Romans 5:12–14: The Cosmic Powers of Sin and Death, and the Role of the Law

An Unconditional Reading of Romans 5:12–21, Part 1

Abjan van Meerten
14 min readApr 6, 2023


Romans 5:12–21 is a very fundamental passage in Paul. It contains his most extended contrast between Christ and Adam (in that order), focussing on ‘the gift’ (charis) versus ‘the trespass’ (parabasis/paraptōma), leading respectively to ‘justification of life’ (dikaiōsis zōēs) and ‘judgment unto condemnation’ (krima eis katakrima). Reading this passage in the context of Romans 5–8 as a whole may lead to some surprising conclusions.

5:12–14: The Opening Narrative

In 5:12a Paul starts a comparison: “As through one man [Adam] Sin came into the cosmos…” Presumably, the sentence would continue with: “…so through one man [Christ] Righteousness came into the cosmos”, but, as we will see below, Paul digresses.

But first, you might be wondering: why capitalize ‘Sin’ and ‘Righteousness’? That is because Paul in Romans 5–8 does not frame them so much as individual acts but as cosmically determinative powers. [1] For example, in this passage, Paul continually uses the language of ‘reigning as a king’: Death ‘reigned as a king’ over all human sinners (v. 14); as Death ‘reigned as a king’ through Adam, much more will the recipients of the gift ‘reign as a king’ in life through Christ (v. 17); and as Sin ‘reigned as a king’ in Death, much more will the Gift ‘reign as a king’ unto the life of the age to come. (We will come back at some point to the meaning of all these other terms.)

Moreover, it must not be forgotten that ‘Christ’ (i.e., Messiah) and ‘Lord’ (kyrios) are fundamentally royal designations of Christ. In light of this royal language, it becomes clear that Paul is talking about a battle between kings and kingdoms, and this takes place on a cosmic scene, as he immediately makes clear in verse 12.

The Invasion of Sin and Death

Now, the ‘entrance’ of Sin into the cosmos is fundamentally an intrusion of an alien force; Sin does not belong in the cosmos as created by God. Therefore, this language of ‘coming in’ is best interpreted, in light of the royal metaphors, as ‘invaded’: Sin invaded the cosmos, and through Sin, Death. How did this happen? ‘Through one man’, that is, Adam, who sinned (see v. 15–19). And what is the result? All humans sinned (i.e., participated in the enslaving power of Sin), and therefore Death ‘came’ to all humans.

A mistranslation of the Greek eph’ hōi led to Augustine’s bizarre ‘original guilt’ reading of this passage, namely that humans are guilty of Adam’s trespass because they were literally (biologically) present ‘in Adam’ and therefore complicit. (Federal ‘representative’ readings are not much better, imposing a contractual framework onto the text that is simply not warranted by Christological exegesis.) However, eph’ hōi can simply mean ‘because’ [BADG]. Consequently, the logic of the verse is unmistakeable:

  1. Adam trespassed (see v. 15–19).
  2. This allowed the power of Sin to invade the cosmos.
  3. As a result, all humans sinned.
  4. Moreover, the power of Death came to all humans.
  5. As a result, all humans died.

Now, as can be seen in Romans 6–8, point 3 is by no means an autonomous decision on the part of humans. Sinning can only be understood as participation in the enslaving power of Sin. In these chapters, Paul makes extensive use of the slavery metaphor: humans are sold into slavery under the power of Sin (7:14), so that they are now slaves to Sin (6:6, 16–20, 22; 7:25), who ‘masters’ over them (6:9, 14) and whom they must obey (6:12, 16–17). Moreover, Paul keeps connecting the power of Sin with its baneful ally, Death (6:16, 21; 7:5, 13; 8:2), saying climactically that ‘death is the soldiers’ wages of Sin’ (7:23). Fundamentally, Death is the corollary and ally of the power of Sin that enslaves humans (and not God’s punishment on transgressions; cf. 1:32, and my concluding thoughts below). Death is an enemy that needs to be defeated (1 Cor 15:26).

Sin and the Law

In Romans 6–8, Paul lists some further allies of Sin, both external and internal, namely respectively the Law and the Flesh. In our passage, Paul does not mention the Flesh (although he no doubt presupposes it), but he does mention the Law — it is the very reason why he breaks off his sentence! Paul feels the need to interject that the power of Sin was in the cosmos before the Law (thus implicitly breaking with traditions of natural law; cf. 1:18–32, 2:14–15). Accordingly, Death reigned over all humans in the period between Adam and Moses, even though those humans did not sin like Adam did — that is, their sin was not so much the origin as the result of the cosmic domination of Sin.

However, Paul’s next turn of phrase is somewhat tantalizing: in that pre-Law period, sin was not ‘charged to one’s account’ (ellogeitai; see BADG). This makes one think of a similar parenthetical comment in Romans 4:15: ‘the Law affects wrath, but where there is no Law, there is no transgression’. This verse might very well be the reason why Paul wants to clarify himself in 5:13, because it might imply there was no transgression at all in the period before the Law! Clearly there was. What then does Paul mean with the Law ‘charging’ sin? To understand that, we first need to understand Paul’s wider argument in Romans regarding the Law.

1. First, in Romans 5:20–7:6, Paul sketches a solely negative portrait of the Law.

  • First, near the end of our passage, Paul says that ‘the Law came in by a side door [so Martyn] with the result that the trespass multiplied’ and ‘sin increased’ (5:20). [2] The relationship between the Law and sin could not be stated more clearly: the Law increases sin, and that on a cosmic scale. [3]
  • Then, in 6:14–15, Paul says that the Gentile Roman Christians are no longer ruled by Sin because they are no longer under the power of the Law but under the Gift (cf. Gal 5:18). This seems to imply two things: first, that they (Gentiles!) used to be under the Law, and that the Law, therefore, was a cosmic power that reigned over both Jews and Gentiles [4]; secondly, that the Law in some way established or enforced the rule of Sin, so that, when people were freed from the Law, they were also freed from Sin.
  • Paul elaborates on this in 7:1–6, where he introduces a somewhat complicated (some say confused) metaphor. The main image seems to be that Adamic/fleshly humanity (the wife) was ‘lawfully’ married to Sin (the most logical husband in context), so that when Sin ‘died’ (cf. 8:3, where Sin is ‘condemned’, i.e., receives the death penalty), humans were thereby ‘set free’, both from Sin itself and from the oppressive Law that bound them in ‘marriage’ to Sin. (Remember that in ancient times, marriage was an asymmetrical contractual relationship, with wives being hypandros, ‘under the power of [her] husband’; in this way, it somewhat resonates with the metaphor of slavery used throughout.) Interestingly, Paul calls it the ‘Law of the husband’ (7:2), which resonates with ‘the Law of Sin [and Death]’ (see 7:23, 25; 8:2). (Paul mixes things up when he goes on to say that it is humans who die, namely to the Law; 7:4, 6; see also 6:7, where humans die to Sin.) Again, we see that it is the Law that collaborates with Sin: it ‘rules as a master over’ humans (7:1, the same word being used for Sin and Death in the previous chapter!), ‘binds’ them to Sin (7:2), ‘arouses sinful passions’ in them (7:5) and ‘detains’ them (7:6). (A similar portrait appears in Galatians 3:22, where it is said that ‘the Scripture locked everything up under the power of Sin’.)

2. However, in Romans 7:7–8:7 Paul complicates things [5] because he wants to excuse the Law to some extent.

  • Up to this point, the Law is firmly in the camp of Sin, but Paul writes a parenthesis to deny that the Law is (equivalent to) Sin (7:7). Rather, the Law is ‘holy and righteous and good’ (7:12), being ‘Spirit-ual’ (7:14). As a Jew, probably writing to a partially Jewish audience, and facing antinomian charges (3:8; cf. 6:1), Paul must let the Law off the hook, at least to some degree.
  • Nonetheless, the Law has been hijacked by Sin, which produces Death through it. Thus using the Law, Sin has become ‘sinful beyond measure’ (7:12–13). Paul goes so far as to say that without the Law, the power of Sin was dead (7:8), i.e., inactive or weak in some sense. However, with the arrival of the Law, Sin revived (7:9), waging war and making humans prisoners (7:23). This resonates with 1 Corinthians 15:56: ‘The sting of Death is Sin, and the power of Sin is [resides in] the Law.’ It is no wonder that Paul can call it ‘the Law of Sin and Death’ from which humans need to be liberated (8:2)!

Returning to 4:15 and 5:13

Now, this set of information might help us explain our two puzzling verses, 4:15 and 5:13:

4:15aThe Law effects wrath…’ Paul uses the present tense to state a general truth about the Law: it effects or brings about wrath, presumably God’s wrath — but against what? It surely has to do with transgressions, as the second part of the verse makes clear, but how does the Law relate to those transgressions? As we have seen above, it does not just expose them (see footnote 3) but actually, and actively, increases them and allows Sin to produce Death through it, thus wrecking God’s good creation. It is this cosmic scene, involving the Law, that provokes God’s wrath. (As it is a general rule, the converse applies to the Roman Christians in their post-Law existence: they’re freed from the Law, so they don’t have to fear wrath; cf. 5:9.) [6]

4:15b ‘…but where the Law is not, neither [is there] transgression.’ Firstly, it must be clarified that Paul does not suddenly shift here to a generic (or natural) ‘law’; the context makes clear that he is still very much thinking of the Jewish Law, i.e., the Torah. As in, e.g., 5:20, Paul does not need to use the definite article to refer to the Torah.

Again, Paul makes use of the present tense to state a general truth about that particular Law. Stated positively, where the Law is present, there are transgressions — namely, produced by the Law or by Sin through the Law, as we saw above. Stated negatively, where the Law is absent, there are no transgressions — at least, that is what one would think. As Paul would say in 6:14: if you are ‘not under the Law’, ‘Sin shall not rule over you’; and in 7:8: ‘without the Law, the power of Sin lies dead’. (As this is a general rule, the converse can be applied post-Law Christian existence, who are ethically empowered to leave behind sinful behavior.)

5:13a But this is what Paul then goes on to qualify in the next chapter: transgressions were present apart from the Law, as ‘before the Law, the power of Sin was present in the cosmos’, having invaded the cosmos with Adam’s trespass (see 5:12). Even without the ally of the Law, Sin was active, with the result that all people sinned.

5:13b However, the effect of Sin was in some sense limited, as ‘sin is not billed when the Law is not present’. [7] It would be preferable to read ‘sin’ again as the power of Sin here, but that makes for a hardly comprehensible sentence. Thus, it is more likely that he means the human act of sinning as participation in the power of Sin. So, Paul is still very much talking about the apocalyptic cosmic scene, and not about some generic notion of human disobedience in relation to a natural law. This informs how we are to read the financial metaphor of ‘billing’.

Yet again, Paul uses the present tense to state a general truth, again relating the powers of Sin and the Law, namely that the Law plays a role in the ‘billing’ of Sin. The first question that comes up is: who does the billing? We can shortly discuss the options:

  • It could be that the Law itself ‘bills’ sin. There are no problems with speaking about the Law actively oppressing humans, as we have seen above. Moreover, if our interpretation of 7:1–3 is correct, we have a precedent for Paul speaking about the Law using sin to do so.
  • It could also be that a third party uses the Law to bill sin and thus oppress humans. (Admittedly, this is a more complicated reading than the first.) From the start, we have to rule out God, as God is characterized in context as the liberative, not oppressive actor on the cosmic scene (e.g., 7:25; 8:2, 33–34). Closer to our text, he is defined as the God who justifies the ungodly (4:5) and showed his love in dying for sinners (5:8)!
  • Another agent in context is Death, and the logic of the immediately surrounding context might corroborate this reading (see table 2). Death reigned even though it did not have the Law at its disposal to ‘bill’ sin. We might have a precedent for such a triple construction in 1 Cor 15:56, where these same three powers are similarly related: Death is the primary enemy (cf. 15:26), Sin is its ‘sting’ (i.e., weapon), and Sin’s ‘power’ derives from the Law. (More schematically, Death > Sin > Law.)
  • Finally, it could also just be the power of Sin that bills sin. This power is of course mentioned just before, and it could be corroborated by 6:23: “The soldiers’ wages of Sin is death” — a similar economic metaphor: humans fight in Sin’s army (i.e., sin) and Sin ‘pays’ them with death; humans make use of Sin’s services (i.e., sin) and Sin ‘sends them the bill’ of death.
Table 2: The logical structure of 5:13–14

Going with either one of our final two readings, Paul’s metaphor might be paraphrased as follows: when the Law is present, Sin/Death use it to ‘send the bill’ of sin to humans. As a result, they have to (metaphorically) ‘pay’ something, presumably their own life (i.e., by dying); until they do that, they are in debt bondage to Sin/Death (cf. Col 2:14–15). [8] However, getting to Paul’s point: even while the Law was absent, Sin/Death still apparently reigned, as all humans died! They did not need the Law to oppress, although the Law did help.

Now, the debt bondage mentioned above is not an individual, retributive debt, as if, through the Law, humans literally owed Sin/Death because of something they themselves did, i.e., sin (cf. Philemon 1:18). [9] Even though humans did not choose to participate in Sin (as arguably did Adam), Death sent them the bill— simply because it wanted to. Therefore, this is a cosmic, oppressive debt: Death reigned over all humans regardless of their personal merit (again, cf. 7:1–6).

Only this line of interpretation does justice to Paul’s broader argument in Romans about the Law, of which the point is clear: the Law is a sinister ally of Sin and Death, exacerbating (rather than solving or even stabilizing) the human situation marked by cosmic oppression. [10]

Concluding Thoughts

There is no need, as previous commentators have done, to interpret Paul’s language in a forensic-retributive way, as if the Law is a contract between God and humans, with transgressions leading to a human ‘debt’ to God that merits his retributive ‘wrath’. This is indeed the way of thinking behind much of Romans 1:18–3:20, but, as Douglas Campbell has convincingly shown [11], that passage is Paul’s refutation of his rival teachers on their own terms — that is, there Paul adapts the language of his opponents to trap them within their own system, only then to proceed with his own Christological, pneumatological, apocalyptic, etc. gospel (3:21–26, etc.).

Therefore, the rest of Romans can be loosened from these forensic-retributive presuppositions, allowing Paul to do the real talk. And it has become clear by now that Paul thinks unmistakably in forensic-nonretributive terms, that is, in terms of cosmic powers that act on humans regardless of their actions or merit, i.e., unconditionally. But we will come back to this discussion next time when we will focus on ‘justification’ versus ‘condemnation’.


[1] See, e.g., Beverly Gaventa, ‘The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans’; Gaventa, When in Romans, ch. 1, and much of the ‘apocalyptic’ school in Pauline studies.

[2] ‘So that’ (hina) need not imply a divine purpose, but can also simply denote consequence (BDAG, meaning 3). Cf. Gal 3:19 (‘it was added’), where similarly the role of God in relation to the Law is pushed into the background; cf. Martyn, Galatians, in loco.

[3] This is something very different from merely conveying ‘knowledge of s/Sin’ (3:20). First, that reference must be located in Paul’s subversive rhetorical critique of his opponents (see below). For them, sin is a human deed, to be overcome by Law observance. However, for Paul, because of the power of Sin (3:9), it is clear that no human being is actually righteous in their terms of Law observance. As a result, within their system, the only thing the Law seems to be good for is showcasing that people sin; it cannot overcome it. Nevertheless, importantly, this ‘knowledge of s/Sin’ for Paul is only accessible retrospectively, from the viewpoint of the cross, once people have been released from the bonds of Sin and the Flesh and enlightened by the Spirit of Christ, giving them accurate knowledge of God, the cosmos, and self. Finally, as 3:20 is the only passage in Paul talking about knowledge of sin. (7:7 seems a likely candidate, but, seen in context, it talks about the experiential knowledge of the power of Sin, not the self-reflective knowledge of personal deeds; moreover, it is located in a retrospective account of the Adamic human, not prospective.) Accordingly, this is a very minor theme in Paul, if a theme at all. (It is famously absent from Philippians 3:4–6.)

[4] See J. Louis Martyn, Galatians, 311, on 3:10: “[F]or Paul the curse of the Law falls on both observer and nonobserver.” And in footnote 87: “Because the Law does not have its origin in faith, all of those who have to do with it — by observing it and by not observing it — are under its curse.” See also on 4:1–6.

[5] For a more extensive analysis, see this recent paper of mine on the role of the Law in Romans, building on Martyn’s analysis of Galatians.

[6] Ultimately, God’s wrath was poured out on Sin (not on sinners, nor even on Christ in their place!); cf. 8:3, where Sin is ‘condemned’ in the body of the crucified Christ. As a result, humans are ‘saved from wrath’ (5:9) — i.e., from God’s eschatological judgment of the hostile forces of evil — as they are set free from those forces and reconciled to God (the latter being an apt military metaphor). The ‘realm of darkness’ will indeed be destroyed, but not before God ‘has transferred us from [it] to the kingdom of his beloved Son’, in whose blood we have ‘release from slavery’ (so the immensely rich Col 1:13–14; cf. Eph 1:7–10, with its ‘recapitulatory’ salvific narrative).

[7] See Jewett, Romans, 377: “Otfried Hofius makes a compelling case, however, that ἐλλογειν refers to sending someone a bill rather than reckoning a credit on his account.”

[8] Cf. 6:23, where death is called the ‘soldiers’ wages’ of Sin, another monetary metaphor that cannot be taken literally (it rather contains some bitter irony: these are the ‘gains’ from serving Sin!). Another financial metaphor not to be taken literally, from a different author, is Mark 10:45/Matthew 20:28: the Son of Man came to give his life as a ‘manumission fee’ (lytron) for many (cf. 1 Tim 2:6). Obviously, the point is that, as a result of Jesus’ ‘costly’ death, humans are set free from slavery, not that Christ pays an actual fee to a slaveholding party (Satan, Death, or another). Cf. the church-historical ‘ransom theory of atonement’, and David Bentley Hart’s ‘irregular glossary’, point 10, in the subscript to The New Testament: A Translation (1st ed.). The propensity of Western readers for legal and monetary metaphors (and taking them literally) is well analysed in Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God, esp. ch. 2.6.

[9] Even in Philemon 1:18, Paul moves away from the strictly retributive use to a nonretributive (i.e. oppressive) use of the verb. Strictly retributive would be if Philemon bills Onesimus for things Onesimus did. Nonretributive (i.e. oppressive) would be if Philemon bills Paul for things Onesimus did. However, because Paul himself creates this nonretributive situation, it is not oppressive. Purely oppressive would be if Philemon bills Paul without Paul’s consent, simply out of ill will. It is this last category in which the Law’s ‘billing’ of Sin falls.

[10] Paul also had more positive things to say about the Law (e.g., Rom 8:4; 13:8–10); again, see my paper referenced in note 5.

[11] See the exegetical sections in The Deliverance of God, and his further reflections in Beyond Old and New Perspectives; cf. also these articles of mine on reading Romans 1–3, and on the gospel of Paul’s opponents that lies behind it.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God