Four key questions will help clarify the overall meaning of Romans 5:12-21.*
Q1: What is the purpose of the passage relative to the immediate context of chapter 5 and the rest of Romans as a whole?
Q2: Does this passage teach the doctrine of original sin?
Q3: What is the scope of the words many and all as they are used in this passage?
Q4: Does this passage teach universal salvation?
The answers to these four questions will remove some of the “problems” of interpreting this passage.
(*These questions do not originate with me. They were formulated by Dr. Jack Cottrell, retired professor of theology. In fact, much of my understanding of Romans has resulted from his previous work.)
Historically, this passage of Scripture has presented theological and exegetical challenges. That is, how the passage should be interpreted and what does it mean. No doubt, it can be somewhat confusing. However, once four key questions are answered, the passage becomes very clear.
This passage is foundational to teaching what is commonly known as Original Sin. Since Augustine in the fifth century, and reinforced by nearly all of the Reformers, this text has been used to justify the doctrine that everyone is born totally depraved, guilty, and condemned to hell because of Adam’s sin.
While used for this justification, it is ironic that this passage actually teaches the exact opposite. Paul is not teaching original sin but original grace. When the four key questions are answered relative to what the passage actually says, Paul’s point becomes clear.
A Continuation of Assurance
When you see – as seems obvious – that the context of 5:12-21 is a continuation of 5:1-11, relative to the previous chapters, the argument is obvious.
Paul is continuing to present his comparisons and contrasts between law on the one hand and grace on the other. Two opposing views. One compared to the other. General/Moral Revelation vs. Special Revelation. Law vs. Grace. Works vs. Faith. Enemies vs. Family. And now, Adam vs. Jesus. It’s seems simple enough but why do so many get it wrong and continue to emphasize a point Paul is not making? Good question. These four key questions will help to answer the one.