Death through Adam, Life through Christ
Romans 5 is a pivotal piece of Paul’s theology. Like almost every other pivotal passage its meaning is hotly contested. As much as possible we want to try to hear Paul before we decide what he can and cannot be saying.
Paul’s frequent use of ‘Therefore’ belies the flow of thought in his writings. Paul’s writing is a journey and you need to know where he came from in order to understand why he is here and where he is going. This is not to say that all his work is a tidy flow of logic. Paul is the kind of traveler who likes the byways. He is constantly distracted by what he sees beside the road, and frequently veers off on a rabbit trail for an excursion, before returning to the main course of his thought. In this part of Romans we will encounter a prime example of this meandering.
“Therefore” says Paul, and we are following up on the interview with Paul that Zach let us listen in on last week. In that interview/overview of the first part of Romans 5 Paul told us that we can boast and rejoice, not in what we do, but in what God does for us, long before we experience even the first premonitions of our own desperate need.
“12Therefore, 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—”
and here is the first rabbit trail. Paul started out making a comparison ‘just as’ but now he sees an auspicious trail that he cannot resist exploring:
“13for before the law was given, sin was in the world.”
Paul wants us to understand the nature of sin. First, we are not merely guilty in Adam, though the biblical view of the solidarity of humanity mitigates the perceived injustice of such a conclusion. In our own time we have an impoverished view of what it is to be human because we give far too much credit to individuals as being the basic unit of humanity. In biblical thought the basic unit of humanity is the community. The writer of Hebrews talks about Levi, who is the type of the priesthood since that is the tribe that was given the priestly role of collecting tithes. The writer notes that Levi, who collected Israel’s tithe in fact paid the tithe to Melchizedek because he was in Abraham’s body when Abraham met Melchizek and paid him the tenth (Hebrews 7:9-10). The OT is replete with similar stories and in this chapter of Romans Paul shows that this principle works both ways. The same solidarity that has us all sinning in Adam also has us all justified in Jesus Christ. However, none of us can blame Adam for our sinfulness because, as Paul notes here and elsewhere, “all sinned.”
Paul understands that we may resist the notion that sin is pervasive, by reason of a deficient understanding of sin as breaking the law. Sin is more than doing what you know you should not do because you have learned better. If sin was only a matter of operating against better knowledge than those who did not have the law could not be considered guilty, and yet death, which in Paul’s mind is integrally linked with sin,
“reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”
Death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of the giving of the law to Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a law. Adam did sin in breaking an explicit command, and death came as a result of that sin, but even those who never had a law to break still operated under the curse of death because they all sinned, with or without the law.
This is another clear indication that we are not guilty in Adam because of his sin, we are guilty with Adam because we all sin. However, being classed with Adam is not only bad news, because Adam was a pattern of the one to come, the One who would more than reverse the curse of Adam’s disobedience with another superlative act of righteous obedience.
“15But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”
‘The many’ is a term (hoi polloi) that does not intend to select a group of many out of a larger group that includes all. Hoi polloi is a term that refers to the masses of people without distinguishing them as a subset of a larger category. The parallelism also makes it difficult to suggest that the many in one case is in any way distinguishable from the many in the second use. The emphasis in this verse is not a comparison of two different categories of the many, but on the impact of the gift as over against the trespass. If the masses died because of the trespass of the one man, how much more will God’s grace and gift that came by the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the masses!! The implication is that those who died because of sin will be more than restored in the work of Jesus Christ. But just in case we missed the point, Paul says it again:
“16Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.”
The superlative comparison continues as Paul points out that the judgement of death followed one sin, but the gift followed on the heels of many sins and still prevailed to bring justification. One sin was enough to bring death, but many sins were not enough to stand in the way of justification! The comparison of extravagance continues:
“17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
The precise denotation of “those who receive” is one of those hotly debated phrases in this text. Does this phrase intend to limit the “provision of grace and the gift of righteousness” that comes though Jesus Christ to a subset of those over whom death rules? If so, then this phrase stands in stark contrast to every other comment in this text regarding the relative extent of the curse as compared to the gift, not to mention the general tenor of this passage which uniformly exults in the excess of the gift over sin and death.
If this phrase is understood to introduce a hint of conditionality it should not be taken to refer to the gift, but to the fruition of the gift. The gift remains an ‘abundant provision’, but those who ‘receive’ the gift will ‘reign in life’. The gift is the antidote to everything impacted by sin, and those who receive the gift will reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. The reigning in life is not something we can do on our own, it only happens as we participate in Jesus Christ. It seems that the work of Jesus Christ flows for all at least as freely and as powerfully as the original sin introduced death into the world, a death which impacts all. We do not have an original choice in whether or not to participate in sin, though we do have a choice in how enthusiastically we participate. It seems there is a parallel in that we do not have an original choice in justification, but we do have a choice in how far we allow God’s salvation to take root in our lives, and how far we go in letting the life of Jesus Christ reign in us. Paul’s next words are a powerful reiteration of this very point:
“18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For 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.”
This is an incredible salvation! As awful as was the curse, God has more than simply reversed the effects of sin for us!! Any perception of injustice in being included with Adam in original sin is more than mitigated by the good news that we are also all included in the justification that brings life for all. We start life twice born! Solidarity in the actions of others stands in our favor as it brings us the righteousness that can only be realized in the work of Jesus Christ.
20The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is not likely that Paul intends to say that the advent of the law actually increased sin because he has just said that sin is pervasive even where there is no law. It is much more likely, given the context, that he intends to remind us that we know sin because of the law. This fits with earlier statements like “through the law we become conscious of sin” (3:20). It would be positively contrary to God’s nature to take action that increased sin when the consistent message of scripture is that sin is anathema to God to the extent that He chooses to give his own life rather than allow sin to rule his creation. In fact it would be quite appropriate to recognize that it is grace that works through the law to bring about a recognition of our own sinfulness and our need for a Saviour, and it is the same grace that reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ.
The key verse of Romans is 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. Romans 5:12-21 is a pre-eminent exposition of this salvation. Even before we realize we have fallen God has already provided a remedy that is more than sufficient to restore the relationship that was broken by our sin. The question now is how shall we live in light of this salvation provided for us and for all who sin? Romans 6 will lay that our for us, but it quite emphatically does not condone any notion of living frivolously in a presumption of this grace freely bestowed. Rather, in a heartfelt gratitude for this salvation we should count ourselves dead to sin, and alive to God.