Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 26, 2023

Romans 5:12-19 Commentary

Most of Jesus’ friends have a mental list of God’s attributes. We generally think of God as being loving and just, gracious and holy, patient and forgiving. But I’m not sure many Christians naturally include in their list of God’s attributes the quality of generosity.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson provides a good antidote to that by reminding us that God is a generous God. Paul makes extensive use of the language of abundance in it. Some of that abundance flows from God’s generous  heart. However, some of the abundance about which Paul talks also somehow flows from our first parents’ sin. Jesus’ followers will never fully appreciate God’s abundance until we grasp sin’s abundance.

“Death,” Paul announces in verse 12, “entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men because all sinned.” As the biblical scholar Orrey McFarland, to whom I owe some ideas for this commentary, notes, this verses poses some significant interpretive challenges.

But its gist, says McFarland is this: “Every human is trapped by Adam’s sin; all move towards Adam’s fate”. Our first parents’ sin has had and continues to have, in other words, an abundant impact on the whole world and every single human being.

But, grieves Paul, that’s not sin’s only outsized effect on humanity. Sin’s resulting death, he adds in verse 14, “reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command.” “Death reigned,” continues the apostle in verse 17,” through that one man.”

The apostle grieves how sin has been a dominant tyrant over all creation ever since our first parents stumbled into it. It exercised an insidious control over every one of Adam and Eve’s descendants. Sin, in fact, controlled even those who did not sin by breaking a command (because God had not yet given the commandments). Sin was, in other words, abundant in its control of every one of our first parents’ descendants.

However, Paul’s list of the abundance of Adam and Eve’s sinful ramifications continues. “Many,” the apostle writes in verse 15, “died by the trespass of the one man.” Christians have debated for centuries just what form the death that we inherited from our first parents takes. But most of Jesus’ friends would agree on at least this one point: Adam and Eve’s sin somehow injected something lethal into the relationship between people and God, as well as humans’ relations with each other and the creation.

Sin’s abundance continues to soil this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In verse 16 Paul laments how “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation.” In Eden, our first parents’ judgment was swift. God condemned Eve to a life of painful childbearing and a strained relationship with her husband. God condemned Adam to a life of endless work and a return to the dust in which he spent his life working. Their descendants judgment was no less harsh, though sometimes more delayed. The condemnation, however, was swift. Our first parents’ sin and sinfulness, in partnership with our own, naturally places us on a one-way path to eternal separation from God and our fellow humans.

In verse 18 Paul continues his lament: “The result of the one trespass was condemnation for all” people. Adam and Eve’s disobedience had catastrophic consequences. Each and every last one of their descendants are condemned not just because of their own disobedience, but also because of our first parents’.

The apostle concludes (at least for this Sunday) his litany of Adam and Eve’s sinful “bounty” by grieving how “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (19). Few of our first parents’ soiled gifts to their descendants are more difficult to understand than this one. Yet perhaps the one place all Christians might land is here: while many were made sinners by Adam and Eve’s disobedience, none of us are sinful against our will. We are willing, if not glad participants in humanity’s universal rebellion against God as well as God’s will and purposes.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson contains very hard words that are sometimes incredibly difficult to fully understand. That doesn’t, however, shrink their Lenten timeliness. In Romans 5, after all, Paul insists that sin isn’t just a problem. It isn’t even just an ancient problem. It’s also a kind of “gift” that somehow just “keeps on giving.”

Sin is, in fact, such a horrid, ancient, abundant, and contagious “gift” that it required an extreme antidote. That antidote, however, is even more abundant than the “sickness.” In fact, scholars remind us that Paul is making a kind of argument from the lesser to the greater. Sin is abundant. However, God in Christ is, insists this Sunday’ Epistolary Lesson, even more abundant.

Yes, says Paul in verse 15, many somehow died as the result of the trespass of our first parents. But as he goes on to sing in that same verse, “How much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many.”

In some ways, the apostle notes, the effects of Adam’s sin and Jesus’ righteousness are similar: they affected “the many.” However, while our first parents’ sin brought death to “the many,” Jesus’ obedience brought the gift of grace to the many. The first Adam’s disobedience wreaked untold havoc. The second Adam’s obedience brings untold blessing.

Paul echoes that message in verse 16. Yes, he admits there, Adam’s sin brought universal judgment and condemnation. However, Jesus’ obedience “brought justification” (dikaioma). Adam and Eve’s “gift” to their descendants is the judgment and condemnation we naturally deserve because of our sinful imitation of them. Jesus’ gift to his friends is God’s gracious acceptance of us as God’s dearly beloved sons and daughters. While humanity deserves God’s judgment and condemnation, God, in Christ, graciously and abundantly gives to it, instead, justification.

Yes, Paul goes on to say in verse 17, “by the trespass of the one man death reigned through that one man.” But, he also continues there, “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness [will] reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Sin has exercised a tyrannical reign over the whole creation ever since our first parents chose the evil one’s ways over the living God’s. Now, however, the apostle insists, Jesus’ friends will reign in life.

This is, of course, not an easy verse to fully understand. As with other mysterious verses in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, preachers will want to do their own exegetical work on it that’s shaped by the Spirit as well as their own theology. But we might land together at least here: someday Jesus’ friends will somehow reign with him in the eternal life of the new creation.

Paul ends his list of God’s generous acts with perhaps the most abundant of all the apostle’s images. Yes, he admits in verse 19, “through the disobedience of the one man, the many were made sinners.” However, we can almost hear Paul shout with joy, “through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Our first parents’ disobedience and our willing cooperation with it made a colossal mess. Yet Christ’s obedience creates an abundant beauty: his friends are made righteous, not just in God’s generous eyes, but also in our whole persons.

Romans 5:12-19 offers a word of hope to a world and culture in which hope sometimes seems like an endangered species. Everywhere we look, we see the effects of Adam’s disobedience and humanity’s willingness cooperation with it. As a result, it’s tempting to despair that sin, death, judgment and condemnation will get the last word.

Paul summons his readers to a more hopeful, cross-shaped way. While sin is exceedingly great, God’s grace is unimaginably and immeasurably greater. Sin gets the last word in so many broken places. God’s grace will get the last word throughout eternity.


In Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three: A Parable of Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, Capon evocatively writes about the parable of the prodigal son. He notes: “The first thing I think you have to say is that while you and I may be worried about seeming to give permission [for prodigality], Jesus apparently wasn’t.

“He wasn’t afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation; and he proved that by bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise pretty much the same objections you do. He’s angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue – that music, dancing, and a fatted calf are, in effect, just so many permissions to break the law.

“And to all that Jesus has the father say only one thing: ‘Cut that out! We’re not playing good boys and bad boys any more. Your brother was dead and he’s alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping’.”


Preaching Connections: , ,
Biblical Books:

Dive Deeper

This Week:

Spark Inspiration:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup