Original Sin (Part 2/3): Death in Adam, Life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-21)

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

Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ διʼ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν, ἐφʼ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον. (Rom. 5:12)

I. The Context of Romans 5:12-21
In verses 12–21 the apostle Paul outlines how Adam as the head of the present human race is analogical to that of Christ as the head of the new humanity. He uses the occasion of sin entering the world to compare the effects of Christ’s obedience which brings righteousness and life, with the effects of Adam’s disobedience which brings sin and death. The basis for the analogy is given in verse 14 where Adam is described as “the type of the one to come.”/1/

Paul writes, “Through one man sin entered into the world.” The account given in Genesis 3 is the basis of this statement. The one man is without question Adam (vs. 14). Paul adds, “And through sin death.” This is an allusion to Genesis 2:17; 3:19.The juxtaposition of sin and death is to give emphasis. In Jewish thought sin and death are integrally connected since the Fall, “A woman was the beginning of sin and through her all die.” (Sirach 2:23) “God created man for immortality…but by the envy of the devil death entered into the world.” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23)

1) Structure of the passage
The first part of the passage highlights the entrance of sin and death through one man. The second part highlights the universal penetration of death and the sin of all. They may be summed up accordingly: just as sin and death entered the world through the sin of the one man, so death permeated to all men because all sinned (c.f. Eph. 2:3).
Verse 12 comprises a balanced chiasm which shows that death is universal because sin is universal: “all sinned.”

2) Translation of the clause “so death spread to all men because all sinned”
Sanday & Headlam write that though the opening words of the last clause (ephʾ hō – Gk. ἐφʼ ᾧ) has been much fought over, there can now be little doubt that the true rendering is “because.” In agreement with most of the Greek Fathers, Douglas Moo suggests that the phrase has a causal meaning and is best translated as “because.”/2/  This rendering provides the most coherent reading of the passage.

II. The Crucial Question: What is meant by “in that (because) all sinned”?
Two popular views rejected
First view: “all sinned” refers to individual actions. We are following the pattern of Adam when we sin, but our sin is our own. This view is also instinctively acceptable to our modern individualistic culture, but one wonders whether the idea of an isolated individual is an abstraction. In the Old Testament, every person exists in a network of social relations. He is regarded as an inextricable member of a family, a clan and a nation. For example, Achan’s family was executed with him (Josh 7:1-26). Abraham’s covenant with God gave birth to Israel as the covenant nation. More importantly, the underlying thrust of the passage is to compare two forms of solidarity – Adam’s solidarity with the present human race and Christ’s solidarity with the new humanity.

This view ignores the language used by Paul. Leon Morris writes, “The aorist points to one act, the act of Adam; we would expect the present or the imperfect if the apostle were thinking of the continuing sins of all people. Paul says that all sinned in Adam, not in imitating him. And it ignores the context with its strong insistence on the sin of one man (not all of us) as the cause of the trouble.”/3/

If Paul has in mind that all men were guilty of actual transgression he would have stated it explicitly. Instead, the passage lays out a line of argument that decisively refutes it.
(1) It is not historically true. Not all die because men actually and voluntarily sin. For example, infants die even though they do not sin voluntarily.
(2) In verses 13 and 14 Paul says the opposite—death reigned over those who did not sin after the similitude [likeness] of Adam’s transgression.
(3) For Morris, the most conclusive refutation of the first view is the fivefold repetition of “one” throughout the passage: “many died by the trespass of the one” (v. 15), “the judgment followed one sin” (v. 16), “by the trespass of the one man, death reigned” (v. 17), “the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men” (v. 18), “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (v. 19). These verses are emphatic that we are sinners not because we followed Adam’s example, but because we are directly condemned through his one sin.

Second view: Death spread to all men because they inherited a corrupt nature from Adam, that is, our sin is the result of tendencies we inherit. This view has the virtue of preserving the undeniable reality that all men do sin individually and necessarily. That is, Adam’s first sin brought not only guilt, but also pollution to his descendants. But it misses the central thrust of the passage.

This view is problematic for three reasons: (1) There is no reference to anything like a corrupt nature or sinful tendencies in this passage. These concepts have to be read into the text. (2) It is inconsistent with the repeated affirmation of verses 15-19 where it is stressed that the one trespass of the one man results in judgment and death reigning over all. (3) It is in conflict with the analogous reasoning that runs through the whole passage. If we are condemned because of our inherent sinfulness, then analogously, we are justified because of our inherent righteousness. But the passage concludes that we are justified not by our own inherent righteousness, but by the obedience and righteousness of the “one”, that is, Jesus Christ.

IV. The Correct Interpretation – the one sin of the one man Adam is reckoned to be the sin of all.
John Murray deftly outlines the logic of Paul’s argument in verses 13-14:

(a) Adam sinned by breaking a direct commandment of God. Because he sinned, he died.
(b) The law did not come until Moses. Now, if there is no law, there is no accounting for sin (ἁμαρτία δὲ οὐκ ἐλλογεῖται, hamartia de ouk ellogeitai). To be sure, people who lived between Adam and Moses did in fact commit sinful actions, but their actions were not reckoned as transgression or rebellion against the will of God which was explicitly revealed later with the giving of the Mosaic Law.
(c) In spite of the fact that transgression could not be reckoned to them, they still died. That there was (actual) sin might explain the presence of death, yet during this period death reigned not only over those who were violators of expressly revealed law, as in the case of Adam, but also those who did not sin in that manner, that is, after the pattern of Adam.
(d) Why, then, did they die? It was because they had sinned “in Adam”. Their involvement in his sin caused their deaths, although formally speaking, they had not broken any explicitly revealed law.  In other words, death came to all men, not because of their own actual transgression or individual sin but because of their solidarity and involvement in the sin of Adam. For Paul, the universal reign of death clinches his argument that all men did sin in Adam.

When all the facts of the pre-Mosaic period are taken into account the only explanation of the universal reign is solidarity in the sin of Adam. John Murray emphasizes, “The central strand is the analogy that exists between the passing of condemnation and death to all by the sin of the one and the passing of justification and life to the justified by the righteousness of Christ…And finally, as noted earlier, verse 14 makes it impossible to interpret the “all sinned” of verse 12 as we might be disposed to interpret it if it stood apart from what follows. “All sinned” cannot mean the actual voluntary transgressions of men because if this were the case Paul would have contradicted himself.”/4/

Those who reject the principle of solidarity with the sin of Adam should note that it is the same operative principle in Christ’s redemption of the human race in Rom.5:12-21, [also 1Cor. 15:22, 45-49] when he redeemed us as our representative or Federal Head – the covenant was renewed by the obedience of Christ and his righteousness was imputed (reckoned) to those whom he represents (Rom. 3:21–31; 5:12–21; 2Cor. 5:21). We are constituted sinners by virtue of our solidarity with Adam who is our representative; likewise, we are constituted righteous by virtue of our solidarity by faith in Christ as our representative.

V. Theological Recapitulation
The guilt of the first sin in Adam’s sin and the corruption of human nature resulting from the first sin: Adam was our Federal Head or representative of the human race when he was placed on probation in the Garden of Eden (‘Federal’ is derived from the Latin word foedus or covenant). His sin was the breach of the covenant of works. (Hos. 6:7: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.”) /5/ Adam’s solidarity with the human race means that this sin was also imputed (reckoned) to them. As a result, death invaded the human race and everyone is born in a corrupt state.

The Westminster Confession succinctly captures the consequences of Original Sin: By this sin they [our first parents] fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. [WCF 6:2-4]


/1/ Francis Foulkes suggests that a ‘type’ “presents a pattern of the dealings of God with men that is followed in the antitype, when, in the coming of Jesus Christ and the setting up of His kingdom, those dealings of God are repeated, though with a fulness and finality that they did not exhibit before.”

/2/ Sanday & Headlam, Epistle to the Romans ICC (p. 133). Douglas Moo adds that this is the meaning the phrase almost certainly has in 2 Cor. 5:4, and probably also in Phil. 3:12 (it almost certainly does not in Phil. 4:10), and it is the meaning that fits best in the context here. See, Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 321-322.

Murray Harris concurs that the two words in the Greek phrase probably function together as a conjunction. “The numerous interpretations of the verse fall into two main grammatical categories:
1. those that construe as a relative pronoun (whose antecedent may be either ὁ θάνατος, “death,” or ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου, “one man”), with ἐπὶ meaning “in” or “because of”
2. those that treat ἐφʼ ᾧ as a conjunction, equivalent to ἐπὶ τούτῳ ὅτι, “because”

The former alternatives are improbable since elsewhere in Paul (2Co 5:4; Php 3:12; 4:10), ἐφʼ ᾧ is conjunctional, whatever it precise nuance.

Thus, the focus of exegetical attention naturally moves from πάντες ἥμαρτον which may refer to human beings’ corporate involvement in the transgression of Adam, or to their personal sin either in imitation of Adam or as a result of inheriting a corrupt Adamic nature. Since some nexus between Adam and his descendants regarding sin seems demanded by Paul’s Adam-Christ analogy (see Ro 5:18-19; cf. 1Co 15:22), the most likely options seem to be:

1. “death spread to all people because all sinned” (either actually in Adam’s primal transgression or in their federal representative, Adam, ἥμαρτον being a constative aorist)
2. “death spread to all people because all do sin” (as those who have inherited Adam’s nature, ἥμαρτον being a gnomic aorist)
3. “death spread to all people because [since the time of Adam] have sinned” (ἥμαρτον being a constative aorist)”

See, Murray Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Zondervan 2012), p. 140.

/3/ Leon Morris, Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1988), p. 231-232. Cf. Barclay, “It means that sin and death entered into the world, not because all men sin, as it were habitually, but because all men sinned. Further, if we are to give the aorist tense its full value, and in this argument we must do so, the more precise meaning will be that sin and death entered into the world because all men were guilty of one act of sin” William Barclay, Great Themes of the New Testament, (Westminster John Knox, 2001), p. 57.

/4/ John Murray, Commentary on Romans, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 185-186. Thomas Schreiner offers a different argument from Murray. “Paul does not deny in this text that the sin of individuals lead to death. What he affirms, however, contra to the Pelagian reading, is that individuals come into the world condemned and spiritually dead because of Adam’s sin. The latter part of 5:12 must not be separated form the first part of the verse. Sin and death entered into the world through Adam, and hence people sin and died both because of Adam’s sin and their own sin, though the sin of Adam is fundamental and foundational.” Thomas Schreiner, “Original Sin and Original Death: Romans 5:12-19,” in Hans Madueme & Michael Reeves, Adam, the Fall and Original Sin (Baker, 2014), p. 280. See also Thomas Schreiner, Romans. BCET (Baker, 1998), pp. 275-279.

/5/ Brian Vickers defends the view that Adam violated the “covenant of works” as the Federal Head of humanity. “While many object to the phrase “covenant of works,” it seems nevertheless clear that there was a principle of “works” in so far as Adam had to obey what God commanded him to do. It also seems clear that Christ’s fundamental act as described by Paul was an act of obedience, and this obedience, as Adam’s disobedience, is the foundation for the status conferred to those related to him. Regardless of how one works out the details, a covenant relationship provides the best conceptual framework for describing these relationships.” Brian Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation (Crossway, 2006), p. 150. Furthermore,  William Dumbrell argues that heqim + berith in Genesis 6:18 and 9:9ff implies a pre-existing covenant, in Creation and Covenant, (Paternoster, 2013), pp. 12-20.

Related Post: Original Sin (Part 1/3): Introduction