Adam and Christ Contrasted – Romans 5:15-17
At the end of verse 14, the apostle makes a comparison between Christ and Adam in the words, “who is a type of the one who was to come.” Adam is a type of Christ. How? Paul makes it very clear in verses 12-19, that they are similar in that their actions affect many. Adam’s initial sin brought death and condemnation to all who belong to him, and Christ’s righteous act in his obedient death brings life and justification to all who belong to him.
Another way to put it is that Adams’s sin was imputed to those who are in Adam (which is the entire human race), just as Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who are in him (the elect). Both Christ and Adam stand as federal heads or representatives of those who are “in Christ” or “in Adam.” This is the sense in which they are similar, in which Adam is a type of Christ.
It needs to be stressed that the emphasis here is not on our sinning, for that would be to subvert Paul’s entire argument. Paul ties the universal reality of death and condemnation back to Adam’s sin, and Adam’s sin alone. Now that doesn’t mean that our sins aren’t significant, or that they don’t have consequences. Of course they do. Paul has already made that point in chapters 1-3. But that is not his point here. Here the apostle is arguing that we die because of Adam’s sin. If Paul was saying that we die because we sinned just as Adam sinned, then in point of fact Adam is not responsible for our dying: we are, not Adam. Adam would not come into the matter at all. But the apostle ties death back to Adam again and again in this paragraph. It can only be properly explained in light the solidarity of the human race in Adam, and his sin being imputed to all.
This is the reason we are born in a state of spiritual death, separated from the life of God, and condemned – “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3). As the hymn by Isaac Watts puts it, “Our life is ever on the wing,/ And death is ever nigh;/ The moment when our lives begin/ We all begin to die.” Adam’s sin explains this reality. It is the reason we are born under a cloud of sin and condemnation and death. It is the only satisfactory explanation for the universality of death and sin. Every generation confirms what the apostle has written here.
But this is not all there is to the story. Adam and Christ are not just similar; there are also very distinct and definite differences. This is what the apostle highlights in the text before us. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to argue that these differences are what guarantee the final victory of the believer over the sin, condemnation, and death that Adam brought into the world.
I am thankful for this two-fold perspective of the apostle, the perspective of Adam and Christ. It is the perspective of a realist, and yet it is also a perspective of hope that doesn’t give in to despair. In our day, people generally tend to either be Pollyannaish or fatalists. Some people have this attitude that “all will be right in the end,” without having any real reason to hope for that. They also tend to be the type that thinks that people are basically good and that good must ultimately triumph for that reason. But that is not a very realistic lens through which to see the world, and if you are at all an observant person, you are likely to give in to despair after a while. The Biblical perspective, however, warns us that people are not born into this world with a blank slate, but under the condemnation of Adam’s sin, born into the world dead in sin. The expectation is not for people to be good, but to be bad. And that is, by the way, what we see on a daily basis. That is why we need law, and why anarchy always tends to the destruction of society.
On the other hand, it is easy to have a doomsday perspective, and to throw up one’s hands in defeat and to become a perpetual Eeyore. But the Biblical perspective does not allow us to embrace that narrative either. For Adam is not the only one who defines what the world is like. The second Adam, Jesus Christ, has come into the world to undo what Adam has done. But he not only undoes what Adam did, he does more. He doesn’t just put us back to where Adam was before he sinned, but he puts us in an impregnable position, one that guarantees that if we belong to him we must and shall inherit eternal life. All that is wrong with this world will one day be swallowed up in the life that Christ has purchased for his people on the cross. Though today death reigns, it will not reign forever. Therefore the Christian can look at this world, messed up as it is, and know two things: it is not at all surprising that it is this way, and it will not be this way forever. The first comes from the knowledge of what Adam has brought by his sin; the second comes from the knowledge of what Christ has accomplished by his sacrifice. The first saves us from naivety, and the second from despair.
How then does the apostle contrast Adam and Christ? We see it laid out for us in verses 15 and 16. Then in verse 17, Paul sums up the previous two verses in order to highlight the ultimate triumph of the believer through Christ. Christ is not only different from Adam – the differences are of such a nature that they make our triumph over death inevitable (see also verse 21).
The “much more” of grace – verse 15
In the first place, the apostle writes, “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” Notice that there are three “for” clauses in verses 15-17. The first two are clearly meant to give a reason why the work of Christ is not like the sin of Adam. I , in light of the context, that the third “for” functions in the same way. All three verses therefore highlight why Christ is different from Adam.
So you have these contrasts. But the first contrast in verse 15 doesn’t go quite like we might expect. The apostle says that “many died through one man’s trespass.” We would therefore expect the contrast to go like this: “if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have many been made alive through one man’s righteousness.” But that is not what Paul says. Instead of contrasting death with life, he contrasts death with grace.
Now there is no doubt that this grace leads to life. The context makes this clear. In the next verse, we are told that the “free gift” of verse 15 is one which brings justification and righteousness. Of course, righteousness leads to life: “those who receive abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (17). This is the way Paul closes his argument in chapter 5: “as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (21).
Nevertheless, the apostle chooses to focus on grace as the point of contrast in verse 15. There are four words in this verse alone that highlight the fact that what Jesus did for us was a gracious gift. The point is that, because of Adam’s sin, none of us deserve God’s favor. God could have left the world in its broken condition and remained just and holy. However, he has not done so. But the fact that he has not done so is not because we deserve a second chance. It is a free gift. It is undeserved.
We need to constantly remind ourselves of this reality. We do not become saved because of our merit. We do not enter into a justified state and into God’s favor and family on the basis of our works and worthiness. The only way we can savingly relate to God is by his grace through the work of his Son for us.
This is connected to the second point of contrast in verse 15. The first point of contrast is that whereas Adam’s condemnation was a matter of justice, Christ’s obedience for us was a matter of grace. But the second point of contrast is indicated by the words “much more” and “abounded.” As I said a minute ago, our Savior doesn’t just put us back to square one. He doesn’t put us back in the Garden of Eden where we too might mess up and lose God’s favor once again. No, what he has done is “much more” effective than the sin of Adam. The grace of Christ “abounds.” Verses 20-21 tell us how it abounds: it abounds by reigning where death reigned and giving eternal life to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Grace doesn’t just make eternal life possible; it makes it inevitable for those who belong to Christ.
This is due, not only to the potency of Christ’s redemptive work, but to the fact that we relate to God through Christ by grace. This means that if you are in Christ by faith, God is not waiting for you to mess up so he can zap you with judgment. Grace means that eternal life is secure because it doesn’t depend upon your goodness. Grace is protection. It is security. It abounds over and above the sin of Adam and undoes all the death and guilt and sin that he brought into the world.
Justification versus Judgment – verse 16
In verse 16, Paul continues with the contrast: “And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” Again, we have two points of contrast here in this verse. The first is that Adam’s sin brought condemnation whereas the grace of our Lord brings justification. The second is the contrast between the one sin of Adam and the many trespasses that had to be overcome in order to bring about the justification. Let’s consider them in order.
Adam’s sin brought condemnation. Now that doesn’t mean that the only condemnation we stand under is that which comes from Adam’s disobedience. Rom. 1:18 defeats that idea. We stand condemned by our own sins (cf. Jn. 3:18, 36). Nevertheless, as our federal head, Adam’s failure is our failure and so his condemnation is our condemnation as well. Moreover, this state of condemnation led to death in all its dimensions, including spiritual as well as physical death. Because of Adam’s sin, we are dead in sins, and “by nature the children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). We therefore go on to incur our own guilt by our own sins, the “many trespasses” the apostle mentions in the second part of this verse.
But our Lord brings justification. Justification is the gracious declaration by God that we are right in his sight. If we are justified, we are no longer condemned. Thus our Lord has undone what Adam did. And this justification is free, as the apostle has already argued in the previous chapters.
But then there is this other point of difference. It is this. It just took one sin to mess up everything, to bring death into the world. Now we live in a world characterized by death, by decay, by evil and hate, by suffering and pain. But here is the problem: Adam’s sin led to more sins. In fact, it led to “many trespasses.” Our world is filled with people who sin. It is no different, really, from the world that was destroyed by the flood, about which we are told that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). As bad as the world became when Adam sinned; it is much, much worse now.
Though it is true that the main point of this passage is not that we copy Adam and therefore incur guilt, yet this is hinted at in this verse. Adam’s sin did lead to condemnation for all of us. But we have added to that condemnation. We have added to his guilt by our own sins. So in order to undo what Adam has done, our Lord must not only atone for Adam’s sin; he must also atone for our sins. And how many of those are there? Who could count even our own sins, let alone the sins of the world? When we truly consider just how much evil Adam’s sin brought upon this world, that is daunting enough. But when we add to that the sins of all his descendants, the problem becomes almost too much to comprehend. How in the world could such evil be overcome?
And yet that is exactly what the apostle claims here. The free gift which follows many trespasses bring justification. I imagine a tidal wave 100 feet high – that’s Adam’s sin and that’s destructive enough. But then add to this all the sins of his descendants, and you have a tidal wave hundreds or thousands of feet high. What could stop it? It would seem impossible, and yet that is exactly what our Lord has done.
How the reign of death is stopped – verse 17
In verse 17, we have the final contrast. But here what the apostle does is to sum up the content of the previous two verses in order to establish the conclusion that what Christ has done secures our final victory over death. Note the emphasis on the reign of death or the reign of sin in death throughout this passage (ver. 14, 17, 21). Sin and death sit like kings over this present order. We must remember that in that time, kings were not constitutional monarchs: they held absolute power. Paul is saying that when Adam sinned, death came in to reign like a king over people. The book of Hebrews presents a similar picture when it describes those who through fear of death were all their lives subject to slavery (Heb. 2:15). This is the kind of rule that death holds over us: it is the rule of slavery and bondage.
How can we be delivered from it? By Christ. Because of the abundance of grace (ver. 15) and the free gift of righteousness (ver. 16) that come through the one man Jesus Christ, “much more” will we “reign in life” (ver. 17). The dominion of sin and death is completely overturned by the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He delivers us from death and brings us into the dominion of life. We not only live, but reign in life. This is not just deliverance from death; it is more than that. It is the enthronement of the saints in eternal life, forever out of the reach of sin and death.
It is important to see that this life is both present and future. The fullness of the life is yet to come. We will not fully experience it until the end when death is finally defeated in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-28). Death and sin have been dethroned, but they are still waging guerilla warfare against us. Nevertheless, there is a present aspect to this life as well. When we are born again, and given newness of life, we enter into the first-fruits of the life that is to come. Thus, in 6:4, the apostle argues that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
But one of the implications of this is that once we have this life, it is not something that can be taken away. The “much more” of Christ’s victory over Adam’s sin and the death that followed it should keep us from thinking that we can have this life and then lose it. Thus, the overall thrust of this passage is one which should cause the saints to hope and to be assured that their hope is secure. Adam cannot take away what Christ has purchased by his death. We do not reign in life if we are always in danger of losing that life. No, the saints are secure; their hope is sure and firm. For Christ is not only like Adam, but gloriously different as well.
Now the security of our hope in Christ is certainly the proper implication to draw from this passage. However, there is another implication that many have tried to draw from this text that is not so proper. That is, some have argued from the parallel between Adam and Christ and the universal language that the apostle uses that every human being will be saved. The argument is this: just as Adam’s sin brought death to everyone, even so Christ’s righteousness will bring life to everyone. They say that because Adam’s sin is universal, so also must Christ’s salvation. The “many” of verse 15 must be coextensive, it is argued. And then there is verse 18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” That seems pretty definite.
However, this is to ignore the larger context of the apostle’s argument. Death is universal because all men are in Adam – that is, Adam is their federal head by virtue of their being related to him. How are we related to Adam? By birth. Paul clearly understood that every human being has descended from Adam. He was a real, historical figure, and along with Eve stands as the first ancestor of every person who has ever lived or ever will live.
But how are we related to Christ? We are not related to him by physical birth (see Jn. 1:12-13). This is important because Christ stands as a federal head and representative for all who are related to him. Paul again and again stresses the importance of being in Christ (Eph. 1:3-14). As he puts it in 1 Cor. 15:22-23, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” How are you “in Christ”? How do we belong to him?
The answer is by new birth and by faith. We must “receive the reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11); it is not automatically ours. The propitiation that Christ offered on the Christ, and by which we are forgiven and reconciled to God, is available to us, not on the basis of physical birth, but through faith (Rom. 3:25).
Therefore the “many” of verse 15 and the “all” of verse 18 are not coextensive. They are to be understood as referring to those who are in Adam and in Christ. All who are in Adam died and all who are in Christ will live. But we are not in Adam the same way we are in Christ, and therefore we must not take this text to teach that salvation is universal.
That doesn’t mean, however, that salvation is not extensive. Now I think it is silly to inquire about the relative numbers in heaven and hell. Some have argued that the “much more” of Christ’s salvation means that there will be more in heaven than hell. Well, I don’t think that necessarily follows. But we do stand on firmer ground when we affirm that there will be an innumerable multitude of the saved in heaven (cf. Rev. 7:9). Our Lord did not die for nothing. He will see the travail of his soul and be satisfied (Isa. 53:11, KJV).
However, what difference does it make if you are not among the saved? Do not let this world tempt you to neglect the next. The salvation that our Lord offers is infinitely better and enduring than anything this world can offer. “Nothing of earth is sure,/ Vain hope soon dies;/ Things of the Lord endure,/ Christ satisfies.”
Nor let the guilt of your past sins keep you from coming. Salvation is a gift, a gift of grace that was bought and paid for by Jesus Christ. And the invitation is for you to come and receive this gift: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).
Finally, if you belong to Christ, take heart. Your hope is sure. Death has come to us because of Adam, but death will be one day swallowed up in victory because of what Christ has done. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).