5:1-11 – Results of Justification
[5:1-5]—We are made whole (“justified”) by our faithfulness in trusting God, living in gratitude, and practicing justice (that is, following the way of Jesus in living free from idolatry, loving God and neighbor wholeheartedly). Living as justified people means we truly are at peace with God. We find such peace through Jesus Christ (Jesus as King, not Caesar).
It is through our faithfulness (trust plus following) in relation to Jesus that we have gained access to the mercy of God. That is to say, we receive God’s mercy because Jesus has freed us from trust in idols. With such freedom, we are able to recognize in God’s mercy the basis for peace. Trust in God as seen in the witness of Jesus is the one true non-idolatrous object of worship.
Because trust in God as revealed in Jesus is the one non-idolatrous possibility for trusting, we may indeed “boast” in “our hope of sharing the glory of God” (5:2). Note both the continued use of “glory” and the validity of “boasting” in this one kind of hope (in contrast to boasting in the various idols that provide a sense of exclusivity and superiority and [false] security, see 2:17 and 3:27).
To show that this one (and only one) valid type of “boasting” is authentic, Paul goes on to emphasize the fruit of the kind of life that is inextricably linked with boasting in the way of Jesus: suffering (5:3). “We boast in our sufferings” because when we follow the way of Jesus and live free from the seductions of the Powers and the resultant practice of idolatry we will mark ourselves as threats to those Powers. And they will retaliate, causing us to suffer.
Paul argues here, though, that in God’s sovereign creative love, the very acts of the Powers intending to cause Jesus’ followers harm will in actuality also lead to growth and fulfilled hope for those who are faithful in their trust and obedience.
Suffering at the hands of the Powers leads to endurance that enhances character and produces hope (5:3-4). When we are trusting in the true God, good is brought out of evil, growth and healing are brought out of suffering. Paul’s model, of course, is Jesus – but this process has been borne out in Paul’s own life as well.
As evidence that God will vindicate us, rewarding our faithfulness with healing, Paul points to the presence in our lives right now of God’s love through the Holy Spirit. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts” when we follow this process of faithfulness leading to suffering leading to endurance leading to character leading to hope. Paul certainly believes in an ultimate future vindication, but with this reference to the present reality of the Spirit of love, he points to a genuine experience of wholeness with God in the present as well.
[5:6-11]—God’s transforming mercy has come to us without being earned. It is God’s initiative to bring healing – not based on the manipulation of idols or the leverage of purity or ethnicity. God reaches out to us “while we were weak” (5:6), which can be understood as “while we were in bondage to the powers (be they the empire [e.g., Egypt or Rome] or the law reduced to legalism [e.g., Paul’s own life]), trusting in idols rather then the true God.
However, God’s unconditional, initiating mercy is such that God acted to set us free from such bondage even while we were “ungodly” (5:6) – that is, even while we trusted in idols rather than God and lived lives in conformity with those idols. God sets us free through the crucifixion of Christ (5:6).
“Christ’s death” is a term thick with meaning in this context. Jesus lived a faithful life, utterly free from the dominance of the Powers. When they murdered him, they exposed themselves as God’s rivals and as unworthy of our trust. Becoming aware of this revelation of the true status of these Powers sets us free from their control. Also, that Paul uses “Christ” here must remind us of the ongoing contrast between Christ and Caesar. Caesar does not bring salvation/peace through a self-sacrificial death but through killing.
As a rule, in the moral economy of the world in thrall to the Powers, people do not give up their lives for others (5:7). However, God does precisely this. And this act of God, the self-sacrifice for the sake of God’s enemies, is an act of the profoundest love (5:8). We must take very seriously that Paul overtly couches the mysteries of Jesus’ crucifixion strictly in terms of God’s love. There is no hint here of retributive justice, no hint of any kind of mechanistic dynamic whereby a “holy” God needs some act of propitiation in order, according to the dictates of a love-less “justice” to offer pardon.
Jesus’ self-sacrifice is purely an expression of God’s love. This act sets those who trust in God free by making clear that God is the one and only worthy object of trust. And this God, the only God worthy of trusting in, brings about healing in the world through self-sacrificial love. God’s transforming love reaches out to God’s enemies (5:8, 10).
We have been made whole (“justified”) by Jesus’ “blood” (5:9; that is, his life of faithfulness unto death leading to his blood being shed as a witness to the transforming character of his life that evoked such hostility from the Powers – “in the blood is life”). Because we are made whole as we trust in God’s love as witnessed to by Jesus, we will be saved from “the wrath” (“of God” is not in the Greek). In being saved from “the wrath,” we are freed from the downward spiral of idolatry inevitably leading to the kind of blindness, injustice, and self-destruction alluded to in chapters one and two. “The wrath” is what God “gives idolaters up to.”
Paul pictures here salvation as both the experience of growth and enlivenment by the Spirit of God’s love and freedom from the downward spiral of self-destruction that visits itself upon those who trust in things rather than God.
In 5:10-11, Paul concludes his portrayal of the process of “whole-making” (justification) with a summary. God reaches out to us while we are still God’s enemies; this is the kind of God we worship, one who loves enemies and seeks healing for all of creation. God’s initiative is centered on the witness of Jesus, who loved even to the point of a self-sacrificial death at the hands of the Powers (and we should remember that Paul surely had himself in mind here as an “enemy of God’ par excellence given his approval, in the name of his zeal for the law as he understood it, of the violence visited upon Jesus and his followers).
God makes us whole (“reconciles,” 5:10) and then empowers us to live the same kind of life Jesus lives (“we will be saved by his life,” 5:10). As a result, again, we are reminded that God as revealed in Jesus is the one reality that it is appropriate to “boast” in (5:11). In reiterating this point, Paul intends to turn the “boasting” of the idolaters on its head. What they seek in their “boasting” in their own status is actually achieved only through dying to that status, living lives of inclusive love, and trusting in God’s mercy alone. The paradigmatic expression of God’s mercy is in Jesus, who died a humiliating death that to a large extent followed from his giving up his own status (see Philippians 2) and identifying with those who had no status.
5:12-21 – Adam and Christ
[5:12-14]—Paul’s discussion of Adam here seems a bit complicated, and probably not a clear basis for what later theology did with the “original sin” issue – especially if we continue to think of sin in terms of the Powers, idolatry, and injustice dynamics that we have seen earlier in Romans.
“Sin came into the world through one man” (5:12). The story of Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel in Genesis 1–4 emphasizes that creation was good, that the first human beings failed to sustain their trust in God, that as a consequence of their misplaced trust their minds were clouded and they began to be afraid of God, and that the fruit of such fear immediately found expression in violence and broken relationships (injustice).
So, the alienation, bondage to idols, injustice, and experience of “wrath” (that is, the experience of the consequences of distrust in God) “came into the world” through the choices and actions and unfaith of these first human beings.
“Death came through sin” (5:12). The choice to turn from God, the trust in idols, the resultant injustice and violence led directly to death. In Genesis 3–4, “death” refers both to the alienation in the originally “good” relationships among God and human beings and to the literally murder of Abel as an outworking of the power of sin in Can’s life. Cf. Gen. 4:7: “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain fails to “master” this power that is seeking to enslave him. As a consequence of this failure, death’s presence is inaugurated through the murder of Abel.
“And so death spread to all because all have sinned” (5:12). This verse in a sense simply repeats what follows in Genesis 4–6 following Cain’s sin. The violence and alienation that erupted with Cain’s inability to master sin, quickly spreads to all the ends of the earth, with terrible consequences. “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen 6:11).
Paul seems simply to be characterizing the consequences of “God giving humanity up” to its idolatries. Cain’s failure “to master sin” repeats itself throughout history and around the world. If we think of terms of the Powers, we could say that what Paul refers to here is how, once the fallenness of the Powers is reinforced when Cain fails to resist their lure into fearfulness and violence, the human project because profoundly shaped by the power of sin (i.e., the dominance of the fallen Powers and the corruption of human social life). We see in the story of Jesus and his cross, how the Powers of government (Empire), religion (the Temple), and culture (the Law) combine to murder in the name of peace and order the very Son of God.
By pointing back to Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel, Paul makes clear that the Law was not to blame. Sin was in the world before God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai. However, it takes the Law to be able clearly to define sin (idolatry) for what it is. The Law, though, was never intended to solve the problem of sin. As we have read already in Romans and will read again, the solution is God’s mercy. And the only way to appreciate and appropriate this mercy such that it will free people from bondage to the power of sin is through trust in this mercy (as mercy). Only then does the crucial place of the Law become clear – as guidance for genuinely transformative obedience to God as the appropriate and liberating response to God’s mercy – mercy that does indeed solve the problem of sin.
“Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses” (5:14). You did not need the clarity the Law provides concerning the true nature of idolatry and its deadly consequences for the reality of death to be experienced. All forms of sin (trust in things and autonomy from God – and the lived out consequences of such trust) lead to death, whether they are precisely “like the transgression of Adam” or not (5:14).
[5:15-17]—These verses develop the contrast between Adam as the symbol for life in bondage to the power of sin and Jesus as the symbol for life in “bondage” (see Paul’s description of himself as a “slave to God”) to the power of mercy. Paul would believe “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” But one type of service is alienating, the other liberating.
Again, what was Adam’s “trespass” that was so devastating for all who came after him? What seems most likely is that he empowered the Powers by trusting in human “autonomy” and self-definition wherein things become the objects of worship. In loosing the Powers in this way, Adam set the stage for the kinds of social corruption that Jesus lived his life to expose and thereby overcome. This world of human autonomy and human beings worshiping things ends up being a world of the dominion of death. Such a sense of the world is readily apparent to anyone attentive to human history and current events.
In contrast, the world Jesus witnesses to is filled with “the grace of God and the free gift.” This free gift, embodied in the “one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many” (5:15). The language here (“grace,” “free gift,” and “abounded”) bespeaks not of a kind of severe and scarce holiness-limited “grace” nearly so much as of an abundant, seeking, healing, unconditional mercy.
The “free gift” of Jesus Christ, in contrast to the “sin” of Adam, “brings justification” (5:16). The contrast here would seem to be between the “sin” that sowed alienation and severed relationships (“judgment,” e.g., Cain and Abel; the violence of Gen 6:11), and the work of God (“justification”) that heals alienation and brings those who trust in God together in relational wholeness. That is, the “judgment” is the “giving over” of people who trust in things to the death that follows from faith in lifelessness. The “justification” is the healing that comes to people who trust in the God of life.
“Justice” (the restoration of wholeness in relationships) here is a “free gift” for those who trust in God as revealed in Jesus’ way of genuine justice. Living in this justice is a form of the “exercise of dominion in life” (5:17). This is a remarkable affirmation, underscoring Paul’s central preoccupation with the quality of life expected in the present for all human beings, should we do what is “natural” (Romans one) and live in grateful trust in God’s mercy and healing justice. The promise is empowerment, the ability to share in the “kingly” life Jesus led of genuine freedom from bondage to the Powers and to sin.
Just as Adam’s way leads to slavery to the powers of death and being “given up” to darkened minds and injustice, so Jesus’ way leads to slavery to the powers of life and the enlightenment of people’s minds (Rom 12:1-2) and justice.
[5:18-21]—Paul repeats the main contrast. Following Adam’s path (again, recognizing that Paul has in mind with “Adam” here a symbol for a certain general way of life, not any particular elements strictly related to the individual, Adam) leads to condemnation (understood, in the terms of Romans one, as “God giving people up to their death-enhancing idolatries,” i.e., the experience of self-induced “wrath”). Following Jesus’ path leads to “justification (healing in relationships) and life for all” (5:18).
Adam’s way, imitated countless times by others who have followed him in seeking autonomy from God and trusting in things, unleashed the Powers who tightened the spiral of death and injustice, resulting in many people being “made sinners” (5:19). To be “made a sinner,” in the broader context of Romans, seems to be referring to growing ever more in one’s practice of idolatry (which includes both the “lusts” of Romans one and the “legalisms” of Romans two).
Jesus’ way also leads to transformation for “the many” who are made just (5:19). Paul definitely is not presenting a picture here were only a few can achieve “justice” while “the many” spiral down into perdition. He seems to present the option for justice to be a genuine possibility for everyone.
How does “the one man’s obedience” lead to the making just of the many (5:19)? Paul does not give any indication here, which leaves us free to continue to think in terms of Jesus’ “saving work” having to do with his model of freedom from the Powers, vindicated by God raising him from the dead, and sustained by the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit among those who do trust in God’s mercy.
The entrance of the Law in some sense made things worse (5:20: “the trespass multiplied”). This seems to be referring to how the articulation of God’s expectations clarifies how people are failing to meet those expectations. The actual level of sinfulness does not increase so much as a growth in the ability to identify this sin as sin.
But as the bondage to the idolatry “increased” due to being named as such, so also “grace abounded all the more” (5:20). Paul is committed to the conviction that God’s grace will have the final word. As distressing as the reality of sin is, and as troubling as having the insight to see the deadly dynamics of idolatry infusing political, cultural, and religious institutions might be, Paul insists that God’s mercy will be more powerful yet. Ultimately, the growth of sin will lead to a growth in mercy. The more need there will be God’s healing justice, the more God will bestow healing justice.
Sin’s power (“dominion”) is shown in the profound alienation all too common among human beings, both spiritual death and the dealing of death through injustice (the former surely leads to the latter). Even more, though, in Paul’s proclamation, God’s mercy “exercises dominion” though God’s healing justice (5:21).
The fundamental nature of God’s justice is seen in Paul’s affirmation here that links inextricably God’s mercy, power, God’s justice, and “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:21). God’s healing mercy that transforms is an expression of God’s justice. Just as Amos links closely together justice with the giving and sustaining of life (especially through the image of the gift of water in the desert), so too does Paul here. God’s works of justice lead to “eternal life.”
When Paul speaks of “eternal life” he mostly has in mind the quality of life. “Eternal life” has to do with life lived in the presence of God now and forever more. This is not a dualistic concept that sees “eternity” as something future, spiritual, and otherworldly. For Paul, as for Jesus and the prophets, future is merged with present, spiritual with material, and otherworldly with this worldly.
The “eternal life” that is given through Jesus is first of all the liberation from trust in death dealing idols. This liberation frees the faith-full person for living an abundant life in the present, making God’s eternity part of life in the here and now. There is full continuity between “eternal life” in the present and the hope for life beyond death. Paul is not a materialist who sees reality only in the present and what can be touched and measured. But neither is he a dualist who sees a separation between the material and spiritual. The “eternal life” Jesus gives is life lived in harmony with God’s will for human beings starting right now, with direct continuity with resurrected life that promises everlasting communion with God.