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14. Study and Exposition of Romans 5:12-21

A. Introduction

In his book, Kingdoms in Conflict, Charles Colson paints a dismal picture of the state of commitment to God at the UN building complex in New York:

The United Nations complex sits on sixteen acres of New York City’s choicest real estate, bordering the East River and Manhattan. The lean, immense Secretariat building rises into the sky, the sun reflecting off its window walls. Bright flags of the nations of the world fly in the breezes off the river; the most prominent is the blue and white UN flag, its two white reeds of olive branches surrounding the world.

A visitor is immediately struck by the grandeur of the building, stirred by the sight of dignitaries stepping out of black limousines to cross the massive plaza. He realizes that if this place represents the powers of the world, one may well want to see the place of worship, where the nations bow before the One under whose rule they govern.

The information personnel are bemused, “The chapel? We don’t have a chapel. If there is one, I believe it’s across the street.”

The visitor darts across the thoroughfare, dodging New York’s taxis, and successfully arrives at the opposite building’s security-clearance desk.

“Well, there’s a chapel here,” responds the officer, “but it’s not associated with the UN.” He thumbs through a directory. “Oh, I see, all right, here it is. It’s across the street—and tell them you’re looking for the meditation room.”

Again the visitor dashes across the pavement. An attendant tells him that the room is not open to the public; it’s a “nonessential area,” and there has been a personnel cutback. But a security guard will escort the visitor through the long, crowded hallways and the swinging doors. Again, there is the pervasive sense of weighty matters being discussed in the noble pursuit of world peace.

The guide pauses at the unmarked door. He unlocks it and gingerly pushes it open. The small room is devoid of people and decoration. The walls are stark white. There are no windows. A few wicker stools surround a large square rock at the center of the room. It is very quiet. But there is no altar, rug, vase, candle, or symbol of any type of religious worship.

Lights in the ceiling create bright spots of illumination on the front wall. One focuses on a piece of modern art; steel, squares, and ovals. Beyond the abstract shapes, there is nothing in those bright circles of light. They are focused on a void. And it is in that void that the visitor suddenly sees the soul of the brave new world.”45

A wise teacher once said, “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew!” If the leaders are off course, what is to become of those who follow? As the leaders go, so goes the nation. Colson’s comments reveal a startling practical atheism entrenched in the hearts and minds of our political leaders. The end result will not be the peace they supposedly seek, but rather strife, turmoil, and suffering for all involved.

But while the nations frantically search for world peace, there can be no real peace apart from repentance and obedience to God through Christ. There can be no real peace until we get rid of our idols and turn and serve the living and true God (1 Thess 1:9-10). In vain will people search. But the good news is that through Christ God is building a new humanity, a new nation as it were—a nation of people dead to life in Adam and sin, and brought into new life in Christ, their leader. This is the point of Romans 5:12-21. There is hope for peace in Christ because he alone brings righteousness and staves off the judgment of God. While world rulers continue on ignoring God (1 Cor 2:6, 9), he continues on with his program for a new humanity, where

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:6-9).46

B. Translation of Passage in NET

5:12 So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned—5:13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law. 5:14 Yet death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the same way that Adam (who is a type of the coming one) transgressed. 5:15 But the gracious gift is not like the transgression. For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many! 5:16 And the gift is not like the one who sinned. For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures led to justification. 5:17 For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ!

5:18 Consequently, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people. 5:19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous. 5:20 Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase; but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more, 5:21 so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

C. Full Exegetical Outline

Idea: Sin, death, judgment, and condemnation came through Adam, whereas God’s grace, the gift of righteousness (justification), and reigning in life—indeed eternal life, came through Jesus Christ. 

I. As a result of Adam’s sin, sin and death entered the world, even before the law was given, and even over those who did not sin in the same way as Adam, who is a type of the coming one (5:12-14).

A. As a result of Adam’s sin, sin and death entered the world and spread to all men, because all sinned (5:12).

B. Death reigned before the law was given even over those who did not sin in the same way as Adam (5:13-14b).

C. Adam is a type of the coming one (5:14c).

II. The gracious gift is not like Adam’s transgression, for the latter brought death, judgment, condemnation upon all and made sinners of all, while the former brought overflowing grace, justification, and the opportunity to reign in life through Jesus Christ (5:15-19).

A. Adam’s transgression brought death to the many, while the grace of God and the gift which came by Christ’s grace overflowed to the many (5:15).

B. Adam’s transgression led to death and condemnation while the gift followed many transgressions and led to justification (5:16).

C. By Adam’s transgression death reigned, but for those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness, they will reign in life through Christ (5:17).

D. Through one transgression condemnation came to all people, but through one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people (5:18).

E. Through Adam’s disobedience the many were made sinners, but through Christ’s obedience the many were made righteous (5:19).

III. The law came in so that transgression may increase, and it did, but just as sin reigned in death so also grace multiplied all the more and continues to reign through righteousness to eternal life (5:20-21).

A. The law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased grace multiplied all the more (5:20).

B. Just as sin reigned in death, grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (5:21).

D. Simple Point Outline

Idea: Death through Adam, Life through Christ

I. Through Adam’s Sin, All Have Sinned (5:12-14)

A. Adam’s Sin and the World (5:12)

B. Universal Death before the Law (5:13-14b)

C. Adam: A Type of Christ (5:14c)

II. Death through Adam, Life through Christ (5:15-19)

A. Adam’s Transgression—Grace (5:15)

B. Judgment/Condemnation—Justification (5:16)

C. Death/Adam—Reigning in Life/Christ (5:17)

D. All Men Condemned—“All Men” Justified (5:18)

E. The Many/Sinners—The Many Righteous (5:19)

III. The Triumph of Grace over Law and Sin (5:20-21)

A. The Law, Sin, and Grace (5:20)

B. Grace, Righteousness, Eternal Life (5:21)

E. Exposition Proper

The exegesis and exposition of 5:12-21 is filled with many difficulties and challenging questions. We will try to surface the major issues and deal with them in a preliminary way.

5:12 Paul begins this new section with a common expression, so then (Διὰ τοῦτο, dia touto), which does not indicate a mere transition, but functions inferentially so that what follows in 5:12-21 is a conclusion based on preceding material. Literally, the expression dia touto means, “on account of this….” Since Paul does not explicitly identify what he means by the word “this,” it is reasonable to assume that he has the major thrust of 5:1-11 in mind, since dia touto generally looks backward and not ahead. The principal thrust of 5:1-11 is that because of justification and reconciliation the Christian can be certain of being delivered from the wrath of God in the future. The connection between 5:1-11 and 5:12-21, then, can be summarized as such: since Christians have been completely delivered from God’s wrath (5:1-11), Christ must have completely overturned the effects of Adam’s sin (5:12-21). 

With the expression just as (ὥσπερ, hōsper) in v. 12 Paul begins a comparison which he does not complete until vv. 18-19. The comparison is between the effects of Adam’s sin and the effects of Christ’s obedience. Compare vv. 18-19.

When Paul says sin (ἡ ἁμαρτία, hē hamartia) he is not referring to “specific acts of sin,” but rather the principle of sin, that is, the ruling power of sin to which all human beings (i.e., the world) are subject and which leads to death. In this case Paul says that sin entered the world (does this mean that it existed beforehand?) through one man, namely, Adam. It is interesting that he does not mention Eve here (but cf. 1 Tim 2:13-14). This is probably due to creation order and the inherent responsibility (upon the man) that came with that (1 Cor 11:9-10).

When sin entered the world death (ὁ θάνατος, ho thanatos) followed immediately. The Genesis record is filled with the stark reality of the consequence of sin (Gen 4-5). It was in this way—through Adam’s sin—that death spread to all men. Thus Paul’s focus is not so much on original sin, though that is definitely important to him, but on death and how it came to be that it captured the entire race.

But what does Paul mean when he says, because all sinned (ἐφ᾿ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον, eph’ hō pantes hēmarton)? This passage has elicited numerous interpretations. There seems to be a contradiction in Paul’s words, for on the on hand, he says that all die because of the sin of Adam, but on the other, he says that all die because all sinned. Which is it? At least three important issues need to be considered: (1) the meaning of “because” (eph’ hō)? (2) what does “all sinned” (pantes hēmarton) mean? (3) what is the precise relationship of Adam’s sin to the sin of the world?

First, let’s deal with the meaning of because (ἐφ᾿ ᾧ, eph’ hō). It could be translated as “in whom” or “in which.” If taken the first way, the referent for “whom” is generally taken to be “one man” and the point is that all sinned “in Adam” (Augustine’s view, probably due to the influence of the Latin Vulgate). If taken as “which” (masculine in Greek) the referent is “death” and the point is that “in death” all sinned. We could also take the phrase as “because of whom.” This would mean, then, that all sinned “because of Adam.” The problem which besets these three views is that the available evidence suggests that Paul means “because” when he uses the phrase eph’ hō, not “in which,” “in whom,” or “because of whom.” This is the case in 2 Cor 5:4, Phil 3:12 (but cf. Phil 4:10), and other Greek literature where the two words function together as a conjunction indicating cause (i.e., “because”).

If eph’ hō means “because,” what, then, does “all sinned” mean? Some argue that what Paul means here in Romans 5:12 is that all men sin “in and of themselves” and for that reason they die. They argue that there is no internal connection of any kind between Adam’s sin and that of the race. Of these commentators, some suggest that if there is a connection, it is purely external in the sense that Adam functioned as an example. While this interpretation gives a well attested meaning for “all sinned,” as referring to personal acts of sin, it cannot account for Paul’s language in 5:12 and throughout 5:12-21, especially vv. 18-19.

First, the comparison between the effects of Adam’s sin and Christ’s obedience breaks down under this interpretation for if I became a sinner solely by my own personal choice, can I become righteous solely by my own personal choice? If this is the case, why does Paul repeatedly call righteousness a gift in this passage? Further, if all men are sinners—as everyone in this discussion agrees—doesn’t it seem rather strange that every person on the globe chose to rebel—every person down to the last one? This being the case, a better explanation seems to be that all men are born subject to another law, than that each had their own personal fall into sin. One might also ask why infants die since they never “sinned” (at least according to this model) and how God can view all of us as sinners even though some are not yet born (Rom 5:8).

Second, and most damaging to this position, is the fact that the text repeatedly relates the sin of Adam directly to the race as a whole: (1) death spread to all men through the sin of Adam (5:12); (2) “the many died through the transgression of the one man” (5:15); (3) “judgment resulting from the one transgression led to condemnation” (5:16); (4) “For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one” (5:17); (5) “condemnation for all people came through one transgression” (5:18); (6) “just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners.” It is difficult to argue away the direct connection Paul explicitly makes between the sin of Adam and that of the race as a whole. In short, this view has little to commend it except the notion that it appears to be fair: we die only for our own sin, not that of another, i.e., Adam. But this is clearly not what the passage teaches.

Therefore, the better explanation is to see a connection between the sin of Adam and that of the race. But what is the nature of this connection? Some have argued that the connection is mediate and that all men sinned because they received a corrupt nature from Adam. There is room in the passage for such an interpretation, at least in vv. 17-19, when Paul uses the preposition “through” in regard to (1) death reigning through Adam; (2) through the one transgression, condemnation came to all men, and (3) through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners. The problem with this view is that “through” could just as easily be read in line with the more narrow statements in the passage that indicate a direct connection between Adam’s sin and the condemnation of the race (vv. 15). This is strengthened by the fact that nowhere does Paul mention the sinful nature, but only that death reigned through Adam, not through a fallen nature which he passed on to the race. More important is the fact that v. 18 explicitly says that a legal verdict of “condemnation” was passed on all people through one transgression (i.e., Adam’s transgression), not through the sin of the “all.”

Thus the connection seems to be direct and not mediate. Therefore, there must be a corporate meaning to the verb hēmarton. In some sense, then, probably due to Paul’s view of corporate solidarity (cf. Joshua 7), we were there when Adam sinned so that his sin is our sin; in God’s holy and judicial eyes, we sinned when Adam sinned and God imputed (i.e., reckoned to our account) to us his guilt. Notice that the text says, “because all sinned (not that “all sin,” present tense), referring to our participation in the sin of Adam. Generally there are two views advanced in order to explain this direct relationship between Adam and the race. The traditional reformed view, i.e., “federal headship,” refers to Adam’s position as head of the race so that the choices he makes affect the entire race. The other view is the “realist” or “seminal” view. This position argues that the race was there seminally in Adam much the same as Levi was seminally in Abraham so that the patriarch’s actions when he paid the tenth to Melchizedek can be said to be the actions of Levi, even though Levi had not yet been born (Heb 7:9-10). The federal headship view has more to commend it, however. First, the fact that death reigned even over those who did not commit a sin in the likeness of the sin of Adam shows that the participation is not of the nature required by the seminal view (Rom 5:14). Further, the relationship is spelled out in vv. 18 to be judicial, that is, a sentence of condemnation was passed on all men because of Adam’s transgression—a fact which more easily supports the federal headship view. 

5:13 The term for (γὰρ, gar) indicates that what follows in vv. 13-14 is explanatory. But of what? It seems that Paul is trying to explain that universal death is due to Adam’s transgression, not to the presence or absence of the law. Thus vv. 13-14 explain Paul’s statement in v. 12a-c that universal sin and death are due to Adam’s transgression. His ultimate point is to further buttress the close connection established in v. 12 between Adam and the race which itself will be compared to the relationship between Christ and His new humanity (in vv. 15-19).

Paul says that there is no accounting for sin (ἁμαρτία δὲ οὐκ ἐλλογεῖται, hamartia de ouk ellogeitai) when there is no law, but this does not mean that sin and death were not realities before the law. It simply means that sin is not recognized for the rebellion that it is apart from an explicit revelation of the will of God pointing it out—a revelation such as we have in the Mosaic law.

5:14 Again, to reinforce the idea of “universal death through Adam” Paul emphatically states that while sin is not recognized for what it truly is without the law, death reigned (ἐβασίλευσεν ὁ θάνατος, ebasileusen ho thanatos) over those who did not sin in the same way Adam transgressed (ἐπὶ τῷ ὁμοιώματι τῆς παραβάσεως  ᾿Αδὰμ, epi tō homoiōmati tēs parabaseōs Adam). Even though many did not sin by breaking an explicit command (the threat for which was death), as did Adam, death still reigned over them.

The statement who is a type of the coming one (ὅς ἐστιν τύπος τοῦ μέλλοντος, hos estin tupos tou mellontos) refers to Adam as a type of Christ. The phrase serves to bring the discussion back to the Adam Christ comparison which will finally be made complete in vv. 18-19. The word type refers to a mark or impression made by striking an object. The sense of it here in Romans 5:14 is “example,” “form,” “figure,” or “pattern.” A biblical “type” is a person, institution, or thing, which prefigures another person, institution, or thing to come in the age of the fulfillment of promise. The children of Israel and the lessons they learned in relationship with God are a type; they prefigure the Christian’s walk with God in the present age of fulfillment (1 Cor 10:6). In Romans 5:14 Adam is a type of Christ in the sense that the impact of his one act of disobedience parallels by way of contrast the impact of Christ’s one act of obedience. This is spelled out in more detail in vv. 15-19.

5:15-19 The point of vv. 15-19 is to show how much more (πολλῷ μᾶλλον, pollō mallon) the effects of God’s grace and the gift of righteousness surpass the results of Adam’s sin, death, and condemnation (vv. 15, 17). When Adam’s transgression brought death upon the many (οἱ πολλοί, hoi polloi), the grace of God and the gift which came by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiplied (ἐπερίσσευσεν, eperisseusen) to the many (τοὺς πολλούς, tous pollous; 5:15; cf. v. 20). Adam’s transgression led to judgment and ultimately to condemnation, but the gracious gift (χάρισμα, charisma), that is, Christ’s sacrificial act on the cross, followed (from [ἐκ, ek]) many transgressions and led to justification (εἰς δικαίωμα, eis dikaiōma) as the new permanent state of the believer (5:16). Death reigned as a result of Adam’s transgression, but much more those who receive the abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness will reign (βασιλεύσουσιν, basileusousin) in life through Jesus Christ (5:17). What Christ has done for those attached to him (by faith) reaches far beyond the judgment imposed due to the transgression of Adam. As condemnation for all people came through Adam, so also righteousness which leads to life (eternal and spiritual; 5:21) came for all people through Jesus Christ (5:18). Finally, because of Adam’s disobedience—his failure to hear and obey the command of God—the many were made sinners (ἁμαρτωλοὶ κατεστάθησαν οἱ πολλοί, hamartōloi katestathēsan oi polloi). But because of Christ’s obedience the many will be made righteous (δίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται οἱ πολλοί, dikaioi katastathēsontai oi polloi; 5:19). Such is the basic argument of vv. 15-19—a movement from the lesser to the greater; from the results of Adam’s transgression to the results of Christ’s grace.

Before leaving these verses, however, we must take a brief look at three important questions. First, what does Paul mean by “the many”? A few things should be noted: (1) Paul has clearly indicated that the entire human race is under sin (3:9-20) so that when he says that the “the many died” in v. 15 he is certainly not implying that some did not die as a result of Adam’s sin; (2) Paul has also clearly indicated that only those who believe in Christ benefit from his grace (3:22; 5:17: “those who receive”) so that when he says, “the grace of God…multiplied to the many” in v. 15 he does not mean that every person has received this grace personally; (3) Paul uses the expression, “the many,” only after he uses the phrase “the one.” It appears best then to take it as stylistic refrain so as to set off a contrast between “the one” and “the many.” The particular “one” to which the many are attached defines the numerical scope of “the many.” This is true in 5:19 as well.

Second, is Paul espousing universalism in 5:18 when he compares the universal effects of Adam’s sin with the effects of Christ’s righteous act: “so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people”? To argue for universalism in this text, however, is to neglect other key Pauline texts (2 Thess 1:8-9), including Romans 5:17 which plainly states that justification/salvation is for “those who receive” the abundant provision of grace. It is sufficient for all men, but only those who receive it, reign in life! Paul has simply chosen the expression “all people” so as to keep the parallel between Adam and Christ going throughout the passage. Also, universalism requires the questionable premise that Paul is arguing in 5:15-19 that the group in Adam has now become the group in Christ. But this is certainly not his point. He is arguing, rather, that in the same way as Adam directly affects all those connected to him (i.e., all humanity), so also Christ directly affects all those connected to him (i.e., all those who receive his grace). We might also add that it is doubtful whether any specific contribution can be made from this passage to the question of limited atonement (i.e., for whom did Christ die?).

Third, what does term “made” in “made sinners” and “made righteous” mean (5:19)? Is Paul’s point that people are made sinners or made righteous by what they do? This is highly unlikely. Therefore, it is better to understand the entire verse as God’s pronouncement or verdict vis-à-vis our connection to one “head” or the other. Insofar as we are all connected to Adam, God has pronounced us all as sinners (5:12). Insofar as we are connected to Christ through faith, God has declared us righteous. Thus the idea in the passage is forensic and legal in character, not moral or ethical.

5:20 Paul finishes off this paragraph in vv. 20-21 commenting on the purpose of the law and the superabounding nature of God’s grace. The point he is making is that it is not the law which brings righteousness, it only reveals sin; it is Christ and grace which brings righteousness leading to eternal life. He says that the law came in (παρεισῆλθεν, pareisēlthen) so that transgressions may increase (πλεονάσῃ τὸ παράπτωμα, pleonasē to paraptōma). He does not mean by this that specific acts of sin might increase numerically, but rather that people might become increasingly conscious of their sin when seen against the standard of God’s holy law—that sin might be seen for what it actually is! Thus the law “came in,” not to deliver Adam’s posterity from sin and its penalty—a common Jewish belief—but to reveal their desperate and rebellious condition (Rom 7:13). 

But where the power of sin increased (ἐπλεόνασεν ἡ ἁμαρτία, epleonasen hē hamartia), as seen in the post-Sinai life of Israel, God’s grace multiplied all the more (ὑπερεπερίσσευσεν ἡ χάρις, hupereperisseusen). He continually forgave Israel and enjoined her to return to him and walk with him.

5:21 Even in the face of sin, the grace of God multiplied all the more so that (ἵνα, hina) just as sin reigned in the sphere of death so also grace will reign through righteousness (ἡ χάρις βασιλεύσῃ διὰ δικαιοσύνης, hē charis basileusē dia dikaiosunēs). The penalty of sin is death as decreed by God himself. It is in that sphere of death and alienation from God that sin began its reign and has ever since continued to hold sway over Adam’s children. But the reign of grace is stronger so that those who have come under the headship of Christ enjoy transfer to a new sphere of existence characterized by “righteousness” (imputed and imparted). This is a present reality for the believer and has as its goal, eternal life (εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον, eis zōēn aiōnion), enjoyed now and consummated in the future (5:10).

F. Homiletical Idea and Outline

Idea: Contemplate the Power of God’s Grace through Christ!

I. Contemplate the Origin of Sin and Death (5:12-14)

A. Adam’s Sin and the World (5:12)

B. Universal Death before the Law (5:13-14b)

C. Adam: A Type of Christ (5:14c)

II. Contemplate The Victory of Christ (5:15-19)

A. Adam’s Transgression—Grace (5:15)

B. Judgment/Condemnation—Justification (5:16)

C. Death/Adam—Reigning in Life/Christ (5:17)

D. All Men Condemned—“All Men” Justified (5:18)

E. The Many/Sinners—The Many Righteous (5:19)

III. Contemplate The Triumph of Grace over Law and Sin (5:20-21)

A. The Law, Sin, and Grace (5:20)

B. Grace, Righteousness, Eternal Life (5:21)

G. Contribution of Passage to Systematic Theology

Romans 5:12-19 is a key passage in discussions about the origin of sin. It is clear from this text that as far as the human race is concerned, sin entered through Adam. Further, there is a direct connection between the transgression of Adam and the sin of the entire race. Any explanation that attempts to soften or do away with this direct connection falls on difficult times in vv. 18-19 and throughout the passage. The best explanation, then, is to affirm a direct connection, some sort of corporate solidarity between Adam and his posterity. For the most part this has been viewed either seminally (the “realist” view) or by way of federal headship. The judicial language of the passage tends to favor the federal view. Thus the passage is not dealing with “inherited corruption,” or “original sin” per se—as referring to a sinful nature or the actual sins people commit—but with imputed guilt or what has been reckoned to my account by God. This explanation seems to have the greatest explanatory power regarding the details in vv. 12-19 and it maintains the parallel between Christ and Adam (see comments).


45 Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 182-83.

46 The full realization of this promise awaits the millennial reign of Christ, but his death and resurrection set off the inaugural stages of this victory and reign.