12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the onethe 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. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. 20 The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,21 so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 5: 12 – 21
Q: When Paul says, “…sin entered the world through one man…” is he saying we inherited the sin from Adam or that all men are guilty because of Adam’s sin?
The church in Rome was primarily gentile but with a significant Jewish population. The question of how gentiles would be included in the family of the Jewish God without first becoming Jewish was a virtual preoccupation in the early church. Paul’s vision for the church is that God has taken down the divisions of hostility that once existed between them and created a new humanity or community through Jesus Christ.
Before we begin to exegete Romans 5: 12 – 21, specifically, we should take some steps back and make sure we get a bird’s eye view of what has been going on in the previous chapters to get a sense of why and how Paul uses Adam.
One can see from the very beginning the overall thrust of Paul’s focus in this letter: one gospel for two distinct peoples. The genesis of Paul’s argument leading up to Romans 5 can be seen from the beginning where he states his obligation to both Greeks and non-Greeks (Rom. 1: 14) and that the gospel belongs to gentiles as well because both are equally deserving of God’s wrath and judgment (Rom. 1: 16). He comes to a high point in his sustained argument in 3: 9: “both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin.” Furthermore, in 3: 23 Paul states that “all [both Jews and gentiles] have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Then he goes on in verses 29 – 30 to state that God is the God of the gentiles as well so therefore God’s salvation is for gentiles too, and both Jews and gentiles will now be justified before God by the same faith in the crucified and risen one.
This then leads Paul to present a retelling (or re-interpretation if you will) of the Abraham story in Genesis in such a way that emphasizes his status before God as being dependent upon faith and not on the law. He reminds his audience that Abraham was called the father of many nations (Rom. 4:17), not just (ethnic) Israel. That alone would have been an explosive idea to Jews reading or listening to this epistle. It must be noted here that what motivates Paul’s re-interpretation of Abraham as the father of the Jew and the gentiles is rooted deeply in the dominant, reorienting reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. And this brings us to Romans 5.
In Romans 5: 1 – 11, Paul writes again about how Jews and gentiles are culpable before God and are therefore subject to the penalty of death (as he did in Romans 1 – 3). What is God’s solution to all this? God’s answer, according to Paul here, to this universal problem is the death and resurrection of Christ. All humanity is powerless to take the first step toward God, to escape sin and death, and so Christ’s death is an act of sheer grace.
So this brings us to Romans 5: 12 – 21. In this section, for the first time Paul pinpoints the cause of this universal plight of humankind in Adam. In the NRSV, verse 12 is translated as, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…” This last clause is of vital importance in understanding the text. In some older translations of this verse that was based on the Latin Vulgate and not the original Greek text, the Greek word for “because” was translated by the Vulgate as “in whom,” implying “in Adam”. Due to this mistranslation of the text it contributed to the doctrine or view of “original sin” – the view that the sin and guilt of Adam’s transgression was genetically passed down to all of mankind thereafter. (It was in reflection of this verse in the 4th century AD that Augustine developed this theology of original sin (peccatum originale).) Thus, here you can see how one “slight” mistranslation of one word can produce a doctrine or point of view that can affect generations of theological thought and reflection about mankind, sin, and redemption.
So, to get go back to Paul’s intended original meaning with the better translation being “because” or “with the result that”, he’s not saying that God punishes all later human beings for the sin of Adam, but that Adam’s story is the representative story of everyone. In verse 13, Paul wants to make it clear that the power and prevalence of sin was readily active in that all people died even before the law of Moses was given. Sin is a universal corporate experience that affects both Jew and gentile alike. The real problem is that all sin and all die- Jew as well as gentile. When Paul mentions “death” in this section we should bear in mind that death here is understood not as “natural death” (i.e. biological death) but, like “sin”, a transcendent power (see 3:9) that overcomes and enslaves human life, or a spiritual death that comes by being in a state of alienation from God. This is what binds the two together existentially speaking. What also binds them together is the shared need of the universally offered redemption. That is the true plight of all humanity, and the resurrection of Christ has brought that to light. Paul uses the figure of Adam to display this. For Paul, Adam is more than merely a historical figure, but also one of penetrating theological significance. In verse 14 he serves as a ‘type” of Christ in Romans 5:14. (This is not the first time Paul uses Adam to make his point across: in 1 Cor. 15: 44 – 49, he uses Adam to represent humanity- all those whose existence is marked by a ‘natural body’ (v. 44 NIV).”)
Paul sees Adam as the first human who introduced universal sin and death in order to support his contention that Jew and gentile are on the same footing and in need of the same savior. By saying this, Paul is uprooting the prevalent belief among the Jews at the time that the nation of Israel’s wasn’t God’s sole focus; instead, the main drama began all the way back to the beginning with the first Adam and was brought to an epic conclusion with the last Adam- Jesus Christ. That is why being a Jew or a gentile is no longer the primary distinction; what really matters is whether one is “in Christ” or not. Paul presents here the “scandal” of the Christ event that would have shocked Jews reading or listening to this letter. Jesus represents a “new” Moses and that the God of Israel is no longer a national god centered on Israel but is, in fact, the God of all nations, races, and people. To place this in modern context, it’s like some Christians listening about the shocking revelation that God can and will save Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.
Paul’s aim was not to write up an eternal doctrine or systematic theology of how sin is really transferred down to us from generation to generation since the time of Adam. It is important to note that this idea of “sin transmission” is foreign and alien in the Old Testament as well. In fact, the closest Genesis comes to the idea of Adam’s handing down something to his offspring is Gen. 5: 3, where Seth is said to be in Adam’s image and likeness. But surely this is not a comment on Seth’s inherited sinfulness. If anything, 5:3 stresses Seth’s privileged role as continuing Adam’s line in view of Abel’s death and Cain’s banishment. Again, the cause and transmission of sin are not the topic. Paul uses the Adam story to speak to a new situation that is present before him when he’s addressing the church in Rome; he is not bound by the original meaning of the Genesis narrative. He uses the Adam narrative as a vehicle to drive home the message that all, Jew and gentile alike, are in the same dire predicament of sin and death and can only find hope in Jesus Christ. For Paul, whatever meaning the O.T. had in this regard now has a deeper meaning in light of Christ’s coming. Paul’s theological conviction drives his interpretation of the Adam narrative and recasts that story and character to explain the significance of Christ’s coming, death, and resurrection and how he reconciles the alienation we have with God and with each other.
Romans is often read within Protestant churches as a tract for how an individual can get saved, i.e. that we are justified by grace through faith, not by works. But we must keep in mind that Paul was writing to a Roman church that was already Christian, although consisting of Jews and gentiles. ‘Getting saved’ may be part of the application of Romans, but if one makes it the whole message, much of Paul’s argument will be missed. Instead, we must be constantly aware that the focus of Romans is that the death and resurrection of Christ put Jew and gentile on even footing. They reveal the unrealized fact that together Jew and gentile make up one people of God because they are both saved from the same plight (sin and death) by the same solution (Jesus’ death and resurrection).
Enns, Peter, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins, Brazos Press, 2013