Q&A: A Tale of Two Adams

A Tale of Two Adams

Question

It seems according to Romans 5:18 that everyone in the world has been justified by Christ. From reading other passages, this seems unbiblical but it’s what I think I’m reading in Romans 5:18, but it has to be wrong. Can you explain what Romans 5:18 means?

Answer

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men (Romans 5:18).

Previously in Romans Paul has made clear that universalism is biblically impossible (Rom. 1:16, 17; 3:21-25, etc.), and he also repudiates the same idea that each and every person will ultimately be saved elsewhere (e.g. Rom. 2:12). He also describes Christ returning "in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from[a] the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might" (2 Thess. 1:8-9). So, I agree with you that Romans 5 can’t be teaching universalism.

So, what does Romans 5:18 teach? Let's look at it as a tale of two "all’s": the "all" that are in Adam and "all" that are in the second Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:45, 47). Though the "all’s" are spelled alike in Greek (pantas from the Greek word pas), their context and, therefore, overall meaning differ. Thus the distinction in meaning is important for us to understand.

Depending on context, "all" may mean "each and every," as in every person without exception in the entire world. But of the 1200 or so uses of the Greek word pas, it rarely if ever means all without any kind of limitation (cf. 2 Chron. 9:23; Matt. 2:3; 3:5-6; 4:24; Luke 2:1, et. al.). For instance, depending upon a verse’s context, it may mean each of a certain type, as it does in 1 Timothy 2:4, 6. (Please see, "Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?" below.)

As in many other places within this book (Rom. 8:32; 11:32; 16:19), in Romans 5:18 both "all’s" are being used in a limited sense. Jesus is in Adam's lineage (Luke 3:38), so a descendant of the first Adam. But Jesus was and still is sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5; cf. Heb. 4:15; 7:26; Jas. 1:13), therefore unlike the rest of the first Adam's lineage, Jesus wasn’t "condemned" because of individual sin (cf. Rom. 5:17). The "all" in Romans 5:18a is being used in a limited sense, so biblically it can’t possibly mean each and every person in the entire world; it refers to all in Adam who are fallen – which is everyone except Jesus Christ.

In Romans 5:18b we observe another limited use of the word "all." [1] As Romans 5:17 informs us, "all" is only being used of those who actually believe – "those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ." So, biblically it isn’t referring to every man, woman, and child in the first Adam. Rather, it only refers to those justified in the second Adam, Christ Jesus alone. As Paul himself says, "the free gift is not like the trespass" (Rom. 5:15, 16).

These meanings are confirmed to us by the apostle Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15:22 where he says, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." The context of the first "all" refers to every man in Adam's lineage, except Jesus ("because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man," Rom. 5:17), whereas the second "all" refers to all in Christ; that is, it is limited to all those who believe ("those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:17).

In the pericope of Rom. 5:12-21, there are two classes of persons spoken of – those in Adam in the Garden of Eden and those in Christ who is considered the second Adam. Let’s briefly compare the two Adams.

First Adam
Man in the Garden
Second Adam
Lord Jesus Christ
by the offense of one man (Rom. 5:12) through Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:21)
all die (Rom. 5:15) the gift by grace hath abounded to many (Rom. 5:15)
all are condemned (Rom. 5:16, 18) all are justified (Rom. 5: 16, 18)
all are made sinners (Rom. 5:19) all reign in life through Christ Jesus (Rom. 5:17) and regarded and treated as righteous (Rom. 5:19)

The two Adams aren’t exactly alike. And they impact two different groups of people. They each brought upon their own kind distinct curses or blessings – Adam, the human race; Christ, his own elect. So, Romans 5 isn’t teaching universalism, and "all," meaning each and every soul that ever existed, will not be saved!

In addition Romans 5:12-21 forms what is called a biblical chiasm. A chiasm or chiastic pattern is a poetic device, a style of writing that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and/or emphasis. It reveals Paul’s emphasis in Romans 5:12-21.

  • A. Rom 5:12 - Wrath reigned. Sin entered the world through one man, Adam.
    • B. Rom 5:13 - Sin is not imputed where there is no Law.
      • C. Rom 5:14-19 – A contrast of Adam’s offense resulting in judgment, condemnation, and death to Jesus’ righteousness resulting in the free gift of grace, justification, and life.
    • B'. Rom 5:20 - The Law entered that the offense might abound.
  • A'. Rom 5:21 - Grace reigned. Life and righteousness entered through one man, Jesus Christ.

Clearly, the two "all’s" refer to two different group conditions: death on account of the first Adam presupposes union with Adam; life on account of the second Adam (Jesus Christ) presupposes union with Jesus. So, there are two different Adams with two different groups of people having two different results; all who are in Adam are condemned for his sin, and all who are in Christ are justified by his righteousness.

Paul’s point in Romans 5:18 is that Christ’s righteousness affects those who are his elect every bit as much as Adam’s sin affects those who are his. But Paul clearly defines the two different groups. Every person is in Adam (Rom. 5:12-14), but only those who receive "the free gift of righteousness" (Rom. 5:17) are in Christ.

While we could designate Romans 5:12-21 a tale of two Adams (Adam in the garden vs. the second Adam, Jesus Christ), or a tale of two gardens (Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden vs. Jesus’ triumph in the Garden of Gethsemane), or even as we have here a tale of two all’s (Rom. 5:18), we see a clear contrast between the disobedient Adam and the obedient second and last man Adam, Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 15:45, 47). The result of Adam’s disobedience was that all humanity, save Christ, became sinners. In contrast, through the result of Christ’s obedience – his obedience in life (John 12:49; 14:31; Heb. 10:7) and upon the cross (Phil. 2:8) – he brought peace with God to all his people (Rom. 5:1; cf. Rom. 3:24-25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Jesus' act of obedience ensured that many would be made righteous through their faith in him through God's abundant grace (Rom. 5:17).

Note

[1] Jesus didn’t need righteousness applied to him, as he is the righteous One (1 John 2:1). So, in context the "all" in Romans 5:18 isn’t even universal here; neither "all" (Rom. 5:18a or Rom. 5:18b) is applied to Christ Jesus. Adam’s sin wasn’t applied to Jesus and there is no need that Jesus’s own righteousness be applied to himself as he never sinned.

Related Topics

Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).