The Imputation of Adam’s Sin – Part 4

Text: Romans 5:12-21

Introduction:  Original sin (PECCATUM ORIGINALIS), said Martin Luther, was not, as the medieval scholastics taught, the mere absence of original righteousness but “the loss of all uprightness and of the power of all our faculties of the body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man.”[1] Luther describes this fallen condition as INCURVATUS IN SE, “curved in on themselves,” i.e., prone to evil, loathing the good, preferring darkness to light, and foolishness to wisdom.[2] The Apostle Paul does not say “in Moses all die,” or “in Abraham all die,” but he does declare, says Luther, very forcefully “in Adam all die.” Luther’s emphasis on original sin is as strong as it is constant. By one sin Adam makes all those “who are born of him guilty of this same sin of his and gives them what he has, though it is quite foreign to them. In like manner Christ makes all those who are born of Him righteous and saved through His righteousness, which is foreign to them and unmerited by them. Therefore as we are damned by a foreign sin (ALIENO PECCATO), so we are redeemed by a foreign righteousness (ALIENA IUSTITIA).”[3] This is standard Reformational doctrine, something that both Luther and Calvin would agree on wholeheartedly. However, some modern-day people who claim to be Reformed, but contend that the Reformation totally missed the mark. According to the advocates of “The New Perspective,” (N. T. Wright) justification is not central to Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Though it is often assumed that the gospel is a “system of how people get saved,” Wright insists that this seriously misrepresents the real meaning of the gospel.[4] The gospel, Wright argues does not answer the question of the guilty sinner, “How can I find favor with God?” (Compare, e.g., Luther), but rather it answers the question, “Who is Lord?” Wright seeks to prove that one of the unfortunate features of the Reformation and much evangelical thinking is that it reduces the gospel to “a message about ‘how one gets saved,’ in an individual and a historical sense.”[5] In this kind of thinking, the focus of attention, so far as the gospel is concerned, is upon “something that in older theology would be called an ORDO SALUTIS, an order of salvation.”[6]

According to Wright, this kind of an approach can only distort Paul’s gospel and fails to do justice to the broader historical background and significance of Christ’s saving work. All of the focus in this approach to the gospel is narrowly fixed upon the issue of the individual’s relationship with God, and not upon the reach of God’s world-transforming power proclaimed in the gospel concerning Jesus Christ. Because of this inappropriate focus upon the salvation of individual sinners, the older Reformation tradition was bound to exaggerate the importance of the doctrine of justification. Wright is so bold as to declare that since Augustine`, everybody (Protestant and Catholic alike) misunderstood Paul’s doctrine of justification, not only in terms of its meaning, but also its place of importance in the Apostle’s overall theology. Contrary to Luther, who called the doctrine of justification by faith alone “the article on which the church stand or falls,” Wright contends that it is nothing of the sort.[7] Among other things, Wright, in defining justification, does away with any notion of imputation. His handling of our text (Rom. 5:12-21) omits any discussion of imputation (he does not even mention the term).[8]

I.          The Non-Imputation of Pre-Law Sin:

A.        Pre-Mosaic Law Sin (Rom 5:13a):  The twelfth verse introduced a comparative declaration, as the “as” indicates. The conclusion is not stated until verses 18-19, where the ideas are picked up again and fully stated. Thus, verses 13-14 are parenthetical, explaining the statement of verse twelve, namely that all men sinned in Adam’s sin by imputation. The “for” indicates that verse thirteen is an explanatory statement. If Paul only meant in verse twelve that death passed upon all men because of their many individual transgressions, then no explanation would be necessary. But the extraordinary statement that all die because of Adam’s sin, does require explanation. The statement of verse thirteen is intended to show that the sin, referred to in the clause “for all sinned” in verse twelve, is not sin against the Mosaic Law. All violations of the Decalogue must be excluded when one looks for the sin that brought death in the world. It is plain that what Paul wants to say is that men die, not for personal sins, but for Adam’s one sin. In the opening clause, “For until law sin was in the world,” he admits that sin was in the world during the period of the time bounded by Adam and Moses’ Law, the time referred to in verse fourteen by the phrases, “from Adam to Moses.” Thus, he reminds them that it was not for the breaking of the Decalogue that men died.

B.        Its Non-Imputation (Rom. 5:13b):  First of all, it is clear that the sin for which men died is not the breaking of the Mosaic Law, for it was not yet given during this period. And yet, sin is not reckoned, if there is no law, but men died during this time. Now sin presupposes a law against which it is committed. If it was not the Mosaic Law, it must have been some other kind of law. What other law could there have been of which they were guilty? It was the first law, that given Adam in the Garden of Eden (cf. Gen. 2:16-17). Death supposes sin, and sin implies a law. They must have broken a law of some kind. It could only be the law that Adam broke. Thus, they died for the sin of the first man. To argue otherwise, as Cranfield does, misses the point of the Apostle’s argument.[9] The conclusion confirms the interpretation of verse twelve, “for all sinned.” That is spelled out in the next verse, verse fourteen. Murray points out that verse thirteen “is preparatory to that of verse fourteen and moves on to verse fourteen as expressing what is of particular relevance to the subject.” [10]

II.         The Dominion of Death:

A.        The Fact of Its Dominion (Rom 5:14a):  The “nevertheless” is literally yet. Even though there was no law by which sin might be imputed in the period from Adam to Moses, death reigned. It follows that there must have been some more comprehensive law which men violated, and by which they were reckoned sinners. That law was that expressed in Genesis 2:16-17. The clause, which begins with the “even” (Gr., kai, which might be rendered either even or and) implies that it would not have been expected that death should reign over this class of persons, and that their case is the difficult one to explain. What is meant is, that if these persons had sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, it would not have been strange that they died. But they did not sin after the similitude of his sin. To whom does the clause refer? Three things are true of this last class. They were a part of the “all” of verse twelve. Second, they were under a law of some kind, for sin was imputed to them, and they died. Third, they die. A sin like Adam’s would have been a particular act of transgression, either of the written (Gen. 2:16-17), or unwritten law (cf. Rom. 2:14-15: law of conscience). This kind of sin, Paul says, they have not committed. Therefore, if their sin was not one like Adam’s, neither against a written or unwritten law, nor a transgression of Mosaic Law, it must have been Adam’s first sin itself for which they were responsible. The command which they violated was that of Genesis 2:16-17 itself. They did not sin a sin like Adam’s; they sinned his very sin in their sin and Adam’s is not that of resemblance, but of identity.” [11]The point, then, of the verse is to indicate that the clause, “all have sinned,” in verse twelve cannot refer to individual acts of transgression. Only the first sin of Adam can be meant. If men did not die because of Mosaic sin, or by transgression of the law of conscience, the unwritten law, which would also be “like” Adam’s transgression of a specific law, then they could only die for Adam’s sin itself. This was imputed to them. The probationary statute is the reason for their guilt. Those referred to in the middle clause of the verse, then, are probably infants who died in infancy. As Murray says, “For nothing evinces the sin of all and the death of all in the sin of Adam more that the death of little infants.” [12]Incidentally, the “even” of verse fourteen seems to imply that there were some between Adam and Moses who had sinned after the likeness of Adam’s transgression (cf. 26:5). Their death penalty, however, is not founded upon this. If the responsibility for the first sin is established in the case of infants, it is established for adults, for all adults were once infants. [13]Thus Paul has beautifully supported the claim that all sinned in Adam, and that they are guilty of his sin and for that die.

B.        The Illustration of the Dominion (Rom 5:14c):  The final clause of verse fourteen introduces the reader to the Adam-Christ typology, as a preparation for what is to follow in the next section. The noun translated “type” denoted the mark made by a striking object (cf. John 20:25), an impression made by an object that is in turn used to mould or shape something else (cf. Rom. 6:17). Thus, Adam is an example of Christ. It is proper to speak of him as the First Adam and of Christ as the Last Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45). The typology is, nevertheless, largely contrastive in this context. The two men are heads of their posterity, but Adam the first affects his posterity for death, while the Last Adam gives life to His people, etc. Both are one with their people; they represent two unities, the particulars of which follow in the paragraph. It does pay, as S. Lewis Johnson reminds us, to delve into our ancestry. When we do this spiritually, we discover that we are related to the family of Adam, subject to the imputation of his sin, death, and final condemnation. But that condemnation need not be really final. It is possible by the grace of God to receive justification of life by the finished work of the Last Adam, for the free gift is available for all by the righteous act of the One, the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ. By the obedience of this One the many shall be constituted righteous. While Adam has come, and with him sin, guilt, and condemnation, the Last Adam has also come, bringing with Him the power of grace, able to annul and swallow up sin and death. On Good Friday He crushed the old serpent and has become Master of the history of the world and Lord of all (cf. Phil. 2:9-11).[14]

Conclusion:  Anytime sin is minimized, serious problems surface. This is especially the case when seeking to understand the cross of Christ. A superficial attitude toward sin will be accompanied by diminished perspective on the cross. In Wright’s scheme, the focus of Christ’s atoning working has primarily to do with Jesus defeating “evil” and triumphing over the “principalities and powers.” The enemies and powers defeated by Christ do not (for Wright) include God’s wrath or judgment. He does not appear to have wrestled with the fact that death, our last enemy, is itself, for Paul, the result of “one man’s disobedience” and its penal (itself necessarily judicial) consequences. Thus, when he explains Paul’s narrative theology, and the cross and resurrection as the center of that narrative, he is entirely right; but when he explains precisely what Christ therein triumphed over, the wrath of God is not among the panoply, and as such sola fide (as the Reformers’ understood it) is drastically altered so much so that it ceases to be at the heart of the Gospel.[15] Cornelis Venema, in a series of very helpful articles on the New Perspective, made this very telling observation. “One thing that clearly emerges in Wright’s limited treatment of this subject is that he has little sympathy for the historic view that Christ’s cross involved his suffering the penalty and curse of the law on behalf of his people. In an extended treatment of Galatians 3:10-14, for example, Wright insists that its language “is designed for a particular task within a particular argument, not for an abstract systematized statement.” Galatians 3 is not about Christ suffering the curse of the law in the place of his people, all of whom have violated the law and are therefore liable to its curse. Paul is not talking about a general work of Christ that benefits sinful Jews and Gentiles alike. The traditional reading of this passage, which takes it to refer to Christ’s substitutionary atonement, is, in Wright’s view, “nonsense.” If this passage is read in its first century Jewish context and within the setting of God’s covenant promise to Israel is experiencing as a people. Wright maintains that “in the cross of Jesus, the Messiah, the curse of exile itself reached its height and was dealt with once and for all, so that the blessing of covenant renewal might flow out the side, as God always intended.” Wright’s reading of Galatians 3 is rather characteristic of his treatment of the subject of Christ’s atoning work generally. Though it is clear that he has little sympathy for the older, Reformation understanding of Christ’s saving work, what he is prepared to offer, as an alternative remains rather obscure. Christ’s death and resurrection are representative of Israel’s exile and restoration. They are the means whereby the promise of the covenant is now extended to the whole worldwide family of God. However, because Wright’s understanding of Paul’s gospel and the doctrine of justification has little, if anything, to do with the problem of human sinfulness and guilt, his understanding of the work of Christ likewise puts little emphasis upon the kinds of emphases that historically formed an essential part of the doctrine of Christ’s atoning work.”[16]



[1] As cited in T. George “Modernizing Luther, Domesticating Paul: Another Perspective” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul eds. D. A. Carson, P. T. O’Brien, M. A. Seifrid (Baker, 2004), p. 453.


[2] Luther’s Works: Lectures on Romans Vol. 25 ed. H. C. Oswald (Concordia, 1972) where it writes, “The reason is that our nature has been so deeply curved in upon itself because of the viciousness of original sin that it not only turns the finest gifts of God in upon itself and enjoys them (as is evident in the case of legalists and hypocrites), indeed, it even uses God Himself to achieve these aims, but it also seems to be ignorant of this very fact, that in acting so iniquitously, so perversely, and in such a depraved way, it is even seeking God for its own sake.” (p. 291).


[3] What Luther Says III ed. E. M. Plass (Concordia, 1959), p. 1295.


[4] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1997), p. 45.


[5] Ibid. p. 60.


[6] Ibid. p. 40.


[7] Ibid. p. 115.


[8] Cf. his commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible X  (Abingdon Press, 2002). Wright elsewhere refers to what he calls “the vexed question of imputation” c.f. his “The Shape of Justification,” The Paul Page. 09/30/2003. Richard Gaffin points out that Wright fails to affirm that Paul taught imputation and furthermore, despite Wright’s claim to be solidly in the Reformed tradition, he is clearly not Reformed in his understanding of election and predestination. “A Reformed Critique of the New Perspective” Modern Reformation  (Vol. 11, No. 2. April, 2002) pp. 27-28.


[9] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans I (T&T Clark, 1975). The weakness of Cranfield’s view, namely, that men because they are the recipients of a corrupt nature from Adam, is seen in the fact he must say that the words, “is not imputed when there is no law” (cf. v. 13), must be understood in a relative sense. Further, one might ask, “Why have we inherited a corrupt nature? Does not that indicate a previous guilt? If not, is this fair?” etc. This is also the position of J. G. D. Dunn, another of the leading advocates of the New Perspective cf. his Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Word, 1988) p. 291.


[10] John Murray, Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1964) p. 187.


[11] W. G. T. Shedd, Doctrinal and Critical Commentary on The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (rpt. Klock and Klock, 1977) p. 133.


[12] Murray, op. cit. p. 190.


[13] Shedd, op. cit. p. 134.


[14] I am once again indebted to Dr. Johnson for his analysis of this passage, cf. his “Romans 5:12 – An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology” New Dimensions in New Testament Studies, eds. R. N. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney (Zondervan, 1974).


[15] Cf. T. David Gordon’s “Observations on the Biblical Theology of N. T. Wright” in the forthcoming Whatever Happened to Sola Fide? eds. G. L. W. Johnson and G. P. Waters (P&R, 2006).


[16] C. Venema, “The New Perspective on Paul: The Contribution of N. T. Wright” The Outlook (Jan. 2003), p. 6.

Redemption: Accomplished and Applied

by John Murray

Murray explores the biblical passages dealing with the necessity, nature, perfection, and extent of the atonement, and goes on to identify the distinct steps in the Bible’s presentation of how the redemption accomplished by Christ is applied progressively to the life of the redeemed.

The atonement lies at the very center of the Christian faith. The free and sovereign love of God is the source of the accomplishment of redemption, as the Bible’s most familiar text (John 3:16) makes clear. For thoughtful Christians since the time of the Apostle Paul, this text has started, not ended, the discussion of redemption. Yet few recent interpreters have explored in depth the biblical passages dealing with the atonement as penetratingly or precisely as John Murray, who, until his death in 1975, was regarded by many as the foremost conservative theologian in the English-speaking world.

In this enduring study of the atonement, Murray systematically explains the two sides of redemption: its accomplishment by Christ and its application to the life of the redeemed. In Part 1, Murray considers the necessity, nature, perfection, and extent of the atonement. In Part 2, he offers careful expositions of the scriptural teaching about calling, regeneration, faith and repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, union with Christ, and glorification. Includes both a subject and a Scripture index.

About the author: John Murray (1898-1975) was born in Scotland and educated in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Princeton. He spent most of his distinguished career teaching systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He also wrote Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics and the volume on Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series.

Paperback; 192 pages

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