The gift - Romans 5:12-20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The Gift - Romans 5:12-20
Some of you may have come across the story of the drunk who was found by a policeman on his hands and knees beneath a lamppost at night rummaging on the ground. The policeman asked him what he was doing. The drunk replied that he was looking for his keys which he had lost. The policeman asked if he had dropped them by the lamppost. The drunk replied ‘No, it was further down the street, but there isn’t a light down there’! I thought of that story when I came to our passage in Romans this morning. The temptation is to look for answers to questions the passage is not really asking and looking in all the wrong places, rather than focusing on the light it sheds on the issue it really wants to deal with. The middle bit- vv 13-17- can seem rather complicated going down all sorts of side alleys. What we need to do first of all is to ask: what is the big issue for Paul?
The big issue is that Paul wishes to draw a comparison between the first man, Adam, and the ultimate man- Jesus. In verse 14 Paul talks about Adam (the name simply means ‘man’) being a pattern or prototype of Christ who ‘was to come’. And it is how Adam is a prototype of Jesus which is the main concern of the passage.
Paul begins his argument in verse 12, ’Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…’ and you expect him to go on and finish the sentence and say ‘likewise’ and then talk about Jesus, but he doesn’t – he breaks off his train of thought to deal with some anticipated questions which are related to his theme but not central to it. He then picks up the argument and finishes it in verses 18 and 19 and you hear the same ideas as in verse 12, ‘Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people’; ‘For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.’ So on one side of the comparison you have one person engaging in one act which has an effect on many people- which was disastrous- that is Adam; on the other side of the comparison we have Jesus, ‘so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people’; ‘so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous’- which is wonderful.
So why is Paul making such a comparison- one man doing one thing which has an effect on the many and another man doing another thing also having an effect on the many?
Well, in chapters 1 to 3 Paul has shown that every person who has ever lived on earth (with one exception) has been in a state of sin; that is having twisted hearts set on dethroning God and enthroning self. The result is that whether you are religious or a reprobate, God’s anger is directed against you. However, because of the action of Jesus things are different; there is now the possibility of being acquitted by God instead of being condemned by God by putting our trust in him who died for us and rose again. But that raises a question: How can ‘one’ person- Jesus- do something which has an effect on people throughout the world and throughout history?
Paul answers that question by showing that this is not a novel idea because it has happened before and accounts for why the world is in such a mess in the first place. One man did something fatal which led to the virus of sin coming into the world together with death, which required another man- Jesus, to not only undo the carnage caused by the first man, but to make something infinitely better.
We might think of it like this: Adam acted in one way which took humanity down one road- the road to ruin. Jesus acted in another way which opens up for humanity another road- the road to redemption. That is the big issue of the passage.
Let’s think of the passage as a journey. Verse 12 is our starting point and verses 18-21 our destination but the way there is a little meandering.
First, let’s look at the ruin.
Paul pinpoints three truths for us in verse 12. First, sin came into the world through the act of one man. The word for sin in verse 12 carries the idea of ‘missing the mark’, it is a tragic falling short of what we were meant to be living under God’s loving rule, but instead we live in God’s world as if he didn’t exist, taking his gifts and spurning the Giver. In a profound way we are being ‘sub-human’ when we act like that- living below what we were created to be. In verse 18 and 19 Paul speaks of sin a little differently. In verse 18 the word he uses is ‘trespass’ –deliberately stepping over the mark. The sign says ‘Keep off the grass,’ and we decide to ignore it and do it anyway. Similarly verse 19 speaks of sin as ‘disobedience’. A clear command is given and is deliberately disobeyed. That is what happened with Adam by breaking the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge- and you know what? We have been acting like him ever since.
Second, death came into the world as the consequence of sin, ‘the day you eat of the fruit you will die’ promised God. That happened. There was the death of the relationship with God and a sort of death between the man and the woman in that they no longer related well together. This was followed by physical death; a kind of black sacrament which symbolises what sin does- it destroys.
Thirdly, death spread because all sinned. Just as the AIDS virus entered the humans system through one person, and the virus and its fatal progeny spread through human society, likewise Paul pictures the spread of sin and death with one vital difference- the transmission rate is one hundred percent. All sin and all die.
But then Paul meanders a bit in his argument to deal with a couple of other points.
The first is in verse 13 where Paul tells us that sin is bigger than breaking God’s law (rpt). Before the law was given, he says, there was sin. We know that because the penalty for sin was in operation- death, even amongst those who didn’t sin like Adam in breaking an explicit command given by God. As Paul has already demonstrated in the first two chapters we can sin in ways which don’t involve knowingly breaking the Ten Commandments, for example: we lie, we cheat, we steal, we suppress our knowledge of God and violate our consciences. However, when we are given God’s commands- the law- then what happens then? Well, Paul tells us in verse 20 that in one sense it makes things worse it ‘increases the trespass’ by bringing out of us the desire to sin. It is like the story of the Old Woman who lived in the Shoe with all those children. One day she said, ‘I am going out shopping, whatever you do, don’t put any peas up your nose’. When she came back- you’ve guessed it- every child had a pea up their nose. That is what sin is like when faced with a command. We enter this world as damaged goods not fit for purpose- falling short. We are constitutional sinners. We sin because we are sinners by nature and we sinners because we sin. Our ruin is total.
Someone who had seen evil close up and looked it in the eye while a prisoner in a Soviet Gulag was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This is the way he describes his ‘eureka’ moment concerning the nature of sin and the human condition: ‘It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through the human heart, and through all human hearts.’ When the Times of London once asked several of Britain’s leading intellectuals what they thought was the problem with the world, the Christian writer G. K. Chesterton sent back a postcard response. ‘What is wrong with the world, ‘I am’’. That is what Paul is saying. We collude with sin, we nurture it and are mastered by it and we are condemned because of it (v16). What the first man did sent disruptive shock waves throughout creation and down history and we are his progeny, as we say ‘like father like son’. We are all either sons of Adam or daughters of Eve and we are a mess.
Then Paul makes the big contrast- the redemption.
In verse 15 we are told that the gift (that is the gift of salvation), is not like the trespass, it is something much, much more. In one sense, says Paul in verse 16, the gift of God can’t be compared with the results of Adam’s sin, for that was a wholly negative thing leading to condemnation, but the gift of God’s grace in the last Adam- Jesus, brings justification- a wholly positive thing. Now you may think what happened as a result of Adam’s disobedience was far reaching and cataclysmic, and so it was. But don’t underestimate by way of contrast what Christ has achieved by his obedience in going to the cross. Think of it like this. In recent years we have seen the devastating effect of forest fires in California, some caused by individuals who struck a match deliberately to make a fire so that it spread, resulting in acres of land being scorched, houses and whole towns burnt to the ground. There is no minimising the effect of one person’s action there. But compare that to the astonishing and brave work of the firefighters in putting out the blaze and the saving of lives by the emergency services and then the reconstruction of the towns from the rubble to produce brand new dwellings far better than those which had been lost in some cases. Sure the act of one person causing devastation and misery was great but the act of rescue and rebuilding is even greater. Do you see? That is the idea here. Or to change the imagery: which is the greater thing, to take the life of a person in murder or to bring back to life someone who has been murdered? The answer is obvious- the miracle of raising the dead. Well, Jesus is in the business of bringing people back to life, fighting the fire of sin and rebuilding not just a burnt out town but a ruined universe- and he is one man!
And the shear superabundance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is brought out even further in the third point- the reign.
Look at verse 17, ‘For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.’ and then verse 21, ‘just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
You know, some people might ask, how can it be fair that the decision made by one person should have bad effects on others who were not involved in making that decision? Well, let’s think a little of the Roman society the early Christian were living in. Suppose a man carried out some criminal act or got himself into debt. One consequence could be that he sells himself into slavery. That is the price he pays for what he has done. Of course, not only is he sold into slavery, but the rest of his family with him, and if they have any children and grandchildren- they will be slaves too, that is the way it goes. Many of us are caught up in the fall-out of acts carried out by people who are in a position of responsibility for us. When Adam sinned, he sold himself and his family into a kind of slavery- slavery to sin and death. His wilful disobedience took him and his human family into a dark kingdom in which death reigned. What was promised by the serpent was freedom, what resulted was slavery. But with Jesus something remarkable has happened. Verse 17 says that those who have received God’s gift of righteousness in Christ are not simply set free, they become kings- they ‘reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.’ Adam was meant to reign over the world under God. His rebellion resulted in being reigned over by death. Jesus reigns over the world as its King, and we are kings with him, a theme taken up in the book of Revelation. Through his new people, God starts to restore things, first by proclaiming the Gospel so that people are set free from slavery to death and are given eternal life-v21, but also in that they start to bring to bear God’s reign by applying his Word to the whole of life empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is why in the 18th and 19th centuries society in England became changed for the better by the work of Christian social Reformers. Just listen to what Professor Halevy writes of the abolition of slavery ‘…to understand the delight with which the emancipation of the Negroes was greeted, the rejoicings which took place on a large scale throughout the entire country…we must remember that the abolitionist campaign had been first and foremost a Christian movement.’ Or think of improvements in popular education, this is what we read in one of the early editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that this was ‘A striking tribute to the sterling qualities of self-help and religious earnestness which were so characteristic of the Early Victorian period.’ Improvements in worker’s rights and conditions can also be traced back to the influence of Christianity. Here is the late Jack Lawson, MP in his book ‘A Man’s Life’ ‘The first fighters and speakers for unions and improved conditions were Methodist preachers. That is beyond argument. And the Gospel expressed in social terms has been more of a driving power in northern mining circles than all the economic teaching put together.’ It wasn’t the teaching of Karl Marx which led to social transformation but Jesus Christ. I know that it is popular to put down anything which appears to be based on moral principle and ‘Victorian’, but while they were far from perfect the social transformation for the good even here in Hull, in reducing prostitution, the effects of alcohol, improvement in education can be traced back mainly to the work of Evangelicals- both Anglican and Methodist. This is the ‘gift of righteousness reigning in life.’
General George Patton head of the American Third Army was one of the most outstanding generals of the Second World War. At points he seemed positively certifiable, but he was a military genius. Whether it actually happened in life or not I am not sure, but there is a scene in the film Patton where he says to one of his aids something to this effect, ‘The way this war should be settled is for me to face General Rommel out in the battlefield- me in my tank and Rommel in his. Whoever wins that battle decides the outcome of the war.’ Well, we have one who has decided the outcome of the great spiritual war which engulfs our planet and his name is Jesus.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.