12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.
20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
— Romans 5:12-21, ESV
On January 27, AD 417, a heretofore church leader name Pelagius was excommunicated and branded a heretic. His sin was denying sin, or at least original sin, total depravity, in the human race. Pelagius taught people are born good, could hypothetically choose to never sin, and were capable by their own free will and energy to earn or at least initiate their own salvation.
Most religious people today, even many professing Christians, are Pelagians. They believe sin is not serious, depravity is non-existent, and man is essentially good. Therefore, if we choose to do more good than bad in our lifetimes, while acknowledging a modicum of revelation about God, we will be justified by works and enter into Heaven.
Most confessing Christians who would not go quite that far, yet many are semi-pelagians. They take a semi-serious view of sin while still denying total depravity, and think about justification along cooperative lines. God votes for you, Satan votes against you, and you cast the deciding vote. Or, you do your part (walk an aisle, pray a prayer, get baptized, keep more commandments than you break, etc.), God will do His part, justification ensues. Clever slogans, indeed, but you will not find such notions in the book of Romans.
What we do discover in Paul’s letter to the Romans is a robust theology of justification that frankly includes our part, God’s part, and the sum total of all parts. Our part? We sin, and die. God’s part? He saves, we live. The sum total is justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, who alone has earned our justification with God.
Our Part: We Sin, and Die
Paul plays a blast from the past in this section of his explanation (3:21-31), exemplification (4:1-25), enjoyment (5:1-11), and now the earning (5:11-21) of justification. He brings back Adam (ref. Genesis 3), all the way from one of the first pages of Scripture. It is not a flattering look.
Adam was an actual Pelagian. He was good. He had free will. He was right with God, justified by a covenant of works, as long as his works were in keeping with God’s word. Name and tame the animals, God said. Cultivate the crops in the garden, God said. Love and lead your wife, God said. Enjoy everything, except don’t eat of the fruit of one tree, God said.
Adam sinned. Adam died. He died, spiritually, on the day he sinned, became totally depraved, deflected responsibility, then ran from God. He would die later, physically, an inevitable curse caused by original sin.
The good news is God pursued Adam, clothed Adam with love and sacrifice, and redeemed Adam, giving him new spiritual life and the promise of eternal life after inevitable death. This inaugurated the covenant of grace, which is greater than all of Adam’s sin. It remains the only way to be saved, from Adam to Moses, Moses to Jesus, the first coming of Christ to now, and now until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. Grace is good news, indeed.
The bad news is Adam is our representative, and we are born in his pre-born-again state. He is our seminal head, all mankind is born of his seed, his totally depraved DNA, except of course the virgin-born Son of God, Jesus Christ. Moreover, the first Adam is our federal head. This means, like the federal head of our government (who is almost as old as Adam), he acts and speaks for us, and we inherit the consequences. If the President and Congress declare war, we are all at war. When Adam sinned and died, we all sinned and died.
Adam became a sinner because he sinned. We sin because we are sinners. We all sin. We are all dying. We cannot do anything to earn our own salvation. Only grace can rescue the members of Adam’s human race.
God’s Part: Christ Dies, and Saves
While sin abounds in vs. 12-14, grace dominates vs. 15-19. “Grace” is synonymous with “free gift,” which makes the text almost sounds redundant. When you think about it, all gifts are free, aren’t they? Yes, to the recipient? But the one who pays is the giver.
To be in the place where you need grace requires only cognizant membership in the human race. Children and developmentally impaired individuals may be excused, but the rest of us have none (ref. 1:20). We have inherited and committed Adam’s “trespass,” sinning by nature and by choice. As such we stand in line for “judgment,” having already received “condemnation.” We could blame Adam, who blamed Eve, who blamed the serpent (and of course, the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on?!). But remember, Adam is representative of the human race, meaning we are all duly guilty, for in the gardens where God placed us, we willfully and rebelliously chose to sin against God’s will and God’s word.
Paul has already established in this section that we cannot reverse the curse, we cannot in any way earn our own justification, our own certificate of forgiveness and acceptance by God, by keeping the law, doing good works, or engaging in religious ritual. It is by faith alone, which comes to us from grace alone.
Grace is the free gift of God whereby He bestows faith (and repentance) in order that we can be justified in His sight. Grace is unearned, unmerited, and it does not cost us a thing. Grace, God’s free gift of salvation, however, cost Jesus everything.
Grace is paid with Jesus’ life. “The one man’s obedience” is Paul’s description of the life of Christ. Jesus came to earth to prove He is God, and that God is with us. One of the ways He did this is live a perfect, sinless, spotless life, keeping and fulfilling every word of God. He, the Son of God, earned the approval of God the Father, who even said so publicly (ref. Matthew 3:17, 17:5; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). At any moment, the Son could have returned to Heaven without doing anything about our sin, and been justified in doing so. But, He did not.
Grace is paid with Jesus’ death. Christ’s obedience extended to the cross (ref. Philippians 2:8). There he paid the price for the double imputation of grace (ref. 2 Corinthians 5:21), cancelling our sin and crediting us with righteousness, which “leads to justification and life for all men” who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Such justification is earned, not by you or me, but by the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Sum of All Parts
Karl Barth is generally recognized as the greatest Christian scholar of the 20th century. Though he straddled the fence between orthodoxy and neo-orthodoxy, his defenses against theological liberalism and affirmations of Reformation theology are brilliant. During a teaching stint in America, he was asked to share the most profound thought he had discovered in all his years of research and writing. He paused briefly and said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
The Bible is law (vs. 20a) and gospel (vs. 20b-21). The law tells us we are sinners, from birth, by nature, by choice. The gospel tells us Jesus loves us. He saves us when we call upon His name in repentance and faith. Then we are justified before God, and move on to sanctification and ultimately glorification. Entrance into salvation begins with justification, a justification earned by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who does love us so!