The Reign of Original Sin
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, January 25, 2009
Copyright © 2009, P. G. Mathew
Romans 5:12-14 speaks about the reign of sin and therefore the reign of death, because death is punishment for sin. In other words, this section of Scripture describes the universality of sin and death.
Why are there wars, plagues, and times of economic chaos? Why do people murder, abort, steal, commit adultery, and rape? In this passage, Paul gives us the key to unlock the meaning of human history and to understand the human problem.
In Romans 5:12-21, all human history is described in terms of the history of two men: Adam and Jesus Christ. All peoples of the world are represented by one or the other. The problems of sin, condemnation, and death came through the first Adam, the first man; the solution of righteousness, justification, and eternal life came through the last Adam, also called the second man, Jesus Christ.
Swedish theologian Anders Nygren refers to Romans 5:12-21 as the highpoint and key of the epistle to the Romans. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones agrees, saying that he considers it undoubtedly to be the most important section, in a sense, in the whole of this wonderful epistle.1 I would say this section is the key to interpreting all Scripture and all human history. If you want to know why people are bad and do bad things, or why a sinner cannot save himself, read this passage. If you want to understand that human salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, read this passage. If you want to comprehend the doctrine of union with Christ and be fully assured of your ultimate salvation, then read this passage.
In this study we will consider Romans 5:12-14, which deals with the universal reign of sin and therefore the universal reign of death. Verse 12 begins by saying "Therefore." Paul is citing all he said prior to Romans 5:11 as a reason for his next point. His "therefore" is especially linked to Romans 5:10-11 concerning our ultimate salvation: "For if when we were God's enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved in his life" (v. 10). It is crucial to grasp Paul's reasoning if we want to enjoy full assurance of our ultimate salvation, both now and in the hour of our death.
Christians are in Jesus Christ-in his life and united with him inseparably. Because he lives and will never die again, we shall also live forever in him. If such full salvation can be found in the life of Christ, what is the problem?
The problem is that we were united with Adam, who sinned against God's specific command. God dealt with Adam, not just as an individual, but as the federal head of all mankind, as one representing us. The biblical logic, therefore, is that when Adam sinned, was condemned, and died, we also sinned, were condemned, and died. Paul writes, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men" (Rom. 1:18).
But, thank God, now that we are in Christ, we are no longer in Adam. We have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness and death into the kingdom of light and life. We are in the sphere of life forever and ever. And not only are we forgiven, justified, and reconciled, but we are also inseparably united to Christ, who is our life. Jesus himself taught this when he said, "I am the vine; you are the branches" (John 15:5). In his high priestly prayer he also spoke about this union and communion we enjoy with him: "That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us" (John 17:21).
In Romans 5:12, Paul begins a comparison, an "as/even so" pattern. But he does not complete the comparison, though had he done so, it would read this way: "As through one man Adam, sin entered the world, and death through sin, and in this way death spread through all men whom he represented because all sinned in him, even so righteousness entered the world through one man, Jesus Christ, and life through righteousness. In this way life spread to all men whom Christ represented. For all obeyed in Jesus Christ." That is the implied comparison.
Principles of Representation and Imputation
We see here the principles of representation and imputation in these two men representing two classes of people. The effect of each man's response to God, whether disobedience or obedience, is imputed to all whom each represents. Romans 5:12-14 reveals the representation of Adam, his response of disobedience to God's specific word, and the effect of that disobedience is sin, condemnation, and death.
These effects are imputed to all descendants of Adam-to all people, from every race and every nation. Every human being is descended from Adam. All sinned in Adam, all are condemned in Adam, and all died in Adam. Then at the end of verse 14, we are told Adam is a type (tupos), a pattern, of the coming One, the last Adam. It is through his obedience that righteousness, justification, and eternal life will come to all his offspring.
In Romans 5:12-21, the word "one" (hen) appears twelve times, in reference to one man Adam and one man Jesus Christ, one sin of Adam and one act of Christ's obedience. Adam and Christ are the responsible parties. We may wonder, knowing that Eve sinned first, why she is not mentioned here. The answer is that she was not the responsible party. Adam was the head, not Eve.
We must also acknowledge that Adam and Christ are historical persons. Many people today do not believe in the historicity of Genesis 1-3. They would say that passage is to be understood mythologically. But if Adam was not historical, then there would be no fall, no sin, no need for redemption, and no need for Jesus Christ to come and die for our sins.
I believe Adam was historical, and I am in good company. Paul believed Adam was historical; there is no other way to understand this passage. Jesus Christ believed Adam was historical, for he opposed divorce by stating, "At the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" (Matt. 19:4-5). He was speaking about the historical Adam and Eve. The whole Christian position collapses if we reject the literal, historical Adam. That is why we deny the validity of Darwinian evolution.
Through one historical man named Adam, sin invaded the world, meaning it came to all people. In the Greek text, sin is personified ("the sin invaded"), which means sin is a mighty force. In verse 21, sin is pictured as a king who rules and makes all people its slaves. We must also note that Romans 5:12 is not speaking about the origin of sin, but about the origin of human sin. Sin existed before Adam sinned. Sin came through the devil.
Romans 5:12, therefore, gives the true diagnosis of the world's problem. It is not lack of education or money; it is sin. If we reject Romans 5:12, we will have no true understanding of the problem of the world, the problem of our families, the problem of our churches, and the problem of our nation. We will also have no understanding of true salvation.
In Romans 5 Paul is referring to Genesis 3. Through one man Adam, sin invaded and intruded into the world. Sin came in from the outside through the door of Adam. God said that the world he had created was very good. Now it has been spoiled by this invasion of sin. And through sin, death also entered the world. Death is penal, meaning it is a punishment for sin. Death is also personified in this passage. This mighty force is depicted as a king in verses 14 and 17. Death comes to all sinners. All people die, whether rich and poor, doctors and patients, professors and ignorant, wealthy or poor. There is no respect of persons.
Just as sin is king, so also death is king. And just as sin appears unconquerable, so also does death. Death is comprehensive-spiritual, physical, and eternal. It is, in its highest sense, separation from God in hell. God warned Adam about this punishment: "But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it, dying you will die" (Gen 2:17; author's translation). The New International Version translates, "You will surely die." Paul declares, "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). Master Sin pays his wages without fail to all his slaves in the currency of death.
Yet we must remember that both death and sin are not natural, but are intruders into this world. Many people say death is natural. Dr. Lloyd-Jones comments that many unbelievers say that "death leads to life by liberating the nitrogen that is needed to form the molecules of new life. Death is just part of the cycle of life."2 This verse teaches us that there is universality of sin and therefore universality of death. "The world is a place of cemeteries."3
Human sin began with Adam, and so human death began with Adam. In Genesis 5, the Hebrew word wiamoth ("and he died") is repeated throughout the account of Adam and his descendants: "Altogether Adam lived 930 years and he died" (v. 5; see also vv. 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31). Through Adam, therefore, death spread to all men, and now all people everywhere die. Man is born to die; the very number of breaths we will take is determined by God. We come into the world breathing and after we deplete our number of breaths, we die. Two dates mark every man and woman-birth and death.
Who, then, can stop King Death from killing people? Who can conquer Death? Through sin, Adam became mortal. Today we try to become immortal. We shall fail unless we are united to the heaven-sent conqueror of sin and death, Jesus Christ.
"Because All Sinned"
We are told in the last part in verse 12 why death spread to all men: "because all sinned." What does this phrase mean? One may say that all people personally sin, which is true (excepting infants). Or some may say that all have a corrupt sin nature, which is true (including infants), or that all were in the loins of Adam, which is also true.
But what Paul means here is that all sinned based on this principle of representation. Adam was the representative of all his descendants. God appointed him as our federal head; therefore, the effect of his response to God's specific direct word is imputed to us. (PGM) When he sinned, therefore, we sinned. Notice, "all sinned." It does not say "all sin." It refers to something that happened in history past, as recorded in Genesis 3. All descendants of Adam sinned when Adam sinned, based on this representative principle which God uses, whether we like it or not. That means Adam's sin is our sin, his guilt is our guilt, his condemnation is our condemnation, and his death as sin's punishment is our death.
Paul says elsewhere, "In Adam all die" (1 Cor. 15:22). Why do all die? The answer is given in Romans 5:12: "For in Adam all sinned." We all sinned in Adam, not we all sinned like Adam. There is a difference. Likewise, we are righteous in Christ, not like Christ, who obeyed God fully and perfectly. In the one sin of one man Adam, we all sinned. Who are we to argue with God, who operates on the basis of his own principles?
All sinned in the past in Adam. Paul writes, "Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men. . . . For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were [constituted] sinners" (Rom. 5:18-19). Notice, in 5:12 Paul is not dealing with our many sins. He will touch on that in verses 16 and 20, but not here. Here he is dealing with the one sin of the one man Adam, our God-appointed representative, in whose sin we sinned. He is speaking of our original sin for which all are condemned and all must die.
In his The Imputation of Adam's Sin, John Murray notes the important conjunctions here:
"The immediate conjunction of the sin of Adam and the death of all";4
"The immediate conjunction of the sin of Adam and the condemnation of all";5
"The immediate conjunction of the sin of Adam and the sin of all."6
This tells us that the sin of Adam is responsible for the sin, condemnation, and death of those whom he represented.
A Jew may argue there was no law until Moses, and where there is no law, there cannot be any transgression of the law, and so sin cannot be put into the account of anyone. He may say that only Adam had a specific command that he violated; therefore, his sin should affect only himself. But Paul argues that the external written law is not necessary to prove the universality of sin. In other words, sin was in the world even before the law was given. Sin was in the world from Adam to Moses to us, and it is still working. Sin is in the world and death is in the world, whether there is law or no law, and death reigns over all people. Why do all people die? They all sinned. How can we prove they all sinned? Because they die, and death is punishment for sin.
Why, then, do both Jews, who have the law, and Gentiles, who never had an external written law, die? Paul says they die because they are descended from Adam and sinned in Adam. Even infants, who do not sin personally, die because they sinned in Adam. Adam should have understood the terrible implications of his disobedience. We sin because we do not care about anyone. We sin only for our own pleasure.
This principle of representation is illustrated in the story of Achan, who took and hid several items that were forbidden by God. Not only was Achan killed for his sin, but his sons and daughters were also destroyed (Joshua 7).
William Barclay says about this regarding Romans 5:12:
Adam sinned because he broke a direct commandment of God-the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree-and because Adam sinned, Adam, who was meant to be immortal, died.
The law did not come until the time of Moses; now, if there is no law, there can be no breach of the law; that is to say, if there is no law and no commandment, there can be no sin. Therefore, the men who lived between Adam and Moses did in fact sin, but it was not reckoned against them because there was as yet no law, and they could not be condemned for breaking a law which did not exist.
But, in spite of the fact that sin could not be reckoned to them, they still died. Death reigned over them although they could not be accused of breaking a non-existent law.
Why, then, did they die? They died because they had sinned in Adam. It was their involvement in the sin of Adam that caused their deaths, although there was no law for them to break. That, in fact, is Paul's proof that all men did sin in Adam.7
There is no other way to explain it.
There is a divinely instituted solidarity under the headship of Adam and Christ. God deals with men in terms of this solidarity principle. We were in solidarity with Adam; but now, thank God, we are in solidarity with Christ. Adam was our head; now Christ is our head. As we are condemned on account of what Adam did as our representative, so we are justified on account of what Christ did as our representative. In Romans 5:15 Paul introduces Jesus, the last Adam, who brings us righteousness, justification, and life through his one act of obedience, specifically his atoning death. The first Adam is a type of the coming One promised in the Old Testament, the Messiah, who reversed forever what the first Adam did. Paul says, "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22). All who belong to Jesus by faith are now receiving the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness through the one man Jesus Christ. Christ came to reverse what Adam did. In Adam we died; in Christ we live. Adam has his descendants; Christ has his. Now we are Christ's offspring, his children, and his brothers.
The Mystery of God's Mercy
One may say, "I do not understand this solidarity principle, this principle of representation and imputation." I say, "Neither do I." I do not understand an infinite, personal God who created the universe out of nothing. I do not understand the Trinity-one God in three persons. I do not understand the two natures in the one person of Christ. I do not understand the virgin birth. I do not understand God-man dying on the cross. I do not understand the mystery of iniquity. I do not understand grace. I do not understand heaven or hell.
One may ask, "Is it fair to put the sin of Adam to my account?" I would ask: "Is it fair to put the righteousness of Christ into my account? Is it fair for God to justify the ungodly and reconcile his enemies?" I do not understand all of these things perfectly, but I do rejoice that once I was in Adam-in his sin and condemnation and death; but now I am in Christ-in his righteousness, justification, and eternal life. My salvation is totally secure. I do not understand it all, but I am rejoicing all the way to heaven.
If you are also in Christ, may you rejoice with me all the way to heaven! When we arrive there, then we can ask him all these questions. But if you are still in Adam, I beseech you to repent and receive the abundance of grace he offers to you, that you may be transferred from the sphere of Adam to the sphere of Christ. As you are justified and receive eternal life, you also will join in singing the praises of God.
1 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Assurance (An Exposition of Chapter 5), (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 176, 183.
2 Lloyd-Jones, 192.
3 Lloyd-Jones, 261.
4 John Murray, The Imputation of Adam's Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, n.d.), 65.
5 Murray, 67.
6 Murray, 68.
7 William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans, The Daily Study Bible series (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1969), 80.
Thank you for reading. If you found this content useful or encouraging, let us know by sending an email to email@example.com.
Copyright © 2009, P. G. Mathew
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The "NIV" and "New International Version" are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™