“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just 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” (Romans 5:12, 18 and 19).
Ever since Augustine of Hippo, who lived from 354 to 430 A.D., ‘orthodox’ Christianity has been pounding into our heads the idea that all mankind (all descendants of Adam) were condemned to death because of Adam’s sin. He is said to have acted on behalf of, or in the place of, all of his descendants, so that his act of disobedience was considered ‘as if’ every one of us disobeyed when he did. And as a result of this one sin of our ‘father’ Adam, and the fact that we share in his condemnation and death, a ‘sinful nature’ has been passed down to all Adam’s descendants throughout all generations. By contrast, Jesus Christ acted ‘in the place of’ all of his family (those who were chosen in him before the foundation of the world – whether that election was purely ‘sovereign’ or based on ‘foresight of faith’ is irrelevant here – and who consequently come to believe in him as their Savior and Lord). His righteousness (being obedient all the way to death) is said to have procured forgiveness and a declaration of righteousness for all the elect/believers. That is, Jesus Christ’s righteousness is said to be ‘passed on’ to all the elect/believers.
This notion of being condemned for someone else’s sin, or justified for someone else’s righteousness, is of course contrary to all common sense and all sense of justice; and as many people have pointed out, it is contrary to the Bible itself. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both made it a deliberate point to insist that no one is condemned (or dies) for anyone’s sin but his own. Jeremiah, in chapter 31, says in verses 29 and 30: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” Ezekiel deals with that same proverb of eating sour grapes in chapter 18. Verse 20 pretty much sums up his doctrine: “The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.”
This has led many people, who just naturally assume that the ‘orthodox’ understanding of Paul in Romans 5 is correct, to the conclusion that Paul taught absurd doctrines that he invented out of his own perverted mind – so we should just ignore him (and perhaps ignore all of Christianity as ignorant nonsense). The problem, though, is in assuming without question that the ‘orthodox’ interpretation of Paul is correct. I think that is a mistake, and the correct understanding of Paul in this passage turns on one short phrase: “Because all have sinned” in verse 12.
Paul said that death passed on to all men (after it entered into the world through Adam’s sin) because all sinned; and we should understand that he meant precisely that. Adam didn’t sin ‘in our place’; we all followed in his footsteps and sinned for ourselves – thereby bringing upon ourselves the death which Adam brought into the world when he sinned. Instead of Adam and Jesus being ‘heads’ who act ‘instead of’ their families, they are ‘heads’ who act as leaders for their families, setting examples to be followed. In Adam’s case, we should not have followed his example, but we did. In Jesus’ case, we should believe and obey him, and it is God’s sure purpose that everyone who was condemned through following Adam’s example will be justified through obedient faith in God’s anointed ‘Prophet, Priest, and King’, Jesus.
The creation account in the Bible, with its story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of a forbidden tree, is allegorical and full of metaphorical imagery. When God created everything, he said that everything was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But ‘in the midst of the garden’ in which Adam and Eve were placed in this story there was a tree which would give the eaters thereof a ‘knowledge of good and evil’. God said everything is very good, but whoever ate from that tree would begin to see a dualistic distinction between good and evil (for instance, ‘the flesh’ is evil, but ‘the spirit’ is good). God warned his children against taking part in such a dualistic philosophy, because it could only result in ‘death’ – a sense of separation from God and fear of Him when it was realized that we were ‘flesh’ and therefore ‘evil’. The tempter, though, persuaded the humans that God was really holding out on us. God was just jealous, not wanting us to be like Him. God knew (said the tempter) that this distinction between good and evil was real, and those who understood it would be as wise and understanding as God. Isn’t that desirable?
We humans decided that it was indeed desirable, so we ate of that ‘fruit’. In the story, we immediately realized that we were ‘naked’ (the flesh is ‘evil’) and ran and hid from God because we knew He must really hate us for that nakedness (perhaps He somehow just hadn’t realized it before, as Adam and Eve hadn’t?) – and that’s a fearful thing, isn’t it? Now the way the story is usually told among the ‘orthodox’, when God ‘found out’ what we had done, He became angry (just as Adam and Eve figured He would be now that they feared Him) and His questioning them as to how they knew they were naked was roared out in awesome indignation. I rather imagine that God instead “rolled His eyes”, and said in a gentle rebuke, “How did you find out you were ‘naked’? Did you eat from that tree I warned you not to eat?” You will note in the story that God Himself provided clothing for them since they were now so ashamed of their nakedness. And while God explained to them the troubles they brought on themselves by partaking of that dualistic philosophy, He also made the first of a number of promises that humanity would triumph over the tempter. He told the tempter that the woman’s ‘seed’ would one day crush that tempter’s head, despite the fact that the tempter would strike the heel of the woman’s seed. This was rather ‘cryptic’ in the Genesis account, but Paul gave this interpretation in Romans 16:20: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet”. God’s compassion and kindness toward His creation never changed, even though humanity’s ‘foolish hearts were darkened’ into imagining otherwise. He began to deal with us in keeping with our ignorant condition. Now that we were convinced (as related in the metaphorical story of Eden) that our ‘nakedness’ was shameful, God didn’t immediately try to argue us out of this mistake but gave us ‘clothing’ to hide our ‘shameful’ condition. God hasn’t changed, and doesn’t need to be ‘reconciled to us’. We changed, and God began to make promises of a coming reconciliation of the world back to Him.
Paul, in this passage in Romans 5, proclaims the good news that the one whom God promised to send to lead us back to God has now arrived, and his name is Jesus. In Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection, he proclaimed and manifested the truth that God’s attitude toward his creation is LOVE. The idea we have that God is ‘angry’ and has to be ‘appeased’ by us in order hopefully to win back His favor is a figment of our imaginations (as a result of accepting the dualistic philosophy of good and evil represented by that forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden). We don’t need to (and can’t) “earn” God’s favor; that favor is freely given because of who He is –it’s his very character to be kind. Jesus didn’t ‘earn’ that favor for us, either; He just proclaimed it and manifested it. We enter into the conscious realization of God’s favor, and the ‘life giving’ results of that favor, by believing in Jesus as the one whom God appointed and anointed (the meaning of “Christ”) to restore us to His favor (to the conscious experience of that favor and love which had never been even diminished on God’s part). Jesus “lived and breathed” God – fully made Him known. Adam brought ‘sin and death’ into the world by believing a lie (dualism), and we acquired the same ‘condemnation’ by following him in believing that lie. Jesus brought justification and life back into the world by believing and living the truth of God’s love, favor, and kindness – rejecting the teaching of dualism and separation from God – and we enter into that justification and life by believing Him and ‘following his steps’. Apply this understanding to the whole of Romans 5 (and particularly verses 12-21), and it will take on a whole new beautiful meaning. Adam’s sin didn’t cause God to change in His attitude of love and kindness toward men, and Jesus’ obedience did not cause God to ‘change back’ to being loving and kind. By Adam’s ‘sin’ (and our imitating him) our minds were darkened so that we could no longer perceive God’s true character, and we entertained slanderous ideas about God. By Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God’s true character has been once more brought out into the light and fully revealed. “Believe and be saved” from the darkness and misunderstanding of your mind and heart is the good news of Paul (and the other apostles).
‘In Adam’ we perceive God to be angry and vengeful, just looking for an opportunity to pour out his wrath. ‘In Christ’ this concept of the ‘wrath of God’ is taken and reinterpreted as the passionate determination of a loving Father to deliver us from our folly and sin. His ‘wrath’ is poured out on our ungodliness and sin in order to serve as a “wake up call’, because He loves us while abhorring the results of our folly. Believing in His anointed son will deliver us from even that ‘wrath’, because it produces a changed way of living. The ‘law of God’ becomes ‘engraved’ on our ‘hearts’, so that it becomes a way of life for us. So the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ delivers us from false notions of the wrath of God (the angry and vengeful God who must be appeased), and also from the true ‘wrath’ of a loving Father by changing our lives so that such ‘correction’ becomes less necessary – and when it is necessary we know that it springs from our Father’s love, not dislike or hatred.
Now that’s just a bit different than the ‘orthodox’ presentation of the ‘gospel’, the ‘wrath of God’, and ‘original sin’, isn’t it?