The CLASSICAL View of Romans 5:12:
We call this view the Classical View1 because it is an interpretation of Romans 5:12 that is first, rooted in the Old Testament,2 secondly, has been the primary doctrine of the Church in ages past,3 and thirdly, continues to be the view of a great majority of scholars and theologians.4 In short, the Classical View understands Romans 5:12 as speaking about imputed sin.
According to the Classical View, what Paul means by “all sinned,” is that “all sinned in Adam as their head and representative.”5 As the covenant head of the human race, Adam represented all men in such a way, that because of his sin, all humanity has been plunged along with him into guilt and condemnation. Adam's sin was judicially reckoned to all men. So, when he fell, we fell with him; when he was condemned, we were condemned with him. His sin is reckoned to us; his transgression is legally charged to our account. He sinned, but we are guilty with him; he transgressed, but we are condemned with him.
We have a striking example of this in the passages of Scripture that deal with Achan's sin. We've referred back to them before, but there's one detail in particular that we haven't pointed out yet that can really help us understand how it is that “all sinned” (in verse 12) can mean that Adam's sin was imputed to all. Joshua 7:14-21 makes it clear beyond any doubt that it was Achan alone who sinned, for one man only was taken by lot, and when Achan confesses his sin he speaks in the first personal singular. And yet, if we turn to Joshua 22:20, we find that, as a result of Achan's sin, wrath fell on “all the congregation of Israel”. Why? If Achan alone sinned, then why did wrath fall on all Israel? We find our answer if we turn back again to Joshua 7:11-12, where we read: “Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things. Therefore the sons of Israel. . .have become accursed.” Was it not Achan alone who sinned? Why then does God say that all Israel had sinned? Because Achan's sin was being reckoned as belonging to all Israel. His sin, though not actually belonging to all—was imputed to all; and it was for this reason that wrath fell upon all of them. It is precisely this way that we understand what Paul is saying in Romans 5:12. Adam alone sinned—and yet wrath fell upon all humanity. Why? Because the guilt of his sin is imputed to us—reckoned as ours.
Now, according to this view, Adam's sin is both imputed and imparted. One truth: the guilt of Adam's sin is imputed to us. Another truth: the corruption of his nature is imparted to us. But in the Classical View, these two truths fit together in the exact opposite way that Placaeus had put them in the Corruption View (above). The Classical View reasons this way: 1) God had told Adam that his disobedience would result in death; 2) This was true not just for Adam, but for all those he represented; 3) And this death included spiritual death, which is exactly what inherent corruption is. For Adam, inherent corruption—spiritual death—came upon him as a judicial penalty for his sin, along with physical death. And it's exactly the same for all those he represented (all of us): just like Adam, so too, we are inflicted with spiritual death as the penalty for Adam's sin, because he represented us. Just as Adam died spiritually as a judicial consequence for his sin—so did all those he represented (all of us). In a word, our inherent corruption isn't the basis of our condemnation—it's the proof. Whereas Placaeus taught that we're guilty because of imparted corruption, the Classical View teaches us that we're actually corrupt because of imputed guilt.
MEDIATE Versus IMMEDIATE Imputation: How is Adam's Sin Imputed to his Posterity: (Directly or Indirectly?)
MEDIATE IMPUTATION (The Corruption View): The inherent corruption that has been imparted to us in Adam is the judicial grounds/basis of our condemnation: In other words, we are guilty because of Adam's imparted corruption. Adam's trespass resulted in the corruption of human nature, which corruption is the judicial basis of the condemnation and death of all: We die because of Adam's imparted corruption.
IMMEDIATE IMPUTATION (The Classical View): The inherent corruption that has been imparted to us in Adam is the penal result/consequence of our condemnation: In other words, we are actually corrupt because of Adam's imputed guilt. Adam's trespass resulted in the guilt of both Adam and the entire human race, which guilt is the judicial basis of the condemnation and death of all: We die because of Adam's imputed guilt.
MEDIATE: Adam sinned → Adam's nature corrupted → we inherit this corrupt nature → we are thus punished
IMMEDIATE: Adam sinned → Adam's sin reckoned to us → we are punished with Adam → we are thus corrupted
REALISM Versus FEDERALISM: Why is Adam's Sin Imputed to his Posterity? (The Basis of Imputed Sin)
Now, something we should note here is that there are actually two distinct lines of thinking regarding the basis of Adam's imputed sin. Both lines of thinking agree that we are all guilty because Adam's sin was imputed to us, but they disagree over why it is, exactly, that Adam's sin was imputed. What we've been describing is called the FEDERALIST (or representative) view: namely, the reason Adam's sin was imputed to us was that Adam was our covenant representative. When Paul says that we die because “we sinned” in Adam (5:12), he's not saying that we actually, physically, literally, sinned in the garden in and with Adam. No, he's saying that we are treated as sinners, we are regarded and reckoned as having sinned in and with Adam when he sinned, because he was our covenant representative. But there's another group of theologians who subscribe to what is called the REALIST view: they also affirm that Adam's sin is imputed to us, but according to them, the reason why Adam's sin is imputed is that we actually, literally, physically sinned in and with Adam. According to them, we're guilty of Adam's sin—not because he was acting on our behalf as our covenant head—but because we actually sinned in and with Adam in the strict and proper sense of the term. So, according to the realist view, “[Adam's] sin is ours not because it is imputed to us; but it is imputed to us, because it is truly and properly our own.”6
Why is it that Adam's Sin is Imputed to His Posterity? (The Basis of Imputed Sin)
REALISM: Adam's sin was imputed to all men because we were really there sinning with him when he sinned.
Example: Levi paid tithes in that he was “present” in Abraham's loins when he tithed (Heb.7:9-10)
FEDERALISM: Adam's sin was imputed to all men because when Adam sinned he acted for all those he represented. Example: Canaan's curse (Gen.9); Achan's sin (Josh.7); Haman's sons (Esth.9); Daniel's accusers (Dan.6)
So, which view is the right one? We believe that when Paul says, “all sinned in Adam” he's telling us that Adam was acting as our covenant representative in such a way that when he sinned, his act was reckoned as ours. Paul's NOT saying that all men actually sinned in Adam's sin in such a way that his act was literally and physically our act. That's impossible; we didn't even exist at that point.7 Further, Paul goes on to make it crystal clear, that it was on account of “the transgression of the one” that the many died (vv15); it was through “the transgression of the one” that death reigned over all (v17).8 It wasn't the transgression of the many, or the transgression of all, sinning in Adam, that brought condemnation upon the human race: It was the transgression of the one man, Adam.9 Adam's sin isn't imputed to us because it's truly and properly ours; rather, his sin is ours because it's federally and covenantally imputed to us.10
What Scripture teaches is that Adam stood as the covenant head of the human race in the same way that Christ stands as the covenant head of his people: “when it is said that the sin of Adam is imputed to his posterity, it is not meant that they committed his sin, or were the agents of his act. . .but simply that in virtue of the union between him and his descendants, his sin is the judicial ground of the condemnation of his race, precisely as the righteousness of Christ is the judicial ground of the justification of his people.”11 Adam's sin—though not ours—was imputed to us in the Covenant of Works. And in exactly the same way, Christ's righteousness—though not ours—is imputed to us in the Covenant of Grace. The first imputation brought death; the second has brought life. Here's the evidence for the Classical View:12
A) It fits GRAMMATICALLY: The Classical View best fits the simple meaning of Paul's words in Romans 5:12. Paul doesn't say that death spread to all men because “all do sin/have sinned” (IE, the Pelagian View), or because “all became sinful” (IE, the Corruption View),13 but simply because “all sinned.” This verb is in the simple historical (aorist) tense, indicating momentary action at a particular time. “And when was that? Doubtless at the fall. All men sinned in Adam's sin. All fell in his fall.”14
B) It fits CONTEXTUALLY: Verses 13-14 are inseparably bound to the last clause of verse 12, not just because they follow directly after, but because of the connecting “for” at the beginning of verse 13. This “for” tells us that in verses 13-14, Paul is seeking to prove what he just said in verse 12. But verses 13-14 don't prove the Pelagian View (they actually prove the exact opposite!),15 nor do they fit the Corruption View very well.16 The interpretation of verse 12 that fits the best with verses 13-14 is the Classical View.
C) It fits STRUCTURALLY: The whole passage of Romans 5:12-19 is a single unit. And what's absolutely clear in verses 15-19 is that all men are condemned and suffer death on account of the one sin of the one man, Adam. Paul says it clearly no less than five times: “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). So then, to say that all men are actually condemned and suffer death on account of their own sins (the Pelagian View) would totally contradict the rest of the passage. So too, to say that all men are condemned and suffer death on account of their inherent corruption (the Corruption View) is something very different than saying that all men are condemned and suffer death on account of the one sin of Adam. So, the Classical View of verse 12 is really the only interpretation that fits the rest of the passage.
Further, it's almost universally agreed that verse 12 is the first part of a comparison that is resumed and completed later in verse 18 (“just as. . .even so”). In other words, what Paul begins to say in verse 12, he later comes back to and repeats in verse 18. So, we could say that verse 18 “is Paul's own interpretation of what he meant when he said 'all sinned'” in verse 12.17 And in verse 18, Paul is clearly speaking about imputed sin in Adam, when he says: “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.”
D) It fits THEOLOGICALLY: Paul's whole aim in this passage is to demonstrate that we are justified in Christ the exact same way that we were condemned in Adam. This is clear in verse 18. Paul's saying: just as it was with your condemnation, so it is with your justification. There's a very real parallel. Now, if we take this comparison seriously, and if the Pelagian View of verse 12 teaches that we are condemned by our own personal sins (as it does), then the corollary truth is that we are justified by our own personal deeds of righteousness. That's not good; actually it's heresy. And we've got the same problem with the Corruption View, because if we are condemned in Adam because we become inherently corrupt (as this view teaches), then the corollary truth is that we are justified in Christ because we become inherently righteous. That's also a denial of the gospel. The essence of the doctrine of justification is that in Christ, sinners are declared to be right with God totally apart from any good works or inward righteousness of their own. And Paul's telling us we were condemned the same way we're justified: through imputation. It was Adam's imputed sin that condemned us; and it's Christ's imputed righteousness that justifies us.18
Mapping out the Theological Implications of the three major views:
The PELAGIAN View: