Commentary on Romans 5:12-19
The Lenten readings of Paul’s letter to the Romans begin with a summary.
While it may seem a bit strange to jump into this complex letter halfway through chapter 5, the text itself begins with a little phrase that is a major bridge between all that has gone before and the rest of the letter. Paul, preacher that he is, gives his hearers a cue. He essentially says, “Listen up now. I’m going to give you the basic picture of everything I’ve said so far.” Paul, however, is not able to make the sweeping generalizations required in a summary without hearing in his own mind the questions raised. For contemporary preachers to open up the main points of Paul’s joyful summary of good news is a worthy task and more than enough for a sermon.
In the first line of the passage, verse 12, Paul states what would have been clear to his hearers, all humans sin and all of them die. These points are so obvious that one might wonder, “why bother saying it, Paul?” Paul seems to have had a couple of important reasons.
First, Paul here groups a number of terms that describe the present grim realities and experiences of human life. Life for most North Americans in the twenty-first century is not as “nasty, brutish, and short” as it was in the first century and still is in many parts of the world, even among our near neighbors. Yet, sin and death shape human life.
Second, Paul connects the sin and death of all people to one man, Adam, in order to connect the justification and gift of grace to all through one man, Jesus the Messiah. He does not say how or why these connections work, but sets up a parallel between the story of Adam and the conditions that we know to the story of Jesus and the promises we trust.
Third, death is given a rich meaning. The waxing and waning of seasons, growth, and death was built into creation. The death which came through Adam was death outside the garden, a death outside of God’s good creation. Death then is about more than the end of physical life, but about life apart from God and God’s purpose. This becomes important when we get to the final triumphant claim that grace (we might simply say “God”) is for eternal life, most fully understood.
After picking up some side issues, important but not vital to the basics of what he wants to say, Paul comes back to his main summary again in verse 18. Here he begins with a phrase akin to “so then” or “so, now.” He is taking up where he had left off and moving on with slightly different vocabulary to make his full point. The balance he sets up is between the trespass of the one that led to the condemnation of all and the righteous deed of one that leads to acquittal or righteousness for all. Now the comparison of Adam and Jesus is fully stated. Paul does not try to systematize this scheme, but rather to use it illustratively in a way that can lead to hope. In fact, the statement of this amazing reconciliation (cf. 5:10-11) or setting right is so unsystematic that it lacks verbs and subjects! Paul doesn’t carve his statement in stone, but sketches it quickly, provocatively.
He continues this main thought in verse 19 where he uses language of obedience as parallel to the righteous deed of v. 18. It is the obedience of one man that counters the disobedience of the first. The same obedience that was at stake in the temptation stories of the Matthew and Luke and appears in Philippians 2: That same obedience is akin to the faithfulness of Jesus in 3:22. It is obedience to God’s driving purpose to bring salvation to the world.
Noting that the gift of Jesus’ faithfulness and the grace of God is inexpressibly greater than Adam’s original trespass, Paul finishes this unit with verse 21. It is clear that for Paul, verse 12 flows into 21 and is completed by it. Perhaps lectionary developers wanted to avoid the difficulties of verse 20 with its reference to the law. It is a difficult verse and a kind of aside for persons who might have wondered what the law was for, if not to help humans avoid trespass. Unfortunately for us, verse 20 precedes the powerful conclusion to the passage. In verse 21 Paul again takes up the use of sin and death, here personified as rulers. One might think of them as tyrants, petty despots who had been in charge of life here. But Paul corrects our impression based on experience with his assertion that it is grace that rules through that righteousness/justice for eternal life (the opposite of death as broadly understand from verse 12), because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The whole passage ends with the full invocation of the name, title, and relationship of Jesus to us. It is the flipping over of the apparent truth of verse 12 by God’s mercy and God’s fidelity to God’s own promises and plan, enacted by Jesus. Each word reminds us of the powerful claim of this unit, that there is a Lord who is for life. This one through his righteousness, his just enactment of faithfulness to God, is our lord. The grim realities we live with do not tell the whole story of God or of our lives.