Commentary on Romans 5:12-19
For the next few weeks we will be reading portions of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
This letter is significantly different from the other epistles. It was not a community Paul had established. Nevertheless, he wrote with the goal of creating unity out of the conflict between the various already established communities. Whether or not he achieved his goal we do not know, but we do know that this letter has had a profound effect on church leaders throughout the centuries.
When Augustine heard a child chanting “tolle lege,” take up and read, it was the 13th chapter of Romans that he took up. With that, he records, he was converted. While writing his lectures on Romans, Martin Luther writes that he felt as though his life had begun anew. In the letter, Paul’s message of justification, faith, and grace entirely changed his understanding of God and the church. So much so that Luther thought that all Christians should memorize the letter. John Wesley and Karl Barth also record that their profound life changes rest in their encounters with Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
As people set off on their Lenten journeys, many pray that this may be a time in which their lives may begin anew and that profound changes will take place. What is the word of grace we might hear in this portion of Paul’s letter as we take up and read?
To describe the Christian community in Rome at the middle of the first century as diverse is an understatement. There were both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Some felt Christians should continue to observe all of the Jewish laws. Others thought Christians should observe some laws, but not all; while still others thought that there was no longer any reason for Christians to be circumcised, follow the food laws, or observe the feasts. Although Paul had not been to Rome there were probably people in the churches who knew Paul and ascribed to his theological position. Therefore, unlike the other epistles that often address issues and conflicts within a specific Pauline community, this epistle is written to request their prayers and assistance in his ministry but more importantly to present them with the gospel; his understanding of who Jesus was and how the death and resurrection of Christ had brought about a new creation. While the book of Romans may open and close as a letter, in reality, it is in this book that Paul presents his most sustained and complete theology.
Source of Sin
Paul understood that a crucial part of our Christian journey is honesty with God and with ourselves. We must be willing to admit that we have sinned and fallen short of being the person God would have us be. Later in the epistle Paul confesses openly that, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). The question for Paul and for us is why. Why do we sin? Why do we fall short? Most of us do not wake up in the morning and declare, “Well, how many sins can I commit today? How many people can I hurt?” Nevertheless, Paul tells us, that is just what we do.
Sin, doing those things we hate, Paul explains, regrettably and unavoidably is part of who we are. It is not that some people will sin while others will not. All of us live lives marked by sin and death. And we must trace the source of that sin and death to the very first person, Adam.
Shaped by God “from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), made in the image of God, it was through this one man that sin came into the world. Because of the disobedience of the first Adamah, ground being, all beings who came after were and are sinners. Adam, Paul writes, made a paraptōma, a false step, a blunder. He fell way from the life that God had given to him. Therefore, to the question asked in the gospel, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2) Paul points the finger at one man, Adam. And, using the language of contagion and contamination, Paul writes that sin and death “spread” to all. We all were infected, for all time.
Judged and Condemned
Make no mistake, writes Paul, we are guilty. Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to escape making the same paraptōma, the same false steps and blunders. There is no vaccination. We cannot work hard to avoid sinning. We will sin; it is just a matter of how and when. No one, by force of will, exercise, or healthy eating, will be able to stave off death that holds dominion over us. As human beings, because we are the descendants of Eve and Adam, we stand before our God, our creator, judged guilty and condemned.
The Free Gift
Thanks be to God, Paul declares, our lives are not hopeless. Sin and death may have come into the world through the trespass of one man, but it was through the grace of one man that we have been given the gift of new life. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have been pardoned, our sins have been forgiven, and we have been made righteous as we stand before God. Jesus’ gift overcame Adam’s fall.
Medieval iconography portrays this gift in a dramatic way. In many images of the crucifixion, the cross of Christ is driven into a rocky mound. Golgotha, the place of the skull, is pictured as the tomb of Adam. Below the cross we are given a glimpse of the skull of Adam.
“For since death came through a human being,
the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;
for as all die in Adam,
so all will be made alive in Christ.”
I Corinthians 15:21-22