Commentary on Romans 5:12-19
Romans 5:12-21 is a fitting place to start in Lent. Paul reflects on the problem of sin and its answer in God’s grace. At the heart of this passage is Paul’s exploration of both the similarity and contrast between Adam and Christ. I encourage preachers not to run through the gift language, which can seem like rhetorical excess, but to see how Paul uses his terminology to underscore that God’s grace in Christ is given to unfitting recipients.
The problem (5:12-14)
Although there are important interpretive questions in verse 12, the gist is straightforward: every human is trapped by Adam’s sin; all move towards Adam’s fate. In verse 13, Paul introduces the Law: sin existed before the Law, yet God did not hold humans accountable until after the Law was given. Sin, therefore, exists before the Law; it affects those who seek obedience to the Law; and it cannot therefore be the solution to sin. Even before the giving of the Law, the sin-death relationship still held: “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (English Standard Version). In verse 14, Paul sets forth the defining relationship of his argument: Adam is “a type of the one who was to come.” In being the problem, Adam points to the solution. Adam and Christ bear a positive resemblance: both affect all of humanity, but to different ends.
Adam and Christ (5:15-19)
In this middle section, Paul explores the similarity-in-contrast between Adam and Christ: they are two figures, typologically related, who have different effects on humanity. The opening line of 5:15 should likely be read as a question: “But is the gift not like the trespass?” The implied answer is “yes, the two are not alike.” Most commentators agree that “trespass” refers to what Adam did. But the word “gift” (charisma) is a surprising parallel—one might expect a word referring to Christ’s obedience—but there is good reason to read this as a balanced comparison.. Paul’s similar comparisons in 5:18-19 can help to interpret 5:15: Christ’s righteous act, obediently dying on the cross, is his gift. Thus, we see here that the “gift” is like the “trespass” insofar as both refer to what Adam and Christ have done; but they are entirely unlike each other in their results. One brings condemnation and death; the other brings justification and life.
Gift language is plentiful in this passage. Paul speaks of the “free gift” (verses 15, 16), the “grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ” (verse 15); and the “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (verse 17). But this is not mere rhetorical excess. For example, in verse 15 the “grace of God” speaks to God’s gift of Christ (see also Romans 8:32), while “the free gift by the grace” of Jesus refers to the gift of righteousness in Christ’s self-giving. The word translated as “free gift” gets further defined in verse 17 as “the free gift of righteousness.” Thus, righteousness is the gift given in the gift of Christ’s death and resurrection.
There are, quite literally, gifts within gifts, and Paul is emphasizing the sheer abundance of God’s giving of Christ, Christ’s self-giving, and the life and righteousness found within this grace (see also 3:24). For Paul, God’s grace abounds because it is a gift given precisely to those who are not worthy of it. Verse 16 makes this clear: the judgment declared against Adam’s sin rightly brought condemnation; the verdict fit the crime. However, the “free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” Both judgment and gift come from God, but one comes as a fitting response, the other an incongruous response. Indeed, Paul proclaims, literally, that the gift came “from (ek) many transgressions”—“out of them.” The gift of Jesus is God’s response to sin; it unfolds in the midst of that sin to defeat it, and the gift is given despite its recipients’ unworthiness.
If verses 15-17 showed a similarity-in-contrast, verses 18-19 drive home the stark dissimilarity between Adam and Christ’s actions and effects: as all are condemned and made sinners in Adam, in Christ all are justified.
The reign of grace (5:20-21)
Although these verses are not included in the lectionary reading, they are worth including: they reintroduce earlier themes and drive the Adam-Christ distinction to its climax.
The Law dropped from the scene after verse 13. Paul here reintroduces the Law, declaring that it “slipped in” to “increase the trespass.” Sin came through Adam, but the Law aggravates that sin. For Paul the Law was not the antidote to sin: it gives knowledge of sin (3:20) and sin works death through the Law (7:5, 8-13), but it does not fix sin. What matters most to Paul is that the site of the Law’s aggravation of sin is the very place where “grace abounded all the more.” When Paul speaks of grace abounding in the past tense, he has in mind the death and resurrection of Christ. Adam sinned; all humans are trapped in and participate in sin; the Law intensifies sin; and this is the exact place where God’s grace breaks through to bring eternal life to dying sinners. The old king is displaced and a new regime installed: this King freely gives the gift of righteousness so that all who receive may have eternal life under his reign.
In Romans 5:12-21, Paul portrays the drama of salvation with two main actors. Adam’s disobedience brought sin and death into the world; Christ’s obedience gives righteousness and life to all caught in sin. The Law aggravates sin, setting the quality of God’s grace in stark relief. As already noted, the passage is full of gift-language, because Paul is trying to impress three big ideas on his readers: First, the gift is Christ and is found in Christ (righteousness). God’s grace is not abstract favor but the person and work of Christ for sinners. Second, humans do not receive God’s grace because they were worthy of it; indeed, the gift is entirely incongruous to its recipients, who receive it, because they are sinners in need (see also 5:16). Third, because all of this is true, Paul highlights how excessive the gift is: it must be a truly extravagant generosity that leads to eternal life.