The apostle Paul had previously written in this letter about the gospel – the good news – that comes to people who had rebelled against their creator, and of the ugliness and universality of human sin and death (chap 1). He has also written of the absolute failure of all people to keep God’s law, whether Jew or Gentile (chap 2 and 3), and of God’s free mercy that comes to people by means of faith – by trusting the promise of God regarding His Son, Jesus Christ; what he has done in the place of sinners for sinners (Chap 4).
This Jesus, Paul tells us, lived, died and rose again to reconcile to God (justifying) those who trust Christ (Chap 5a). Paul now goes on to show how this work had to be done by Christ and none other. It is a recap with a twist.
To begin with, we need to know that sin is not a just a feeling of guilt; it is a reality. Sin is, as John tells us, a transgression or breaking of God’s law. From sin comes death as the judicial punishment for breaking God’s law. This death is not just a separation of soul from body, but it is ultimately a great separation from our God, the creator and sustainer of everything. So death must be seen as spiritual as well as physical. Again, death is as universal as sin. All have sinned, so all will die. Death is what sin deserves.
In this section of Romans 5, sin is not referring to our personal wrong doings. Rather, it refers to that one sin of Adam, the first man, and its consequences. By this one sin of Adam, he and all of us were made subject to death, both physical and spiritual death.
Adam sinned against a law that existed before the law of Moses. He was told that “of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Adam rebelled against this law, and his sin was imputed [regarded as belonging] to all his children. The condemnation of Adam’s sin passed from parent to child. Adam acted as our representative. In the matter of this law of Genesis 2 it was Adam alone who would keep it or not. As he failed, so we failed in him. Our behaviour ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is irrelevant in as far as the imputation of Adam’s sin is concerned. All people are under the same condemnation, since we are all regarded by God as guilty of Adam’s law breaking.
Our natural tendency to do wrong (disobey God) is a symptom of this reality. We personally agree with Adam. By birth we are IN ADAM. We are followers of him. The first man, Adam, represented us all. His success would have been ours too. His failure is surely ours as well.
Paul gives us the hint as to where this is going. Adam was the representative of all people. Christ, the one who was promised (Gen 3:15) is the second Adam who also represents His people. The principle of one acting for many is a Bible idea. For example, the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament. If David wins the fight, Israel wins. If David had lost, Israel would have lost.
Adam and Jesus Christ, the second Adam, are the same, but different. The first Adam sinned. Death, which is the necessary judgement upon sin, came upon all people without distinction because their father and ‘head’, Adam, sinned. The second Adam, Jesus Christ, lived his good life as a replacement for the bad lives of his people, and he died the death that his people deserve to die. The life that his people receive by faith comes because of Christ’s substitute life and death. It comes by grace, the unmerited, unlooked-for, unexpected mercy from the God we had all offended.
This mercy comes to us by Grace through Faith; to all who trust Jesus Christ. As surely as the first is true (that is, death came to all by Adam’s sin), so all the more sure and true is the eternal life that comes by the gift of the righteous one, Jesus Christ. Just as Christ is risen, never to die again, so too are his people brought to everlasting life by the new birth. By this new birth, people become Christians and followers of Jesus.
This passage must be read in the light of previous chapters of Romans. We are all under sin – Adam’s and our own — so no one can plead their own righteousness or goodness. The Law of Moses (written on our hearts but ignored) came not as a fix-it for sinners. It is not a do-it-yourself instruction book that sinners can use to make themselves right with God. The law, for an un-reconciled person, comes to convince us of our sinful condition and to show the absolute necessity of the work of Jesus in our place. We must come to him by faith if we are to be at peace with God.
Now, a righteousness apart from the Law of Moses is revealed in Jesus Christ. Just as the doing of Adam brought everyone into a state of sin and death, so the doing of Jesus Christ brings his people from death into a state of life and righteousness. Just as the sin of Adam was imputed to us and we became sinners as a result of Adam’s sin, so to, as a result of Christ’s good life and replacement death, we are declared to be good on the basis of Christ’s doing, not our own. We didn’t do anything to become sinners, but simply followed our head, Adam, who bought sin and death to us. In the same way, Christians didn’t do anything to become the children of God. Their head, Jesus Christ brought his righteousness and redemption to his people, and gave it to them for free. Just to say, Romans Chapter 6 takes up the theme that “imputation leads to imitation”. The law that once condemned in Adam, becomes a our friend in Christ.