Sunday Evening Bible Study, Romans 5:12-21, Dead in Adam, Alive in Christ — Part One

30 Oct

This week we are confronted by a hard text. Romans 5:12-21 is a difficult paragraph, filled with complex reasoning. I struggled through making sense of some of the things here and answering the questions that I thought needed to be answered about this paragraph. As I was thinking about these things, I remembered reading an article from John Piper about why God inspired hard texts. He was thinking about why God would put these difficult to understand sections in His inspired word. It could be that we are just dull, and we are, but even the apostle Peter said there were things in Paul’s writings that were difficult to understand, so it is not only our dullness. There are parts of the Bible that are legitimately hard to understand.
Piper gives four reasons he thinks God has made it this way. 1. Desperation, a sense of utter dependence on God for understanding. 2. Supplication, prayer to God for help. 3. Cogitation, thinking hard about biblical texts. And 4., Education, training people to pray earnestly, read well and think hard.
I think he is right. And as these impulses work their way through our lives we are deepened and sharpened in our faith. So I hope that is what will happen tonight as we wade through a tough paragraph. So as we begin, let’s call on God for strength.

The passage we’re going to look at tonight is a comparison between Adam and Christ. Each of these men stands for one section of where Paul has already been in Romans. Adam is the father of those Paul has spoken about in 1:18-3:20, those who have rebelled against God in their sin and bring judgment on themselves. Jesus is at the heart of 3:21-5:11, as Paul unfolds the great truth that those under God’s wrath can be forgiven, given peace and access to God and be brought from death to life.
Salvation is the story of two men. The first man disobeyed God and brought the entire human race with him in his wrong. The second man obeyed God and provides justification for all who trust in Him. But Paul makes it clear that this is not a one to one correspondence. The work of Christ is far greater than the work of Adam. How this is the case is at the heart of our discussion tonight.

5:12  Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13  for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.
Paul likes to use “therefore” at key ,moments in Romans. We have already seen it at 5:1 and we will see it again at 8:1 and 12:1. Here the therefore seems to be pointing back to Romans 1:18-3:20, since the discussion that follows is about sin and the condemnation that flows to all people through the sin of Adam.

The phrase “just as” sets us up for the fact that a comparison is coming. Paul doesn’t get to it for a couple of verses, he pursues another issue, the place of the law, before he gets to the comparison, but the just as is setting up the comparison. I don’t feel so bad about going on rabbit trails after reading Paul.

Sin came into the world through one man. Adam’s sin had two aspects (1) disobedience to a specific commandment and the willful pride of exalting his will over God’s.

The word One is very important. In Romans 5:12-21, it is used 12 times. Paul is showing us through its use how we are one with Adam through sin and one with Christ by faith. So the actions of the one and their results, either Adam or Christ, flow down to all, either to all humans in the case of Adam or all believers in the case of Christ.

In this case of Adam, this sin brought death. Death in the Bible is spoken of in three ways: (1) spiritual death, with the idea of broken fellowship with God. (2) physical death and (3) eternal death. In this passage, it seems that the spiritual death of Adam has resulted in physical death for the whole human race. The reason I think physical death is mainly in view here at this point is because of what Paul will say in the next couple of verses, so stick with me. These three uses are intertwined in this passage but a different aspect of death surfaces at different points in the passage.

When we talk about death coming through sin we need to see the contrast this is to the way the world thinks about death as a “natural” part of human life. The biblical view of death is very different. Death is an enemy which will finally be conquered by Christ. This is a good place to sensitively probe a person who doesn’t believe in Jesus and particularly one who believes that this material world is all there is. Ask them why death bothers people so much. It runs deeper than just the loss of life or the loss of loved ones. Why do people across all cultures mourn death so fiercely if it is just part of life?

The big point here is that sin is universal and therefore death is universal as a consequence of sin.  There is also here the point that all humans are connected to Adam not only by biology but also because of sin. We have all inherited a sinful nature from him and then we all walk in that nature. So Paul can say in Romans 3, “there is no one righteous, no not one,” and  “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So what we have inherited we have also owned in practice.

But don’t forget the later comparison that is coming. By pointing to the universal damage that came through the sin of Adam, Paul is pointing the universal need for the salvation of Christ. Wherever people are, salvation is needed. The problem of sin is not limited to the Jews or the Gentiles or a particular time or place so neither is the solution to the problem of sin, faith in Christ, limited to time or place or people.

Now you may wonder, why does Paul bring in the law here? I think the reason is because the law has been a prominent part of this book up to this point and Paul in Romans is trying to not only unfold the blessings of salvation in Christ but is also trying to show how these blessings apply to both Jew and Gentile. So he has to deal with the law, because this is at the core of the distinction between Jew and Gentile. If Paul can show that death is universal, then he can show that sin is universal and therefore that the need for Christ is universal.

Nevertheless, he does make a distinction in the world before and after the law was given. Sin was not counted before the law. This doesn’t mean sin didn’t exist. He says in the beginning of verse 13 that sin was in the world. But sin is not reckoned or counted as a violation of the law, since there was no law. But is there a way to sin without the law? (Yes, we’ve seen it in chapter 1, where people see what God has made yet fail to glorify Him or give Him thanks but suppress the truth they know about God in unrighteousness. And we find their hearts darkened and their worship corrupted and they are under the wrath of God. But the wrath they face is different than the wrath faced by those with the law. The ones who do not have the law, “receive in themselves the penalty due their sin.” God gave them over, they received what they received as a consequence of their failure to glorify God or give thanks, not as a consequence of violating the law. Remember Romans 2:12, For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. Those without the law perish. Those with the law are judged. So in both cases there is a negative effect, because all have sinned, with or without the law. But in the case of those with the law, an additional layer of accountability is added, with attendant rewards and judgments for how the law is followed or disobeyed.

How do we know that those without the law are still judged? Look at verse 14. . .

14  Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
We see the judgment of God manifested in the death of all those from Adam to Moses, the one who received the law. Death reigned. Like a King, whose rule was universal and whose power was inescapable. So this universal death affirms the universal sin of humanity Paul has already spoken of in Romans 3:23.

This death reigns even over those who did not sin like Adam sinned. Notice all sinned, but Adam sinned in a different way than those who followed him until the law was revealed, because in the case of Adam he received a direct command from God, whereas the rest ignored the revelation of God in creation and rebelled against the knowledge of God. Even though the law was not given to those who followed Adam, they still followed him in his rebellion against God.

The sin of the others is also unlike Adam because stands for a type, or pattern, of the one to come. It is important to understand with a type that the correspondence between the two does not have to be complete, the type can even stand by virtue of contrasts, as it does in Romans 5. So what is the similarity in the pattern between Adam and Christ? (Both of them are first, the origin of a people and both stand as representative heads of those people, who both receive their natures and walk in their ways).

The contrast begins in verse 15 . . .
15  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.
The free gift is the grace of God to us in Christ. Free for us, but not for God. The contrast between Jesus and Adam starts here. The trespass was a great harm to all humanity, the cross is a great gift. So the two are unlike one another in that Jesus brings grace and Adam brings a curse.

Now we need to be careful not to read the word “many” wrongly in this passage. This is especially important toward the end of the chapter. Context is king. We have already seen that “all have sinned.” So the “many” who died is referring in an inclusive way to all who died through Adam’s sin, which is the entire human race. It’s not like some of those who sinned didn’t die. All died. So again, there are several different views of how this is so, but it is clear that Adam’s sin resulted in death for humanity.

Now we see these words, “much more.” This phrase will be used six times in this passage in the Greek. The point is to show the contrast between Adam and Christ. There is something in Christ’s act which is much more than Adam’s.  I think it is about quality and depth. Adam sinned. There is nothing sacrificial or commendable about Adam’s sin. It was a selfish act of rebellion. But Christ gave Himself, left heaven’s glory, came to us. He sacrificed His life’s blood for us. It was the greatest action in all of history.

It also saves us more thoroughly than Adam’s sin corrupts us. We’ll get into that more in a minute. So in Jesus we have God’s grace abounding to many. The “many” here is referring to all those who trust in Jesus. Again it is not every human being but only those who trust in Jesus. We’ll see more about that in a minute too.

The bottom line of this verse is what Adam did was rebel, what Jesus did was to restore. One is much greater than the other.  A two year old can tear scribble over a painting and destroy it, but a master artist can go behind him and make something beautiful. And the act of repainting is far greater in its depth and value than the act of destroying, even though the act of destroying has devastating consequences.

Sadly, we’re out of time. We’ll pick up the rest of the passage next week, Lord willing. But in the meantime, I want you to mull over a question in preparation for next week. The passage we are looking at says that the sacrifice of Christ is a much greater thing than the sin of Adam. How can this be, since the sin of Adam affects all while the work of Christ is sufficient only for those who believe?


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