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The Big Picture of Romans 5:12-21 (Lesson 3.2)

Imputed Sin and Righteousness in Romans 5:12-21

So, we've now dealt with the doctrine of imputation, and the three great imputations of Scripture. Now, in our passage here in Romans 5:12-21, Paul is going to reference two of the three great imputations of Scripture: imputed sin in Adam, and imputed righteousness in Christ. And one of the reasons it's going to be especially vital for us to have a clear understanding of imputed sin is that as we study through this passage, we're actually going to be talking about three distinct kinds of sin: actual, inherent, and imputed sin:1

The Three Different Kinds of Sin that we Need to Distinguish

ACTUAL SIN: Committed by us. The conscious, personal sins that we wilfully commit against God and His Law

INHERENT SIN: Transmitted to us. The inward, inherent, corrupt nature with which we are infected from birth

IMPUTED SIN: Reckoned to us. The sin, guilt and condemnation that was counted as ours when Adam sinned

And what's going to be really important for us to understand, is that the sin Paul is going to be talking about here in Romans 5:12-21 (especially verse 12) is imputed sin. Now, actual and inherent sin are both biblical realities. No Christian denies the existence of actual sin. And inherent sin is the source of all our actual sin. The reason all of us sin is that naturally, every single one of us is born with a heart that loves the darkness (John 3:19). Naturally we love the darkness, that's why we sin. It's why if you lived ten thousand years and traveled the world over and back again, you wouldn't find a single person without sin. No other religion can explain this.2 There's no other explanation for why it is that people continue day after day to do the very things they themselves know to be wrong. Why? Because every single one of us is born with a heart that loves sin. It's only when a man is born again that God takes away the heart of flesh and gives a new heart; making us hate the sin we used to love and love the God we used to hate.

So, actual and inherent sin are both biblical realities. But neither of them are what Paul will talk about in this passage. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul won't be talking about how we personally sin every day. Nor will he talk about how we are inherently corrupt. He's going to talk about how Adam's sin has made every one of us judicially guilty. In Romans 5, Paul isn't going to tell us about how the corruption of Adam's nature has been imparted to us. He's going to tell us that the guilt of Adam's sin has been imputed to us.

And the reason Paul's going to share this with us isn't to make us miserable. It's to set us free. Because again, he's going to go on to show us that this exact same principle of imputation is the very foundation of our salvation: it's Christ's imputed righteousness that is the sole basis of our justification. How can God say to you and me, “You are just,” when, in fact, we're not? How can an unjust people be justified? In exactly the same way that we were condemned. Just as we were condemned on account of Adam's imputed sin—so too, we're justified on account of Christ's imputed righteousness. See, our justification works the exact same way as our condemnation. We were condemned for a sin that was not personally our own, and we are justified for a righteousness that is not personally our own: “It's not just the death of Christ that redeems us, but it is the life of Christ that redeems us. By one man's disobedience, we're plunged into ruin, but by one man—the new Adam's obedience—we are justified. . .by one man's offense the world was plunged into ruin [IE, condemned]; by another man's obedience, we are justified.”3

The Structure of Romans 5:12-21

So, this passage is here for our comfort. It's here to help us really understand the basis of our salvation—how it is that guilty sinners are justified in Christ—in order to show us just how secure we are in Jesus. It's here to show us just how desperate our problem is, yes; but all the more, just how glorious our Savior is.

So, let's turn together to Romans 5. Many would say that there's no other passage in the Scriptures that so fully explains the foundation of our justification in Christ. But we could also say that there may not be any other passage in the Scriptures that's so complex and hard to understand! So before we begin to look at this Scripture in detail, let's spend some time outlining what Paul is saying here in Romans 5:12-21.4

1. 5:12, An INTRODUCTION to imputed sin:

Paul begins a thought here that he doesn't end up finishing until later, in verses 18-19; namely, that we are justified in Christ in exactly the same way that we were condemned in Adam: by imputation. In other words: Just as we were condemned because of the (imputed) sin of Adam, so too, we are justified because of the (imputed) righteousness of Christ. This is what Paul is driving at. But before he can get to the second part of the comparison, he realizes he has to clarify a few things first:

2. 5:13-14, Two clear PROOFS of imputed sin:

Paul realizes that, just like today, there would be people in his day that wouldn't like or agree with the concept of imputed sin. So before he can say anything else, he needs to take some time to prove the doctrine of imputed sin; and that's what he does in verses 13-14. Paul's reasoning goes like this: If all men die (vv12) (and they do), and death is the enforcement of a penalty (and it is), and penalties are only given when there is violation of a law (v13) (and they are), then all men must have transgressed a law (vv13-14). So then, all men die because they have transgressed a law; and yet:

A) Actual sins committed against the MOSAIC LAW (written on stone) cannot account for the widespread effect of death, since men suffered death long before the Mosaic Law was given; and,

B) Actual sins committed against the MORAL LAW (written on hearts) likewise cannot account for the widespread effect of death, since even infants suffer death; for though they are corrupted with the disease of original sin, still, they cannot be said to have committed any actual sins of their own.

So then, it can't be because of actual sins that men are condemned and punished—whether it be actual sins committed against the Law of Moses on the one hand, or actual sins committed against the Moral Law on the other. Why is it then, that all men suffer the judicial punishment of death? Because of the sin of Adam. As our covenant head, Adam's transgression has been counted as ours; it's his disobedience that has been reckoned to you and me; it's his sin that has been imputed to us.

3. 5:15-17, The CONTRAST of imputed sin in Adam and imputed righteousness in Christ:

After proving the doctrine of imputed sin in verses 13-14, Paul feels he needs to contrast Adam and Christ before he can compare them. He wants to show that we are justified in Christ in exactly the same way we were condemned in Adam. This is a comparison. But before Paul can compare the two, he wants to show us that in a very real sense, Adam and Christ are infinitely incomparable. So in verses 15-17, the imputation of Adam's sin and Christ's righteousness is CONTRASTED: Paul's point is that our justification in Christ is so much more glorious than our condemnation in Adam.

4. 5:18-19, The COMPARISON of imputed sin in Adam and imputed righteousness in Christ:

Now that Paul has given ample proof for the doctrine of imputed sin (vv13-14), and has drawn out the infinite contrasts that exist between Adam and Christ (vv15-17), he's now finally ready, here in verses 18-19, to complete the comparison he began back in verse 12. And so finally, here in verses 18-19, the imputation of Adam's sin and Christ's righteousness is COMPARED: Our justification in Christ happens the same way as did our condemnation in Adam. And this is the heart of the entire passage. Paul wants us to see the truth that just as in Adam we were condemned solely because of what Adam had done, so now in Christ we stand justified solely because of what Christ has done.

5. 5:20-21, A final CLARIFICATION about God's way of salvation:

A) The ROLE of God's LAW: In these last verses, Paul feels the need to remind us that the Law was never meant to save us—but actually to further condemn us. It was never meant to make us righteous, but to show us just how sinful we really are. The Law was never meant to be our Savior.

B) The WONDER of God's GRACE: Even though our sin had abounded through the Law, God's grace has super - abounded through Christ. In Adam, sin had owned and defeated us; but now in Christ, sin itself is owned and defeated by God's grace. We are no longer a people overwhelmingly conquered by sin, but rather a people who overwhelmingly conquer through Christ Jesus our Lord.5


1 Scholars have defined original sin differently. Some have limited it solely to inherent sin, but most have also included in it the element of imputed sin. Since it's vital, though, to clearly distinguish between inherent and imputed sin, especially in this lesson, we will mostly refrain from using the term original sin and use instead either inherent or imputed sin (see chart below).

2 I love how Jonathan Edwards put it: “If the Bible never taught about a universal plunge into ruin of the human race, if there was no such word of the fall in the Scripture, reason would require that we posit such an event. How else could we explain the universality of sin in the human race?” (The Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, quoted from R.C. Sproul sermon, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: Romans 5:8-17;

3 R.C. Sproul, The Doctrine of Imputation: Romans 5:12-19 ( This might be a good place to ask an important question: How exactly is it that Christ's imputed righteousness fits in with His atoning sacrifice, with respect to our salvation? How do these two aspects of our salvation fit together? John Colquhoun gives the best answer I know of: “The second Adam's perfect holiness of human nature, and obedience of life, to the precept of the law as a covenant, are as necessary to the justification of sinners, as his suffering of its penalty is. The doctrine of justification by faith, establishes the law, the whole law, the honor of the precept, as well as that of the penal sanction. But this it could not do, if it did not represent the righteousness of Jesus Christ, as consisting in his active obedience, as well as in his passive. Active obedience, strictly speaking, cannot be said to satisfy vindictive justice, for sin. And, on the other hand, 'Suffering for punishment, gives right and title unto nothing, only satisfies for something; nor does it deserve any reward.' (Owen on Justification, p384). Christ's satisfaction for sin, could not render his perfect obedience to the precept, unnecessary; nor could his perfect obedience, make his satisfaction for sin by suffering the penalty, unnecessary, because it was not of the same kind. The one, is that which answers the law's demand of perfect obedience, as the ground of title to eternal life; the other, is that which answers its demand of complete satisfaction to Divine justice, for sin. The meritorious obedience of Christ to the precept, could not satisfy the penal sanction; and the sufferings and death of Christ, could not satisfy the precept of the law. The commandment of the law as a covenant, requires doing for life; the curse of that law, demands dying as the punishment of sin. These, though they are never to be separated as grounds of justification, yet are carefully to be distinguished. The perfect obedience of Christ, is as necessary to entitle believers to eternal life, as his suffering of death is, to secure them from eternal death. His satisfaction for sin, applied by faith, renders them innocent or guiltless of death; and his obedience, makes them righteous or worthy of life. As the latter, then, is as necessary to complete their justification, according to the gospel, as the former; so, it is as requisite as the former, to establish the honor of the law.” (Treatise On Law and Gospel, pp205-206). Vos gives some precious application at this point, describing what it might have looked like, had God only forgiven our sins, without also providing the imputed righteousness of Christ: “God could have forgiven people, namely their guilt. . .and then further could have entered into a new covenant relationship with them in order to let them earn eternal life for themselves. But then they would not have been justified as believers are now justified. Justification is not merely the act of God whereby He puts the sinner in a position to open a new page in this life's book, which for the time being would still be blank, and on which he himself would still have to inscribe new merits. All the pages are opened by God at one time; on all pages, the handwriting of sin against him is wiped out [cf. Col. 2:14], and in its place the promise of eternal life is written.” (V4, p153).

4 To further condense this outline into a paragraph: I. Paul begins by introducing the concept of Adam's imputed sin (v12); II. Knowing that this wouldn't be a popular doctrine, he goes on in to prove that Adam's sin was imputed to us all (vv13-14); III. Next, Paul sets about contrasting Adam and Christ, showing how, in a very real sense, the two are incomparable (vv15-17); IV. Paul then makes the parallel comparison between Adam and Christ as covenant heads; this is the heart of the passage (vv18-19 ); V. Lastly, Paul makes a final clarification and summarizes everything he had been saying (vv20-21).

5 NOTE: This might be a good time to stop for questions, if there is time.


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