Pristine Grace

A Brief Exegesis of Romans 5:12-21
by Bob Higby
A Brief Exegesis of Romans 5:12-21

A Brief Exegesis of Romans 5:12-21 (ESV)

NOTE: The position outlined here is one I have embraced, defended, and written about for many years. I am presenting it again as the old issue has come back again with the same challenges as before.

Terms: The translation and meaning of ‘All’ in the New Testament writings, when referring to a certain mass of human beings, is generally agreed by those of a sovereign grace perspective to have both a ‘universal’ and ‘particular’ focus--depending on the context of usage. A universal ‘All’ refers to “all without exception”, whereas a particular ‘All’ refers to “all of a certain class, character, or distinctive purpose”. Scripture uses ‘All’ when referring to all in the human race, all of God’s elect in all places, or all reprobates in all places.

Prior to looking at Romans 5, I will cite two parallel passages from Paul that clearly pave the way for a proper understanding of his more extensive narrative in the passage under scrutiny.

Romans 11:29-32

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

The ‘All’ referred to in Paul’s conclusion of this passage is clearly the particular scope of ‘All’; the totality of the elect of God from Jews and Gentiles are both those consigned to disobedience and those receiving mercy. It is reasonable to conclude that no other interpretation is logically possible, unless one subscribes to a theology of paradox or contradiction as justifying an out-of-context teaching of those ‘consigned to disobedience’ being universal.

1 Corinthians 15:20-23

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

We have the same conclusion here as in the Romans 11 passage above. The particular ‘All’, the totality of all elect saints of all time; these only are in focus. Nothing universal that includes the non-elect masses of humanity is in consideration. Those who died ‘in Adam’ are the same group of elect saints exactly as those who are made alive ‘in Christ’.

The same parallel of the elect as those condemned in Adam and those redeemed in Christ will be more extensively elaborated on in Romans 5:15-21.  The 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5 narratives have the same meaning, in no manner is Romans 5 esoteric in relation to the other passages above.

Romans 5:12-14

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—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

The initial focus of Paul in these starting verses is not yet expressing the parallel and contrast between Adam, Christ, and the elect’s identity in both that will come in the following verses. The parallel & contrast teaching regarding Adam and Christ starts in verse 15 and continues through verse 21. But verses 12-14 are not describing a relationship between Adam, Christ, and the elect; they are instead describing the relationship between sin, death, and law. Wrong interpretations start with attempting to force the more universal focus of the sin/death/law narrative in 12-14 onto the later verses in 15-21 contrasting Adam and Christ.

When Paul states that ‘sin came into the world through one man’, he is not yet describing any relationship of Adam, Christ, and the elect. He is simply stating the historical point when the phenomenon of sin and resulting death began. Adam’s representation of others (the elect who will sin in his likeness) is not yet mentioned, only that all men following Adam in history sinned personally and died (whether knowing good and evil by specific laws of God impressed on the conscience or not). We see elsewhere in God’s revelation that each descendent of Adam is conceived in iniquity and goes astray from that point forward. But Adam was given a single law to obey following his ‘very good’ creation; his creation (as well as the direct creation of every elect soul by God) was perfect in relation to God’s temporal and ultimate purposes for him. In addition, his creation was imperfect by design with respect to his spiritual nature. He was ‘naked and not ashamed’ with respect to the knowledge or experience of evil in contrast to God’s goodness which was destined to follow. He did not know anything was wrong with himself. Though Adam’s experience (unique in the history of humanity) is not called ‘sin’ until the actual act of disobedience was committed, he was created with a ‘fleshly’ spiritual nature (naked but not ashamed) that was guaranteed to commit sin when the circumstance destined by God to cause it occurred. Before that point there was no knowledge of evil; Adam lived in a perfect environment with unlimited blessing and abundance to satisfy his every human desire. He had nothing but gratitude to God for all things given to him and complained of nothing. It was only when the threat of losing his wife Eve was presented that he first experienced the knowledge of evil and sinned deliberately in eating the fruit, though he knew (was not deceived) that the serpent had lied and that God would carry out the promise of death in the era (‘day’ with beginning and end) of the time then present as a consequence of what he had done. He took the mercies of God for granted and ‘took a chance’ that God might provide an ultimate remedy to mitigate the consequences of his sin. But God did not hold this sin against him in His own eternal and ultimate purpose of salvation in Christ.

In saying that ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses’ even to those that did not sin in Adam’s likeness, it becomes clear that Paul is distinguishing between the sin of non-elect and elect humanity. The elect commit sin personally in Adam’s likeness (in Adam ‘All’ elect die). Because of their ‘very good’ creation in the image of God, they reach a point in their created state (though tainted with iniquity from conception) where they come to know good and evil and begin to wonder about ultimate truth. The elect have some ‘hope’ of future redemption even in their unregenerate state, though not knowing how it will come about or what it consists of. But the non-elect sin as strict rebels from the beginning of their existence; having no ‘knowledge of good’ or hope of salvation in their experience but only a knowledge of evil that is purely impulsive and not informed by any commandment of God. They do not care about their inevitable damnation and spend life ignoring any promptings of conscience that might betray their hopeless state.

Verse 15:

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

The ‘many’ here are the true elect of God only. They died through one man’s trespass since the reality of death as the consequence of sin originated in Adam. But Adam was only their representative in the manner of his sin (they sinned in his likeness), he was not their substitute. Christ’s gift of eternal justification in the immeasurable Grace of God is something imputed to the elect, Adam’s personal sin was not imputed to them but was rather exemplary in representation of how all elect were guaranteed to sin in God’s plan, preparing the way for their redemption in Christ.

The originator of the doctrine of imputed sin in Adam to all mankind was Augustine. This was his only doctrine of imputation. He never affirmed the dual imputation of 2 Cor. 5:21, that of Christ’s perfect righteousness as the God/man transferred to all elect believers and their sin correspondingly transferred to Christ in His atoning sufferings and death on the cross. The Augustinian doctrine is Platonic, Justinian, Pelagian, and Arminian; it is a dispensational notion that a spotless and perfect Adam was the substitute of all mankind when he sinned in a state of autonomous free-will ‘before the fall’--though having absolutely no desire, motive, or impulse to sin. In this teaching all mankind goes to eternal torture ‘without measure and without end’ to satisfy some enigmatic principle of ‘eternal justice’--on the basis of Adam’s sin imputed alone--not due to their own personal sin. In the Augustinian (Neo-Platonic) view, one man’s sin condemning the whole world to eternal torture by substitution could only be achieved by a perfectly sinless man having autonomous free-will. This is the type of ‘absolute’ human free will having the ability to veto God’s will espoused by Plato, Justin, Pelagius, and post-Reformation Arminianism.

Verses 16-17:

And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

For God’s elect, the free gift of justification in Christ’s eternal covenant of Grace with the Father is infinitely unlike the condemnation that all elect experience in the likeness of Adam’s sin. With Christ we have substitution or imputation of his infinitely perfect Divine/human life, atoning death, and resurrected life at the right hand of God. He also is our perfect representative before God, very unlike Adam being our sinful representative of how all the elect were guaranteed to sin in the imperfect design of our souls created by God.  

Verses 18-21:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. 
Now the 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 leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.


What glorious words are expressed here in Paul’s conclusion of the matter! The effects of Christ’s eternal redemption of the elect sealed up by His substitutionary atoning death and resurrection (Dan. 9:24) are the fruit of an eternal covenant in Christ sealed by the Trinity in God’s transcendent eternity! God’s elect from the human race (Christ only excepted) are destined to be conceived or created in iniquity, commit sin deserving only of condemnation according to the Law, experience death in the body (which is not true death—those who believe in Christ will ‘never die’ [John]), and become the subjects of an eternal redemption in glory where in God’s right hand they will experience unimaginable pleasures forevermore in worshipping Him and fellowshipping with Christ personally as well as all elect saints of all ages! I look forward to reigning with Christ and spending my one-on-one time with Him on His throne (which I expect to be equal for ALL the elect!)