We continue into the book of Romans. I will again confess to you that a good commentary or two will help you as you dig through this text and will certainly be more exhaustive than my own offering here. That being said, here’s a look at Romans 5: it’s about the reign of death.
Well, and the end of that reign.
Romans 5 is a prime example of why, even though verse-by-verse and word-by-word study is helpful, you cannot only study the Bible in small blocks. Instead, we see here why it is necessary to take the sweep of Scripture together in order to understand the smaller units.
Paul’s points in Romans 5 are these:
- Death came through Adam
- Death kept reigning even with the Law from Moses
- Life comes through grace
- Grace came through Jesus.
Now, without knowing Adam and Moses, how well do we grasp the first two of Paul’s points? Not very well. The latter two points are the positive ones, and they are well worth knowing—but the importance is somewhat diminished if we do not understand the deficit we start with.
This is critical to understanding of Paul’s line of thought: there is no “neutral ground” in the concepts of Scripture. One is either dead or alive, righteous or wicked, eternally secure or eternally lost. This is before we started shading things into “mostly dead” and “slightly alive” or other such halfway-positions. Our modern viewpoint puts slides where hard jumps ought to be: certain things are absolute. Life and death are one of those.
Life and death are the picture used by Paul to illustrate the spiritual reality of humanity in Romans 5. While we are not physically dead, we as a species are spiritually dead from the get-go. That death keeps us from God, because in Him is life, and death and decay are not found in His presence.
A note is due here regarding exceptions to the rule: there are none. That does not mean that God, in His mercy and righteousness and justice, treats those incapable of spiritual action, like infants or those whose mental conditions prevent it, in a fully appropriate, grace-filled and loving manner. I think the ability to do this and satisfy the laws of righteousness and justice is made possible by the willing sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, but exactly how one would “chart” it I will not speculate.
Death came in through the first created man: Adam. Good old Adam. He has left such a heritage that we even deny his existence these days. Through his and Eve’s willful decision to violate God’s one command, “Don’t eat that!” they brought sin into the world. Death followed sin, because the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23). Physical death is the side effect of the spiritual death that sin brings. Why? Because humanity was created in the image of God, who is spirit (John 4) and so people are spirit in a body. And losing the spiritual vitality of that initial creation wrecks the body as well.
Death came in then, and stuck around. Even in the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. Even in the Exodus and all of the Law and Tabernacle and everything surrounding the Exodus, death reigned: people still died, most without a knowledge of God at all.
Because neither the liberty to simply follow human conscience nor the constraints of a multitude of religious, civil, and moral laws can undo the damage of sin. It’s just not enough. The original bent that was brought in by Adam can not be straightened out by law or freedom.
It takes the hammer of grace to beat it out. The hammer of grace, that drove the nails into Jesus at the Cross, is the only hope for any of us. Not because it enables us to live, on our own, up to the holiness of God but because Christ died in our place.
The reason that it took such drastic action is that we are not spiritually “snoozing” or even “comatose” without grace. We are dead. Separated from the love of God and the created purpose of our lives. Since we were dead, we could not help ourselves, and so someone had to save us.
That someone is Jesus. His saving work was not just for His people, the Jews, but for all people, which is great news. His saving work was not for righteous or godly people—it was for ungodly people. Which we all are at the outset.
This grace is a glorious thing. The deeper trouble we were in, the longer dead or the more decayed, the more grace there is to counteract that. The more grace there is to rescue us.
It all comes through one person: Jesus. Strangely enough, we see an effort to act like He never really was, either. For many decades we have seen growing denials of Adam and his bringing of sin into the world, and that is joined to the growing denials of Jesus and His bringing of life into the world.
Yet there was a certain reign: death reigned in all humanity.
Until the reign of the King of Kings.
We deny Him at our own peril and to our own great loss.
Today’s Nerd Note: There are some efforts to make a symbolic interpretation or a non-literal-Adam interpretation compatible with Genesis 1-3. However, any such interpretative moves must remain compatible with the theology expressed here in Romans, for God does not contradict Himself. So, if God through Paul says Adam brought sin and death, then God through Moses would not say that Adam was not real. Or vice-versa.
This comes back to the original point: we interpret Scripture together. Genesis needs Romans, Romans needs Genesis. To study one and neglect the other is to neglect it all.