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Romans 5:12-19 Biblical Commentary:
In Romans 1:18—3:20, Paul addressed the issue of sin. Then, in 3:21—5:11, he taught us of God’s grace. Now, in 5:12-19, he relates sin and grace in the stories of two men—Adam and Christ. Beginning with chapter 6, he will help us to understand the practical implications of Christ’s work—will outline what it means to be united with Christ in baptism—will tell us how that affects our lives.
ROMANS 5:12. SIN ENTERED THE WORLD THROUGH ONE MAN
12Therefore, as sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin; and so death passed to all men, because all sinned (Greek: hemarton).
“Therefore.” This word links 5:12-21 to 5:1-11, where Paul talks about justification and reconciliation.
“as sin entered into the world.” The word “sin” (used as a noun) is nearly always singular in this epistle (42 of 46 occurrences), because Paul pictures sin as a spiritual force—a demonic force.
An analogy might be nuclear power. Once the genie was out of the bottle, nuclear power became a demonic force dwelling among us—threatening us—carrying within it the seeds of death.
“through one man.” The man is Adam, but Paul waits until verse 14 to name him because he wants to contrast the destructive force unleashed by the first “one man” with the redemptive force of the second “one man.” In his first reference to “one man,” Paul refers to the story of the fall in Genesis 3.
“and death through sin.” What does Paul mean by “death”? Most scholars agree that he means spiritual death (separation from God) and that he likely means physical death as well. God warned Adam and Eve that they would die if they offended. The fact that they did not die immediately after their offense does not prove that their punishment involved only spiritual death. When they sinned, they sowed the seeds of physical death, which they reaped at a later date.
“and so death passed to all men, because all sinned“ What does Paul mean when he says “all sinned”? Does he mean that we have all committed individual sins? That clearly seems to be his meaning at 3:23, where he uses the same Greek word with the same tense (Greek: hemarton). It also corresponds to our experience—we all know that we have sinned. It also appeals to our popular emphasis today on individual experience and responsibility.
But how can we reconcile this emphasis on individual sins with the corporate emphasis of the earlier part of verse 12 as well as verses. 15-19? There are at least three possibilities:
• Some say that Adam’s guilt has become our guilt as well. This interpretation gains force by repetition (Morris, 232):
“For if by the trespass of the one the many died” (v. 15),
“The judgment came by one to condemnation” (v. 16),
“by the trespass of the one, death reigned through the one” (v. 17),
“through one trespass, all men were condemned” (v. 18),
“through the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (v. 19).
With the strong emphasis on individualism today, many people find it difficult to accept that one person’s action could convey guilt to others. However, the bible includes many truths that run counter to our cultural norms.
• Others interpret “all have sinned” to mean that Adam’s sinful act introduced the demonic force known as “sin” into the world with the result that all of us have come under its sway and have thus all committed sins (Gaventa, 188). This is the interpretation that I find most convincing.
• Still others acknowledge only individual sins, making no attempt to reconcile the corporate emphasis that we find in this verse—i.e., they interpret “all have sinned” to mean simply that we have all committed sinful acts. However, it is difficult to see how a person could hold that view after careful study of this passage from Romans.
ROMANS 5:13-14. DEATH REIGNED
13For until the law, sin (Greek: hamartia) was in the world; but sin is not charged when there is no law. 14Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those whose sins weren’t like Adam’s disobedience (Greek: parabaseos), who is a foreshadowing of him who was to come.
Paul introduced an important idea in verse 12, but now interrupts to deal with a related issue in verses 13-17. He will pick up in verse 18 where he left off at the end of verse 12.
“For until the law, sin (hamartia) was in the world” (v. 13a). Paul digresses to answer those who might disagree with his statement, “all have sinned” (v. 12)—critics who might say that there was no law before Moses, so there could be no sin between Adam and Moses. Such critics would say that sin is possible only when people willfully transgress a law, so in the absence of law there can be no sin.
But Adam sinned by disobeying a commandment given to him by God (Genesis 3:3). In the years between Adam and Moses, God gave various commands to particular people, so it was possible for those people to sin. But only after God gave the law to Moses was it possible for the average person to transgress God’s commandment. Or so goes the argument.
It might be helpful to note two different Greek words used in verses 13-14 that might encourage such a view:
• Paul uses hamartia to speak of sin in verse 13. Hamartia carries the sense of missing the mark or failing to meet the standard.
• Parabaseos is used to speak of transgression in verse 14, and carries the sense of willfully disobeying an established law. The idea of willful disobedience of law is present also in hamartia, but is much more pronounced in parabaseos.
It is easy to see how people living under the Mosaic Law would tend to equate hamartia and parabaseos—to think of sin only as transgression or willful disobedience of the law. If that were true, there would indeed be no sin apart from the law.
Paul says that this understanding of sin is wrong. Sin was in the world before the law—a malicious tyrant set loose in the world by Adam’s sin (v. 12).
“but sin is not charged when there is no law“ (v. 13b). Paul cannot mean that God ignored sin prior to the law, because the story of Noah and the great flood shows that God condemned people for their sins prior to the giving of the Mosaic law. When Paul says that “sin is not charged when there is no law,” he “seems to mean that sin was not reckoned as transgression, for the latter involves a willful violation of a known law” (Witherington, 147).
“Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses“ (v. 14a). The demonic forces of sin and death were loose in the world even before the presence of the Mosaic law. They exercised despotic rule over humankind.
“even over those whose sins weren’t like Adam’s disobedience“ (v. 14b). Adam transgressed a specific commandment (Gen. 3:3). For the most part, people between Adam and Moses did not have specific commandments to transgress. Nevertheless, death exercised dominion over them.
“who is a foreshadowing (Greek: typos) of him who was to come“ (v. 14c). Paul uses this word, “type,” only here and at 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11. However, he also contrasts Adam and Christ typologically without using the word “type” in 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 45-49. The idea of a “type,” if not the word itself, also occurs at Hebrews 8:5; 10:1.
A type involves something from the past that serves as a pattern (or type) for something in the present.
Typology is similar to analogy (from the Greek words ana [up or up from] and logos). An example of an analogy is comparing the heart to a pump. If you understand how a pump works, that will help you to understand how a heart works.
However there is a significant difference between an analogy and a type. An analogy can be strictly hypothetical, but typologies are based on an historical person, place, event, or institution in the Old Testament that is linked with a similar person, place, event, or institution in the New Testament. For instance, Melchizedek is a type of Christ (Genesis 14-18; Hebrews 5:10; 6:20; 7:1-28) and Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly kingdom (Isaiah 60:14; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 14:1).
Paul says here that Adam was a type of Christ. In what sense is this true? Adam was like Christ in that he transmitted his nature to his progeny. What Adam had to offer was death (v. 12). What Christ has to offer is grace (v. 15).
ROMANS 5:15-17. BUT THE FREE GIFT ISN’T LIKE THE TRESPASS
15But the free gift isn’t like the trespass. For if by the trespass of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God, and the gift by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16The gift is not as through one who sinned: for the judgment came by one to condemnation, but the free gift came of many trespasses to justification. 17For if by the trespass of the one, death (Greek: ebasileusen—reigned) reigned through the one; so much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign (Greek: basileusousin—will reign) in life through the one, Jesus Christ.
“But the free gift isn’t like the trespass“ (v. 15a). Paul said in verse 14 that Adam was a type of Christ—an Old Testament illustration of the one who was to come. An illustration does not have to be positive to be instructive. Paul contrasts Adam’s negatives with Christ’s positives: trespass vs. free gift (v. 15)—death vs. grace (v. 15)—condemnation vs. justification (v. 16)—death vs. grace and righteousness (v. 17).
Christ offered the “free gift” voluntarily. Paul fleshes out this thought in Philippians, where he talks about Christ, ” who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7).
“For if…the many died, much more… grace… abounded to the many” (v. 15b). The first “many” refers to all humankind, who died because of Adam’s trespass. The second “many” is less inclusive, referring only to those who have received grace through Jesus Christ.
Grace is defined as “God’s unmerited favor” (Myers, 437). It is only natural that charis (grace) should issue forth in chairo (rejoicing)—especially for beneficiaries of Christ’s grace, which removes a death sentence. Imagine having a deadly illness and then discovering a certain cure. Wouldn’t you rejoice!
“death reigned (past tense). Those who receive the abundance of grace… will reign” (future tense) (v. 17). Death once ruled humankind, but by the work of Christ, grace will reign.
ROMANS 5:18-19. THROUGH ONE ACT OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
18So then as through one trespass, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness (Greek: dikaiomatos), all men were justified (Greek: dikaiosin) to life. 19For as through the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one, many will be made righteous.
“So then” (v. 18a). This refers back to verse 12. If you read verses 12 and 18-19 without the intervening verses, they summarize the central thrust of this text—that sin and death came through the disobedience of one man, Adam, but righteousness and justification and life come through the obedience of one man, Christ.
Note the similarity of the Greek words for righteousness (dikaiomatos) and justification (dikaiosin) (v. 18). Righteousness and justification are different words in English, but the underlying Greek words are related and mean much the same thing.
“were justified” (Greek: dikaiosis—related to dikaioo) (v. 18b). The word dikaioo means to be made just or righteous—not guilty. This is important, because God is holy, and those who are guilty cannot be admitted into God’s presence. Those who have been justified can.
Paul says that Christ died for our sins while we were yet sinners. We are justified by his blood—by his sacrifice. Therefore, we have been reconciled to God (Romans 5:8-10)
“to life” (v. 18c). “All” in this context does not mean “all humankind,” but instead means all “who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” offered by Christ (v. 17). This is clear not only from the context here, but is reinforced by Paul’s work elsewhere (Romans 1:16; 3:21-22; 1 Cor. 15:22-23). “All will be made alive” is not a promise of universal salvation.
“through the obedience” (v. 19). This “one man” is Christ, who “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Briscoe, D. Stuart, The Preacher’s Commentary: Romans, Vol. 29 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Hunsinger, George, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Luther, Martin, Commentary on Romans, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1976)
Moo, Douglas, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Mounce, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Romans, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Witherington, Ben III with Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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