Romans 5:12-21


We have seen that in the second major section of Romans, which begins in the middle of chapter 3 and goes through chapter 8, Paul develops the idea of “justification by faith.”  This section tells us God’s response to our sin problem that is described in the first part of Romans. This section of Romans is the most complete treatment of the concept of justification in the Scripture.  There are five major movements in this section of Romans.

·         Romans 3:21-31 – A description of justification (We saw in these verses nine key principles about justification by faith.)

·         Romans 4:1-25 – An example of justification (Paul points to Abraham, the father of Judaism, as the supreme Old Testament example of justification by faith.)

·         Romans 5:1-11 – The blessings of justification  (These blessings include peace with God, access to God, hope of sharing in the glory of God, the ability to overcome adversity, being recipients of God’s love, and assurance of future salvation.)

·         Romans 5:12-21 – The basis of justification

·         Romans 6:1-8:30 – The results of justification

o   Victory over sin (Chapter 6)

o   Freedom from the Law (Chapter 7)

o   Life in the Spirit (Chapter 8)


The Basis of Justification (Romans 5:12-21)

Having described justification by faith in Romans 3:21-31, illustrated justification by faith in Romans 4:1-25, listed the benefits of justification by faith in Romans 5:1-11, now Paul discusses the basis or foundation of justification by faith.  This paragraph is one of the most difficult and controversial in the book of Romans.  Several things lend to its difficulty:

·         The structure of the paragraph is hard to follow.  Paul begins by making a statement in verse 12.  Then, in the middle of the statement he goes into a long, intricate defense and explanation of the statement.  Then, in verse 18 he picks up the original thought with which he began in verse 12.

·         The style, which consists of comparing and contrasting Adam and Christ, is sometimes hard to follow.

·         The subject matter is difficult.  The basic thought is that as Adam, the first man, is head of an old humanity that is characterized by sin and death, so Christ, the God-man, is head of a new humanity characterized by righteousness and life.

Another reason this paragraph is difficult to interpret is because of a very unfortunate translation error that occurred in the 4th century in the Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate.  The last phrase of verse 12 which should be translated “because all sinned” was erroneously translated in the Vulgate “in whom all sinned” with Adam being the one described in the phrase “in whom.”  Upon this erroneous translation Augustine built his doctrine of original sin.  In essence this doctrine holds that every single individual was present in Adam (since we are all descendants of Adam) and that every single individual is born guilty of original sin.  The remedy for this state, according to Augustine, was infant baptism, which removes the guilt of original sin.  That doctrine is a distortion of what the Scripture teaches about both sin and baptism.  As we look at these verses, it is important to remember that Paul dealt with the doctrine of sin very thoroughly in Romans 1:18-3:20.  In that section he establishes that all people, Gentiles and Jews, are guilty of sin because they have chosen to sin, not because they were born into sin.  In that entire section on our sin Paul does not even make a reference to Adam.

Several words are repeated numerous times in this paragraph.  These words help provide for us a clue as to the meaning of these verses.  For example:

·         The word “one” is used eleven times in these ten verses.  Essentially the word is used to emphasize the far-reaching consequences of the actions of Adam and Christ.  (See verses 18-19)

·         The word “reign” is used five times in these ten verses.  This word emphasizes that both Adam and Christ reign over a kingdom, and we must choose to which kingdom we will belong.  (See verse 17)

·         The word “more” is used three times in these ten verses.  This phrase emphasizes that we have gained much more in Christ than we ever lost in Adam. (See verse 15)


Verse 12“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned--…” - To understand the main thought of this paragraph, read verses 12, 18-19 as a single unit.  That main thing Paul is saying in these verses is that we can choose the way of Adam (sin and death) or we can choose the way of Christ (righteousness and life).  The choice is ours.  Because we have all chosen the way of Adam (see Romans 3:23), then our only hope of forgiveness is to choose the way of Christ. 


Verses 13-14 - In the middle of his thought, Paul digresses to deal with an objection that some would raise to his teaching.  What about those people who lived between Adam and the giving of the Law through Moses?  Adam had a direct command from God to obey and the people who had the law had direct commands to obey.  But, surely, those who lived after Adam and before the giving of the law could not be guilty of sin if they had not been given the commandments of God.  Paul responds by saying that those people were not judged for disobeying specific commands or laws.  But it is self-evident that God did hold people responsible for their sins during that period because people died (which is the result of sin) in the time between Adam and Moses.  The reason Paul does not go into any more detail about this is because he dealt with the subject in detail in chapter 1 where he explained that God had revealed enough about Himself to all humanity both inwardly and outwardly (see Romans 1:19) that all people are without excuse for their rebellion against God.


Verses 15-19 – In these verses, Paul develops the parallels between Adam and Christ.  He points out three areas of contrast and two areas of comparison.  Dr. J.W. MacGorman summarizes these parallels in the following way:

  • Verse 15“But the free gift is not like the transgression.  For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to many.” – A contrast between Adam’s trespass, through which the many died, and the free gift of God’s grace in Christ, which has abounded for many.
  • Verse 16“And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.” – A contrast between the condemnation that followed Adam’s one trespass and the justification that follows the free gift of God’s grace coming after so many trespasses.
  • Verse 17“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” – A contrast between the death that reigned through Adam’s trespass and the much greater reign in life of those who receive the free gift of God’s grace.
  • Verse 18“So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” – A comparison between the condemnation that came to all men through Adam’s trespass and the acquittal that comes to all men through Christ’s act of righteousness.
  • Verse 19 “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” – A comparison between the disobedience of Adam, through which the many were made sinners, and the obedience of Christ, through which the many will be made righteous. 

Dr. MacGorman makes a very helpful observation at the end of his discussion of this passage:  “We do not inherit salvation through Christ’s obedience apart from our personal involvement of faith.  Nor do we inherit condemnation through Adam’s disobedience apart from our personal involvement in sin.  Neither salvation nor guilt can be inherited.” [The above quotes taken from LBC, pp.55-56]


Verses 20-21 – In speaking of Adam Paul had been speaking of a time before the law was given through Moses.  Now he addresses the question of how the law fits into all this.  The law merely highlights the seriousness and depth of our sin problem.  The law does not create sin¸ it makes sin more evident.  And since God’s way of dealing with our sin is grace, then the law, which makes sin more evident, also makes God’s grace more evident.  Here is how Warren Wiersbe explains these verses:  “…as the Law made man’s sins increase, God’s grace abounded even more.  God’s grace was more than adequate to deal with man’s sins.  Even though sin and death still reign in the world, God’s grace is also reigning through the righteousness of Christ.  The Christians’ body is subject to death and his old nature tempts him to sin; but in Jesus Christ, he can ‘reign in life’ because he is a part of the gracious kingdom of Christ.”  [Wiersbe, Be Right, p.53.]


What Paul says about sin and grace in verses 20-21 raises a question.  If our sin causes God’s grace to abound, does that mean that we should sin more so that we experience more of God’s grace?  That is the issue with which Paul deals beginning in chapter 6.