Two questions on Romans 5:12-21

I recently received two questions regarding two different verses in Romans 5:12-21. The zeroth rule of interpretation is to pray for illumination.

O Father, would you open our eyes that we may behold wonderful things from your word.  Amen.

And the first rule of interpretation is to never read a single Bible verse – always read in context.  Here is Romans 5:12-21 from the ESV:

“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— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, 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. Therefore, 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 the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

There’s a lot here.  We need to read this slowly and to read this multiple times.  Summarizing a larger section of text is a good exercise and aids our understanding.  Provisionally, let’s use:

Just as sin and death came through Adam, justification and life come more abundantly through Jesus Christ.

For further study, we could outline these verses to attempt to capture the flow of Paul’s thought in a bit more detail than a single sentence offers.  This is left as an exercise to the reader.

The first question:

Romans 5:15 says, “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” Does that mean more people will be saved than go to hell? What does it mean that “much more have the grace of God” than death from Adam?

My initial thought is no, this does not imply that more people will be saved than go to hell.  Jesus seems to imply the opposite when he says in Matt. 7:13-14, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Also, in Luke 13:23-30 someone asks Jesus, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (v. 23) to which Jesus responds, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able.” (v. 24) This also seems to imply that those who will be saved are fewer than those who will not be.

We can also ask, what does “much more” modify?  The ESV could be read to make a contrast between the “many” who died through Adam and then the “much more” being saved through Jesus.  But it appears that the object is “the grace of God” and not those in Christ since the sentence ends with “… abounded for many.”  If it were referring to those saved then Paul would be repeating himself in an awkward way.  Now, that’s certainly possible but unlikely.  Though the ESV doesn’t give us much help on what an alternative could be, we can look at how other translations handled this verse.

“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if by the one man’s trespass the many died, how much more have the grace of God and the gift overflowed to the many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Chris” (Rom 5:15 HCSB)

“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, 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!” (Rom 5:15 NIV (1984))

“But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.” (Rom 5:15 NASB (1995))

“But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ.” (Rom 5:15 NLT, 2nd edition)

These translations all show, in one way or another, that the “much more” is attached to the “grace of God”/”God’s grace” than to a group of people.  The NLT does make clear the meaning – the grace of God through the work of Jesus Christ is greater than the disobedience of Adam.  I believe that fits the context best.

The second question:

Romans 5:18 says, “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification for all men.” If Adam’s trespass affects all men (I agree with that), then the second half of the verse seems to apply to all men as well, right (I don’t think I agree with this)? How does limited atonement fit in here?

This is a good question – this is a classic proof-text for universalists, that is, those who would say that all (or perhaps the vast majority) of people will be saved.  It seems ad hoc to have the first mean “all people without exception” and then limit the second “all” to a certain set of people.  Doesn’t the text leave both “all”s unqualified?

First, an important point about the word “all”.  All almost never means all without exception.  If I went to a meeting at work and asked, “Are we all here?”, I’m not asking if all 6 billion people currently living on Earth are currently in the meeting room. And I’m certainly not asking if all people who have ever lived, are living, or will live, are currently in the meeting room.  The context implies a limitation – are all the people who are suppose to be at this meeting here? For “all” to be a truly unqualified and universal in scope, there are usually clarifying statements.  For example, John 1:3 says, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”  Col. 1:15-17 and Heb. 1:1-4 both reinforce this point and both verses include language to clarify that “all” is universal in scope.

Second, the previous verse clarifies the members of each group by specifying that “those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness [will] reign in life through … Jesus Christ.” The group of people who enjoy Christ’s benefits are those who “receive” him.

Third, context has setup a sharp contrast between Adam and Christ – the work of Adam’s disobedience that brought sin and death and the work of Christ that brought justification and eternal life.  And this work is done for those who are “in” them.  If we read Romans 5:18 this way:

Therefore, just as one man’s transgression brought condemnation upon all men [in Adam] , so also one man’s righteousness brought justification and life for all men [in Christ]. (Rom. 5:18 Bob’s Living Translation)

Those who are in Adam receive Adam’s work (disobedience) and wages (death).  Every single person born (save one) was “in Adam”.  Those who are in Christ receive Christ’s work (righteousness) and wages (eternal life). Not every single person born is or will be “in Christ”.  We are “in Adam” by natural birth and are only “in Christ” by supernatural birth.

Fourth, we can look at other verses that say essentially the same thing.  In 1 Cor. 15:22-23 Paul says,

“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”

If we just read v. 22 we would inclined to equate both “all”s.  But v. 23 explicitly limits the group to “those who belong to Christ”.  Again, the “all” here means all in Christ.

Fifth, we can argue by the absurdity of the contrary.  If “all” means that all people without exception are saved, perhaps by some kind of efficacious universal redemption, then a number of other doctrines and verses seem absurd:

  • The way is actually not narrow, but impossibly broad.
  • Romans 8:1 assures us that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” But there never was any condemnation for anyone regardless of being in Adam or in Christ.
  • In fact, Paul’s insistence on justification by faith apart from works in the previous four chapters is meaningless.
  • Why would Paul preach the gospel to those who haven’t heard it if they didn’t need to hear it to be saved?
  • Romans 10 contains a long argument about a righteousness that comes by faith and the necessity of someone to preach the gospel to those who haven’t heard it.  But if all people without exception are saved, this point is not just moot but actually wrong!
  • Romans 1:18-3:20 establishes the problem statement that the rest of the book answers – all have sinned and are falling short of the glory of God.  Though that is certainly less than ideal, if all without exception are saved then it’s not really a pressing problem.

There are probably other doctrinal absurdities.  Finding these is left as an exercise to the reader.

Finally, the second question also asks what this has to say with limited atonement.  Usually, when people use the phrase “limited atonement” they are thinking of the L in TULIP, perhaps better identified as “definite redemption” or some other sort of phrase.  But a reading of “all” as “every person without exception” is not just a threat to a Calvinistic or Reformed doctrine of atonement but even to an Arminian or Lutheran understanding of the atonement.  So in the broadest sense possible anyone who has a “limited” atonement would have a problem with reading “all” that way.  The non-universalist is required to limit the atonement in scope (as in definite redemption), in efficacy (as in Arminian schemes), or in mechanism (as in hypothetical universalism).  But all of that is worthy of a separate blog post.

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