18 Aug 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Inheriting Adam’s nature, following Adam’s example, and recapitulating Adam’s story: I am not wishing to deny these truths. But is this what Paul meant by writing *because all sinned*? That is the primary question. And in seeking to answer it, context as well as grammar must be taken into consideration.
That Paul meant ‘all sinned in and through Adam and therefore all died’, although theologically difficult, is surely exegetically correct. There are three main arguments. The first concerns *the addition of verses* 13-14, in which Paul makes three points. First, *before the (mosaic) law was given, sin was in the world* (13a). There is nothing controversial here. It is a fact that sin long antedated the law, as Adam antedated Moses. Secondly, *but sin is not taken into account* (i.e. punished) *when there is no law* (13b). For ‘where there is no law there is no law to break’. So, until the Mosaic law was given and could exercise its role of defining and identifying sin (cf. 3:20), sin was not reckoned against sinners. *Nevertheless (this is Paul’s third point), death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses*, that is, throughout the period before the law was given, *even over those who did not sin by breaking* a (specific, explicit) *command, as did Adam* (14). Of course some did flagrantly disobey God’s moral law, which was written in their hearts (2:14f.), and were punished, as in the flood, the judgment of those who built the tower of Babel, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But Paul’s point is that there were others who did not sin ‘by disobeying a direct command’ (REB), as Adam did, and as the people of the flood, Babel and Sodom did. These others ‘did not voluntarily and overtly violate an expressly revealed ordinance of God’. Perhaps we should include among them, as is sometimes suggested. ‘the heathen, and the infant, and the imbecile’. Yet all died (the reference is clearly to physical death), and death is the penalty of sin. There can be only one explanation. All died *because all sinned* in and through Adam, the representative or federal head of the human race.
The second argument for this interpretation is *the wider context*, especially verses 15-19. Five times in these five verses, once in every verse, Paul states that the trespass or disobedience of one man brought death, judgment and condemnation to all men. The language varies slightly from verse to verse, but the meaning is the same. Verse 15 clinches the matter: *the many died by the trespass of the one man*. That is, universal death is attributed to a single, solitary sin.
The third argument relates to *the analogy between Adam and Christ*, and between those who are in Adam and those who are in Christ. If death comes to all because they sin like Adam, then by analogy we would have to say that life comes to all because they are righteous like Christ. But that would turn the way of salvation on its head. Hodge was right to say that ‘Paul has been engaged from the beginning of the epistle in inculcating one main idea, viz. that the ground of the sinner’s acceptance with God is not in himself, but the merit of Christ’. And the correspondence between Christ and Adam must preserve, not destroy, this truth. It should read, therefore: ‘As we are condemned on account of what Adam did, (so) we are justified on account of what Christ did.’
These three arguments (from the text, the context and the analogy) seem decisively to support the view that ‘all sinned in and through Adam’. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed up the rationale in these words: ‘God has always dealt with mankind through a head and representative. The whole story of the human race can be summed up in terms of what has happened because of Adam, and what has happened and will yet happen because of Christ.’ But can we accept this teaching? It may be exegetically correct, but is it theologically and personally meaningful? Paul evidently believed it; can we?
The concept of our having sinned in Adam is certainly foreign to the mindset of western individualism. But are we to subordinate Scripture to our own cultural perspective? Africans and Asians, who take for granted the collective solidarity of the extended family, tribe, nation and race, do not have the difficulty which western people experience.