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Romans (Series 1)

Original Sin

Romans  5:12-21

No other problem in theology has caused as much trouble as “Original Sin.” The source of this trouble comes from today’s passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

(Rom 5:12-21 NIV) Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-- {13} for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. {14} Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. {15} But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! {16} Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. {17} For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. {18} 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. {19} For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. {20} The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, {21} so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let’s understand the essence of Paul’s argument about sin. It is found in its shortest form here:

(1 Cor 15:56 NIV) The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

Let’s expand the argument just a little:

·         If you sin, a holy, utterly righteous God can have nothing to do with you. That’s called death, for God is the source of life.

·         “Sin” means to break God’s law. It’s not illegal to drive at 100 miles per hour unless there is a speed limit.

·         Everyone dies, even those who never had the Law; even those who never had a chance to break whatever law they might have known. (E.G. -- why do aborted babies die, in this argument?)

How, then, is this possible? For clearly we all die, and just as clearly by this argument we are all sinners. How then, do the innocent unborn die? How then do those who never knew a Law die?

The answer, says Paul, lies in the “original sin” -- the sin that Adam committed in the Garden of Eden.

“Wait a minute,” says Blodgett. “I never met this guy Adam, and I’m certainly not going to take any responsibility for his stupidity and sinfulness. I have enough problems of my own, thank you.”

It’s tempting just to say, “Yes, and that’s why you need Jesus, Bill.” But the Scripture is clear: there is something that Adam had to do with it. Before we examine the various explanations of this passage, we need to examine some preliminary thoughts:

·         First, sin may be thought of (this comes from Martin Luther) in two parts: the intention, or disposition towards sin, and the actual sin itself. As our Lord taught, these are inseparable in adults.[1] Yet we can easily distinguish them. What Paul is talking about here is the disposition, not the actual sins.

·         In telling this story, Paul is using the ideas and metaphors of his time -- some of them implicitly, as we shall see.

·         Language itself carries a difficulty: the better the wine, the more often it is described by metaphor rather than alcohol content. And this is deep red wine.

In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All

Paul makes it abundantly clear that, somehow, we became sinners because of Adam’s original transgression. That is to say, God regards us as sinners because of Adam’s transgression. This is another example of imputation. Let’s look at some of the theories behind this thought:

Solidarity. Americans are extremely prone to think of themselves as individuals first, and then members (interchangeable parts in their view) of some other groups. This is relatively rare in the world. Most of Paul’s contemporaries would have seen themselves as members of a group first (and variegated ones at that). We see an example of this in Joshua, chapter 7. The nation of Israel is punished in battle for the sin of one man, Achan, and his theft from God at Jericho.

In some sense, we still have a little of this today. Law is most commonly enforced not by policemen and prosecutors but by social pressure. It is not just the fear of getting a ticket, but the fear of what other people will think, that guides our driving.

Ancestry. This is a very Jewish concept: It holds that the sins of your ancestors somehow bind you (as do the good things) to their consequences. An example of this argument is made in the book of Hebrews (written, please recall, to the Jews):

(Heb 7:1-10 NIV) This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, {2} and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means "king of righteousness"; then also, "king of Salem" means "king of peace." {3} Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever. {4} Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! {5} Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people--that is, their brothers--even though their brothers are descended from Abraham. {6} This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. {7} And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. {8} In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. {9} One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, {10} because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

(emphasis added). The argument is very oriental, very Jewish. You see that Melchizedek is without genealogy -- therefore he is ever living (i.e., Christ). Levi was held to be in the body of Abraham. It is a strange (to us) way of looking at it -- but the ancients would have held it to be binding.

Literal descent. This argument appealed to many in the Middle Ages. It simply holds that, like inheriting red hair and blue eyes, we inherit this disposition to sin from our single ancestor, Adam. It has a number of problems, but these were not evident to them, without the evidence we have today. To name but a few:

·         There are serious difficulties with this and biological evolution.

·         Do recall that the sons of Adam went out and found wives (who presumably, by this argument, did not have this genetic defect).

Adam as representative. This is a modern argument. It holds that Adam somehow represents us; he is the archtypical man. He thus, metaphorically, stands in our place, and God therefore seeing sin in Adam sees sin in us.

(My only difficulty with this theory, other than in its roots as a way to be a Christian and an evolutionist at the same time, is that I never elected Adam to anything.)

Hendershot’s “Demonstration Experiment” Theory. Held by no reasonable scholar, and evidently the invention of your humble servant, it holds that Adam is a demonstration experiment. All the variables of heredity and environment have been neutralized; the Law reduces to one command; the consequences of obedience wonderfully great; the consequences of sin very terrible -- and still Adam sins, thus demonstrating that humans inherently are sinners.

There are the theories. All of them have their proponents; all of them have their flaws. There are two important results of this work, however:

·         By any and all of these theories, God imputes sin to each and every one of us. This is called “original sin.”

·         By any and all of these theories, just as God imputes sin to us through Adam, He imputes righteousness to us through Jesus Christ. This is the important point.

Do you see the last one? Let’s walk through it:

·         Is it by solidarity with Adam that we are sinners? How much more is our solidarity through Jesus Christ, who has made us into the church, God’s own family?

·         Is it by ancestry? How much more are we holy through our father, God Almighty?

·         Is it by literal descent? Who is it that has regenerated you into a new creature?[2] A creature holy and blameless before God, yet!

·         If Adam is your representative (without election) how much more is Christ your representative? Christ, whom you selected!

·         And if Adam is the demonstration experiment which shows that all are sinners (a sample of one), just how many resurrections do you need to show you the path to eternal life?

Finally, there is one last argument for the imputation of sin: If you do not acquire this sinful nature by imputation, how do you expect God the consistent to impute righteousness to you by way of Jesus Christ?

Comparison and Contrast

But the argument does not end there. It is not sufficient for Paul to say, in effect, “you became a sinner through Adam, you became holy through Christ.” That would put the two on an equal footing, and that is not possible. He now goes on to comparison and contrast:

·         Because of one man’s sin, many people died. But because of one man’s death, many will be justified.

·         Judgment started because of one sin, for a holy God cannot tolerate even one sin. But the gift of God -- salvation through Jesus Christ -- was given after many sins. So we see how the love of God exceeds the righteousness of God.

·         Death is through one man -- and that means physical death, primarily. But eternal life is also through the gift of one man -- and that mean both physical and spiritual life.
(1 Cor 15:22-23 NIV) For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. {23} But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

·         One sin alone brought us under condemnation; one act of righteousness brought many to justification.

·         The disobedience of one man brought all of us to sin; the obedience of one brought many of us to righteousness.

·         And finally, the law was sent to correct this sinfulness -- and the result was that sin abounded all the more, for the more law, the more sin (the traffic ticket principle). But now, because the Law is abolished, grace abounds.

And consider then the result: I am now

·         justified

·         forgiven

·         alive forever

·         not condemned

·         righteous

·         living in the grace of God.


[1] Matthew 5:27-28

[2] 2 Corinthians 5:17

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