Lent 1 · Romans 5:12-19 · February 10, 2008
By Erik Herrmann,
With Lent’s traditional emphasis on repentance and self-denial, the season runs the risk of turning one inward. That is to say, the danger lies in seeing Christ and His cross from the perspective of our personal piety and penance rather than the other way around. This reading from Romans sets our Lenten meditations aright. Universal in its scope and Christocentric in its orientation, this text requires us to understand our own life, history, and future against the vast landscape of redemptive history—a panorama stretching from the beginning of the world to the new creation. It is said that there are some books that you read, and there are some books that read you. Romans is surely the latter.
In this case, Paul reads to us our history through the lens of two men: Adam and Christ. Both stand as the head and representative of the human race. Both perform deeds that have far-reaching, indeed universal, consequences. The contrast of the two figures encompasses the entirety of our situation. They are the beginning and end of human history.
Previously, Paul argued for the universal sinfulness of all people, Jew and Gentile alike, so that the free gift of God’s righteousness might be clearly known through the Gospel of Christ. The experience of the Law’s condemnation is the basis for this argument, whether that be the Law as given through Moses or that which is written on the heart: all are without excuse, there is no one who does good, all fall short of the glory of God. Now, he revisits this theme, tracing the story beyond universal experience to the cosmic catastrophe that began with the first man.
Adam’s trespass was the entrance of sin into the world and the beginning of the dominion of death. All people thereafter have been beneath its sway: the inescapable reality of life is that it ends. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but in the history of the sons of Adam, one kingdom appears invincible: “death reigned.”
Death reigned, that is, until “the one who was to come.” While Adam’s deed brings judgment, condemnation, and death, Christ brings grace, justification, and life. However, this does not mean we are talking about two essentially equal archetypes. Paul takes great care to affirm that the first Adam is hardly to be compared to the Second Adam—”the free gift, is not like the trespass.” Christ is not Adam redivivus. He is the promised “one who was to come,” the eschatological Son of God, and what Christ has accomplished is exceedingly more powerful, with a far more miraculous effect. Adam’s sin ushered in the dominion of death, but Christ’s free gift of righteousness restores man’s created dominion, who now “reigns in life” through Him. Grace not only counters Adam’s trespass, but the trespasses of all people, resulting in justification.
The “obedience” of Christ through which many are made righteous (v. 19) should probably not be limited to the post-Reformation doctrine of Christ’s active obedience, i.e., Christ’s substitutionary fulfillment of the Law. Paul is stressing the impact of the single act: the “one trespass” that resulted in the condemnation of all people versus the “one act of righteousness” (ενός δικαιώματος) that leads to justification and life for all people (v. 18). Christ’s obedience is to His Father and finds complete expression as He yields Himself up to death (Php 2:8; cf. FC Ep, III). While this act of obedience remains extra nos—outside of us—it nevertheless incorporates and comprehends us all. “One died for all. Therefore all have died” (2 Co 5:14). The sinner has died with Christ. And as Paul will go on to say later, “For the one who has died is freed from sin” (Ro 6:7). Sin—all sin—has been crucified with Him. Of course, the death of the old Adam through the death of the New is only Gospel when death does not have the last word. Freedom from sin can only benefit the living. Therefore, the culmination of the story must be the resurrection: Christ’s and ours.
In these verses, we are given a wide-angle perspective on salvation, but not so that we are left merely as spectators. Paul’s sweeping view is necessarily mapped out in our personal lives in which we come to see Christ and ourselves rightly. When John Donne, the English poet, was deathly ill, stretched out on his bed as a “flatt Map,” attended by cosmographer-like physicians, it was precisely in the landscape and “geography” of Romans 5 that he found hope:
We think that Paradise and Calvarie,
Christs cross and Adams tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adams sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adams blood my soul embrace.