sin because they are born sinners, how can God hold them responsible for what they do?

Bible scholars have wrestled with these and a host of similar problems and have come up with a surprising variety of conclusions. However, there are certain facts that we can be sure of.

First, the Bible does teach that all men are sinners, both by nature and by practice. Everyone born of human parents inherits Adam’s sin, and also sins by his own deliberate choice.

Second, we know that the wages of sin is death—both physical death and eternal separation from God.

But no one has to pay the penalty of sin unless he wants to. This is the important point. At enormous cost, God sent His Son to die as a Substitute for sinners. Salvation from sin and its wages is offered as a free gift through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Man is condemned on three grounds: He has a sinful nature, Adam’s sin is imputed to him, and he is a sinner by practice. But his crowning guilt is his rejection of the provision which God has made for his salvation (John 3:18, 19, 36).

But someone will ask, “What about those who have never heard the gospel?” This question is answered in part, at least, in chapter 1. Beyond that we can rest in the assurance that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Gen. 18:25). He will never act unjustly or unfairly. All His decisions are based on equity and righteousness. Although certain situations pose problems to our dim sight, they are not problems to Him. When the last case has been heard and the doors of the courtroom swing shut, no one will have a legitimate basis for appealing the verdict.[2]

  1. Wherefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, since all sinned, and then, instead of completing this statement, he first of all enlarges on one of its elements, namely the universality of sin. Not until he reaches verse 18 does he return to the sentence he started to write. He reproduces its thought in a modified form: “Consequently, as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all,” and then he finally, in substance, completes the sentence as follows, “… so also one act of righteousness resulted for all men in justification issuing in life.”

Now it should be admitted that such a break in grammatical structure is in line with Paul’s style and personality. See N.T.C. on Luke, p. 6. Yet it is not today, nor has it been in the past, an unusual style phenomenon.

For example, a minister, making an announcement to his congregation, regarding a picnic, might start out as follows:

“Since tomorrow we’ll all be attending the church picnic.…”

He wishes to continue with, “We urge all to come early and to bring along food enough for your own family and, if possible, even something extra for poor people who may wish to join us.”

But before he can even say this he notices that his words about a church picnic tomorrow are being greeted with skepticism. So, instead, he continues as follows:

“I notice that some of you are shaking your heads, thinking that there can be no picnic tomorrow. Let me therefore assure you that the early morning prediction about a storm heading our way has been canceled. A new forecast was conveyed to me just minutes before I ascended the pulpit. According to it, the storm has changed its course and beautiful weather is expected for tomorrow. So we urge all to come early, etc.”

With all this in mind, the various elements of verse 12, and also the verse viewed as a unit, may be interpreted as follows:

Wherefore,” that is, in view of the fact that, through his sacrificial death and resurrection life, Jesus Christ has brought righteousness, reconciliation (peace), and life, etc. See 5:1–11.

“just as through one man sin entered the world …”

The one man is obviously Adam. See verse 14. Cf. Gen. 2:16, 17; 3:1–6. In what sense is it to be understood that through Adam’s fall sin entered the world? Only in this sense that gradually, over the course of the years and centuries, those who were born inherited their sinful nature from Adam, and therefore committed sins? Without denying that this indeed happened, we must nevertheless affirm that there was a far more direct way in which “through one man sin entered the world.” On this same third missionary journey, not very long before Paul composed Romans, he wrote letters to the Corinthians. In one of them (1 Cor. 15:22) he says, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” In Rom. 5:15 he writes, “By reason of the trespass of the one the many died.” He obviously means that the entire human race was included in Adam, so that when Adam sinned, all sinned; when the process of death began to ruin him, it immediately affected the entire race.

Scripture, in other words, in speaking about these matters, does not view people atomistically, as if each person were comparable to a grain of sand on the seashore. Especially in this present day and age, with its emphasis on the individual, it is well to be reminded of the truth expressed in the words which, in a former generation, were impressed even upon the minds of children:

In Adam’s Fall

We Sinned All

Moreover, when we bear in mind that this very chapter (5) teaches not only the inclusion of all those who belong to Adam—that is, of the entire human race—in Adam’s guilt, but also the inclusion of all who belong to Christ, in the salvation purchased by his blood (verses 18, 19; cf. 2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:3–7; Phil. 3:9; Col. 3:1, 3), and that this salvation is God’s free gift to all who by faith are willing to accept it, we shall have nothing to complain about.

  1. “and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind …”

Solidarity in guilt implies solidarity in death, here, as in 1 Cor. 15:22, with emphasis on physical death. Sin and death cannot be separated, as is clear from Gen. 2:17; 3:17–19; Rom. 1:32; 1 Cor. 15:22. In Adam all sinned; in Adam all died. The process of dying, and this not only for Adam but for the race, began the moment Adam sinned.

“since all sinned.”

In all probability this refers to sins all people have themselves committed after they were born. Such personal sinning has been going on throughout the centuries. Paul is, as it were, saying, “I know that one man, and in him all men, sinned, for if this were not true how can we account for all the sinning that has been going on afterward?”

This interpretation gives to the word sinned the meaning it has everywhere else in Paul’s epistles. Why should “all sinned” mean one thing (actual, personal sins) in Rom. 3:23, but something else in 5:12? Besides if here in 5:12 we explain the words all sinned to refer to the fact that all sinned in Adam, would we not be making the apostle guilty of needless repetition, for the sinning of all “in Adam” is already implied in this same verse; note “through one man sin entered the world.”

To these two reasons for believing that this interpretation of the words “since all sinned” is the right one, a third can be added: it now becomes clear why Paul did not, at this point, complete the sentence beginning with “Wherefore,” but went off on a tangent. The statement “since all sinned” could easily arouse disbelief, especially in the minds of those who attached great importance to the proclamation of the law at Sinai. The question might be asked, “If to sin means to transgress the law, how can Paul say that since the time of Adam all sinned? Until the giving of the law at Sinai there was no law, and therefore no transgression of the law, no sin.” The apostle considers this possible objection to be of sufficient importance to justify the break in grammatical structure to which reference was made in the beginning of the explanation of verse 12 (see p. 176).[3]

Sin Entered The World Through One Man

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, (5:12a)

Therefore connects what follows with what has just been declared, namely, that as believers we have been reconciled to God by the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ (vv. 8–11). Now Paul begins the analogy of Christ with Adam, the common principle being that, in each case, a far-reaching effect on countless others was generated through one man.

In the case of Adam, it was through one man that sin entered into the world. It is important to note that Paul does not say that sin originated with Adam but only that sin in the world, that is, in the human realm, began with Adam. Sin originated with Satan, who “has sinned from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). John does not specify when that beginning was, but it obviously was before the creation of Adam and Eve, because they were tempted by Satan.

After He placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, “the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die’ ” (Gen. 2:15–17). Adam was given but one, simple prohibition by God, yet the consequence for disobedience of that prohibition was severe.

After Eve was created from Adam and joined him in the garden as his wife and helper, Satan tempted her to doubt and to disobey the command of God. She, in turn, induced her husband to disobey, and they sinned together. But although Eve disobeyed first, the primary responsibility for the sin was Adam’s, first of all because it was to him that God had directly given the command, and second because he had headship over Eve and should have insisted on their mutual obedience to God rather than allow her to lead him into disobedience.

The one command was the only point of submission to God required of Adam. Except for that single restriction, Adam had been given authority to subjugate and rule the entire earth (Gen. 1:26–30). But when Adam disobeyed God, sin entered into his life and generated a constitutional change in his nature, from innocence to sinfulness, an innate sinfulness that would be transmitted to every one of his descendants.

Paul’s argument begins with the assertion that, through Adam, sin entered into the world. He does not speak of sins, plural, but of

sin, singular. In this sense, sin does not represent a particular unrighteous act but rather the inherent propensity to unrighteousness. It was not the many other sinful acts that Adam eventually committed, but the indwelling sin nature that he came to possess because of his first disobedience, that he passed on to his posterity. Just as Adam bequeathed his physical nature to his posterity, he also bequeathed to them his spiritual nature, which henceforth was characterized and dominated by sin.

God made men a procreative race, and when they procreate they pass on to their children, and to their children’s children, their own nature-physical, psychological, and spiritual.

John Donne wrote these well-known lines in his Meditation XVII,

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It toils for thee.

Mankind is a single entity, constituting a divinely ordered solidarity. Adam represents the entire human race that is descended from him, no matter how many subgroups there may be. Therefore when Adam sinned, all mankind sinned, and because his first sin transformed his inner nature, that now depraved nature was also transmitted to his posterity. Because he became spiritually polluted, all his descendants would be polluted in the same way. That pollution has, in fact, accumulated and intensified throughout the ages of human history. Instead of evolving, as humanists insist, man has devolved, degenerating into greater and greater sinfulness.

Ancient Jews understood well the idea of corporate identity. They never thought of themselves as isolated personalities or as a mass of separate individuals who happened to have the same bloodline as their families and fellow Jews. They looked at all other races in the same way. A given Canaanite or Edomite or Egyptian was inextricably connected to all others of his race. What one of them did affected all the others, and what the others did affected him-in a way that is difficult for modern, individual-oriented man to comprehend.

It was on that basis that God frequently punished or blessed an entire tribe, city, or nation because of what a few, or even just one, of its members did. It was in light of that principle that Abraham asked the Lord to spare Sodom if only a few righteous people could be found there (Gen. 18:22–33). It was also on the basis of that principle that God held all Israel accountable and eventually destroyed Achan’s family along with him because of that one man’s disobedience in keeping for himself some of the booty from Jericho (see Josh. 7:1–26).

The writer of Hebrews knew that his Jewish readers would understand his statement about the tithes that Levi paid to Melchizedek. “Without any dispute,” he declared, “the lesser is blessed by the greater. And in this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (Heb. 7:7–10; cf. vv. 1–3; Gen. 14:18–20). In other words, although Melchizedek lived many years before Levi, the father of the priestly tribe, was born, along with all other descendants of Abraham, Levi, by being in the seed in Abraham’s loins, shared in the tithe paid to the ancient king.

In the same way, although with enormously greater consequences, the sin of Adam was passed on to all of his descendants. When he sinned in the Garden of Eden, he sinned not only as a man but as man. When he and his wife, who were one flesh (Gen. 2:24), sinned against God, all of their descendants-that is, the entire human race in their loins-would share in that sin and the alienation from God and subjection to death that were its consequence. “In Adam all die,” Paul explained to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:22). As far as guilt is concerned, every human being was present in the garden with Adam and shares in the sin he committed there.

The fact that Adam and Eve not only were actual historical figures but were the original human beings from whom all others have descended is absolutely critical to Paul’s argument here and is critical to the efficacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a historical Adam did not represent all mankind in sinfulness, a historical Christ could not represent all mankind in righteousness. If all men did not fall with the first Adam, all men could not be saved by Christ, the second and last Adam (see 1 Cor. 15:20–22, 45).

Death Entered the World Through Sin

and death through sin (5:12b)

The second element of Paul’s argument is that, because sin entered the world through one man, so also death, the consequence of sin, entered the world through that one man’s sin.

God did not create Adam as a mortal being, that is, as subject to death. But He explicitly warned Adam that disobedience by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil would make him subject to death (Gen. 2:17). And, contrary to Satan’s lie (3:4), that was indeed the fate that Adam suffered for his disobedience. Even before human sin existed, God had ordained that its wages would be death (Rom. 6:23; cf. Ezek. 18:4). Death is the unfailing fruit of the poison that entered Adam’s heart and the heart of every one of his descendants.

Even tiny babies can die, not because they have committed sins but because they have a sin nature, the ultimate consequence of which is death. A person does not become a sinner by committing sins but rather commits sins because he is by nature a sinner. A person does not become a liar when he tells a lie; he tells a lie because his heart is already deceitful. A person does not become a murderer when he kills someone; he kills because his heart is already murderous. “For out of the heart,” Jesus said, “come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19).

Sin brings several kinds of death to men. Death is separation, and Adam’s first death was spiritual separation from God, which Adam experienced immediately after his disobedience.

“You were dead in your trespasses and sins,” Paul reminded the Ephesian believers, “in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1–2). The unsaved are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18). The unregenerate are very much alive to the world, but they are dead to God and to the things of God.

A second, and obvious, kind of death that sin brings is physical, separation from fellow human beings. Although Adam did not immediately lose his physical life, he became subject to physical death the moment he sinned.

A third kind of death that sin brings is eternal, an immeasurably worse extension of the first. Referred to in Scripture as the second death (Rev. 21:8), this death not only brings eternal separation from God but also eternal torment in hell.

The unbeliever has reason to fear all three deaths. Spiritual death prevents his earthly happiness; physical death will bring an end to opportunity for salvation; and eternal death will bring everlasting punishment. But no kind of death should be feared by believers. They are saved permanently by Christ from spiritual and eternal death, and their physical death (or rapture) will usher them into His divine presence. For believers Christ has removed the fear of death (Heb. 2:14, 15).

Death Spread to All Men Because All Sinned

and so death spread to all men, because all sinned- (5:12c)

A third element of Paul’s argument is that death was transmitted to all men, without exception. No human being has ever escaped death. Enoch and Elijah, who escaped physical and eternal death, nevertheless were spiritually dead before they trusted in the Lord. Even Jesus died, not because of His own sin but because of the world’s sin that He vicariously took upon Himself. And when He took sin upon Himself, He also took upon Himself sin’s penalty.

Sinned translates a Greek aorist tense, indicating that at one point in time all men sinned. That, of course, was the time that Adam first sinned. His sin became mankind’s sin, because all mankind were in his loins.

Men have learned to identify certain physical and mental characteristics in human genes, but we will never discover a way to identify the spiritual depravity that has been transmitted from generation to generation throughout man’s history. We know of that legacy only through the revelation of God’s Word.

Paul does not attempt to make his explanation wholly understandable to his readers, and he himself did not claim to have full comprehension of the significance of what the Lord revealed to and through him. He simply declared that Adam’s sin was transmitted to all his posterity because that truth was revealed to him by God.

Natural human depravity is not the result but the cause of man’s sinful acts. An infant does not have to be taught to disobey or be selfish. It is born that way. A young child does not have to be taught to lie or steal. Those are natural to his fallen nature, and he will express them as a matter of course unless prevented.

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,” David confessed, “and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). That condition was not unique to David, and in another psalm he testified that “the wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth” (Ps. 58:3). Jeremiah declared that “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Eliphaz asked Job rhetorically: “What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” (Job 15:14).

Every person who is not spiritually reborn through Christ (John 3:3) is a child of Satan. Jesus told the unbelieving Jewish leaders: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

As already noted, although Eve disobeyed God’s command first, Adam was more accountable for his disobedience, because “it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Tim. 2:14). Adam had no excuse at all. Without being deceived, and fully aware of what he was doing, he deliberately disobeyed God.

Some object to the idea that they sinned in Adam, arguing that they not only were not there but did not even exist when he sinned. But by the same token, we were not physically at the crucifixion when Christ died, but as believers we willingly accept the truth that, by faith, we died with Him. We did not literally enter the grave with Christ and were not literally resurrected with Him, but by faith we are accounted to have been buried and raised with Him. If the principle were not true that all sinned in Adam, it would be impossible to make the point that all can be made righteous in Christ. That is the truth Paul makes explicit later in this letter (5:15–19) and in his first letter to Corinth: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).

Others argue that it is not fair to be born guilty of Adam’s sin. “We did not asked to be born,” they argue, “nor did our parents or their parents or grandparents before them.” But neither was it “fair” that the sinless Son of God suffered the penalty of sin on behalf of all mankind. If God were only fair, Adam and Eve would have been destroyed immediately for their disobedience, and that would have been the end of the human race. It is only because God is gracious and forgiving, and not merely just, that men can be saved. The magnitude of Paul’s analogy is mind-boggling, and its significance cannot be fully comprehended but only accepted by faith.

Habakkuk had great difficulty understanding the Lord. At first he could not understand why God did not bring revival to His chosen people Israel. He cried out, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and Thou wilt not hear? I cry out to Thee, ‘Violence!’ Yet Thou dost not save” (Hab. 1:2). Even less could he understand why God would punish His own people through the hands of the Chaldeans, who were pagans and immeasurably more wicked than the Israelites. “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil,” the prophet reminded the Lord, “and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor. Why dost Thou look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why art Thou silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?” (1:13).

Finally realizing that the Lord’s ways are beyond human comprehension, Habakkuk testifies, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength” (3:17–19).

Habakkuk learned that when we cannot understand the Lord’s ways, we must avoid the quicksand of human reason and stand in faith on the rock of God’s righteous character.

It may, however, help to understand something of God’s purpose for offering salvation to fallen mankind by considering the angels. Unlike man, they were not created in God’s image or as procreative beings (Matt. 22:30), and when they fell with Lucifer (Rev. 12:7–9), they fell individually and were immediately damned to hell forever, with no opportunity for redemption.

God created the angels to serve Him and give Him glory. Because they were created holy, they fully understood such things as God’s holiness, righteousness, and majesty. But they had no comprehension of His grace, mercy, compassion, or forgiveness, because those characteristics have meaning only where there is the guilt feeling of sin. It is perhaps for that reason that the holy angels long to look into the gospel of salvation (1 Pet. 1:12). It is impossible even for the holy angels to fully praise God, because they cannot fully comprehend His greatness.

For His own divine reasons, however, God created man to be procreative. And when Adam fell, and thereby brought his own condemnation and the condemnation of all his descendants, God in mercy provided a way of salvation in order that those who would experience His grace would then have cause to praise Him for it. Paul declares that it is through redeemed saints, saved human beings, “that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places,” that is, to His heavenly angels (Eph. 3:10).

Because the purpose of creation is to glorify God, it is fitting that God would fill heaven with creatures who have received His grace and His mercy, and have been restored to His divine likeness to give Him eternal praise.[4]

Union with Jesus Christ

Romans 5:12

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—

The last ten verses of Romans 5 are a new section of the letter. They deal with mankind’s union with Adam on the one hand, a union which has led to death and condemnation, and with the believer’s union with the Lord Jesus Christ on the other. This latter union leads to life and righteousness. This is a difficult section of the letter, possibly the most difficult in all the Bible. But it is also very important.

Union with Christ! The Scottish pastor and theologian James S. Stewart called union with Christ “the heart of Paul’s religion,” adding that “this, more than any other conception—more than justification, more than sanctification, more even than reconciliation—is the key which unlocks the secrets of his soul.” John Murray went even further, saying, “Union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”2 Yet, strangely, this is a widely neglected theme even in many otherwise helpful expositions of theology. Arthur W. Pink states the situation fairly:

The subject of spiritual union is the most important, the most profound, and yet the most blessed of any that is set forth in the sacred Scriptures; and yet, sad to say, there is hardly any which is now more generally neglected. The very expression “spiritual union” is unknown in most professing Christian circles, and even where it is employed it is given such a protracted meaning as to take in only a fragment of this precious truth. Probably its very profundity is the reason why it is so largely ignored. …

Many preachers avoid such subjects, thinking it better to avoid matters that most of their hearers may be unable or unwilling to understand. But it is not wise to neglect anything God has seen fit to reveal to us, particularly something as important as this. And, in any case, union with Christ cannot be neglected in any faithful exposition of Romans.

The Theme in Context

Where are we in our exposition of this letter? How does Romans 5:12–21 fit into its context?

At this point it may be worth thinking back to what I said at the beginning of this volume when I introduced the very first words of chapter 5. I rejected the view that Romans 5 introduces an entirely new section of the letter in the sense that in chapters 1–4 Paul has been speaking about justification and that now, in chapters 5–8, he speaks about sanctification. He does speak about sanctification, of course, but not as a radically new theme. On the contrary, as I pointed out (the word therefore in Rom. 5:1 is a clue to this), Paul is carrying forward the argument begun earlier, showing that the work of justification, about which he has been speaking, is a sure thing and will inevitably carry through to the believer’s full glorification in heaven at the end of life.

Thus far, Paul’s arguments have had to do with the nature of our justification:

  1. We can be assured of salvation because God has made peace with us through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
  2. We can be assured of salvation because, through that same work of Christ, we have been brought into a new relationship with God in which we continue to stand.
  3. We can be assured of salvation because of the sure and certain hope that we shall see God.
  4. We can be assured of salvation because of the way we are able to endure sufferings in this life.
  5. We can be assured of salvation because God sent Jesus Christ to die for us, not when we were saved people but when we were enemies.
  6. We can be assured of our salvation because, if God has justified us, which is a greater thing and demands more of God than glorification, he will surely do the lesser.

But now we have something new, as I said at the beginning of this study—and yet not new, because the apostle’s objective remains the same: to enhance our assurance. We have seen that Romans 5:1–11 argues the certainty and finality of salvation from the nature of justification by faith. Now Paul also argues that when God saved us through the work of Christ, justifying us by faith, justification was not the only thing involved. Justification is immensely important, of course. But in addition to justification, and in conjunction with it, we were also united to Christ in what theologians have come to call “the mystical union.” This union with Christ has been revealed to us, although we do not fully understand it.

In my opinion, Paul has anticipated this theme in the verses we have already studied, although I did not point it out at the time and the point is hidden in most of our translations. I am referring to verse 10, which says, “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

In the Greek text the last three words are not “through his life,” as we have them in the New International Version (or “by his life,” as in most others), but literally “in his life.” Is this important? Yes, in my opinion. For, when we say “through” or “by” his life, the words seem to mean either or both of two things to us: (1) that we are saved through Christ, that is, by his work on the cross, and/or (2) that we are saved through faith in that atonement. But this is not the idea here. The first part of verse 10 does say this, but the second part goes beyond it, making a contrast. The argument is: If God has saved us through the death of Christ (through faith in his atonement), he will certainly save us by our being “in his life.” At this point of the letter we may not fully understand what that means. That is why verses 12–21 explain it. But I am making the point that union with Christ, which Paul develops in verses 12–21, is suggested earlier.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “The word ‘in’ means ‘in the sphere of,’ or ‘in the realm of,’ or ‘in connection with’ his life.”

This union with Jesus makes possible the sequence of deliverances from sin, death, and the law, and the resulting spiritual victories that Paul will unfold in the next three chapters of Romans.

Probing the Mystery

Union with Christ is difficult to understand, however, and the treatment of it in Romans 5:12–21 is particularly mind-stretching. So I want to probe this doctrine a bit before we actually get into the verses. There are two important points to keep in mind.

First, the union of the believer with Christ is one of three great unions in Scripture. The first is the union of the persons of the Godhead in the Trinity. Christians, as well as Jews, speak of one God. Yet, on the basis of the revelation of God in Scripture, we who are Christians say we also believe that this one God exists in three persons as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We cannot explain how these three persons of the Godhead are at the same time only one God, but the Bible teaches this and we believe it.

The second mystical union is that of the two natures of Christ in one person. The Lord Jesus Christ is one person. He is not a “multiple personality.” Nevertheless, he is also both God and man, possessing two natures. The theological formulation of this truth at the Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451) said that Jesus is “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into persons, but one and the same Son.” If you understand that completely, you are a better theologian than I am. But though I do not fully understand it, I believe it since it seems to be what the Bible teaches.

We have a similar situation in the case of the union of believers with Christ. Probably we are never going to be able to understand this union fully either. But it is important. Therefore we should hold to it and try to gain understanding.

The second important point to keep in mind as we study this doctrine is that the union of the believer with Christ is not a concept that was invented by Paul; rather, it was first taught by Jesus and then built upon by the apostle. True, Jesus did not use the term “mystical union.” But he taught it in other words and through analogies, which are frequent in Scripture, particularly in the later portions of the New Testament. Let me list a few examples.

  1. The vine and the branches. The most important passage on this theme is the teaching in John 15. It occurs in one of Jesus’ final discourses prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus said, “I am the true vine. … Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1, 4–5).

The emphasis in this passage is upon the power of Christ nourishing and working itself out through his disciples. Paul touches on this image in Romans 11:17–21, where he speaks of Jewish “branches” being broken off an olive tree so that Gentile “branches” might for a time be grafted in. He is thinking along similar lines in Galatians when he speaks of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23).

  1. The Lord’s Supper. On the same evening that Jesus spoke about himself as the vine and his disciples as the branches, he gave instructions for observing the Lord’s Supper in which he said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26, 28). The sacrament clearly symbolizes our participation in the life of Christ. In the same way, Jesus discoursed on the bread of life (“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” [John 6:35]) and challenged the woman of Samaria (“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to everlasting life” [John 4:13–14]).

The emphasis in this image is on empowering (as in the analogy of the vine) and permanence. By faith, Jesus becomes a permanent part of us, just as surely as what we eat.

  1. A foundation and the structure built upon it. Jesus initiated this image when he spoke of himself as a solid foundation for building a successful life: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matt. 7:24–25).

Paul made ample use of this image. He told the Corinthians, “You are … God’s building. … For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:9b, 11). He told the Ephesians, “… you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20). In the next verse the building becomes a temple: “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). Notice the words “in him.” It is only because we are “in Christ” that this is possible.

This image also shows that being joined to Christ means that we are at the same time joined to one another. We are part of the church.

  1. The head and members of the body. This was one of Paul’s favorite ways of speaking. “And God placed all things under [Christ’s] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:22–23). “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. … Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:11–12, 14–16).

In these verses (and others like them) the emphasis is upon two things: (1) growth and (2) the proper functioning of the church under Christ’s sure direction. In 1 Corinthians Paul uses this image to show that each Christian is needed if the church is to function properly (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12–27).

  1. Marriage. By far the greatest of all illustrations of the union of the believer with Christ and of Christ with the believer is marriage, in which a man and a woman are joined to form one flesh and one family. This image is in the Old Testament—Hosea, for example. There God compares himself to the faithful husband who is deserted by Israel, the unfaithful wife (Hosea 1–3). Jesus picked up on this theme when speaking of a marriage supper to which all who have faith are invited (Matt. 22:1–14). However, it is chiefly Paul who develops the theme in what is probably the best-known passage from Ephesians, mixing it with the image of the church as Christ’s body.

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. … This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:22–28, 32

The emphasis in this image is upon a love-bonding. This is indeed the one true “marriage made in heaven.” It is a marriage not only for this life but for eternity.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

In the studies that follow we are going to be looking at the doctrine of our union with Christ in detail, comparing it initially with our corresponding but contrasting union with Adam. But I close here by trying to put our union with Christ in its widest possible setting, remembering that it is included at this point of the letter to assure us of our security. This is what we find as we look both backward and forward at this union.

Here I quote from the best statement of these themes I know: a chapter on “Union with Christ” in Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray:

  1. Election. “The fountain of salvation itself in the eternal election of the Father is ‘in Christ.’ Paul says: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world’ (Eph. 1:3, 4). The father elected from all eternity, but he elected in Christ. We are not able to understand all that is involved, but the fact is plain enough that there was no election of the Father in eternity apart from Christ. And that means that those who will be saved were not even contemplated by the Father in the ultimate counsel of his predestinating love apart from union with Christ—they were chosen in Christ. As far back as we can go in tracing salvation to its fountain we find ‘union with Christ’; it is not something tacked on; it is there from the outset.”
  2. Redemption. “It is also because the people of God were in Christ when he gave his life a ransom and redeemed them by his blood that salvation has been secured for them; they are represented as united to Christ in his death, resurrection, and exaltation to heaven (Rom. 6:2–11; Eph. 2:4–6; Col. 3:3, 4). … Hence we may never think of the work of redemption wrought once for all by Christ apart from the union with his people which was effected in the election of the Father before the foundation of the world. … This is but another way of saying that the church is the body of Christ and ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself for it’ (Eph. 5:25).”
  3. Regeneration. “It is in Christ that the people of God are created anew. ‘We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works’ (Eph. 2:10). … It should not surprise us that the beginning of salvation in actual possession should be in union with Christ because we have found already that it is in Christ that salvation had its origin in the eternal election of the Father and that it is in Christ salvation was once for all secured by Jesus’ ransom blood. We could not think of such union with Christ as suspended when the people of God become the actual partakers of redemption—they are created anew in Christ.”
  4. Glorification. “Finally, it is in Christ that the people of God will be resurrected and glorified. It is in Christ that they will be made alive when the last trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:22).”

This great scope of salvation from the electing counsels of God in eternity past to the glorification of the sons of God in eternity future is based on the union of the believer with Christ, and it is for this that the doctrine is so important for us. Assurance of salvation! Security in Christ! This is what we are dealing with in this doctrine, as also in the great middle chapters of Romans. While there are many things meant to encourage us in that security, the greatest of all is that we are “in Christ.”

The question you must ask yourself is: “Am I really in him? Am I a Christian?”

How can you know? You cannot look into eternity past to pry into God’s hidden counsels. You cannot look into eternity future to see yourself as one who has been glorified. All you have is the present. But if you probe the present, you can know. Do you remember the marriage illustration? Ask yourself: “Am I married to Jesus?” You are—if you have taken the vow, promising to “take Jesus to be your loving and faithful Savior, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, for this life and for eternity,” and if you are living for him. God has pronounced the marriage. And what God has joined together no one will ever put asunder.[5]

12 The one man through whom sin entered the world is not immediately named (reserved until v. 14). The same procedure is followed with the other man to be considered: he too is called a man before he is named (v. 15). Except for two non-theological references (Lk 3:38; Jude 14), every mention of Adam in the NT comes from the pen of Paul. In 1 Timothy 2:14, he makes the point that Adam, unlike Eve, was not deceived but sinned deliberately. In 1 Corinthians 15, as in the Romans passage, he institutes a comparison between the first and the last Adam but confines the treatment to the issue of death and resurrection, even though sin is dealt with somewhat incidentally (vv. 17, 56), whereas in Romans 5, both sin and death are named immediately and are woven into the texture of the argument throughout. In the earlier letter, Paul makes the significant statement, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Co 15:22), in line with Romans 5:12. Paul has already referred to the inevitable connection between sin and death in the only previous mention of death in Romans (1:32), except for reference to the death of Christ (5:10). But here in v. 12 he pictures sin and death as entering the world through one man, with the result that death permeated the whole of humankind. It was the opening in the dike that led to the inundation, the poison that entered at one point and penetrated every area of humanity’s corporate life.

If Paul had stopped with the observation that death came to all humanity because all sinned, we would be left with the impression that all sinned and deserved death because they followed the example of Adam. But subsequent statements in the passage make it abundantly clear that the connection between Adam’s sin and death and what has befallen the race is far closer than that. Paul says that the many died because of “the trespass of the one” (v. 15; cf. vv. 18–19). Clearly the gist of his teaching is that just as humankind has become involved in sin and death through Adam, it has the remedy of righteousness and life only in Christ.

What, then, is the precise relation of Adam in his fall to those who come after him? Paul does not say, unless he provides the information in the last clause of the verse. The NIV uses the word “because,” which is certainly the meaning of eph’ hō in 2 Corinthians 5:4 and probably also in Philippians 3:12. The Vulgate rendering of the Greek is in quo, which could be understood as meaning “in which” (i.e., death) or “in whom” (i.e., Adam). The former does not make sense and the latter is so far removed from the antecedent (“man”) as to be dubious, though this was Augustine’s conclusion (see Notes).

Now if the correct translation is “because all sinned,” why did not Paul go on to say specifically that all sinned in the first man? That he could have done so seems clear from v. 19: “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.” Was it the sudden breaking off to follow another line of thought (vv. 13–14) that prevented the full statement? Or was it Paul’s reluctance to gloss over human responsibility, which he had already established in terms of universal sin and guilt (3:23)? Experience demonstrates that despite the inheritance of a sinful nature from Adam, people are convicted of guilt for the sins resulting from it, i.e., for the sins they themselves commit. Conscience is a factor in human life and the Holy Spirit does convict of sin (cf. Jn 16:8). Perhaps, then, as some hold, while the emphasis on original sin is primary in the light of the passage as a whole, there is a hint that personal choice and personal sin are not entirely excluded (cf. “many trespasses” in v. 16).

That we could have sinned in Adam may seem strange and unnatural to the Western mind. Nevertheless, it is congenial to biblical teaching on the solidarity of the human race. (For a famous example of corporate solidarity in the OT, see the story recorded in Jos 7:16–26.) When Adam sinned, the race sinned because the race was in him. Similar views are found in Jewish writings perhaps a half century after Paul: in 2 Esdras 7:118, “O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants” (cf. 2 Esd 3:7, 21), and 2 Baruch 54:15, “Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time” (cf. 2 Bar 17:3; 23:4). To put it boldly, Adam was the race. What he did, his descendants, who were still in him, did also. This principle is utilized in Hebrews 7:9–10: “One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.”

The doctrine of original sin and the punishment of Adam’s progeny for Adam’s sin would be an intolerable doctrine if any of his progeny had actually lived a life without sin. In fact, however, as Paul has made abundantly clear in 1:1–3:21, every human being is guilty of sin. The author of 2 Baruch, quoted above, also puts emphasis on our own responsibility: “each of us has become our own Adam” (2 Bar 54:19); all human beings consistently repeat for themselves the sin of their forefather. Sin is part of the natural makeup of the children of Adam, and they cannot escape living out their Adamic nature.

If one is still troubled by the seeming injustice of being born with a sinful nature because of what the father of the race did and being held accountable for the sins that result from that disability, one should weigh carefully the significance of reconciliation as stated by Paul: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Co 5:19, emphasis added). The sins committed, which owe their original impetus to the sin of the first man, are not reckoned against those who have committed them, provided they put their trust in Christ crucified and risen. God takes their sins and gives them his righteousness.[6]

[1] Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1697–1698). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, pp. 176–179). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 292–298). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 552–560). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[6] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 95–97). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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