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This passage is critical to a true understand of the chapters that follow it. It is, however, a complicated section, and these remarks are offered with a view to unfolding its meaning.
It is well-known that the first eight chapters of the epistle to the Romans may be divided into two parts. The first, 1:1-5:11, deals with sins, the practices of men. The second, 5:12-8:39, deals with sin, the principle in men. By sin in this context is not meant one particular sin, but sin as a working principle in men, the force that enables them to commit individual sins. Sin dwells within men, 7:17, and works in men, 7:13. So the first section emphasises crimes, whereas the second section the criminal himself.
It is important that both of these matters be dealt with, for after a person has believed the gospel, 3:26, been justified, 4:5, and had his sins forgiven, 4:7, it may come as a shock to him to find that he is still able to sin. Indeed, the fact that Christians, sadly, sin, is often cited by unbelievers as reason to not believe, “because Christianity doesn’t work”, or “I wouldn’t be able to keep it up”. In connection with those objections we should always remember that in the final analysis it is Christ who represents Christianity, for “Christ is all”, Colossians 3:11, but that does not absolve us from the solemn responsibility of being “epistles of Christ, known and read of all men”, 2 Corinthians 3:3.
At the point where the epistle divides, the apostle sums up his foregoing argument in 5:8,9, where he writes of actions, whether it be of God commending His love, or Christ both dying for us, and also saving us from wrath, or our actions as sinners. He also anticipates his future argument in 5:10 by emphasis on what state we were in, namely enmity, or what state we have been brought to, reconciliation, and also what state Christ was brought to by our folly, even that of being in death.
Coming to our passage, it may help to set out the main content as follows:
|Verse 12||Initial doctrinal statement.|
|Verses 13,14||Proof that death is the result of the sin-principle within.|
|Verse 15||Contrast and comparison- offence or gift.|
|Verse 16||Contrast and comparison- condemnation or justification.|
|Verse 17||Death reigning or believers reigning in life.|
|Verse 18||The penalty upon all, and the opportunity for all.|
|Verse 19||The state of many as sinners, and the state of many as righteous.|
|Verse 20||The law cannot deal with the sin-principle.|
|Verse 21||Final doctrinal summary.|
Verse 12 Initial doctrinal statement.
5:12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
The apostle immediately traces the origin of the sin principle right back to Adam, and then shows that “Him that was to come”, verse 14, is God’s answer. The Last Adam alone is able to deal with that which the first man Adam brought in. When he fell, Adam became a sinner by nature and practice, and when he begat a son it was in his image and likeness, to represent him as a sinner, Genesis 5:3. Thus sin entered into the world. Like a poison being put into the spring that gives rise to a river, so the river of humanity has been poisoned at source. Hence the apostle’s use of the words “all men”, and “world”. Not that sin originated with Adam, for Lucifer was the first to sin, Ezekiel 28:15, but he used Adam as the door through which sin might enter into the human race.
The consequence of the sin of Adam was that its penalty, death, passed on all. If any question whether this is the case, then the apostle has the answer. All have sinned, and thus is proved the fact that all have a sin principle within inciting them to sin. But since that sin principle inevitably results in death, then both sin and death have indeed passed upon all men.
Verses 13,14 Proof that death is the result of the sin-principle within.
5:13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
5:14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.
It is important for the apostle to confirm that death is the result of sin within, and not, in general, as a result of particular sins committed. He does this by referring to the period of time before the law was given at Sinai through Moses. Before the law-age the principle of sin rested in the hearts of the descendants of Adam the sinner. But when they sinned, that sin was not put to their account as demanding an immediate penalty. They did not physically die the moment they sinned. (The word “reckoned” is not the same as is used in previous passages such as 4:3,4, where it means that God takes account of a person in a certain way. Here, it means to put a sin to someone’s account for immediate payment by death. This does not mean that sins committed during the pre-law period are ignored by God, for “God shall bring every secret work into judgement”, Ecclesiastes xxx). Nevertheless, men still died in the period between Adam and the giving of the law at Sinai, which proves that they did so because of the sin-principle within them, and not because they had transgressed against a known law.
The consequence of this is very far-reaching, for it shows that even if an unbeliever managed to never sin, (a hypothetical situation, of course), he would still be liable to death because of what he is by nature. So the gospel is not just about having one’s sins forgiven, but is also about being a new creation, so that there is no obligation to sin.
Verse 15 Contrast and comparison- offence or gift.
5:15 But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.
By describing Christ as “Him that was to come”, (immediately following Adam’s sin, God announced the coming deliverer), the apostle has prepared the way to revert back to his consideration of Adam’s fall, after the parenthesis of verses 13 and 14. He does this by presenting both a contrast, “not as”, and a comparison, “so also”. The comparison is seen in the fact that both Adam and Christ, each being head over those linked to them, affect deeply their respective companies.
The contrast is between Adam’s offence, and the grace of God. Further, that offence resulted in the “gift” of death to the many who have died one by one throughout the history of men, whereas the grace of God results in many being given a different sort of gift. What that gift is we are not yet told. We are told that what God does through Christ has a “much more” character to it, which is seen in that the gift has abounded. The seemingly insurmountable problem of Adam’s sin has been overcome by God in Christ. He has not solved the problem by introducing a stronger judgement than that meted out to Adam, but by acting in grace. The condemnation of sinners is a righteous necessity with God, but He is under no obligation to bless them, but chooses to do so because of His grace.
Note that in verses 13-17, and also in verse 19, we read of “many”, indicating the greatness of the problem to be addressed, and also the far reaching consequences of the actions of the two men who are in view in the passage. In verses 12 and 18, (which are linked together), we read of “all”, for there the universality of the problem Adam introduced, and the universality of the provision God has made in response is brought out.
Verse 16 Contrast and comparison- condemnation or justification.
5:16 And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification.
This verse continues the idea of contrast, (“not as”), and comparison, (“so is”), but whereas verse 15 concentrated on the one offence of Adam, his act of taking a false step, and the fact that God’s act of giving in grace is through one man, Jesus Christ, here the emphasis is on the many offences which result from Adam’s fall, and the way each man relates to those offences. This is the comparison, for each man has been the means of affecting either adversely (judgement), or for good, (the gift), those involved in each case.
There is also a contrast, for Adam brought in judgement and condemnation, but Christ brings in justification. That judgement took the form of condemnation. God’s verdict, (judgement), went against Adam when he sinned, and he was pronounced guilty, with the implication that there was a sentencing process to follow. We read of that process in Genesis 3:17-19. Christ, however, brings in justification, and this despite the many offences committed during the history of men, and the many offences individual sinners commit during their lifetime.
The condemnation brought in by Adam resulted in men being subject to death, whereas the justification Christ brings in for those who believe not only clears their record, (this is the “Romans 3” side of justification), but also delivers them from obligation to sin in the present, and liability to death in the future. So it is that the apostle can write in 6:7 that “he that is dead is freed from sin”. That is, those who by faith are associated with Christ crucified, are no longer under any obligation to sin. They are not liable to die physically either, for Christ risen has secured their position in resurrection. Those who are alive when Christ comes will be proof of this, for they shall know resurrection without dying.
Verse 17 Death reigning or believers reigning in life.
5:17 For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)
In verse 16 the emphasis is on sins, but in this verse, on death. Going right back to the beginning again, the apostle repeats what he wrote in verse 12, that the offence of one man resulted in death. Now he enlarges on this and declares that death has not only passed upon all men, but has set up its throne in their hearts, and like a wicked tyrant rules their lives. The abundant grace of God, however, ensures that those who receive the gift of righteousness not only are delivered from the tyranny of death, and receive life, but reign in life. It is they who are in control. This is only possible, however, by the agency and strength of Jesus Christ- they have no strength of their own.
Verse 18 The penalty upon all, and the opportunity for all.
5:18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.
The apostle is now able to take his argument forward from verse 12, having built up a body of background information in verses 13-17 which will enable his readers to follow his line of thought. He first of all reiterates the truth of verse 12, and reminds us that the offence of Adam has resulted in the condemnation of death upon all men. He then contrasts the offence of Adam with the righteousness of another man, Jesus Christ. By righteousness here is meant the act of righteousness carried out by Christ in death, when He set out to reverse the consequences of Adam’s sin, and also bring in rich benefits besides. Just as the penalty through Adam’s unrighteous act of sinning brought results towards all men, so the blessing through Christ’s righteous act of dying for sin brings results to all men as well. The word “upon” has the meaning of “towards”, for the penalty came towards all, and so does the gift.
Not only is the one who believes justified in the sense of “reckoned righteous”, but the legal obligation to death is removed, so justification is “justification of life”. The ground of resurrection is taken up, so that the believer is clear of the consequences of Adam’s fall.
Verse 19 The state of many as sinners, and the state of many as righteous.
5:19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
Not only is the condition of man dealt with by Christ, but the nature as well. By Adam’s disobedience to the plain command of God, man was made or constituted a sinner. It is not, of course, that God made men to sin, but that by their link with Adam they have become, sinners by nature. On the other hand, Christ obeyed His Father, even to the extent of death, and those who believe in Him are reckoned righteous by God- that is how He sees them now.
Verse 20 The law cannot deal with the sin-principle.
5:20 Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound:
The apostle now deals with a possible objection from Jewish readers. Can the law not remedy this situation? The answer is that it cannot, for when the law came in, it resulted in the situation becoming worse, not better, for it showed up sins as never before, and offered no remedy for the nature that produced those sins. It dealt with the symptoms but not the disease.
The only answer to man’s nature as a sinner is the grace of God in the gospel, which alone has the power to overcome the obstacles represented by sin, death, and the law, and set up its rule in the hearts of men on a righteous basis. That righteous basis being the death of Christ at Calvary, not the supposed good works of men.
Verse 21 Final doctrinal summary.
5:21 That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.
So it is that the sad truth of verse 12, expressed here as “sin hath reigned unto death”, can be exchanged for “even so might grace reign”. Grace so dominates the scene that it sweeps sin off its throne in the heart, and robs death of its power over those who believe. And all this happens on a righteous basis, even the death of Christ, and leaves the way clear for the possession and enjoyment of eternal life in all its fulness. The apostle is careful at the close of the passage to attribute all this to Jesus Christ, who has shown Himself to be worthy of the title Lord. He has overcome every dominating principle, and shows Himself superior to them by His death and resurrection.