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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Please explain Romans 5:18. It seems to say that every human being will ultimately be justified by Christ and that no one will be lost.
Let me quote the passage you refer to: “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.”*
Those who believe in universalism—the view that a loving God will eventually save every human being—have used this passage to support their understanding of salvation. A careful exegesis of the text, however, requires an examination of the immediate context (Rom. 5:12-21), the text itself, and Paul’s understanding of salvation.
First, a literal translation of the Greek text: “So then as through one trespass to [eis] all men to [eis] condemnation, so also through one act of righteousness to [eis] all men to [eis] righteousness of life.” The phrases “through one trespass” and “through one act of righteousness” could be respectively rendered “the trespass of the one [Adam],” “the righteous act of one [Christ].” There is no verb, because Paul feels that the context is clarification enough.
Second, we should pay particular attention to the use of the Greek preposition eis [to, for]. It is employed four times in this passage. Two of its usages introduce its universal impact, the extension of the actions of Adam and Christ—”to all men.” The other two usages introduce the goal or result of both “condemnation” or “justification.” When one combines the usages of the preposition, one could get the impression that Paul is teaching universalism: Adam’s act condemned all, Christ’s act justified all. But there is more.
Third, the meaning of eis in the phrase “to all men” identifies the object that will receive something. Had we had a verb, the preposition would introduce what is called an indirect object, for instance, “death came to all men” (verse 12). The second usage expresses the idea of purpose or intended result: “to/resulting in condemnation/justification of life.” The use of the preposition “to” (eis) does not by itself indicate whether the purpose it points to is actually realized or simply aimed at. That is decided by the context.
Fourth, the context suggests that the result of Adam’s trespass actually affected the whole human race, resulting in their condemnation, but that Christ’s righteous act was intended for all humans but not automatic. Only “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man” (verse 17). Justification is intended for all human beings, but only those who accept it will benefit from it.
Fifth, universalists violate the context of the passage and are not careful in the use of the preposition “to” (eis). They argue that the parallel between Adam and Christ requires the preposition to have the same meaning in both cases. If, in the case of Adam, its purpose was actually realized (his action resulted in the condemnation of all), then it must have the same meaning with respect to Christ (His obedience resulted in the justification of all). This argument is valid only if we ignore the fact that the Bible teaches that some people will be lost.
Some have tried to avoid the trap of universalism, arguing that all were legally justified by Christ independent of any faith commitment, but that each person can reject that condition by deciding against Christ. This suggestion breaks the parallel between Adam and Christ, destroying the internal logical consistency of the argument.
Let me explain. Our condemnation is not something that we can reject, avoid, or even accept. That condition is unavoidable and permanent. Pressing the parallel between Adam and Christ would mean that the righteousness of life that He gave “to all men” was also unavoidable and permanent. Introducing the idea of a legal universal justification that can be rejected breaks the parallel on which the argument is based. Consequently, Romans 5:18 cannot be used to support legal universal justification.
*Scripture quotations in this article are from the New International Version.