The New Adam: Romans 5:12-21

Romans 5:12-21

Thoughts from the Passage

“There is no passage of the New Testament which has had such an influence on theology as this passage; and there is no passage which is more difficult for a modern mind to understand”[1]

These are the words of William Barclay and they ring true today just as they did when he wrote them. This is a passage that Paul is telling all the readers of this letter, in a brief summary, that sin came through Adam and that Jesus is the ‘new’ Adam who offers life and freedom from sin. This may be an overly simplistic understanding, but it is true nonetheless. Paul wants his readers to know that this new life is a gift. It is not earned, but given through the work of Jesus.

Maybe an illustration would be helpful. A good friend of mine was born into a very difficult home. His mother already had another daughter and no one is certain that they have the same father. After a couple of years my friend’s mother knew she could not give the kids a life that would provide for their needs, let alone offer them a future. My friend’s mom offered up her two children for adoption and they were adopted and moved to Indiana and were given a new home. They were taken in by a loving family that could not have children and they were given all the privileges that come with being children of this new couple. They had a beautiful house to call home, they had cars to drive, and their college was paid for. All of these things were given to them not because of what they did, but because they were given the gift of loving parents.

My friend and his sister were born into a way of life that might have led to destruction. It certainly would have been a difficult life. Instead of that being what they experienced they were brought into  a loving family that provided much more than their mother could have ever dreamed.

This is not a perfect illustration, but this is what Paul is trying to say. In Jesus, what we are born into doesn’t have to be all that we know. In Jesus, we can find a life more abundant than we would have ever imagined. We are not bound to the sinful nature and being descendants of Adam, but we can be born again as God’s children.

v. 12-17

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

Before we look at this section I think there is a helpful paragraph from NT Wright on this text. “He is then in a position to sketch the big picture which now emerges, the picture from which he will then develop his account of God’s renewed people in chapters 6 and 8.” Wright adds these helpful words, “But ‘sketch’ is the operative word. More than anywhere else in his writings, Paul allows his mind to go at such a pace that he seems only to write one word for every four or five he really needs if he is to make himself clear. We stumble along behind, trying to make sense of it, and gradually the picture emerges.”[2]

Paul is reminding us again to look back in his argument which has been all about being in right relationship with God. He has been making his case that no man or woman is capable of being in right relationship with God without the saving grace of Jesus. He begins again what he did with Abraham only this time he does it through Adam, and that is to show that Jesus has been and continues to be pointed towards through all of the Scriptures.

“Sin entered the world through one man.” This is a profound statement. It is one that states that from the beginning of humanity when we were given the ability to choose our own path, to go towards God or away from Him, we chose to go away. Adam is a mere shadow of what is to come, and Jesus is the substance. Though the shadow world that exists through Adam is here there is a world with true power that has come and is coming through Jesus.[3]

It could be said this way. A man has a family and he cannot figure out why his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren keep finding themselves addicted to alcohol. The man decided that at 15 he would start drinking and as he grew older he drank more and more and more. He knows that alcohol in itself is not wrong and so he knows that having a drink is not wrong, but he seldom has just one. The man cannot figure out why his kid, grandkids, and great grandkids have lost jobs, licenses, spouses, and other things through their addiction. The man takes no blame or responsibility for the actions of his kids and their kids. He always tells them they can have just one, but he only models a way that says otherwise. In other words, one person can set the trajectory for a family.

Adam set the trajectory for mankind and that trajectory was one of sin. In order for the cycle to be broken it takes one person to set a new trajectory, a person to “save” the family, or in this case all people. Jesus is the new Adam. Adam was the first fruits of mankind, Jesus is the first fruits of those that are part of God’s Kingdom, the first fruits of the resurrected ones.

Verses 13 and 14 point out how in one man we see the breaking of the one command God gives and then through Moses we see the breaking of all the commands that were given to Israel. Paul goes on to write in the next several verses that even though sin and death came through one man that it is not an equal trade to new life in Jesus. The new life in Jesus far surpasses the condemnation that sin brought. Put another way, being in made right with God is so much greater than all the consequences of not being right with God.[4]

Paul does not talk of the gift of righteousness as a thing to come sometime in the future with the return of Jesus. What he is saying is that right relationship with God, comes now! That through the resurrected Lord we are made right today, and that Jesus’ reign of king is now!

v. 18-21

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God has done it; God will do it. That is the message of this dramatic little passage, summing up the whole story of the letter so far.”[5]

If sin can enter into God’s story through one man, then righteousness and new life can enter through the one man, Jesus. Paul is writing in a way that says even though the family legacy has been one of sin and brokenness, there is a new family member that has been there since the beginning and he is giving the family a new option. No longer do all of us have no choice but to follow the past model of Adam, but there is new Adam and his way leads away from death and leads to life. “In Adam we potentially died in sin; in Christ we provisionally died to sin.”[6]

The Law allowed for people to be more aware of their sinfulness. The problem lies in the fact that it did not keep people from sinning. Awareness of something does not keep one from doing something. The problem was still the same, relying on self and not on God.

“It should be now obvious that any pessimistic reading Romans 5:12-21, which leaves the human race hopelessly mired in the sin that entered with Adam’s disobedience, misunderstands completely what Paul is saying. Justification and life are for every member of Adam’s race…The grand announcement of this passage is, therefore, v 20-21. Paul’s pessimism of nature is more than matched by his optimism of grace. “Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (RSV).”[7]

[1] Barclay, 77.

[2] Wright, 91.

[3] Greathouse, 161.

[4] Wright, 91.

[5] Wright, 93.

[6] Greathouse, 161.

[7] Greathouse 171-172.

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