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The Apostle Paul did not believe that human beings are basically good people who do bad things. The opening chapters of his epistle to the Romans are dedicated to the proposition that, with the exception of Jesus Christ, every human being is by nature unrighteous, guilty, and worthy of death. “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,” Paul concludes (Rom. 3:9).
This bleak and unsparing portrait of humanity raises at least two questions: Why is it that we see no exceptions to universal human depravity? Is there any hope for sinners who stand under the righteous condemnation of God and who are helpless to extract themselves from the divine judgment?
Paul answers both of these questions in an unexpected way in Romans. Our plight as sinners can be traced ultimately back to Adam. Our only hope as sinners lies in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In Romans 5:12–21, the Apostle helps us to see how the work of each man, Adam and Jesus, affects human beings today.
In Romans 5:14, Paul says that Adam “was a type of the one who was to come,” that is, Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, Adam was a true, historical human being. While Jesus is no mere man, He is a true man. Paul here affirms a correspondence between Adam and Jesus. It is in 1 Corinthians that the Apostle provides language that helps us better understand their relationship. If Adam is “the first man,” then Jesus is “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). Adam is “the first man”; Jesus, “the second man” (v. 47). Adam and Jesus are representative men. None stands between the first man and the last Adam. And none follows Jesus, the second man. Every human being in every time and place of the world, Paul tells us, stands in representative relation either to Adam or to Jesus (see vv. 47–48). It is in the context of this relationship that what the representative has done comes into the possession of the represented.
In Romans 5, Paul sets these representative relationships under the microscope. The Apostle wants us to see how it is that Adam’s “one trespass” affects all those who are in Adam. He does so to help believers (those who are “in Christ”) see how it is that Christ’s obedience and death affect them.
Some of the most important terms that Paul uses in Romans 5:12–21 derive from the courtroom. Against the “condemnation” that belongs to those who are in Adam stands the “justification” that belongs to those who are in Christ (vv. 16, 18). The word often translated “made” in verse 19 (“For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” [emphasis added]) is more precisely rendered “appointed.” Paul’s point in this verse is neither that Adam’s sin transforms us into personally sinful people, nor that Jesus’ obedience transforms us into personally righteous people. His point here is that, in light of Adam’s disobedience, those whom Adam represents belong to a new legal category (sinner). In similar fashion, it is because of Jesus’ obedience that His people are granted entrance into a new legal category (righteous).
The technical theological term that describes this transaction involving the representative and the represented is imputation. Adam’s one sin is imputed (accounted, reckoned) to all those whom he represents. As a result of this transaction, all who are “in Adam” enter into condemnation. That is to say, they are liable to divine justice for the one sin of Adam imputed to them. On the other hand, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all those whom He represents. As a result of this transaction, all who are “in Christ” are justified. God counts them righteous, not for anything that they have done, are doing, or ever will do. God justifies sinners only on the basis of the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, which God imputes to them, and which they receive through faith alone.
The two imputations of Romans 5:12–21 provide the answer to the two questions we raised above. The reason that “none is righteous, no, not one” (3:10) stems from the fact that all human beings, excepting the second Adam, are by nature condemned in Adam. In tandem with universal condemnation, Paul shows us, is universal depravity. It is in light of the imputation of Adam’s first sin to human beings that these guilty human beings, from the moment of their conception, inherit a fallen nature from their parents.
For these reasons, there is no hope or help to be found in or among those who are “in Adam.” But hope and help are available for sinners. They are found only in Jesus Christ, the second and last Adam. Through faith in Christ alone, the sinner receives Christ’s righteousness. On the basis of this righteousness alone, the sinner is justified. His sins are forgiven and he is counted righteous in God’s courtroom. United with Christ and justified through faith in Him, the believer comes to be transformed after the image of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
One difficulty that people have often expressed with Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:12–21 can be summarized in the objection, “Not fair!” Many people ask: “Is it really fair that God should punish me for something that someone else has done? After all, no one ever asked me if I wanted to be represented by Adam. How can a just and good God possibly condemn me on these terms?”
This objection is a serious one and merits careful reflection. In point of fact, the representative relationship that God instituted between Adam and human beings highlights the goodness, sovereignty, and justice of God. The goodness of God is evident from His dealings with Adam in the garden of Eden, dealings that relate to every person whom Adam represented. God created Adam a righteous man. Adam’s thinking, choosing, feeling, and behavior were all without sin. God placed Adam in paradise and permitted him to enjoy its bounty. God held out to Adam the promise of confirmed eternal life and required him only to refrain, for a time, from eating from a single tree in the garden. It is difficult to conceive of circumstances more advantageous to our representative, Adam. Every detail of the covenant that God made with Adam reflects the kindness of God. Would we as sinners, who live among sinners in a sinful world, have had any hope of better prospects than Adam had as our representative in the garden of Eden?
The representative relationship that God appointed between Adam and his ordinary offspring also testifies to the sovereignty and justice of God. Both Adam and we are the creatures of God’s hands. God has the right to order our lives in whatever way He wants, and we have no right to call Him to account (see Rom. 9:19–20). In acting as He does, He does no injustice to us. On the contrary, He acts according to His own just character.
We should remember at least two additional and related considerations as we think about the relationship that God instituted between Adam and human beings. First, God did not institute such a relationship among the angels. Each angel stands individually before God. Some angels have remained obedient to God, while other angels fell into sin. God has provided no mediator for these fallen angels, and He offers them no saving mercy. Having “left their proper dwelling,” they are “kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6).
Second, it is through the very same kind of representative relationship in which we, in Adam, fell into sin that God has redeemed fallen, undeserving sinners. When the sinner is united to Jesus Christ through faith alone, he passes from condemnation to justification, and he freely receives the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This sinner does not receive this gift of righteousness because of anything that he himself has done, is doing, or ever will do. God, rather, graciously imputes that righteousness to the sinner, who receives it by faith. And even that faith is the very gift of God (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29).
For this reason, we as Christians look at the salvation that we have received in Christ and say, “Not fair!” We say this not with the clenched fist of anger and defiance but with the open hand of praise and thanksgiving. The good news of the gospel is that God has not given us what we deserve. What we deserve is everlasting damnation. But God laid our sins on Jesus Christ at the cross, and He counted the righteousness of His Son to us when we believed (2 Cor. 5:21). God has not given us our due. He has given us Christ’s due. He has given us blessing for curse, justification for condemnation, life for death, and hope for despair. And in doing so, He has shown Himself to be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in His Son (see Rom. 3:26).
On the day of judgment, impenitent sinners will be able to pin blame on no one other than themselves (2:1–11). They will be justly sentenced and condemned, and their “mouth[s] [will] be stopped” (Rom. 3:19). On that same day, we as the redeemed will not boast in ourselves. We will ascribe all praise and glory to our Savior, the second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ.
That day has not yet arrived. Until then, Christians can begin the work of praising Christ in mind and body, in word and work. And we can point others to the God who, rich in mercy and abundant in love, makes dead sinners alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:4–5).