Romans 5:15-21In our study of the book of Romans we have come to the last few verses of chapter 5. It’s interesting to read what the commentators have to say about this passage. They all say that this is one of the chief portions of the book of Romans, perhaps even the central passage of the entire book. Griffith-Thomas calls it “the chief part of the epistle. All things lead up to it and everything after it flows down from it.” Everyone agrees that these are truly great theological statements.
Another interesting fact is that all the commentators agree that, while Paul’s overall thought is clear enough, the individual verses are difficult to precisely understand. We see the big picture clearly; many of the particular details are fuzzy. Paul’s thoughts rush out in a torrent of words. One word tumbles after another, one phrase upon another. He starts a sentence, then breaks off in mid-thought, changes directions, adds a phrase or two or three, then two or three verses later, returns to his original thought, only this time elevated to a new and higher plateau. That fact makes this passage almost impossible to outline successfully.
For that reason it’s easy to get tangled up on one or another of Paul’s phrases. I hope to avoid that problem by focusing less on the individual verses and more on the overall theme of the passage.
Two Men—And Only Two
Let’s begin with one crucial observation: When God looks at the history of the human race, he sees only two men. If you know these two men—and what they represent—then you will understand world history from God’s point of view. In fact, if you know these two men, you will grasp the essential message of the Bible.
You don’t have to know about Nebuchadnezzar.
You don’t have to know about the Medes and the Persians.
You don’t need to know anything about the Tabernacle.
You don’t need to know about Micah or Haggai.
You don’t even need to know the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount.
You don’t need to memorize the names of the 12 apostles.
All those things are good and useful and even important to know. But if you want to know the heart of the Bible and the central truth about world history from God’s point of view, you only need to know two people. That’s what Romans 5:15-21 is telling us.
When God looks at the 5 billion people who live on planet earth—and the other billions who lived here in the past—he sees two people who stand out from all the rest of humanity. They are representative men. The whole history of the human race revolves around those two men—what they did and what flowed from what they did.
One man is Adam; the other man is Jesus Christ. Adam did something in the Garden of Eden; Jesus did something when he died on the cross. Because Adam sinned in the Garden, a vast result has come upon the human race. We live today in the continuing consequences of what Adam did in the early mists of recorded history.
On the other side is Jesus Christ. When he died on the cross and rose from the dead, something happened that counteracted what Adam did in the Garden. The course of the world was changed at Calvary and we live today in a changed world because of the death of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.
Two men, two deeds, two frozen moments in time, with two vast results flowing across the generations, affecting us to this very day.
More than that, when God looks at humanity today he sees it as having two parts and only two parts. There is no “third part” or “middle group.” Everyone who has ever been born from the beginning of time down to the present hour has either been a follower of one man or the other. You follow Adam or you follow Christ. Or to say it in New Testament terms, you are either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” There is no “third man” to follow.
Two men, two acts separated by thousands of years. And yet those two men and those two acts have set off a chain of events that reverberates through history, touching all of us directly. You who read my words, you have been touched by these two men whether you know it or not.
Paul’s burden in this passage is quite simple. He wants to compare and contrast what Adam did with what Jesus Christ did. And he wants us to understand that what Jesus did was far greater than what Adam did. What Jesus accomplished was greater than what Adam started. That’s the whole message of these verses in a nutshell. What Adam did was vast in its results, but what Jesus did was greater in every way.
I. Three Great Contrasts
He begins by giving us three great contrasts, one in verse 15, one in verse 16 and one in verse 17. In verse 15 he points out that what Jesus did was greater in its nature.
A. Adam’s Trespass versus Christ’s Free Gift. 15
“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”
The word “trespass” means to go beyond the border. You “trespass” when you enter someone’s property illegally. It’s what happens when you deliberately break a rule. Someone may draw a line in the sand and say, “If you cross that line, you’ll be in trouble.” Trespassing is what you do when you say, “Oh yeah! You just watch me.” And you step across the line.
That’s what happened in Eden. God drew a line in the sand and said, “Don’t cross it.” Adam said, “Watch me.” And he deliberately “crossed the line” when he ate the forbidden fruit.
By contrast when Jesus died on the cross, he died for others. What Adam did was an act of total selfishness. He didn’t care that others would be hurt by his foolish decision. When Jesus died, it was totally for others. He had no sin of his own, so he couldn’t be dying for himself. His death was self-sacrificing. That’s why Paul calls it “God’s grace” and “the gift.”
Adam was thinking only of himself.
Christ was thinking of others.
Thus in the very nature of what these two men did, Christ’s deed was greater than Adam’s misdeed, even as love is greater than selfishness.
There is a second contrast in verse 16. Not only is Jesus’ death greater in its nature, it is also greater in its power.
B. Adam’s Sin Brought Condemnation; Christ’s Death Brought Justification. 16
“Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed the sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.”
Think of it this way. How many sins did Adam have to commit in order to bring condemnation to the world? Only one. That’s all it took. One sin and the world was plunged into darkness. One man, one sin, condemnation comes to the whole world.
On the other side of the ledger, how many sins were forgiven in the death of Christ? Paul says “many trespasses.” He doesn’t mean “many versus all” but “many versus one.”
Adam Jesus Christ
One man One man
One sin (by him) Many sins (by others)
Which is greater? What Jesus did is far greater because his deed was “provoked” by many sins. What Adam did was his own fault, yet it affected the whole world. What Jesus did paid the price not just for Adam’s sin but for the sins of the entire human race—from the time of Adam till the end of the world. Thus the power of Jesus’ death is far greater than the power of Adam’s single, solitary sin.
Verse 17 brings us the third contrast: What Jesus did was greater in its effect.
C. Because of Adam’s Sin, Death reigned. Those Who Receive Christ Reign in Life. 17
“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
Don’t let that complicated verse trip you up. Just focus on two words: Death and Life. Death reigned. That’s our heritage from Adam. Death reigns on the earth because of Adam’s sin. That’s why the newspapers never have to reprint an obituary column. Why? Because new people die every day. Every day there is a new list because people are always dying.
What keeps the mortuaries in business? What keeps the undertakers going? Why do cemeteries stay in business? Why is it that they never run out of customers? The answer is simple: Death reigns. That’s our heritage from our spiritual father Adam. He sinned and as a result death now reigns on the earth.
Last Monday I took Pastor Sergei Nikolaev from St. Petersburg out to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. We made several stops where he met with several people who might provide Russian-language literature for his new seminary. As we were driving away from Wheaton and toward O’Hare Airport, we stopped at a red light. While we were there, a funeral procession came down the street—bright lights flashing, followed by the hearse, followed by a long line of cars. Pastor Nikolaev said, “What is it?” When I told him it was a funeral procession, he said, “Must have been someone important.”
The Hearse Will Come For You
It doesn’t matter whether you are important or not. Someday you will die. Someday your family and friends will follow the hearse that will lead to your grave. It happens to all of us sooner or later. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or not. Someday you will die. It doesn’t matter whether you are a peasant or a potentate. Someday you will die. In this world, as a direct result of Adam’s sin, death reigns. Someday we’ll have your funeral to prove the point.
The next time you see a hearse, remember “Death reigns.”
The next time you drive past a mortuary, remember “Death reigns.”
The next time you pass a cemetery, remember “Death reigns.”
Ah, but that’s only one part of the story. There is a way out. There is a way to reverse what Adam did. There is a way to overcome the reign of death. It comes, Paul says, to those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the “gift of righteousness.” That, by the way, is the whole doctrine of justification in three words. Justification means that when we receive Christ by faith, we also receive the “gift of righteousness.” It’s not earned in any way. It’s a free gift.
But notice the result of receiving the gift of righteousness. Those who receive this free gift now “reign in life.” On one hand, death reigns; on the other hand, those who know Jesus Christ as Savior reign as kings right now,
in this life and in the life to come. We live in a dying world, but in this realm of death, we may through Jesus Christ reign as kings. And in the life to come, we shall reign forever, rising from the dead, clothed with immortality.
Only God could take a slave and transform him into a king. But that is what God has done through Jesus Christ.
So what Jesus did is far greater than what Adam did.
Greater in its nature.
Greater in its power.
Greater in its effect.
II. Two Great Results
We come now to the two great results that flow forth from Adam and from Christ. If you are in Adam, you have one set of results; if you are in Christ, you have something else entirely.
# 1: Condemnation or Justification 18
“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life to all men.”
I think this is easy enough to see. One man, one act of selfish disobedience, with the result being condemnation for “all men.” That’s our inheritance from Adam. Because of him, we are all born “condemned.” Because of him, we are all guilty before God, deserving the flames of hell. Note that the condemnation is universal. It comes to “all men” without exception. Apart from Jesus Christ, the whole human race stands condemned by Almighty God.
On the other hand, Jesus Christ died and his act of righteousness results in justification that brings life for all men. Is Paul here teaching universal salvation? Not at all. Verse 17 clearly says that the gift of righteousness provides life for those who “receive” it. You don’t have to do anything to be condemned. Condemnation is Adam’s “gift” to you. But if you want to be justified, you must “receive” the free gift by faith.
When Christ died, he died for “all men” without exception and without distinction. In some mysterious sense, his death paid the price for the sins of the entire world, even for those who do not receive him. However, the effect of that wondrous death will never be made real in your life until you personally—by a conscious choice—receive God’s gift by simple faith.
# 2: Made Sinners or Made Righteous 19
“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”
Here we have the second result—Adam’s sin results in the whole human race being “made sinners"—that is, declared guilty before God. On the other hand, Christ’s death results in “the many” (those who receive him by faith) being made righteous.
Think about it. One man commits one sin and through him enormous suffering comes to the entire world. You say, “Why didn’t God give Adam another chance? Why didn’t God say, ’Maybe you didn’t understand what I said. Let’s try it again.’ Isn’t this a harsh punishment for one simple mistake?” We would have done this, I think. We would have given Adam a second or a third or even a fourth chance. Why didn’t God do that?
I think there are two answers to that question: 1. It didn’t matter how many chances God gave Adam, he would have sinned anyway. If God had given him a hundred chances, he would have sinned a hundred times. 2. By judging him after one sin, God was able to pay for that one sin (and its terrible results in history) through the single act of righteousness provided by the death of his Son Jesus Christ.
So we are either “made sinners” (which is our universal lot as sons and daughters of Adam) or we are “made righteous” through Jesus Christ. To make it more personal, you are either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” The only question is, How does one move from being “in Adam” to being “in Christ?”
The Transplanted Cornea
In one of his books Dr. Charles Ryrie tells a story from the early days of corneal-transplant surgery. It happened that a certain criminal on death row volunteered to donate the cornea from one of his eyes so that a blind person could see. The doctors in charge of the surgery went ahead and chose a recipient who actually came to the prison to meet the condemned man in person. It made for great human interest and the newspapers spread the story far and near.
Eventually the day came for the execution. After the prisoner was put to death, his cornea was removed and successfully transplanted into the eye of the man who had been blind. Now he could see.
Dr. Ryrie then poses the following question: Suppose a police officer should pull over the man who received the cornea and attempt to arrest him because he had in his body the cornea of a murderer? Suppose he actually threw the man in jail? What would happen when the case came before a judge? It would be thrown out of court. Why? Because the cornea which once was in the body of a murderer is now in the body of an innocent man. Therefore, that cornea is now as righteous as that man is.
Something like that happens the moment you say “Yes” to Jesus Christ. Though you are born in Adam, and corrupted through Adam, and made a sinner through Adam, the very moment you trust Jesus Christ you are transplanted from Adam into Jesus Christ. Whereas once you were as guilty as Adam, now you are as righteous as Jesus Christ. That is why you can stand before God uncondemned. Whatever is true of Jesus is now true of you.
What you need, what I need, what the world needs, is a spiritual transplant that will move us from Adam to Jesus Christ. That’s how sinners are made righteous in God’s eyes.
III. One Great Principle
“The law was added so that the trespass might increase. 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.”
Our passage ends with one great principle which sums up everything Paul has been saying. When God gave the Ten Commandments, he wasn’t trying to tell us how to go to heaven. No one gets to heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments. You can’t do it because no one ever truly “keeps” the commandments perfectly. And God won’t accept anything less than perfection. He doesn’t grade on a curve. It’s all or nothing with him.
No, God gave the Ten Commandments so that we might realize the depth of our own personal sinfulness. Without the law we would go merrily on our way, patting ourselves on the back, congratulating ourselves on how good and clever we are. But let a person just once take a good look at the Ten Commandments, let him consider the words and the depth of their meaning, let him carefully scrutinize his own life, let him be ruthless in his self-examination. When a man does that truly and honestly, the only result can be, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The more we understand of God’s law, the greater our sense of our own sinfulness.
“Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” This translation is a bit misleading because it uses the word “increased” in both sides of the statement. But they aren’t the same words in the Greek. They are actually completely different. When he says, “Where sin increased,” he uses a word that speaks of addition. But when he says “Grace increased,” he uses a word that means multiplication. On the one hand, sin increased one by one by one. On the other hand, God’s grace in Christ Jesus was multiplied over and over and over again.
Where sins were added one by one, God’s grace was multiplied a thousand times. J. B. Phillips puts it this way: “So where sin is wide and deep, the grace of God is wider and deeper still.” Or you might say, “Where sin abounded, grace super-abounded.” It reminds me of those famous words of Corrie Ten Boom: “There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”
Here, then, is the principle: In Jesus Christ we have gained much more than we ever lost in Adam! Around the turn of the century Julia Johnston wrote a hymn that perfectly captures the sense of this passage:
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt,
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.
What does it mean? Here is the good news: You can’t out-sin the grace of God. Some of you have been trying. You’ve been doing a good job. But no. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve been doing. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been sleeping. God’s grace is greater than your sin.
A Tale of Two Mountains
Here is the message of this passage boiled down to its simplest terms. Imagine a foul-smelling mountain of garbage stretching toward the sky. Let that mountain represent your sin, all the evil, rotten things you’ve ever done or ever dreamed of doing. That mountain is the accumulation of the garbage of your life. Everyday the mountain grows as another load of refuse is added. See it. It stands before you so high you can’t get over it, so deep you can’t dig under it, so wide you can’t walk around it. That mountain stands between you and God.
Now imagine another mountain just beyond the first one. This one is pure and clean and inviting. It towers so high above the first mountain that you can’t see the peak. It’s so much bigger than the first mountain that when you compare the two, the pile of garbage seems small and insignificant.
That second mountain is the grace of Jesus Christ. It stretches from earth to heaven. It towers so high above the garbage of your life that it seems to make the garbage disappear. That’s the message of this passage. It’s not that Christ is simply the equal of Adam. No! He’s telling us that in Christ we have gained far more than we ever lost in Adam. God not only restores what we lost, he gives us much more besides.
That leads me to press home one final question. Are you in Adam or are you in Christ? You were born in Adam but the good news is, you don’t have to stay there.
Billy Graham’s Secret
Last Monday as I drove Pastor Nikolaev to the airport, we began to talk about Billy Graham. Pastor Nikolaev knows him well because he translated for him during one of his missions to Moscow. Somehow the question came up: Why is Billy Graham so effective? Pastor Nikolaev said that in his opinion, Billy Graham’s sermons are not profound. In fact, they are usually incredibly simple, so simple that learned scholars dismiss him because he doesn’t use high-sounding language or speak with theological subtlety.
I certainly think that Dr. Graham’s sermons are not unique. I don’t think you can account for his success simply by studying his words. He has preached to over 100 million people—more people than anyone else in the history of the Christian church. What is his secret?
Pastor Nikolaev said, “It is the way he presents his message.” What do you mean? “When you listen to Billy Graham, he preaches it in such a way that you can only come to one conclusion: If I am a normal person, I must say Yes to Jesus Christ. If I am a thinking individual, then I must accept Christ.” Dr. Graham preaches so that the only logical, rational decision is to come to Christ. Therefore, Pastor Nikolaev said, the hearer is forced to ask himself this question: Am I normal or am I crazy? If I am normal, I must accept Christ. If I truly understand what he has done for me, the only reasonable choice is to bow my knee and open my heart to him. So Dr. Graham is constantly bringing people to ask the question—Am I smart or am I stupid? Am I wise or am I foolish?
(Incidentally several weeks ago at the end of my sermon I asked the congregation, “Do you want to accept the free gift of eternal life?” I evidently repeated the phrase several times—"Do you want to receive the gift?"—because I found out later that my youngest son leaned over to my wife and said, “I’ll take a gift. You’d be stupid not to take a gift.” He’s right, and that’s precisely Billy Graham’s point.)
“Am I Normal?”
Then Pastor Nikolaev told me this true story. Several years ago Dr. Graham preached in St. Petersburg. During the crusade a very brilliant architect, an atheist, came to hear him. Night after night he listened to the preaching of the gospel. He didn’t make a decision during the crusade. As he thought about the matter later, he realized the question was not, “What should I do with Jesus?” but rather “Am I smart or am I stupid?” “Am I a normal person or am I crazy?” And so while he was taking a shower one day, it all came together for him. With the water splashing in his face, he looked to heaven and said, “Jesus Christ, forgive my sins.” In that moment, he was saved, his sins were forgiven, and he was transferred from Adam to Christ. And he is now active in Pastor Nikolaev’s church.
So I ask you—Are you in Adam or in Christ? Are you wise or are you foolish?
Remember, you can’t help being in Adam. By virtue of your physical birth, you are in Adam’s family. My whole point is, You don’t have to stay there. God has made a way for you to pass from Adam to Christ. Your first birth put you in Adam; your second birth puts you in Christ. That’s why Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
Have you ever been born again? Have you ever passed from death to life? If you are in Adam, don’t despair. You don’t have to stay there. You can come to Christ right now. It’s the smartest move you’ll ever make.
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