My wife and I watched with fascination as the impact of one man upon the world was being described on television. The man was Christopher Columbus. According to research, Columbus was responsible for introducing many new things to America: horses, cattle, pigs, goats, and, if I recall correctly, small pox. Columbus brought not only some of Europe to America, he also took some things from America back to Europe. Among these were smoking and syphilis. Whether for the good of mankind or for his detriment, this one man made a great impact on his world.
Over the centuries of mankind’s history, many men and women have significantly impacted the destiny of those who followed after them. None, however, has had greater impact than Adam, the first man. In our text, Paul shows just how great the impact of Adam’s “fall” has been upon mankind. Paul stresses this impact to demonstrate that in spite of the curse, which Adam’s sin brought upon the human race, God has provided a cure in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
To the unbeliever, this passage promises and offers not only the forgiveness of sins, but a new beginning, in Christ. To the Christian, there are no more encouraging words than those found here. These words speak not only of the salvation which God has accomplished for us, in Christ, they also lay the foundation for the next section of Romans in chapters 6-8, for the basis for sanctification is found in the truths which Paul expounds here. The words of our text are words of life and hope for all mankind.
After explaining his relationship to those at Rome, his desire to visit them, and his purpose for writing this epistle (1:1-17), Paul sets forth the great dilemma: the righteousness of God and the rottenness of men (1:18–3:20). In His righteousness, God must condemn sinners. In his rottenness, every human being, Jew or Gentile, is under divine condemnation because each has rejected that revelation of God which he or she has received. The solution to this dilemma is the cross of Calvary. There, Jesus Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world and bore the righteous wrath of God for sinners. God’s righteous anger was thereby satisfied, and there His righteousness was made available to all men, through faith in Jesus Christ.
Viewed from a divine perspective, salvation was provided by God through Jesus Christ so that God’s righteousness might be revealed (3:21-26). This righteousness is imputed to men on the basis of faith, not works, as seen in the biblical account of Abraham’s life (Romans 4:1-25). The account of Abraham’s faith reveals that he was saved by faith alone, apart from works, and at a time when he was uncircumcised and thus, a Gentile. His faith, like ours, was in a God who had the power to raise the dead.
In Romans 5, Paul views the justification of men by faith from yet another, much broader, perspective. Paul first portrays man’s salvation as the grounds for exultation and boasting in 5:1-11. We may boast, confident in the certainty of entering into the “hope of the glory of God” (verses 1-2). We may boast even in our present tribulations, assured of God’s love, on the basis of Christ’s death, and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (verses 3-10). We may finally boast in God, through the person and work of Jesus Christ (3:11).
In Romans 5:12-21, Paul views salvation from the curse of Adam to God’s cure in Christ. Adam’s one act of disobedience brought both sin and death upon mankind. Christ’s one act of obedience, on the cross of Calvary, brought about the solution to this curse. The work of Christ offers all men not only the promise of the forgiveness of their sins, but a new identity and a new beginning, in Christ.
Our text falls into three sections. Verses 12-14 describe the similarity between the act of Adam and that of Christ. Both men are “federal heads” of mankind, whose actions affect all men.132 Verses 15-17 emphasize the many significant contrasts between the act of Adam and the act of our Lord. The similarity between these two men is the basis for the work of our Lord. The differences between them are the basis for His becoming the cure for the curse which Adam brought upon the human race. Verses 18-21 sum up the results of the work of our Lord, in relation to those which stem from the action of Adam. Paul also defines the role which the Law played, in relation to man’s sin and God’s grace.
We can therefore summarize the structure of our text as follows:
(1) The link between Adam and Christ (verses 12-14)
(2) Distinctions between Adam and Christ (verses 15-17)
(3) Christ’s work, man’s sin, and the Law (verses 18-21)
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.
Paul sets out to establish two very important connections in these verses. The first link is that between Adam and mankind. The second is between Adam and Jesus Christ. These connections are essential, for they explain the way in which God purposed to save men from their sins. In particular, the work of Christ is presented as the reversal of the work of Adam. The curse which Adam brought on the human race has its cure in Christ.
Adam was regarded, rightly so, as the source of sin’s entrance into the world. With his act of disobedience, sin first entered human history. No believer would disagree with this. But Adam’s sin did much more than this—it brought guilt upon all mankind. Adam’s sin and resulting guilt was imputed to all his descendants. Adam sinned, and because of this he died. Adam sinned, and because of this, all men die. All men die because they sinned, in Adam.
Adam’s sin, along with its guilt and penalty, was imputed to all those who were born of Adam. Adam’s sin and death were imputed to mankind, for all mankind have come from Adam. In some way that is difficult to understand, all mankind sinned in and with Adam.133
Paul explains this more fully in verse 13. “The wages of sin is death,” both for Adam (Genesis 2:16-17) and for all others (Romans 6:23). All those who lived from the time of Adam until the time of Moses, when the Law was given, died. They did not die, Paul tells us, because of their own sins, for the Law was not yet given, and their sins were not a transgression of God’s commandments. Sin existed in those days, but it was not imputed, because there was no law. Why then did all those from Adam to Moses die? Because they all sinned, in Adam, and were therefore guilty and worthy of death.
It is very important that we understand what Paul is not saying here, as well as what he is saying. Paul is not saying that we all sin because Adam sinned, though this is true.134 Paul is saying that we all sinned when Adam sinned. Paul is saying that we are all guilty of sin, in Adam, and thus we fall under the divine death penalty. The period of time between Adam and Moses best demonstrates this, because those who died during this time period did not have their own sins imputed to them.
The point then is this: Adam’s sin and its consequences included and involved the entire human race. This does not really sound fair, does it? Come on, admit it. This sounds, at first, like a terrible injustice. Why should we suffer because of Adam?
There is a solution to our problem. First, we must understand and interpret Paul’s words here in the light of what he has already written. Men are not guilty sinners only because Adam sinned, corrupting and implicating the rest of the human race. Paul has already taught in chapters 1-3 that all men, without exception, are guilty sinners, because each of us is guilty of unbelief and disobedience toward God. All men have received some revelation about God from His creation. Some men have the added revelation of God’s Law. But regardless of how much men have had revealed to them about God, they have rejected Him and refused to worship or to obey Him. As a result, Paul has said, all men are guilty sinners, worthy of death.
Are we guilty sinners because Adam sinned? Yes, we are. But we are also guilty sinners because we have sinned. We are not under divine condemnation only because Adam sinned; we are condemned as sinners because we have sinned. Adam sinned, and we are guilty (Romans 5:12-14). All have sinned and are also guilty (Romans 3:23).
Does the curse of sin on the entire human race, due to the act of one man, trouble us? Then we must press on to the second link which Paul makes in our text. Not only is there a link between Adam’s sin and mankind’s universal guilt, there is a link between Adam and Christ. In verse 14, Paul informs us that Adam “is a type of Him who was to come.” Adam is a type of Christ.135
What seems to be bad news becomes very good news. There is a correspondence between Adam and Christ. Adam, we are told, is like Christ. It is this likeness, this link, which enabled our Lord Jesus Christ to die on Calvary, and to rise from the dead, and in so doing to free men from the curse brought upon them by Adam. Adam’s curse has its cure, in Christ, who is like Adam in some way. Before Paul will play out this “likeness,” he will first show how our Lord was distinct from Adam. It is in His “unlikeness” as well as in His “likeness” that our Lord provided men with the opportunity to be saved from their sins.
15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the 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 And 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.
If the link between Adam and our Lord is established clearly in verses 12-14, the distinctions are emphatically put forward in verses 15-17. Verse 15 begins with the word “But,” informing us at the outset that Paul is changing his focus, from the similarity between Adam and Christ to the distinctions between these two. Twice, in verses 15-17, the expression, “is not like” is found (verses 15 and 16). What delightful differences these are, between Adam and our Lord. Let us briefly consider them, as explained by Paul.
Christ’s work is distinguished from Adam’s in that His work is referred to as a “gift,” while Adam’s work is summed up in the term “transgression” (verse 15). Adam’s act was a transgression, bringing guilt to mankind and its penalty of death. Christ’s act was one flowing from God’s grace and resulting in grace to men. The first distinction between the work of Adam and the work of Christ is the difference between guilt and grace.
In verse 16, Paul adds two more distinctions between Adam and Christ. Adam’s act was but one act of sin and disobedience. Our Lord’s saving work at the cross was prompted by our many sins. Adam’s act was one sin that made the many sinners. Christ’s act was one act, but in this one gracious act, our Lord gathered up all the sins of mankind and suffered the penalty for them. While Adam's sinful act resulted in the condemnation of all mankind, our Lord's saviing work resulted in the salvation of all who receive this provision for their sin.
In verse 17, two further distinctions are presented by Paul. The first distinction is indicated by the expression, “much more.” The action of our Lord is greater than that of Adam.136 This becomes more evident in the light of the next distinction, which we find in this verse. Adam’s sin led to the “reign of death.” Adam’s sin brought sin and death upon all men. Christ’s act brings about the “reign of righteousness in life.” Adam’s sin brought life to an end; Christ’s act dethrones death and enthrones righteousness, which is evidenced in life. And since this life is eternal life, righteousness will reign forever. Adam’s sin ends life; Christ’s act extends life, forever, as a context in which righteousness will reign.
Whatever the similarity may be between Adam and Christ, the distinctions are far greater. Both the link and the distinctions between Adam and Christ make it possible for Christ to act in such a way as to undo the damage done by Adam and to shower upon men grace in place of guilt, righteousness in place of sin, and life in place of death.
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 And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The link between Adam and Christ is that both persons, though one man, have acted in a way that affects all men. Adam sinned, and his transgression brought condemnation upon all men. Christ’s act was one of righteousness, resulting in justification and life. Adam’s disobedience makes sinners of many; Christ’s obedience will make many righteous.
Having summed up the impact of Adam and Christ, Paul returns to the subject of the Law. Already Paul has said that those who lived before the Law (from Adam until Moses, verse 14) died because they sinned in Adam. Sin is not imputed to men without law (verse 13). The absence of the Law, for those who lived before the giving of the Law, was a kind of blessing. Without the Law, sin, other than that of their sin in Adam, was not imputed to them. Now, Paul must pick up the subject of the Law and its impact on men after it was given.
The giving of the Law did not solve the problem of sin. The Law was not given in order to reduce or remove sin but to increase it. While this sounds incredible, this is exactly what Paul says. And the reason: so that grace could surpass sin, abounding to men in righteousness and salvation. The Law increased sin, our Lord Jesus bore the penalty of that sin, and the grace of God is multiplied. The Law was not to deliver men from sin but to declare men sinners so that the sin introduced by Adam could be remedied in Christ.
How differently things look now! It first appeared that God might be unfair, condemning us as sinners, in Adam. But now we see this was in order that He might receive us as saints, in Christ. If the imputation of Adam’s sin to all mankind resulted in condemnation, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness results in justification. The means for man’s justification is the same as the means for man’s condemnation—imputation. The work of one man both condemns and saves men.
How Paul’s words must have shaken those self-righteous Jews, who believed they were righteous by virtue of their identification with Abraham and their possession of the Law. Being of the physical seed of Abraham did not save anyone. Being of the physical seed of Adam, however, condemned them. They were not righteous, in Abraham, but they were sinners, in Adam. And since Adam was the head of the whole human race, there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Every son of Adam is a sinner, guilty, condemned, and subject to the death penalty.137 Being a “son of Abraham” did not change this.
Possessing the Law was no salvation for the Jews. The Law did not remedy the problem of sin but only caused sin to increase so that the problem became more dramatically evident. The Law not only increased sin; it made sin a personal matter. Now, those under the Law were not only sinners, in Adam, they were shown to be sinners on their own merits. Not only were the Jews guilty sinners, in Adam, they were also guilty sinners, on their own, as defined by the Law. The Law did not deliver any from sin, but it did declare many to be sinners. In these verses, Paul knocks the props out from under Jewish pride and boasting, in Abraham and in having the Law. If the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, they rejected the only cure for the curse. Only Jesus could reverse the curse and make sinners saints. For them to reject Christ was to be left guilty, in Adam.
When the apostle Paul presented Christ as the cure for the curse of mankind, brought about by Adam’s sin, he removed all basis for boasting and pride. Those who are sinners, in Adam, can hardly boast about this. Those who are saved, in Christ, are saved by the work of the Lord Jesus and thus can take no credit themselves. As James Stifler writes,
Adam is a figure of Christ in just this respect: that as his one sin brought death to all, even when there was no personal sin, so Christ’s one act of obedience brings unfailing righteousness to those who are in Him, even when they have no personal righteousness.138
Contextually, Romans 5:12-21 serves a very important purpose. It lays the groundwork for Paul’s teaching on sanctification in Romans 6-8. If the work of Christ provides sinful men with a solution to the problem of God’s righteous wrath, it also provides men with a solution to the problem of the reign of sin and death.
Because of our own fallenness, we even tend to look at the work of Christ in a selfish, self-centered way. We who are saved delight in the certainty that, in Christ, our individual sins are forgiven. Our past, present, and future sins are all forgiven in Him, because of His death, burial, and resurrection on our behalf. But Christ’s work does much more than give us the forgiveness of our sins; by means of the cross, He has also provided freedom from the dominion of sin. This freedom from the reign of sin is the subject of Romans 6-8.
We might say that the work of Adam was a bad beginning for the whole human race. But the work of our Lord Jesus Christ offers men a new beginning. Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection does much more than to allow us to go on living just as we have in the past, but knowing that the sins we commit are forgiven. The work of our Lord makes it both necessary and possible for us to begin living in a whole new way, not as the servants of sin, but as the servants of righteousness. The work of our Lord not only forgives the sins of our past, it wipes out our past, and gives us a new future. What hope and encouragement for the sinner! In Christ, God offers men a whole new life, a new beginning, a fresh start. What good news this is—to the ears of a repentant sinner.
Taken in a broader perspective, Romans 5:12-21 explains much about the coming of our Lord. How important, and how fascinating some elements of the gospel accounts become when we see our Lord’s coming as being for the purpose of offering a cure for the curse which came through Adam. Was Adam a man? So Jesus was a man as well. The genealogies of the gospels make a point of this, and Luke specifies that Jesus was both the “son of Adam” and the “son of God” (Luke 4:38). While Adam brought sin upon the world, our Lord was proven to be without sin, so that He could die in the sinner’s place (2 Corinthians 5:21, see also Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). While Adam was only a man, who could bring the guilt of sin on the world, Jesus was the God-man, whose righteousness could be imputed to men, by faith (Romans 3:21-22). Adam was tempted and failed (Genesis 3), but Jesus, though tempted, resisted sin (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). All of the “sons of Adam” are born sinners; Jesus was the “seed of the woman” (Genesis 3:15), and His conception and birth were of divine origin, through the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:34-35). Every aspect of Jesus’ birth, coming, life, death, and resurrection corresponded to that which was necessary, due to Adam’s sin, to save the human race.
By implication, a number of important principles become evident and are exemplified in our text. As we conclude, let us consider four of these principles.
(1) God takes sin seriously. Throughout the Bible, and in the world about us, men are constantly trying to minimize sin and its consequences. But the Bible constantly emphasizes the seriousness of sin. Our text dramatically illustrates the seriousness of sin. Look at the devastation one sin brought to the human race: Adam’s sin brought about his own death, but it also condemned all mankind to death. Who can say that sin is not serious?
Adam’s transgression was not even such that most people would call it sin. At best, men might look upon Adam’s sin as a misdemeanor, something as evil as spitting on the sidewalk (still illegal in some towns and cities, I am told). Adam simply ate the fruit of a tree.139 What was the problem? The problem was that God had commanded Adam not to eat of the tree (Genesis 2:16-17). An act which men would hardly even think of as sin becomes the cause of man’s downfall. God does take sin very seriously, and so must we.
It is not surprising that those who deny Jesus Christ as God’s Savior would tend to minimize sin. But it is greatly disappointing that Christians do likewise. Why do many of us ignore some of God’s commands—because we do not think they apply to us, or because we disagree with God’s commands, or simply because we do not want to obey? Here is but one illustration. The Bible has some very clear words to the church about the role which women should play in relation to their husbands. Why has the majority of Christendom found compelling reasons to utterly ignore such commands, as though they did not exist? God does not command us to do those things with which we agree, or in the doing of which we find good reason to obey. God tests our obedience by commanding us to do that which is contrary to our intellect, emotions, and will but which is consistent with His character and His Word. Let us beware of setting aside God’s commands. Adam did, and we died. Jesus was obedient, and thus we live.
(2) Our identity is found either in Adam or in Christ. Self-esteem has become the watchword of our age. Sin is now defined by at least one preacher as poor self-esteem. Sinful acts are said to be rooted in poor self-esteem. The highest good seems to be to have a “good self-image.” And thus the world, joined by many Christians, occupies itself by constantly looking backward and inward, into self, to develop a healthy self-love. Paul will have none of this. For Paul, looking backward, even to those things in which he once took great pride, meant he now saw them as dung (Philippians 3).
Ultimately, our identity and our worth are wrapped up in one of two persons: Adam or Christ. All that we are in and of ourselves, we are in Adam. We may contemplate and fabricate our own worth as much as we like, but we are, in Adam, sinners, worthy of death. Why do we keep trying to make something good of something the Bible calls bad? The identity of the Christian is in Christ. Let us dwell upon Him. Let us look to Him. Let us keep Him central in our hearts and minds. This is the consistent exhortation of the Word of God, and especially of the New Testament epistles.
(3) Those who are the victims of Adam’s sin are also guilty of personal sin, of their own doing. The word “victim” is rapidly becoming one of the most popular terms in our English vocabulary. We are considered victims of an infinite array of abuses. As “victims” we are absolved of all guilt and responsibility. We not only are justified in blaming others, we are urged to do so. We are told we are victims, and thus we say, “It isn’t my fault, I was victimized.”
In one sense, all mankind is the victim of Adam’s sin. But let us remember that while Paul seems to speak of mankind as a victim of Adam’s sin in Romans 5, he also says that we sinned in Adam. We are not relieved of our own guilt and culpability in the matter of sin. Even those who lived before the Law was given were sinners. We who have the full revelation of God in Christ and in His Word are even more accountable. But beyond this, we must not forget that in Romans 1-3 Paul finds every man guilty before God, not because of what Adam did, but because each individual has rejected the revelation of God given to him or to her. Yes, we are guilty because Adam sinned (Romans 5), but we are also guilty because we have sinned (Romans 1-3, especially 3:23).
In Romans Paul does not dwell on men as victims but on men as responsible individuals. We are, first, responsible for our decision concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are, as Christians, responsible for our actions. Let us not over-emphasize the victim aspect of life but rather the fact that in Christ we are victors, “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).
(4) Birth is both the cause and the cure for man’s sin. In studying this Romans passage, it occurred to me that perhaps no other New Testament text better explains the words of our Lord, spoken to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). John introduced this man Nicodemus as a “Pharisee” and as a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), but Jesus referred to him as, “the teacher of Israel” (3:10). No doubt this teacher, this renowned teacher, had taught about Adam, about his fall, and the downfall of the human race. But Nicodemus, if he was like the rest of the Pharisees, trusted in his physical descent from Abraham and in the possession of the Law. What a shock it must have been for Nicodemus when Jesus told him that entrance into God’s kingdom required a second birth!
Yet this expression, “born again,” should not have been a foreign thought to Nicodemus. It should have caused him to think in those terms in which Paul is speaking in Romans 5. How was it that the human race fell into sin? It was on account of Adam. But how did each individual fall under the curse? It was by being born. Birth made one a son of Adam and thus a sinner (see David’s words in Psalm 51:5-7). The solution to the guilt of sin, encountered at birth, was another birth, a second birth. In order to be saved, men must exchange their identity with Adam (by which they are condemned) to an identity with Christ (by which they are justified). As birth was the source of a man’s sin, so another birth is the solution.
This is what the gospel is all about. Jesus Christ came to the earth to offer men a cure for the curse which Adam’s sin brought upon all mankind. The gospel confronts us with a choice. Will we remain in Adam, subject to the penalty of death? Or will we accept God’s provision for a new identity, in Christ? Being “born again” is our Lord’s way of speaking of that point in a person’s life when they acknowledge their own sin, their own guilt, and the just sentence upon them of death. It is ceasing to trust in what we are and clinging to who Jesus Christ is. It is finding our identity in Christ, rather than in Adam. It is turning from condemnation to justification, from death to life, and from Adam to Jesus Christ.
Have you been born again? As it was necessary for Nicodemus, a famous religious leader and teacher, it is necessary for you. Will you choose death or life, Adam or Christ? There is no more important decision you will ever make than this. The salvation which God has offered in Jesus Christ is not automatic. It must be received (Romans 5:17). Receive it today.
132 I have chosen my words carefully here. While the sin of Adam brings sin and condemnation upon all men, the death of Christ does not save all men. Paul clearly states in verse 17 that the blessings which are the outflow of the work of our Lord are for those who receive them, in and through Christ. I do believe, however, that there are certain aspects of our Lord’s work on Calvary which affect all men. For example, I believe that His resurrection from the dead is the basis for the resurrection of all mankind, some to everlasting life, and others to everlasting torment (see John 5:28-29; Revelation 20).
133 An illustration of the concept of federal headship can be found in Hebrews 7, where Aaron and his descendants (the Levitical priesthood) are said to have paid tribute to the greater priesthood in Abraham, when he gave a tithe to Melchizedek. In Abraham, the Levitical priesthood offered a tithe to Melchizedek, acknowledging the superiority of this priesthood over their own.
135 Adam is the only person who is specifically identified as a type of Christ in the Bible. While others, like Joseph, Moses, and even Jonah, may have served as types in certain regards, only Adam is identified as such in God’s Word. Isaac is the only other person who is spoken of as a type (Hebrews 11:19). His return to his father, as one who seemed doomed to death, was a type of the resurrection of our Lord.
136 Allow me to illustrate this by likening the work of Adam to the captain of the Valdez and the work of Christ to the clean-up operation. It really was not that hard to run the oil tanker aground, to rupture the ship’s storage tanks, and to contaminate a vast area. What was hard was cleaning up the mess. Adam’s sin was like the grounding of the ship. Christ’s work will bring about a perfect “clean-up.” Christ’s work is vastly greater than that of Adam’s, just as the work of the clean-up crews is much greater than that of one man, the captain of the Valdez.
139 Let me suggest a matter for further thought. In our text, it is Adam’s sin to which Paul refers, not that of Eve, even though Eve first ate the fruit. Why did Paul not blame Eve, like Adam did? In 1 Timothy 3, Paul tells us that Eve was deceived. Here, perhaps, Paul focuses on Adam as the transgressor, since he is the one to whom the commandment was given (see Genesis 2:16-17). Paul seems to be very consistent with his premise that guilt is only imputed to those who have received God’s commandment.