Romans 5:12 - Did My Sin Really Kill Me?


The book of Romans took me a long time to grasp. It’s filled with easy to remember (and quote) phrases that are wonderful pieces of the Good News –like Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What took me so long was putting all those pieces together. A huge help was reading Martin Luther’s Preface to Romans. That writing provides a perspective that we should all have. Nonetheless, there was one verse that puzzled me –until recently.

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— (Romans 5:12)

I’ve never questioned the accuracy of it –especially where it says that all sinned. That’s introduced in chapter three with a quote from Isaiah 53, “There is none righteous, not even one” which is followed by “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And all doubt was removed from my mind by the verse in chapter 14 which says that “anything that is not of faith is sin.” Simply stated, “sin” means “not wholly trusting God.” Hopefully, you and I are in agreement that all have sinned. (I’ve only met one person ever who claimed to be sinless –but that’s another story.)

So here was the sticking point for me. I know that I was a sinner at birth and it took years for me to come to God for salvation through Jesus. (And I’m still growing in the depths of understanding its implications.)

The death described in verse 14 is spiritual death. Sure, physical death was included in the consequences of Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit, but the subject at hand is spiritual death –the second death –eternal separation from God. That first couple began their lives in the presence of God –they had spiritual life. After eating the fruit, they were separated from Him. None of us have experienced such a beginning of life –except Jesus of course.

Here’s the thing. Adam and Eve started out spiritually alive, they sinned and then they spiritually died. I (and you) didn’t. We came into this world separated from God –spiritually dead. There was no horrible deed that we did at some early age which brought on the spiritual death sentence. From birth, it was waiting for us. And if God had not intervened with His gift of eternal life through Jesus –that death would still be our destiny.

Verses Before…

My troublesome verse says that “…death spread to all men, because all sinned.” To me it was plainly contradicting what I just stated above –it was implying that we were alive until we did the nasty deed that caused our death. It sure looked like “all sinned and therefore all died” –my dying was the consequence of my sinning.

Over the years, as I read Romans, I would either mentally skip over that little phrase or I would rationalize it away. It’s a bit embarrassing to confess that I’ve had discussions with myself trying to make sense of the passage. (Please don’t tell anyone, they’ll think I’ve gone over the edge.) One such position I’ve taken is that God has known since the fall that mankind’s heart is corrupt –it’s impossible for us to not sin –it’s just a matter of time until we do something deserving of our spiritual death.

I hope you didn’t agree with that logic. Although it might seem reasonable, it doesn’t really work with the verse in its context.

The very first word in that verse is one that Paul is particularly noted for –“therefore.” It’s intended to make us think about what was just said –and to make us come to solid conclusions. A bit of what the “therefore” is conveying is found in Romans 5:6-11. Here’s how I summarize it:

  • We were totally undeserving of God’s great love for us –expressed through Jesus’ death as payment for our sin.
  • Jesus’ death brought reconciliation to the whole world –leaving no sin standing as a barrier between the most evil person on this earth and holy God.
  • Jesus’ death brought justification to believers –we’ve been declared innocent of all wrong-doing –there’s no condemnation.
  • Jesus’ resurrection brought salvation –God’s free gift to all who humbly accept the new and eternal life that He offers.

The Context…

One of my peeves is people taking a bit of Scripture out of context to make a point. So let’s look at more of its surrounding text.

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—

for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14)

This is a big deal! This passage is screaming out that neither sin –nor the Law that identifies that sin– are mankind’s foundational problem. The problem staring us in the face is that we are lacking spiritual life –we are dead to God. It’s been that way since the time of Adam. (I highly recommend that after you finish this little article, you read another –about Adam being a type of One who was to come.)

Verses After…

At the risk of being considered too thorough, here are the few remaining verses that conclude the subject. Then I’ll tell you what I learned about verse 12 –where this all began.

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! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 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 of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! (Romans 5:15-17)

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 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. (Romans 5:18-19)

The law was brought in 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. (Romans 5:20-21)

Putting It All Together…

The crux of Romans five is that Jesus did what no other person could. Sin was spreading from one person to another –from one generation to the next. No one had the capacity to stop it from wiping us all out –taking us all to hell.

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— (Romans 5:12)

The verse isn’t about my sinning and causing my death. It’s stating what should be an obvious fact. There was no healthy diet, no EMT, no doctor, no pharmacy, no trauma center, there was no remedy at all which could resuscitate us and bring us back to life. For us to come to life –to be alive to God –to not be under the sentence of eternal separation from our Creator– we needed a Savior. Jesus was the only One who that passage didn’t describe.

Death spread because we couldn’t stop it. But the Son of God was without sin. He always, wholly trusted His Father for all things. Finally, at just the right time, God gave the world a cure. Here’s that above passage one more time with some emphasis for good measure.

Consequently, just as one trespass [Eve’s] resulted in condemnation for all people [you and me], so also one righteous act [Jesus’] resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners [disqualifying us from saving even one person], so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)

For me, that troublesome verse is now where it belongs –in harmony with the rest of Romans. It’s no longer a note of discord. Ah –peace at last. Thanks for listening to the meanderings of my mind.

P.S. Oh, did you ask “how did I finally come to this understanding?” I’ll try to make this story short. Some years ago, I met a man who confronted me on my faith. I was attending a seminar on Christian living and asked him a specific question about one of those difficult passages. He looked me straight in the face and said “you have the same Holy Spirit living in you that I have living in me. And it’s He that leads us into all truth. So ask Him, don’t ask me.” I returned to my seat and was red with anger, reflecting on his arrogance. I thought “that was rude of him to talk to me like that when I even paid to attend his seminar!”
After the anger subsided (about twenty minutes later), I decided to accept his challenge. I prayed for God to explain the passage. And … to my amazement, He did. I understood it. It wasn’t through any audible words, but the explanation was there –something I’d never experienced before. Now, I frequently ask Him to explain His word, He faithfully does. Sometimes there’s a bit of delay, but always an answer.
Here’s the embarrassing admission. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I thought to ask Him about this verse. Why did I wait so long? I guess I didn’t need to know the answer…

—Doug