Adam, Christ, and Justification, Part 2

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By John Piper About Imputed & Original Sin
Part of the series Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written

Romans 5:12-21
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned – 13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.

When It's Hard to Understand a Teacher

When a teacher becomes complex in his teaching, then probably one of two things is happening. Either he is confused and has lost his bearings and doesn't really know what he thinks, or he is dealing with reality at a level that defies ordinary human language and thought. Not all complexity means that a teacher is deep and wise; it may mean he is confused and befuddled. But then again, when something is hard to understand it may not mean the teacher is inept. It may mean that the subject itself is very complex and difficult.

In Romans 5:12-21, Paul's thought is complex and difficult to follow. But I don't think Paul has lost his bearings. He speaks, we believe, as an inspired apostle. He is not confused or befuddled. Instead, he is dealing with the saving work of Jesus Christ at a level that pushes the limits of the human mind. So don't panic and don't be too discouraged if you find the flow of thought in these verses difficult to follow. They are difficult. But it's because he is taking us very deep into the very structure of salvation and history and humanity and deity. This should encourage us to linger over these verses and meditate long on them and work hard to mine the gold and silver in this shaft.

A Universal Image

Last Sunday I gave the big picture: The point of the text is to display the greatness of the work of Christ in the way he provides a righteousness for sinners like you and me. And the way Paul goes about displaying the greatness of Christ's work is by lining it up beside the work of Adam, the first man, and pointing out the similarities and differences.

We noticed at the end of verse 14 the words, "Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come." That's the hinge on which the text swings. Adam, the first man, is a type or pattern or foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. Paul believes that we will understand and cherish the justifying work of our Lord Jesus better if we see it alongside the work of Adam. And so we will admire Christ and trust Christ and love Christ more. And God, who ordained it all, will be honored. And that is our aim.

The other main emphasis last week was the way Paul shows the global significance of Christ's work. If Adam is the father of all human beings, and if the fundamental problem with all human beings is found in how we are related to Adam and what happened to us when Adam sinned, then everybody in the world, no matter when or where or who – whatever tribe or language or culture or ethnic identity – everybody has the same fundamental problem. And this means that if Jesus Christ is not just a Jew who died as a Jewish sacrifice for sins, but is also the "last Adam" or the "second man" (as Paul calls him in 1 Corinthians 15:45, 47), who provides a righteousness better than what we lost in Adam, then Jesus is no tribal God, or limited, local Savior. He is the one and only remedy for the divine judgment of condemnation that rests on every human soul. Which means he is a great Savior able to save persons from all times and all places and all peoples.

Now today let's go to the text and see what happened in Adam and how Paul displays the work of Christ as the remedy to that.

For All Sinned

Let's go to verse 12. Paul begins his comparison between Adam and Christ with the words "just as." "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned . . ." And then Paul breaks off. We expect him to follow his "just as" half to be followed by a "so also" half. "Just as through one man sinned entered into the world . . .so also through one man righteousness entered the world . . ." In fact he will pick up the comparison in verse 18. But here he breaks off and doesn't complete it.

Why? Probably because he realizes that he has just said something that is liable to be misunderstood and needs to be clarified. What was that? Well, several things, but he picks out one in particular, because if he can make this one clear it will keep the others from being misunderstood. He wants to clarify what he means at the end of verse 12 by the phrase, "for all sinned."

He has just said that through one man, Adam, sin entered the world of mankind, and through sin death – the penalty, the judgment on sin. Then he broadens out this statement and says that this death, this judgment, was not confined to one man but spread to all humans. Why? Now here comes the ambiguity. He says, "because all sinned." Does this mean "because all sinned in Adam"? Does it mean that Adam's sin was the sin of the human race, so that when he sinned, in a real and profound and mysterious way, I sinned, and you sinned? Was Adam's sin imputed to us, so that we are viewed as sinning in him? Or does it mean that the penalty and judgment of death is owing to our individual acts of sin and not to Adam's sin being imputed to us? I believe the answer is that Paul means we all sinned in Adam, that his sin is imputed to us, and that universal human death and condemnation is God's judgment and penalty on all of us because we were in some deep and mysterious way we were united to Adam in his sinning.

Why Does It Matter?

Now someone might say, why does this matter? Doesn't Romans teach in 3:23 that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" individually? And doesn't Romans 6:23 teach that the "wages of sin is death"? And so if our judgment and condemnation are what the sins we do every day deserve, why does it matter if you can find a deeper cause of our guilt and death and condemnation – namely our union with Adam in his sinning at the beginning?

I think it is the answer to that question that made Paul stop here at the end of verse 12 and break off his comparison so that he could clarify what he means by "because all sinned." What's at stake here is the whole comparison between Christ and Adam. If we don't understand "because all sinned" as "because all sinned in Adam," the entire comparison between Christ and Adam will be distorted and we won't see the greatness of justification by grace through faith for what it really is.

Let me try to illustrate what's at stake. If you say, "Through one man sin and death entered the world and death spread to everybody because all sinned individually," then the comparison with the work of Jesus could be, "So also through one man, Jesus Christ, righteousness and life entered the world and life spread to all because all individually did acts of righteousness." In other words, justification would not be God's imputing Christ's righteousness to us, but our performing individual acts of righteousness with Christ's help and then being counted righteous on that basis. When Paul saw that as a possible misunderstanding of what he said, he stopped to clarify.

But what does it say about the work of Christ, if we take the words, "because all sinned" to mean "because all sinned in Adam"? Then it would go like this: "Just as through one man sin and death entered the world and death spread to everybody because all sinned in Adam and his sin was imputed to them, so also through one man Jesus Christ, righteousness entered the world and life through righteousness, and life spread to all who are in Christ because his righteousness is imputed to them." That is the glory of justification by grace through faith. The basis of our vindication and acceptance before God is not our righteous deeds, but Christ's righteousness imputed to us. But this would be all distorted if the words "because all sinned" at the end of verse 12 meant "because all sinned individually," and not because all sinned in Adam and his sin was imputed to us.

The parallel Paul wants us to see and rejoice in is that

One of the best reasons for thinking this is what Paul meant is to look at verse 18 where he really does complete the comparison he started here. "So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men." In Adam we all were condemned; in Christ we all are justified. Adam's transgression was imputed to us; and Christ's righteousness is imputed to us (see 1 Corinthians 15:22).

But all that would be lost if at the end of verse 12 the words "because all sinned" referred to individual sins and not to our sinning in Adam.

So he stops to clarify. Now how does he clarify?

Everybody Died, Even Before the Law

Verses 13-14: "For until the Law [of Moses] sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses. . ." What is he saying? Something like this: 1) Sin was in the world before Mosaic Law (verse 13a); he concedes that personal sin was prevalent in the world before Moses, not just Adam's sin. 2) But sin is not imputed (not counted, not punished) where there is no law (verse 13b). 3) "Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses" (verse 14a). That is, everybody died. Everybody was punished.

Now what's the implication Paul wants us to see? He wants us to see that universal human death was not owing to individual sins against the Mosaic Law but to their sinning in Adam. That is what he is trying to clarify. Verse 12 says that "death spread to all because all sinned." So Paul argues and clarifies: But people died even though their own individual sins against the Mosaic law were not the reason for dying; they weren't counted. Instead, the reason all died is because all sinned in Adam. Adam's sin was imputed to them.

But now there is an objection at this point to Paul's argument, and Paul can see it coming. The objection is that even before Mosaic Law there were commands of God to Noah and Abraham and others, so maybe their death was owing to disobeying those "laws," not because they sinned in Adam. And not only that, the objection would go, Paul himself said back in Romans 1:32 that all people – even Gentiles outside Israel – in their consciences "know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death." So there seem to be two exceptions to Paul's argument: Yes, there is no Mosaic Law to sin against before Moses, but there are personal revelations; and there is the law written on the heart. So, Paul, have you really shown that the people between Adam and Moses died for sinning in Adam and not for their own individual sins against these laws?

Even Those Whose Sin Was not Like Adam's

I said Paul sees this objection coming and, I think, that's why he adds the next words in verse 14. He doesn't stop by saying, "Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses. . ." He goes on to add the very crucial words, "[Death reigned] even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam." In other words, yes he concedes that there are other kinds of laws before the Mosaic Law, and yes people broke those laws, and yes, one could argue that these sins are the root cause of death and condemnation in the world. But, he says, there is a problem with that view, because death reigned "even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam." There are those who died without seeing a law and choosing to sin against it.

Who are they? I think the group of people begging for an explanation is infants. Infants died. They could not understand personal revelation. They could not read the law on their hearts and choose to obey or disobey it. Yet they died. Why? Paul answers: the sin of Adam and the imputation of that sin to the human race. In other words, death reigned over all humans, even over those who did not sin against a known and understood law. Therefore, the conclusion is, to use the words of verse 18: "through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men."

The Deepest Reason That Death Reigned

This is Paul's clarification: At the end of verse 12 the words, "death spread to all men, because all sinned" mean that "death spread to all because all sinned in Adam." Death is not first and most deeply because of our own individual sinning, but because of what happened in Adam.

Now here is the all-important question: Why did Paul, exactly at this place – at the end of verse 14, right after saying that death reigned over those who did not sin personally against a known law like Adam did – why exactly here did Paul insert the all-important words, "who is a type of Him who was to come"? Why, precisely here at this point, did Paul say that Adam is a type of Christ?

If you haven't gotten anything else, get this. Because this is your life. Right here he says that Adam is a pattern for Christ because the all-important parallel is seen here. What? The parallel here is this: The judicial consequences of Adam's sin are experienced by all his people not on the basis of their individually doing sins like he did, but on the basis of their being in him and his sin being imputed to them. As soon as that becomes clear in Paul's argument, he brings in Christ as the parallel: The judicial consequences of Christ's righteousness are experienced by all his people not on the basis of their doing righteous deeds like he did, but on the basis of their being in him and his righteousness being imputed to them.

The Deepest Reason Eternal Life Reigns

That is the all-important parallel. The deepest reason why death reigns over all is not because of our individual sins, but because of Adam's sin imputed to us. So the deepest reason eternal life reigns is not because of our individual deeds of righteousness, but because of Christ's righteousness imputed to us by grace through faith.

O how much light this sheds on why Paul embarked on this paragraph at all! He did it for the sake of our faith and our assurance and our joy. He did it to underline the fact that our right standing with God and our freedom from condemnation is not based on our righteous acts but on Christ's righteous acts.

This is the foundation of the great Biblical truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone. It has rescued thousands of saints from the despair of legalism and the paralyzing fear of imperfection. Christ became obedient even unto death so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (see 2 Corinthians 5:21). Here is rest for your soul. Here is a message that everyone you will ever meet needs to hear. Christ is our righteousness. Trust him. Trust him. Trust him.

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