Last post we suggested a translation of Romans 5:15ff that tried to capture its poetry. Now its time to look at it more closely.
CONTEXT: The previous passage (Rom. 5:1-11) was emphasising how Christians boast in Christ. More on that later.
v.12 ‘Therefore just as through one man…’ This opening sets up expectations that the passage will present a formal parallel between the two men. However, the sentence is left unfinished, and the thought is interrupted by an opposing thought:
1. Jesus’ work was not like Adam’s
That’s the theme of v.15-16: ways in which the two men were different.
v.15 Adam’s trespass brought us harm – Jesus comes to us as a gracious gift, i.e. a blessing.
v.16 Adam’s act was in a court setting of judgement, where because of one sin condemnation came on the many. Jesus’ act was in a setting of generous giving, where in spite of many sins, justification came on the many, even more than condemnation had previously.
Paul is emphasising differences here. Commentators who see these verses as teaching a formal parallel between Adam and Jesus, are not listening.
However, by verse 18 Paul’s original thought seems to reappear, and we learn that after all:
2. Jesus’ work was like Adam’s: but as a kind of mirror image or opposite
v.17 One man was involved in each case. Something reigned in each case. Similar.
The first brought sin and the reign of death. The second brought the gift of righteousness and the reign of life. Opposites.
v.18 One act in each case: similar.
First brought judgement and death, second brought acquittal and life. opposites.
v.19 disobedience makes sinners – obedience makes righteous people: opposites.
v.21 sin reigned in death – grace reigns into life. Opposites.
Inserted near the end is an explanation of the law’s role:
3. The law’s role
v.20 The law inflated sin’s power. But then grace grew even bigger than sin. A comparative.
SUMMARY: Paul’s boasting.
Paul says the same thing many times over. Each time he finds a slightly different way to say it. Sometimes the form of his phrase is ‘differences’ sometimes the form is ‘opposites’ – a much stricter category, and once it is a comparative: ‘bigger’. The form is a bit fluid: formal considerations are apparently not the heart of the matter here. However the content is very similar throughout, with roughly equivalent ideas occuring in phrase after phrase.
What does this extensive repetition achieve? To educate us about the fine shades of the doctrine through careful formal comparisons? I don’t think so. To read it that way is to miss the growing note of triumph, and the poetry and lyricism of the passage. This long string of statements is not to be taken as so many propositions to be analysed for doctrinal purposes. It might be better to see Paul as piling up phrase upon phrase, thinking of as many different ways as he can to express and celebrate Jesus’ superiority over Adam. And all building in excitement up to the climax of the glorious final verses.
The traditional Reformed reading has tended to ask, “What does the passage teach?” and to neglect to ask, “What does it do?”
What this passage achieves is celebration. Paul is taking time to glory in the achievement of the cross of Christ, by showing its superiority to Adam’s deed. Why do we care about being superior to Adam? Because Adam here stands for ‘sin’. I.e., we’re talking Christ’s victory over sin. This is a song of triumph. What it does is boast.
This boasting has been Paul’s theme in Romans so far: in chapters 2-4 he exposes how the Jews boast in man and in the law of Moses (2:17, 2:23, 4:2). But the gospel completely rules out this kind of boasting (3:27).
Then in chapter 5 Paul has introduced gospel boasting: we boast in our hope of glory, and even in our sufferings, and above all we boast in what God has done for us in Christ Jesus (5:2,3,11). Having warmed us up for this, he switches from talking about boasting, to doing boasting. Boasting shifts from being the topic or content, to become the speech-act he is performing. Paul launches straight into his actual boast in 5:12ff: the passage we have been considering.
The thing he most wants to communicate here is the overwhelming glory of Jesus’ achievement. By the end, we the readers feel overwhelmed by the completeness of Christ’s victory over the sin which has for so long destroyed us, and by the richness of the grace which brings us ‘eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (5:21).