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Expounding Romans 5

Romans 5:12-21 is a crucial passage in Paul’s epistle, yet has often been misunderstood, as a result of reading non-Biblical philosophical views, particularly Platonic, into the text. St Augustine articulated perhaps the most popular interpretation of the passage in his formulation of the doctrine of original sin. This excursus will first briefly explore the history of interpretations of this passage that led to Augustine’s dogma, after which I shall set forth a brief overview of how Romans 5 functions in the context of Romans 1-4.

Verse 12 is the verse that fuels most misinterpretations of this passage. If one erroneously expounds this verse, it virtually guarantees skewing the interpretation of the whole passage. The verse reads, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Here Paul clearly alludes to Adam, the first man in Genesis, which is confirmed by his using Adam’s name in verse 14. The simplified Augustinian interpretation of this passage is that all mankind was physically in Adam, so when Adam sinned, we participated in that sin. However, historically, the idea of sinning in Adam did not really arise until the near time of Augustine.

In researching the history of the concept of sinning in Adam, I found that in the second century A.D., the early church had no significant Adam theology, including in its views of Rom. 5:12.[1] The seems to reflect the pattern of the New Testament. Adam is only mentioned or alluded to in five New Testament passages, two of which are genealogical in nature. Of the three most soteriological books (John, Romans, Galatians) Adam only appears in Romans 5. The lack of Adam theology in the second century matches the lack of it in the New Testament, suggesting he was not a strong theological figure in apostolic Christianity.

The second century was significant, however, in that it saw the introduction of neo-Platonism into the church. Increasingly, the church fathers incorporated Platonic thinking into their theological work and thus the seed for the idea of sinning in Adam, and for the doctrine of original sin, were sown. Irenaeus took the first step by viewing the doctrine of man through the dualism of Plato. Adam was thought to correspond roughly to the universal idea of man, while we as individuals are the historical manifestations of that idea. Hence, when Adam, sinned, all who participate in the Adamic idea of man inherit corruption and death. While correctly limiting the effects of Adam to original corruption (as opposed to original guilt), this view of Adam as the Platonic head of the race would become foundational to further developing a Platonized Christian theology. Ironically, Irenaeus did not really develop a theology of Adam, making only a few comments. Instead, he focused much more on a Mary-Eve comparison, very similar to the Adam-Christ comparison in Rom. 5:18, in which the obedience of Mary reverses the disobedience of Eve as part of the plan of salvation.

In the third century, Tertullian took the next significant step, infusing the Platonic idea of the immortal soul with the Stoic idea of the soul as being a substance. This led to the origination of the traducian view of the origin of an individual human soul. In the early form of traducianism, all souls were thought to break off the father through the sex act and were then implanted through the sex act into the mother, where the soul would develop into a human baby. The logical conclusion for Tertullian was that we all are thus pieces of Adam’s soul, a soul which sinned in Eden. Tertullian, however, rightly restricted the theology to explain only original corruption in a type of an inheritance model. He expressed no concept of any actual participation by us in the first sin.

The late fourth century is where the pieces finally came together for an articulated doctrine of sinning in Adam. Of importance for this excursus, is the interpretation of Rom. 5:12 by Ambrosiaster. The key phrase for developing the doctrine of original sin is translated in many English Bibles as “because all men sinned”. This is the best translation of the Greek text, as the construction is used to explain the reason for something being what it is. The crucial point is this: Ambrosiaster was consciously aware that the Greek and Latin texts contradicted each other, with the Latin reading, “in whom all sinned”. Ambrosiaster discusses this difference and, based partly on Platonic philosophy (as per Ireneus and Tertullian) and partly on the practice of infant baptism, he endorsed the Latin version as the better textual choice. Ambrosiaster did not further develop the theology of Rom. 5:12. Rather, Augustine took the Latin mistranslation of Rom. 5:12 from Ambrosiaster, and, combined with his neo-Platonist beliefs, formulated the first full concept of Sinning in Adam, inheriting Adam’s guilt as well as his corruption. Historically, the interpretation of sinning in Adam did not exist prior to end of the fourth century with Ambrosiaster and Augustine.

It is ironic that development of the doctrine of sinning in Adam was heavily based on the immortal soul and infant baptism, both of which Adventists assert to be unbiblical errors. It would be odd, if Paul intended us to believe we sinned in Adam, that the idea died with Paul and lay dormant for over 350 years before reappearing again. The evidence strongly suggests that Paul never intended such an interpretation, for certainly a disciple of his would have kept the concept alive beyond Paul, yet there is no evidence to support such a hypothesis. That being the case, what was Paul up to in Romans 5?

In Rom. 1-11, Paul clearly argues against the views of an imaginary interlocutor who represents the position held by the Judaizers, namely that Gentiles must first convert to Judaism before being able to accept Christ and be saved (see Acts 15). Paul establishes the guilt of the Gentiles in chapter 1 – they have rebelled against God’s self-revelation through nature by making idols while knowing He is invisible. In chapter 2, Paul argues the Jews (“O man”) have rebelled against God’s self-revelation through the law (especially around v.17ff).

Romans 3 introduces a tension over whether being Jewish is of any advantage over the Gentile. Paul first answers that, yes there are advantages, yet finally concludes that even with their advantages, the Jew is still under the power of sin in the same manner as the Gentile, and thus ultimately has no advantage. This leads Paul to conclude that he has “already charged” – a reference to the body of work in chapters 1-2 – that both Jew and Gentile are “under sin” (3:9). In saying that all are “under sin”, Paul presents sin, not as a behavioral choice but as a domineering power that produces the sinful behaviors. This leaves an unspoken, implied question by the Judaizer: “How can a Jew be under the power of sin in the same way as a Gentile?” Paul does not address that question until first nailing down the basics of Righteousness by Faith in Rom. 3:21-5:11. In Rom. 5:12-21, he finally turns to expound on how both Jew and Gentile are both under the power of sin.

Verse 12 asserts that the universal power of sin, and its companion power, death, entered the world through one man, who turns out to be Adam (v.14). Adam is the common ancestor of both the Jew and the Gentile (along with Eve) and, as the last unfallen human, held the destiny of unfallen mankind in his hand. Had he stood firm, dominion over the world would not have been lost, and God could have dealt with Eve individually or even replaced her.[2] By sinning, Adam joined Eve in selling their joint dominion to a hostile power and they became slaves of sin: “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). The Greek grammar of Rom 5:12 emphasizes the agency of Adam, not the concept of sinning in Adam. It presents Adam as a secondary agent who brings this universal power-set of sin and death into the world. This is why both Jew and Gentile are under sin. Like the Gentile, the Jew inherits a standing of being in slavery to sin as a birthright from Adam. Slaves give birth to slaves. Hence, the basic argument of verse 12 is that since all humans have sinned, we know that the power introduced by Adam has spread over all humans.

By contrast, there is a second Adamic figure, Christ, who also introduces a universal power-set into the world: Grace and Righteousness. This power-set is more potent than those introduced by Adam. The “two Adams” motif of Rom. 5 is there precisely to explain the presence of a pair of dueling, universal powers in the world. Adam put the whole world under the power of sin, and Christ puts the world under grace. Grace delivers from the power of sin and leads to righteousness, through faith. Sin leads to death, as a default. This sets up, then, the two-powers motif in Rom. 6-8, and Paul’s argument that the solution to correcting sinful behavior is not human effort, but living by faith in God’s deliverance from the power of sin. Romans 6 essentially argues that, since you were joined to Christ and changed sovereign powers, act like it! Romans 5 is thus designed to explain the presence of two universal powers in the world – Sin and Grace – and functions to set up the spiritual foundation for transformational living in Romans 6-8, as developed through the two-powers motif.

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  1. Some of the key sources in this research include: Reginald Steward Moxon, The Doctrine of Sin: A Critical and Historical Investigation Into the Views of the Concept of Sin Held in Early Christian, Mediaeval, and Modern Times (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1922); Norman Powell Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1927); Tatha Wiley, Original Sin: Origins, Development, and Contemporary Meanings (New York: Paulist Press, 2002); David Smith, With Willful Intent: A Theology of Sin (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1994); F. R. Tennant, The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903); J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: Harper and Row, 1960). References to Church Fathers have been verified by consulting portions of their own writings.
  2. Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 56; The Story of Redemption, p. 36.
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