Romans Bible Study (The Righteousness of God Revealed)

Romans 5:12, Original Sin

Click here to listen to this lesson.

This section of Romans is perhaps one of the most difficult sections to understand. The number of interpretations are wide and varied. In the process of examining all the difficulties in this section of scripture, it is easy to overlook the main point of Paul. What I thought I would do with this section of scripture is do a lesson concerning the textual difficulties and various interpretations and then do a lesson that simply explains the text, as we have been doing in the Romans series. Let’s begin with an overview of the difficulties.

The Challenge — Death

The first question we need to ask and answer is which death Paul is talking about. When Paul writes about death in this text, is Paul referring to the physical death of humans (death of our bodies) or is Paul referring to spiritual death (separation from God)? The context will have to answer the question for us.

First, notice that Paul has not been discussing physical death so far through this letter. To think that Paul is discussing physical death would require us to believe that Paul has introduced a completely new topic that has not part of his theme or message thus far.

Second, the immediate context has been about reconciliation. Romans 5:10-11 is discussing how we have now received reconciliation. Spiritual death has been what Paul has been talking about. Our reconciliation means that we are no longer separated from God. Spiritual death is separation from God. So leading into Romans 5:12-21 Paul has been talking about reconciliation, which is God’s remedy for our spiritual death.

Third, one of the contrasts in this text is death and life. Adam brought death but Jesus brought life. Does Jesus bring physical life or spiritual life? Jesus does not bring immortality to our physical bodies. The contrast cannot be that Adam causes all people to die physically, but now in Jesus all are alive physically. But the contrast is that Adam causes all people to die spiritually. Now in Jesus all are alive spiritually.

Fourth, to validate more fully the previous point, notice Romans 5:21 and carefully consider the contrast. Sin reigned in death. Grace through righteousness brought eternal life. The contrast here is spiritual death versus eternal life. Physical death and eternal life are not a parallel.

Finally, in Romans 6 the apostle Paul continues to discuss spiritual life. For example, the chapter concludes in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal life is again the topic and the natural contrast is that the wages of sin is spiritual death, that is, separation from God.

Now there are a few brethren whom I greatly respect who believe Paul is talking about physical death through Adam. While physical death solves many problems that we encounter in this section of scripture (like how death spread to all people through Adam), ignoring the context and forcing the text to say this is physical death is not fair to the text or the context. We ask others not to insert their theology in the scriptures when studying. We also must do the same and not make the text say something simply because we like the outcome.

Before we leave this topic, it is important to consider the consequences of understanding Paul to speaking about physical death than spiritual death. This is a quotation from John Piper, a noted and respected evangelical pastor:

“Death–both physical and spiritual–is a result of sin (Romans 5:12; 6:23). Thus, death only comes upon those who have sinned. Since infants die, they therefore must be sinners. It could be objected that Christ was sinless, and yet He died. But He willingly gave up His life, and He did it to conquer the curse of death that we were under” (from What Is The Biblical Evidence For Original Sin? website article). To fully answer John Piper’s statements here would require its own lesson. But I want us to see that this logic is correct. If Paul is talking about physical death, then the death of infants is proof that they are sinners. I submit that physical death is not in view at all as Paul writes about the death that has spread to all people.

Original Sin

The other point that we need to make about this text is that this is the place where the doctrine of original sin is proven by most scholars and writers. The doctrine of original sin has some variations. I will quote for you a couple of the reformers who strongly established this doctrine.

“Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19). And that is properly what Paul often calls sin. The works that come forth from it–such as adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders, carousings–he accordingly calls “fruits of sin” (Gal 5:19-21), although they are also commonly called “sins” in Scripture, and even by Paul himself.” (John Calvin)

“Original sin stands not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” (Martin Luther)

Below is the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, a standard theology of most of the denominational world:

6.1 Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory.
6.2 By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.
6.3 They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.
6.4 From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.
6.5 This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.
6.6 Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.

For a more modern perspective, J.I. Packer affirms the teachings of Calvin and Luther. “The assertion of original sin makes the point that we are not sinners because we sin, but rather we sin because we are sinners, born with a nature enslaved to sin” (Concise Theology).

Where Did Original Sin Come From In The Scriptures?

We may ask the question, “Where did they come up with this?” This is a doctrine that is built upon a reading of Romans 5:12-21. Notice how often we see a picture of something that looks like original sin in Romans 5:12-21.

“For if many died through one man’s trespass…” (5:15).
“For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation…” (5:16).
“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man…” (5:17).
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation of all men” (5:18).
“For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners…” (5:19).

Five times the apostle Paul emphatically points out that death and condemnation were the result of Adam’s sin. We cannot ignore these statements. We cannot sweep them under the rug and say that they do not mean what they say. Five statements in five consecutive verses by the apostle Paul. Paul is telling us that something happened to all humanity because Adam sinned.

Why Not Accept Original Sin?

So why not simply accept that we are sinners because Adam sinned? There are a number of reasons to reject the doctrine of original sin.

(1) Romans 5:12 cannot be ignored. Read verse 12 carefully. Why did death spread to all people? Paul tells us because all people sinned. Paul could have easily said that death spread to all people and sin spread to all people because Adam sinned. But Paul gave us a very clear reason why death spread to every person and the answer is because every person sinned. The answer that most of these scholars give in rebuttal to the statement “because all sinned” is to add the two words, “in Adam.” That is to say that death spread to all because all of us sinned in Adam. When Adam sinned it was like we had sinned also. But that is not what Paul says. It is dangerous to add words to the scriptures. Further, Schreiner states, “It is quite improbable on linguistic grounds that ‘all sinned’ means ‘all sinned in Adam.’ … The most natural way to construe all sinned is to see a reference to the personal and individual sin of all people” (Baker Exegetical Commentary, pg. 275). I appreciate his honesty with the text because this is exactly right. We cannot add the words “in Adam” and the most natural meaning is that death spread to every person because every person sins. If that is not what Paul meant, then Paul should not have said it.

What I am calling for at this point is for us to seek the truth and not defend a position. Defenders of the doctrine of original sin all to easily and frequently ignore the plain wording of Romans 5:12 that death spread to all because all sinned so as to maintain this doctrine. On the other hand, we cannot ignore five statements of Paul that declare that something happened to all humanity because of Adam’s sin. We cannot rest of verse 12 and ignore verses 15-19. The truth should have nothing to fear and we cannot maintain a theology that runs counter to the scriptures.

(2) We cannot accept original sin because it causes God to be unjust. If our condemnation is not based upon our own sins but upon Adam’s sin, there is no way to avoid calling God unjust. If a husband commits a crime, his punishment cannot be given to him, and his wife, and his children, and their children’s children, and great grandchildren, and so forth. That is not right, that is not fair, and that is not just. The apostle Paul has spent a significant amount of time in the first three chapters proving that God is righteous. God is always right, God is always fair, God is always just, and God always keeps his word. If I am punished for the sins of another, that is unjust. Further, if I am punished for the sins of another when that person has already been punished for his sin (like Adam has), then God is even more unjust.

(3) If we did nothing to receive the sin of Adam, then the necessary parallel is that we do nothing to receive the grace of Jesus. Notice that this is the parallel in verses 18 and 19. If I am a complete by-standard who did nothing yet still received the sins and the condemnation of Adam, then by parallel, I am a complete by-standard who does nothing yet still receives the righteousness and justification from Jesus. Therefore, all the world is saved regardless of faith. Justification is not by faith, then. Justification is automatically given to the world just as sin and corruption was automatically given to all people because of Adam. We should see that this cannot be true because Paul has argued otherwise. Paul has taught that justification comes by faith. Paul has taught that we need to walk in the footsteps of faith of Abraham. Paul has taught the need to be doers of the law and not just hearers or recipients of the law. If Adam brings universal condemnation, then Jesus brings universal salvation.

But let me give caution to the other side of the coin because the parallel also breaks our typical understanding of Paul. We cannot say that it is because of what we did that we are under sin and death because then the parallel is that it is because of what we did that we are under grace and justification. Paul has been very clear that this is not to be the parallel either. The parallel cannot be that what we did brought death and now what we do brings life. Or, to state this parallel another way, we cannot say that what we did separated us from God and what we do reconciles us to God. Paul has been very clear that the work of God, the righteousness of God through the faithful life of Jesus, brings reconciliation and peace. Therefore, Adam must have done something that affects us so that the parallel can be maintain that Jesus has now done something with affects us greater. So we must be careful with our words as we proceed with our study.


  1. The doctrine of original sin is not scriptural. It violates far too many principles and teachings in Romans.
  2. We must reconcile verse 12 with verses 15-19. Verse 12 says that death spread to all because all sinned. Verses 15-19 reveal:
    “For if many died through one man’s trespass…” (5:15).
    “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation…” (5:16).
    “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man…” (5:17).
    “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation of all men” (5:18).
    “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners…” (5:19).
    In next week’s lesson I will offer how we can reconcile these teachings. I hope you will spend the next week thinking and studying for an answer.
  3. Paul has a balanced parallel that must remain intact. Adam did something that affected all humanity. Christ did something that affected all humanity. That balance is found in verses 18 and 19. Whatever the mechanism was for Adam’s effect on all humanity must be the same mechanism for Christ’s effect on all humanity.
Share on Facebook
Scroll to Top