Romans 5:12-21

Romans 5:12-21

SERIES: The Book of Romans

 Ruin and Rescue  

Introduction:  We come this morning to a very profound and difficult portion of Romans.  That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed so much last week’s passage.  The theme was so clear, the concept so simple—all we had to do was to drink in the truths that …

         God’s love is without cause.

         God’s love is without measure.

         God’s love is without end.

Today we are faced with a very different kind of text.  Its theme is difficult to understand and perhaps even more difficult to accept.  Not surprisingly, it is subject to widely differing interpretations. Were we to go through these ten verses phrase-by-phrase and try to solve all the controversies and exhaust all the rich meaning, it would take a very long time.  Dr. Barnhouse of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia preached for seven months, every Sunday, on these ten verses. When one takes such a detailed approach, however, it is possible to lose sight of the forest because of the trees and end up obscuring the overall point of the passage.  So I have decided to preach just one message, focusing on the key thoughts, the main contrasts and comparisons, and the primary applications. 

Let’s give attention to the reading of God’s Word as found in Romans 5:12-21:

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—({13} for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when 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 was 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} Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the 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. 

{18} Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men,) so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. {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 added 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.”

The first thing that strikes me in these verses is that the subject revolves around two men—what they did, the results of their actions, and the destinies of their followers.  The first man is introduced to us, though not by name, in verse 12:  “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned ….”   

Now you don’t have to be an English major to realize that verse 12 is not a complete sentence—it just leaves you hanging, that is until you realize that verses 13-17 are a big parenthesis and the thought is not completed until the middle of verse 18.  Let’s read it that way, skipping verses 13-18a:  “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”  

One man did one thing resulting in sin and death; the other did something else, resulting in justification and life.  Who were these two men and what did they do?  

The first man was Adam and he implicated us in sin and death.

His act.  Adam’s act is referred to indirectly in verse 12 and directly in verse 18—it is called “one trespass.”  Elsewhere in our text it is referred to as “sin,” as “disobedience,” and as “breaking a command.”  To find out what it was, we need to refer back to Genesis 3.  

1.  Described in Genesis 3.  Here’s what we find:

         Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'”  

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'”  

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.  

It appears from these verses that sin entered into the world through Eve, as she was tempted by the Devil.  But Paul states forcefully in Rom. 5 that through one man it entered.  In order to understand this, I believe we need the clarification Paul offered in 1 Tim. 2:14.

2.  Clarified in 1 Tim. 2:14.  There we read, “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”  Though Eve became a sinner first and was judged for her personal failure, nowhere in the Bible is she blamed for the Fall or its consequences.  The reason she is not charged with responsibility for introducing sin to the race is that she was deceived by the very subtle temptation of the Evil One.  But Adam was not deceived.  He went into it with his eyes open, and God, therefore, charged him with being the one who introduced sin into the human race.  

The description in Gen. 3 and the clarification in 1 Tim. 2 are then supplemented by the interpretation of Romans 5.  

3.  Interpreted in Romans 5.  What’s the big deal anyway?  Adam sinned knowingly and was held responsible.  What’s that got to do with me, anyway?  The Apostle indicates that Adam’s act has everything to do with us, for his sin tainted all of us.  More than that—his guilt has actually been charged to our accounts.  

We like to think of ourselves as individuals, carving our own niche in society and pretty much independent of others.   But whether we like it or not, there is a Solidarity to the human race.  John Donne, the great English poet, was correct when he wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod is washed away, Europe is the less ….  Everyman’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls:  it tolls for thee.” [i] Adam’s sin implicated all of us and polluted all of us.

Since the day he committed his transgression, every human being born into this world has been born, not only with Adam’s genes and chromosomes, but also with his guilt and sin nature.  

Now let’s consider three tragic results of Adam’s sin as relates to the whole race.  

The results of his act:

1.  The universality of sin.  If Adam’s sin implicated the whole race, then every human being must be a sinner from the moment of conception.   And that’s exactly what the Bible teaches.  David wrote, “In sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5).  But our evolutionary, humanistic society denies this vehemently.  Some, it is true, are willing to acknowledge that some people do sin, or even that everyone sins at some time, particularly if you want to refer to ethical misjudgments as “sins.”  But babies sinful?  By nature?  Nothing strikes at the heart of humanism quite so devastating a blow as that notion!  But how else can we explain why sin is so universal?  Just on the basis of the law of averages, shouldn’t we expect that somewhere at some time there would be at least one sinless person?[ii]  Yet we can’t find even one.

But isn’t that what God says in verse 12?  It reads that “through one man sin entered and all sinned.” The KJV reads here that “all have sinned,” which could be interpreted as meaning that all have committed personal sins of their own.  Now that’s true, but it’s not what verse 12 is saying.  The Greek here employs a tense which indicates that at some point in the past all men sinned, and that point must be when Adam sinned.  When he sinned, I sinned.  If Adam is guilty, I am guilty.

Why?  Because he was my representative and his actions are charged to my account.  This concept of sin is known as “Original Sin.” and the principle is known as the “representative principle.” Consider this definition:  “Original sin is that sin in which Adam fell, the guilt of which is shared by every human being because Adam acted as the representative of the human race.”  This is taught in verse 12 and substantiated in verses 13-14.  Here is the gist of Paul’s argument:

The Law wasn’t given until Moses.  Now if there is no law, there can be no breaking of the law.  So while men who lived between Adam and Moses were obviously wicked, violations were not charged to their account since the Law had not yet been given.  But, nevertheless, people died during that time period—even some who hadn’t rebelled against God in the premeditated fashion of Adam.  How do we account for that?  Well, they died because they sinned in Adam.  Their representative’s act of violating the law of God was charged to them. 

Now a lot of people, including many theologians, rebel strongly against the notion of being held accountable for something someone else did.  One pastor, after preaching this text, was approached by a man who said, “I hate that doctrine of original sin!”  Well, any thinking person would—no one else got to vote when Adam made that choice.[iii]  But representative action is a fact of life.  Consider, for example, this thought shared by Dr. James Oliver Buswell:

It may properly be said that I signed the Declaration of Independence as of the Fourth of July, 1776.  I was not there, but my representatives acted in my behalf, and I am implicated in all the consequences of their action.  Further, I declared war and entered World War II with the whole nation as of December 7, 1941.  I was not present when the action was taken.  I was only listening over the radio.  I might have been an unborn child.  Nevertheless, my representatives acted for me and as representing me, therefore it was my action, and I am implicated and involved in all the consequences of that action.

Just so, I became a wicked, guilty sinner in the Garden of Eden….  I was not there.  No, but my representative was there, and he acted as such in my place.  I was driven out from the garden and excluded from the tree of life.  

This is not fair, or equitable, it is objected.  In human affairs it is possible for me to repudiate the actions of my representatives.  I could renounce my citizenship and migrate to another country where the Declaration of Independence has no effect.  Exactly so!  But repudiation does not render the representation relationship unreal.  It only alters it.  It is true that I could have repudiated the act of Congress in declaring war on December 7, 1941.  I then would have gone to a concentration camp.  Tojo would have been my representative, and Pearl Harbor would have been my deed.

Just so, while I cannot complain of the act of my representative in the Garden of Eden, and as I look into my own heart, I know that I might have done as he did, yet, I can repudiate the first Adam.  I can go over to a new representative, namely Jesus Christ.  When I do, then I can say that I died for my sins in the year A.D. 33.  I was not there, but my representative was there.  He died in my place, therefore I died.[iv]  

But if any of us still think we should get off the hook that original sin hangs us on, it’s only because we fail to see that personal sin also condemns us.  In at least three verses in this passage today Paul speaks of our personal sin, in addition to the sin of Adam which is charged to our accounts.  In verse 16 we have the phrase, “many trespasses;” in verse 19 it says we were “made sinners;” and verse 20 says “sin increased.”  Each of these is referring to personal sin.  

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that “if original sin don’t getcha, then personal sins will.”  And they’ll get you early in life.  You who are parents, have any of you had a child who showed no evidence of a sin nature until he or she was ten years old?  How about five?  How about two; did any of your kids skip the Terrible Twos?  Listen to the following report from the Minnesota Crime Commission, and please note that this is no fundamentalist right-wing preacher writing this:

Every baby starts life as a little savage.  He is completely selfish and self-centered.  He wants what he wants when he wants it—his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toy, his uncle’s watch.  Deny him these wants, and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness, which would be murderous, were he not so helpless.  He is dirty.  He has no morals, no knowledge, no skills.  This means that all children, not just certain children, are born delinquent.  If permitted to continue in the self-centered world of his infancy, given free reign to his impulsive actions to satisfy his wants, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.[v]

Not a bad description of the effect of Adam’s sin on the human race!  By reading that I’m not suggesting that the half-dozen new parents in the church take their babies down to City Hall and have them booked and fingerprinted.  But I do believe that only the most blind humanist idealists in our society can maintain that mankind is basically good and is corrupted only by his environment.  

But not only did Adam’s act result in the universality of sin (both original sin and personal sin); it also introduced the universality of death.

2. The universality of death, both physical and spiritual. (12)  One of the direct and immediate results of sin for Adam and Eve was death:  “on the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die . . .”   They died spiritually that very day; i.e., they suffered separation from God.  And they began to die physically, which, of course, ultimately resulted in separation of their souls from their bodies. 

Only a fool would contest what verse 12 affirms:  “death came to all men.”  Unfortunately, there certainly are some fools out there.  A couple weeks ago I was watching a TV news magazine about some guy offering injections of enzymes, vitamins, and who-knows-what-else as a cure for the aging process.  He said, “There’s no logical reason why a person has to get old and die.”  Well, there may be no logical reason, but there certainly is a theological reason—Adam’s sin has resulted in death to all of us.  

And the facts support the Scripture.  Scientists tell us that every human being begins to die physically from the moment of birth.  Even while we are growing and developing, cells begin to die and the evidence begins to show:  teeth decay, hair begins to fall out, eyes go bad, joints ache; and then when you turn thirty, serious problems begin!  The greatest evidence of all, of course is found at the cemetery.  Rows upon rows of grave markers all bear witness to the one act of our ancestor, Adam. 

Even more tragic, however, is the spiritual death which Adam passed on to us.  The Bible indicates that every child is spiritually stillborn into this world.  They are dead in their trespasses and sins.  They have no spiritual life unless there is a second birth, a birth from above.  This fact, too, Paul lays squarely at Adam’s feet.  

Now the third fundamental result of Adam’s sin has to do with the destiny of his race.

3.  The universality of judgment and condemnation.  Both of these terms are used in verse 16:  “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation.”  These terms refer to the eternal destiny of all who are “in Adam.”  In some passages in the New Testament judgment and condemnation are described in terms of a place–hell or the Lake of Fire.  In other passages it is referred to in terms of being “away from the presence of the Lord.”  However it is viewed, the result of Adam’s act is eternal tragedy for the human race.  

Now that’s a relatively quick overview of the First Man, Adam, his act, and the results of his act.  The news is all bad, the results all gruesome, and it would all spell RUIN were it not that God has provided RESCUE through a Second Adam.

The second man, Christ, made it possible for us to have justification and life.  

Adam’s watershed act, you will recall, was a specific, premeditated violation of a known law of God bringing ruin to the human race.  But Jesus Christ also performed a watershed act, and it had some even more astounding results.

His act is described by three different phrases, and from these descriptive phrases it is not at all difficult to determine what act is in view.  

1.  An act of righteousness (18).  As regards the first of these phrases, any act Jesus performed would fit, for He never did anything that wasn’t righteous.  He constantly “went about doing good.” (Acts 10:38) But notice that verse 18 speaks of one particular act of righteousness.  What one act that Jesus did above all others can be described as “an act of righteousness”?  Obviously, it was the giving of His life on Calvary, coupled with his subsequent resurrection!  It was not only an act characterized by righteousness, but it was also the act above all others which producedrighteousness, in that it became the basis for the salvation and spiritual growth of all who believe.

But Christ’s act was more than “an act of righteousness.” 

2.  An act of obedience (19).  Does this also fit His sacrifice on Calvary?  It surely does.  In the Garden of Gethsemane in the early morning hours of the day He died, Jesus prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.  Yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt!”  (Matthew 26:39) 

3.  A free gift (15,16).  Look at verses 15-16 and notice how many times Christ’s act of atonement is called “a gift”:  

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!  Again the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin:  The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 

Having described Christ’s great act, let’s examine the results of that act.  Just as there were far-reaching and dramatic results of Adam’s act, namely sin and death and judgment and condemnation, there were even greater results from Christ’s great act.  

The results of His act.  These results correspond directly to the results of Adam’s act. 

1.  The universality of sin was remedied by justification and sanctification.  (16,19) In verse 16 we read  again, “The gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin:  The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.”  

Now think with me for a moment about the significance of the fact that justification is presented as the answer to original sin.  Justification occurs, you will recall, when God declares guilty sinners, “Not Guilty,” and credits righteousness to their accounts even though they didn’t personally perform any deeds of righteousness.  Isn’t that the perfect remedy for original sin, which declares us “guilty” from the moment of conception, and charges our accounts with Adam’s sin even though we did not personally commit his transgression?

If we should deny the doctrine of original sin, then consistency would demand that we also deny the doctrine of justification, for both are built upon the same representative principle.  Original sin and justification by faith stand or fall together.  If original sin is a fact, then justification can be its only remedy.  

However, original sin, we have already noted, is not our only problem.  All of us are guilty of personal sin as well.  That is, all of us have trespassed against the revealed will of God, have missed the mark of personal righteousness, and have fallen short of enhancing the glory of God.  Is there a remedy for that, too, in the great act of Christ?  Indeed there is!  We call it sanctification, and we will be digging deeply into this topic in coming weeks.  Suffice it for now to simply observe that Jesus Christ’s act not only provided a right standing with God, but it also provided the opportunity and power to avoid sin and practice personal righteousness.  And I believe that is exactly what verse 19 says:  “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.”

Please notice a very subtle difference in terminology here.  Up to this time in Romans the word justification or righteousness (remember, they are the same word in Greek) has been used almost exclusively in a positional sense meaning, “to declare righteous.”  But now in verse 19 Paul speaks of our being “made righteous.”  This is experiential truth rather than positional truth, and it is a most crucial point to recognize.  God is not only interested in declaring us righteous; He wants to make us righteous.  And the death of Christ was designed for both!

By the way, we evangelicals seem often to be on a tightrope stretched between positional truth and experiential truth, between doctrine and duty, between what we are in Christ automatically at the moment we believe and what God wants us to become through a process of growth.  There are those whose only concern seems to be positional truth, and they often seem to suffer from a carelessness about personal holiness.  On the other hand, there are those whose only concern seems to be experiential truth, and they often suffer from a lack of assurance in their relationship with God.  The inevitable result is a roller-coaster Christian life. 

Someone once compared positional truth and experiential truth to two elements on the periodic chart: sodium and chloride.   Both are poisonous and if ingested alone could easily lead to death.  But combined properly sodium and chloride results in common table salt, which is essential for the enjoyment of life.  Positional truth without the experiential aspect or vice versa can poison the soul.  But combined they produce spiritual health.  

The second major result of Adam’s sin was universal death, and for this too Christ’s great act provided a remedy—for both physical death and spiritual death.

2.  The universality of death was remedied by the gift of eternal life.  (17,21) Look at verse 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.”  Spiritual death is the state of the soul’s separation from God.  Every unbeliever is spiritually dead; in fact, we can even say, as this verse does, that “death reigns in them.”  But when a person receives God’s abundant provision of grace and is born again, he is no longer under the reign of death.  Rather he reigns in life through Christ.  I think that means the same as 2 Cor. 5:17:  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”  Life replaces death in every area of the new believer’s existence.

But look also at verse 21, actually picking up the last half of verse 20 also:  “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The life in which we reign with Christ is eternal life; i.e., it will never end.  

Eternal life doesn’t always remedy physical death by preventing it; sometimes it remedies it by breaking its grip through resurrection.  But if you have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, you right now have the remedy for physical death.  If you are still here when Jesus comes again, you won’t die at all.  If you die first, you won’t stay dead.  Either way God has delivered you from the fear of death right now.  

The third major result of Adam’s sin was judgment and condemnation, and this too has a remedy in Christ’s great act.

3.  The universality of condemnation was remedied by God’s infinite grace.  (15,17,20). In verse 15 and again in verse 17 the phrase “much more” in employed to describe God’s grace as the answer to the judgment and condemnation that were Adam’s gift to us.  The thought is this:  “If Adam’s sin resulted in judgment and condemnation, how much more does Christ’s act of righteousness result in the unmerited favor of God being poured out on His children?”  That doesn’t merely imply that God’s grace will offset the condemnation incurred by Adam.  It will indeed offset it, but in addition it will go way beyond and ultimately enable us to stand before God as justified, glorified, holy saints.  Again I quote that great affirmation found in Romans 8:1:  “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

Verse 20, in a sense, says it all.  “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”  The hymn writer was absolutely correct when he wrote,

Sin and despair like the sea waves cold

         Threaten the soul with infinite loss.

         Grace that is greater, yes grace untold

         Points to the refuge, the mighty cross.

         Grace, grace, God’s grace

         Grace that will pardon and cleanse within.

         Grace, grace, God’s grace,

         Grace that is greater than all our sin.  

As I see it, we’ve come full circle.

         In chapter 3 the Apostle introduced and explained justification by faith.

         In chapter 4 he illustrated it.

         In chapter 5:1-11 he explained the benefits of it.

         In today’s text he has shown why justification is necessary, namely because only the Second Adam could undo all the damage the First Adam did to us.

The sin of Adam was a huge meteor falling into the ocean of humanity, sending a tidal wave to every bay and inlet.  It is the destiny of all who remain in that ocean to be swamped and eventually drown in eternal RUIN.  However, the cross of Jesus Christ was the Rock of Ages cast into the ocean of God’s love, and it is the destiny of all who receive Christ to be carried on the swell of His majestic act of RESCUE until we are presented faultless before the very presence of God.

DATE: February 26, 1995









[i]  John Donne,  

[ii] James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Vol 2, The Reign of Grace, 563. 

[iii] Steve Zeisler, “Righteousness Shall Reign,” Sermon preached at Peninsula Bible Church May 

30, 1993, Catalog #4297, 2.  

[iv] J. Oliver Buswell, citation lost.

[v] Quoted by Ray C. Stedman, Expository Studies in Romans 1-8, From Guilt to Glory, Vol. 1