Guilty in Adam (5:12)
Paul’s language here sounds like a doctor’s description of the spread of a disease. Adam was the first to have the problem and as he interacted with others he kept infecting others with the illness. This is one of the great debates that exists about in what way are we guilty of Adam’s sin. This is known as the doctrine of Original Sin. There basically two ways of looking at this. So while we don’t share in the same sin as Adam we share in the sin of Adam in that we are contaminated by him.
One of the great questions in theology is to what extent did the sin of Adam affect his progeny. Larry Hurt gives two commonly held positions that help in understanding this issue. “One approach is to see Adam as our federal head. Because he is our divinely designated representative, what Adam did implicates us all…Since this precise formulation is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture, another approach is to see Adam simply as our natural (Ryrie: Seminal view) head…Nevertheless, both his sin and his guilt are viewed as being imparted to us through heredity (Augustine).”
The second major view is that of natural headship. In this view all of humanity was in some way present in Adam and are therefore just as guilty of Adam’s sin. This view falls in line with the Ten Commandments warning that the sins of the father will go down from one generation to the next (Exodus 20:5) Erickson cites that are two alternative positions that seem to be a hybrid of the two positions just stated. The first alternative is where the sin of Adam is ratified when an individual sins for the first time. Erickson sees this as a legitimate alternative, but posits the second as more in line with the testimony of scripture regarding what happens to the human race in both Adam and Christ. The second alternative, the one that Erickson appears to prefer, is that:
“we become responsible and guilty when we accept or approve of our corrupt nature. There is a time in the life of each one of us when we become aware of our own tendency toward sin. At that point we may abhor the sinful nature that has been there all the time…But if we acquiesce in that sinful nature, we are in effect saying that it is good. By placing our tacit approval upon the corruption, we are also approving our concurring in the action in the Garden of Eden so long ago. We become guilty of that sin without having committed any sin of our own.”
Erickson in his Christian Theology provides some further explanation of this affinity with Adam in regard to original sin by describing three theological system’s attempt to explain the connection. Erickson states that Pelagianism does not see original sin having affected all of humanity. Therefore, Adam’s actions do not trickle down to the rest of humanity. Humanity is born without any congenital spiritual fault based on its underlying assumption that each individual soul is created by God at birth as described below in the systems section. Arminians do hold that all humanity receives a corrupted nature at birth, but it is not guilty of Adam’s sin specifically. Because of the corrupted nature all men inevitably sin and are thereby held accountable for their own sins. Finally, Erickson states that Calvinism provides several views of headship as sighted by Hurt above. The federal head perspective takes the view that in the same way that God will impute the righteousness of Christ upon those who believe, God is within God’s right to impute the guilt of Adam’s sin upon all men because Adam was the representative of humanity before God. This view teaches that the statement “all sinned” in Romans 5:12 suggests that all humanity was a participant in Adam’s sin.
In verses 13-17 we have another parenthetical statement. We will break it up to make sense of the implications of this passage.
Death is the Evidence of Sin (5:13-14)
This section is so confusing as to be frustrating. In simple terms what Paul is arguing here is that even though the law was not present sin was. That is what he is getting at when he says that that sin is not counted where there is no law. Paul appears to imply that this makes no sense. If Adam sinned then there was sin even though there was no law. Paul “proves” this by highlighting that the sign of sin is death and there was death between the time of Adam and the time of Moses, so that even without the law sin was running its course within the lives of men.
Paul is basically saying that the law was not the reason that sin entered. Rather the law was what made sin known and also made men accountable (Paul will address this further in chapter 7). Before the law there was not a standard of accountability other than the effect of sin which was death. People died because of sin, but, according to Paul’s reasoning here people did not have an understanding that sin was the reason that death reigned in the world. Humanity did not have a point of reference that helped to identify that sin was an affront to God’s character and holiness. Paul also tells us that “death reigned” in other men because of what he said in verse 12. Adam’s sin plunged the human race into death, but the reason for all humanity’s sins cannot be laid at the feet of Adam alone. The essence of what Paul is saying is that we are all contaminated, or corrupted, by Adams actions in the garden and yet we are all still culpable for our own sin. Because of Adam we start life at a disadvantage. We all fall pathetically short of God’s standards of fellowship.