The Christian is someone who hopes in the glory of God (5:3). This hope is sure; it will not put those who have it to shame (5:5). God’s love, which is most clearly seen in the redemptive work of Christ, will infallibly secure the hopes of those who trust in his Son (5:6-11). This is the theme, not only of the first verses of chapter 5, but, as we’ve been arguing, of all of chapters 5-8. So how does 5:12-21 fit into this scheme?
That it does tie in with the previous verses is indicated by the word “therefore” at the beginning of verse 12. The question is, what is the “therefore” there for?
Some have argued that Paul is drawing a conclusion from all the previous chapters. That is certainly possible because, as we shall see, the theme of this section of the epistle is certainly tied in with the main point the apostle has been laboring to make. That point is that we are justified not by our own righteousness, but by the righteousness of God. Moreover, this righteousness is imputed, or counted, to us, not on the basis of our goodness, but simply by faith in Christ. We can sum it up like this: when we believe in Christ, his righteousness becomes our righteousness by imputation, and on this basis we are declared to be right in the sight of God. Now in these verses, the imputation of righteousness to the ungodly is now summed up and illustrated by a comparison and contrast between Christ and Adam.
Though that is all true, yet I think these verses also build the case the apostle is making for the security of the believer. The point is made by this comparison and contrast between our Lord and Adam. In order to really understand just how secure we are in Christ, we have to understand just how he has undone the misery introduced into the world by Adam. All of our problems ultimately boil down to these three things: sin, condemnation, and death. Adam brought all these things into the world. The apostle will show that Christ has so conquered sin, guilt, and death, that all who belong to him will triumph in the end. Yes, sin reigns in death, but grace reigns through righteousness that leads inevitably to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (5:21).
The word “therefore” could then refer to the previous verses; in particular, it could refer us back to verse 11, where we are told that “we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” We have received reconciliation, or atonement, through Jesus Christ, so that our hope is secure – indeed, it is something in which we can rejoice. The question is: how have we received this reconciliation by which our hope is secure? And the answer is: much in the same way that we received sin, condemnation, and death from Adam. But there is not only this comparison, but also this contrast. There are similarities, but there are also differences. Christ’s atonement was much more efficacious than Adam’s fall, so that in Christ we need not fear the death that Adam brought into the world. We see the comparison in verses 12-14 and 18-19. We see the contrast in verses 15-17.
So Paul is saying something like this: “Therefore, just as we receive reconciliation through Christ, we receive death through Adam, and this tell us something that is at once heart-breaking but also hope-filling. Heart-breaking because of what Adam caused. But also hope-filling because of what Christ has done.”
Interestingly, though Paul does not call Christ the “second Adam” in this chapter, he clearly thinks of him in that way. In 1 Cor. 15:45, 47, Paul explicitly refers to our Lord in just these terms. Christ stands in relation to those who belong to him in much the same way that Adam stands in relation to those who belong to him. In fact, you could say that the argument of the apostle in Romans 5 is nicely summed up in 1 Cor. 15:22 – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” In Rom. 5:14, the apostle will say that Adam was “a type of the one who was to come,” referring of course to Jesus. It is incredibly important, in order to understand this chapter rightly, to keep this before us at all times. Once you forget that this comparison runs throughout these verses and you will be tempted to read them in a way that is foreign to the intent of the apostle. Keep this in mind, and everything fits into place and makes sense.
Now we said a minute ago that the comparison between Christ and Adam is made in verses 12-14 and 18-19. However, what happens is that the apostle begins to make the comparison in verse 12, then breaks off and doesn’t finish it until verses 18 and 19. Note how the verse reads: “Therefore, just as [here the comparison begins] sin came into the world though one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned –“ and then he breaks off the comparison. However, he does complete it in verse 18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”
Why does the apostle break off the comparison? He does so because he has just said something in verse 12 that he feels needs some explanation, and that explanation is found in verses 13 and 14. He ends verse 14 saying that Adam is a type of Christ (and so similar in some sense), but then feels that this too has to be kept from misunderstanding and so verses 15-17 show that Adam is not only similar to our Lord but that there are also very definite and distinct differences. Having done this and cleared away the difficulties, he then completes the comparison in verses 18-19.
But what was so controversial in verse 12 that Paul felt that he needed to give some explanation for it? I think what Paul is saying is that we sinned in Adam, and on that basis also receive his condemnation, namely, death. When the apostle says, “because all sinned” at the end of verse 12, I don’t think he’s referring to our individual acts of sin, but to our sinning in Adam. But I need to make an argument for that, because this understanding of the verse is hotly disputed, even by some who call themselves orthodox and evangelical.
Indeed, if you were to take this verse and cut it from the text, and pin it on a wall somewhere isolated from the overall context, it could be legitimately read to mean nothing more than that Adam introduced sin and death into the world since he was the first one who sinned, and we follow his example by sinning and dying. Adam sinned and therefore died; we also sin and therefore die. However, I don’t think that’s what the apostle is saying here, and I want to give you three arguments from the text itself for the position that “because all sinned” means that we sinned in Adam.
Before I do that, however, let me clarify what I mean by “sinned in Adam.” What I mean is that the human race was so constituted by God that Adam was made our federal head and representative, so that the legal consequences of his acts were imputed to the human race. When he sinned and alienated himself from God, he not only involved himself but every member of the human family. Death spreads to all not just because we commit individual acts of sin, but also because we inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin.
This may seem strange to us, but this may partly be because we live in such an individualistic culture. Apparently, cultures that emphasize the community over the individual don’t tend to find this doctrine very mysterious. And in fact, this was the world of patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. And we see this principle illustrated in a number of striking incidents in the Bible. For example, when Achan stole and hid his loot from Jericho, his sin affected not only himself, and not even just his immediate family, but also all of Israel. Men who had no knowledge nor partook with Achan in his sin died because of this man’s covetousness. They were affected by Achan’s sin, even though they did not copy his sin themselves. Moreover, when God alerts Joshua to the fact that something was wrong, he puts it in this way: “Israel has sinned” (Josh. 7:11). Achan’s sin was Israel’s sin. Charles Hodge put it this way in his commentary on this passage: “The curse of Canaan fell on his posterity; the Egyptians perished for the sins of Pharaoh; the Moabites and Amalekites were destroyed for the transgressions of their fathers; the leprosy of Naaman was to cleave to Gehazi, and ‘to his seed forever;’ the blood of all the prophets was exacted, says our Lord, of the men of his generation. We must become not only infidels but atheists, if we deny that God deals thus with men, not merely as individuals, but as communities and on the basis of imputation. The apostacy of our race in Adam, therefore, and the imputation of his sin to his posterity, although the most signal of the illustrations of this principle, is only one among thousands of a like kind.”
But that does not yet answer the question: why must we understand, “because all sinned,” to mean our sinning in Adam? Again, let me give you three reasons why I believe this is the right way to read this text.
The explanation in verses 13-14 demands it.
Whatever these verses are doing, they are meant to function as an explanation of verse 12. We see this as Paul opens verse 13 with the word “for.” “For sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin Is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (13-14). How do these verses help explain the previous one?
The main point of verse 12 is that death which spreads from Adam to us is universal. How then do we explain the universality of death? What Paul is saying in these verses (13-14) is that neither the Law of Moses nor the law of conscience can explain the universality of death. People sinned and people died before the law of Moses was given; that’s the point of verse 13 and 14a, so it can’t be that people only die because they have violated the positive revelation of God’s law in the Mosaic covenant. But Paul goes further; I think he does this because one could argue that even though people don’t necessarily die because of the Law of Moses, yet Paul has already argued that God’s moral law is written on people’s hearts and perhaps that’s why death is so universal. We sin against conscience and that’s enough to condemn us. That’s why people die.
But the apostle says, “Wait a minute. Hold on. What about all those people who didn’t sin like Adam?” Now admittedly there is a lot of debate as to who Paul is referring to by this phrase. But I agree with John Piper (among others) that Paul is referring, at least partially, to the problematic case of infants here. Infants don’t sin like Adam did, since Adam sinned against personal revelation, and infants can’t do that. They can’t read the law of God in Scripture; neither can they read God’s law written in their hearts. I’m not of course arguing that infants are born with a nature pure and clean (this is contradicted by passages like Eph. 2:3), but I am saying what I think is fairly obvious: infants don’t sin against Scripture or conscience because they don’t yet have the faculties developed to do so.
And yet infants die. If, as Scripture says over and over and over again, that death is the result of sin and that death is the penalty attached to sin, then why do infants die? You can’t explain it by the violation of the law of Moses and you can’t explain it by the violation of the law of conscience. How then do you explain it? The implication of the apostle’s argument is that the only way you can explain it is by the solidarity of the human race in Adam. Infants die because they are connected to Adam; his sin is imputed to them and therefore even before they are able to commit personal acts of sin, they are already liable to death. That’s why infants die.
Verses 13-14 therefore explain how it is that death has spread to all – it has spread to all because all have sinned in Adam.
The analogy between Christ and Adam points to the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity.
At the end of verse 14, Paul says that Adam is a figure, or type, or Christ. I said earlier that we have to keep this fact in mind if we are to interpret this passage correctly. Now, if the point of verse 12 is that we die because we copy Adam in committing personal acts of sin, then the analogy would demand that we live because we imitate Christ in perfoming personal acts of righteousness. But that would be to turn the gospel on its head. The apostle has labored to show that we are saved and justified, not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of what Christ has done for us and in our place. Righteousness is imputed to us – not ours, but God’s.
No, rather, Adam is a type of Christ, partly at least because he stands in relation to his posterity the way Christ stands in relation to his people. They both represent others before God so that their merit is transferred or imputed to those who belong to them. Adam’s sin is imputed to us in virtue of our connection with him by birth, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us in virtue of our connection with him by new birth.
Now I am not saying that our personal acts of sin don’t have consequences, both temporal and eternal. That is of course true. I’m not saying that we will not be judged according to our works. That’s true. What I am arguing, and what I believe the apostle to be arguing, is that the fundamental reason we are born under a cloud of sin and guilt and death is because when Adam sinned, so did we. His sin was imputed to us and we bear with him the consequences of it.
But the glorious counterpart to that truth is that the fundamental reason we are granted eternal life is because when Christ died, so did we. When he rose to newness of life, so did we. We are not saved because we must claw our way to heaven; we are saved because Christ has won eternal life for us, so that we receive by grace what we do not in ourselves deserve.
The emphasis on the “one man’s sin.”
Throughout this passage, the emphasis is not on the individual acts of sin that we commit and the consequences stemming from that. Instead, the emphasis is upon Adam’s sin and the consequences stemming from that. For example, in verse 15, we are told, “For if many died through one man’s trespass,” and in verse 16, Paul is writing again about “the result of that one man’s sin.” In verse 17, he comes back to it again: “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man.” In verse 18, “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men,” and in verse 19, “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” And the point of all this is not on what Adam’s sin did to himself, but what it did on his posterity, to us. Because of his sin, we died (15, 17), are condemned (16, 18), and were made, or constituted, sinners (19).
Verses 18 and 19 are especially important in this connection, because not only do they carry the same emphasis, but they also complete the apostle’s comparison from verse 12. Verse 18 says that Adam’s sin led to condemnation, not just for himself, but for all men. In the same way (“so”) “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Here the analogy is explicit: Adam and Christ are similar in the way they act for others. Adam sinned and brought condemnation to all; Christ obeyed and brought righteousness and life for all. Adam’s sin is imputed to us just as Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.
In verse 19, we read that “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Now the point here is not that we are made personally righteous by the obedience of Christ. The context, remember, is justification, not sanctification. Rather, we are made legally and declarative righteous by the obedience of Christ. How? Because his righteousness is imputed to us. Even so, the point here is not that we are made corrupt by Adam’s sin (though that is true), but rather that we put in the category of sinners because of our connection with Adam, because his sin was imputed to us.
Verse 12, therefore, should be read as saying that Adam brought sin and consequently death into the world, and death spread to all men because all sinned in him. For good and wise purposes, Adam’s sin was imputed to his posterity.
One of those good and wise purposes is that it provides a way out of our sinful and sad state. For if we can lose our life through one man, then that means life and salvation can be regained through one man. And we see, both in this text and everywhere in the NT, this is exactly the case. Did sin and death come into the world through Adam? Yes. Did we die in him? Yes. But it is also the case, thank God, that righteousness and life have come into the world through the second Adam, Jesus Christ. As we died in Adam, so we come to life in Christ. Our connection to Adam guarantees that we will die; our connection to Christ guarantees that we will live.
What should we say to these things? Three implications.
Sin is a horrible thing.
This text teaches us that one sin brought into the world all the misery that we see. No, that doesn’t mean that our own sinful choices and acts don’t contribute. It doesn’t mean that we don’t fact the consequences of our own evil desires and acts. But it does mean that the primary explanation for all the misery and suffering and evil that we see is Adam’s first choice to disobey God.
But this has enormous applications to our own daily choices, especially when we are tempted to take the easy way out and give in to that sin and temptation. Eating the fruit must not have seemed that bad to Adam. In fact, we are told that it looked good. But what consequences followed! So let us resist the temptation that one little sin, one little forbidden fruit, will do us no harm. If Romans 5 and Genesis 3 teaches us anything, it is that no sin is really little. For it is not the sin, it’s the God that we sin against, that is the problem.
The righteousness that saves us is a wonderful thing.
This is the main point Paul is wanting to drive home. It’s not Adam’s sin but Christ’s righteousness that is the main thing here. And what Paul is laboring to bring home is that what saves us is not anything we do, not even our perseverance and good works (though they are necessary) – what saves us is the righteousness of Christ, and it is perfect. Adam’s sin brought us death in all its forms; but Christ’s righteousness brings us life, eternal life.
Jesus is not just a tribal deity; he is the Savior of the world.
I owe John Piper for this observation. The point is this: since all are connected to Adam, and Jesus is the only remedy for the situation brought about by Adam, this must mean that Jesus is the only way any man or woman can be saved. People aren’t saved by different gospels; there is only one gospel and one name by which we must be saved. It is Jesus Christ by which we must be saved. Thank God, he came to save, not the righteous, but sinners; he came to justify, not the godly, but the ungodly. Would you be saved? Look to him, trust in him, hope in him, and you will never be disappointed.
 Charles Hodge, The Epistle to the Romans (Banner of Truth, 1972 [reprint of 1864 ed.]), p. 153-154.
 John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Crossway, 2002), p. 95-96. I think one reason why Paul doesn’t explicitly refer to infants here is that they are not the only ones who necessarily fall into this category; some people with diminished reasoning faculties perhaps belong here as well.