Therefore, just as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. —Romans 5:18-19
In the Bourne movies, Jason Bourne is trying to find out who he is. He comes to realize he’s a bad guy with a dark background. You and I are like that. We have a past, deeper than we know. There’s something about us we’ve lost touch with, but it explains the pain we all experience and it points the way to the only hope we’ll ever know. Here’s the key: We are more evil than we ever feared and much more loved than we ever dreamed. That’s the message of Romans 5:12-21.
This passage is not easy to understand. We’re working our way through Romans. We want to understand the gospel. We’re a gospel-centered church where anyone can meet with God and grow. So we’re digging down into Romans with our mental jackhammers. We’ve dug all the way down through 5:11, and all of a sudden here in 5:12 we hit bedrock. It doesn’t get any deeper than Romans 5:12-21.
Do you notice that the word “we” never appears here? Neither does the word “you.” Neither does Paul apply this to our lives. He doesn’t tell us what to do or what not to do. Paul wants to show us something bigger than ourselves. This passage is not one more piece for us to fit into the puzzle. This passage is the picture on the front of the box by which we know where to put all the various pieces. Romans 5:12-21 is the key insight with which we can understand ourselves and Christ.
God is talking about two things here. One, we are more evil than we ever feared. Two, we are much more loved than we ever dreamed.
We are more evil than we ever feared
Our world tells us its version of who we are. It tells us we’re autonomous individuals, that we can define ourselves out of ourselves with complete independence. We’re told that we have such potential that we can become whatever we choose, whatever we choose is okay, and we can accomplish anything, given enough opportunity and the right information. We’re told that we’re basically good, and it’s society that holds us back.
Now that’s a flattering theory, it’s been dominant in Western culture for about 300 years, and it’s beaten into us constantly. But it doesn’t account for the evil we see every day. Evil is a reality we’re adjusting to all the time – every time we lock our cars. We see whole civilizations rise and fall in history, we see so much that frightens us today, but the popular theory about how wonderful we are can’t explain to us why the world is so bad. Woody Allen at least knows how to ask the question:
I always see the death’s head lurking. I could be sitting at Madison Square Garden at the most exciting basketball game, and they’re cheering and everything is thrilling, and one of the players is doing something very beautiful – and my thought will be, “He’s only twenty-eight years old and I only wish he could savor this moment in some way, because, you know, this is as good as it’s going to get for him.” . . . The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless. As Camus wrote, it’s not only that he dies or that man dies, but that you struggle to do a work of art that will last and then realize that the universe itself is not going to exist after a time. Until those issues are resolved within each person – religiously or psychologically or existentially – the social and political issues will never be resolved, except in a slapdash way.
Romans 5:12-21 is no slapdash theory. It is profound. But the basic message is simple. At the center of the human story are two men, Adam and Jesus, and the drama each played out counts for others.
Adam was the head of the human race. Every one of us came from Adam. He is relevant to every one of us. Here’s how. God put Adam in the Garden of Eden with two clear commands. One, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16). In other words, “You like it, Adam? Go for it!” God’s first command was positive and, in the Hebrew text, emphatic: “You shall surely eat . . . .” Two, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16). God gave Adam so much freedom, so much room to thrive. God gave Adam an abundant new world, with just one restriction so that Adam could walk in humility before God. God spelled it out clearly. Adam knew God’s will for his life.
What did Adam do about it? He looked around and thought, “Yeah, right. This beautiful garden is a con. That tree of life over there is really a tree of death. I touch that, I’m a goner. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil over here – it’s the tree of life. God is holding out on me. But I know better. I know what to do.” That’s how Adam started thinking. He didn’t trust God. He turned reality inside out, redefining everything, making himself the center. He disobeyed God and stepped outside the circle of God’s blessing, where he met a surprise – called death.
But Adam wasn’t acting for himself alone. As the first man, Adam was acting before God as the representative of the human race. When he broke from God, he pulled all of us down with him into sin and death. God wrote the drama of human history with Adam standing in for all of us. If you’re a child of Adam, just because you’re a child of Adam, you have a problem: sin and death. It’s why you can’t save yourself by being a nice person. Your problem is too deep. It began in the Garden of Eden. Bob Dylan said it well: “I was born already ruined, stone-cold dead as I stepped out of the womb.” So there’s the first of these two human figures towering over the whole human story – Adam.
The second decisive man is Jesus. He was not born into a Garden of Eden. His world was a mess, like our world today. But Jesus did trust God. He humbled himself. He obeyed God. He never sinned, not even a little bit, not for one nanosecond, the whole length of his life. Jesus said, “I always do the things that are pleasing to [the Father]” (John 8:29) – and he said that with no spiritual pride. And Paul is saying in Romans 5:12-21, through Adam we all have a problem. We’re stuck in sin and death, we’re born into it, we can’t leverage ourselves out of it. But in Jesus we have a Savior and a remedy – righteousness and life. And – this is crucial – Jesus did not merely offset the damage Adam did. He more than made up for it, much more. You see the words “much more” in verses 15 and 17, and you see the words “all the more” in verse 20. If our connection with Adam would drag us down 1000 miles into hell, connection with Jesus does not lift us 1000 miles into heaven but catapults us 1000 gazillion light years up into heaven. Jesus is a more powerful Savior than Adam was a powerful ruiner. As Richard Sibbes the old Puritan said, “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.” Not enough mercy but more than enough mercy, much more, much more, all the more.
So Romans 5:12-21 challenges, on a massive scale, how we think. It is not true that we can define ourselves all over again, in every generation. Back in the 60s my friends and I had an exaggerated sense of destiny, as if we could change the world. We couldn’t. And the problem wasn’t The Establishment, as we thought. It was deeper. The powers of sin and death were too strong for us. We’ve proven since that we too are carriers of those dark powers the same as everyone else. We weren’t the hope of the world then, and neither is anyone today.
But God has not abandoned us. God has not forsaken us. God has acted for us in Christ. There are two human figures towering over the human race. Adam, by his one sin, doomed us all. Adam is why history is littered with the wreckage of human lives, including you and me. But now there’s Jesus too. He lived the perfect life we’ve never lived, to fulfill human destiny, he died the guilty death we deserve to die, to absorb human guilt, and through his resurrection he burst on the human scene as the one and only Power for life greater than all the powers of death combined. All our sin and evil and despair couldn’t hold him down. He rose up from it all. And right now, today, he is pouring out his super-abundant grace on guilty sinners, creating a new culture of life right here in this world, and his kingdom will last forever. The Bible says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Two men heading two very different realms – one a dark world of evil and death and despair, the other a bright new world of forgiveness and hope and life and power and joy. Every member of the human race stands within one domain or the other. That is what God wants us to see. Paul summarizes the whole vision in verses 18-19: “Therefore, as one trespass [in the Garden of Eden] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness [the life of Christ] leads to justification and life for all men. 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.” That’s the big picture, that’s the human story on an epic scale found only in the Bible. The question is, where are you in that picture? Are you still in Adam, where you were born, or are you now in Christ?
Let’s press into it further. Let’s have the courage to look at the gospel and look at ourselves more deeply than ever before. When the Bible says that we all sinned in Adam, that his one trespass led to condemnation for us all, that is the doctrine of original sin. “Original sin” doesn’t mean there’s anything original or creative about sin. The Bible is saying that we are sinful in our origins. Sin is not primarily what we do; it poisons what we are. It’s a natural flaw we inherit just by our descent from Adam.
That seems unfair, doesn’t it? Why should we be tainted and judged for what someone else did? But inherited sin sets the stage for inherited righteousness. So can we hold our emotional horses long enough to think it through? Paul thought it through, and he was helped. The Bible is saying to us all – and this doctrine is very democratizing, because original sin is equally distributed, no one is better than another – the Bible is saying to us all, “You don’t catch sin the way you catch the flu. You were born with a bent toward evil. You have inherited guilt for what Adam did. It’s why you’re going to die. You are under God’s just condemnation for being a carrier of this flaw. Human beings like you are not acceptable to God, not fit for heaven, not right with God. Adam ruined the whole human race.” And we think, “He can’t do that to me. I’m an American citizen!” We think, “Adam has nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there. It’s not my fault. And I haven’t done any really bad things. I’m a good person. I’ve tried hard. God has to be okay with me.”
Not according to the Bible. God helps us to see that sin is deeper than behavior. The sin in me and you is more like a birth defect than a personal choice. It’s like an addiction or a bias or a reflex or a parasitic infection that kills our ability to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Sin goes down to the root of what we are by now. Do you have free will? Yes, to an extent. You can choose what you want. But you can’t change what you want. And you don’t want too much of God. You want God around, especially for the hard times. But you don’t want him to take over your whole life. You know you feel that way. But do you know why you feel that way? God is not the problem. Sin has cut the nerve of your desire for God. He doesn’t feel like oxygen to you, though in fact he is. And how can you desire what you don’t desire? It’s like trying to jump out of a hole that has no bottom. With this teaching about original sin, the Bible is alerting you to your true condition before God. The Bible wants you to know how merciful God has been at that deep level you can’t touch and don’t even want to face. God has much more mercy for you there.
So I ask you to give the doctrine of original sin a fair hearing. It explains a lot. After all, if we’re basically good, why is the world so bad? If we’re basically good, why have you never met one perfect person in all your life? And if someone came up and said to you, “I’m perfect,” why would you automatically think that person was crazy? Why don’t you wake up every morning thinking, “So maybe today I’ll finally meet that perfect human being who will rub off on me and then I’ll be perfect too”? If goodness is the deepest part of us and therefore inevitable, where is all the evil coming from? And if your answer is that society is the culprit, that society is ruining us, then I want to know, why haven’t we wonderful people ever created the perfect society? Who do we blame then? The gospel is telling us that when we were born, it’s as if we inherited an estate. God created it long ago a beautiful mansion. But by now it’s in bad repair, and it has a huge mortgage on it. We’re born into that debt, more debt than we can pay. And by our own personal sins, our own personal choices, we’re adding to our debt every day. That’s the bad news of Romans 5:12-21. We are more evil than we ever feared.
We are much more loved than we ever dreamed
God is more merciful to us than we have been offensive to him – much more. And here is what God wants you to know today. Just as you are guilty with Adam’s disobedience, you can be righteous in the sight of God with Christ’s obedience to your credit. In Adam, you’re guilty. But everyone who comes into Christ instantly becomes innocent and fully righteous before God not for what they do but for what Christ did. Verse 20 tells us how big this is, how far God is willing to go, how amply God has provided: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And your part? All you need to do is stated in verse 17: “Much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”
Think of the cross. Sin increased there. The only perfect man in our whole wretched history we rejected and shamed and mocked and spit on and flogged and crucified. He wasn’t good enough for us. Our sin increased at the cross. And there, there above all else, grace abounded all the more. You don’t have to clean up your life first. Your obedience is wonderfully superfluous. It’s Christ’s obedience that counts with God. All you need is to be willing to admit you’re a sinner who needs a Savior. Verse 19: “By the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Is there any reason for you not to become one of those many? There is room there for you. No matter how massively you have sinned, you can be beautiful in God’s sight today. Verse 16: “The free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” No one has ever out-sinned the power of the cross to justify. Where sin increased, there grace abounded all the more.
Are you willing to be forgiven? Throw down your rebellious arguments, surrender to Christ, receive the hand of friendship he holds out to you, and this very moment his grace will abound over you. You will leave this church completely pardoned, to begin a new life with grace reigning over you, leading you to eternal life. Grace will not just edge out your sin. The grace of God will abound over your sin.
If you’re a well-taught Christian, you’ve never been too well taught about the grace of God. I wish you were as well instructed in his remedy as you have been in your disease. I wish you would embrace as clear a view of his righteousness for you as you have of your sins against him. Christ is a massive Savior. Believe it. Glorify him by believing his glory. Let your full weight down on him. And you will experience him.
If you’re a discouraged person who always looks on the dark side of things and is always looking for loopholes, which really is your own way of making excuses and shifting blame, because you so deeply fear the wrath of God and you push away his comforts and assurances. This verse is for you: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The instant you believe it, even feebly, God raises his pen and strikes out the long list of all your sins, and he writes on your page “Righteous in Christ.”
The Lord Jesus Christ is the end of evil and the beginning of a whole new world, where grace reigns. This is the gospel. Will you believe it and come into Christ today?