How Christ Rescues Us from Sin, Condemnation, and Death: Romans 5:15-17
Jesus of Nazareth was a man who lived about two thousand years ago. A lot has been said about his life. Many through the centuries have been willing to say that he was a good man who taught people to love each other. For many, his most famous saying is that we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Good words to live by. Ghandi has said, “To me, he was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had.”1
But it is not the life of Jesus of Nazareth that is so important. It's his death. And, despite the arguments of Islamic teachers to the contrary, he did die. You may point to supposed inconsistencies in the accounts, but one thing all the gospels writers undeniably agree upon is that he died. This is agreed upon by all ancient historians who address it. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote in his Annals about Christ, that “he was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.”2 As F. F. Bruce puts it, “For a moment Tacitus joins hands with the ancient Christian creed: '. . . suffered under Pontius Pilate.”3 Perhaps the earliest testimony to this effect are Paul's words to the Corinthians, written about the middle of the first century: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3).
The reason why the death of Christ is important is because the gospel writers are also unified in teaching that his death is the reason he came into this world in the first place. He came to die: “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, saved me from this hour? But for this cause came I unto this hour” (Jn 12:27). As verse 24 makes clear, the hour Jesus is talking about is the hour of his death. Jesus taught his disciples that he must die (Mt 16:21; Mk 8:31; Lk 9:22). Thus, if we focus only upon the life of Christ in exclusion to his death, then according to Jesus himself, we have missed the entire point of his ministry.
Why then did Christ die?
Paul sums it up in a very succinct way in his words to the Corinthians: “Christ died for our sins.” However, in our text, Paul expands upon this thought a bit more. In Romans 5, Paul has made a fantastic statement. His claim is that “when we were enemies [to God], we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (verse 10). The question is, of course, how can one man's death bring life and reconciliation to so many? Paul is answering that implicit question in the verses we are considering this morning.
His answer is that eternal life and reconciliation to God come to us in the same way that death and alienation from God have come to us. We partake of the latter because of our association with the first Adam, the first man, and the father of all humanity, and we partake of the former because of our association with the second Adam, Jesus Christ (cf 1 Cor. 15:45). His argument is summed up in verses 12 and 18: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. . . . Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.”
This passage teaches that just as Adam's sin was counted to all his posterity and therefore brings all of us under condemnation, even so the righteousness of Christ is counted to all who belong to him. It's important to understand that Paul is not saying that just as we copy Adam's sin and bring death upon ourselves, even so we copy Christ's righteousness and so bring life upon ourselves. According to verse 14, death reigned even over those who did not sin “after the similitude of Adam's transgression.” What Paul means by this is that though there were some who “did not voluntarily and overtly violate an expressly revealed ordinance of God” as Adam did, yet they still died.4 Who are these people? I think Piper is right when he says:
I think the group of people begging for an explanation is infants. Infants died. They could not understand personal revelation. They could not read the law on their hearts and choose to obey or disobey it. Yet they died. Why? Paul answers: the sin of Adam and the imputation of that sin to the human race. In other words, death reigned over all humans, even over those who did not sin against a known and understood law. Therefore, the conclusion is, to use the words of verse 18: "through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men." 5
Thus, it's not enough to ascribe death to sins against God's laws. The ultimate reason why there is death in the world is not because we all copy Adam in his disobedience (which we all do) but because we all sinned in Adam and therefore share the punishment of his disobedience, death. This is incredibly important in understanding the death of Christ. Paul is comparing Christ to Adam. Just as Adam's sin was imputed to us, even so Christ's righteousness is imputed to those who belong to him. It is a righteousness not my own, it is a righteousness given to me.
However, Christ's righteousness could never come to any man or woman if he had not died. What stands in the way of this imputation is sin and the condemnation due to sin. Our sin has to be punished, there is no way around that. Christ came and took our punishment on the cross so that we might receive his righteousness.
The Desperateness of Our Situation
However, is it not true that we take for granted what Christ has done on the cross? Does the reality of what he did there really hit us the way it should? It's one thing to get the theology of this passage right. It's another thing altogether to be appropriately affected by the theology of the passage. The reason this doesn't happen as it should is because we don't really understand or appreciate the desperateness of our situation before God.
But Paul helps us to get there in the passage. I'm thankful that Paul was a pastor as well as a theologian, and this comes though in his epistles. It comes through here. Paul helps us to see how hopeless our condition is before God apart from Christ in three words: sin, condemnation, and death. It is only when we really feel the reality of sin and condemnation and the grip that death has upon us that we come to appreciate what Christ did upon the cross.
Sin: what defines us before God
In verse 15 we read, “But not as the offense, so is the gift. For . . . through the offense of one many be dead. . . .” You and I are in the category of the “many.” We need to be saved because of what sin has done to our relationship with God. It has alienated us from the God who is holy.
In this verse Paul says that the reason why we need to be saved is not ultimately because of our sins, though he has already made that point. For example, in 3:23, he says that the reason we need the righteousness of God is because “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” That's you and me, too. We're all sinners, and we need to be justified because we are so. But that's not Paul's point here. The “offense” that Paul is talking about here is Adam's sin. It's not the offense of the many that brings death, it's the offense of the one – Adam.
We can get so caught up in debating whether or not it is fair for God to impute someone's sin to us, that we miss something really important. It is this: sin is so bad, so very bad, that it only took one sin to alienate billions of people from God and to put them forever in danger of the wrath of God. And this is what defines us before God. We are sinners, sinners by imputation and sinners by choice.
But so often, sin doesn't seem to bother us. What is perhaps worse, is that sin only bothers us when it brings with it temporal shame and consequences. We are not bothered about our severed relationship with God. We are like lepers in a leper colony with no contact with the outside world. We are so used to seeing the decaying, rotting flesh that we don't know what it's like to be healthy. And since we can only compare ourselves to other lepers, our own marred visage stops seeming so bad. The missing appendages are only looked upon as a nuisance, but they are no longer considered “that bad,” and the longer we are absent from the society of those free from leprosy, the less we realize how desperate our situation really is.
Think about what the one sin has done. According to the Bible, it is the reason for death. It is the reason for every act of murder, adultery, theft, for every attitude of pride, jealously, envy. It has affected not only the souls of men but the created order about us which “groans and travails in pain” under the burden of “the bondage of corruption” (Rom. 8:21-22). But your sin is not substantially different in nature than Adam's.
Nor should we think that only the “really bad sins” drive us from God, and that as long as we're not defined by these types of sins we are okay. For when we define “really bad sins” we are almost certainly thinking on a horizontal level, as sin relates to other human beings – rather than vertically, as sin relates to God. Adam's sin was eating fruit that God had forbidden. That's it. It certainly was nothing that would land someone in a prison, or even lead to a misdemeanor, but it was the spring of all the misery that has ever been experienced by mankind. The reason is because sin against God – no matter how trivial it's effects upon our fellow human beings – is worthy of eternal separation from God.
In the Old Testament Law, you didn't wait until your nose fell off before you were put outside the camp and disallowed from entering the presence of God in the tabernacle. Even the smallest blemish on the skin could mark you a leper and make you unclean, unable to enjoy the fellowship of God. In the same way, you shouldn't think that just because you are not a murderer or not a pervert that you are worthy of God's presence. If you have disobeyed one commandment, no matter how trivial it might seem to others, you are a spiritual leper, no longer worthy to enter the presence of God, forbidden in fact from entering into his fellowship.
Condemnation: what determines our end before God
In the next verse, Paul elaborates upon what the sin of Adam has brought upon humanity: “And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation. . . .” God has judged the sin, and the judgment led to our condemnation.
When it was determined that Osama bin Laden was the mastermind behind the 9-11 attacks, our government put its full resources into the effort to capture or kill him. However, it didn't happen quickly. It took a long time for justice to catch up to bin Laden. In fact, it took over a decade to track him down, but eventually his location was pinned down and on May 1, 2011, he was killed, thus fulfilling the prediction of President George W. Bush: “We will find you.”
I can't imagine what it must feel like to be hunted by a super-power. Osama evidently didn't even use a cell phone or have a computer linked to the internet because he knew he could be tracked by such means. He had to be incredibly cautious, but in the end even that didn't help him. However, to be under the sentence of condemnation of Heaven is incomparably more serious. The fact is, you might escape a super-power nation. Some have. But you cannot escape God. There is no place you can hide. God doesn't have to look for you, because he already knows where you are. He does not have to call in help to bring you to justice because he is infinitely powerful. There is no one who can stop God from bringing about his purposes. The nations – including the US – are like a drop in a bucket to God. In the book of Revelation, the plight of those who oppose Christ at his coming is shown to be completely hopeless: “And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” (Rev. 6:15-17). Indeed, who?
That is where we are by nature and by our relation to Adam. It's where every human being stands. As Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:3, “we were by nature children of wrath, even as others.” We are sinners, and as sinners, we stand condemned.
Death: what destroys us in the end
But Paul doesn't stop at sin and condemnation. There is something worse: death. In verse 17, he continues: “For . . . by one man's offense death reigned by one. . . .”
What is death? Death is the great destroyer. It undoes that which is most intimately connected – our body and soul, rending them asunder. However, in the Bible, death is much more than a mere physical event, in which the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops beating and the brain stops working. Ultimately, death is separation from God for all eternity. We see this in the contrast Paul puts in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life though Jesus Christ our Lord.” In other words, there are two types of dying: physical dying and spiritual dying.
Now, every man and woman will die physically. And we are all born into the world already dead in sin. The scary thing is that according to the Scriptures, there is coming a time in which those who have died both physically and spiritually will consciously experience both kinds of deaths together in a place called hell. There, they will endure the wrath of God poured out “full strength”, as the apostle John puts it (Rev. 14:10). Paul himself had already described the reality of hell in Rom. 2:8-9, speaking to those who through hardness of heart refuse to repent: “But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil. . . .”
Jesus, who is certainly one who can truly speak with authority on the subject of hell, said this about hell: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell” (Mt 10:28).
There is no way for us to escape this reality, either. The wrath of God is inescapable: “And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such thing, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?” (Rom. 2:3). The answer is obvious. In the text, Paul puts it another way: “death reigned.” We are all the subjects of King Death, and he wields complete dominion over the sons of Adam.
This is the state of mankind: we are sinners, who are condemned, and the sentence of our condemnation is that we are to die. And this death is not just a physical death, it involves eternal separation from God and the enduring of his wrath.
How are we to be saved?
If Paul is right, and I am to be saved, then I need to be saved from sin, condemnation, and death. And that is precisely what Paul says Christ has done in his role as the second Adam and by his atoning death.
Grace overcomes sin (verse 15).
First, I need to be saved from sin. But not just from my sin, from Adam's sin! Thus, it's not just a matter of cleaning up my act, because no matter how much I do that, it doesn't take care of the fact that I am still united to Adam as the head of all humanity. I bear his sin.
But even so, the fact of the matter is that none of us are able to clean up our acts, are we? Every now and then, you come across a person who claims to be sinless. But such people belong to the same category as those who say that illness is just a state of mind. The apostle John contradicts such foolishness when he says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8).
If one sin was enough to plunge all humanity into ruin, can we really imagine that with all our sins we are worthy to stand before God? One sin would be enough to condemn you and I, but we are guilty of a multitude of sins. And because of these sins we deserve to be condemned and to receive the sentence of death. Thus, what we need above all things is for God to show us grace.
And this is precisely what he has done in Jesus Christ. The offense is not like the free gift! Paul contrasts the offense of Adam with the super-abounding grace of God. Yes, it is true that sin led to the death of many, but “much more the grace of God and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.” Yes, we are sinners, but God meets every sin with the overwhelming grace that comes though Christ.
Righteousness reverses the sentence of condemnation (verse 16).
Paul repeats the refrain of verse 15at the beginning of verse 16: “And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift.” How? Because though sin leads to condemnation, “the free gift is of many offenses unto justification.” Christ brings grace by bringing justification. That means that in Christ I am declared to be free from condemnation, I am declared to be right in the sight of God. And such is the super-abounding grace of God in Christ over sin, that Christ's righteousness not only erases the sin of Adam against me, but also all my own sins against God. Note the contrast between the one sin of Adam and the many offenses. Christ reverses not only what Adam did, but what his posterity has done as well.
Christ crowns us with life (verse 17).
Then Paul says this amazing thing: despite the fact that death reigns, “much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.” John Stott has observed that we would expect by way of contrast to the reign of death for Paul to say that now in Christ life reigns. But that is not what Paul says. Instead, he says that we reign in life: “What Christ has done for us is not just to exchange death's kingdom for the much more gentle kingdom of life, while leaving us in the position of subjects. Instead, he delivers us from the rule of death so radically as to enable us to change places with it and rule over it, or reign in life.”6
And as the death we need to be delivered from is more than just physical death, even so the life that Christ grants us by grace is more than just physical life (though it is not less than that!). It is eternal life in the presence of God forever, where there is no more death or even chance of death.
All this comes through Christ. This is why he died, so that we might have grace that cleanses us from our sin, justification that frees us from the sentence of condemnation, and life that conquers death. How do we then partake of this grace, righteousness, and life? Did you notice what Paul said in verse 17: “much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.” It must be received (cf. Verse 11). The question then is, how do I receive it? The answer is given to us as the beginning of this chapter, in verse 1: “Therefore begin justified by faith, we have peace with God.” Therefore, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved.
2Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1999), page 121.
4John Murray, Romans.
6John Stott, Romans (1994), page 156.