By Paul Knudtson
The Adam Story in Romans 5:12-21
In Romans 5 Paul tells what it is like to live “between the times;” between the “already” of being justified by faith” (5:1-2) and the “not yet” that consists of present sufferings (5:3-5). Paul does not embrace a view of present glory where heaven overtakes earth, where weakness and heartache and failure are all in the past. Faith does not grant exemption from woe and pain, spiritual ecstasies do not overcome all agonies of soul and body. Yet, while Paul does not embrace an escapist “theology of glory,” he does affirm that faith transforms the way affliction is encountered so that it can now be met with confidence and even joy.
This positive orientation towards suffering is not a form of Christianized Stoicism, however. It does not deny or minimize present pains, but is instead built upon certainties about the future. Such certainties have their origin in the God who justifies the ungodly and makes enemies, friends. This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
After laying a foundation of certainty concerning the future for believers at the beginning of Romans 5 (“we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” Rom 5:2 – RSV), Paul goes on to affirm the universal benefits of Christ’s work (5:15-19). He does so by comparing the universal effects of Adam’s transgression with the similarly universal effects of Christ’s act of redemption.
Paul’s reference to Adam reminds us that Adam’s story (Genesis 2-3) is our story; his name in Hebrew means “man” or “human being,” and so includes us all. “Adam” represents or embodies all of us. And Adam’s tragic biography (in Genesis) prefigures humanity’s failure so that his fall from glory becomes the recurring theme of human history, where the promise of “what could have been” has been replaced with the disappointment and sadness of “what has happened” and “what now is.”
Sin’s consequence in Adam’s case, death, has also become the destiny of every human who is born, just as each person exhibits the same moral flaw with the same disastrous outcome. Mortality is now our common fate, and unlike other creatures, we must live with the knowledge that we all sin and that we must also surely die. And we are aware that death is more than a natural event; it is an evil power that rules over us as a fearsome foe.
Paul refers to Adam (in Romans 5; see also 1 Corinthians 15) because it allows him to speak about universality. The story of Adam tells us how we are all alike, all made of the same stuff, all subject to the same temptations, all living an exilic existence, all coming to terms with “paradise lost.”
Although we see hints of Eden even now about us, we know that we do not live in paradise any longer. Like the first couple, Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3), we have, as it were, also been escorted from the garden, made to live in a harsher, crueler world, with only faint memories of what was once ours. And, despite our noblest intentions and loftiest ideals, our day-to-day practice is disappointing. We “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23, NRSV). “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—“ (5:12).
Adam’s transgression (Genesis 3; Romans 5) is the prototype of all subsequent sin. Time and again we ourselves prove to be Adam’s clone, repeating in our own lives the same acts of self-assertion, the same mistrust, the same grasping for what is not ours, and thereby also reaping the same sense of alienation and fear, as well as the knowledge that we also live under the same sentence of death. As Adam’s children, we are all now on death row, awaiting the fulfillment of our sentence (though we may try to deny it). And such death is not merely biological, but is a spiritual power by which we are alienated from God, the source of life. Thankfully, though, the apostle Paul goes on to articulate how through Christ, the second Adam, we may receive eternal life. Romans 5 ends with the statement, “just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:21). In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (15:22).
In Romans Paul goes to the bedrock of Genesis not only to identify Abraham as the exemplar of one “justified by faith” (in Romans 4), but also to find in that primeval man, Adam (in Romans 5), a human being who unites the human family in a solidarity of sin and death (Rom 5:12). He does this before telling how Jesus, like a second Adam (5:14-19; see 1 Cor 15:45), has created a new, though contrary, human solidarity, this time a solidarity of life and salvation. Jesus and Adam are corresponding opposites. Adam has bequeathed to us sin and death; Jesus has left us with an inheritance of righteousness and eternal life. Just as the impact of Adam’s sin is universal in scope, so Christ’s act of redemption contains the promise of universal restoration. “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” (Rom 5:18, NRSV).