12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—
“In the whole Bible there is hardly another chapter which can equal this triumphant text.” So said Martin Luther, and the first 11 verses have already given us ample evidence for his claim. The remainder of the chapter highlights the triumph of Jesus Christ over the terrible consequences of Adam’s sin. But before we can get to the good news, we must ponder the bad.
Paul states facts. The first man sinned, everyone born after him sinned, and death spread in the wake of sin. Paul does not explain the how and why of these facts, because the answers to those questions remain in the mind of God.
In verse 14 Paul supplies the name of the “one man.” It is Adam, which literally means “man.”
Sin and death permeate humanity
Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience set loose in their minds and hearts and their harmonious environment a destructive force known as sin. First it corrupted them, and then like a disease it infected their children and everyone born after them.
Anger took hold of the couple’s first son, Cain, so God warned him: “sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7). Cain did not heed the warning, and humanity recorded its first murder.
Paul seems to argue that because the consequence of sin is death and all men died, therefore all men sinned. The cause can be deduced from the consequence. Both the cause (sin) and the consequence (death) are universal. The spread of death to all men testifies to both the reach and the power of sin. Sin took over the human race with an insidious force that Paul characterizes in the next two chapters. Sin enslaves people (6:6), deceives people (7:11), kills people (7:13), overpowers people (7:19–20), and imprisons people (7:23).
Source of sin
Why do Adam’s descendants sin? Did Cain merely follow his parents’ example? Or did sin get passed down from his parents as something that corrupted his spiritual DNA? This latter explanation—that the propensity to sin is inherited—is the correct one, as Paul makes clear later in the chapter. Jesus located the problem in humanity’s corrupt nature:
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:21–23)
The existence of an inherited depravity does not negate the corresponding truth that God holds each individual responsible for his or her particular sins. If anyone thinks it unfair of God to hold people accountable for sins, they should realize that God would have been fair and just to destroy Adam and Eve the moment they sinned. God had warned them that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die that “day” (Genesis 2:17). But God, being merciful, postponed their physical death to give them time to repent and seek a restored relationship with God. He does that with us also.
By God’s gracious provision, neither inherited sin nor acts of sin necessarily doom a person. God has provided a way through Jesus Christ to obtain justification and life. “God judges people not on the basis of what they have inherited from their ancestors, but on the basis of how they have responded to him and acted within those inherited conditions” (Richard Longenecker). Each person makes a choice either to keep on living in the prison of inherited depravity or to respond to God and be set free.
Many young people are naïve about sin’s power to corrupt their souls over time as they postpone a decision about Christ or reject him outright. It’s common for young people to say they would never do certain things and even judge others for doing them, but a short time later do the same things and worse. Just as sin permeates all mankind, it progressively dominates each individual, hardening the conscience and pushing God away.
The nature of death
Adam’s sin infected the entire human family with a terminal disease. Death has three dimensions: physical (limited lifetime set by God), spiritual (alienated from God, guilty before God, incapable of responding to God except by God’s enablement), and eternal (separation from God in the agony of hell).
Physical death is unavoidable, but the two other deaths are optional. Even though everyone is born spiritually dead, anyone who trusts in Christ is “born again” into spiritual life, which is eternal life. The Bible speaks of eternal death as the “second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; and 21:8), and it is also referred to as the “lake of fire,” which is the destination of all who have rejected Jesus Christ.