The Letter to the Romans



18. What Reigns in You


Romans 5:12-21


In this passage, Paul compares and contrasts Adam and Jesus. Adam, the father of humanity, condemned us all to death by his primeval sin in Eden. Because of Adam, every human except one is sinful from birth and under a curse. Jesus, on the other hand, is the Firstborn of many brothers, the only person ever to be born with a living soul connected to God by the Holy Spirit. He is eternally without sin and is the author of a new race-the born again-who, because of their surrender to Jesus' death and resurrection, are no longer under the curse of death.

Paul carefully explains in verses 12 to 14 a fact which many people even among those who profess Christianity deny. All humanity has sinned. Death came to humanity through Adam's sin, and no human except Jesus has been free from this inherited curse. In spite of arguments about the natural innocence of babies, the Bible is clear that all humans are born condemned to death because of their legacy of sin inherited from Adam. Verses 18-19 of this chapter state that "the result of [Adam's] trespass was condemnation for all men," and "through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners."

From Genesis onward the message is clear: humanity is intrinsically flawed. In Genesis 8, Noah is offering a sacrifice to God after exiting the ark. As God smells the odor of the burning flesh, he promises never again to curse the earth because of man, "even though every inclination of [man's] heart is evil from childhood." David reiterated this same theme. In Psalm 51:5 he says, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." Again in Psalm 58:3 he says, "Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward." Jeremiah also lamented this fact of human nature, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure." (Jeremiah 17:9)

God's prophets have never been in doubt about the true condition of mankind. All are conceived in inherited sin, and all are born incurably flawed. Without divine intervention, every human born on earth since Adam would be sentenced to eternal death. This sentence is not the result of sins everyone eventually commits, but it is the birthright of every descendant of Adam. We are born into sin, condemned from conception.

Jesus confirmed this universal truth when he said that "evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, [and] slander" come out of the human heart. (Matthew 15:19) Paul emphasized the natural depravity of mankind in his epistles. Although all creation testified of God, [the people living before the law was given] knew him but "neither glorified him nor gave thanks to himand their foolish hearts were darkened." (Romans 1:18-21) To the Ephesians Paul wrote that all of us lived among those who were dead in their transgressions. By nature, he says, we were objects of wrath. (Ephesians 2:3)

The fact that all humanity is intrinsically sinful and sentenced to death is a bitter pill for people to swallow. This reality, however, places both our sin and our salvation outside our power to control. We do not choose to be evil, nor we cannot rescue ourselves from this condition. Further, our innate sinfulness does not arise from our stubborn opposition to God's law. Our depravity is an essential component of our natural state as humans. In verses 13-14 Paul explains that even before God gave the law, "sin was in the world" and "death reigned" in the world "from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam." Although death reigned, however, God did not take sin into account because there was no law to hold people accountable. In other words, humanity was sinful and sentenced to death simply because of its inherited sin even though God did not hold people accountable for their individual sins.

On the surface it looks unfair for God to condemn people to death for a condition over which they had no control and from which they had no chance to escape. Verses 12, and 15-17 explain, though, that Adam's one sin plunged humanity into sin and condemnation. 1 Corinthians 15: 21-22 affirm that death came through Adam; "in Adam all die." If one backs away from a human-centered view of life, however, and looks objectively at humanity as a flawed race which reproduces its fatal defects, one can see that whether or not each individual can be held accountable for his or her condition, still that condition is inescapable. Mankind's inherited sin made individual sins an unavoidable fact. Even if such sins were somehow avoidable, however, the basic inherited sin is enough to render each human fatally flawed.

Paul makes it clear that mankind's sin is a direct result of Adam's choice to disobey God. Our individual sinfulness is not the result of our choice, conscious or unconscious, to disobey. Adam clearly broke God's command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (see Genesis 3:1-7, 17) Adam alone had the power to choose to obey or to disobey God. We, his offspring, do not have the power to choose to obey without the help of outside intervention. When Adam sinned, he died spiritually. and this deadness-this lack of connection to the Lord of life-is what he passed on to each of us.

Some people have tried to place mankind's sinfulness into a category of behavior or physical inheritance instead of literal spiritual disconnection from God and death. Further, many of us were taught that the law defines man's sinfulness and that the law really existed from the time of creation even though God didn't give it to mankind until the time of Moses. The purpose of this teaching, as many of us know, is to attempt to insist that the seventh-day Sabbath has been binding on humanity since creation and is still binding today. This passage in Romans five, however, clearly shows that the law was not in effect prior to Moses, and people living pre-Sinai were not held accountable for sins against the law. Rather, they were doomed to death simply because they were descendants of Adam. They inherited spiritual disconnection from God.

While it is true that God's eternal moral realities have existed since before Creation, still the law itself was not on humanity's landscape until Sinai. No one can biblically argue that humanity's sin was against the law. People were dead in sin even before they became aware of the specific ways they dishonored God. Sin and death reigned in every person before the law as well as after the law came, and it was only when grace came to us through Christ's righteousness that humanity's intrinsic curse was lifted.


The Two Men

Paul goes into detail to compare and contrast the two men from whom all humans gain their identities. Adam, he says, was "a pattern of the one to come"-Jesus. The way in which Adam was a pattern of Jesus is that he is the "head" of the human race; his actions determined the future of the race. Jesus is the new head of humanity; because of his obedience, in contrast with Adam's disobedience, he has established grace and forgiveness for all humanity and has provided a different future from the one Adam bequeathed to us. Through Adam all humanity became sinful. He was the first man, the head of the human race, and because of his sin, all humanity carries his identity of "sinner". Jesus, however, became human, obeyed his Father, and because of his death and resurrection, he now claims the role of "head" over all humans who believe and choose life instead of death. 1 Corinthians 15:22 summarizes the comparison and contrast between these two men: "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive."

Verses 45-49 of 1 Corinthians 15 further explain that Adam is natural, a living being. Jesus, however, is spiritual and a "life-giving spirit." Adam is from dust; Jesus is from heaven, and just as we inherit Adam's earthly identity, we "shall bear the likeness of the man from heaven" when we accept Jesus. Until we accept Jesus, we are "in Adam," subject to death and sin. When we accept Jesus, however we are new creatures, and we "move" to a new place; we are "in Jesus". We are no longer ruled by death and sin but by life and the righteousness that comes from God.

Paul clearly establishes the fact that all humanity is born sinful because of our inheritance from Adam. As the father of us all, his disobedience cost us our status as spiritually living beings, and by nature we are born objects of his wrath. (Ephesians 2:3) In a similar way but in contrast to Adam, Jesus has bequeathed a restored relationship with God to all who believe him. Although because of our inheritance from Adam we are born dead, we can be born again by believing in Jesus' death for our sins, and through him alone we can become spiritually alive. In Jesus our curse from Adam is reversed.

In verse 17 Paul makes an interesting contrast. First, he states, because of Adam's sin, death reigned. "How much more," he says next, will those who receive God's provision of grace and righteousness through Christ reign in life. The interesting fact of this comparison is that Paul is not contrasting death reigning through Adam with life reigning through Christ. Rather, he contrasts death reigning because of Adam with saved people reigning because of Christ. Death is not opposing life; rather, death opposes people, Because of Adam, death became a power that reigned over humanity. Because of Jesus, death became a defeated power, and believers reign in life. Sin destroys people; Jesus restores them. Death is the curse of sin. The power of righteousness, however, is Jesus Christ, and he gives his power to believers who become alive through the Spirit and reign in the same place where death formerly reigned. Death and life are not in opposition. Rather, death opposes humanity, but Jesus restores people, and they reign in life.

Another interesting fact, especially for those of us who grew up with the Great Controversy theory of salvation, is that Paul never blames Satan for our sin. Adam receives the blame. Humanity itself holds the blame for its own sin. Jesus is not struggling with Satan to make a better claim upon our souls than Satan can make. Jesus became a man to save us because mankind holds the guilt for its own sin. Jesus had to be a man in order to legitimately save us. Satan is not to blame. No mere angel could cause Adam to sin; while he was tempted to be sure, he chose to sin. We are sinners today because of Adam's primeval disobedience, not because of Satan's interference.


Reigning in Life

When death reigns, people have no lasting power or authority. Spiritually dead people have only their delusions to drive them. When they are alive, however, born again of the Spirit, they have the power and authority of Jesus living in them through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Paul doesn't say, though, that they merely have Jesus' power and authority. He says they will "reign in life" through Jesus.

The Bible frequently mentions the fact that Christ-followers will actually reign with Jesus. In Daniel's vision of the great judgment in heaven, the scene ends with the "sovereignty, power, and greatness" of all the kingdoms under heaven being "handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High." (Daniel 7:27) In his second letter to Timothy, Paul also said, "If we endure, we will also reign with him." Revelation 20:5 describes the beginning of the millennium when those who have died for Christ will be raised to life and will reign with Jesus and be priests of God for a thousand years. Revelation 22:5 pictures the final reality of the new heaven and the new earth. God's servants (the saints), it says, will reign with him forever.

Having eternal life through the process of believing in Jesus and receiving His Spirit results not merely in independent immunity from destruction. It brings with it the honor and responsibility of actually reigning with Jesus in his kingdom. In a spiritual sense, we reign with him now; we are his body in the world, and God's presence is literally displayed through us to whatever degree we are willing to surrender ourselves to his control. Even beyond the spiritual reality of our representing the presence of our King now, however, is the future reality that we will actually reign with Jesus in his actual kingdom.

In verses 18 and 19 of Romans 5, Paul recaps: although the sin of one man-Adam-condemned all humanity, one act of righteousness-the death of Jesus-brought justification and life for all men. This reality of universal condemnation because of one man's act and the availability of universal forgiveness and life because of another man's act summarizes the nature of man and the reality of God's complete sovereignty. In spite of people's resistance to the idea, all men are intrinsically evil and condemned to eternal death. The salvation of any person requires a miraculous intervention, and Jesus has provided that miracle. Contrary to what many of us have been taught in the past, God does not have to explain himself to the universe, especially us. He is asking us to trust him now as we live bound by time, When we receive our resurrection bodies and begin living with Jesus in eternity, we may have a clearer picture of God's will and his working than we do now. Meanwhile, it is not our right to know God's thinking, as if we could understand his sovereign will. Those who say God will show us all his workings among men so we can see he is fair are diminishing him. God owes us no explanations of his decisions. If we could evaluate God, he would not be worthy of being our God.

God is sovereign. He is Judge and Savior and Sacrifice, and he is Lord over our salvation in spite of the fact that we cannot understand his ways. The judgment is not for the purpose of vindicating God; there is no one whose approval God needs. Our salvation is for God's glory, and he will glorify himself through our acceptance of Jesus and the righteousness that comes from him.


Why the Law?

As he concludes his summary, Paul reminds us that sin preceded the law. We are all born condemned sinners because of Adam's sin. Similarly, those who accept Jesus are made righteous through Jesus' obedience unto death. Neither our sin nor our righteousness has anything to do with our acts. We receive both our sin and our life through the acts of the two men to whom we can trace our heritage.

If both sin and grace exist apart from the law or our deeds, the question arises: Why do we have the law? This question Paul answers in a startling way: "The law was added so the trespass might increase." But wherever the trespass increased, grace increased all the more.

In chapter 3:20 Paul already declared that the law does not make anyone righteous. Rather, he says, we become conscious of sin when we have the law. Chapter 7:7-13 explains that the law makes people conscious that they are sinning instead of being oblivious to their brokenness. Similarly, Galatians 3:19-25 declares that the law came to lead us to Christ and that it held people prisoners until the new life of faith in Jesus came.

In other words, God gave the law to wake people up from their habitual, mindless sin to which he had given them over. Without the law they would have had no awareness of needing a Savior. The law set boundaries which protected people from themselves and also were impossible for people to keep. Only when people began to understand the hopelessness of their natural sinfulness were they ready to embrace the Messiah as God's answer for their lives. When people finally realize the hopelessness of their brokenness, they then see that Jesus, the power outside themselves, is their only hope for salvation. Just as a person is powerless to prevent sin in himself, so he is powerless to get rid of it. The law, therefore, is the medium which brings people to the awareness of their intractable guilt and which prepares their hearts to receive the grace of God-their only hope.


Grace Reigns

When people realize they need a Savior and accept the sacrifice of Jesus as payment for their own sin, grace flourishes in their lives. This grace is not merely one's being excused from the consequences of sin. Indeed, grace would not be significant if there were no consequences for sin. Because Jesus paid the price, however, grace becomes a priceless gift whose cost can never be estimated. The grace that flourishes in the life of a repentant sinner is literally the presence and power of Jesus. In Romans 7:4-6, for example, Paul says that formerly we were controlled by our sinful natures and our passions were aroused by the prohibitions of the law. Now, however, we have died to the sin that bound us and have been released from the law to "serve in the new way of the Spirit." Grace, therefore, is more than being declared no longer guilty. Grace includes the literal presence and power of God living in us while we're still in our mortal bodies.

In Romans 10:4 Paul further explains that "Christ is the end of the law" so there is righteousness for all who believe. Likewise, in Galatians 3:22-25 he tells us that the law supervised us and led us to Christ; now we are no longer under the supervision of the law. To Timothy he wrote that Jesus came to save us and to show us mercy so that in us Jesus "might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him."

In other words, grace abounding involves our being released from the power and curse of the law by our acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice for us. When we accept His righteousness, grace abounds even more by Jesus putting his Spirit into our hearts, and we then live in obedience to Him by the power of his own Spirit. We receive life and righteousness instead of the conscious curse of death.

Paul ends this discussion with a comparison that is really a contrast at the core. "But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (v. 20-21) In this passage Paul compares the reign of sin with the reign of grace. On the surface, this comparison seems parallel. When one looks closely at the prepositions in the passage, however, it is clear that this comparison is not parallel; it is a contrast. Sin reigns in death; grace reigns through righteousness. A closer look at what it means for grace to reign through righteousness will help clarify this contrast.

First, Paul established in the first chapter of Romans (verse 17) that righteousness is not human. "A righteousness from God" is revealed, Paul wrote, "that is by faith." Moreover, in Romans 3:20-24 he elaborates that the righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus. All, he declares, are justified freely by God's grace that came by Christ. To further explain this phenomenon, Paul brings Abraham into the discussion in chapter 4:13. Abraham, he says, did not receive the promises of God through law but through the righteousness that comes by faith.

This righteousness, which we have seen is from God and is not natural to mankind, is not attainable through law keeping. In Romans 10:3-4 Paul explains that Christ is the end of the law "so there may be righteousness for everyone who believes." Finally, Paul clarifies how the security of having this alien righteousness is mediated in us. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:13) The Holy Spirit is the one who confirms that we have received this righteousness from God by filling us with peace, joy, and hope.

We see clearly that the righteousness which we have because of Jesus is never our own righteousness, even after we receive it from him. We can further see that God's grace of forgiveness and salvation reigns in us through (by means of) this divine righteousness which is credited to us although it does not come from us. Without the righteousness of Jesus we would have no forgiveness and no salvation. We would remain far from God.

In contrast, death, unlike righteousness, is native to mankind. We are born dead and continue to live as dead men and women until and unless we accept Jesus' death and receive his righteousness into our lives. Sin reigns in all of us naturally. In other words, sin reigns in death, because death is our natural condition. Sin is our only option apart from Jesus.

Grace, however, reigns in our lives through, not in, righteousness, because righteousness is never our natural condition. When we become righteous in God's eyes, that righteousness belongs to Jesus; he merely covers us with himself. We are eternally in his debt. Because of Jesus we are counted righteous-even though we can never be intrinsically righteous-and through that righteousness from God, grace reigns in our lives.



The law has held us all in bondage, convicting us of our incurable and hopeless sinfulness. Jesus, however, has poured his love into our hearts and has put grace in charge of us instead of sin. He has brought us to life, banishing sin's claim on us, and he has covered us with his righteousness.

God is calling you to surrender all of yourself to him. Once you accept Jesus, he continues to lead you into deeper and deeper truthfulness and surrender. Because his Holy Spirit is in you, he will prompt you to face things you may have been hiding deep inside. God is calling you to give up your ego and your secret resentments and areas of control. He is asking you to allow Jesus to cover those closed-off areas of your heart with his righteousness, redeeming them and turning those brittle places into points where his power is made perfect.

Thank God for revealing your deep and hopeless sinfulness to you. Praise him for Jesus and for his costly gift of obedience to the Father which gives you righteousness you cannot generate. Praise Jesus for the reign of grace in your life through his righteousness. Praise the Holy Spirit for mediating that grace and for being the power that changes you from a hopeless sinner into a child of God, eternally secure in his love.

Praise God for the astonished reality that he has brought you to live so you can never be separated from him!

Copyright (c) 2004 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted April 17, 2004.
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