There has been much debate throughout church history over the meaning of Paul’s Adam-Christ parallel in Romans 5:12-21. What exactly is Paul trying to convey in comparing the two? There are some who propose that Paul is simply making a point through rhetoric, that Adam’s actions and Christ’s are similar, but there is no real link between the two. Others say that Adam is parallel to Christ in a very real and significant way. Just as Christ is head over those under the New Covenant, so Adam was head over those under another covenant; a covenant which affected not only Adam, but all who were under his headship.
The question is, who is correct? I am Reformed, and believe it is clear in Romans 5 that Paul is speaking of Adam as a covenant head over humanity. Reformed theologians look to Romans 5:12 specifically to prove their point. Paul says: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”. They would say, death spread to all men, because Adam’s sin was imputed to them, thus making all sinners worthy of death. Adam, as our covenantal representative, impacted us in such a way, that we all died spiritually as a result, being found guilty.
Others deny this interpretation of verse 12. They would point out that death spread to these men, not because of Adam’s sin, but because of their own sins. In other words, they died because they made themselves guilty.
However, this does not seem to be the flow of the passage. Paul says further in Romans 5:19-20 that “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners”. In other words, Adam’s disobedience made many sinners. This verse again points to Adam as being responsible for all of humanity’s guilt.
Herman Ridderbos agrees. He says of this passage:
The meaning of this much discussed pronouncement [in Romans 5:12], if one takes into consideration the whole context of Romans 5, in our opinion cannot be in doubt. One man has given sin access into the world; he has, as it were, opened the gate of the world to sin. So sin has entered in, here represented as personified power (v. 21); through and with sin, death has come in as the inseparable follower and companion of sin. The words then follow: “an so [i.e. along this way opened by the one man] death has passed unto all men, for the reason that all sinned”. The final words give final explanation as to how death, through one man, has passed and could pass unto all men. This happened because “all sinned”, namely, on account of their connection with the one man; therefore Adam’s sin was the sin of all, and in that sense it can hold for them that they all sinned. This union of all with and in the one is, as we have already seen, the governing idea of this pericope, and it is in that idea that Paul indicates the typical significance of Adam with respect to [Christ].
Many wish to understand the words, “for the reason that all have sinned”, as referring to the later personal sins of all. This is impossible, however, for more than one reason. First of all, even the words “and so death passed to all” point to the entering in of and granting of passage to sin and death into the world through the one man. Were one to understand the concluding words of verse 12 of the personal sins of all, then this passage of death would rest once again on the sins of all, and “and so” would lose its exclusive reference to what precedes. That this is not the meaning of the text appears from the following considerations:
(a) From the argumentation of verses 13 and 14, Paul appeals here to the period before the giving of the law, because the death of men then living cannot be explained from the “own”, person sin, but must have had its cause in the sin of Adam. There was sin then, too: “for until the law [came] there was sin in the world”. The sanction of the law (death) did not as yet apply, however. For where there is no law, there is also no transgression (cf. 4:15), and “sin is not imputed when there is no law”. Nevertheless, at the time also, death reigned over those who did not transgress in the same manner as Adam, that is, who were not confronted in the same manner as Adam with the divine command and the sanction on it. It is thus apparent that it was not their personal sin, but Adam’s sin and their share in it, that was the cause of their death. The final words of verse 12b cannot thus be understood otherwise than in this corporate sense.
(b) That in the sin of all (v. 12) it is not a matter of personal sins of Adam’s descendants but of one, fixed, first transgression that was the sin of all by virtue of their relation to the first Adam is also unmistakably apparent in the sequel. Paul speaks here repeatedly of the one transgression or the transgression of one, which resulted in the death of all:
…for if by the trespass of the one the many died (v. 15)
…for the judgment led upon the ground of one [trespass] to condemnation (v. 16)
…for if by the trespass of the one death came to reign (v. 17)
…as by the trespass of one it came to condemnation for all men (v. 18)
[It is obvious then the passage speaks of] the sentence (of death) that the one sin of Adam brought on all men, because they are all included in the sin and in the death of the one. In bringing judgment on all by his sin, Adam is also the type of the Coming One, as is evident in all the parallel statement mentioned [in the passage].