Romans 5 and the Superiority of Christ

Universalism in Paul, Pt 2

Abjan van Meerten
12 min readAug 7

For an introduction to this series and a discussion of the first text, see part 1, “Romans 3 and the Faith of Christ.”

B. Romans 5

12 Therefore, just as Sin came into the world through one man, and Death came through Sin, and so Death spread to all because all sinned — 13 for Sin was indeed in the world before the Torah, but Sin is not billed without the Torah. 14 Yet Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin in the likeness of Adam, who is a pattern of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one human’s trespass, much more surely have the gift of God and the gift through the generosity of the one human, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And [the effect of] the gift is not like the effect of the one human’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation [for all], but the gift following many trespasses brings justification [for all; see v. 18]. 17 If, because of the one human’s trespass, Death reigned through that one [over all; see v. 12–14], much more surely will those who receive the abundance of generosity and the gift of deliverance [i.e., all; see v. 18–19] reign in life through the one human, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one human’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one human’s act of righteousness leads to deliverance and life for all. 19 For just as through the one human’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so through the one human’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 But the Torah came in by a side door, so that the trespass might increase, but where Sin increased, Generosity abounded all the more, 21 so that, just as Sin reigned through Death, so Generosity might also reign through deliverance leading to the life of the age to come through Jesus Christ our Lord. (NRSVUE, slightly modified)

This is one of Paul’s clearest and most profound expositions of the meaning of the Christ-event, that is, the gospel. In it, Paul elaborates on the Adam-Christ contrast already implicit in 3:23–24, as well as on its emphasis on ‘grace’: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [in Adam] and are delivered as a gift by his generosity through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” Here I will limit myself to five exegetical comments, focusing on 5:15–21, after which I will discuss some common objections to the universalistic reading.

A. Exegetical Comments

1. The Structure

Two statements, in verses 15a and 16a, mark the main structure of verses 15–21, namely a negative comparison between ‘the trespass’ of Adam and ‘the gift’ of Christ, that is, the Father’s gift of the Son (cf. 8:32) or the Son’s self-gift (cf. Gal 2:20) as he dies on the cross.

Table 1: The parallels between Rom 5:15a, 16a

With only minor rearrangements, the following parallelistic structure emerges in verses 15–19 in which the above-mentioned comparison is carried out. This includes two a fortiori’s (“much more”, in vv. 15b, 17) which stress the superiority of Christ (see table 2).

Click image to zoom in

Table 2: A wooden translation of 5:15b, 16b, 17–19, to show the parallels

Finally, in verses 20–21, we see a simpler parallelistic structure, this time comparing the power of Sin to the Gift (now also construed as power), with an implicit a fortiori in verse 20b (“abounded” versus “hyper-abounded”). (On the sinister role of the Torah, see here.)

Table 3: Sin versus Generosity

2. Representatives of Humanity

Paul’s comparison between Adam’s trespass and Christ’s gift makes sense because Adam and Christ both represent corporate humanity. As for Adam, this is largely self-evident, both because of tradition and because the Hebrew ‘Adam can mean ‘humanity’. Moreover, Christ, the risen Messiah of Israel (Rom 1:2–3), is elsewhere called by Paul the “image of God” (2 Cor 4:4), “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [that is, pre-eminent one] over all creation” (Col 1:15; cf. Rom 8:29), “the mature human” (Eph 4:13; cf. v. 24). Finally, this reading is confirmed by the repeated use of anthrōpos (‘human’) in our passage, both in the singular (v. 12, 15, 19) and plural (v. 12, 18).

3. Protology and Eschatology

However, Adam and Christ do not represent humanity in the same way, as there is a teleological relationship between the two. Adam never existed apart from this teleological relation to Christ, as a perfect prototypical human who somehow failed (as the Augustinians would have us). No, Adam only ever was the type of the antitype, the shadow of the substance, Christ. In other words, Adam only prefigured true humanity as it is now revealed in Christ. In a more real sense than Adam, Christ is the prototypical, representative human — the perfect image of God.

This is because Adam and Christ represent the same humanity at two different points in its history, namely its beginning (protology) and end (eschatology), corresponding to immaturity and maturity. [1] Adam represents humanity as it was subjected to cosmic evil powers (Rom 5:12–14); Christ represents the humanity from Psalm 8 to whom are (finally!) subjected all things (Eph 1:22; 1 Cor 15:25–27; see Ps 8:6), the very theme which is taken up in Rom 5:17b. [2]

Adam only ever was the type of the antitype, the shadow of the substance, Christ.

In more traditional terms, Adam represents fallen humanity, Christ redeemed humanity; the first humanity as it goes off track, the latter as it reaches its destiny— the common destiny of all (Adamic) humanity. No human was made to go to Hell; all were made for the sake of being conformed to Christ. Christ was ‘plan A’ all along, for every human.

4. Singular Act with Unconditional Consequences

The clear contrast between Adam and Christ flows from their singular acts — trespass and obedience — that had cosmic consequences for humanity, the first disastrous, the second glorious. Adam, made in the image of God, but still immature in love, trespassed, and thus gave Sin and with it Death the opportunity to invade the cosmos and rule over humanity (cf. 7:8, 11). Christ, the perfected (cf. Heb 5:9) image of God, was obedient to God unto death, and through his obedience God defeated Sin on the cross (Rom 8:2–4) and Death in the resurrection. (On the already/not-yet dimension of this, see below.)

In both cases, the consequences of these acts for humanity are unconditional, as they relate to cosmic powers. People do not sin because they choose to do so — like Adam (see 5:14)— but because they are, from birth, enslaved to Sin, whose ‘wages’ is Death (6:23). Similarly, people do not obey God (in faith/fidelity) because they choose to do so, but because they are liberated and adopted into the family of God to be heirs of God with Christ (8:14–17). Put more technically, human trespass/obedience is not the condition for but the fruit of their solidarity with Adam/Christ. [3] Put more schematically:

Table: Unconditional acts and subsequent participation

5. Asymmetry

In sum, Christ and Adam represent humanity at two different points in its history, its beginning and end. The first trespassed, inaugurating enslavement and destruction for humanity; the second obeyed, bringing liberation and life for humanity.

But there is one final, crucial element to this comparison: their asymmetry. As Campbell simply puts it, Christ > Adam. [4] Paul expresses this through the repeated use of a fortiori: if many died, how much more did the gift abound to many (v. 15)! If Death reigned, how much more those who receive the gift (v. 17)! If Sin increased, how much more Generosity (5:20)! This is a simple but highly significant point: Christ trumps Adam. Whatever Adam did, is more than countered by what Christ did.

All these comments are really superfluous when it comes to arguing for universalism, because the text itself is just too clear (and adherents of the ‘clarity of Scripture’ must surely agree): Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to deliverance and life for all” (v. 18)— period.

B. Objections

Right? Well, not for many (traditional) interpreters. The hermeneutical side of this exegetical trend is very interesting, and I will come back to that extensively in a future article, which will be added on to this exegetical series. For now, I will just treat the most common objections to the universalistic reading of Rom 5:12–21.

1. Introducing the Condition of Faith

I+A (Infernalists + Annihilationists) hold on to every textual detail that can supply them with a side door to introduce an appropriative, receptive notion of faith, corresponding to a contractual, conditional notion of salvation (see here and references there). Paul talks about “many” (not all?) who “will” (perhaps?) “receive” (how?) the gift of salvation; thus, what Paul really means to say is that only if you believe, do you belong to the ‘all’ who will be saved; otherwise, you will perish alongside Sin and Death.

However, besides the typically Western, non-Pauline nature of this notion of faith, it simply does not follow from the text.

  • “The many” (οἱ πολλοί) does not imply a ‘few’ who are excluded but is used as a synonym of “all [people]” (πάντες [ἀνθρώποι]), as can be clearly seen from verses 15 and 19 where respectively “the many died” and “the many were made sinners,” which no one denies mean all without exception. It is very implausible that Paul would change the meaning of ‘many’ within the same sentence from ‘all without exception’ to ‘all with exception’, especially considering the fact that he is precisely making a comparison between Adam and Christ; they are similar (only Christ is better!). The equivalency between ‘many’ and ‘all’ is also apparent from verses 18 and 19, which, again, are meant to be parallel (see table 2, row D’).
  • The future tense in verses 17 and 19 (“those who receive … will reign”, and “the many will be made righteous”) seems to some as an expression of uncertainty, as if it still hangs in the balance (presumably waiting on the human decision of faith). However, this future tense can simply be explained as expressing the eschatological ‘already/not-yet’ dimension of Christ’s salvific work. Adam’s trespass had an immediate effect at one moment in history: Sin and Death entered the cosmos, and all humanity was made a slave. However, Christ’s righteous act is only fully ‘in effect’ at his future revelation (see Gal 5:5), when all enemies are subjected to him and the final enemy, Death, is destroyed (1 Cor 15:25-26), and thus only then will all humans be fully liberated. [5] Until that day, those who are saved by Christ — all — are still subject to Death, inevitably, and also to Sin, regrettably. But again, this textual detail is not enough to introduce doubts about the scope of salvation because of supposed conditional requirements on the human part; it simply expresses the unique unfolding of Christ’s salvific gift. [6] (It also shows what that salvation is most deeply about: liberation from Sin and Death through participation in the resurrection of Christ.)
  • Finally, I+A interpret the word ‘receive’ in verse 17 as ‘appropriate through faith’. Thus, the condition of faith qualifies the scope of salvation: only if you receive the gift, i.e., appropriate it through exercising faith, will you reign in life. So, all will be saved — namely, all who believe. However, there is nothing inherently appropriative or conditional about Paul’s use of the verb ‘receive’; it is just the other side of ‘giving’. The phrase could therefore just as easily be rendered as: “those whom are given … will reign…” Importantly, the passage itself then immediately qualifies to whom God gives this gift, that is, who receive the gift: “all humans” (see table 2, row D’). What is more, as Paul’s parallels make clear, the recipients are precisely the same ‘all’ as the ‘all’ who were “made sinners,” received “condemnation”, and “died” (see table 2, row D-E; also v. 12). That is to say, the gift of Christ’s death was not occasioned by any human action, but it was precisely a gift to the “powerless,” the “ungodly” (v. 6), “sinners” (v. 8), “enemies” even (v. 10), and not to the “righteous” or “good” (v. 7; remember that ‘trust’/ ‘fidelity’ were ancient virtues!). Everything in Romans 5 points precisely to the mismatch — what Barclay would call the ‘incongruity’ [7] — between the gift and the recipients, which, importantly, goes hand in hand with the unconditionality of that gift (see point 4 above).

2. Playing Off Quality versus Quantity

Another way I+A go is that they try to introduce a distinction between ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ in Paul’s thought in order to drive a wedge between them and limit Paul’s talk about grace’s superiority to quality, disregarding quantity. Somehow, the quality of the reign of Grace is superior to the quality of the reign of Sin, while being inferior in scope.

However, besides only being a solution for the a fortiori’s and not the regular comparisons that Paul makes (see table 2 above), it goes against the grain of the passage. It is precisely the quality of the reign of Generosity that ensures that its quantity equals that of Sin. Sin was very good at enslaving people (both quality and quantity), but Generosity is much better at liberating them (both quality and quantity)! Sin and Death are not allowed to reign over a corner of God’s world; no, they are vanquished by the reign of Generosity through Christ. This means that, just as every human being was once conquered by Sin, the same human beings are now recovered by God.

It would be very strange for Paul if he wrote this passage with the knowledge that millions (even billions) of humans will actually never receive the gift, always remain slaves of Sin and Death and perish forever; it would be a perverse triumphalism of the select few. Such a reading is not ‘worthy of God’. [8]

In the next article: Romans 11, Israel, the Gentiles, and the purposes of God’s election.


[1] See my future article on Ephesians 1 in this series, and the references there, esp. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love.

[2] For more on the ‘image of God’ in Romans, see Haley Goranson Jacob, Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans (IVP Academic 2018).

[3] For the idea of double participation (i.e., in Sin vs. in Christ), see Susan Eastman, “Double Participation and the Responsible Self in Romans 5–8”, in Gaventa (ed.), Apocalyptic Paul, ch. 6.

[4] See esp. Paul: An Apostle’s Journey (Eerdmans 2018), 165 ; also Pauline Dogmatics, 431.

[5] See my article on 1 Corinthians 15 in this series.

[6] Until the parousia, there is a distinction between two kinds of humans — not ‘saved/unsaved’, but ‘believing/unbelieving’, with believing being understood in a non-contractual, retrospective manner. All people are in fact saved through the Christ-event, but some people know it and live it out in community through the Spirit of adoption in them, and others don’t and live as unwitting slaves. But even the ultimate fate of the latter is secured by Christ.

[7] See J.M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans 2015).

[8] A common hermeneutical phrase used by Origen; see, e.g., On First Principles, trans. and ed. John Behr (Oxford University Press 2017), 1.1., in the context of God’s bodilessness and the interpretation of the phrase ‘God is a consuming fire’: “For what does God ‘consume’ in respect of the fact that he is ‘fire’? Can he possibly be thought to consume bodily matter, ‘wood or hay or stubble’ [1 Cor 3:12]? And what, in this, would be worthy of the praise of God, if God is a fire consuming materials of that kind?” Etc. For an excellent article on Origen’s hermeneutics, see Jordan Daniel Wood, “Origen’s Polemics in Princ 4.2.4: Scriptural Literalism as a Christo-Metaphysical Error.”

Further Reading



Abjan van Meerten

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