Competing kingdoms (Romans 5:12-20)

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So far we have discovered that we are without excuse, exception or escape in the face of God’s righteous judgement. God has clearly revealed to us who he is and we have responded by suppressing that truth. All have sinned and so all are under the penalty of death.

The solution to sin is God’s grace seen in Christ’s atoning death on the Cross resulting in our justification by faith. This means that we have peace with God.  Now as Paul comes to the end of his primary argument, he takes us a little bit further into the mechanics of how all of this works.  Why is it that we all fall short of God’s glory?  How can we be sure that we are justified by faith and have this hope that he talks about in Romans 5:1-11.

The origin of sin and death

(v12) Once again we begin with a causal link phrase, “because of this” to what has gone before. It is possible that the link is to the immediately preceding phrase about the hope we have, to the whole section from V1-11 or even to the whole argument that Paul has been building from ch1. I think there is a strong case for suggesting that the logical flow here is based on Paul’s whole argument. It would make sense to link the facts identified already that all have sinned and that we are justified with faith to the contrast between the sin of the one man, Adam and the righteousness of one man, Christ.[1]

Paul’s argument breaks at verse 13 to allow for further explanation before picking up again at verse 18 but the key points he makes at this stage are that sin entered the world through one man (Adam), that death came through sin and so death has come to all people because all have sinned.  Paul does not state explicitly here that all have sinned in Adam and therefore whilst we may deduce this from the wider argument and from other places, we don’t at this point have an explicit argument for “original sin.”

What some have suggested is that what we have here is “original death.” So that Adam’s sin leads to death for all and then rather than reading the end of verse 12 to say “because all sinned” we should read it to say “upon which” or “as a result of this, all sinned.” In other words, death is both the consequence of sin and the cause. Death then is a power that reigns over us so that we are subjected to its authority. We might envisage it as a rival kingdom to God’s kingdom. Death means we are estranged from  God, we are helpless, we are under the tyrannical power of death and so we live under its rule, hence we sin.[2]

The reign of death

However, verses 13-14 present a conundrum because if Paul simply means that Adam was the first to sin individually and that we then  sin, essentially by following his example, then what are we to make of the statement that

“sin is not counted where there is no law”

The point here is that for wrongdoing to carry a just penalty then those subject to punishment need to know in advance what the rule is and what the consequences for breaking it are.  This was clearly true for Adam because he knew that the rule forbade eating from the one tree and that the consequences of breaking the rule were death. It was also true for Israel after Sinai because they were given the Ten Commandments and the wider law with specific regulations and specific penalties including fines, exile and death.  However, for those living after Adam and outside of the Covenant, there were no specific laws given by God. How were they to know that theft, unfaithfulness and murder were not just morally questionable but specifically forbidden and worthy of death.

Yet, all humanity was under the Genesis 3 death penalty.  This penalty was experienced in terms of ongoing exile from Eden and spiritual exile from God’s manifest presence, his protection and provision.  It was experienced in their mortality and it was to be experienced in eternal judgement.  The implication then is that the death penalty incurred by Adam was in some way falling on all humanity even though Adam’s descendants had not broken a specific command like he had. 

I want to suggest that there are three reasons as to why this death penalty falls on all humanity in a way that is fair and just. First of all, Adam sinned as our representative. This is confirmed by Paul’s concluding logic in v18ff.  Our sin was, in some way, in Adam.[3] Whilst western individualism may cause us to struggle to understand this, it is worth noting that the majority of cultures through history and even geographically today have an understanding of corporate connectedness and responsibility.

Secondly, whilst there may not have been specific commands, the selfishness, dishonesty  and cruelty we see in human sinful behaviour is an outworking of Adam’s sin. We might say that all sin was in that one sin in embryonic form. In taking the fruit, Adam and Eve acted selfishly, they sought to dethrone God making them idolators and in their hatred for God, wanting to remove him from the scene as well as their carelessness towards the consequences for each other they became murderers. Idolatrous unfaithfulness is represented through Scripture as adultery and in taking what was not theirs, they sought to rob God and became thieves. So, the sin and selfishness of fallen humanity was an outworking of the original sin.

Thirdly in following with actions that arise out of Adam’s sin, we confirm our agreement with his choice. Indeed, the point is that people may not have the commands but nor do they seek God to know his word on the matter. This is demonstrated in Cain’s stubborn refusal to heed God’s warning.  Like Adam we decide to listen to our own counsel instead of Gods.  So, Adam represents us in sin but by our actions we confirm that we are happy for him to do so. We identify with fallen Adam.

The result then is that “death reigned” so that another image at work here is that of two kingdoms. Adam’s sin was a switch of allegiance from the Kingdom of God and life so that he hands over his life and his domain to a different ruler. That ruler is death. Death’s reign can be seen in its influence of decay across the whole of creation.

Death defeated

(v15-16) If Paul wants to draw out a comparison between Adam and Christ, he also wants to contrast there actions. Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience are not equivalent in value.  Once again we have the superlative “much more.”  If death is the result of sin then the life that  comes from Christ’s obedience is so much greater. This is not a mathematical thing in terms of the number of people affected but rather that it is a greater thing to bring life from death than the other way round. Paul wants to create this image in our mind of the depth, life and richness of grace (translated often as “the free gift) as something that “abounds.” 

The other contrast to observe here is between condemnation and justification.  This helps us understand a little bit more about what it means to be justified.  If justification means that we are free from condemnation, it means that there is no charge against us anymore.  This reminds us that justification language is legal language, it is the language of vindication and acquittal. 

(v17) repeats the superlative “much more” and focuses once again on a transfer of power and of kingdoms. If death reigned through sin then Christ’s act of obedience bringing grace and justification means that its reign is over. Notice who reigns once death is defeated?  That’s right it is those who have been justified. The irony is that when Adam handed over the kingdom to death, he was relinquishing his own position in the creation order.  Our reign is not alone and independent but rather it is in Christ, as the second Adam and new humanity, it is he who reigns and so our status as reigning is about sharing in his inheritance.

The reign of Grace

(v18) picks up from verse 12 with the text in between forming a kind of explanatory parenthesis.  The point is that sin and death came through one man’s disobedience, so in comparison and contrast, one act of righteousness brings justification and life. Adam’s disobedience is described in terms of trespass, a departure from the path and an encroachment across boundaries.  Note the comparative “all men.”  Adam’s sin brought death to “all” whilst Christ’s obedience brought life for “all.” 

This of course raises questions.  If sin brought death to all men and the cross life to “all” does that imply universal salvation.  We can see from wider scripture that it cannot imply universal salvation.  We see “all” here as referring to people without distinction but not without exception. So, two possibilities are proposed here.  The first option is that Christ’s death and resurrection offered the possibility or potential of life to all. However, that would be problematic because it would imply that Adam’s sin as the mirror effect led not to actual death but merely to the potential for death.

So, traditionally reformed theologians have talked in terms of “Definite Atonement” insisting that Christ’s substitutionary atonement was fully affective for all whom it was intended for.  Christ’s death does not just raise the possibility of my forgiveness and salvation.  Rather it makes it a reality.  Redemption then is “particular” to all those who are in Christ Jesus.  This has also at times been referred to as “limited atonement. (the “l” in Limited).  This makes it sound like the atonement functions as some kind of cosmic equation where God has to calculate how much mercy there is to go round. Such a concept provokes an understandably horrified response from many.

So, it is better to approach the question from this perspective. Unless you believe in universal salvation, the atonement is in some way limited. The question is “by whom”?  It is either limited by human decision or by God’s will.  Definite Atonement firms up my assurance by reminding me that Christ really has paid the price for me, his death was effective and reminding me again that the responsibility for my salvation and eternal security is his and his alone. At the same time, we must not think in terms of rationing or stinginess, atonement is for “the many” (v19).

(v19) points to the vicarious nature of life.  If Adam acted as our representative (sometimes referred to as our “federal head” then that means his works were applied to our lives. Judgement there is not merely on the absence of works but on the presence of the wrong type of works. We might say that in Adam, his unrighteous works of disobedience are credited to us.   His disobedience makes us sinners.  In contrast, Christ’s obedience makes us righteous.  Christ acts on behalf of us not just in terms of bearing our sin and the penalty but also in living a righteous and obedient life.  This is referred to as “imputed righteousness” -that Christ’s righteousness is what is credited to us through faith.

There has been some discussion among reformed theologians about the extent and scope fo the obedience credited to us. Was it Christ’s active obedience in terms of a whole life of perfect love and obedience to his Father or his passive obedience seen in his death.  Whilst clearly the focus is on his obedience to death as the point at which we are redeemed, it is impossible to detatch the two given that Christ’s purpose in coming was to die and furthermore that without his perfect obedience in life, the sacrifice is ineffective.

(v20) now gives us an insight into the purpose of the Law. We’ve already seen that without the Law, there was no penalty for sin. The Law then increases the seriousness of the trespass. The Law serves to highlight and magnify the seriousness of sin by showing its true ugliness.  The result of this is that there is an increase or multiplication of grace because we are pushed by the truth of what the law tells us about our helplessness to throw ourselves on the mercy of Christ.

(v21) The consequence is that where death reigned, grace now reigns in order that we might reign in Christ.  The point of grace reigning is that it is the dominant theme and experience of our relationship with God. Grace reigns through righteousness, in other words it is the consequence of Christ’s righteousness.  The result is that we now have eternal life through Christ.


Paul has now well and truly set out the case for salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Judgement is in Adam and life is in Christ.  Condemnation has now been removed.  We are free from fear, free from death. This will of course raise questions, including and particularly the question about how this affects our motivation towards holy living. Surely if the abounding presence of sin leads to an abundance of grace then we cannot be blamed for sinning and surely we are free to do what we want? Paul will tackle those questions in chapter 6.

Meanwhile, let’s take a moment to pause, get our breath and enjoy the benefits of our climb through the logic of Pauline theology.  The beauty of the Gospel is that no matter what our background was, we are equal before the cross, we are one in Christ Jesus, we are forgiven, and reconciled having hope and security because of what Christ has accomplished for us.

[1] Contra Moo who thinks that the link is specifically to 5:9-10.  On this basis Paul is now developing the basis we have for our final hope.  See Moo, Romans, 326-327. Schriener on the other hand considers the causal link to be from the whole of 5:1-11 but again with the link being the theme of hope. Schreiner, Romans 5:270-2711.  I don’t think there is actually too much of a distinction here because v9-10 is itself an argument built upon the whole of Paul’s reasoning to this point both from 5:1-8 and from the preceding chapters. However, by recognising that this is reasoned not just from its immediate context but from the whole logical flow of Paul’s argument is to my mind crucial in enabling us to see the link from Romans 3 of “all sinned” and from Romans 4 of why we need to be justified by faith so that Romans 5:11-21 is building on the concept of justification and taking us towards the idea of imputed righteousness.

[2] See Schreiner, Romans, 273-279.

[3] Hence Adam is a “type” of Christ. In Biblical Theology we talk about “types” and “antitypes”. A Type is an imperfect model or foreshadowing pointing to the greater fulfilment in Christ.  Adam is the type because he represents humanity as its founder and federal head so that we are in some way in him and dependent upon him just as we are through redemption in Christ, the second Adam and dependent upon him.

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