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?

  • 3
    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.) Commented May 4, 2012 at 1:06
  • @JonEricson, thanks I love John Piper. I'll definitely check that out.
    – user474
    Commented May 4, 2012 at 5:22
  • See also hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/14268/423 which is related (i.e., is death caused by sin or is sin caused by death?)
    – Dan
    Commented Nov 23, 2020 at 14:54

9 Answers 9


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.

  • 2
    +1 for imputed righteousness (Christ to man) necessitating imputed sin (man to Christ)
    – Ray
    Commented May 11, 2012 at 2:45
  • @Ray Neither of which are scriptural!
    – Ruminator
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 19:02
  • @ruminator How do you mean ? Neither of which are scriptural. Commented Oct 26, 2021 at 22:00

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.

  • 2
    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.) Commented May 2, 2012 at 18:02

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.)

  • 1
    +1 Not because I agree with it but because it is valuable to be aware of Barth's position.
    – Kazark
    Commented May 11, 2012 at 14:30
  • 1
    @Kazark: That's probably what I would have done in your position. Commented May 14, 2012 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
    Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 13:07

Paul's argument with those who insist that the gentiles must become beholden to Torah is that the Torah was not given to make anyone righteous but rather to turn sins into crimes and that those crimes led to a death sentence (KJV: "condemnation"). In 5:12 he is introduces this discussion of how those beholden to Torah earned death in addition to the separation from the tree of life brought about by Adam.

What makes the difficult to the reader of Romans 5:12 is the failure to recognize that verse 12 is the beginning of a point he is going to explain in the verses that follow. The other things one needs to read the passage properly is to recognize that "condemnation" does not mean "God shames people" but rather that people come under a death sentence. Also, a "transgression" is different from a "sin". A "sin" is a wrongdoing, but a "transgression" is a crime, with a sanction/punishment attached. Without understanding that vocabulary, you miss the point.

Paul explains that the gentiles are all subject to death (separated from the tree of life) because of Adam's single transgression but those beholden to Torah are condemned to death a thousand times over because of their transgressions against Torah:

[Dan 9:11 KJV] (11) Yea, all Israel have transgressed thy law, even by departing, that they might not obey thy voice; therefore the curse is poured upon us, and the oath that [is] written in the law of Moses the servant of God, because we have sinned against him.

[Rom 5:13-21 NLT] (13) Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. (14) Still, everyone died--from the time of Adam to the time of Moses--even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. (15) But there is a great difference between Adam's sin and God's gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God's wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. (16) And the result of God's gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man's sin. For Adam's sin led to condemnation, but God's free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins.[G: transgressions παραπτωμάτων] (17) For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God's wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. (18) Yes, Adam's one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ's one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. (19) Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. (20) God's law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God's wonderful grace became more abundant. (21) So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God's wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

All of this, therefore, is directly relevant to his entire polemic/teaching against requiring Torah observance for gentiles.


The ESV translation of verse 12 is flawed. When this is corrected, there is no conflict. The verse is translated correctly in the King James as well as the modern Eastern Orthodox Bible and Orthodox New Testament. In the EOB, for example, we find:

Therefore, as sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin, death passed to everyone, because of which all sinned (v.12)

However, the free gift is not like the sin. For if by the sin of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ abound to the many! (v.15)

This translation is not without controversy, however. There is a gulf between how Greek/Eastern Orthodox theologians have understood and do understand the underlying Greek and how western interpreters - both Roman Catholic and Protestant - understand the text. Contrasting opinions can be found here.


The answer is actually both; as evidence I quote two sets of texts:

A: Sin is a state of being, ie, a NOUN, ie, we are sinful and have sinful tendencies

  • Rom 5:15 - But so also the gift is not like the trespass [= noun]. For if by the trespass of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gift in grace, which is of the one man Jesus Christ, abound to the many!
  • 1 John 1:8 - If we say we have no sin [= noun], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. See also Matt 12:34, 35 & Ps 51, 5, 6, etc.

B: Sin is an action, ie, a VERB, ie, we have all sinned

  • Rom 5:12 - 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 [= verb]
  • 1 John 1:10 - If we say we have not sinned [= verb], we make Him out to be a liar, and His word is not in us. See also Rom 3:22, 23, etc.

That is, we are sinners because of who we are and what we have done.

That is, we inherit Adam's tendency to sin, but we have all sinned.

In almost all cases, our inherited tendency to sin aids and abets our sinful actions as stated in Rom 5:12. That is, sin is a tyrant over us, a traitor within us.


According to Romans 5, is death caused by individual sin, or Adam's sin?

Why Humans Die? Because of Adam's sin

Adam and Eve had the wonderful opportunity to live forever and could have been alive today. Sadly however they chose to disobey God and thus sinned and died, Adam and Eve’s sin affected both them and us, they were no longer perfect; when they sinned they began to deteriorate physically and mentally. So they could not produce perfect children.

Job 14:4 (NET Bible)

4 Who can make[a] a clean thing come from an unclean? No one!

The situation could be likened to that of a couple today who have a genetic defect that they pass on to their children. We inherited the defect of sin, for we all stem from an imperfect first pair. Paul explains:

Romans 5:12 (NASB)

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

Do newborn or very young babies have such death-dealing sin within them? The Bible shows they do. How? By inheritance. As the inspired psalmist expressed it:

Psalm 51:5 (NASB)

5 Behold, I was brought forth in guilt, And in sin my mother conceived me


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.

  • Revisting a question I updated. Not sure why this is thumbed down. Really good insight. I think the problem you have is explaining the "all have sinned" statement in Ro 5.12. If this is only physical death, what is the connection with individual sin? I also think you could use better formatting by using the ">" marker to highlight scripture quotes and the such.
    – Austin
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 14:52

It's right there in verse 12

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

  • Hi Dave. What about verse 15 of that same chapter? Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 5:15
  • It's both ways, Sin came into the world because Adam sinned, and all men die because all sinned
    – Dave
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 14:38
  • It's has more than meets the eye. God won't judge is based on Adam's sin but on our own sin Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 17:08