Paul’s discussion of Adam and Christ (Romans 5) is chiastically arranged:
A. Sin enters the world and death through sin, vv 12
B. Sin before Law, but sin not imputed where there is no law, v 13
C. Transgression of Adam v free gift vv 14-16
D. Death reigned/reign in life, v 17
C’. Transgression and act of righteousness, vv 18-19
B’. Law came in, v 20
A’. Sin : death; righteousness : life, v 21
The text centers on a regime change. We expect a shift from death to life, from sin to righteousness. Instead, what we find is a contrast between Adamic death and “the reign in life” of “those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17).
The reign of death gives way to the reign of the saints. This fits with Paul’s presentation of the gospel at the beginning of Romans. The gospel is a royal announcement about the enthronement of Jesus. In Romans 5, Paul shows that Jesus fulfills man’s original royal vocation, and that we fulfill that vocation in Him.
There’s a lot going on in Romans 5. Let me highlight a couple of issues. First, what is the relationship between Adam’s sin and ours? Romans 5:12 has been the locus classicus for the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin, and has also been used to support other theories of the transmission of original sin.
In a concrete sense, all humanity is punished for Adam’s sin. Adam, after all, was the only one who ate the forbidden fruit, yet Cain, Abel, Seth and everyone else was excluded from Eden. In his capacity as first and representative man, Adam acted for us all, and we all suffer because of his action. That’s what Paul means when he talks about the condemnation of all that results from the sin of Adam (5:16, 18).
But I don’t think Romans 5:12 describes this as an imputation. Rather, I take the ‘eph ‘o to mean “with the result that.” At the beginning of verse 12, Paul says that Adam’s sin ushers death into the world; it’s sinàdeath. Once death is at large in the world, the order reverses; when death spreads, the result is that all sin. It’s deathàsin.
What sense can we make of this? In my Delivered from the Elements of the World, I filled out this idea by invoking the work of Richard Beck, especially his The Slavery of Death. It’s fear of death, and fear of death-like loss, that moves us to sin. We lash out in violent self-protection because we don’t want to be diminished. We lie and cover up and scapegoat because we don’t want our reputation to suffer loss.
To overcome sin, Christ overcomes death, putting death to death on the cross, conquering death by rising again. His Spirit kills the death that inhabits us, so that we can walk in newness of life.
Paul does explicitly speak of imputation in Romans 5, but it’s not the imputation of Adam’s sin. It’s the non-imputation of sin before the law (that is, the Torah) and the implied imputation of sin that comes into effect after the law.
This comment about the law is crucial to Paul’s argument. Romans is about the righteousness of God, and explains how the justice of God triumphs not only over sin, but in the face of Israel’s failure and the impotence of Torah. Like Romans 7, Romans 5 is part of Paul’s theology of Torah.
What does it mean for sin to be imputed? Sometimes, it means that someone other than the sinner suffers the consequence of the sin. But in Torah, the imputation-like language is used even when the sinner himself suffers for his sin. “Their bloodguilt will be on them” means “their sin will be charged to them.” Well, of course it will, since they did the sin. But the Torah treats the imposition of guilt as something distinguishable from the act itself.
Before the law, sin isn’t imputed. The bloodguilt isn’t on them. Or, as Paul says in regard to the Old Testament era as a whole, God overlooks or “winks at” sin. People sin. They’re guilty before God. But that sin isn’t counted against them, not in the way it’s counted once the law comes into effect. Under the law, sin isn’t just sin; it becomes “transgression,” a sin in the likeness of the sin of Adam, defiant and high-handed sin.
Paul is setting up for his later argument in a couple of ways. First, he’s showing that Torah doesn’t and can’t solve the problem of sin. It rather intensifies the problem, because under the law sin is imputed, charged as transgression.
But, second, the Torah introduces mechanisms for imputation of sin from the sinner to a substitute. Under Torah, a worshiper can put his sin on the head of a bull, a priest can lay the sins and uncleannesses of Israel on the head of the scapegoat.
Before the law, sin was not imputed; that’s bad news, because we need our sins to be imputed to a sin-bearer. We won’t escape death unless bloodguilt is on someone other than we. Torah doesn’t save, but Torah sets up the institutional framework within which the justice of God can be revealed.
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