In his letter to the Romans, Paul proclaims that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to those who believe. Therefore, if you believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you are made righteous (or just) by your faith. It is within this context that Paul explains the typological association between Adam and Christ in Romans 5. Verses 12–21 are normally used to support the claim that human beings are born sinners and that our sin nature is due to Adam’s sin. This doctrine is called original sin. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the guilt of Adam’s sin has been transferred to us throughout the generations (Chapter VI, Sections III and VI):
“They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.”
“Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.”
Although the Reformers claim that we are now born sinful (See The Covenant of Works: Do This and Live written by Derrick Brite), Romans 5:12–21 does not teach that we today are guilty of Adam’s sin. What we learn from this passage is that, like Adam, we are all sinners (Rom. 3:9-12,23) and that we suffer the consequence of sin, which is death (Gen 2:17; Rom. 6:23; Jas. 1:15). Additionally, through the death of the one Man Christ, we are all made righteous when we believe (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:18).
Paul’s statement in verse 12 shows that sin exists in the world today because one man, who was in the world, sinned. That is, God created this man on the earth, and then this man sinned. Voila! Sin is in the world. Some take this further to say that his sin, or the guilt of his sin, was passed on to subsequent generations; however, that conclusion is false. The consequence of his sin was death (Gen. 2:17). Therefore, Paul explains that since we all sin, we also suffer death (Rom. 5:12): “…and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”
I believe one of the errors that teachers of original sin make with Romans 5:12–21 is that of equating sin with death or believing that both sin and death transferred to us. However, when we properly analyze these verses, we see that it is impossible to replace the word “death” with “sin.” Verse 15 says, “[b]ut the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.” Christ is being compared to Adam. Adam’s sin brought death to all in the same way Christ brings eternal life to all. Paul’s discussion is dealing with death versus life, not sin versus life. Notice that verse 16 says, “and the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned.” The phrase “that which” refers back to “death”, not “sin.” It would not make sense to say the following: “And the gift is not like [sin] which came through the one who sinned.” This sentence negates the dichotomy of death versus life that is presented in verse 15. It also conflicts with verse 17: “for if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” Once again we see that it is the consequence of sin –death– that reigns through Adam, and not sin itself.
Now, some will use verse 19 to further prove their doctrine of original sin: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners….” Notice, however, that the verse ends saying “so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Proponents of original sin make the unnecessary conclusion that the guilt of Adam’s sin was passed on to all without any disobedience committed on our part. We would have to make the claim then that Christ’s righteousness was also transferred to us without any obedience on our part. Ezekiel 18:20ff proves that claim to be false. The father’s sin or righteousness is never transferred to the son. Individuals reap the consequences of their own actions (Ezek. 18:20,26-28).
20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
The guilt of Adam’s sin is not transferred to us. We are guilty because we choose to sin. God determined that the consequence of sin would be physical death, but there is also a second death brought about by sin (Rev. 21:8) – a spiritual one. However, we have the opportunity to be righteous through Christ if we choose to turn away from our sins in order not to suffer that spiritual death.