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What follows is an excerpt from my book The United Church.  

ROMANS 5:18

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.

Beginning in verse 18, Paul concludes what he began in verse 12. (“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—”). Carefully balancing the two clauses, he argues that in the same way one man’s trespass brought condemnation, so one man’s righteous act brings justification.[1]

The problem of sin and death and the way to salvation are universal to the entire human race. There are no different paths for different groups.

Suddenly, Paul discards all talk of ethnic distinctions that has so vividly defined his writing up to this point, reverting to the singular banner of “men”[2] (or “all” in the NRSV). Indeed, Paul never wanted to draw ethnic distinctions at all, being forced to do so only on account of the situation in Rome. Rather, he wants to banish ethnic distinctions from the minds of his audience, hoping that they will abandon such self-perceptions and view themselves only as “Messiah-people.”[3] Paul wants the Roman Christians to see their identity on the basis of faith, not culture or ethnicity.[4]

Here Paul unfolds the argument he has been building since chapter one, claiming that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, stand in relationship to one of two men. Either one is aligned with Adam and the accompanying condemnation for sin, or one is aligned with Christ and God’s saving work.[5] Through Adam’s trespass, therefore, condemnation has come to all people, thereby destroying Jewish notions of nationalistic superiority and setting the stage for the universal applicability of Christ’s work.[6]

Modern theological presuppositions can easily obscure the meaning of this verse. Paul argues that Adam’s sin brought universal condemnation but then writes of “justification that brings life for all men.” If taken as an exposition on individual salvation, proponents of universalism could easily point to this verse for support, as some, in fact, have.[7] After all, if Adam’s act of disobedience brought universal condemnation, Christ’s act of righteousness must likewise bring universal justification. This view, however, misunderstands Paul’s purpose here, reading modern Western individualism back onto the text.[8]

Paul does not have the concept of individual salvation in mind here, so such a debate is out of place. Readers should be careful not to impose anachronistic doctrinal debates regarding the eternal destiny of the individual back onto Paul’s writings, particularly here, where Paul’s purpose is not to expound on such a concept.

So, what does Paul mean when he writes, “for all” (literally, “to all men”)? Just as some have cited this verse to argue for universal salvation, others have likewise utilized it to support universal sinfulness. Again, however, this is not Paul’s intention. Paul’s point is not that all men “without exception” were made sinners, but rather that all men “without ethnic distinction” were made sinners, an argument that fits well within the letter’s larger theme.[9] (Of course, this is not to deny universal sinfulness, only to deny that this verse addresses it.)

Paul does not intend to emphasize inherited sin in the Augustinian sense—a concept universally rejected in the Christian East but greatly influential upon Western Christian thought, both Catholic and Protestant—but rather “original death.” Therefore, Romans 5 does not speculate as to how Adam’s sin transfers from one generation to the next[10] but rather emphasizes that sin always results in death.

Paul therefore means “for all” to refer to all people without regard to ethnicity, “all peoples,” as opposed to every individual. This is the same language Paul uses to declare every man’s salvation, so Paul’s point is that just as the sin of Adam condemns all men, regardless of race, so also the grace of Christ extends to every ethnicity, Jew and Gentile alike.[11] Paul’s “universalism is of the sort that holds to Christ as the way for all.”[12]

Paul plays off the Jewish tendency to divide the world between Jews and Gentiles by dividing the world between those who put their faith in Jesus Christ and those who do not, a criterion transcending ethnicity. Paul writes that Jews and Gentiles alike are affected by sin and death, while at the same time salvation through Jesus Christ is made available on the same terms to both groups.

In effect, Paul refutes the common limited nationalism of first-century Judaism in favor of a salvation plan absent ethnic distinction, including the observation of traditional cultural customs.[13]

Paul points to Christ’s death, his “act of righteousness,” as one ushering in an entirely new era. To take this as a reference to the entire life of Christ weakens the contrast of the verse structure and the reference back to 3:24–26,[14] yet we must not take this too far.

To present only two options—completely isolating Christ’s redemptive work to the cross or viewing Christ’s life as a recapitulation—is to create a false dichotomy and to undercut the more complex and nuanced Pauline view of redemption. While Paul does have Christ’s death specifically in mind here as the “one act of righteousness,” we must be cognizant of our modern Western tendency to isolate entirely Christ’s death from the rest of his life. We will, however, return to this matter in the next chapter.

With regard to Adam’s sin, the word “trespass” in verse 18 translates from a Greek word that also appears in Romans 11:11—“So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous”—and Galatians 6:1a—“My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”[15]

In the Septuagint, the word appears as an expression of conscious and deliberate sin against God,[16] and in the New Testament outside Paul’s writings, the word appears only in the parallel passages of Matthew 6:14–15 and Mark 11:25, where it emphasizes the deliberate nature of the act along with its consequences. (Only in Romans 5:20 does it suggest universal fact, and there it is an outworking of Adam’s deliberate transgression). Thus, the word carries the connotation of a deliberate action that results in loss of position before God.[17]

Furthermore, it appears only twenty times in the New Testament, far less than the more generic word for sin.[18] Therefore, Paul’s word choice greater emphasizes the deliberateness of mankind’s rebellion against God, which necessitated a deliberate act of righteousness by the Messiah. Paul points to the cross as a great divine act of covenantal faithfulness, whereby God, through Jesus Christ, addressed the problem of sin and opened up salvation to all who would be justified through faith. The result of such saving justification is the transformation of individuals of all ethnicities, not merely from those condemned to those “saved,” in the modern evangelical sense, but to “God’s true humanity,” his new creation.[19]

Here, however, we must pause and step back from the doctrinal worldview that obscures our perception of Paul’s point. Two thousand years of theological debate and development have shaped our hermeneutical framework, and here particularly we must try to appreciate the gulf between the modern and first-century mindsets.

While foreign to post-Enlightenment Western societies, the worldview affirming ongoing spiritual warfare and its affect on humanity has been a nearly universal phenomenon throughout the history of human culture, and such a perspective underpins Paul’s writings here. Indeed, behind his instruction on God’s plan of salvation is an understanding of the world as a spiritual battlefield.[20]

To reduce the teachings of Romans to a purely legal scenario, with a meritorious act of one overcoming the infraction of another, is to miss the cosmic significance that Paul attaches to Christ’s work,[21] and, because of its significance and the ability of our presuppositions to cloud our reading of this passage, we must now take an aside to address briefly the theology of the atonement.

CLEARING ANSELM’S FOG

Mixing systematic theology with exegesis can be a dangerous game, often prompting us to read Scripture through the lens of our modern theological systems, approaching the text with our own preconceived conclusions, and hindering our ability to grasp the author’s intended message.

Sometimes, however, our theological system is so deeply engrained that it clouds our vision, requiring us to step back and evaluate how the lens through which we are reading the text may be distorting our exegesis, pointing us to anachronistic conclusions and misguided interpretations. “You don’t look at your spectacles until looking through them becomes difficult.”[22] I believe this is particularly important here, where our modern understanding of the atonement can obscure Paul’s words. In this section, I will therefore take a closer look at atonement theology.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter, the belief in the ubiquity of spiritual warfare was common in the first century and remained so within the Church for at least the first millennium.[23] Origen’s argument that every particular aspect of the earth is under “the agency and control of certain beings whom we may call invisible husbandmen and guardians,”[24] reflects such a mindset.

Underpinning Paul’s understanding of the atonement is the view that, as God’s viceroy of creation, Adam’s rejection of God’s lordship unleashed a new god upon the world with man, as ruler of creation, having subjected himself to the rule of the destructive forces that oppose God’s reign.[25] The temptation of the serpent, therefore, was not an arbitrary sadistic move, but an act of war against God, drawing man into cosmic rebellion. Adam’s trespass, consequently, was more than a mere infraction for which the demands of justice required satisfaction; it was a fall in the cosmic sense, an existential threat to all creation.

Adam’s trespass allowed God’s enemies to take the world hostage, setting up Satan as “the prince of this age” and “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (cf. John 12:31; Eph 2:2, 6:12; 1 John 5:19). It is into this context that Christ came.

God, taking the form of man, fulfilled his own command to man to subdue the earth. Christ came and succeeded where Adam failed. Through his teaching, ministry, death and resurrection, Christ vanquished Satan and, by doing so, restored man to his place as God’s viceroys on earth.[26] Christ’s purpose was to free the cosmos from the sin and death that held it in bondage.

To Paul, these are not mere ideas or abstract legal concepts; they are objective powers that Christ defeated to set man free.[27]

In this view, the entire life and ministry of Christ demonstrates a greater unity of purpose, as his seemingly disconnected activities—his exorcisms, healings, and other miracles, as well as his death and resurrection—take on a new coherence as acts of war.[28] The common early Christian view that “famine, blasting of the vine and fruit trees, pestilence among men and beasts…are the proper occupations of demons,”[29] means “[e]very healing, exorcism, or raising of the dead is a loss for Satan and a gain for God.”[30] Atonement, therefore, is not merely a judicial satisfaction of the demands of man’s sins. It is an all-inclusive cosmic act, extending to all creation.[31]

Atonement and incarnation are therefore inseparable.[32] While Christ’s atoning work may have culminated at the cross, it cannot be limited to it.[33] Proper Christology therefore demands that the theology of the cross becomes one with the theology of the incarnation.[34] A failure to appreciate this central aspect of Pauline theology is a failure to understand this passage.

This does not mean that Paul packs the entirety of this atonement theology into Romans 5, but rather that we cannot appreciate the cosmic significance Paul assigns to the work of Christ without an understanding of the theological framework governing his worldview. Paul saw the atonement as Christ’s delivering humanity from the evil that held it in bondage[35] and defeating the “powers and principalities.”[36]

Christ came as the true Adam, reversing the Adamic curse by succeeding where Adam failed and, as the true Israelite, bringing the salvation message to the entire world.

In reading Paul, we must, therefore, discard some of the later theological developments that have clouded our understanding of the atonement.[37] We must be particularly aware of the influence of Anselm of Canterbury’s eleventh-century work, Cur Deus Homo, which sought to discard the grotesque imagery of Christus Victor,[38] and replace it with a theory reflecting the feudal categories of his time.[39]

According to Anselm, humanity, as God’s vassals, had failed to give God his proper due and thereby insulted God’s honor, an act that demanded recompense. In Anslem’s view, the divine king—like an earthly king in Anslem’s day—could not allow this outrageous assault on his honor to go unpunished. Christ, therefore, came to die as a sinless man to restore God’s honor.

Through this act, Christ won merit, which he can now share with mankind. Anselm’s theory focused almost exclusively on Christ’s death, relegating the atonement to the cross and reducing the incarnation to the means by which atonement was made possible.[40]

This view still holds sway in the Western Church today, though in modified form. As the law of the state replaced the honor of the ruler as the foundational civic authority, Anslem’s theory evolved into our modern penal substitution theory, which often finds expression in statements about Christ’s taking our place and bearing the punishment for our sins.[41]

While Paul does discuss and assign importance to these themes, they are merely aspects of a much larger narrative. Failing to appreciate this can significantly distort Paul’s teachings and rob his writings of much of their power.

Indeed, Paul does not portray the cross as a means to pacify an offended God; it is not a movement from below to above, a sacrifice brought to God to satisfy his wrath. Rather, it is God’s movement to us, “the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man.”[42] “The cross reconciles the world to God, not God to the world (2 Cor 5:19).”[43]

When Anselm states, however, that Christ placates the Father through his accomplishment as a man, the clear implication is that the atonement is being made from below, from man’s side to God’s. God’s involvement as being both the agent and the object of the reconciliation is lost. The resulting isolation of Christ’s death from his life and, to some extent, his resurrection then becomes inevitable.[44]

Paul’s Christology, however, embraces the entire life of Christ, not just his death.[45] To Paul, the atonement is not about satisfying the demands of divine justice, for in this new order, the relationship between God and man is not governed by merit or justice, but by grace.

Too often in our modern expressions of Christ’s atoning work, we reduce the divine-human relationship to a mere legal transaction governed by Western notions of justice. Christ’s conquering the powers enslaving creation, however, demonstrates that salvation comes not through the demands of justice, but in spite of them.

God is indeed just, but he transcends the concept’s legalistic requirements.[46]

In failing to address the cosmological issues that had been up to his day traditionally associated with the atonement, Anselm failed to appreciate the full significance that Paul assigns the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, instead addressing the atonement as if the only problem in the cosmos were human sin.

While the individual soteriological aspect is important, the cosmic significance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is more ontologically fundamental because the implications of Christ’s atoning work for the individual can only be appreciated in light of the cosmic victory it achieved.

Man is reconciled to God because creation is reconciled to God (cf. Col 1:15–22).[47] To Paul, sin is not an abstract, impersonal force, but rather a highly personal power associated not just with law breaking, but with all manifestations of evil powers that oppress and enslave creation.[48]

The totality of Christ’s life, culminating in his death and resurrection, restored to mankind what was lost in Genesis 3, defeating death and overcoming the illegitimate ruler of creation, and this returns us to the passage at hand. Paul emphasizes his contrast between Christ and Adam through his drawn-out exposition on Abraham, for the thrust of Paul’s argument is that God called Abraham for the purpose of addressing the problem of man’s sin.[49]

Paul’s argument throughout Romans is that Christ came not to save individuals per se, but rather to fulfill the purpose of the Abrahamic covenant: to set right what Adam set wrong. When we reduce Romans to a systematic gospel of the individual, a roadmap for personal salvation, we miss Paul’s larger message: that God has been true to his promises to Abraham and, consequently, “that the long entail of sin and death has been overcome, so that the way is clear to the rescue of human beings and, through them, the rescue of the whole creation.”[50] And this brings us to verse 19.

If you are interested in reading more, you may purchase the entire book on Amazon.com.

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[1] See Harrison, 64. While some translations (e.g., NIV), treat the Greek word for “one” here adjectively (“one trespass,” “one righteous act”), a better translation treats the word pronominally (“one man”), referring first to Adam and then to Christ. Moo, 341; Wright, “Romans,” 529.

[2] Moo, 315.

[3] Wright, Paul, 1:397.

[4] See Ibid.

[5] Moo, 315.

[6] See Moo, 341–42.

[7] A. Hultgren, for example, argues that some are saved by faith in this life, while others who do not put their faith in God on earth will receive justification at judgment. See A. J. Hultgren, Christ and His Benefits: Christology and Redemption in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 54–55 cited by Moo, 342.

[8] This is not to say that a debate regarding the eternal destinies of those who reject Christ is illegitimate. Indeed, while a pluralistic universalism—particularly in the form that is popularly associated with some strands of modern liberal Protestantism and the Unitarian Universalists—does not square with the biblical witness or Church Tradition, we should not confuse such beliefs with a larger view of post-mortem salvation. Some more nuanced views associated with post-death reconciliation have strong support among early great Christian thinkers, such as Cyril of Alexandria and Origen. The idea of an eventual universal reconciliation through Christ, therefore, should not be lumped together with the views of such non-Christian or post-Christian groups. These more Orthodox views, however, are generally linked to the idea of Christ’s descent into hell arising from the statement in 1 Peter 3:19–20 that Christ, after his death, “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey…” While this doctrine is complex and its development throughout Church history is beyond the scope of our purposes here, it should be noted that, since very early in the Church, there has been a commonly held belief—though not one without controversy, with Augustine of Hippo labeling such a belief heresy—that, while individuals can be saved only through faith in Christ, the ability to choose to believe does not terminate at death. See Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 78, 193. Such a discussion may be worth having but is irrelevant to the passage at hand.

[9] Mark Rapinchuk, “Universal Sin and Salvation in Romans 5:12–21,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42, no. 3 (September 1999): 437.

[10] That is, this verse does not touch on the traditional debate between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox over the concept of original sin.

[11] Ibid., 428–30.

[12] Wright, “Romans,” 529.

[13] Rapinchuk, 430–34.

[14] See James. D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1988), 283. Indeed, we cannot accept the recapitulation theory that Christ simply reversed the course started by Adam by setting the right example. Nowhere does Paul argue that Christ brought redemption to humanity through the sum of many different acts. Ibid.

[15] Italics added.

[16] There are places where the word stands for unintentional sins (e.g., Ps 19:12) and negligence in regard to duty (e.g., Dan 6:4), but they are isolated and rare. “paraptōma,” NIDNTT, 438. Paul’s contrasting use of the more generic word for sin elsewhere in this passage emphasizes the significance of the word.

[17] Ibid.

[18] See Ibid.; “hamartia,” NIDNTT, 38.

[19] Wright, “Romans,” 523.

[20] See Gregory A. Boyd, God At War (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 11, 17.

[21] This is not to say that Paul does not utilize legal metaphors and courtroom imagery. Indeed, he does so frequently and with great force. Rather, it is to recognize our own overreliance on such metaphors and imagery to the neglect of other aspects of the Pauline message.

[22] Wright, Paul, 1:163.

[23] Robert H. Culpepper, Interpreting the Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966), 73.

[24] Origen, “Against Celsus,” (ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; trans. Frederick Crombie; ANF; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 4:651.

[25] Boyd, War, 107, 111.

[26] Ibid., 111–12.

[27] Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonment (trans. A. G. Hebert; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1931), 20.

[28] Boyd, War, 180.

[29] Origen, 4:651.

[30] Susan R. Garrett, The Demise of the Devil: Magic and the Demonic in Luke’s Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 55 teoted by Boyd, War, 186.

[31] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 348.

[32] Aulén, 20, 59.

[33] Gregory A. Boyd, “Christus Victor View,” (ed. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy; The Nature of the Atonement; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 36. To utilize a modern analogy, we may consider passing the bar to be the cumulative event that makes a person a lawyer, but what makes him a lawyer is not limited exclusively to this event. You cannot isolate this exam from the rest of his education or even reduce his education to mere preparation for this exam without fundamentally misunderstanding and distorting the entire process of becoming an attorney.

[34] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (trans. J. R. Foster; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1968), 230.

[35] Culpepper, 73.

[36] Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 181 cited by Aulén, 37–39. The Church Fathers more fully developed this position into what became known as the Christus Victor view of atonement. While they held varying views of this theme, see Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 188, adherents to this basic model of the atonement include Justin Martyr, Origen, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and John of Damascus in the East and Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Leo the Great, Caesarius of Arles, Faustus of Rhegium, and Gregory the Great in the West. Boersma, 182 cited by Aulén, 37–39.

[37] At the same time, however, we must avoid reading back into Paul a more developed Christus Victor system.

[38] Aulén, 47. In fairness to Anselm, I must acknowledge that the development of his view of the atonement is much more complex than this. Unfortunately space does not allow a more detailed discussion. I have also all but ignored the subjective view of the atonement for the same reason.

[39] See J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 16.

[40] Grenz, 343.

[41] The shift from the feudal categories of Anselm to the more modern expression of his theory resulted from a change in European culture that occurred around the time of the Reformation. With the breakdown of feudalism and the rise of nations, the focus shifted from God’s honor to God’s wrath. Christ, therefore, served as the substitute recipient of God’s wrath, standing in for mankind. Anselm’s satisfaction theory and the modern penal substitution theory are, therefore, essentially two different expressions of the same view. Ibid., 344–45.

[42] Ratzinger, 281–82.

[43] Boyd, “Christus Victor,” 43.

[44] Aulén, 87–89, 151.

[45] James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 202.

[46] Aulén, 90–92, 145–46. The understanding of justice and satisfaction in Anselm’s theory creates intense problems in and of itself. God’s accepting Christ’s death as appropriate recompense for man’s sin seems completely arbitrary. Christ’s work has no inherent value but only such value as God vests in it. Furthermore, this system creates tension between atonement and Trinitarian theology. As Augustine of Hippo argued, the Son cannot placate the Father because that would suggest a conflict in the Godhead, a theologically untenable position. Aulén, 58, 94.

[47] Boyd, “Christus Victor,” 33, 46.

[48] Boersma, 184.

[49] Wright, Justification, 226.

[50] Ibid.

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See Also:

A Brief Look at Romans 5:18–21


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