Commentary on Romans 5:12-21

Notes (NET Translation)

12 So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned —

The words “so then” form a connection with 5:1-11. Douglas Moo understands the transition in 5:12 as follows: “in order to accomplish this [namely, that God has promised to save all those who are justified and reconciled through Christ], there exists a life-giving union between Christ and his own that is similar to, but more powerful than, the death-producing union between Adam and all his own.”1 The phrase “just as” introduces a comparison that is broken off and not completed until 5:18-19 (although hinted at in 5:15-17).

The comparison is probably broken off for two reasons. First, Paul explains that those who lived in the era between Adam and Christ were sinners, even those who did not have the Mosaic law. Second, before finishing the comparison between Adam and Christ, Paul wants to emphasize the dissimilarity between the two. Verses 15–17 in particular highlight the contrast between Adam and Christ.2

In this verse, “world” (kosmon) probably means humanity. Sin entered humanity when Adam ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3). In 5:12-8:13 sin is personified as a power that holds sway in the world outside Christ (cf. 5:14, 17, 20-21; 6:2, 9, 12-14, 16-17, 20, 23; 7:8, 11, 13).

Death, at least for human beings, entered through sin. Both physical and spiritual death are in Paul’s mind. Verse 14 seems to refer to physical death. In verses 16 and 18 “condemnation” is used in the same way as death is here. In verse 21 death is contrasted with eternal life.

Death has spread to every single person. The precise meaning of the final clause of v 12 is debated. Thomas Schreiner provides the following interpretation:

When Paul says “all sinned,” he indeed means that every human being has personally sinned. Nevertheless, we should not read a Pelagian interpretation from this, for the ἐϕʼ ᾧ phrase explains why all human beings have sinned. As a result of Adam’s sin death entered the world and engulfed all people; all people enter the world alienated from God and spiritually dead by virtue of Adam’s sin. By virtue of entering the world in the state of death (i.e., separated from God), all human beings sin. This understanding of the text confirms the view of scholars who insist that original death is more prominent than “original sin” in this text. The personal sin of human beings is explained by the sway death holds over us. Such an interpretation is also supported by the notion that death is a power that reigns and rules over us now (Rom. 5:14, 17) and that culminates in physical death. Moreover, Paul says specifically in 5:15 that human beings “died” because of the trespass of Adam. Our alienation and separation from God are due to Adam’s sin, and thus we sin as a result of being born into the world separated from God’s life. The notion that we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1; cf. Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13) should be interpreted similarly. This phrase does not mean that first we commit trespasses and sins and as a consequence die. Rather, the idea is that we are born into the world (“children of wrath by nature,” Eph. 2:3) separated from God, and our sins are a result of the spiritual state of death. The entire context of Eph. 2:1–10 supports this interpretation, for God remedies the situation by granting life to those of us who are dead and as a result of his life we do good works. The parallel is remarkable: the consequence of death is trespasses and sins, whereas the result of life is good works. Ephesians 4:17–18 confirms my interpretation. The reason Gentiles live in a way that displeases God is because they are separated from his life. In other words, the result of spiritual death is a lifestyle of sin.3

13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law.

“Since Paul himself has said that there is no transgression without the law (4:15), he must answer the question how those who never had the law can be guilty of sin.”4 Sin, as distinct from transgression, was in the world in the interval between Adam and Moses. In one sense, God clearly did account for sin before the law was given to Moses. For example, he banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, he brought the flood, he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and he brought plagues upon Egypt. What Paul means is that God did not reckon such sins as willful violations of a known law (i.e., transgressions).

14 Yet death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the same way that Adam (who is a type of the coming one) transgressed.

The existence of death from Adam to Moses is evidence that sin was in the world because death is the penalty for sin. Adam transgressed God’s commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). The other sinners between Adam and Moses did not sin in the same way because they did not disobey a direct command from God. A “type” (typos) is something or someone who prefigures something or someone else. Adam prefigures Christ. Adam brought death to all, Christ brought life to all. “The reference to ‘the coming one’ (τοῦ μέλλοντος) should be understood from the perspective of Adam. In other words, from Adam’s standpoint in history Jesus Christ was the one to come; no statement about the second coming of Christ is intended.”5

15 But the gracious gift is not like the transgression. For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many!

The typological relationship between Adam and Christ is qualified. The “gracious gift” is the act of Christ. The phrase “how much more” means that the enjoyment of the gift and grace of God is more certain to the believer than the death that came through Adam.

16 And the gift is not like the one who sinned. For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures led to justification.

In this verse, “judgment” refers to a judicial verdict. This verdict led to condemnation, meaning physical and spiritual death (5:12, 17). The accumulated sins of the ages are answered by God’s “gracious gift” of providing his Son as the atoning sacrifice for sins (3:25).

17 For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ!

In m. Makkot 3.15 Rabbi Hanina says: “If a sin of one sinner causes his death is it not logical to assume that a meritorious deed of one man causes his life to be given!” In the Mishnah the sinner and the practitioner of the meritorious deed could be any man. In contrast, Paul identifies the sinner as Adam and the practitioner of the meritorious deed as Christ.6 The believer reigns in life now (6:4) and will reign fully at the consummation.

18 Consequently, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people.

Paul does not believe that Christ’s death and resurrection give all people a right standing with God apart from a faith response. Rather, Christ’s death and resurrection put all people in a position to have a right relationship with God. Christ’s gift must still be accepted (5:17). Universalists understand this verse to be saying that all will eventually accept Christ’s gift and be granted eternal life (even if this is after physical death). They believe that this must occur for the comparison between Adam and Christ to stand. The condemnation of Adam is reversed in Christ.

19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous.

What does it mean that many were made sinners by Adam’s disobedience? Douglas Moo writes:

Debate surrounds the exact meaning of the verb Paul uses here. Some argue that it means nothing more than “make.” But this translation misses the forensic flavor of the word. It often means “appoint,” and probably refers here to the fact that people are “inaugurated into” the state of sin/righteousness. Paul is insisting that people were really “made” sinners through Adam’s act of disobedience just as they are really “made righteous” through Christ’s obedience. This “making righteous,” however, must be interpreted in the light of Paul’s typical forensic categories. To be “righteous” does not mean to be morally upright, but to be judged acquitted, cleared of all charges, in the heavenly judgment. Through Christ’s obedient act, people become really righteous; but “righteous” itself is a legal, not a moral, term in this context. Since this “being made righteous” is put in the future tense, Paul may have regard for the final declaration of justification at the judgment. It is more likely, however, in light of vv. 17 and 18, that Paul uses the future tense because he has in view the continual, discrete acts of “making righteous” that occur as people believe.

In both parts of the verse, then, we are dealing with a real, though “forensic,” situation: people actually become sinners in solidarity with Adam–by God’s decision; people actually become “righteous” in solidarity with Christ–again, by God’s decision. But there is one important difference, plainly hinted at in the emphasis on “grace” throughout vv. 15–17: while our solidarity with Adam in condemnation is due to our solidarity with him in “sinning,” our solidarity with Christ in righteousness is not because we have acted righteously in and with Christ. While Rom. 6 suggests that we were in some sense “in Christ” when he “obeyed even unto death,” that obedience is never accounted to us as our own. In other words, while we deserve condemnation–for “all have sinned”–we are freely given righteousness and life. It is this gratuitous element on the side of Christ’s work that enables Paul to celebrate the “how much more” of our “reigning” in life (v. 17) and that gives to every believer absolute assurance for the life to come.7

Thomas Schreiner believes Paul is saying every human is born with a corrupt nature inherited from Adam and that we all enter the world alienated from God. We are all sinners by virtue of being in corporate solidarity with Adam, who functioned as the head of the human race. Adam’s sin is imputed to his descendants. In a similar fashion, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers.

The phrase “the obedience of the one man” refers to Christ’s obedience unto death on the cross (Phil 2:8).

20 Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more,

The law has a subordinate and secondary role in salvation history. Many Jews may have thought the law restrained, erased, eased, or neutralized sin. Paul states that just the opposite is the case. “The piling up of sin in Israel via the law does not indicate malevolence in God toward his people. It shows that the problem introduced into the world through Adam is not remedied through the law.”8 The first clause of the verse could be taken to mean that the law came for the purpose of increasing sin or that the law came with the result that sin increased. The second option is more likely. How did sin increase? First, the law revealed what sin is (7:7). Second, the law made it possible for the sinner to willfully break God’s commandment (4:15). Third, the law may have given sinful humanity more ideas on how to rebel against God (7:8).

But this negative purpose in the law is not, of course, God’s final word. The law remains God’s law, a gift given to Israel with an ultimately positive salvation-historical role. In showing sin to be “utterly sinful” (Rom. 7:13), the law reveals the desperate situation of people apart from grace. But, as Paul has emphasized throughout this paragraph, God’s grace is more than sufficient to overcome the increase in the power and seriousness of sin brought by the law. For in that very place where sin “increased,” grace “super-increased.” Paul’s purview is salvation history, considered in its broadest dimensions, and his point is simply that the law’s negative purpose in radicalizing the power of sin has been more than fully met by the provisions of God’s grace. However deep in the power of sin Israel may have sunk, God’s grace was deeper yet. How many times, after reminding Israel of her blatant, repeated sin, do the prophets yet proclaim the willingness of God to forgive; indeed, his settled purpose to bless his people, in spite of themselves. In Christ, of course, we find the fulfillment of the promise of God’s “superabounding” grace.9

21 so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In order for the parallelism to work best, we should identify the sin and death with the sin and death of Adam and the righteousness with the righteousness of Christ.

What does it mean to say “sin reigned in death”? Perhaps Paul refers thus to the notion that since we are all going to die, there comes a certain fatalism into human thinking. Sin becomes the attempt to have as much pleasure as one can while alive–to eat, drink, and be merry knowing that death is coming. The hovering cloud of death leads those under it to look for diversions and ways to distract themselves from the inevitable and also ways to spit into the prevailing wind. As Ecclesiastes suggests, what is the point of being good if it all ends in death? Thus the reality and finality of death cause sin to reign in human life. Therefore, to deal with the human sin problem Christ also had to deal with the death problem. Eternal life had to be on offer if the reign of sin was to be ended. Once again we see what a very negative and highly theological view of death Paul has.10

Douglas Moo has a different take on the phrase “sin reigned in death”:

Paul often thinks in terms of “spheres” or “dominions,” and the language of “reigning” is particularly well suited to this idea. Death has its own dominion: humanity as determined, and dominated, by Adam. And in this dominion, sin is in control. But those who “receive the gift” (v. 17) enjoy a transfer from this domain to another, the domain of righteousness, in which grace reigns and where life is the eventual outcome.11


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Moo 1996, 318 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5524-5526 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5664-5678 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5716-5717 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5741-5743 
  6. Kruse 2014, 249 
  7. Moo 1996, 345–346 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 6007-6008 
  9. Moo 1996, 348–349 
  10. Witherington III 2004, 151-152 
  11. Moo 1996, 349–350 

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