There is a translation issue here in Romans 5:18, but the translation issue is not the real issue. A woodenly literal translation is offered by Wright: “so also through the righteous act of the one unto all people unto acquittal of life.” Thus, Christ’s act of righteousness (either his whole life or his quintessential act of dying for others) brings an acquittal of life “unto all people” or “for all.” Really? For “all”? What is the last word and the word after that, as McLaren expresses it?
“All” is exactly what Paul says. But, in Romans 5:19 he narrows it to “many”. Some find a way out of a kind of universalism in this verse but going there doesn’t help because the “many” who will be made righteous in 5:19b counterbalance the “many” who were made sinners by Adam’s sin. If only “many” were made sinners, then perhaps all those “many” were also made righteous.
So, the “many” and the “all” of Romans 5:19 and 5:18 are the same.
So, what do we say? Let me turn to my friend and former colleague, Doug Moo, who because his son’s high school basketball invariably beat my son’s team I like to find something to disagree with him about. On this one it would be hard.
1. Paul uses justification language for the individual sentence not for the overall impact of the atonement.
2. Paul is not talking here about potentials and availability but of realities.
3. Paul is speaking here of two groups: the “in Adam” and the “in Christ” groups.
4. Paul narrows the “in Christ” to those who have the gift and who have life.
5. Paul’s other passages deserve to be consulted: Romans 8:32; 12:17, 18; 14:2; 16:19.
And to Jimmy Dunn, my PhD supervisor, who contends the “all” here is a way of saying “Jews and Gentiles” and not just Jews. It refers to all those who belong to the “in Christ” epoch that has been ushered in through Christ. Though Dunn then suggests he wouldn’t be surprised if some didn’t explore that universalistic logic of Paul’s language.
Tom Wright: “Our minds instantly raise the question of numerically universal salvation, but this is not in Paul’s mind. His universalism is of the sort that holds to Christ as the way for all” (529).
What is decisive for you? Do you think Paul is consistent, and if so do you think these two verses have to be balanced in a kind of “potential for all” way? Or, do you think Paul is probing here for an idea that he only partly grasps and that the logic of grace in this passage leads to universalism?
I’m hoping Mike Bird and Ron Fay and Dave Tombis can weigh in.