Romans 5:12-21

(This page is a supplemental page to that for the definition of sin.)

Have you ever struggled to understand Paul’s writings? It seems that this portion of Romans is regarded as particularly difficult:

“This profound and most weighty section has occasioned an immense deal of critical and theological discussion, in which every point, and almost every clause, has been contested.” (The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, comment on Romans 5:12-21)

“The passage here introduced has been regarded by many as the most difficult in the NT, if not in the whole Bible.” (Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary Vol. 6, p529)

See the definition for sin in the Glossary for some questions about this section of scripture. On that page, the different words for sin as used in this passage are discussed. Part of the key to understanding it is to know the meaning of the terms used; especially to grasp the difference between sin as actions and sin as a state of mind.

Below is my annotated, expanded paraphrase of the passage as used in the KJV. Sometimes adding this many words is necessary to really grasp the meaning. It is done not to add to or change the meaning of scripture but to make the meaning in English as clear as possible to reflect the meaning of the underlying Greek text. Some words are color-coded where quoted below in the text

Sin from hamartia (Strong’s G266)
Sinned from hamartano (Strong’s G264)
Sinners from hamartolos (Strong’s G268)
offence(s) from paraptoma (Strong’s G3900)

Romans 5:12-21

  • 12 Wherefore, as by one man – Adam
  • sin – as a principle, a change in man’s nature, rather than simply the action.
  • entered into the world, – really, into the human race. “World” is often used in scripture to represent mankind rather than the planet. Satan sinned (lying to Eve) here (in the world) before mankind sinned.
  • and death by sin;– not eternal death, as some will be saved, but physical death as a result of the choice to sin and the resulting sinful state. No one was destined to die because the apple was bad. It doesn’t mean everyone dies because of an act of sin – like everyone is executed. It could be death as a natural consequence of sin; of separation from God, the source of life.
  • and so death passed upon all men, – the sinful nature was inherited by Adam and Eve’s descendants. Adam and Eve could only pass on the nature they had.
  • for that all have sinned: – all have become infected with the nature of sin. That has to be the correct meaning here. An infant who dies a week after birth has not committed any acts of sin. However, it was born with the sinful, fallen nature it inherited.
  • 13 (For until the law – referring to when the law was proclaimed at the time of Moses.
  • sin – as a principle (but, of course, the acts followed)
  • was in the world: – both in the physical world but more importantly in the people living in the world (as in verse 12).
  • but sin – the sinful nature (resulting in a tendency to sin) which is inherited
  • is not imputed – recognized (“… by the law is the knowledge of sin.” – Rom 3:20) Or, it could be said, “diagnosed.” A disease is not identified when one is unaware of its symptoms.
  • when there is no law. – that is, when there is no written law by which one can readily realize that they are a sinner.
  • 14 Nevertheless death reigned – since all were infected by the nature they received from Adam. Death is personified.
  • from Adam to Moses, – In spite of the lack of a written law during that time, the law was still there and in effect (as can readily be proven from scripture).
  • even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, – death reigned over all because all have the same fallen nature. Others committed acts of sin because – well because it came naturally to them in their fallen state and, in many cases, in relative ignorance of what was required. Adam did not have a fallen nature when He first chose to sin. He disobeyed a very clear command.
  • who is the figure of him that was to come. – Adam, the head of the human race, is compared and contrasted with Christ, the second Adam, who was to be the new head of those who chose to trust God (“… Christ is the head of the church …” – Eph 5:23)
  • 15 But not as the offence, – the sin of Adam
  • so also is the free gift. – the gift of God to solve the sin problem – that gift was Jesus: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
  • For if through the offence of one – Adam’s choice
  • many be dead, – in a spiritual sense
  • much more – more in extent of efficacy
  • the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. – The “not as” and “so also is” of verse 15 and similar wording in verse 16 was the most difficult for me. I have taken it to be meant as a contrast showing that the solution is more than sufficient for the problem as in verse 20 “grace did much more abound.” But I could be wrong.
  • 16 And not as it was by one – Adam
  • that sinned, – distrusted God
  • so is the gift: – the offer of salvation which comes with the gift of God’s Son.
  • for the judgment was by one – most versions say judgment came as a result of one sin
  • to condemnation, – the result of that one judgment
  • but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. – the gift came as the result of many offences. So the comparison in this verse is between one act of sin and many acts of sin.
  • 17 For if by one man’s offence – Adam’s sin
  • death reigned by one; – the consequence came, again by Adam
  • much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness – being set right with God
  • shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)
  • 18 Therefore as by the offence of one – Adam’s sin
  • judgment came upon all men to condemnation; – the result of man’s fallen nature was the condemnation of death unless a remedy could heal him.
  • even so by the righteousness of one – the one being Jesus who overcame
  • the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. – the free gift again being God’s Son. Each person has the possibility being set right with God through Him.
  • 19 For as by one man’s disobedience – Adam’s sin
  • many were made sinners, – the act lead to the condition
  • so by the obedience of one – Jesus’ life of perfect obedience
  • shall many be made righteous. – many shall be healed
  • 20 Moreover the law entered, – referring to the giving of the commandments at the time of Moses
  • that the offence might abound. – this was not the intent of the giving of the law but the result of it. People with rebellious hearts will react to prohibitions against particular actions by flagrantly committing those very actions.
  • But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: – the remedy provided for the infection of sin was more than sufficient to take care of the problem. The remedy was given to deal with the root of the problem – distrust of and rebellion against God – not to merely treat the symptoms, the acts of sin.
  • 21 That as sin hath reigned unto death,  – the wages or natural consequences of a life in rebellion is death (Rom 6:23)
  • even so might grace reign – grace is personified as was sin in this verse and death in verse 14.
  • through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. – that grace, the saving love and favor of God, all comes from the Father through His Son.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

It is interesting that both sin (266) and offence (3900) appear in Rom 5:20. The way it is worded, it seems that grace abounded more in reaction to sin (hamartia, Strong’s G266, attitudes, infected hearts) than to offences (Strong’s 3900, individual sinful acts). It is the condition of the heart that most needs to be fixed. Once an act is done (harmful as it might be) it is done and can’t be undone. But a sinful, rebellious heart can be healed and once that has happened the sinful acts will be reduced and eventually cease.

This was alluded to by John the Baptist when he spoke of getting to the root of the sin problem:

“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” (Matt 3:10)

And Jesus said:

“For every tree is known by his own fruit …” (Luke 6:44)

If the source of the infection (the sinful nature) is healed then the symptoms (the sinful acts) will disappear and good fruit will appear.

“To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses (3900) unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:19)

God must have been not imputing their sins (individual acts) to them; not keeping a legal account to be balanced at some future point. There is no question of their sinful nature, everyone knows we are naturally sinners with an inclination to sin.  It is the turning from God, the rebellious heart that is more serious.

There is one other verse that uses both “hamartia” and “paraptoma” showing that they must have different meanings:

“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses (Strong’s G3900) and sins (Strong’s G266);” (Eph 2:1)

In this study, I have treated “hamartia” as the sinful condition and “paraptoma” as acts of sin. Dr. Timothy Jennings, in his expanded paraphrase of the New Testament, puts more emphasis on the condition of sin, often rendering instances of either original word as the sinful condition. It is written very much from the view of disease/infection and remedy/healing. Go directly to Romans Chapter 5 of the Remedy NT.

Go to the sin definition page.