The process of justification

A sermon by Rod Benson

Romans 5:12-21

peach-boyAs a small child, I read several kinds of books. There were picture books with very few words, like Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. There were wordy books with few pictures, like A.A. Milne’s When We were Very Young. There were story books with lots of words, but with pictures on every page, like this one, my favourite, Peach Boy, an anthology of Japanese folk tales compiled by Florence Sakade.

And then, perhaps because my father was an engineer before he was an academic, there were small Ladybird books with titles like How It Works: The Locomotive. It was always going to be a tough read for me.

This passage, Romans 5:12-21, is like that last kind of book: How it works: justification. In Romans 1, Paul declared the truth, revealed from heaven, that we need to get right with God, and that is possible through being justified by faith in Christ. God declares us just, or righteous, and initiates us into a new creation in which we are made righteous.

In chapter 5:1-11, he outlines three amazing benefits of our justification. Here, in 5:12-21, Paul describes, in carefully crafted and succinctly summarised form, the process of justification – how and why it works.

It’s only a summary. It would take many books of fine exposition to plumb the depths and the implications of what Paul outlines here – as indeed it has, for 2000 years, and as it will continue to do.

As I said last week, justification is that central aspect of salvation where God declares a person “righteous,” and in doing so makes them righteous, and ready for heaven, by virtue of the reconciliation that has been achieved between God and humanity through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Justification is an essential element in God’s plan of salvation. Without it, there can be no peace between you and God, no access to the grace available to those who are saved, no hope of heaven. And because it is so central, and so vital, and because Paul merely summarises here the essence of how and why it works, there have been various thoughtful attempts to make sense of what he teaches, and to compare the horrendous and glorious truths of this passage with other key passages in the Old and New Testaments relating to the how and why of salvation.

We have here a bold typological contrast between the first human, Adam (Gen 1:26-3:24; 5:1-5) and the “last” human, Jesus Christ, illustrating the universal significance of the saving work of Christ in undoing the damage caused by Adam’s sin, and restoring Adam and his descendants to wholeness and holiness.

Now typologies and analogies are not perfectly rounded and comprehensive representations of truth. As James R. Edwards observes,

Types are yardsticks, not calipers. Their effectiveness consists in the essential truths they convey, not in every logical possibility they imply, and to push them beyond such limits runs the danger of logical casuistry.[1]

But this biblical typology, this stark comparison between Adam and Christ, conveys important truths:

  • v. 12: an initial comparison indicating the impact and consequences of Adam’s sin, and then Paul interrupts himself;
  • v. 13f: Paul explains the pattern of sin and death;
  • vv. 15-17: Paul notes the profound essential dissimilarities between Adam and Christ;
  • vv. 18-21: he returns to complete the thought he began to express in v. 12, explaining the contrast between Adam and Christ, and adding a few words on the purpose of “the law.”

Drawing on John Milton’s imagery in Paradise Lost, and Paradise Regained,[2] Australian theologian Michael Bird captures the contrasts that Paul makes in the passage:

It is by one man’s disobedience that Paradise is lost and it is by another man’s obedience that Paradise is regained.

It is by one man’s disobedience that death is unleashed and it is by another man’s obedience that death is defeated.

By one man’s disobedience sin accedes to the throne over humanity, but by another man’s obedience sin is dethroned and vanquished.

By one man’s disobedience corruption becomes a universal pandemic, but by another man’s obedience corruption is purified.

By one man’s disobedience sin uses the law to multiply itself, but by another man’s obedience the law is returned to its place of service again.

By one man’s disobedience Paradise becomes a jungle of horror, but by another man’s obedience, as Milton puts it, “a fairer Paradise is founded now.”[3]

By way of these contrasts, Paul reveals some important facts about the universal and damning problem of sin, and the unique and saving work of Jesus.

First, what do these verses teach us about the problem of sin? Six related and truly horrible truths:

  • sin entered the world of humanity through Adam (v. 12a);
  • “many died through the trespass of [Adam]” (v. 15b);
  • sin attracts divine judgment and brings condemnation (v. 16b);
  • through Adam’s sin, death reigns in every human life (v. 17a);
  • “one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people” (v. 18a);
  • through Adam’s disobedience “many were made sinners” (v. 19a).

These are sombre verses. None of this is good news. Yet it helps to explain why there is wrong in our world; why we find it so hard to be virtuous, just, and ethical in every area of our lives; and why we need to look beyond ourselves for salvation, healing and redemption.

These verses also imply that there was a time of innocence and bliss in the Garden of Eden, when Eve and Adam enjoyed all the blessings of a pristine earthly Paradise, and when they also enjoyed deep fellowship with God untrammelled by sin and selfishness.

And, tragically, there must have been an actual moment where that perfect environment was forever spoiled, and a specific decision to disobey God that led to what we call “the Fall of humankind.” By some mysterious means, we are all contaminated by Adam’s first sin, rendering us “depraved” – having an inevitable tendency to sin.

Every aspect of our being is affected by sin. Not only that, but apart from the gracious intervention of God, it is not only possible that I will choose to sin rather than do good, but certain (although not necessary) that I will sin, on account of my inherent moral weakness and tendency toward evil.[4]

This does not excuse my sin; it merely describes the terrible reality of my depraved state, my culpability, and my need for redemption. We are all helpless and hopeless apart from the redemption procured and available in Jesus Christ.

But it seems so unfair! Why must I indirectly suffer – both now in my human condition, and after death in eternal punishment – for sins committed thousands of years ago for which I have no responsibility, and over which I had no control? I can’t precisely explain why, and nor does Paul in the New Testament, but I accept what the Bible declares to be true about me, and about my sins. And I praise God that redemption is available, and forgiveness, and peace with God, and new life here and now in the Spirit, and the promise of eternal life with God in heaven.

Just as Adam brought sin, condemnation, and death to all humankind, so Jesus brings grace, justification, and life to those who accept redemption on God’s terms. Theologians have suggested three ways in which the sin of Adam and Eve may be related to the depravity and sinning of the rest of humankind:

  • since all are said to have sinned along with Adam, his guilt is imputed to us, and we are all guilty;
  • Adam’s depraved nature is transmitted to all his descendants (with the exception of Jesus), perhaps in a way similar to the transmission of genetic traits; or
  • when we commit a sin, we attract the same condemnation and punishment as Adam and Eve attracted, and thereby share in their experience.

American Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett wades through many theories as to how we are saddled with Adam’s depraved nature, and come to share in his tendency to sin, and condemnation. He concludes:

To affirm the universality of sin is easy, and to affirm the universality of depravity is not difficult, but to settle on the relationship of the sin of Adam and Eve to our sin is indeed difficult.

But we don’t need to understand the process in order to feel its power and dread. We don’t need explanation so much as expiation: we need a reliable and effective solution to the problem of our own sin, in its root and branch, in its power over us, and its terrible effects upon us. And we find that solution in the unique person and saving work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20b), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).

Second, what does Romans 5:12-21 teach us about the work of Jesus?

  • Jesus alone is God’s good gift, bringing saving grace into the world, and into our personal world (v. 15c);
  • just as sin results in judgment and brings condemnation, the gift of Jesus results in our justification and brings life (v. 16c);
  • the recipients of “God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness” will “reign in life” through Jesus (v. 17b);
  • through the obedience of one man, Jesus, “many will be made righteous” (v. 19b); and
  • now, in the light of the cross, and the empty tomb, grace reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (v. 21)!

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift (2 Cor 9:15)!

Sermon 754 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 19 November 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] James R. Edwards, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), p. 146.

[2] See, e.g., Paradise Lost, 1:1-5; and Paradise Regained, 4:596-615.

[3] Michael F. Bird, Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), pp. 187f.

[4] Walter T. Conner, The Gospel of Redemption (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1945), p. 22, my emphasis.

%d bloggers like this: