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In Romans 5, Paul says:

Romans 5:12 (ESV)
12  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

Which seems to indicate that death is caused by individual sins. Yet further on he says:

Romans 5:15 (ESV)
15  But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

Which seems to indicate that death is caused by Adam's sin. How should this passage be understood?

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John Piper did a whole sermon series on this passage (start here). I've been meaning to summarize his insights, but I don't seem to have sufficient motivation at the moment. Rather than horde the information, I thought I better just share it and let someone else use it if they'd like. (And who knows? Maybe I'll get around to answering the question later.) – Jon Ericson May 4 '12 at 1:06
@JonEricson, thanks I love John Piper. I'll definitely check that out. – Eric May 4 '12 at 5:22
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Two doctrines are being expressed in this passage:

  1. The doctrine of federal headship
  2. The doctrine of individual culpability

Federal Headship

Adam was our representative; as such, his actions implicate all of us. This is incredibly important to maintain; he who denies this denies the possibility of Christ's work being applied to others (because of the parallelism between Adam and Christ in this chapter). So death came to all because of Adam.

Individual Culpability

As Ezekiel teaches, each man will die for his own sin. Though Adam's actions implicate all, no one who is righteous will be condemned. Though Adam's sin brings death upon him, ultimately the charges against him in the court of God will be for his own sin.

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+1 for imputed righteousness (Christ to man) necessitating imputed sin (man to Christ) – Ray May 11 '12 at 2:45
Great answer, thanks – Eric May 11 '12 at 3:48

As I was writing this question, a possible interpretation occurred to me. When Paul says that "many died through one man's trespass", he most likely means that Adam's trespass indirectly caused our death.

In other words, Adam's sin led to our sin, and our sin leads to our death. This is consistent with Romans 5:12:

Romans 5:12 (ESV)
12  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—

So death is caused by the sin that is in the world, and that sin came into the world by Adam.

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That is part of the answer. There's more going on here, however. (And if I can find the time, I'll try answering it.) – Jon Ericson May 2 '12 at 18:02
@JonEricson, thanks! – Eric May 2 '12 at 18:31

This answer is based on Karl Barth's commentary. This particular section may be found on Google Books, if you are interested.

Barth makes a distinction between the historical Adam and Adam as a type of all humanity. According to his theology, the Triune God decided before creation to elect some and reject others. So that Adam would reject God and that sin would enter into the world is a foregone conclusion. (Barth connects this passage with the theological idea of Supralapsarianism.)

Adam and his fall are not themselves primary things but logically derived from God's plan to come into the world in the form of a man, the Christ, and dispense the gift of grace. Since we would deserve to be saved if we had been righteous, it's necessary for us to be unrighteous so that God's rescue is undeserved (i.e. Grace). Jesus became the second Adam, but instead of bringing death to all humanity, Jesus brings the hope of life.

So under this scenario, even the historical Adam's death was caused by Adam's fall. In programming terms (ignore this if you aren't familiar) Adam and every other person since has been an instance of the generic type (which Paul calls Adam). But Adam is derived from the Christ type. The purpose of the Adam type is to be replaced with the Christ type. So, just as Adam was the first Adam, Christ is the first Christ.

When it comes to the historical Adam, he sinned and then/therefore died. And we see each person (male and female) after him inevitably sin and die. It's not really the case that we are held responsible for someone else's sin. Rather each one of us follows Adam's example in sinning and dying. (But our sin isn't causally connected to the historical Adam's sin. Rather we sin because we are of the Adam type.)

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Thanks! An interesting perspective – Eric May 10 '12 at 23:57
+1 Not because I agree with it but because it is valuable to be aware of Barth's position. – Kazark May 11 '12 at 14:30
@Kazark: That's probably what I would have done in your position. – Jon Ericson May 14 '12 at 17:47
Is Barth essentially advocating a form of Pelagianism then? The language of how we aren't guilty of Adams sin but rather we follow his example and we should follow Christ's example now is straight out of Pelagius. I had thought Barth was in favor of a stronger definition of sin and guilt than that. – Joshua Dec 29 '15 at 13:07

The death spoken of in Romans 5 is caused by Adam, as death passed because of that one man's sin. This death is not a spiritual death, but physical. The cure for it is in Christ and the resurrection of our new body. O death where is thy sting and? O grave where is thy victory? 1 Corinthians 15:55. The death in Romans 5 is the death that hangs over all humans from the time of conception to old age. Paul is explaining why all people die even though they did not sin like Adam did. There is more to it than that, but that's it in a nut shell.

Now the individual sin that leads to the death that causes a man to go to hell is in Romans 7:9. Here in Romans 7 Paul gives an account of an unregenerate man, whether it is him or anyone in general is another question altogether, but for all practical purposes and intent we'll just say it can be anyone here, as it is a good representative of all men. Here Paul says he was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came (to his understanding) He saw his lack of ability to keep the law and at that point he died. This happened in his own life time, not something back in Adam.

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