Sunday School Notes: Romans 5:18-21

18 Therefore then, as through one act of transgression came punishment to all men, in the same way also through one act of  righteousness came justification of life to all men. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, in the same way, through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. 20 And the Law came in so that the transgression may increase; and where sin increased, grace overflowed, 21 so that just as sin reigned in death, in the same way also grace may reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This week the study group finished up chapter 5 of Romans, where Paul seems to be summing up (and perhaps completing) the comparisons he has been making or suggesting in the course of the previous 17 verses. Bearing in mind the link between sin and death (and also righteousness and life) in the previous section, Paul says that as Adam’s transgression brought punishment (i.e., death) to all men, in the same way Christ’s act of righteousness brought about “justification of life”–perhaps “life-giving justification”–to “all men.”

These two clauses are clearly parallel, which might lead one to ask whether Paul intends us to believe that justification has been given literally to “all men” through the cross (just as sin and death has come to all men through Adam’s sin). We should be very careful here. First, the Arminian might want to see this passage as supporting his or her view of unlimited atonement (i.e., that Christ died for all). But the Arminian position is not that Christ’s death actually justifies all men, but that it makes justification possible for all men. Yet Paul’s language here is one of actuality, not possibility. If you believe in universalism (i.e., that Christ’s death really saves everyone, regardless of sin, or faith in Christ), then this appears to be a supporting verse. However, this can’t be Paul’s position since he has already been careful in this chapter to say that reconciliation is “through Christ” (5:11), and it is those who “receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” who “reign in life” though Christ. So, it is consistent with Paul’s argument thus far to understand the “all men” of the first clause (those who receive judgment as a result of Adam’s sin) as literally everyone, and the “all men” of the second clause (those who receive justification of life as a result of Christ’s righteous act) as all those who believe in Christ.

The “righteous act” that Christ did is his death and resurrection. What is it about Christ’s death that guaranteed success? How could we be sure that Christ’s death really would secure justification as promised? Plenty of people have died for causes, and not all of them have been successful. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often offered as an example of someone who died for a cause (he was executed while a prisoner of the Nazis), but it wasn’t his death that brought Hitler’s downfall. In fact, Bonhoeffer’s death probably didn’t weight very heavily on Hitler’s conscience. Others who have died for causes haven’t been able to guarantee that their death would bring the results they desire. So what guaranteed Christ’s success? If he were merely a man, nothing could have assured that his death would bring justification for those who believe. But since he was the theanthropos, the God-man, his death had to accomplish that purpose for which it was intended.

In verse 19, Paul compares Adam’s disobedience with Christ’s obedience. In the Greek, taking apart compound words (i.e., words made up of two or more words, usually a preposition and a noun) can be exegetically misleading, since words constructed this way usually develop their own meaning apart from the meanings of the constituent words. However, sometimes it can be interesting, and even instructive. In this instance, the word for “disobedience” (parakoê) when broken apart means “listening around,” which is something husbands often do with their wives! In other words, not really paying attention to what’s being said, and avoiding acting according to the words spoken. On the other hand, the word for “obedience” (hupakoê) when broken apart means “listening under,” suggesting a subjection of one’s hearing to the command given.

Some relate Christ’s obedience in verse 19 to his active obedience (i.e., the fact he kept the Law perfectly, and always did what his Father commanded), and his passive obedience (i.e., accepting the punishment of the cross). There is nothing wrong with that, but I think Paul isn’t necessarily thinking in terms other than Christ’s general obedience to all God’s commands (including the cross), as opposed to Adam’s failure to keep even the one command God gave him.

Paul brings back the Law in verse 20. How does transgression increase when the Law comes in? Perhaps the situation Paul has in mind is like when a new boss comes into the workplace. With the new boss comes a new way of doing things, and even perhaps new rules. Our natural reaction is to balk at these new regulations. They’re not the way we’re used to doing things. In a similar way, maybe the Law coming in is like this–new regulations that we naturally want to balk at. Also, as we’ve discussed before, the Law shows us our sin. So in this sense, by presenting us in plain words God’s righteous requirements, we see our failings and our sin much more vividly, and hence sin appears to increase. Perhaps, though, Paul is here thinking of the Jewish Christians in Rome, and their exaltation of the Law, and their pride over being possessors of the Law. Maybe Paul is reminding them that while the Gentiles are disobedient to a Law they only had in their conscience, the Jews were disobedient to a Law they had written from the very finger of God. Hence their guilt is far more severe than that of the Gentiles (though both groups are sinners and equally condemned).

But even still, where sin grows, grace overflows, or super-abounds. God’s grace is always far more abundant than even the worst of our sin. We can never out-sin God’s grace! And while sin reigned in death, grace gives those who believe in Christ reconciliation and life, having been justified by the powerful grace of God reigning in the hearts of those who love Him.

Someone in the group asked about God’s grace in the Old Testament, and how it seems that sometimes God punishes sin instantly and severely, but other times He demonstrates grace, overlooking severe sin and being merciful to the offender. Clearly, God’s ways are not ours, and we can’t critique God for the way He deals with individuals, since He knows their hearts and is dealing with them in a way that is appropriate to the purpose He has for them. Perhaps it is better to consider these aspects of God’s dealings with men as complimentary rather than contradictory. God’s punishment is never unjust, and when He punishes sin in the Old Testament, it is a demonstration of His justice. When God shows mercy, however, He reminds us that despite our sin and the punishment we deserve, He is also a God of grace and mercy. If we only saw God’s wrath, we would have as unbalanced a view of God as if we only saw His mercy and grace.

This brings Romans 5 to a close. Since we will be breaking for a few weeks over Christmas and New Year, we won’t start Romans 6 next week. Instead, we will take a look at some popular Christmas carols and ask: are these really theologically sound? Many of the songs we sing at Christmas are songs we grew up listening to and singing, and have become popular without really paying attention to what they are saying. To get the ball rolling, Mike and I will start with the following: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Away in a Manger, and We Three Kings. I have linked to the words to each so you can go ahead look at them before next week.

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