After expressing the strength of God’s gracious gift of reconciliation (which is the new life given through the death payment by Jesus and the faithful embrace for justification) in verses 5 through 11 of chapter 5, Paul goes back all the way to Adam to discuss how much greater is this gift than the trespass that created the separation from God in the first place. But in our reading and attempt to understand this portion, we cannot lose sight that this passage is a summarization of the previous four chapters. Paul uses this passage as a transition from what he has already said to carry us into the next major section that will run from chapter 6 through 8. Therefore, as we begin verse 12, we should recognize that Paul could have begun these last verses of chapter 5 with the words, “In summary, then.”
Verse 12 begins with the words “Just as,” which automatically make us start looking for the “so also” that would complete the expression. He is obviously going to compare two things, saying something like “Just as this is true, so also is this other thing true.” But, as is often the case in Paul’s writing, his own thoughts interrupt him before he gets the “so also” on the paper. In fact, we will not get to the “so also” until verse 18, but the fact of the similarity of the comparison (“just so . . . so also”) leads Paul in the meantime (verses 12b through 17) to explain the more important differences that exist despite the overarching similarities in his comparison.
Verses 12 through 14 form the first compact point. Many interpreters have read through verse 12 and decided it provides a clue for how sin spread from Adam to all people. After all, the verse presents a chiasmus:
A1 Adam sinned
. B1 Adam was judged with death
. B2 Death spread to all humans
A2 All humans sinned
We discussed these initial thoughts of how sin passed to the rest of humankind in Part 11 of this series. The conclusion was that sin guilt neither passes from Adam’s spirit (as human father) to ours (the traducian reasoning) nor passes from Adam based on him being a representative agent of us (federal headship). Rather sin passes through Adam’s broken covenant allowing his physical essence (and thus all of physical creation), instead of being dominated by our spirits (as instructed in Genesis 1:23), to rule in influence over us.
Recognizing this, we should not be confused by the language in Romans 5:12. Paul is not at all talking about how sin is passed to others. In fact, by the chiasmus, he is merely pointing out that Adam was judged by death because of sin; likewise death comes to all humans because all humans sin.
But why is Paul making this point? Remember that this passage is a summary of what he has brought out previously. He spoke of sin and death back in chapter 1. Here in chapter 5, he is emphasizing to the Jews (his specific audience for over the last two and a half chapters) that the Mosaic Law is neither the initial cause of separation from God nor the mark of life in righteous relationship with God. We will see that more clearly as Paul completes his point in verses 13 and 14.
So, then, Paul has just emphasized that death has spread to all people because all have sinned. In the first part of verse 13, Paul concludes (from his verse 12 realization that everyone dies because everyone sins) that sin must have been in the world before the Law ever came. This idea is important. Again, remember that the Jews defined both relationship with God and condemnation to death (separation from God) by reference to the Law. The Jews, having the Law, were supposed to be identified by it as belonging to God. Paul argued against that in chapter 4 when he pointed out that Abraham was declared righteous before the Law and circumcision (4:10–11). The reverse is also true. The Jews shunned the Gentiles because they, not having the Law, didn’t live by the Law. And not living by the Law, so the Jews thought, certainly was what condemned you to eternal damnation. So Paul’s point now is to show that the Jews were wrong again. Paul is, in effect, arguing that if people died before the Law ever came about, they must be dying for sin other than not living by the Law. To show this idea, Paul has so far pointed out that sin was in the world before the Law came—it had to have been because people died before the Law came and dying is punishment for sin.
He continues to push this point in the second half of verse 13. There he argues that everybody knows sin is not charged to a person when there is no law. The implication is that if the Mosaic Law had not yet come about—and if people were condemned only for disobeying the Mosaic Law—then no one should be dying. No one should be found guilty and condemned if they are justifiably ignorant of the Law because God hadn’t given it yet. But that was not the case. From Adam to Moses (when the Law came), people were still dying. Therefore, they must have been guilty of some law so as to be charged with guilt and condemned.
Of course, Adam, they may have presumed, was justifiably guilty because he had a direct command from God: “Do not eat of the tree.” But what about everybody else from Adam to Moses? There were no direct commands from God during that time. “Nevertheless,” Paul declares, “death (punishment for sin guilt) reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin in the likeness of Adam’s transgression” (5:14). Again, what does that mean? What is Paul implying? He is emphatically stating what he had argued in Romans 1:18–20: sin existed—not merely by disregard of the Law—but rather by disregard of God’s revelation to every person of his divine attributes and eternal power. It is by disregard of this law, revealed by God to the hearts of all humankind, that death continued on. So death, then, to all those from Adam to Moses, came about—not by disregard of the Mosaic Law—but by disregarding the common revelation of God to all humankind.
Having satisfied this point that all are guilty—those who do not have the Law and even those who do—Paul goes on to discuss the gift of God for reconciliation in comparison with that trespass for which they received death.
With the trespass and the gift there are similarities: both come from one person and both influence many people. But Paul wants to point out that there are substantial qualitative differences. So he begins verse 15 emphasizing that there are differences, which in the Greek may be read, “But not ‘as the trespass, so also the gift.’” Yes, Paul seems to say, both started from one person and affected many, but in interest, action, and result we may see the differences.
In the rest of verse 15, Paul discusses the difference in interest. He says, “For if by the one man’s trespass the many died, how much more have the grace of God and the gift overflowed to the many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ.” Here Paul emphasizes the grace of Christ. The grace motivating Jesus’s activity was different from Adam’s. Adam was motivated by selfish interest. Jesus was motivated by grace—a giving of self for the benefit of others.
Paul goes on in verse 16 to point out the difference of the trespass and gift in the area of action: “Because from one sin came the judgment, resulting in condemnation, from from many trespasses came the gift, resulting in justification.” Here we see the action of one sin moving to condemnation by mere consequence. The gift, however came about because of many sins that led to the action of not mere consequence, but the active countering of the effect of the sin.
Finally, the result is highlighted in verse 17: “Since by the one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive the overflow of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” So, then, rather than death (separation) reigning as a result of sin, life (relationship with God) reigns because of Jesus.
In verse 18, Paul finally gets back to the “just as . . . so also” statement he had begun in verse 12. Repeating the part of verse 12, he says, “So then, [just] as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone.” In this verse, we see Paul’s point of the whole passage. He is showing the similarity of sin and death coming from one to have influence over all to the gift of righteous activity that results in life-giving relationship with God for everyone. And it is all done apart from the Law.
In verse 19, Paul seems to repeat 18, but it is to emphasize another aspect. He focuses on the Adam’s disobedience compared to Jesus’s obedience. Note that disobedience and obedience are translated from words that denote more meaning than unthinking dutiful responses. The words here signal Adam’s unwillingness to hear and Jesus’s attentive hearkening. That heart of faith which yields faithful works has been identified in Paul’s discussion so far, particularly in chapter 2.
In verse 20, Paul explains that part of his discussion about relationship with God was to emphasize that the Law was not the means to justification. In fact, the Law multiplied the trespass rather than relieve it. But despite the multiplication of trespass, the grace of the gift multiplied even more to counter its effects.
Thus, in verse 21, we see that the former reign of death has given way to reign of righteousness resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Importantly, that speaks to the emphasis of this whole section. From the announcement of the gospel thesis in 1:16–17, we have seen God’s righteousness shine. With the gift of righteousness provided through Jesus granting us eternal life (relationship with God), we see that both God’s Covenant of Operational Essence and his Covenant of Creative Purpose have been satisfied. God is righteous. That is the good news. And its result is our everlasting gain.