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An Introduction to Romans 5:12 (Lesson 3.3)

ROMANS 5:12: "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—"

Now, when Paul says, “through one man sin entered into the world,” it's evident that he's talking about Adam, but what exactly does he mean when he says that through him sin entered into the world? At first, it seems that he's simply saying that it was through Adam's disobedience that sin began to exist in the world. And some good theologians take Paul's phrase to mean just that. But Scripture seems to tell us that it was actually Eve who sinned before Adam. We read in 1 Timothy 2:14, “it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.”1 So, it seems that sin began to exist in the world—not when Adam sinned—but when Eve sinned (before Adam). It's probable, then, that Paul isn't saying here that sin began to exist in the world with Adam—but rather that sin was thrust upon the world because of Adam.2 If this is the case, Paul isn't saying that Adam was the first person in the world to sin; he's saying that Adam plunged the world into sin. So, the first interpretation takes the clause as meaning that sin came into the world through Adam, the second takes the clause as meaning that sin came upon the world through Adam. Either interpretation fits the overall truth that Paul is getting at.3

The next clause, “death through sin,” reminds us that death is not natural. Death doesn't exist because that's the way God had created man; rather, death came into the world as a judicial punishment for sin.4 God had told Adam in the garden, “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17). And so, when Adam disobeyed, the death that resulted was actually the penal consequence for his sin.5

Paul goes on, “and so death spread to all men. . .” Notice the past tense: “death spread to all men. . .” Paul's talking about something that happened in the past. He's not telling us that death presently spreads to us all when we sin. No, he's telling us that death spread to us all when Adam sinned.6 Paul's telling us that when Adam sinned, we died. This is clear from Paul's later explanation in verses 15 and 17, where he says that “by the transgression of the one the many died” (v15), and that “by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one” (v17). Paul's purpose here isn't “to teach the inseparable connection between sin and death, by saying, 'As Adam sinned, and therefore died, so also all die, because all sin.' His purpose is to teach the connection between Adam's sin and the death of all men.”7 Paul is saying that “as Adam brought sin on all men, he brought death on all [men].”8 When Adam sinned, he didn't just bring the judicial punishment of death upon himself—he brought it upon every single one of us.9

The biggest debate among interpreters has to do with the last clause in verse 12. The following are the possible interpretations of the meaning of this last clause of Romans 5:12, “because all sinned” :

Meaning of the Last Phrase of Romans 5:12: “because all sinned”


Takes Romans 5:12 as: “for all have personally sinned”

Meaning of Romans 5:12: All die because all are guilty of committing actual sins (like Adam)

Why all men die: Actual Transgressions


Takes Romans 5:12 as: “for all have become corrupt”

Meaning of Romans 5:12: All die because all have been infected with Adam's corrupt nature

Why all men die: Imparted Corruption


Takes Romans 5:12 as: “for all sinned in Adam”

Meaning of Romans 5:12: All die because the guilt of Adam's first sin has been imputed to all

Why all men die: Imputed Guilt

Let's spend some time looking at these different views one by one.10

1. The PELAGIAN View: There was a heretic named Pelagius who invented a new theory about the nature of man in relation to Adam's fall in the 4th century A.D. His theory was universally rejected and condemned by the Church as soon as it was fully understood.11 Pelagius taught that Adam in no way represented humanity as their covenant head, and so humanity in no way fell when he fell. Accordingly, Pelagius taught that there is no such thing as inherent corruption (original sin). He taught that men are born into the world in the same state in which Adam was created, with pure souls, untainted in any way with sin. Consequently, Adam's sin didn't effect anyone but himself. According to Pelagius, the only way that Adam's sin effected the rest of humanity in any way was that it left us with a bad example to follow.12

So, Pelagius and many who have followed in his footsteps, have taken the last clause of Romans 5:12 as referring to the actual sins of all men. They understand Paul to be saying in verse 12: “just as sin entered into the world, and death through sin, so too death spreads to all men, because all sin.” They interpret Paul as saying, “As Adam sinned, and therefore died, so also all die, because all sin.”13 This interpretation has been almost unanimously rejected and dismissed by the Church for these reasons:

A) It's not true GRAMMATICALLY: The tense Paul uses here in verse 12 for both “spread” and “sinned,” is the simple past, or simple historical (aorist) tense.14 Again, Paul does not say here: “so too death spreads/has spread to all men, because all sin/have sinned.” He says, “and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Namely, death spread to all because all sinned in and with Adam in his sin.

B) It's not true CONTEXTUALLY: Verse 12 is inseparably bound together to verses 13-14 (not just because verses 13-14 directly follow verse 12, but because of the “for” connecting them). But verses 13-14 in no way prove the Pelagian view, that all men die because they all sin just as Adam did. Actually, these verses prove the exact opposite (as we'll see), that some die even though they don't sin as Adam did.

C) It's not true STRUCTURALLY: Romans 5:12-21 (especially verses 12-19) is one coherent passage. And over the course of this same passage, Paul clearly tells us no less than five times that condemnation and death have come upon the human race because of the one sin of the one man Adam: “by the transgression of the one the many died” (v15); “the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation” (v16); “by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one” (v17); “through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men” (v18); “through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners” (v19). It's undeniable. So, to say that verse 12 teaches that condemnation and death have actually come upon the human race because of our personal sins—is to totally contradict everything Paul is clearly saying in this passage. One of the basic rules of Scriptural interpretation is to let the clearer Scriptures interpret those that are less clear. And what is clear about the passage is that death and condemnation came upon the entire human race because of Adam's sin. So the ambiguity of verse 12 must be interpreted in light of the clarity of the rest of the passage. We simply can't get around it: “the Scriptures assert that the sentence of condemnation has passed upon all men for the sin of one man.”15

D) It's not true EXPERIENTIALLY: If men only die as a result of actual sins that they have committed, then infants who die in the womb or in infancy are a massive problem for Pelagians. Again, death is the judicial penalty for sin. And according to Pelagius, the only sins that men are guilty of are actual, personal sins. But what infant who dies in infancy can be charged with knowingly sinning against God?

Further, if it's true that everyone is born in the same state as Adam before the fall, totally untainted by inherent corruption (original sin), then how in the world can it be that there hasn't been a single individual in the history of mankind—excepting One, our Lord Jesus Christ—who has even come close to living a sinless life? If the Pelagian doctrine was right, we would expect at least something like a 50-50 ratio between sinners and the sinless. But we can't even find a single person. You see, the truth is, original sin—inherent corruption—is very much like the law of gravity: you don't need a science book to prove it's true; you simply know it's true from experience. According to the Pelagian view, we sin simply because we have bad examples. But this simply doesn't do justice to what we know about the world.16

E) It's not true THEOLOGICALLY: We mentioned earlier that Paul's main aim in this passage is to teach us that we are justified in Christ under the Covenant of Grace in precisely the same way that we were condemned in Adam under the Covenant of Works. This is most clear in verse 18: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” Paul's saying: Just as it was with your condemnation in Adam, so it is with your justification in Christ. There is a very real parallel. And we would all agree that no man was ever justified by his own good works or his own righteousness. But if we take seriously Paul's parallel comparing justification in Christ with condemnation in Adam, that's exactly the implication we have to draw with the Pelagian view. How so? Because if we are condemned—not on account of Adam's imputed sin—but rather on account of our own personal sin, then the corollary truth is that we are justified—not on account of Christ's imputed righteousness—but rather on account of our own personal righteousness. So, the Pelagian view necessarily results in a doctrine of justification by works.17

2. The CORRUPTION View: In the mid-1600's, three professors18 at a theological school in Saumur, France, introduced a significant modification to John Calvin's view of imputation. According to Calvin, men were condemned both because Adam's corruption was imparted to us and because Adam's sin was imputed to us. Though Calvin held that we are guilty on both counts, he interpreted the last phrase in Romans 5:12, “for all sinned,” to mean that, “all became corrupt/sinful.”19 Well, these professors took Calvin's interpretation of Romans 5:12, “all became corrupt/sinful,” and created an entirely new doctrine, that Calvin never believed or taught, which is now called Mediate Imputation. According to this view, men are condemned and punished solely on account of the corrupt nature they inherited from Adam. In other words, we're not guilty because Adam's sin was imputed to us—only because his corruption was imparted to us:20 “Adam having defiled his own nature by sin, that depraved nature was transmitted to all his posterity, and therefore all die because they are thus inherently corrupt.”21 In short, Adam sinned. As a result of his sin, Adam's nature became corrupt. That corrupt nature is passed down to us. And because we inherit that same corrupt nature, on that basis we stand guilty and condemned before God.22

Now, it's true that we sin because we're sinners (not visa versa). And it's true that because of Adam's sin, every one of us is born with a corrupt nature. But the question is: Is Paul telling us in this passage that our inherent corruption is the basis of our condemnation? We would say no for the following reasons:

A) It's not true GRAMMATICALLY: This view is contrary to the simple meaning of the words in Romans 5:12. Just as Paul doesn't say that death spread to all “because all sin/have sinned,” (the Pelagian view), neither does he say—as he could have—that death spread to all men “because all became sinful,” which is how it's interpreted under this inherent corruption view. Paul simply says,