My Difficulty with Romans 5:12-14

For my write-up today on Heikki Raisenen’s Paul and the Law, I will talk some about Raisenen’s discussion of Romans 5:12-14, which (in the KJV) states the following:

“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned…For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.  Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.”

This passage has long confused me.  If God did not impute sin to people before the law, then what do you call the death penalty for Adam’s sin?  Raisenen points out another example in which God punished people prior to the Mosaic law: the Flood. I can also refer to the examples of Cain, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.

Raisenen does not seem to buy the notion that Romans 5:12-14 is saying that the law made people accountable and guilty in terms of the last judgment, whereas, prior to the law, God may have punished people in this life but did not record their sins for judgment day.  Raisenen states that the “explanation that the people of the interim period were punished immediately, whereas other people are only punished on the day of judgment is artificial” (page 146).  Raisenen points out that Paul in Romans 2:12-16 talks about people who sinned and will perish (at judgment day) without the law.  Raisenen also believes that there is a contradiction between Romans 5:12-14 and Romans 7:8, for the former acknowledges the existence of sin before the law was given, but the latter says that sin was dead before the law came.

Raisenen settles on the interpretation of Romans 5:12-15 stating that “although there is sin in the world since Adam’s days, ‘transgressions’ in a technical sense are not there until there is a law which can be transgressed” (page 148).  Raisenen says further down that “the law is seen as a formal standard which qualifies transgressions of it as different from other ways of sinning.”  Was sin conceptualized differently after the law came—-as a transgression of the known will of God?  While God held people responsible to a moral standard prior to the law, did the law increase their responsibility, since the law revealed what God actually wanted?

I don’t know how systematic Paul was.  Maybe his point in Romans 5:12-15 is simply that the law is a dead end, since it primarily revealed God’s standard and officially made sins into transgressions without doing anything about them.  That’s why Christ had to come.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to My Difficulty with Romans 5:12-14

  1. It seems to me that the Mosaic covenant is God working His will and building His society within a people whose culture is already vehemently human. The Law was God’s response to their culture, and if we read between the lines we can see God’s righteousness in there. Jesus, on the other hand, is a vividly clear representation of who God is, as well as who God’s intent for humanity is–Son of God and Son of Man. The Law, in Paul’s eyes, is beautiful because it gives us boundaries, yet it’s destructive because it reveals our brokenness and how immoral we truly are–we cannot follow even this Law.


  2. mackquigley says:

    Adam’s law was Genesis 2:17. Every man’s obligation (law) is to do right as best as he knows how and to obey God’s words. As God reveals more words, man’s obligations grow.


  3. James Pate says:

    Hi Christopher! So is your view like Peter Enns’: the law reflects ancient Near Eastern culture because God was speaking to people where they were (or something like that)?


  4. James Pate says:

    So how would you relate that to Romans 5? When Paul says that sin was not imputed when there is no law, yet death reigned, etc., etc., is his point there that Adam actually had a law?


  5. mackquigley says:

    Man’s body dies because it is Adam’s flesh – even babies die in the flesh. Our deaths have nothing to do with us eating forbidden fruit or not – Adam did that and it affected our flesh. So we die in the body even if we are innocent babies. But innocent babies have no imputed sin to their souls – there is no imputation of sin where there is no laws (no knowledge of moral obligation to God). So you have to distinguish man’s body, soul, and spirit – as well as distinguish that every time Paul writes “law” he is not necessarily referring to the Mosaic law, but all law.


  6. I hadn’t been familiar with Enns prior to your comparison, but looking him up and seeing this alternative starting points I’d definitely say I’m already taking that approach. Of course, I’m not alone and I’ve learned from brilliant people who have broken my previous presumptions regarding what the nature of everything Christianity truly is. Addressing your specific question, in relation to Enns’ approach here, then yes–I think God was speaking to people “where they were”–exactly! I think the approach American Christians take, having no clue that they do this, is actually a Westernized Christianity. The tendency is to think that this must necessary be the way to do the Gospel. And, this is also why we have become irrelevant to the American culture, because we treat the Gospel, in a sense, with a superstitiously religious approach.



  7. James Pate says:

    That how I see it, though I take that insight into a different direction. To me, evangelicalism seems to be, in many respects, a product of its time, so I have issues when people dogmatically program that it is the “will of God”, or God’s opinion.


  8. Jerry Shugart says:

    Dr. Renald E. Showers writes that “Genesis 3:5 and 22 indicate that
    mankind obtained its awareness of good and evil as a result of eating the forbidden fruit. In other words, the human conscience began when man rebelled against God…Paul indicated that the conscience is the awareness of good and evil which exists inside human beings. It condemns people internally when they do something in the category of evil, and it commends them internally when they do something in the category of good” (Showers, The Second Dispensation, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute).

    All of Adam’s descendants would thereafter be born in Adam’s likeness and image, also having a “conscience”, or an inborn knowledge of God’s law:

    “And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, and after his image; and called his name Seth” (Gen.5:3).

    So Adam was responsible for death coming unto all men because he was responsible for bringing “law” unto all men. When all men after Adam sinned against the law written in their hearts they died spiritually–“and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”

    If Adam would not have sinned then “law” would not have come into effect and man’s sin would not be imputed to them. That is how Adam’s sin brought death to all men.


  9. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jerry!


  10. MackQuigley says:

    Babies have no conscience and yet still die in the flesh.


Comments are closed.