Did we inherit sin from Adam? Often, that is the reason why believers turn to Romans 5.12-21, to examine if the doctrine of “original sin” is taught by Paul. Throughout the centuries, various theologians have argued that is exactly what Paul taught. So Augustine (AD 354-430) stated that man is “not able not to sin” and that Adam passed his sinfulness down to succeeding generations through natural procreation. This has served as the justification for infant baptism in not only the Catholic church, but many others as well. Over a thousand years later John Calvin (AD 1509-1564) would make original sin a major tenet of his theology: “For as Adam at his creation had received for us as well as for himself the gifts of God’s favor, so by falling away from the Lord, he in himself corrupted, vitiated, depraved, and ruined our nature; for having been divested of God’s likeness, he could not have generated seed but what was like himself. Hence we have all sinned; for we are all imbued with natural corruption, and so are become sinful and wicked.”
But was that Paul’s argument, or is this yet another case of people centuries removed from the letter reading their own cultural context into the words of the apostle? I certainly believe the latter to be the case. Before we move into the text, consider a few reasons why it should be apparent that Paul was not arguing that our sinful condition is the result of Adam’s original sin:
- Scripture argues that each person is punished for his/her own sins, not as a result of Adam’s original sin:
- God declared to Israel that “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18.20).
- Jesus stated that He would come in judgment and would “repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16.27).
- Before penning Romans Paul had already written that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2Corinthians 5.10).
- Paul’s argument so far is that all men (both Jew and Gentile) are equally guilty before God. Why? Because both Jew and Gentile violated their covenant with God, thus “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3.9 see also Romans 2.6-10; 3.23). But if we’re all sinners because we inherited Adam’s sin, wouldn’t that have been Paul’s point from the beginning of the letter?
- Finally, consider Paul’s argument in the passage itself. If he’s saying that we all became guilty of sin when Adama sinned, the logical conclusion would be that we all became righteous when Christ obeyed the Father (note vss. 18-19).
So, what is Paul saying? That’s what we want to examine in this lesson, not how others have skewed the teachings of the apostle. And with that in mind, it’s important to notice the very first word of the passage: “therefore”. What Paul is saying in this passage builds on his earlier argument and he had just argued that our salvation in Christ is assured (note in particular Romans 5.9-10). Vss. 12-21 build on this point, showing that even though man’s experience since Adam is one of sin and death, justification and life are truly found in Christ. As you read and study this text, consider the contrasts between “one” and “all”. What Adam (one) and Christ (one) did had effect on “all”.
What Adam Brought (vss. 12-14)
Perhaps we would do well to distinguish between “original sin” and “original guilt”. As we’ve already established, Scripture does not teach that we inherited Adam’s sin, i.e. that we are guilty because he was guilty. However, that’s not to say that Adam’s sin didn’t have huge ramifications for us. In fact Paul’s point is exactly that; Adam’s sin had huge ramifications for all of us! For me, a helpful way of looking at this is to see Adam as starting an epoch of human history. Note what defined this epoch:
- One act: sin (vs. 12)
- Two results: condemnation and death (vss. 12,16,18)
- The extent: all men (vs. 12)
If we go back to Romans 1.18-32, Paul’s argument will make even more sense. There we saw that the world was under God’s wrath, because the world left it’s Creator. When did that start? With Adam of course! Adam’s sin, substituting his will for the will of the Creator resulted in sin and death for all who followed (3.23). The epoch of sin and death began with Adam.
Before we move on, let’s note the two main passages used to bolster the “original sin” or “original guilt” position:
- Vs. 12 states that “death spread to all men because all sinned”. Tragically, the Latin Vulgate translated this as “in whom all sinned” giving the interpretation that we all sinned in Adam. However, that’s not what Paul wrote nor is it the logical conclusion. Note that in vss. 13-14 Paul states that sin reigned from Adam to Moses even though the Law had not yet been given and “even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam”. Man didn’t die because of Adam’s sin, but because of their own… for sins different than the exact sin of Adam.
- Vs. 19 states that “by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners”. This is the more difficult verse, and if it were the only verse in Scripture on the topic perhaps we would do well to adopt the doctrine of original sin and guilt. However, as we’ve seen it’s not the only verse, nor does interpreting the verse as teaching we inherit Adam’s sin fit with the flow of Paul’s argument. Remember, if Adam’s sin automatically made us sinners, than Christ’s obedience automatically made us righteous. We need to read vs. 19 in light of vs. 18. Adam’s sin set the stage for where we all find ourselves: condemned because of all of us since the time of Adam have sinned and found ourselves deserving of death. Because of Adam’s sin, sin came into the world (vs. 12) and now we all find ourselves sinners (vs. 19).
What Christ Brought (vss. 15-19)
The picture is bleak, but let’s not forget Paul’s point in this passage. Having established the extent and certainty of salvation in Christ (vss. 1-11) the apostle is showing that the epoch of sin and death which started with Adam is now reversed in Christ; a new epoch has begun! This epoch is typified by:
- One act: obedience (vss. 18-19)
- Two results: justification and life (vss. 16-17)
- The extent: all men (vs. 18)
The epoch of sin and death began with Adam, but the epoch of righteousness and life began with Christ. His act of righteousness is directly contrasted with Adam’s act of iniquity. So, if Adam’s act resulted in many becoming sinners, then Christ’s act results in many becoming righteous. This is the blessing of justification. No fear of God’s wrath, but reigning in life! Here are a few notes about the text:
- Note the use of “much more” in vss. 15 and 17. We saw how Paul used this argument in vss. 9-10 to show that if God would give His Son to save us from our sins, He would certainly save us from the wrath to come. Now Paul uses the same form of argument to show that if one man’s sin brought death, the work of Christ would certainly bring life.
- The idea of grace is prominent throughout the passage (note the frequent occurrences of the terms “grace”, “free gift” and “gift”). God’s grace which gave His son culminates in “righteousness” (vs. 17) and “justification” (vs. 18). However, that is not to say that man has no part in receiving God’s grace. Paul’s entire argument up to this point is that we can be righteous only through faith in Christ, not by our own deeds or by the Law (see Romans 1.16-17; 3.28; 5.1). In this section of the letter Paul is not discussing our need to have true faith, but rather the grace of God which is found in Christ Jesus (the object of our faith). Emphasizing God’s grace in this section does not nullify the discussion of faith which already occured.
What About The Law? (vss. 20-21)
Recall that the Jews boasted in the Law (see Romans 2.23; 3.27) but the Law didn’t justify them, rather knowledge of sin came through the Law (Romans 3.19-20). Paul amplifies this point here, placing the Law firmly in the epoch of Adam and not the epoch of Christ. Adam did not sin under the Law, but he sinned as did everyone who came after him. The Law did not keep the Jews from sinning, rather it magnified their sins by showing exactly what they were doing was sinful to God! So, Paul lumps the Law in with the epoch of sin and death, the epoch of Adam. Grace, righteousness and eternal life belong to the epoch of Christ! However, that is not to say that the Law was sinful. Paul will make that point clear in Romans 7.7. The Law served a purpose by pointing out sin (see Romans 7.9), thus magnifying the grace found in Jesus.
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