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 – (verse 12)
I know I’ve left you hanging with that sentence. You’re waiting for the thought to be completed, right? But don’t blame me. Blame Paul! That’s how he wrote it. He is so passionate in what he is writing, so caught up in the theme, so captured by the devastating reality that sin has entered the world through Adam, that he carries on with that flow of thought without completing the comparison he’s started – at least, not completing it until several verses later.
This cliff-hanger of a sentence gives us the essence of what is called “original sin.” It’s the biblical viewpoint that provides explanation for why the world is in the state it is. All down through history, evil and violence and self-centredness and greed and all of the other outflows of tainted human hearts, have been our consistent lot. Oh, yes, goodness and altruism have broken through again and again, but even those who engage in such breakthrough are themselves afflicted with selfishness, brokenness and wrong. This is what Paul has already told us earlier in the letter: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Romans 3:9).
Here, he tells us the starting point. “Sin entered the world through one man.” Identifying that man as Adam (verse 14), Paul then puts Adam’s name at the head of a column, listing words that capture the consequences that have flowed: sin, death, trespass, judgement, condemnation, disobedience. It’s grievous. “The result of one trespass was condemnation for all men” (verse 18).
I need to pause at this point to make a confession. This doctrine has often troubled me. I don’t have any doubt whatsoever of the reality that sin afflicts every single person. I’ve seen it. But the fact that Adam’s sin itself resulted in condemnation for all, has troubled me. How can that be? How does it work? How is that fair?
Theologians down the years have come up with explanations, many of them insightful. Some suggest that Adam is like the legal head of humanity, and therefore his action as representative has affected the legal status of all those he represents. Others suggest sin is like a virus which, once introduced, has infected the whole human race (in the age of COVID this illustration is particularly compelling).
But two further things need to be said. It’s intriguing that in this passage Paul doesn’t actually address my question “how?” He doesn’t take time to explain the mechanism. That’s not his focus. Rather than telling us “how” it works, he simply tells us that it “does.” It’s a crucial message. Adam’s sin has deadly implications for every single one of us. We need to realize it.
The second thing I note is that Paul never ignores our own individual responsibility. Yes, he says, “sin entered the world through one man,” but at the same time he affirms, “death came to all men, because all sinned.” All sinned. It’s what he told us earlier. Each of us is guilty in our own right. Infected in our nature, yes, but each guilty by our own thoughts and words and actions.
So, what of the comparison Paul was setting up in that first verse, a comparison he never completed? He was laying out the devastating reality of Adam’s sin, setting it up in comparison with something else. What? Here it is (verse 15): “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!” That’s a comparison worth waiting for!
Sin is real. It has infiltrated our very nature. We’re complicit. Death is the consequence. But thanks be to God for the “how much more” of Jesus Christ! His grace overflows. (More on this tomorrow.)
Lord, I confess that this passage speaks the truth about all humanity. It speaks the truth about me. I was infected by sin from my very beginning. I have proved it by actively engaging that sin in thought and word and action. I acknowledge that I could only ever expect death as the consequence. But praise be to your name – you have provided the gift of grace in the sacrifice of your Son, Jesus. Thank you for forgiveness, redemption from sin, and the gift of new life. Praise your name.
Reflect: Take time to fully embrace the truth of being part of Adam’s lineage. Own it. Then meditate on the “how much more” provided by Jesus. Give thanks.