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”
The PELAGIAN View:
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
The CORRUPTION View:
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
The CLASSICAL View:
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, “because all sinned.”
B) It's not true STRUCTURALLY: We saw above that in verses 15-19, Paul tells us again and again that the basis of our condemnation and death is the one sin of the one man, Adam. We are held guilty and suffer the judicial penalty of death because of Adam's sin. But to say we're guilty and suffer death because of Adam's sin is completely different than saying that we're guilty and suffer death because of inherent corruption passed down from Adam. Verses 15-19 tell us that we're guilty and condemned because of the sin Adam committed—not because of the corruption that later resulted from that sin.23
C) It's not true BIBLICALLY: When God told Adam in Genesis 2:17, “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”, He was letting Adam know that death would be the penalty for his sin. And God wasn't just talking about physical death—He was talking about spiritual death: Adam would die spiritually. After all, Adam didn't die physically the very day that he ate of the fruit—but he did die spiritually that day. So, spiritual death would be the punishment for Adam's sin. Well, here's what we have to understand: Inherent corruption IS spiritual death. The spiritual death that came upon Adam when he fell into sin was inherent corruption. And this passage teaches us that the same thing is true for us in Adam: Just as Adam was punished with spiritual death as a result of his sin—so too, all human kind was also punished with spiritual death, as a result of his sin. So then: Our inherent corruption is not the reason we're punished (like Adam)—rather—inherent corruption is the proof that we've been punished (with Adam). When Adam was punished with spiritual death, we were punished with him—with spiritual death. In other words, Adam's corruption is imparted to us because Adam's guilt was imputed to us.
D) It's not true THEOLOGICALLY: We saw above that Paul's main aim in this passage is to teach us that we're justified in Christ under the Covenant of Grace in exactly the same way that we were condemned in Adam under the Covenant of Works. And we saw that if we take this comparison seriously, and if the Pelagian view teaches that it's our personal sins that condemn us, then the necessary corollary implication is that it's our own deeds of righteousness that justify us. Well, we've got the same problem here with the Corruption view. Because if Paul is indeed showing us that we're justified in Christ in the same way we were condemned in Adam, and if it's true (as the Corruption view teaches) that we're condemned in Adam because we become inherently corrupt—then the corollary truth is that we are justified in Christ because we become inherently holy. But this is to deny the gospel. The doctrine of justification (as set forth in this passage) is grounded on the truth that it is solely the righteousness of Christ imputed to us—totally apart from any inherent goodness in us—that makes us right with God.24 So, “Although. . .it is true that our nature was corrupted in Adam, and has been transmitted to us in a depraved state, yet that hereditary corruption is not here represented as the ground of our condemnation, any more than the holiness which believers derive from Christ is the ground of their justification.”25
1 See also Genesis 3:6; 2 Corinthians 11:3.
2 So Hodge and Haldane. Hodge says of this clause, “[Sin]. . .invaded the race. . .much more is meant than that sin began to be in the world.” Robert Haldane put it: “the apostle means to tell us not merely that sin commenced by one, but that it came upon all the world from one.” (from his Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, p208).
3 Though the second interpretation is preferable, either fits with what Paul is getting at. If the clause means nothing more than that sin began to exist in the world, then Paul would be saying (as we will see): “Therefore, just as through one man sin began to exist among the human race, and death came as punishment for sin, and so death came upon all men, because all men sinned [in and through Adam]. . .” If the clause means that sin was thrust upon/imputed to the world because of Adam, then Paul would be saying (as we will see): “Therefore, just as through one man sin was thrust upon/imputed to the human race, and death came as punishment for sin, and so death came upon all men, because all men sinned [in and through Adam] . . .” So, though the second fits better grammatically, either interpretation fits the overall truth that Paul is wanting to communicate here; namely, that when Adam sinned we died because we sinned in and with him in his sin. The difference is that the first interpretation sees 5:12d, “because all sinned,” as new information and the key that unlocks the reason why it is that death had spread to all men, while the second interpretation sees 5:12d as reaffirming what had already been said in this first clause. One last question: what sin is the apostle referring to? Actual sin, original sin, or imputed sin? Hodge argues that he's referring to all three, taken collectively; the guilt of sin, the corruption of sin, and the actual sins that proceed. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question #18: “The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, (IE, the sin that Adam brought upon the world,) consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.”
4 The Scriptures speak of death as “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23). Hodge says, “This passage, therefore, teaches that death is a penal evil. . .” (Commentary on Romans). This truth is going to take on a lot of importance later.
5 The death that Paul is speaking of here evidently encompasses all forms of death: physical, spiritual and eternal (compare with 5:15,17,21). As Hodge says, “It is plain that [death] here includes the idea of natural death, as it does in the original threatening made to our first parents. In neither case, however, is this its whole meaning. . .the death here spoken of includes all penal evil, death spiritual and eternal, as well as the dissolution of the body. . .” (from his Commentary on Romans). It's not just the physical death that overtakes us at the end of our lives, it's the spiritual death into which all men are born, ending in the eternal death that the Scriptures speak of (called the second death). We explained this in the last lesson in our discussion of the meaning of death in Genesis 2:17. The aspect of physical death will take on significance in our discussion of the meaning and implications of verses 13-14. The aspect of spiritual death will also take on great significance as we go forward in our study. For if it is indeed true that spiritual death is included in the meaning of Genesis 2:17, then there is no escaping the conclusion that the inherent natural corruption into which we are born (also called spiritual death) is meted out to us along with physical death as a penal consequence for Adam's sin. We are born with inherent corruption as a judicial penalty and punishment for Adam's sin. This means that inherent corruption is not the grounds of our judicial punishment of condemnation and death (Mediate imputation), but rather the penal consequence of our judicial punishment of condemnation and death (Immediate imputation). So then, we're not held guilty and condemned because Adam's corrupt nature was imparted to us—we're held guilty and condemned because Adam's sin was imputed to us. And spiritual death—along with physical and eternal death—is the penal sentence meted out to us as part of the judicial penalty.
6 As John Murray puts it, “the apostle regarded condemnation and death as having passed on to all men by the one trespass of the one man Adam.” (from his commentary on Romans, p184).
7 Hodge from his commentary on Romans.
9 The question of how it can be that Adam's sin brought death upon us all will be considered in the last clause of verse 12.
10 NOTE: If time is an issue, feel free to skip over the objections against the Pelagian and Corruption Views, as those objections will come up again in briefer form in the discussion of the Classical View.
11 Hodge, Systematics, V2. Much of this paragraph gleaned from Hodge.
12 We could note here that Islam's view of sin is essentially the Pelagian View.
13 Hodge from his commentary on Romans.
14 Actually, all three verbs in the verse are in the aorist tense: “spread” and “sinned” are in the same tense as “entered into.”
15 Hodge, Systematics, V2.
16 Vos puts it: “The Pelagian theory leaves the universality of sin entirely unexplained. . .The possibility that all [can sin], as an abstract possibility, does not explain why they all have actually sinned.” (V2, p29. Note: quote edited for greater clarity). Another says: “Original sin explains everything and without it one cannot explain anything” (de Maistre in Bavinck, V3, p101).
17 As John Murray notes in his commentary on Romans: “How contradictory would be the appeal to the parallel obtaining on the side of condemnation and death if Paul finds the basis of the condemnation and death of all in the actual transgression of each individual. If this latter were Paul's teaching here the parallel that would be necessary on the other side would be justification by works, that each individual would be justified by his own actions and attain to life on that basis.” (p184).
18 Moise Amyraut, Louis Cappel and Josue' La Place (also spelled Placaeus).
19 Calvin was wrong in interpreting this phrase in this way. But a few words can be said in his defense. First, again, Calvin did not hold to the view of “Mediate Imputation” that these later French professors concocted. From what we can gather from his writings, he held that we are guilty and thereby condemned and suffer the penalty of death both on account of Adam's sin imputed to us and on account of Adam's depravity imparted to us. He did not deny that Adam's imputed sin is the ground of our guilt and condemnation, but just that it is the only ground of it: “By Adam's sin we are not condemned through imputation alone, as though we were punished only for the sin of another; but we suffer his punishment, because we ourselves are guilty; for as our nature is vitiated in him, it is regarded by God as having committed sin.” (Romans, 210). So again, the doctrine of the school of Saumur was not Calvin's doctrine. Second, the doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin wasn't something that was disputed in his day. Calvin was fighting different battles. He was devoting his attention to refuting the Pelagians (who denied both imputed guilt and imparted corruption) and the Roman Catholics (who significantly heavily emphasized imputed guilt to the near denial of imparted corruption). It was the doctrine of Adam's inherent corruption that was being diminished in Calvin's day, so it shouldn't surprise us that he doesn't devote a ton of attention to it. Third, to say that Calvin should have had more definitive views of imputation is anachronistic. Distinctions between Mediate and Immediate imputation didn't exist in his day. We look back at Calvin 500 years later, having reaped the benefits of several generations of theologians following in the steps of the Reformation. Calvin and the Reformers were living in a time where they had to re-discover the basic fundamentals of the gospel; they were doing their best to plant the seeds of the gospel. The time would come for others to come along and prune the trees and hedges. Finally, it might help us a bit to remember that Calvin wrote his commentary on Romans in 1539, when he was only 30 years old. (Gleaned from: Martyn McGeown, The Resurrection of a French Heresy: Joshua De La Place's Denial of the Immediate Imputation of Adam's Sin to His Posterity).
20 It was only after Placeus was confronted with the fact that this view (IE, we are condemned on the basis of our inherent corruption) was actually a denial of the doctrine of Adam's imputed sin, that the doctrine of Mediate Imputation actually came into existence. It seems that it was in order to evade the force of this charge (of the denial of imputed sin) that Placeus proposed the distinction between mediate and immediate imputation. Dabney says, “The distinction seems to have been a ruse designed to shelter himself from censure.” (cf. Turretin, Hodge). Thus confronted, Placeus and the others claimed that they actually did adhere to a belief in Adam's imputed guilt, only that this imputed guilt was mediated through the inherent corruption imparted to us (hence the term Mediate Imputation). Functionally, however, this view opposes the historic doctrine of imputed sin. The doctrine of imputed sin (now called Immediate) is that our inherent corruption is not the basis for our condemnation—but to the contrary—its penal consequent: spiritual death (inherent corruption) is the penalty “inflicted by the just judgment of God on account of Adam's sin.” (Hodge, Systematic Theology). In other words, we're condemned, not because of our inherent corruption; rather our inherent corruption is the proof that we've been condemned. Placaeus turned this around. Instead of teaching that we are corrupt because of imputed guilt (the Classical View), he taught that we are guilty because of imparted corruption. “Instead of teaching that we are corrupt because of imputed guilt. . .Placaeus turned this around and said: 'Original sin is imputed to us because we are born corrupt.'” (Bavinck, p359). Placaeus thus denied both 1) the imputation of the guilt of Adam's first sin, as well as 2) the fact that inherent corruption is a punishment for his first sin.
21 Hodge, Romans.
22 It's important to note (as Hodge does in his Systematic Theology that this doctrine was formally condemned by the National Synod of France in 1644-45, by the Swiss churches in the “Formula Consensus,” and by the theologians of Holland. Thus, this doctrine of mediate imputation was generally condemned both by the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, though it did find some advocates outside of France and has trickled down in various ways into modern theological thought.
23 We could add here: If the imputation of Adam's sin to the human race is what Paul's clearly teaching in vv15-19 (as it is), and what Paul says in v12 is the very foundation for the conclusion he draws in vv15-19 (as it is), then to say that Paul's speaking about a completely different truth in v12 than he is in vv15-19 is to undercut the whole meaning of the passage.
24 As Hodge says: “It is a still more serious objection that this doctrine [IE, mediate imputation] destroys the parallel between Adam and Christ on which the Apostle lays so much stress in his Epistle to the Romans. The great point which he there labors to teach and to illustrate, and which he represents as a cardinal element of the method of salvation, is that men are justified for a righteousness which is not personally their own. To illustrate and confirm this great fundamental doctrine, he refers to the fact that men have been condemned for a sin which is not personally their own. He over and over insists that it was for the sin of Adam, and not for our own sin or sinfulness, that the sentence of death (the forfeiture of the divine favor) passed upon all. It is on this ground he urges men the more confidently to rely upon the promise of justification on the ground [of] a righteousness which is not inherently ours. This parallel destroyed, the doctrine and argument of the Apostle are overturned, if it be denied that the sin of Adam, as antecedent to any sin or sinfulness of our own is the ground of our condemnation. If we are partakers of the penal consequences of Adam's sin only because of the corrupt nature derived by a law of nature from him, then we are justified only on the ground of our own inherent holiness derived by a law of grace from Christ. We have thus the doctrine of subjective justification, which overthrows the great doctrine of the Reformation, and the great ground of the peace and confidence of the people of God, namely, that a righteousness not within us but wrought out for us—the righteousness of another, even the eternal Son of God, and therefore an infinitely meritorious righteousness—is the ground of our justification before God. Any doctrine which tends to invalidate or two weaken the Scriptural evidence of this fundamental article of our faith is fraught with evil greater than belongs to it in itself considered. This is the reason why the Reformed theologians so strenuously opposed the doctrine of La Place. They saw and said that on his principles the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness antecedent to our sanctification could not be defended.” (Hodge, Systematics, V2).
25 Hodge, Romans. Another objection to the Corruption View is that it can't explain why we inherit Adam's corrupt nature. It can explain how it is (by natural generation; IE, WLC #26) that Adam's sin is conveyed to his posterity, but they can't explain why. As Vos says: “It [mediate imputation] leaves the transmission to us of Adam's corruption as an unexplained and inexplicable fact, since it does not want to view this corruption as punishment.” (V2, p37; cf. also Bavinck, V3, p109).