Thoughts on Romans 5:12-14

(Our forebears taught that Adam, as created in the image of God, was holy and righteous, indeed perfect (WCF, 1V,2, cf. C.Hodge, commenting on Ephesians 4:24 in 1856, pp.266f., Systematic Theology, 2, 1960 ed., pp.99ff.). Since they further believed that from this “high estate” (Milton) Adam and Eve fell into sin, by parity of reasoning we are bound to believe that God himself is capable of doing the same. Though this deduction is unavoidable, it is also blasphemous. Clearly, if such a conclusion has to be drawn from such premises, then we are forced to quarrel with one or both of the premises. The truth is that Adam and indeed all human beings, knowing neither good nor evil, are only potentially like God. And we must agree with Bishop Westcott (following Irenaeus) when he said that we are created in God’s image so that we may gain his likeness (The Epistles of John, London, 1883, p. 306. Cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). In other words, man, in contrast with the animals, which lack all understanding (cf. Ps. 32:9) and are creatures of instinct (2 Pet. 2:12; Jude 10), is, or rather becomes by an observable process of development, a rational creature eventually capable of understanding law. Only by keeping it can he attain to the likeness of God (cf. Mt. 19:17-21), by breaking it he follows the devil (Gen. 3; John 8:44). If Jesus had to start from scratch, i.e. from moral innocence (cf. Isa. 7:15f.), in order to begin his pilgrimage to perfection (Mt. 5:48, Heb. 1:3; 2:9f.; 5:9; 7:28; Rev. 3:21), then it is equally true of us (Dt. 1:39; Heb. 5:9; Rev. 3:21, etc.). In light of this, we are led inexorably to infer that when our forebears began with the assumption that Adam was perfect, they put the cart before the horse.

Against this background it is imperative that we look at Romans 5:12-14 again.

Understanding Romans 5:12-14

First, Paul tells us that sin came into the world through one man. This man is obviously Adam (see v. 14), the first man, representative man, the prototype of all men according to the flesh. We need to remember here that at the start of his life, since he lacked the law, Adam knew neither good nor evil (Gen.2:17; 3:5,22). This would suggest that mentally he was at best an infant and this is confirmed by what is said in Deuteronomy 1:39, Isaiah 7:15f., 1 Kings 3:7 and Hebrews 5:14, for example. Paul has already asserted in 4:15 that where there is no law, there is no sin (cf. 5:13; 7:8,11; 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 5:23, cf. James, 2:9-11; 4:17; 1 John 3:4; 5:17). In view of this we must draw the conclusion that it was not until the commandment had been given that sin became a possibility, and this is precisely what Paul says in 7:7ff. Being the first to receive the law, Adam became the first to break it and hence the first to sin.

Paul also taught that the wages of sin is death (6:23, cf. Gen 2:17). So when Adam sinned he brought in death, or, to put it otherwise, was paid the wages of sin (Gen. 3:19). It follows from this that all others, who are also like Adam born in ignorance of law and know neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39, cf. Num. 14:3,31; Rom. 3:19; 7:1,7), cannot break the law and sin until they receive it. But once they do receive it they, like Adam in whose image they are made (Gen. 5:1-3), inevitably sin and die since death is the wages of sin. Paul tells us in Romans 7:9f. that this was his own experience. The conclusion is then unavoidable: the traditional Augustinian idea that we all sin ‘in Adam’, which phrase is NOT in the text, is manifestly false on the one hand and redundant on the other.

This contention that imputation or sin ‘in Adam’ is false is further underlined by other considerations. First, Paul has already taught in Romans 4:1-8 that imputation and wages are mutually exclusive. In Romans 6:23 he will maintain, presumably on the basis of Genesis 2:17, that death is the penalty or wages of sin. This can only mean that all who experience death have earned it (cf. Rom. 2:6,8), that is, they have been paid wages for the work they have done. This being so, the inference we necessarily draw is that imputation, which is a free gift received by faith, is out of the reckoning, definitively ruled out of court. It is hardly surprising then that in verses 15-17 Paul makes a sharp distinction between the free gift of righteousness and the effect or result of Adam’s sin. On this see further below.

Next, in verse 13 Paul says that sin is not counted where there is no law. Here he is clearly recalling what he has already asserted in 4:15. Thus sheer logic forces us to conclude that since the heathen did not have the law (of Moses, see v. 14), they could neither break it nor pay its penalty in death. But Paul has just said that all men die because they all sin. Is he then contradicting himself? By no means! After all, he went out of his way in 1:18-3:20 to show that all men, both Jews and Gentiles are sinners. In the process he also indicated that they sinned in different ways, that is, either under the law or apart from the law (cf. 2:12). So once again the conclusion must be drawn that he is talking about actual not imputed sin. However, imputation makes all men and women sin in exactly the same way, but Paul states that they sin in different ways (cf. Eve and Adam in 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14 on whom see below)!

It is evident that Paul, like all great thinkers, carries his entire argument in his head, and now in verse 14 he re-affirms the line of thought he summarised in 2:12. The heathen, those who lived between Adam and Moses, did not have the law (of Moses) but death reigned over all of them nonetheless. So Paul unavoidably infers that they must have sinned (or they would not have died) even if it was in a different way from Adam who contravened an explicit commandment given to him by God (Gen. 2:17). Again it must be stressed that this difference proves conclusively that Paul is talking about actual not imputed sin.

If we insist that imputation is true, then certain conclusions inevitably follow:

First, wages are excluded (Rom. 4:1-8), so death cannot be the result of sin. (So much for the argument of Lloyd-Jones who, in his exposition of Romans 5, maintains that the fact that infants die proves the truth of imputation!)

Second, all sinned in exactly the same way, i.e. in Adam, and so, contrary to Paul’s explicit assertion (5:14), all difference is eroded!

Third, all sinned as Adam sinned, that is, against a clear commandment or law. But this cannot be true since Paul insists that the heathen, some of whom lived before the law of Moses was given, sinned in a different way (v.14), that is, apart from the law (cf. Rom. 2:12).

Fourth, even more to the point, Jesus, who we are explicitly told was a son of Adam (Luke 3:38, cf. Heb. 2:14ff.), must have been entrammelled in its all-embracing tentacles? But since Scripture forbids this conclusion, we are forced to quarrel with its premises.

Some Christians have wondered why Paul concentrates on Adam’s sin rather than on Eve’s. The reason is basically twofold. First, it is implied by Paul when he says that Adam was a type of the one who was to come. What does he mean? In view of verses 15-21 where he sets the two Adams in contrast he portrays them as representative men (cf. 1 Cor. 15:21f.,45-49), though clearly NOT as our covenant representatives (for nowhere does Scripture teach that Adam was our covenant head and representative, cf. Ridderbos, Paul, p. 386). So his reference to type serves as a useful introduction to his analogy. Secondly, whereas Adam, like Israel at a later date, disobeyed an explicit divine commandment, by contrast, Jesus, as the true vine, obeyed the whole law of Moses (Mt. 3:17, cf. John 15:10, etc.).

According to Genesis 3:1-6 it was Eve who sinned first. In light of this we can say without the slightest fear of contradiction that Adam’s sin was not imputed to her. We can also say that her sin was different from Adam’s since (a) she did not receive a clear commandment from God as Adam did and, therefore, like uncircumcised Jewish women later, was not under the law as he was, and (b) she was deceived. Now this is precisely what Paul maintains elsewhere, that is, in 2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:14.

Though Paul does not explicitly say so, we are logically bound to draw the conclusion that Eve, who was ‘lawless’ on the one hand and deceived by the devil and her physical desires on the other, typified the heathen who were also lawless and deceived by their lusts. This Paul had spelt out in chapter 1 at some length (see vv. 24ff., cf. Eph. 4:17-24, etc.).

While we are forced on the basis of the evidence to reject the notion of original sin in both its Catholic and Protestant forms, there can be no doubt that Paul saw Adam as a contributor to the sin of his descendants. Since he does not specifically tell us, we are bound to ask in what way. In light of other references such as Exodus 20:5f., 34:6f., and Numbers 14:18, we can reasonably conclude that like all parents he had a significant impact on his children for good and evil without in any way undermining their personal accountability as references like Deuteronomy 24:16, Psalm 106:6, Isaiah 65:7, Jeremiah 16:10-12, 32:18f. and Ezekiel 3,14,18 and 33 make clear. Inevitably, his bad example, parental conditioning and influence brought a bad effect, and this is clearly in Paul’s mind. The opposite is true regarding Christ, the second Adam, the impact of whose example and influence was wholly good. No wonder we are frequently reminded in Scripture to imitate good and not evil (3 John 11, etc.). (It might well be noted that Abraham’s good example is stressed by Jesus himself, John 8:39, cf. Lu. 11:13, even though he also set a bad example in some respects, cf. Gen. 20 and 26:6-11.)

Let us now probe further. We can safely say that ‘original sin’, i.e. sin “in Adam”, is false because death has to be earned (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). If sin is imputed to us it is either a gift, which cannot pay wages (Rom. 4:1-8), or it is a natural endowment (which is basically the same thing) for which we can be no more responsible than we can for the colour of our skin (cf. Acts 17:26). In any case, it is redundant because once we know the law, like Adam and Eve we are all too capable of sinning for ourselves (cf. Jer. 4:22) and earning our own wages even when we do this against our best intentions (cf. Rom. 7: 13ff., etc.). If we look at the other side of the analogy in which Christ, the second Adam, figures, we need to remember, first, that imputed righteousness requires faith as its instrumental means of conveyance. This is notably lacking in babies, so they cannot be righteous (cf. Heb. 11:6). In other words, as Moses and others say (Dt. 1:39; 1 K. 3:7; Isa. 7:15f.; Heb. 5:13f., cf. Jon. 4:11; Rom. 9:11) they, like Adam before them, know neither good nor evil and so are morally innocent. Secondly, the imputation of righteousness involves grace or free gift and cannot be either reward or wages (cf. Rom. 11:6). Little wonder Paul says that no one will boast before God (1 Cor. 1:29, etc.).

The question must be asked, however, Is there such a thing as imputed sin? The answer is a resounding yes. Our sin was imputed to Jesus who, in contrast to infants who lack the capacity, received it by faith in accordance with his Father’s will (John 10:11,17f.; 1 Pet. 3:18). When we appreciate this we immediately recognise that there are only two acts of imputation in Scripture and they involve a straight exchange. And this is again precisely what Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 5:21.

There are at least two final points to be made. First, against the idea that sin can be either imputed (Protestants) or transmitted (Catholics) is the fact that the Bible explicitly opposes the notion that we can be punished for our fathers’ sins (Dt. 16:24; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18, cf. John 9:3; Job 21:19-21; 34:10-12; Num. 14:3,31-33). In the NT the nearest anyone comes to teaching that we can are the Pharisees (John 9:2,34).

Secondly, if as Paul maintains in Romans 4:1-8 imputation rules out wages, to insist that Romans 5:12 teaches that it leads to death for all is logically illegitimate and makes nonsense. But the same is true of verses 15-17 referred to above. What do I mean? Here Paul makes a radical distinction between the free gift and the result of Adam’s sin. However, since imputation excludes wages the distinction is in effect empty. To all intents and purposes, it is at bottom a distinction without a difference, for it makes no odds whether righteousness or sin is imputed since neither pays wages. If there is no merit on the side of righteousness then equally there is no demerit on the side of sin. Again we are forced to conclude that Paul is talking about actual sin not the imputed variety. In any case, if Adam’s sin is imputed to us (as opposed to Christ), then (a) it incurs no penalty and Adam himself gets off scot free (cf. Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18:2; Job 21:19-21), and (b) it is not imputed to Christ who Augustinians constantly tell us avoided the entail of original sin. The problem here, however, is that since we are incapable of making atonement for him (cf. Ezek. 14:14), Adam’s sin remains unatoned; secondly, since the work of Christ so far as Adam was concerned is ruled out of court, it is therefore rendered redundant and Adam is left in limbo (or at best self-justified), all the more so when we recall that what is not assumed is not healed.

All in all, the traditional dogma of original sin, beset with insuperable difficulties as it is, must be regarded as impossible. At best it is based on Augustine’s misunderstanding of Romans 5:12; at worst it is the deception of the devil arising from a refusal to re-examine tradition (cf. Mark 7:9-13; John 8:44-47). Since it reverberates throughout our theology, the sooner we abandon it the better.