From a distance the role of Rom 5:12-21 is tolerably clear. Paul has told the story of human disobedience with its resulting downward spiral and Jesus’ obedience with its resulting upward spiral. He now retells that story through a series of contrasts between Adam and Jesus Christ.
Close up, what to make of Paul’s reading of the law (vv.13, 20, i.e., the Torah)? This is not a new problem: see 3:19-20; 4:15. It’s a problem because it contrasts so sharply with Jewish testimonies that Torah is life-giving, e.g., Ps 19, 119. Is it the effect of the Judaizers breathing down his neck (“Gentile Christians must be circumcised and obey all the Torah”—recall the Acts 15:1-12 reading from June 21)? The effect of watching zeal for the law lead to Jesus’ death, Stephen’s death (Acts 7:58), Paul’s imprisonment of too many innocents (Acts 8:3)? The “why” question is probably unanswerable, and an interpretive dead-end. How else might we enter into it?
Close up, what to make of the repeated “much more” (vv. 15, 17), the sense of disproportion between Adam’s and Jesus’ work? Perhaps a number of contrasts are in play.
- Death vs. life. The teacher (in Ecclesiastes) would have liked this one. The two are really incommensurate!
- The virtual inevitability of aligning oneself with Adam’s disobedience vs. the freedom to align oneself with Jesus’ obedience?
- “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (v.18). Many readers ask whether this implies universal salvation. As James Dunn puts it, “How, after all, can grace be ‘so much more’ in its effect if it is less universal than the effect of death?” I think Paul leaves that question open because the future is open: notice the multiple references to the future, e.g., vv. 17, 19, 21.
What do you see?