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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
  • 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 Nov 23 '20 at 14:54

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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
  • @Ray Neither of which are scriptural! – Ruminator Nov 24 '20 at 19:02
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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
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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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    +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
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    @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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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Although this question already has an accepted answer, I submit this as food for thought. Let’s understand this passage. The first thing to keep in mind is the Biblical definition of death. Death means separation.

GEN 2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Adam was told how ‘death’ would enter - by ‘eating’ from that tree. And he did eat. And he ‘died’ that day. That is, He was instantly separated from God.

GEN 3:9 And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

So, we are all born ‘in’ Adam. We are all born ‘separated’ from God. We are all born ‘dead’ [separated]. But, how then does Romans equate this to ‘sin’? It’s all about what happened when man ‘ate’. By eating, man decided that ‘he himself’ would be his source for righteousness - and in doing so became unrighteous - Man became ‘sin’. (Sin = noun).

So, ‘man’ became ‘sin’[noun]. That is, man became unrighteous

1 JOHN 5:17 All unrighteousness is sin: [snip]

And, it is through this ‘state’ of unrighteousness, ‘sin-noun’, that death (that is, separation from God) comes to all.

One issue we have is the “meaning’ we associate to words like ‘death’, ‘sin’, etc. so you can easily get the wrong ‘picture’. So some have the idea ‘we are born guilty’ - for a ‘sin’ we didn’t even commit - make sense?

And one ‘root’ cause of this incoherent interpretation is confusing ‘sin-noun’ with ‘sin-verb’. Sin ‘verb’ is what you do. Sin ‘noun’ is what man is. And, they are very different.

The ‘sin’ that you do, all ‘sin’ that you do - is in the ‘flesh’. And, there is a ‘price’ for this. Death. Physical death. Separation of the [physical] body from ‘you’ (spirit/soul). Hence the penalty under the ‘Law’ for ‘sin’, those you ‘did’, was death. The wages of sin [verb] is death. And, all bring this on themselves. But it is that ‘other death’, that separation from God that is the most crucial. We need God’s Righteousness, not our. And that requires a choice.

So, to understand Romans 5 - actually to understand all of Romans, you need to differentiate between ‘sin’[noun] and sin [verb]. With the trouble being you only ever only see the word ‘sin’. And, most times in Romans it’s a noun - but many interpret it as a verb - and this greatly influences interpretation!

We are all born ‘under Adam’ - separated from God. (Spiritually dead.) And, the only solution is to ‘die’ - and be reborn, born again, ‘under/in’ Christ. And, that’s exactly what Romans tells us.

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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

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  • Hi Dave. What about verse 15 of that same chapter? – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Nov 25 '20 at 5:15
  • It's both ways, Sin came into the world because Adam sinned, and all men die because all sinned – Dave Nov 25 '20 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 – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Nov 25 '20 at 17:08

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