Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Romans 5:12 seems to say that we die because of Adam’s sin and also because of our individual sinning. Is that what the passage is saying?
Romans 5:12-21 contains one of the most important discussions on the significance of Christ’s death. Paul describes the results of Adam’s sin and contrasts it with what God accomplished through Christ to demonstrate God’s abounding grace. In order to understand verse 12 properly it is necessary to analyze the whole section and what Paul teaches elsewhere on those subjects. However, the analysis must start with the verse itself.
1. Sin is personified. Sin is foreign to God’s creation; it came from the outside. Nothing is stated about its origin. It is described as a person waiting at the door of the world for someone to give “him” access to it. This personification will be developed in Romans 6 and 7, where sin is described as a powerful and enslaving king.
2. Adam’s sin is unique. The consequences of Adam’s trespass set it apart from any other committed by any of his descendants. His trespass had universal impact in that he opened the door for sin to take control over the world. Adam mediated (“Through one man . . .”) this evil phenomenon that came accompanied by its inseparable consort, death: both physical and spiritual death.
3. Universality of sin and death. These two powers took over the “world.” The main emphasis is the world of human beings, but one cannot rule out the rest of creation. Creation itself was enslaved by the power of sin and awaits its liberation (Rom. 8:20-22). There is a solidarity between Adam, humans, and the rest of the world, but it is a solidarity as the result of Adam’s action. This is suggested by the phrase “in this way,” which can be rendered “consequently” or “therefore.” Death is universal because it “went through/arrived at all men.” Death became the inescapable destination of every human being.
4. Adam’s sin and individual sinning. Sin is also universal—all die, because all sinned (Rom. 5:12). There was a time when instead of using the word “because,” some translated the original “in whom” (in Adam) all sinned, to support the idea of original sin; but now it is acknowledged that “because” is the right translation.
But the question remains: Whose sinning is this, the individual’s or Adam’s? Did all sin when Adam sinned? Or is Paul saying that all sinned individually? There are three main reasons to show that individual sinning is described here.
First, the phrase “in Adam” is not used here, and there is no need to introduce it in the text. In fact, verse 12 does not explicitly say that Adam sinned, but that he gave sin access to the world.
Second, the verb “to sin” is used by Paul to designate only actual personal sin, not to his or her participation in the sin of Adam (e.g., Rom. 2:12). We must be careful about introducing a usage of the verb into this text that is not Pauline.
Third, in order to elucidate the meaning of the phrase “all sinned” it would be good to find another passage in which Paul uses it. Romans 3:23 also designates the actual sins of the human race as argued in Romans 1:17-3:26. The idea of Gentiles and Jews sinning in Adam is absent from those chapters. The past tense, “sinned,” describes an act that is valid for all times, that is, sinning characterizes all humans throughout history.
Death is universal because sin is universal. Through Adam’s trespass sin came into the world as an enslaving power, and no one, except Christ, has been able to escape its control. As a result of Adam’s act, sin is inevitable for the human race. As the representative of the race, Adam had an impact on all his descendants. We exist in solidarity with him as our common ancestor; sin rules over us.
The good news is that Christ defeated the enslaving power of sin and there is no reason whatsoever for anyone to be controlled by this evil power (Rom. 5:18). His justifying grace is available to all who, through faith, accept it (verses 17, 19). Glory be to God!