5:12 Employing the concept of corporate solidarity, Paul explained that all humanity was profoundly affected through Adam’s act of rebellion. There is a corresponding corporate solidarity in Christ. Whereas “in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1Co 15:22). Therefore, Paul said later that “no condemnation” comes to “those in Christ Jesus” (Rm 8:1, emphasis added). So while the damaging consequences of Adam’s sin, including an inherited tendency to sin, were passed on to all of Adam’s descendants, justification likewise passes on to all who receive God’s gift of righteousness secured through Christ’s death (vv. 17–19). Note, however, that Paul did not teach universalism. God forces his righteousness on no one; people must receive the offered gift through faith.
5:12 Therefore gives this verse a loose connection with the previous section. Sin and death are almost personified here (cp. v. 21, “sin reigned in death”). Just as introduces a long and difficult Greek sentence. The main comparisons are clear, but some of the details lead interpreters to different opinions. Paul was thinking of how both the first Adam (Gn 1–3) and the last Adam (Jesus Christ) have a universal significance for humanity. Interpreters are divided over the phrase because all sinned. The two major interpretations are (1) all people commit sin and therefore die, and (2) somehow all humans sinned “in Adam.” The second view is more likely and entails either that Adam was the federal head of the race and acted on behalf of us all, or that Adam was the seminal head of the race and we were somehow “in him.”
5:12 just as sin came into. Paul here begins a comparison that is not concluded until vv. 18–21. The comparison is interrupted by a meditation extending through v. 17.
through one man. Death is not natural to humanity, but is the direct result of sin (Gen. 2:17).
because all sinned. The universal reign of death is the consequence of sin. Paul does not explain how all mankind was involved with Adam in his sinning, but simply asserts the fact. All sinned in the sin of Adam. See “Original Sin and Total Depravity” at Ps. 51:5.
5:12 one man Refers to Adam (Gen 2:7; Rom 5:14). Paul identifies Adam as a representative of humanity whose actions affected all of humanity, bringing mortality and death to all humankind.
death Refers to the loss of immortality, which includes physical and spiritual death (Gen 3:22–24). Adam did not immediately die when he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:6–7); rather, his sin introduced mortality. This mortality, in Paul’s view, spread to the entire human race (see 1 Cor 15:21–22). According to Paul, death will be the final enemy defeated by God (1 Cor 15:26).
spread The Greek verb used here, dierchomai, connotes imputation or transmission. Adam’s death was transmitted to all of humanity. Therefore, all people need salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
because all sinned Although Paul describes Adam as a representative of humanity, he states that people’s own sin condemns them (Rom 3:23).
5:12 Sin came into the world through one man, namely, Adam (v. 14; cf. Gen. 3:17–19; 1 Cor. 15:21–22; also note on Gen. 5:3–5). And death through sin is contrary to secular thought that regards death as a “natural” part of human life. In the biblical sense, death is never natural but is “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26; cf. 15:54) that will be conquered finally and forever at the return of Christ (Rev. 21:4). Death in these verses most likely denotes both physical death and spiritual death together (Paul often connects the two). Most evangelical interpreters think that and so means “and in this way,” and the phrase all sinned means that all sinned in Adam’s sin because he represented all who would descend from him (just as Christ’s obedience would count for all his followers, whom he represented, Rom. 5:15–19). Another interpretation is that all sinned personally because they were born into the world spiritually dead. The word translated men is the Greek word anthrōpos, which in the plural can mean either “people” of both sexes or “men,” depending on the context. It is translated “men” here (and in v. 18) to show the connection with “man” (anthrōpos, singular), referring to Christ.
5:12 just as … sin entered. Not a particular sin, but the inherent propensity to sin entered the human realm; men became sinners by nature. Adam passed to all his descendants the inherent sinful nature he possessed because of his first disobedience. That nature is present from the moment of conception (Ps 51:5), making it impossible for man to live in a way that pleases God. Satan, the father of sin (1Jn 3:8), first brought temptation to Adam and Eve (Ge 3:1–7). through one man. When Adam sinned, all mankind sinned in his loins (v. 18; cf. Heb 7:7–10). Since his sin transformed his inner nature and brought spiritual death and depravity, that sinful nature would be passed on seminally to his posterity as well (Ps 51:5). death. Adam was not originally subject to death, but through his sin it became a grim certainty for him and his posterity. Death has 3 distinct manifestations: 1) spiritual death or separation from God (cf. Eph 2:1, 2; 4:18); 2) physical death (Heb 9:27); and 3) eternal death (also called the second death), which includes not only eternal separation from God, but eternal torment in the lake of fire (Rev 20:11–15). because all sinned. Because all humanity existed in the loins of Adam, and have through procreation inherited his fallenness and depravity, it can be said that all sinned in him. Therefore, humans are not sinners because they sin, but rather they sin because they are sinners.
5:12 The one man is Adam. Through him sin entered the world. Sin brought death. The result is that death is now a universal experience. The phrase because all sinned does not mean just that “all have sinned” at some time in their lives, thus referring to individual sins. Paul takes his readers back to the beginning of human history, to the one sin that brought death upon us all. The unity of the human race is demonstrated here. In Adam, we all sinned (1 Cor. 15:22). The result is physical and spiritual death for everyone. From Adam we inherited a sin nature. Furthermore, as a result of our sin in Adam, we face a common judgment—death.
5:12. Paul explains that through one man sin [lit., “the sin,” possibly indicating original sin] entered the world. As a result, death through sin spread to all men, because all sinned [hēmarton]. Paul views the history of humanity as having sinned in Adam (cf. Rom 3:23, where the aorist hēmarton also appears).
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.
5:12. Paul had now finished his description of how God has revealed and applied to humans His provided righteousness on the basis of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ received by faith. One thing remains to be done—to present the contrastive parallelism between the work of Jesus Christ (and its results in justification and reconciliation) and the work of another man, Adam (and its results in sin and death). Paul began by saying, Therefore (lit., “because of this”; cf. 4:16), and started his comparison, just as; but he became concerned by other matters and did not return to the comparison until 5:15. Paul explained that sin (in Gr., “the sin”) entered (eisēlthen, “entered into”) the world through one man; and, in accord with God’s warning (cf. Gen. 2:16–17), death (in Gr., “the death”) through sin. God’s penalty for sin was both spiritual and physical death (cf. Rom. 6:23; 7:13), and Adam and Eve and their descendants experienced both. But physical death, being an outward, visible experience, is in view in 5:12–21. Paul concluded, And in this way death (“the death”) came to all men. “Came” is diēlthen, literally “passed or went through” or “spread through.” Eisēlthen, “entered into” (the first clause in the verse) means that sin went in the world’s front door (by means of Adam’s sin); and diēlthen, “went through,” means that death penetrated the entire human race, like a vapor permeating all of a house’s rooms. The reason death spread to all, Paul explained, is that all sinned.
The Greek past (aorist) tense occurs in all three verbs in this verse. So the entire human race is viewed as having sinned in the one act of Adam’s sin (cf. “all have sinned,” also the Gr. past tense, in 3:23). Two ways of explaining this participation of the human race in the sin of Adam have been presented by theologians—the “federal headship” of Adam over the race and the “natural or seminal headship” of Adam. (Others say that people merely imitated Adam, that he gave the human race a bad example. But that does not do justice to 5:12.)
The federal headship view considers Adam, the first man, as the representative of the human race that generated from him. As the representative of all humans, Adam’s act of sin was considered by God to be the act of all people and his penalty of death was judicially made the penalty of everybody.
The natural headship view, on the other hand, recognizes that the entire human race was seminally and physically in Adam, the first man. As a result God considered all people as participating in the act of sin which Adam committed and as receiving the penalty he received. Even adherents of the federal headship view must admit that Adam is the natural head of the human race physically; the issue is the relationship spiritually. Biblical evidence supports the natural headship of Adam. When presenting the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood to Aaron’s, the author of Hebrews argued that Levi, the head of the priestly tribe, “who collects the 10th, paid the 10th through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (Heb. 7:9–10).
5:12. Just as may find its conclusion in “even so” (houtos kai) in v. 18, but more likely it is found in and so (kai houtos) at the end of v. 12. “Original sin” is a term used to describe the idea that every person sinned in and with Adam, so that Adam’s sin and guilt was our sin and guilt. But Paul is probably not teaching original sin in these verses, for several reasons. First, the phrase because [eph’ ho] all sinned literally means “on the basis of which” and signals that everyone sins because the state of spiritual death, and physical death, entered the race through Adam’s act. Second, the verb sinned always refers to an individual’s conscious acts, never to sins committed without conscious choice or committed by proxy. Third, sinned is probably a “gnomic” aorist, describing a general truth about acts that typically take place, not acts that did take place in the past (see 2:12; 3:23, where sinned is also used, but has a gnomic sense).
5:12. This is the key verse in the whole section, especially the phrase because all sinned. Paul seemed to anticipate the centuries of dialogue and debate—even disagreement—that would take place over his words because all sinned. It is following these words that he breaks off his sentence and pens verses 12–17 to offer the needed supporting materials.
Paul clearly says that sin entered the world through one man, meaning Adam. Genesis 3 demonstrates Adam’s leadership (not Eve’s; cf. Luke 3:38; 1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13) and fatherhood of—and thus responsibility for—the human family. Death came through sin—again, clear from Genesis. In chapter 3 Adam died spiritually, and in Genesis 5:5 he died physically. It is the spreading of death through sin, and death spreading to all men, because all sinned, that is difficult. But the point is made here by Paul that when Adam sinned, he lost peace with God. Somehow, that sin spread to all people descended from Adam since all sinned, which means that everyone in the human race lost their peace with God as well.
5:12 “Therefore” Romans has several strategically placed “therefores” (cf. 5:1; 8:1; 12:1). The interpretive question is to what they relate. They could be a way of referring to Paul’s whole argument. For sure this one relates to Genesis and, therefore, probably back to Rom. 1:18–32.
© “as through one man sin entered into the world” All three verbs in v. 12 are AORIST TENSE. Adam’s fall brought death (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22). The Bible does not dwell on the origin of sin. Sin also occurred in the angelic realm (cf. Gen. 3 and Rev. 12:7–9). How and when are uncertain (cf. Isa. 14:12–27; Ezek. 28:12–19; Job 4:18; Matt. 25:41; Luke 10:18; John 12:31; Rev. 12:7–9).
Adam’s sin involved two aspects (1) disobedience to a specific commandment (cf. Gen. 2:16–17), and (2) self-oriented pride (cf. Gen. 3:5–6). This continues the allusion to Gen. 3 begun in Rom. 1:18–32.
It is the theology of sin that so clearly separates Paul from rabbinical thought. The rabbis did not focus on Gen. 3; they asserted instead, that there were two “intents” (yetzers) in every person. Their famous rabbinical saying “In every man’s heart is a black and a white dog. The one you feed the most becomes the biggest.” Paul saw sin as a major barrier between holy God and His creation. Paul was not a systematic theologian (cf. James Stewart’s A Man in Christ). He gave several origins of sin (1) Adam’s fall, (2) satanic temptation, and (3) continuing human rebellion.
In the theological contrasts and parallels between Adam and Jesus two possible implications are present.
- Adam was a real historical person.
- Jesus was a real human being.
Both of these truths affirm the Bible in the face of false teaching. Notice the repeated use of “one man” or “the one.” These two ways of referring to Adam and Jesus are used eleven times in this context.
© “death through sin” The Bible reveals three stages of death (1) spiritual death (cf. Gen. 2:17; 3:1–7; Eph. 2:1); (2) physical death (cf. Gen. 5); and (3) eternal death (cf. Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). The one spoken of in this passage is the spiritual death of Adam (cf. Gen. 3:14–19) that resulted in the physical death of the human race (cf. Gen. 5).
© “death spread to all men” The major thrust of this paragraph is the universality of sin (cf. vv. 16–19; 1 Cor. 15:22; Gal. 1:10) and death.
© “because all sinned” All humans sin in Adam corporately (i.e. inherited a sinful state and a sinful propensity.) Because of this each person chooses to sin personally and repeatedly. The Bible is emphatic that all humans are sinners both corporately and individually (cf. 1 Kgs. 8:46; 2 Chr. 6:36; Ps. 14:1–2; 130:3; 143:2; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20; Isa. 9:17; 53:6; Rom. 3:9–18, 23; 5:18; 11:32; Gal. 3:22; 1 John 1:8–10).
Yet it must be said that the contextual emphasis (cf. vv. 15–19) is that one act caused death (Adam) and one act caused life (Jesus). However, God has so structured His relationship to humanity that human response is a significant aspect of “lostness” and “justification.” Humans are volitionally involved in their future destinies! They continue to choose sin or they choose Christ. They cannot affect these two choices, but they do volitionally show to which they belong!
The translation “because” is common, but its meaning is often disputed. Paul used eph’ hō in 2 Cor. 5:4; Phil. 3:12; and 4:10 in the sense of “because.” Thus each and every human chooses to personally participate in sin and rebellion against God. Some by rejecting special revelation, but all by rejecting natural revelation (cf. 1:18–3:20).
Paul’s reasoning may at first seem somewhat difficult to follow. He starts a sentence but does not complete it. He begins by saying, 12. 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.
- “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.
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). Paul answers as follows:
In Adam all sinned, all died (v. 12)
Paul’s opening ‘therefore’ (v. 12) picks up the preceding passage (5:6–11) where he spoke of our moral weakness, our godlessness and Sin, and our hostility towards God and the inevitability of his wrath against us all. Put briefly Paul is now saying, ‘Therefore … all sinned.’ But how, and under which circumstances and with what consequences have ‘all sinned’?
|came into the world through one man
Paul is reiterating earlier observations about universal sinfulness (3:9—‘all are under sin’; 3:23—‘all have sinned …’). Here, however, Paul explains that Sin entered the human race ‘through one man’. Later he amplifies this as ‘through the disobedience of one man the many were constituted sinners’ (see v. 19).
The Apostle is basing this on the narrative of the early chapters of Genesis. God placed Adam (and Eve) under him as stewards in the ‘garden of God’, promising his blessing provided they ‘knew their place’ honouring their Creator in his Lordship over them. This, however, they did not do. Rather, the first man disobeyed the Lord and disbelieved his warning that death would surely follow. Adam’s reckless attempt to seize the place of the kindly Creator is a woeful story of ingratitude and stupidity.
Excluded from Eden the consequences were immediate. Their firstborn Cain murdered his brother Abel. More evil was to follow, as narrated in the early chapters of Genesis. The outcome of Adam’s rebellion is nothing less than humanity’s alienation from God, the coming of dark forces into the human psyche, and the dislocation of the social order. War, exploitation and injustice are the all too easily observable results of that Sin. Adam’s revolt against God was a matter of deep distress. Some decades before the coming of Christ a devout Jew reflected on Adam’s ‘fall’.
O Adam, what have you done?
When you sinned,
your fall occurred not only for you,
but for us your descendants
(4 Ezra 7:118).
Another Jewish writer commented that Adam’s Sin brought Death to all his progeny.
For when Adam first sinned
[he] brought an untimely death over all …
Paul says much the same to the Corinthians, ‘… all have died’ (2 Cor. 5:14), by which we infer he means that ‘… all have died in Adam’.
Clearly, then, Paul is teaching that all people sinned ‘in Adam’ and all people died ‘in Adam’. It’s not merely that Adam introduced a virus called ‘sin’ that his descendants ‘catch’ so that they too sin and die. Rather, we actually sinned when he sinned and we died when he died. Paul is saying that all humankind were there acting in and with Adam.
Two questions leap from the page. One is that this teaching seems to us strange and, indeed, unfair. Why should I be condemned to die because of the wicked action of my distant ancestor Adam? We ask, ‘where’s the justice in that?’ Paul, however, does not address our question. Most likely this was not a question that would have occurred to him. He probably regarded our ‘connected-ness’ with the ‘first man’ as a given. Paul’s mindset was Hebraic and corporate, ours is more typically Greek and individualistic.
Most likely the explanation goes along the following lines. Each of us is what we are on account of those who have gone before, going back ultimately to Adam. I am an Australian due to a decision to migrate there, made by an Irishman I never knew. I had no say in that and there is nothing I can (or want to) do to make me, for example, an Englishman or a Croatian. The poet John Donne observed that ‘no man is an island’. I cannot extricate myself from the action taken by my Irish ancestor, whose blood flows in my veins. I am what I am because of his choices, and the choices of others long ago, going back ultimately to the choices of the First Man. I may question the morality of my accountability for Adam’s action but I cannot doubt the practical reality that Adam constituted me a law-breaker whose condemnation I and others will share.
This explanation is not altogether satisfactory. I may feel unhappy at the (apparent) injustice under which I am condemned for the actions of someone millennia ago. True. But ask yourself, ‘Am I different from Adam? Do I seek to honour and thank God daily? Do I willingly and gladly live under his rule as a good steward of his creation? Do I love God and care for others in love?’ The grim reality is that I do not, and that day by day I endorse and confi rm Adam’s Sin. The fact is, I rather admire Adam.
The fact of universal sinfulness, including our own, and of death can scarcely be denied. Nor can any serious or honest person claim to be free from a God-denying self-centredness nor can he deny that the out-flowing wrongdoing has been done freely by us. It is sobering to think back over our lives reflecting on our sins, both active and passive. Each of us knows that in the final judgement by God the blame will be ours and no one else’s, and that his negative assessment of us will be fair and reasonable, as Paul pointed out in chapters 2–3. It is that ‘fairness,’ however, that should most inspire fear within us, in prospect of that moment.
A second question occurs. How was Adam’s Sin transmitted to his descendants, ultimately down to us? Some early Christian theologians, notably Augustine of Hippo, taught that the sexual excitement of the procreative act was the source of sinfulness in the next generation. This, however, has no basis in biblical exegesis. Others have likened the spread of sinfulness to the spread of a virus like HIV from parent to child. This, too, is without scriptural warrant and in any case minimizes our own responsibility for our sins. The plain fact is that specific texts in the Bible give but little help as to how Adam’s Sin and Adam’s Death were passed on to us.7
12. As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin. The ‘one man’ is Adam; the reference is to the story of ‘man’s first disobedience’ in Genesis 3. Cf. Wisdom 2:23–24,
God created man for incorruption,
and made him in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his party experience it.
The same point is made in the outcry of 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.’ Ben Sira characteristically draws a misogynistic moral from the narrative: ‘From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die’ (Ecclus. 25:24; see p. 153). But none of these writers sees anything of the deeper significance in the fall of man which is now unfolded by Paul.
Death spread to all men because all men sinned. Does this mean that all have sinned in their personal lives (which is apparently the meaning of the words in 3:23) or that all sinned in Adam’s primal sin? In support of the latter it might be argued that human beings are mortal before they commit any sin, so that the mortality of the race is the result of the original racial sin. This seems to be implied by verse 14, where those who lived between Adam and Moses are said to have died even if they did not sin in the manner of ‘the transgression of Adam’. The construction, with the underlying thought, is paralleled in 2 Corinthians 5:14: ‘one has died for all; therefore all have died’—where, however, it is the racial implication of Christ’s death, not of Adam’s fall, that Paul has in view. It is not simply because Adam is the ancestor of mankind that all are said to have sinned in his sin (otherwise it might be argued that because Abraham believed God all his descendants were necessarily involved in his belief); it is because Adam is mankind.
For a defence of the other interpretation—that the reference is to all having sinned in their personal lives—see Cranfield, ad loc.: after a careful examination of various interpretations of the words ‘because all sinned’ he concludes that this interpretation is ‘most probable’.24
Paul does not conclude his sentence with a ‘so’ clause to match the ‘as’ clause at the beginning of verse 12. His mention of death as spreading to all humanity because of sin leads him to introduce the long parenthesis of verses 13–17; after the parenthesis, instead of providing the principal clause for which the reader has been waiting, he repeats the ‘as’ clause of verse 12 in different words in verse 18 and follows up the new ‘as’ clause with a balancing ‘so’ clause. An apodosis in correlative terms to the protasis (the ‘as’ clause) of verse 12 would be worded more or less like this: ‘so through one man God’s way of righteousness was introduced, and life by righteousness.’
5:12 / Verse 12 recapitulates the story of the fall in Genesis 3. The accent falls not on the particulars of the temptation but on the all-encompassing consequence, namely, that disobedience brought death into the world. Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men. Milton captured the thought of this verse in the title of his epic poem, Paradise Lost. Paul omits the name Adam, stressing instead the universal correspondence between the one and all. Although he does not explain exactly how Adam’s sin affected humanity, he understands Adam’s sin to have infected the race so that it is not free not to sin. Sin is not a coincidence, it is a contagion. Sin is a compelling power at work both within and without. Jesus said, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man!” (Mark 14:21). This verse probes the ineffable tension between the inevitability of sin, on the one hand, and human responsibility for sin, on the other. Humanity is not free to choose not to sin, and yet each sin is freely chosen. Sin is derivative from one man, and, like a despot, sin controls its subjects. Three times Paul emphasizes that sin (or death) reigns (vv. 14, 17, 21). And yet all sin willingly, thus deserving condemnation (v. 18). Adam’s sin was the root, ours are its offshoots, says Bengel (Gnomon, vol. 3, p. 76).
In Genesis 3 the serpent tempts Eve to “be like God” (v. 5). There are two ways of being “like God.” One is positive, in which we honor and emulate God, whereby to “be like God” is admirable. But the temptation story carries a negative sense of rivaling God and willing to displace God. It begins with a desire to discredit God (“ ‘Did God really say?’ ”), and ends with a willful disobedience of God’s concrete command. In a mysterious and terrible way Adam’s sin becomes our sin. Genesis 3 is the story of every sinful act. All humanity disputes God’s word and usurps God’s authority.
In the history of theology verse 12 (also 1 Cor. 15:22) has been the breeding ground of the doctrine of original sin. The ot links sin with death (“when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall die,” Gen. 2:17), but it is silent concerning how sin and death were transmitted to the race. By the first century a.d., however, a theory had developed in Jewish thinking linking Adam’s sin and human corruption and death. Fourth Ezra says, “You laid upon [Adam] one commandment of yours; but he transgressed it, and immediately you appointed death for him and for his descendants” (3:7). From Second Baruch, “O Adam, what did you do to all who were born after you? And what will be said of the first Eve who obeyed the serpent, so that this whole multitude is going to corruption?” (48:42). Again from Second Baruch, “For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam” (54:15, 19). The last passage in particular speaks of sin’s origin in Adam, but its responsibility in individual transgressions. More than three centuries after Paul, Augustine (354–30) stamped Western thinking indelibly with the theory that sin and guilt are transmitted sexually. This theory, which is indebted more to neo-Platonism than to the Bible, is one reason why the church has tended to regard sex as sinful. During the Reformation Luther and Calvin differentiated between human nature and personal guilt. Adam, they maintained, corrupted human nature so that it is not free from sin, which they referred to as “total depravity.” This oft-misunderstood term does not mean that humanity is incapable of good; it simply means that humanity is incapable of saving itself. But Adam has not, continued the Reformers, conferred his guilt on the race. Human nature is hereditary, but guilt is a matter of personal responsibility.
From a human perspective the problem of original sin is an unsolvable mystery. The boat will capsize whether one jumps to the one side or the other. On the one hand, there are those who, with Augustine, overemphasize Adam’s progenitive role in sin and the damning consequence of death. Relying on the Latin text of verse 12 (in quo omnes peccaverunt), Augustine derived the interpretation “in whom (i.e., Adam) all sinned.” But this jeopardizes human potential and responsibility, as well as the divine mandate for genuine moral change. At the same time, the modern tendency is to relegate sin to the level of moral lapses, slips, flaws, mistakes, and so forth. Not only does this fail to deal with the crucial question of the origin of sin (i.e., why all people sin), it underestimates the power and gravity of sin. God would not have sent his Son to Calvary for moral peccadillos.
Verse 12, in fact, does not actually discuss the problem of sin from a theoretical perspective. The premise of the argument is not sin but death: if all die, all must deserve to die because of sin. Thus, a more plausible antecedent for the much-debated Greek phrase, eph’ hō, would be death, and not Adam as Augustine supposed. At any rate, nearly all Greek authorities agree that eph’ hō pontes hēmarton should be rendered because (of death) all sinned, rather than “in whom (i.e., Adam) all sinned.” Paul’s starting point is thus the empirical reality of death. The grim stalker of life is, to be sure, the result of an equally horrid disobedience to God by the rebellious human will, but Paul does not explore this connection or the way in which human sin and death result from Adam’s disobedience. His purpose here is not the development of a doctrine of original sin but the establishment of a typological contrast between Adam and Christ. He is content to say typologically what he said in 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The curse of Adam’s sin is death, and death, as Paul taught elsewhere, is “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26).
12 The opening words of the paragraph, “because of this,” suggest that what Paul is about to teach in 5:12–21 is a conclusion drawn from something he has argued earlier in the letter. But commentators disagree about what it is earlier in the letter that leads to the discussion of the contrasting “headships” of Adam and Christ. The following options are all found in the literature: the argument of the epistle thus far, the believer’s reconciliation (5:11), the central role of Christ in salvation (5:9–10), the idea that we will be saved “in union” with Christ (5:10); the universality of reconciliation (v. 10); or the certainty of final salvation (5:1–11). Of these, the last suggestion does most justice both to the contents of 5:1–11 and 12–21 and to the natural meaning of the phrase Paul uses. But we must question whether 5:12–21 reads most naturally as the conclusion of what Paul has already argued. The verses make better sense when viewed as the basis for what has just been said; specifically, based on content alone, 5:12–21 would seem to function very nicely as the ground, or reason, for the confidence in hope that Paul has stressed in 5:1–11. As linguistic justification for this reading, then, other commentators give “this” a prospective force—“we boast [v. 11] because of this: that whatever we have lost in Adam we have gained in Christ”—or interpret the phrase as a very loose transition.148 Neither of these alternatives is likely. But what seems the natural relationship between the two paragraphs can be maintained if we take “because of” in the sense of a “final cause” (e.g., “for the sake of”) and make the antecedent of “this” the promise of final salvation (vv. 9–10). The phrase “because of this” can function this way, and its suitability to the context leads us to adopt it as the most likely meaning here. We would then paraphrase the transition at 5:12 as follows: “in order to accomplish this [namely, that God has promised to save all those who are justified and reconciled through Christ], there exists a life-giving union between Christ and his own that is similar to, but more powerful than, the death-producing union between Adam and all his own.”
The internal structure of v. 12 is unclear. When it comes toward the beginning of a sentence, “just as” (hōsper) normally introduces the protasis of a comparative sentence. We would expect, in other words, to find a “so also” clause to complete the sentence. Some scholars have identified such a “so also” clause in this verse or the next, but their identifications are not very plausible.153 Most scholars therefore conclude that Paul starts a comparison in this verse that he does not (grammatically) finish. Having introduced his comparison with reference to Adam and his sin, Paul becomes sidetracked on this point and abandons the comparison, only to reintroduce and complete it later in the text. It is not until vv. 18–19 that the comparison is fully made, although vv. 15–17 hint at it. It is difficult to know whether the “break” in the construction occurs between v. 12b and v. 12c, between v. 12c and v. 12d, or after v. 12.
The first clause attributes the entrance of sin into the world to “one man.” This “man” is, of course, Adam, whose very name means “man,” or “human.” Reference to “sin” in the singular is characteristic of Rom. 5:12–8:13. Throughout these verses, Paul personifies sin, giving it an active role (see esp. v. 20). Through this personification, Paul shows that individual acts of sin constitute a principle, or “network,” of sin that is so pervasive and dominant that the person’s destiny is determined by those actions (see also on 3:8). In the present instance, then, the “sin” that enters the world is more than an individual sin; it is the bridgehead that paves the way for “sinning” as a condition of humanity. The fact that Paul attributes this sin to Adam is significant since he certainly knows from Genesis that the woman, Eve, sinned first (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14). Already we see that Adam is being given a status in salvation history that is not tied only to temporal priority.
Paul’s claim that “sin came into the world through one man” would have been nothing new to anyone who knew their OT or Jewish tradition. Nor would his second assertion in this verse: “and through sin death [came into the world].”160 The unbreakable connection between sin and death, made clear in Gen. 2–3, was a staple of Jewish theology. But what does Paul mean by death here?162 He may refer to physical death only, since “death” in v. 14 seems to have this meaning. But the passage goes on to contrast death with eternal life (v. 21). Moreover, in vv. 16 and 18 Paul uses “condemnation” in the same way that he uses death here. These points suggest that Paul may refer here to “spiritual” death: the estrangement from God that is a result of sin and that, if not healed through Christ, will lead to “eternal” death. In fact, however, we are not forced to make a choice between these options. Paul frequently uses “death” and related words to designate a “physico-spiritual entity”—“total death,” the penalty incurred for sin.165 Here, then, Paul may simply have in mind this death in both its physical and spiritual aspects. But the focus, in light of vv. 18–19, is on spiritual death; and perhaps we may view Paul as thinking of physical death in the limited sense as it is bound up with sin.
As v. 12b depicts the entrance of death as the consequence of sin, v. 12c makes explicit that this death has spread to every person. The exact relationship of this clause to its context depends on what the adverb “in this way” (houtōs) means. If it is not correlative with “just as” (which we have seen reason to doubt), there are three possibilities. (1) It may pick up v. 12a–b as the general condition in which sin and death spread to all people: Adam having introduced sin into the world, and with it death, it was in these circumstances that death spread and all sinned. But it would be unusual for the word to mean simply “in these circumstances.” (2) Houtōs might pick up the reference to “the one man”: as one man was responsible for the entrance of sin and death (v. 12a), so, “in this [same] way,” was one man responsible for the spread of death. Defenders of this interpretation point to the emphatic position of “through one man”172 and to the form of the comparison in vv. 18 and 19, where Adam’s sin is the cause of the condemnation of all people. But it may be significant that Paul in v. 12—unlike in vv. 18–19—speaks not of “the sin of one man,” but of “sin” entering through one man. This suggests that Paul’s focus is not at this point on the corporate significance of Adam’s act but on his role as the instrument through whom sin and death were unleashed in the world. (3) With the majority of commentators, then, we think that “in this way” draws a comparison between the manner in which death came into the world—through sin—and the manner in which death spread to everyone—also through sin. Verse 12 then is a neatly balanced chiasm:
- sin (12a) produces
- death (12b);
- all die (12c)
- because all sin (12d).
If this reading of the structure of the verse is right, then v. 12d has the purpose of showing that death is universal because sin is universal: “all sinned.” This means, in turn, that we are giving the opening words of this last clause (ephʾ hō) a causal meaning. This is the meaning adopted by most commentators and most English translations. But it is not the only possible rendering. Perhaps the most famous alternative is the translation “in whom,” adopted by Augustine and by a few others. Assuming that “the one man” is the antecedent of the pronoun, the clause would then be an explicit statement of “original sin”: “in Adam all sinned.”175 But this interpretation, and others that rest on a similar grammatical basis, are unlikely. For the two words in the Greek phrase probably function together as a conjunction. The phrase may then mean “from which it follows,”178 “with the result that,” “inasmuch as,”180 or “because.” The last suggestion is by far the most popular among modern scholars, although the evidence in its favor is not nearly as strong as some suggest. Nevertheless, this is the meaning the phrase almost certainly has in 2 Cor. 5:4, and probably also in Phil. 3:12 (it almost certainly does not in Phil. 4:10), and it is the meaning that fits best in the context here.
Paul, then, has shown that the entrance of death into the world through the sin of Adam has led to death for all people; and all people die, Paul asserts, because all people “sinned.” In a sense, then, Paul’s concern in this verse, and throughout the passage, is not with “original sin,” but with “original death.” Paul says nothing explicitly about how the sin of one man, Adam, has resulted in death for everyone; nor has he made clear the connection—if any—between Adam’s sin (v. 12a) and the sin of all people (v. 12d). What he has made clear is that the causal nexus between sin and death, exhibited in the case of Adam, has repeated itself in the case of every human being. No one, Paul makes clear, escapes the reign of death because no one escapes the power of sin.
But we cannot stop here. For the fact that Paul in this verse asserts the universality of sin (v. 12d) after mentioning the responsibility of Adam in unleashing sin in the world forces us to ask the question: What is the relationship between Adam’s sin and ours? Or, to put it another way, why do all people, without exception, sin? This question is made even more insistent by Paul’s focus on the sin of Adam as the reason for universal condemnation in vv. 18–19. How is it that the sin of Adam led to the condemnation of all people? These questions force us to look more carefully at just what Paul means in v. 12d when he asserts that “all sinned.”
At first sight, this question would appear easy to answer. Paul regularly uses the verb “sin” to denote voluntary sinful acts committed by individuals; and this is what most commentators think this same word, in the same tense as is used here (the aorist), designates in Rom. 3:23: that all people, “in their own persons,” commit sins. Probably a majority of contemporary scholars interpret v. 12d, then, to assert that the death of each person (v. 12c) is directly caused by that person’s own, individual sinning. The question is then how this “individual” explanation of death is to be squared with the “corporate” explanation of the universality of death in v. 12a–b and, with even greater emphasis, vv. 15–19. In other words, how can we logically relate the assertions “each person dies because each person sins [in the course of history]” and “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all people” (v. 18a)?
First, we could be content to posit an unresolved tension between the individual and the corporate emphasis. Paul in v. 12 asserts that all people die because they sin on their own account; and in vv. 18–19 he claims that they die because of Adam’s sin. Paul does not resolve these two perspectives; and we do wrong to try to force a resolution that Paul himself never made. A systematic theologian may have to find a resolution; but we exegetes need not insist that Paul in this text assumes or teaches one. Now it is certainly the case that we can err by insisting that a text give us answers to all our questions about a topic or (still worse) by foisting on a biblical author theological categories that do not fit that author’s teaching. But we can also fail to do our job as exegetes by failing to pursue reasonable harmonizations that the author may assume or intend. So we think it is legitimate to ask whether Paul suggests any resolution of the tension between individual and Adamic responsibility for sin in this text.
One popular explanation holds that Paul assumes a middle term in the connection between Adam’s sin and the condemnation of all human beings: a corrupted human nature. Verse 12d refers, indeed, to sins committed by individuals in the course of history—but as the necessary result of a corrupt nature inherited from Adam. Death, then, is due immediately to the sinning of each individual but ultimately to the sin of Adam; for it was Adam’s sin that corrupted human nature and made individual sinning an inevitability. This view has much in its favor: it retains the normal meaning of “sin” in v. 12 while explaining at the same time how Paul could assert that Adam’s sin brings condemnation upon all (vv. 18–19). It also explains why all people act contrary to the will of God: there is a fatal, God-resisting, bent in all people, inherited from Adam (Adam as fallen, not as created). For this reason alone, most theologians have assumed the necessity for some such view of the effects of Adam’s sin. Nevertheless, we may question whether this is what Paul means in v. 12d. The most serious objection is that this interpretation adds a step in Paul’s argument that is not explicit in the context—Adam’s having and passing on a corrupt nature. In each case where Adam’s sin and the death of all are related, the relationship is stated directly: “many died through one man’s trespass” (v. 15a); “the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation” (v. 16b); “because of the trespass of one man, death reigned” (v. 17a); “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men” (v. 18a). Only v. 19a—“by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners”—could possibly allude to such a notion, but this is probably not what is intended here either (see below on that verse). On the view we are examining, these statements must be expanded to mean “one man’s trespass resulted in the corruption of human nature, which caused all people to sin, and so brought condemnation on all men.” While it is possible that Paul would want us to assume these additions, he has given us little basis for doing so.
If, then, we are to read v. 12d in light of vv. 18–19—and, since the comparative clauses in these verses repeat the substance of v. 12, this seems to be a legitimate procedure—“all sinned” must be given some kind of corporate meaning: sinning not as voluntary acts of sin in one’s own person, but sinning in and with Adam. This is not to adopt the translation “in Adam” rejected above. The point is rather that the sin here attributed to the “all” is to be understood, in the light of vv. 12a–c and 15–19, as a sin that in some manner is identical to the sin committed by Adam. Paul can therefore say both “all die because all sin” and “all die because Adam sinned” with no hint of conflict because the sin of Adam is the sin of all. All people, therefore, stand condemned “in Adam,” guilty by reason of the sin all committed in him. This interpretation is defended by a great number of exegetes and theologians. It maintains the close connection between Adam’s sin and the condemnation of all that is required by vv. 15–19, a connection suggested also by 1 Cor. 15:22—“in Adam all die.” And a sin committed before individual consciousness also explains how Paul could consider all people as “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). The major problem with this view is, of course, whether it is the most natural way to read v. 12d. While Paul does not make explicit a connection with Adam’s sin in this clause, the parallel created by Paul (“and in this way”) between the entrance into the world of sin and death (v. 12a–b) and the spread of death to all people (v. 12c) makes it possible to argue that the causes of these phenomena—the sin of the one man and the sin of all—are also closely related.
We must admit that the case for interpreting “all sinned” in v. 12d as meaning “all people sinned in and with Adam” rests almost entirely on the juxtaposition of v. 12 with vv. 18–19. And maybe we should not force this combination when Paul himself did not explicitly do so. But one further point inclines us to think that Paul may, indeed, have been thinking along these lines: the popularity of conceptions of corporate solidarity in the Jewish world of Paul’s day. This notion, rooted in the OT,193 held that actions of certain individuals could have a representative character, being regarded as, in some sense, the actions of many other individuals at the same time. I think that there is good reason to suppose that Paul adopted such a concept as a fruitful way of explaining the significance in salvation history of both Adam and Christ.195 For Paul, Adam, like Christ, was both a historical figure and a corporate figure, whose sin could be regarded at the same time as the sin of all his descendants.197
One last point needs to be addressed: the question of fairness. The theologian W. Pannenberg puts it bluntly: “It is impossible for me to be held jointly responsible as though I were a joint cause for an act that another did many generations ago and in a situation radically different from mine.” Various theological and philosophical constructs can offer more or less help in answering this question, but no explanation ultimately removes the problem. “Original sin” remains an “offense to reason.”199 On the other hand, some such doctrine is necessary to explain the fact of universal sin and evil. Pascal, in a famous passage, put it like this:
Original sin is foolishness to men, but it is admitted to be such. You must not then reproach me for the want of reason in this doctrine, since I admit it to be without reason. But this foolishness is wiser than all the wisdom of men. For without this, what can we say that man is? His whole state depends on this imperceptible point. And how should it be perceived by his reason, since it is a thing against reason, and since reason, far from finding it out by her own ways, is averse to it when it is presented to her?
The folly, degradation, and hatred that are the chief characteristics of human history demand an explanation. Why do people so consistently turn from good to evil of all kinds? Paul affirms in this passage that human solidarity in the sin of Adam is the explanation—and whether we explain this solidarity in terms of sinning in and with Adam or because of a corrupt nature inherited from him does not matter at this point. On any view, this, the biblical, explanation for universal human sinfulness, appears to explain the data of history and experience as well as, or better than, any rival theory.
12 The close logical connection between this passage and that which precedes is shown by the “therefore” with which verse 12 begins. There is considerable difference of opinion as to how much of the preceding context is to be regarded as supplying the basis of the conclusion which verses 12ff. enunciate, whether verse 11 merely or verses 1–11 or 3:21–5:11 or the whole of the preceding part of the epistle from 1:18 onwards. It is impossible to be dogmatic, and this is not a question of great moment. Suffice it to know that we have here a conclusion intimately germane to the doctrine unfolded earlier.
Verse 12 clearly begins a comparison but does not complete it. At the middle of the verse we have the words “and so” which must not be rendered “even so”. The latter closes a comparison but the former, as here, carries on what had been affirmed and is coordinative or continuative. Most interpreters recognize this and do not argue the question. Verse 12 is an unfinished comparison; it has a protasis but not apodosis. Therefore it is an unfinished sentence. Why so? It is not difficult to find the reason. In verse 12, particularly at the end, the apostle had stated something which needed a parenthesis and this parenthesis we have in verses 13, 14. In other words, the facts stated in verse 12 dictated the necessity of adding without delay the data given in verses 13 and 14. Hence the particular thought of verse 12 is broken off at the end of the verse, and it so happens that the apostle did not come back again to complete his comparison in the terms of verse 12. This should not perplex us. Paul did not follow stereotyped stylistic patterns and, as we shall see, the parenthesis which broke off the comparison is a very eloquent one. The comparison is incomplete but the thought is not broken off. The development of thought dictated the construction which we find here.
“Through one man sin entered into the world.” The one man is without question Adam (vs. 14). The account given in Genesis 3 is the basis of this statement and the apostle places his imprimatur upon the authenticity of this account. The importance he attached to this incident of Genesis 3 is attested by the fact that the subsequent development of his argument turns on it. That sin entered through one man is an integral element of the comparison or parallel upon which is to be built Paul’s doctrine of justification. This attests the crucial place it occupied in his esteem. It is to evacuate exegesis to suppose that it is only incidental. When he says “entered into the world” he refers to the beginning of sin in the human race and “the world” means the sphere of human existence. Paul does not reflect here upon the inception of sin as such.19
“And through sin death”—again there is allusion to Genesis 2:17; 3:19. The juxtaposition of sin and death bears the emphasis. On the question as to whether the moral and spiritual aspects of death and their eternal consequences are comprised in the word “death”, one thing must be appreciated that in the usage of Scripture and in the conception of Paul the dissolution which consists in the separation of body and spirit and the return to dust of the former had far more significance as the epitome of the wages of sin than we are disposed to attach to it. The catastrophe of misery which befell mankind by sin is summed up in this dissolution and it exemplifies the principle of separation which comes to expression in all aspects of death. In verse 14 it is this death that is in view and there is no need to introduce other aspects of death in the subsequent references to the universal reign of death (vss. 15, 17). It is this aspect of death that is in the forefront in Genesis 2:17; 3:19, and although it is true that death in all its aspects is the wages of sin, yet there is not sufficient evidence to show that the apostle is comprehending all these aspects in his purview when he says “and death through sin”.
In the second half of verse 12 we have a continuative comparison introduced by “and so”. In order to grasp the force of this we must note the specific thought of the two parts of the verse. In the first half the accent falls upon the entrance of sin and death through one man. In the second part the accent falls upon the universal penetration of death and the sin of all. And a correspondence is intimated as obtaining between the way in which death entered the world and the way in which it permeated to the whole human race. It entered through the sin of the one man; it permeated through the sin of all. To state the matter more fully: just as sin and death entered the world through the sin of the one man, so death permeated to all men because all sinned. So although verse 12 is an unfinished comparison, containing the protasis but not the apodosis, yet the comparison that is implicit in the two parts of the protasis may be stated in the form of the protasis and apodosis stated in the foregoing sentence. Hence the thought of the apostle is plainly that the entrance of sin and death is caused by the sin of Adam and the universal reign of death by the sin of all. And we must not suppose that the Pelagian interpretation of this verse, whereby the sin of all is construed as the actual sins of all men, is refuted by the consideration that verse 12 is an unfinished comparison. Verse 12 of itself is compatible with a Pelagian interpretation, and if Paul had entertained the Pelagian view he could have stated it admirably well in these terms. The whole question revolves on the meaning of the last clause in verse 12, “in that all sinned”. There can be no question but the fact that “all sinned” is stated in the most explicit fashion to be the ground upon which death penetrated to all men, just as the sin of Adam is the reason why death entered the world.
The crucial question is: What is meant by “in that all sinned”? It is quite unnecessary to argue the propriety of this translation. The clause should not be rendered “in whom all sinned”. The terms used have the force of the conjunction “because” or “on the ground of the fact that” and clearly specify the reason why death went through to all men. If Paul meant that death passed upon all because all men were guilty of actual transgression, this is the way he would have said it. At least no more suitable way could be considered. Is this what the apostle meant? Pelagians say so. There are conclusive objections to this view on factual, exegetical, and theological grounds.
(1) It is not historically true. Not all die because they actually and voluntarily sin. Infants die and they do not voluntarily sin.
(2) In verses 13 and 14 Paul says the opposite—death reigned over those who did not sin after the similitude of Adam’s transgression. It is futile to try to evade the direct bearing of this fact upon the view in question. If all die because they are guilty of actual transgression, then they die because they sin just as Adam did. But Paul says the reverse; some died even though they did not sin after the pattern of Adam.
(3) The most conclusive refutation of the view in question is the explicit and repeated affirmations of the context to the effect that condemnation and death reign over all because of the one sin of the one man Adam. On at least five occasions in verses 15–19 this is asserted—“by the trespass of the one the many died” (vs. 15); “the judgment was from one unto condemnation” (vs. 16); “by the trespass of the one death reigned through the one” (vs. 17); “through one trespass judgment came upon all men unto condemnation” (vs. 18); “through the disobedience of the one man the many were constituted sinners” (vs. 19). This reiteration establishes beyond doubt that the apostle regarded condemnation and death as having passed on to all men by the one trespass of the one man Adam. This sustained appeal to the one sin of the one man rules out the possibility of construing it as equivalent to the actual personal transgressions of countless individuals.
(4) This view is inconsistent with the analogy which supplies the framework of this passage as a whole. The polemic of this epistle is directed against the thesis that we are justified by works, and the doctrine being established is that men are justified and attain to life by the righteousness of the one, Jesus Christ. How contradictory would be the appeal to the parallel obtaining on the side of condemnation and death if Paul finds the basis of the condemnation and death of all in the actual transgression of each individual. If this latter were Paul’s teaching here the parallel that would be necessary on the other side would be justification by works, that each individual would be justified by his own actions and attain to life on that basis. But we know that this is the reverse of Paul’s teaching.
On these grounds we must reject the supposition that when Paul says, “in that all sinned” he means the actual voluntary sins of all men.
In the Augustinian tradition it has often been maintained that the clause in question refers to original sin, to wit, that all posterity became depraved in Adam. Hence the thought would be that death penetrated to all because all derived from Adam a corrupt nature and the ground upon which condemnation and death wield their universal sway is that all, even infants, are afflicted with this hereditary taint. This view stands on more biblical ground than the foregoing. It is true that all are by nature defiled and depraved by sin and this of itself does entail universal condemnation and death. But there are also good reasons for thinking that this is not the sin the apostle has in mind when he says, “in that all sinned”. There are two conclusive objections.
(1) It is inconsistent with the repeated affirmations of verses 15–19 to the effect that condemnation and death came to reign over all by reason of the one sin of the one man Adam. This sustained emphasis upon the one trespass of the one man does not comport with the notion of original sin or hereditary depravity. The latter cannot by any means be characterized as the one sin of the one man.
(2) It is inconsistent with the parallel which is drawn in this passage as a whole. We are not justified on the ground that we are made inherently righteous. But if we are condemned and suffer death because we are depraved and inherently sinful the only analogy or parallel to this would be that we are justified because we become inherently holy. And that is plainly not Paul’s doctrine. We are justified and attain to life by the obedience and righteousness of the one, namely, Jesus Christ.
If neither the actual transgressions of men nor the depravity with which all are inflicted will comport with the teaching of this passage, the question still remains: what sin is in view when Paul says, “in that all sinned”? The following considerations lead to one conclusion, that for some reason the one sin of the one man Adam is accounted to be the sin of all.
(1) It is unquestionable that the universal sway of death is represented in verse 12 as based upon the fact that “all sinned”—“death passed on to all men on the ground of the fact that all sinned”.
(2) In verses 15–19 it is asserted with equal clearness that the universal reign of death is based on the one trespass of the one man Adam and, in like manner, universal condemnation is based on the same fact of the one sin of the one man.
(3) We cannot suppose that the apostle is dealing with two different facts when in verse 12 the death of all is grounded upon the sin of all and when in the subsequent verses the death of all is grounded upon the one sin of the one man. The whole passage is a unit. The central strand is the analogy that exists between the passing of condemnation and death to all by the sin of the one and the passing of justification and life to the justified by the righteousness of Christ. Furthermore, verse 12 is an unfinished comparison. It would be out of the question to suppose that the apostle, dealing as he is with the universal reign of death, should so explicitly and repeatedly affirm in the succeeding verses something quite different from that which he affirms in the unfinished introduction to his argument. If verse 12 were in a context of its own and if there were an obvious transition from one subject to another, then we might say that in verse 12 he deals with one fact and in verses 15–19 with another. We cannot posit any such transition for the simple reason that verse 12 relies upon the succeeding verses to complete the subject which it had introduced. And finally, as noted earlier, verse 14 makes it impossible to interpret the “all sinned” of verse 12 as we might be disposed to interpret it if it stood apart from what follows. “All sinned” cannot mean the actual voluntary transgressions of men because if this were the case Paul would have contradicted himself.
For these reasons we must conclude that the “all sinned” of verse 12 and the one trespass of the one man of verses 15–19 must refer to the same fact or event, that the one fact can be expressed in terms of both singularity and plurality, as the sin of one and the sin of all. And the only solution is that there must be some kind of solidarity existing between the “one” and “the all” with the result that the sin of the one may at the same time and with equal relevance be regarded as the sin of all. What this solidarity is it is not our purpose at present to determine. But once the fact of solidarity is appreciated, then we understand why the apostle can speak of the one sin and the sin of all. We must not tone down either the singularity or the universality.
We are now in a position to grasp the force of the comparison or correspondence implied in the continuative “and so” in verse 12. A comparison is instituted between the way in which sin and death entered and the way in which they became universal. Adam sinned and with sin came death. There is an inevitable sequence. But the same sequence applies to all. Since the sin of Adam is the sin of all, death spreads to all as inevitably as it fell to the lot of Adam and thus entered the world. The immediate sequence exemplified in Adam and in the entrance of death applies also to the universal reign of death. The solidarity existing between Adam and posterity establishes a correspondence between that which is exemplified in the case of Adam himself and that which happens to the whole human race. Adam sinned and death entered; in Adam all sinned and therefore death passed through to all. This is the force of “and so”. There is an exact parallel between what occurred in the case of Adam himself and that which occurred in the case of all. And the parallel in this case can only be properly understood when we appreciate the solidarity in sin. Paul says elsewhere, “In Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). The only adequate explanation is that provided by Romans 5:12 that in Adam all sin.
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.
Union with Jesus Christ
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:
- We can be assured of salvation because God has made peace with us through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
- 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.
- We can be assured of salvation because of the sure and certain hope that we shall see God.
- We can be assured of salvation because of the way we are able to endure sufferings in this life.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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:
- 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.”
- 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).”
- 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.”
- 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.
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 tolls 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.
History Proves That Death Reigns over All Men
for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (5:13–14)
A fourth element of Paul’s argument is that history verifies that death is universal.
The apostle points out that before God gave the Law on Mount Sinai, sin was already in the world. But men’s failure to meet the standards of the Law was not imputed against them because during that period they had no law. Yet, because death reigned from Adam to Moses, that is, death was universal even though there was no law, it is obvious that men were still sinful. It was not because of men’s sinful acts in breaking the Mosaic Law, which they did not yet have, but because of their sinful nature that all men from Adam until Moses were subject to death.
Because Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden after they sinned, they had no more opportunity to disobey God’s single prohibition. They no longer had access to the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, nor have any of their descendants. Consequently, it has been impossible for any human being, either before or after Moses, to have sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam.
But in regard to the principle of human solidarity, Adam was a type of Jesus Christ. That truth becomes Paul’s transition to the glorious gospel of salvation from sin and death that God offers fallen mankind through His beloved Son, Him who was to come.
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