NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson XIII)
Albert Barnes has so much to say about the message in this verse it would not be practical to reproduce it all here. But in essence, he tells us that this is not an inference from what has been said before, but a continuance of the design of the Apostle to show the advantages of the plan of justification by faith. It’s as if he had said: The advantages of that plan have been seen in our comfort and peace, and in its sustaining power during afflictions. Furthermore, the advantages of the plan are seen in regard to the following: That it is applicable to the condition of man in a world where the sin of one man has produced so much misery and death. It is also a matter of joy. It meets the anguish of a fallen race, and it is, therefore, a plan adapted to man. Understood that way, the connection and design of the passage is more easily explained. In respect to the state of things into which man is fallen, the benefits of this plan may be seen as adapted to heal the maladies, and to be commensurate with the evils which the apostasy of one man brought upon the world. Says Barnes that his explanation is not what is usually given to this verse, but it is what seems to him to be demanded by the Apostle‘s line of reasoning. The passage is concise, and there is a necessity of supplying something to know what it means.1
Charles Hodge also offers a long exegesis and full exposition on this verse. Basically, he points out that scholars down through the centuries have taken one of two views. First: that since Adam was judged by God to be a sinner because He violated God’s commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then his descendants are sinners because of their relationship with him. And second: that God termed Adam’s action of disobedience to His word as a “sin.” Therefore, all who follow Adam’s example in violating God’s word are thereby “sinners.” Then Hodge says: “However commentators may differ in other points, they almost all agree in the general idea, which is the sum of the whole passage, that the sin of Adam, and not their own individual actual transgressions, is the ground and reason of the subjection of all men to the punishable evils spoken of here.”2
Charles Spurgeon then offers his homily on this text: “It was by one man’s sin that we all fell through the first Adam. Does anyone object to the justice of that? I pray, do not object to what is your only hope. If you and I had each one sinned for himself or herself apart from Adam, our case would probably have been hopeless, like the case of the fallen angels, who sinned individually, and fell never to be set up again, but inasmuch as we fell representatively in Adam, it prepared the way for us to rise representatively in the second Adam, Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. If I fell by another, I can rise by another; as my ruin was caused by the first man Adam, my restoration can be brought about by the second Man [Adam], the Lord from heaven.”3 Charles Ellicott confirms Spurgeon’s point by saying: “For that all have sinned – Rather, for that, or because, all sinned – i.e., not by their own individual act, but implicitly in Adam’s transgression. They were summed up, and included in him as the head and representative of the race.”4
F. F. Bruce comments on how death spread to all mankind because of the sin of two people: “Does this mean that all have sinned in their personal lives (which is apparently the meaning of the words in 3:23) or that all sinned in Adam’s primal sin? In support of the latter, it might be argued that human beings are mortal before they commit any sin, so that the mortality of the race is the result of the original racial sin. This seems to be implied by verse 14, where those who lived between Adam and Moses are said to have died even if they did not sin in the manner of ‘the transgression of Adam’. The construction, with the underlying thought, is paralleled in 2 Corinthians 5:14: ‘one has died for all; therefore, all have died’ – where, however, it is the racial implication of Christ’s death, not of Adam’s fall, that Paul has in view. It is not simply because Adam is the ancestor of mankind that all are said to have sinned in his sin (otherwise it might be argued that because Abraham believed God all his descendants were necessarily involved in his belief); it is because Adam is mankind.”5
Jewish scholar David Stern gives us his view: “Sin entered the world through one individual, Adam, who disobeyed God’s command in the Garden of Eden not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and through sin, death because God decreed certain death as the punishment for sin. While death may have been possible before Adam sinned, had he chosen not to eat from the tree of life, it apparently was not a necessary consequence of being human. And thus death passed through to the whole human race, inasmuch as (or ‘because’) everyone sinned. It can hardly be questioned that this says, on the one hand, that Adam’s transgression caused death to come to everyone and also, on the other, that each person deserved death because each person sinned – that is, each person dies for his own sin, as Ezekiel 8:4 says, ‘The soul that sins, it shall die.’ But how these facts are related to each other and applied to understanding the existential condition of mankind forms the kernel of my inquiry in this note. Paul himself is less concerned to explain the precise mechanism of how death passed through than to defend the justice of death’s coming to those who did not consciously violate a God-given command.”6 I would answer Mr. Stern by pointing out that “sin” is the violation of disobeying God’s commandment, and “death” is the punishment for doing so. All of Adam’s descendants inherited his sinful nature and their own sinning is natural to them. Therefore, since death is the penalty for sin, they incur that penalty as much for their own sins as Adam did for his.
Verse 13: Therefore, the potential for sin was present in the world before Moses was given the Law. But, how can sin be committed when there are no laws to break?
What Paul says here requires mere common sense to understand. He anticipates the objection that if there was no law, how could Adam have sinned? In other words, if there are no rules, then there can be no rule breakers. At the same time, Paul is offering a prelude to the argument for the need for the law. Did not God warn Cain: “If you do what is right, you can live without fear. But if you don’t do what is right, sin is ready to pounce on you. Sin wants to control you, but you can control it?”7 Even without the Law, we find out the LORD knew that the people of Sodom were very evil sinners.8 In other words, sin was not born with the Law, it already existed but needed only to wait for the Law in order to be identified as such.
Early church teacher of pulpiteer Chrysostom, Diodore of Tarsus, makes an interesting comment on this verse: “Sin was in the world before the law of Moses came, and it was counted, though not according to that law. Rather it was counted according to the law of nature, by which we have learned to distinguish good and evil.”9 In line with this, another early church scholar states: “The coming of the law did not remove sin. On the contrary, even though the law was observed and kept by men, sin continued to increase and the law could do nothing to stop it.… So far was the law from being the cure for sin that Paul even says that there would not have been sin at all had there been no law! By ‘law’ Paul means the discernment which comes by both the natural law and the law of Moses. For without this discernment, nobody would be able to call sin by its name, since there would be no way of knowing the difference between good and evil.”10
To this, John Calvin remarks: “Without the law reproving us, we in a manner sleep in our sins; and though we are not ignorant that we do evil, we yet suppress as much as we can the knowledge of evil offered to us, at least we obliterate it by quickly forgetting it. While the law reproves and chides us, it awakens us as it were by its stimulating power, that we may return to the consideration of God’s judgment. The Apostle then intimates that men continue in their perverseness when not roused by the law, and that when the difference between good and evil is laid aside, they securely and joyfully indulge themselves, as if there was no judgment to come.”11
To put this another way, the law was not only given to awaken man to the fact that he was a sinner, but also to make him aware of the punishment for sin so that he would then seek forgiveness and salvation from the inherited condemnation to eternal punishment. That’s why Adam Clarke states: “Therefore, men are not subjected to death for their own personal transgressions, but for the sin of Adam; as, through his transgression, all come into the world with the seeds of death and corruption in their own nature, super added to their moral depravity. All are sinful – all are mortal – and all must die.”12
To add some light to what Clarke is saying here, think of it this way: No matter how innocent a baby may look at birth and for its first few months of existence, beneath that innocuous countertenor the urge to disobey already exists. Disobedience is something no parent needs to teach a child, it’s part of their nature. It comes out sooner in some than it does in others. When that infant begins to show signs of disobedience, the parent then establish the law for them. By this they learn what is permissible and what is not. When the child insists on disobeying and being contrary, the parent must then institute some form of punishment. No parent should ever be misled by the thought that the child will grow out of it. Without discipline, it will only grow worse. With God as our father, this is the same scenario that produced mankind’s understanding of what pleased Him and what did not.
John Bengel points out that sin was in the world, not only after the law was given by Moses, but also during the whole period before the law from Adam down to Moses, during which latter period sinners sinned without the law,13 for the condition of all before Moses, and of the Gentiles subsequently [after Moses’ time], was equal; but this sin was not, properly speaking, the cause of death: because there is no imputation of sin without the law, and consequently there is no death.14 The sin committed by Adam, entailing evil on all, is called the sin twice in the preceding verse; now, in this verse, sin in general is called sin without the article. The Apostle is not speaking here of men’s negligence, which disregards sin in the absence of a law, but of the Divine judgment, because sin is not usually taken into any account, not even into the Divine account, in the absence of the law. Compare “impute”, or “put it to my account.”15 Sin therefore does not denote notorious crimes, such as those, for which the inhabitants of Sodom were punished before the time of Moses, but the common evil.16
1 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.
4 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, loc. cit.
5 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 133
6 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Genesis 4:6-7
8 Ibid. 13:13; 18:20
9 Diodore: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Theodore of Mopsuestia: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 See Romans 2:12
14 Compare verse 20
15 Philemon 1:18
16 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 260-261