12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In Romans 5:12-21, Paul deals with what we may call “federalism.” Federalism means one person acts as a representative for one or more persons. In the biblical view, God has appointed two representative heads: Adam and Jesus. Sin came into the world through Adam. Righteousness came into the world through Jesus.
Some people struggle with the idea of federalism, especially when it comes to accepting Paul’s words in verses 12-14. It’s hard for some to accept that they inherited sin. Some people believe man is basically good, and from time to time does bad things. But that’s not what the Bible says. Because Adam sinned, we are all born in sin. The theological term is Original Sin. Our Original Sin is a birth defect, and no amount of scientific or meritorious effort can change that which with we were born. Sin stained us from the womb because of our federal head, Adam.
But federalism actually works to our advantage, if we trust in Christ. Sure, it’s a bummer that we’re born into sin because of Adam. It may seem we don’t even get a fair shake at life. But give us enough time, and we would sin our way out of God as well, especially now that we have the law to show us what sin is. We don’t merely miss the mark with our sin; we stomp on top of the law on our way to sin. Whether we are born sinners or not, no one can look at his life now and declare righteousness apart from God. So, to be represented by Adam helps us understand from where we came. Adam was a terrible representative, yes, but he is our representative, and to deny that truth is to put ourselves in more danger, not less. Federalism is to our advantage because if it’s true that in Adam we all sinned, then it can also be true that in Jesus we are all made righteous.
Commentator Douglas Moo says, “The universal consequences of Adam’s sin are the assumption of Paul’s argument; the power of Christ’s act to cancel those consequences is its goal.” Paul has labored to prove the universality of sin. Now he is working to show the universal character of justification for those who believe. If sin condemns all in the church through one man, it makes sense that through one man all are justified. If Adam got us into the war, Jesus got us out.
Adam, as the first man, represented all humanity to follow. The result of his life is, therefore, universal and inescapable. In Adam, all die. But in Christ, all live. Paul calls the benefits of Christ the “free gift.” He mentions this free gift five times in verses 15-17. The point is exactly what it sounds like: the righteousness of Christ is both free, meaning we don’t have to do anything to earn it, and it is a gift, something we receive. Some gifts are as a result of hard work. (Think of a Christmas bonus for employees at a company.) But other gifts are given because of love. (Think of a Christmas gift to a child in a home.) The righteousness of Christ is of the latter kind. God gives the full benefits of Christ’s perfect record to his children because he loves them. All we have to do is receive the free gift with the empty hands of faith.
It would be appropriate to compare ourselves in Adam to a poor family that has made ruin of life. We started out well, with plenty of money in the bank, a beautiful house on a hill, abundant resources, and friends abounding. Then, out of sheer defiance, we decided we didn’t need what got us here anymore. We didn’t get there on our own, but we decided we could make it here on out on our own. We left the one who provided it all to blaze our own trail. In doing so, we cut ourselves off. In an instant, we lost the money. Over time, we lost the house. In the end, we found ourselves on the streets, wandering from town to town just trying to survive. As the generations were born, they didn’t realize the plight. They were born into this family. It just seemed to fit. Then one day a generous donor comes and says he understands what has happened to us and he would like to make it right. He aims to restore all that we squandered. He says he came into some money and it was more than he needed. He wants to share it. So, he gets out his pen and checkbook and writes the check to cover all the debts plus enough to meet every need from here on out.
We are in this family that squandered and lost it all. And then Jesus comes and begins to make all things new. He tells us of his righteousness, shows us his holiness, and grants us his forgiveness. In a moment of realization that came from somewhere outside our own heart, we believe him, give up our rags and follow him.
Joseph Hart, the 18th-century English pastor, put it this way.
I can feelingly say, he hath proved himself stronger than I and his goodness superior to all my unworthiness. He tells me (and enables me to believe it) that I am fair, and there is no spot in me. Though an enemy, he calls me his friend; though a traitor, a child; though a beggared prodigal, he clothes me with the best robe and has put a ring of endless love and mercy on my hand. And though I am sorely distressed by spiritual and internal foes, afflicted, tormented and bowed down almost to death with the sense of my own present barrenness, ingratitude and proneness to evil, he secretly shows me his bleeding wounds and softly and powerfully whispers to my soul, “I am thy great salvation.” His free distinguishing grace is the bottom on which is fixed the rest of my poor weary tempted soul. On this I ground my hope, often times when unsupported by any other evidence, save only the Spirit of adoption received from him. When my dry and empty barren soul is parched with thirst, he kindly bids me come to him and drink my fill at the fountain head. In a word, he empowers me to say with experiential evidence, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” Amen and Amen.