Original Sin (Part 3/3): Romans 5:12 – An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology

It is common for young seminarians to entertain the strange notion that biblical studies is superior to theology because biblical scholars build their interpretation on objective exegesis while theologians spin theories out of thin air. The notion is misguided as sound interpretation of the Bible requires both exegesis based on rigorous linguistics studies and theological analysis that is logically coherent and informed by insights gained from historical theology.

It is arguable that the lack of theological depth is characteristic of much contemporary biblical scholarship, and that this lack is a serious impediment to good exegesis. A similar criticism may be leveled at theological analysis that is not founded on solid exegetical groundwork.

The analysis of Rom. 5:12 given below provides a excellent model of well-rounded and nuanced interpretation based on robust exegesis and coherent theological analysis.

Romans 5:12 – An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology

What does the passage have to say regarding the doctrine of original sin?

Following an extensive exegetical discussion, Lewis asks the following questions: What type of union between Adam and the race does the passage suggest? Is it realistic in the philosophical sense, as taught by Shedd? Or, is it realistic in the biblical sense, as taught by Augustine? Does the passage teach an imputation of sin? If so, is the imputation mediate or immediate?

The force of ἐφʼ ᾧ [in that/because] in the last clause:
The fifth suggestion, that the is neuter and that the phrase means because, has the overwhelming support of the commentators. The distance of ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου from the relative weakens the case for a connection between them, and there is clear Pauline evidence for the meaning because (cf. 2 Cor. 5:4). An excellent sense is obtained as well. The last clause, then gives the reason why death has come to all men. Death is universal for the precise reason that sin is universal.

The ground has now been cleared, and we are face to face with the primary difficulty of the passage: the interpretation of the entire final clause, and particularly as it is highlighted in πάντες ἥμαρτον· What do they mean?

It is also at this point that Cranfield’s study [his modern classic Commentary on Romans in the ICC series]  is at its weakest. Having decided that  is neuter and ἐφʼ ᾧ means because, he outlines three interpretations of πάντες ἥμαρτον First, ἥμαρτον may refer “not to men’s sinning in their own persons but to their participation in Adam’s transgression.” Second, ἥμαρτον may refer “to men’s sinning in their own persons quite independently of Adam, though after his example.” Third, ἥμαρτον may refer to “men’s sinning in their own persons but as a result of the corrupt nature inherited from Adam.” Quite rightly Cranfield rejects the second interpretation, the Pelagian, because it “reduces the scope of the analogy between Christ and Adam to such an extend as virtually to empty it of real significance, and fails to do justice to the thought of vv. 18 and 19 and to that solidarity of men with Adam which is clearly expressed in 1 Cor 15:22 (ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν τῷ Ἀδὰμ πάντες ἀποθνῄσκουσιν,…).”  The remainder of the article is an attempt to refute the first interpretation and support of the third, and he concludes that ἥμαρτον has the same force in 5:12 that it has in 3:23. Human death is the consequence of human sin, but human sin itself is the result of a corrupt nature inherited from Adam.

Now, it is not my primary purpose to dispute Cranfield’s conclusion, although I do not think it is right one. My principal aim is to demonstrate that his analysis of the problem lacks theological depth, and that this lack of theological depth, characteristic of most exegetical work being done today, is a serious impediment to good exegesis [emphasis added]. To illustrate, the first interpretation suggested by Cranfield – namely, that ἥμαρτον refers to man’s participation in the sin of Adam – is an ambiguous and, therefore, superficial suggestion. Realists and representationists both affirm the truth of Cranfield’s position, but they differ decidedly in its interpretation. In addition, Cranfield’s third suggestion – namely, that ἥμαρτον refers to acts of sin that result from the corrupt nature inherited from Adam – raises the question of the nature of the imputation of Adam’s sin, and Cranfield’s study gives no indication of an awareness of the debate over mediate and immediate imputation. It is my contention that one cannot really treat exegetically such as important text as Romans 5:12 in satisfactory fashion without handling in some the alternative theories that face one in interpreting the text.

Background Theological Theories that Affect Exegesis of the Passage

1. First of all, there is the theory of the denial of any causal relation between Adam’s sin and the sin of the human race. According to those who have held this view, there is no relation, either logical or natural, judicial or physical, between Adam’s act and his posterity’s sin. The only connection is that necessitated by the divine purpose or decree. It was the divine purpose that, if Adam sinned, all men should sin. Such a view, however, is utterly unable to explain vv. 18 and 19, where it is distinctly stated that the many are constituted sinners by one act of disobedience.

2. Second, there is the Pelagian theory. Another class of interpreters, anticipated by 2 Baruch 54:19 but led by the notorious Palegius and including such distinguished scholars as James Denney and C. K. Barrett, refer the words to the actual personal sins of men (cf. 3:23). While this interpretation would seem to demand the present tense, ἁμαρτάνουσιν, rather than the aorist, there are at least two other things that overthrow it. (a) First, the repeated claim is made in vv. 15-19 that only one sin is the cause of death of all. Five times Paul makes the point. (b) Second, the sense of v. 14 is against this view. There it is stated that certain persons, part of the all and ones who suffer death as the penalty of sin, did not commit sins resembling Adam’s – that is, individual and conscious transgressions. They must, then, have died because of Adam’s sin. The Pelagian theory, therefore, in spite of its illustrious advocates, must be discarded.

3. We now come to the theory of realistic union. We must at this point make clear that the remaining views are based on a common understanding of the relation of the final clause to the main clause. It is admitted that the death of all is grounded in the sin of all (v. 12), and that the death of all is grounded also in the sin of one, Adam (vv. 15-19). In other words, there is here a solidarity, or union, which must be acknowledged. In some way and for some reason, Paul is able to say that one sinned and that all sinned – and in both statements refer to the same fact. This solidarity and universality, or this union, must be a part of any explanation of Romans 5:12.

There are two views that compete in explaining this solidarity. One is the view that the union between Adam and his posterity is biological and genealogical, and may therefore be described as natural or seminal (cf. Heb. 7:9-10). The human nature in Adam is numerically and specifically one with the nature of all men. Thus the solidarity between Adam and all men is natural or seminal. This view is usually called the realistic view, and it has been the view of such theologians as William G. T. Shedd, James H. Thornwell, and others. The other view, while not denying the seminal relationship and its importance, is that Adam was the appointed and representative head of the race. This view, which involves the principle of imputation, is the representative or federal view. It is to this problem that we now turn.

Shedd, the ablest defender of the realist position in English, puts it this way:

According to the elder Calvinism, as represented by Pareus and those of his class, original sin propagated in every individual rests upon original sin inherent in every individual; original sin inherent in every individual rest upon original sin imputed to every individual; and original sin imputed to every individual rests upon original sin committed by all men as a common nature in Adam. On this scheme, the justice and propriety of each particular, and of the whole are apparent.

The essence of this is the race-participation in its unindividualized unity and entirety in Adam’s sin. “The hallmark of realism,” Berkouwer comments, “is the conviction that all men are ‘co-sinners’ with Adam in the fullest meaning of the word.”

Realism, obviously motivated by the desire to solve the problem of the peccatum alienum or the problem of the justice of God, is grounded in three claims: (1) it does full justice to the aorist ἥμαρτον, to the “one sinned” and to the “all sinned”, (2) it does full justice to the peccatum alienum problem; the sin is truly peccatum alienum ; (3) it can handle two pertinent passages, Hebrews 7:9-10 and Ezekiel 18:1-32, better than federalism.

What objections may be raised against realism? Before referring to them specifically, we must be sure that we are clear on one point. The issue between realists and representationists is not that of seminal, or natural, union. Both accept that. The real issue is this: Was Adam a person in whom human nature existed as an entity, a specific and numerically one entity (that is, all the individuals who come from Adam are specifically one [belong to the same species], and at one time in Adam they were numerically one, but now by propagation have become individualized into a multitude of persons), or was Adam by divine ordination a representative person who stood the probation for his posterity? That is the point at issue.

The first objection to realism is that, even if we should grant that generic humanity sinned in Adam, we would have no relief from the problem of an alien guilt. If punishment is to be vindicated, the act of sin must be one of conscious self-determination and “personal criminality.” Yet according to realism, when Adam sinned, his posterity as individuals and persons did not exist. The act antedated their personhood. I cannot see how this alleviates the problem of justice one iota, for how can we act before we are? Can a nonentity act? Even if we admit the priority of race to individuals, we still have the moral problem on our hands.

In the third place, the context of Romans 5 over and over again relates our sin and guilt to the act of one man. With this, of course, realism agrees. It is to be noted, however, that in this passage, which so fully develops the origin of sin in the human race, not once is the sin and guilt related to the act of all men. Realism could say this, but Paul never says it – and the silence is almost deafening.

In the fourth place, realism cannot handle Romans 5:14 and its last clause. The καὶ which begins it, indicates that the second clause refers to a special class, distinguished from the general class referred to in the first clause. The second class is composed of infants or idiots, it seems. Realism’s difficulty is simply this: in realism all have without exception sinned as Adam did, since they sinned racially in him. All have broken a definite and positive commands, the same one Adam broke. Thus realism has no place for a different modus in sinning.

What may be said with regard to mediate imputation?
First, ἁμαρτάνω cannot mean to be, or become corrupt, as a look at the usage will confirm.

Second, in the context of vv. 12-19 it is plainly stated by Paul that both Adam and his posterity die from the one trespass of Adam (vv. 12, 18, 19). Death, condemnation, and the status of the sinner are all related to the one sin of the one man. There is no intermediary of any kind.

Third, mediate imputation is inconsistent with the argument of vv. 13-14.

Fourth, the theory is inconsistent with the parallelism between Adam and Christ.

Just as we are not justified by inherent righteousness, so we are not condemned by inherent corruption.

In the fifth place, if inherent depravity is a punishment – and it is hardly possible to argue otherwise – then guilt must have preceded it. What, then, could the guilt be other than the guilt of Adam’s first sin? Human sinfulness in the sense of hereditary depravity stands in relation to Adam’s first sin as an effect stands to a cause. And Shedd is surely right in saying, “If it is just to impute the cause, it is certainly just to impute the effect. But, on the contrary, it is impossible to see why the corruption of nature should be imputed as sin, if the first sin is not. It is improper to impute the effect when the cause cannot be imputed.” In fact, as the Formula Consensus Helvetica (1675) and Turrettin, its prime mover, claimed, Placaeus’ doctrine in reality did away with the imputation of Adam’s sin entirely, for it is really corruption that makes us liable to wrath. The inadequacy of Cranfield’s view should be obvious.

Finally, we come to the theory of immediate imputation. According to it, men are understood to have stood their probation in Adam, their natural and representative head. Thus his act was deemed their act; his sin was their sin. As the Scriptures say, they sinned in Adam (cf. 5:12, 18-19; 1 Cor. 15:22). This is immediate imputation.

What arguments may be adduced for this interpretation?

First, the Scriptures set forth Adam as the natural and representative head of his posterity. The promises of dominion were given not only to Adam, but to the race, as the unfolding of the Word of God indicates. The threats given to Adam were threats for the race, and the consequences of his sin fully support that. These threats have been realized in penal evils that affect the whole race. So, just as the act of the Last Adam is a representative act, becoming the judicial ground of the justification of the believers, it follows that the act of the first Adam is a representative act, becoming the judicial ground of the condemnation of those united to him.

Second, immediate imputation is implied in man’s estate, born spiritually dead and evidently under a curse (cf. Eph. 2:1-5). He was either tried in Adam and fell, or he has been condemned without a trial. He is under a curse for Adam’s guilt, or for no guilt at all. Immediate imputation explains most satisfactorily what is ultimately mystery.

Third, this representative principle is confirmed by and in the Scriptures, and it is illustrated in human history outside the sacred record.

Fourth, immediate imputation is most suitable to the Pauline argument at this point, the illustrative analogy of Adam and Christ being designed to clarify the doctrine of justification by faith and the imputation of righteousness. In v. 12 the apostle makes the point that all die because all have sinned. In the following verses, vv. 13-19 (including both the parenthesis of vv. 13-17 and the apodosis of vv. 18-19), he makes the point that all die because one sinned. Can the apostle be dealing with two different things? Hardly. The one fact may be expressed in terms of both plurality and singularity. The sin of all is the sin of one. There must be some kind of solidarity. It is that of federal representation.

Fifth, immediate imputation enables us to see why only the first sin of Adam and not his subsequent sins, nor the sin of Eve, is imputed to men.

Sixth, it is the only interpretation that satisfies the requirements of the relation of vv. 13-14 to v. 12. The γὰρ indicates that vv. 13-14 are designed to substantiate the statement of v. 12. If, however, v. 12 means that all men are sinners (cf. Pelagius et al.), or that all have become corrupt (mediate imputation), or even that all actually sinned in Adam (realism), the verses do not substantiate the assertion of v. 12. If, however, v. 12 asserts that all have sinned in their representative, then everything is clear.

To sum up the course of the argument: the connection between Adam’s sin and universal human sinfulness and death is most lucidly explicated by the doctrine of immediate imputation. Adam, our federal representative, failed his probation and plunged his posterity into sin, wrath, and judgment, imputed to them directly. As a result of his fall, all men enter life “constituted sinners” before God – their only hope being the imputation of righteousness provided by God through the saving work of the Last Adam, the federal head of the company of the elects.

The problem of the peccatum alienum. We do not for one moment belittle the problem of the peccatum alienum, acknowledging that it tends to weaken the case for immediate imputation. But we do claim the matter has been misrepresented. It is often said that immediate imputation punishes innocent persons without their consent for another man’s sin, which is injustice. We merely mention these things. First, the relation of Adam to his posterity is unique; there is no parallel to it. It is, therefore, not at all clear that there is anything by which to measure the justice of the arrangement. Secondly, Adam’s posterity cannot claim to have ever been innocent. They enter existence depraved and guilty, having the same legal status and moral nature as their head ab initio. They cannot claim to have been stripped of any innocence or claim to immunity, for they had no existence prior to guilt at all. Finally, it can be shown, I believe, that the covenant in Eden was “liberal, equitable, and splendidly beneficent in its own character,” – and, if benevolent, then surely true to God’s goodness and justice. The failure was altogether man’s and Satan’s fault. Beyond this, we leave the problem to the mystery of the divine counsels.

The benefits of representative union. Someone may object and say, as is often done, “It is not right that something Adam has done should unalterably affect my eternal lot.” But Adam’s act is not the final determinative of our eternal destiny. Physical death, yes, but not spiritual death. One may still turn to the Last Adam and his headship. Furthermore, such representation, assuming the desirability of human creation and existence, is really to our advantage. For, in the first place, if we should stand our probation ourselves, we would be just as likely to fall as Adam, if not more so. We are not better than our first parent. And if we should stand for ourselves, the chances are that the end would be fatal and final. When angels fell, sinning individually, there was no hope of restoration for them, so far as the Scriptures reveal. Sinning individually, they sinned beyond all recovery.

In addition, if we grant that Adam knew he was the representative head of his posterity, then he had all the incentive of a great responsibility for the whole race. Representation, thus, is a beneficent provision for the race, for no individual in his individual probation would have the incentive of a great responsibility such as this.

And, finally, since we have fallen in a representative, it is much easier to see why we may be restored through a representative. In the wise and infinite mercy of God there has come a Second Man, a Last Adam. On the principle of representation, he may stand for us. Since he has stood his probation for us victoriously, we may rise in the same manner in which we fell. We fell through no personal fault of our own; we rise through no personal merit of our own. When a father strikes oil, the children get rich. And we have hit a gusher in the Last Adam! I must say that I like representation.

Source: Lewis Johnson, “Romans 5:12 – An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. Richard Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney (Zondervan, 1974), pp. 298-316.

Related Posts:
Original Sin (Part 1/3): Introduction
Original Sin (Part 2/3): Death in Adam, Life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-21)


2 thoughts on “Original Sin (Part 3/3): Romans 5:12 – An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology”

  1. In light of immediate imputation, why is it that the First Adam can plunge all men into sin, but the Last Adam (Christ) cannot redeem all from it? Because it seems Paul used the Adam and Christ as a sort of antithesis. So to be consistent, Adam plunged all of humanity into sin, shouldn’t Christ be able to redeem all from it?

    I am not denying the doctrine of Limited Atonement. However, I am finding it hard to wrestle with this the above issue and its relation with Limited Atonement.

  2. Hi SN,

    An analogy is a comparison between two subjects based on similar properties between them. An analogical argument refers to accepted similarities between the two subjects to support the conclusion that some further similarity exists. Obviously, similarities entail differences. If this is not the case, we will be speaking of identity or equivalence.

    Paul’s analogy between the work of Adam and Christ is based on the principle of solidarity and representation. This does not entail the identity between the sinful disobedience of Adam and the righteous obedience of Jesus. Neither does it entail equivalence of the consequences of their respective acts.

    Analogical reasoning is more akin to inductive rather than deductive reasoning. Any appeal to analogical reasoning must be cognizant of its limits. Let’s be mindful of logical dictum, “Beware of the pitfalls of analogical reasoning.” Note that Paul argues 5X in Rom5 that the God’s grace in Christ is “much more” than sin (of Adam).

    There is no explicit relationship between limited atonement and Paul’s argument in this passage. We will have to look elsewhere in Scripture to assess this doctrine. Though I believe in limited atonement (or more appropriately – definite, particular and effective atonement), I am respectful of other Christians who read Scripture otherwise. Briefly, I shall just describe the work of Christ as “sufficient for all”, but “effective for the elect.” Furthermore, when Christ died for the world, it was “for all without distinction” rather than “for all without exception.” This conclusion is based on a combination of theological analysis and biblical exegesis. I may need to address this doctrine with greater depth in the future, but for now I think there more urgent theological priorities in our context.

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