In Adam All Die: Sin’s Guilt and Corruption and the Remedy of Grace

Plenary Session – 2015 Conference for Pastors

Where Sin Increased: The Rebellion of Man and the Abundance of Grace

Let me ask that you would look in your Bibles this morning at Romans 5. We will be considering Romans 5:12–21, but necessarily looking more broadly than that as well. John said last night that the root of sin is preferring anything to God. My assignment this morning is to describe from the Scriptures how deep that root is and how great the grace of God is that destroys it.

Pursuit of that dual task necessarily takes us straight into the most pressing controversies among evangelicals in our day. We will have to discuss the historicity of Adam, the reality of original sin, and the necessity of justification by faith alone, not because I choose to go there, but because an apostle says we must go there to understand the reality of our own salvation and to receive it as the Scriptures instruct. In our church we stand for the reading of the Word. Would you mind if I ask you to do the same as we honor God by honoring his word? This is Romans 5:12–21:

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.

The Monsters in Our Midst

Monsters eat fig newtons too. Those aren’t the words from a Muppet movie or Shrek the 23rd, rather it’s a statement from Irish photographer Nic Dunlop in his book, The Lost Executioner. That book documents Dunlop’s search through post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia for Comrade Duch, a former school teacher turned commandant of the nation’s most notorious torture camp where tens of thousands were tortured in order to elicit confessions that would enable the Khmer Rouge to have justification for establishing its version of a utopian society in Cambodia. And then once the confessions were elicited, the persons who confessed due to the torture were immediately killed.

After the Khmer Rouge were defeated, Dunlop entered Cambodia looking for Comrade Duch. All he had was a crumpled old photograph, hardly able to describe the man who had now gone into obscurity. But ultimately the photographer found his monster, who was more man than the photographer ever expected. He described their first meeting. He said:

The former torturer was small, pleasant in manner, and nondescript, except for the crooked teeth that matched the crooked teeth in the photograph. He was quiet in speech. He was deferential to neighbors. He was again a school teacher and known for his kindness and tenderness to his students, and, in particular, for his fondness for fig newtons.

The last observation is what Dunlop found so chilling and prompted his exclamation, “Even monsters eat fig newtons.” He was shaken by the realization of how normal humanity’s most evil can appear. How thin is the wall separating what is decent and what is despicable, what seems honorable and what is absolutely abhorrent.

Dunlop’s observation about the common cracks in our humanity are actually what Paul is describing in Romans 5. There is a common thread in our existence, that there is a grain in the lumber of the human tree that cannot be escaped, that there is a flaw in the spiritual genome that we all share. And that flaw has to be confessed against an age and a society that hates to confess it. In fact, society finds it reprehensible that we would even talk about it.

A Desire for Autonomy

The spirit of every age wants autonomy. The spirit of every age wants separation from the past — everyone responsible for their own existence, everyone responsible for their own judgment, and everyone responsible for their own nature.

Those were desires present in Paul’s age as well, without question. And so, the apostle, in this one passage, heaps stone upon stone of biblical history and doctrine to ultimately humble our hearts and make us bow before the reality that every single person requires the justification that Christ alone can provide, because we share the flaw of Adam’s sin as well as our own trespass, and there is no escaping that so long as you are human. What is in others is in you.

The Widespread Need for Justification

Paul is answering very basic questions of human existence and the first is simply this — not, “Why am I here?” but even more basic — “Why am I as I am?” Having just extolled the wonders and the goodness of the reconciliation made possible by Jesus Christ in the early portion of Romans 5 backing all the way to Romans 3, now the apostle begins to say why that reconciliation is needed by absolutely every human on the face of the planet, past, present, or future.

He first provides instruction regarding the source of our human shared nature and then begins to talk about the implications of it. Now the reality is most of you are pastors and church leaders here and what I’m going to do for the next several minutes is just take you through the particulars of this passage and ask you to look in your Bibles as I go, because even for us well-schooled in the matters of Scripture, this is complex and yet vital for the argument that the apostle is making. The instruction is simple. You will know as it begins before the complexity begins to unfold.

Sin Through Adam

What is Paul saying? Number one: sin entered the world through Adam. In Romans 5:12, Paul begins with a simple statement: “sin came into the world through one man.” Let me give a quick reminder that God made the world and its inhabitants good, but Adam broke creation’s perfection by disobeying God. So Paul then has to tell us next what are the consequences of that. Because he’s going to say Adam’s transgression did not affect him alone.

So Paul goes on from saying sin entered the world through Adam to saying sin spread through the world because of Adam. Going on in Romans 5:12, he says, “Death spread to all men.” Human death in the world is both evidence and consequence of the spread of death.

I mean, how do we know that sin spread? Well, we know in the same way that we know that any plague spreads, whether Cholera or AIDS or Ebola. You see death spreading. If the death is spreading, it’s the evidence that the disease has infected all. When Paul says in Romans 5:12 that “death spread to all men,” he is saying human death is not just a consequence of Adam’s sin; it is the evidence of the spread of that sin. God said in Genesis 2:17, “In the day that you break my word, eat of the tree the knowledge of good and evil, you shall surely die.” If death is spreading, sin is spreading.

And still a quest remains that is vital to the point that Paul is making about the nature of our predicament and ultimately the need of the Savior for everybody. The question is not just, “Did death spread?” but, “Why did death spread?”

All Sinned

At the end of Romans 5:12, Paul says, “Death spread because all sinned.” Now, you must know that’s the absolute crucial point of interpretation in this whole text. We need to answer, what does it mean that all sin, that this spreading death was because all sinned? Does Paul mean that death spread because all persons were personally guilty of some sin, or does he mean to say that Adam’s infection generally, or forensically, or legally spread to all people regardless of their personal actions?

Paul answers that question of why death spread in the verses that immediately follow. Look at Romans 5:13:

Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.

Now, do you hear what’s being said? The evidence of sin’s consequences is in the world before there is law given, but sin is only accounted for where there is law. Somehow there is death before there’s law. There’s evidence of the disease before there is transgression because of the law having been given. The point the apostle is making is that the consequence of Adam’s sin touched everyone before there was a law to break. Romans 5:14 drives the point home:

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.

From the beginning, Adam was given a rule: “Don’t eat of that tree.” But God has not yet given formal commandments to Moses and to the people following. Yet everyone who was born after Adam began to die. They carried the evidence of sin’s presence, though the law by which transgression would be measured had not yet been given.

Paul says that there were those before Moses whose sinning was not like that of Adam. They are sinful, not on the basis of a specific transgression. What then makes them sinful? Paul already answered. That was Romans 5:12, which says, “Sin came into the world through the one man.” Or the corollary passage in 1 Corinthians 12:22 says, “In Adam all die.”

I know it may sound quaint and old to talk about original sin. It is the precise point the apostle is making. Before there was individual transgression accounted for by the breaking of the law, there is sin’s infection already possessed in all the progeny of Adam. Paul drives home the point over and over again. The infection of Adam’s sinfulness touched everyone despite the fact that they were not personally guilty of breaking some particular law or rule.

They are not guilty of personal sin, yet the consequence of Adam’s sin touches them. So we have to conclude that the consequences of sin come upon all humanity because all are affected by Adam’s sin. To anticipate just a bit what he’s going to say later, Romans 5:17 and Romans 5:21 say that all come under the reign of sin. There is a new realm that’s been established by Adam’s sin. It is the reign of sin over creation. It has dominion for a time. It has power for a time because of what Adam did.

Representative Sin, Representative Salvation

How does Paul drive home that point that we share the guilt and the consequences of Adam’s sin? Look at the subsequent verses. In Romans 5:18, he says, “One trespass led to condemnation for all men . . .”

It’s important that you don’t hear him not saying that everybody’s transgressions led to their condemnation. One trespass led to condemnation for all men. Romans 5:19 says, “By the one man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners . . .” Paul uses these truths to tell us that sin, as well as salvation, is representative.

We are inextricably related to one another spiritually as well as biologically. This means that as a consequence of our human birth we are affected (and infected) by Adam’s sin, even though we did not personally commit his sin. It’s just as by faith we are provided the righteousness of Christ even though we do not live his righteousness. The parallel is being established so that we will understand how great and wondrous is the grace which we did not earn nor merit, but is provided representatively by the work of Jesus Christ.

Paul says in Romans 5:19:

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.

In a way that is mysterious to us, there is a systemic corruption of our nature that we derived from our first parents, and as the theologians have said for centuries, this means we are not merely sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. It is our Adamic nature in evidence. The fundamental nature of all of us has been infected by the sin of Adam. He represented us, he affected his progeny.

This is hard for us to accept even as you hear me now in a place where you’re Scripture-saturated. It’s hard for us to understand in a democratic society where we all want to be judged and held accountable only for what we personally do, and yet God is saying there is a reign of sin that has been established in a world corrupted by our first parents, and we exist in that world and have been affected by it in ways that we cannot turn back.

None Righteous

How do we know that is true? Paul has already told us earlier in this book how we know it’s true. There is no one perfect. There is none righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

What is that evidence of but of the spread of the disease and we see it naturally unfolding before us. We don’t teach our children to be disobedient, but they are. It’s natural to them. All of this shows evidence that there is something corrupt in our nature. John said last night, “We do not treasure God above all.” And somewhere in our hearts we know the truth of that. Every single one of us, those of us of even great resolve, of noble intention, of wondrous ideals, do not live up to our own ideals, not a single one of us.

Examine us in the darkness of our homes, in the darkness of our lives, in the privacy of our families, or even in the privacy of our hotel rooms, and we will know we do not live up to our own ideals. All became sinners through Adam. In Adam, all sinned. Ouch. And yet it’s the very point that Paul must make to ultimately give us hope in a number of dimensions that we desperately need.

Implications of Our Shared Guilt

What are the implications that would follow such instruction that in Adam, all sin? The first implication is that my sin should not shock me. Since my nature is corrupt, I should not be shocked or despairing that I struggle with sin. I eat fig newtons too. It’s my nature. It’s common to my nature that there are inappropriate affections; that there is anger and pride and greed and lust and doubt and despair. If I felt I were the only one, if you feel you’re the only stranger, the only foreigner among the Christians who struggles with sin, and you’re just weird and bizarre and helpless because you struggle, you have to say, no — there is no temptation that has overtaken you but such as is common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13), because we share this nature.

The reason I’m not blown away, despairing, doubting my creator, and doubting my Savior because there is struggle in me is that he has told me my nature so I will not ultimately despair when I see the reality of these truths in my life. I’m not to be shocked by the reality of what I’m actually capable of.

Indie pop musician, Sufjan Stevens talks about it in an uncomfortable ballad to John Wayne Gacy. Do you remember the name? He’s the mass murderer who hid bodies beneath the floorboards of his house. In the song, Steven says:

The neighbors, they adored him For his humor and his conversation . . . Twenty-seven people, even more . . . He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth . . .

And in my best behavior I am really just like him Look beneath the floorboards For the secrets I have hid

Apply enough power and pressure and privacy, and there’s virtually nothing beneath the best of us apart from the grace of God. The reality of our humanity should not surprise us. It should not shock us. In fact, it is the reality that God brings to our awareness to humble us, to show us our need for a savior. You can’t fix this. This is in your nature. This is who you are. This is the reality with which you struggle. Until we have faced that reality and been humbled by it, we don’t actually know how great grace and goodness of our God is. Humility is required for the healing to begin.

We See Our True Selves

This month in 2008, the Cambodian tribunal for crimes against humanity took Comrade Duch to the killing fields, the places where atrocities were committed by the thousands and bodies were buried in mass. At first, even as he stood there at the killing fields, he was stoic and unmoved. But then he was taken to the tree against which the heads of infants were smashed in order to terrorize parents into confessions.

And it was there that the juxtaposition of monster and man broke Comrade Duch, as the now gentle-mannered teacher had to face the reality of what he had supervised and ordered and approved. And it was like another reality. It was something he could hardly face. He broke in saying he was abhorrent to himself, hardly believing it could have been the same person.

But even though I know that’s an extreme circumstance, recognize what you and I face in when we have with the children we love, when we distance ourselves from the spouses that are so dear to us, when our lust erupts in us though we have resolved time and time again not to have it happen, when we burst in anger at the very people who are trying to support us, when the church that has helped us is now the church that opposes us and we respond in the worst of our own nature. We can hardly believe it’s us.

We think, “This is me doing this,” and we look back upon ourselves and we despair until we recognize the apostle Paul was telling us that our worst self should not shock us. This is the nature of Adam. This is who we are and it is not meant to shock us.

God Sees Us

Of course that’s not the end of the story. Even as Paul has been kind enough to tell us of the reality of our nature, he is not only telling us that our sin should not shock us, I should also recognize my sin does not shock my God. As important as not being shocked by the sin of which I am capable is, so also is knowing that my sin does not turn off my God. He does not look at the sin in my heart and my life and say, “Oh my,” and walk away.

He, knowing the worst about my nature and my trespass, looks at me and says, “You are mine, and I send my Son to die for you.” It’s the reality of the greatness of grace that a God who is not shocked by my sin can be the Father to whom I return when I sin.

If he’s not shocked by it, if he’s not thinking, “Goodness, I didn’t know you were capable of that,” then that’s the Father to whom I can return and repent. I can say, “God, you already knew this about me. You’ve known it from the beginning and so I come to you, yes in humility, but I come to you as the one that I know has already known my nature. You’re not shocked by who I am, so I come to you with the worst of it and I unfold and I dump it maybe today.” And maybe I do it again tomorrow, till maybe I’m sick of my own confession. Why? Because he’s not sick of me. He sent his Son for me and I repent again and again until the poison perhaps fills my own soul so much that I have to vomit it out, even to a God who’s not going to be ashamed to yet hold me and call me his child. He is not shocked by my sin.

Bishop Festo Kivengere of the Anglican Church of Uganda spoke of that powerful truth of God not being shocked by our sin in a sermon entitled “Christ the Redeemer”. You need to remember that Uganda is the nation where thousands upon thousands were killed in Idi Amin’s reign of terror, which was allowed by the complicity of tens of thousands of normal people seeking favors from their ruler. Afterwards, Bishop Kivengere said to those undoubtedly in his audience who were guilty of atrocities beyond our uttering, “Remember, you don’t shock Christ.” Amazing. You don’t shock Christ.

You can simply sit in his presence as you are and take heart. His grace is greater than your sin. He is not shocked by the reality of who you are, that you need to confess you are, that you acknowledge you are as you simply recognize the reality of your Adamic nature. He says, “You’re mine.” And our heart’s open to that and we can receive it again and again because of the reality of a God who is not shocked by who we are.

Pastors See Their People

One more implication for those of us who are pastors and leaders. Not only should we not be shocked by our sin and remember that God is not shocked by our sin, but pastors, leaders, remember, others’ sin should not shock you either.

Just as we remember that our sin should not shock us and does not shock God, remember people everywhere eat fig newtons too. If we are unable or unprepared to face the flaws in others, we will not be able to minister to them. It’s the mistake all of us make when we start pastoring and preaching. We believe if we say the right thing in the right way, people will do the right thing. If we do not face the reality that others are Adamically flawed, then their sin will shock us. We must recognize as leaders in Christ’s church that they will sin against each other, and that we can say the right thing, that we can present the Scriptures, but listen, if they did not always listen to Jesus Christ, they will not always listen to us.

And if they persecuted Jesus Christ, they may also turn on us. If we are not prepared for lies and accusations and betrayal and false witness, we cannot serve the people of God. We will be shocked. We will think, “How could they possibly do that?” Because they’re just like us, because they eat fig newtons too, because they’re children of Adam too, because that is the flaw in the human genome.

Right now the movie Unbroken is making an impact in our culture as we see the story of the heroism of one in Japanese prison camps and World War II. But an older book and harsher reality is Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound. Do you remember it? Lots of you read it in college. This was a Japanese prison camp during World War II in China where 1,200 internationals, aid workers, charitable workers, government workers, and missionaries were pulled together by the Japanese and put in a prison camp of 1,200. Three-hundred of them were Americans.

At some point the American Red Cross, because there were 1,200 in the camp, arranged for 1,200 food packets to go to the camp. It was the American Red Cross, so the 300 Americans claimed that they should get it all. No sin is beyond us. There’s no sin that will shock God. There’s no sin beyond God’s people, even those that we love and to whom we minister and sometimes minister to us. The flaw runs deep, and Paul is honest enough to tell us. Why am I as I am? You’re a child of Adam, that’s why.

To Dust You Shall Return

That’s not the end of the questions. As basic in the passage as, “Why am I as I am?” is the question, “Why is my world as it is?” It’s not just what’s inside me, but it’s about what’s outside of me as well. You know there is a simple instruction familiar to you as the apostle begins. He says, “Corruption entered the world because of Adam’s flaws.” Romans 5:12, again, says:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin . . .

Now you have to say, what death is he talking about here? Paul adds in Romans 5:17, “Because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man . . .” It’s not just death that’s accounted as everyone’s mortality finishes. There is a reign, a continuing process of death upon the world. The power and the pervasiveness of this reign of death must be understood in the context of course of the original Scriptures that Paul is referencing. He is of course referring to Genesis 2:17, where God tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day that they eat of it they shall surely die. They ate of it and they weren’t immediately killed.

So what is the reign of death now? What is the death that comes upon them? Well the Scriptures tell us in Genesis 3:17–19. What does their dying involve? It says:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
     in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
     and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
     you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
     for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
     and to dust you shall return.

The death of Adam and Eve is a general disordering of creation. They’re now dependent upon the dust from which they must draw their life and they are going to return to dust as their lives end. The ultimate consequence is death and a reign of death upon all who will follow them by natural dissent. Things are undone now.

Once, life was the dominating force of their existence and now death holds the ultimate sway. Everything will erode, everything will wind down. Dying is now the order of the day.

You Will Surely Die

It’s in fact the way God expresses himself explicitly. I’m not a Hebrew expert, but those of you who know the way in which God even gives his command with that Hebrew intensive in Genesis 2:17 — “you will surely die” — is actually translated most literally as “dying you shall die.” The emphasis is added by the repetition — “dying you shall die.” By eating, by trespass, Adam and Eve enter the realm of dying. They do not die immediately. They have started dying. Dying you shall die.

Their perfect existence has been corrupted and so has the existence of everything about them now in this realm of death that is the decay of everything about them. Paul’s point is simple. It’s actually an exact reflection of the Hebrew language. Our world has been corrupted by Adam’s sin and the decaying is now beginning in which all dying will occur.

Now the point that is being made has automatic corollaries that we are to understand if we are to be ministers of the Christian message. It’s not enough to say that dying has become because of Adam’s sin, that that’s the state of the world in which we live. Corruption does not only come into our world because of Adam. The corollary and the counter that is being made is that corruption did not just enter the world because of Adam’s sin; corruption did not enter the world because of the flaw of God.

Adam’s sin brought the corruption, not God’s failure. This may sound maybe quaint or primitive, but we have to say it clearly. If Adam did not fall, God did. Do you hear that? If that’s not our explanation for the evil that’s in the world, for the pain and the disease and the hurt and the torture; if Adam did not fall, then necessarily your intellect will only be satisfied by now claiming that something or someone is responsible, if you’re a believer in God. And the only answer remaining is that if Adam did not fall, God did. Either because of his inability, or perhaps even because of his evil, sin entered the world. Without the fall, we have no answer to the problem of evil. Without the fall, we have no answer for our nature or our world’s nature.

A Failure of the Creature, or a Failure of the Creator

Old Testament scholar Jack Collins explains the implications of abandoning a biblical perspective of an historical Adam who fell and by whose fault the corruption of all things occurred. Collins writes:

A major goal of the Christian story is to enable those who believe it to make sense of our world.

If we abandon the conventional way of telling the Christian story with its components of a good creation marred by the fall, then we really give up any chance of understanding our world. Specifically, if we deny that all people have a common source that was originally good, but through which sin came into the world, then the existence of sin becomes God’s fault. There’s not an alternative, unless you simply eliminate God. The corruption of our nature and our world become God’s fault if the fall does not occur as the Bible explains.

Because of the fall, I believe that the world is not as it was meant to be. I believe that God made a good creation, and therefore, I believe that God is capable of restoring it and restoring me. Because of the fall, I believe that sin and death are intruders and they are not part of God’s original design, nor are they my future estate because I believe in a God who is the creator of good things and can restore what has been corrupted not by his hand, but by human flaw.

Not only does this assurance that the Bible is attempting to give me of my faith in God give me the understanding that I can trust in my God, but it is also giving me explanation that the corruption in the world should not surprise me, nor do I have to somehow, by sleight of hand or strange faith, pretend that the evil does not exist.

Pain, suffering and evil are no phantasm. They are no creation of the imagination. They are no ethereal state to be transcended by right-thinking. Evil, pain, hurt, and heartache are real, concrete, and continuing until the consummation. I do not have to somehow blind myself to the realities of the world if I in fact put hope in a God who can restore a world broken, not by his hand but by the fall of Adam.

The Rescuer of Fallen Man

The first implication was simply this: if Adam did not fall, God did.

The second key implication is this: if Adam is fallen, he cannot fix the fall, God must. Integral to the biblical story and the message of the Apostle is Adam’s incapacity to reverse the corruption he caused, we require a rescue.

That’s what the story of the fall is about. God is giving us the account of Adam by his Holy Spirit so that we will recognize, not just our common nature, but the rescue that is our common hope. He’s going to do something about this. He makes us face the reality that if we will just open our eyes to the world as it is, it should be plain to us that we can’t fix this problem. We are part of the problem. No more than a man can cleanse his shirt with muddy hands, can we who are fallen fix our own spiritual sinful state.

God must do something and of course Christianity is fighting to say precisely that. God sent Jesus to make things right. Listen, if we don’t understand the necessity of the story components, that there’s this account, leading to that account, leading to this understanding, you must know that our intellectual and spiritual foes understand the consequence of ridding ourselves of a historical Adam and the fall and original sin.

Erasing Adam’s Existence

Here’s an old article from the American Atheist Journal. People from the other side, who surely understand the implications of getting rid of a historical Adam and original sin, tell us precisely what the consequence would be. They say this:

Christianity has fought, still fights, and will fight science to the desperate end over materialistic evolution because evolution destroys, utterly and finally, the very reason Jesus’s earthly life was supposedly made necessary. Destroy Adam and Eve and original sin, and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the Son of God. If Jesus was not the Redeemer who died for our sins, and this is what evolution means, then Christianity is nothing.

Wow. There are people following the logical path that some of us don’t want to follow. Get rid of Adam, his fall, and original sin, and Christianity is nothing. We don’t need a rescuer, or at least the rescuer is incompetent or impotent, which ultimately gets to Paul’s final argument in the passage.

The Reason for Christ’s Coming

His final argument is not just, “Why am I as I am?” or, “ Why why is my world as it is?” but ultimately, “Why did Jesus come as he did?” You’re going to know these truths.

The first reason is an easy answer. Why did Jesus come as he did? Romans 5:14 says, “Adam was a type of the one who was to come.” Jesus comes in counter-reflection of what Adam was and did. So Paul says what that counter reflection is meant to indicate. Jesus came, number one, for our justification.

In Romans 5:16, Paul says that a judgment of condemnation followed Adam’s trespass, but also that Christ’s free gift would cover our trespasses providing for our justification. In the language of Paul, it’s Jesus’s free gift of righteousness. Do you love that? Jesus’s free gift of righteousness is actually that which enables us to face God with hope again.

Death no longer reigns. No longer do condemnation and the reign of death pervade the ultimate faith of those who, according to Romans 5:17, receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness. Rather, the apostle says at the end of Romans 5:17, “[These gifts] reign in life now.” This is not sin reigning but the free gift and righteousness. They now reign. They are the new realm, the new world order that is established by Christ. Righteousness and life now holds sway for those receiving Christ’s provision.

I know this is old hat to you, but it is not old hat to our culture, nor for many evangelicals at this point who are wrestling again with issues of history and science. And we simply have to unfold the implications. If you get rid of this point in the dominoes of Scripture what has to follow then, ultimately justification, our standing before God, is at risk.

These truths are reminders of all that Paul has been saying already, that Christ’s propitiation that he was describing so wonderfully in Romans 3, is necessary because we have to be sure that the sin of Adam will be compensated in some way, not only because of Adam’s guilt but the point the Apostle is about to make is that it’s because of our individual transgressions, they too have been nullified by Christ. We can just lose sight of the significance. Paul’s identification of the source of our justification is Jesus. He is the source.

It’s his free gift. It’s his righteousness. It’s what God provides in compensation for what humanity has done. That comes from the essence of the Christian message. God has to act to fix the fall caused by humanity. Maybe that sounds familiar to you in a kind of a saturated Christian culture. It is not what the rest of the world believes.

Imposter Rescuers

Some of you will recognize these statements from others. They’re commonly quoted these days. What’s a Christian worldview and what are its counters? Stephen Prothero in his book God Is Not One simply says it very plainly, “Sin is not the problem in Islam.” He continues, “Muslims do not believe in original sin. The need is not salvation, which is something God accomplishes. Rather, it’s about submission to Allah, which is something that humanity accomplishes.”

The reason that Paul has to break us, not just talking about our human trespass, my individual iniquity, something I can make up for, something that I can correct, is due to the fact that he has to say you are a fallen creature who cannot correct the problem. God has to correct the problem. It’s essential to the human faith that God will fix the problem. Prothero continuing:

In Buddhism, the need is not for God to counter the effects of sin, but for humans to compensate for the wrong they have done when they’re reincarnated in a later life.

We make up for it. It’s the human solution rather than the divine solution. Reporter Mary Murphy, who was also covering the Comrade Duch trial so much reflected that Buddhist mentality when she wrote:

Buddhist monks I interviewed at the trial of Comrade Duch said this: “It’s our belief that you take your sins with you to the next life. Duch will come back in a form befitting his crime.” I then asked, “What sort of form of life will he come back in?” The monk didn’t hesitate. He responded, “He’ll come back a bug.”

He will make up for it. He will compensate for it. The Christian message is that God must make it right, we cannot. The apostle Paul does not teach that humanity can be justified before God by adequate human submission or adequate human compensation, but rather that God must make it right and apart from his grace, we cannot be made right.

A Gospel to Be Received

Now, having said that we are to have this message of Christ for our justification, do not forget that Paul the missionary has more than a message of justification to tell us. Why else are we told of Jesus’s work as we are in this passage? It’s not merely for our justification but for our reception.

Is it too simple? Is it too obvious in a place where lots of people have Reformed background gather, that Jesus is to be received? Look how Paul says things. Those characterized by the reign of life (Romans 5:17), over and against the reign of sin and death, are those who “receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness”. Paul also says one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men, but the idea that Christ one act of righteousness would somehow automatically save all men, would not even justify the life of the apostle Paul who goes from synagogue to synagogue and town to town and nation to nation saying, “You must receive this truth.”

Why do I say that? Paul has not forgotten his previous claims that Christ’s propitiatory work is to be received by faith. Romans 3:22 says that our justification is a free gift received by faith, not earned, not merited, not pumped up by human will or might or mind. Faith is always the catcher’s mitt, never the pitch. We receive what God has provided and it’s the free gift as we open our hearts in humility to Christ’s provision alone.

Implications for Christ’s Coming

Here are the implications for you and for me. Number one, receive him. We don’t just talk in objective terms about how this is the justification provided for people. We say this free gift is received, so we say with passion and care and compassion and the authority of Scripture: you must receive him. And we say that to our world. We’re in a generation and in a time, honestly — you and I know this is true — where mission can seem to be the ethos of a bygone generation.

But we are being called right now to say to friends and to family and to the world: “Receive him. Apart from him, you are lost. There is a savior who comes to your rescue. Face who you are. You are a child of Adam, and facing who you are as a child of Adam means you must be rescued. Receive the rescue. Acknowledge the need that you have.”

And then, of course, the next implication is not only to receive that grace, but to believe it. Believe the grace that is in Christ Jesus embedded in this grand scheme that Paul is unfolding as he goes through all of human history and to all of human history. In this remarkable, short portion of Scripture there is something that he says that as you read it the first time, you say, “Did I just misread that?” In Romans 5:20, do you remember what he’s saying? He said that there was sin and death and corruption even before the law existed. He does say in Romans 5:20 that the law came, but why? It was to “increase the trespass.”

Wait a minute, I thought the law was good? I thought the law was to keep us on the straight and narrow? I thought it was a reflection of the character of God? That’s all true. But for those who have an Adamic nature, the law becomes the barrier that we consistently, in our own actions, transgress. So what the law does is it actually multiplies the obvious need for a savior. It increases our awareness of sin. Even if you don’t accept Adam, okay, I’m not saying you have to do that, but at least look at yourself. You don’t live by your own ideals. We fail. We fall.

That’s true of us and Paul is saying that what is being heaped up here is not only the reality of our Adamic nature that requires Christ, but even individual trespass that’s now counted against us because the law has been given. That’s actually increasing sin, increasing our awareness of need, increasing our need of a rescuer, and increasing our wonder at the grace of the Redeemer.

Sin Increases, Grace Abounds

Even as sin increases, grace does what? Abounds all the more. It’s not just covering the historic nature of our corruption; it’s covering the present nature of our corruption. Even as sin increases, grace increases all the more. You just kind of see the piling up that the apostle is doing as you move through the passage. 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.

Romans 5:17 says:

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.

The theme is even higher in Romans 5:20, where it says, “Where sin increased grace abounded all the more.” And then Romans 5:21, here is the climax:

As sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

There has been a reign of death since Adam. Now in Christ Jesus, there is the reign of grace. Here’s the new realm. Here’s the new power. Here’s the new domination received by faith, as God now provides what we need to be free of the worst of our Adamic nature and our personal sin.

So on my knees at night, I say to God, “You’re not shocked by my sin. I’m not shocked by it anymore. I know me. God, forgive me.” And recognize his willingness, even where sin abounds, where it increases in my awareness — maybe not even my awareness, but by the reality of the law — that grace is going to increase all the more; that grace is greater than all our sin of every nature. So we can approach God with confidence, and ultimately, it is this freedom that is the fuel of the Christian life.

John was helping us so much last night by talking about the power of sin being our love for it. It’s love for sin over love for God. So why is Paul talking about this abounding grace? Because he knows that when we have perceived how great the love of God is for us, our hearts will respond in love to him. It’s that compelling love that controls us, Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 5:14. It’s this love of Christ for us that instills love for us. That’s the controlling path of the Christian life. As we have understood the great rescue, what happens is a great love that displaces love for sin. So we don’t just know freedom; we have fuel now, the fuel of a surpassing love for Christ because he has rescued us from the worst that we could be and the worst that we are.

Inconceivable Grace

When Nic Dunlop finally discovered the lost executioner, he told the authorities, “Here he is, the mass torturer, the mass murderer. Here he is. Look at the teeth in this photograph. There he is.” He was put on trial. What became difficult for Dunlop the photographer as the trial progressed and as he continued his interviews, was the reality that Comrade Duch had become a Christian minister, planting Christian churches throughout his portion of Cambodia.

At first the photographer thought, “But when he’s put in jail, that’ll change his tune. When he has lost his status, it’ll change.” But what was so difficult for Dunlap is that he said, “But even when he was in prison, when he lost everything, he continued to tell his former Khmer Rouge comrades about Jesus Christ.”

It didn’t make sense to someone who did not understand that where sin increases grace abounds and the hope and the help that is for the chief of sinners, of whom the apostle Paul was and you and I are, as much as any Comrade Duch.

We don’t understand it, and you have to say it’s not perfect in Comrade Duch, and some of you know that story. It wasn’t like his Christianity just immediately came on display. This was a confused and immature Christian, and he did lots of growing through the trial. But finally when it came time to enter the courtroom, he was the only one of the Khmer Rouge power leaders who was willing to say, “I am guilty.” And he apologized to the nation.

Last year’s book, some of you may be aware of it, The Master of Confessions (2014) says:

Even as of this date, Comrade Duch (the Christian) is the only one of the Khmer Rouge who has confessed guilt before the nation.

Why? Because he has a hope that’s not of this world, a hope that’s not of his compensation, a hope that is not based upon his merit, but a hope that looks with unveiled face at his sinful nature and his own trespass increased, and says, “But there is a grace of God that is greater than my sin, and it is provided by faith alone in Christ alone, my hope alone.” May it so be yours and that of those to whom you preach that Christ alone is their hope now and forever.

is senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, and the former chancellor of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America.