It is sometimes that the simple-minded reduce the world to two groups — those who care and those who are apathetic, those who love and those who are selfish, etc. The rabbis often reduced the world to three elements: Torah, Temple, deeds of kindness (Simeon the Righteous) or justice, truth, peace (Simeon, son of Rabban Gamaliel). Paul is in this school of thought, and he reduces the world rather pointedly to two sorts: those “in Adam” and those “in Christ.”
But, as is always the case with Paul, it is not quite that simple for the “in Adam” sorts carry on their Adamic stuff into the “in Christ”. Romans 5:12-21, which is the second most influential passage in Romans (after 3:21-26), explores the themes of the “in Adam” and the “in Christ”. It can’t be doubted that there is some kind of “federalism” or “representation” in this passage. Paul sees two sort: Adam and Christ.
Here’s Paul’s argument in its essence: since death reigned from Adam to Moses, it proves that law is not the foundation for sin; since death reigned, there is clear proof that there was sin; there was death because there was sin. Sin is the reason for death. Adam passed on death to all.
I do not think there is a better explanation in all the world for why humans are the way they are. Some people I’ve met are very good, but they are not perfect. Some people are a clear mixture of good and bad, while yet others are tragically seemingly bad. How do we explain this presence of sinfulness in all? And there is sin and there is death; the Bible connects the two. It may be an “offense to reason” but, ironically, it is very reasonable.
Which means justification, salvation and reconciliation are about conquering death by conquering sin.
Here’s the knotty issue: How does “sin” pass from one person to the next?
Three basic views: some say sin passes on because all participated in Adam’s sin when Adam sinned; others say all imitate Adam’s sin when they sin; and yet others say all relive Adam’s sin when we sin. The first emphasizes federal representation in Adam, the second personal responsibility, and the third is a kind of somewhere in-between both.
Whatever you and I might think, Paul says two things in this passage and what he says is not as much as some of us would like. First, he says death reigned and that means sin reigned. Second, he says ep ho pantes hemarton: “inasmuch as [or because] all sinned” or “in whom all sinned.” Death and responsibility are his emphases in these two verses.
But, on top of this is the context in which there is a very clear emphasis on “two persons” in this world. There is Adam and there is Christ. Because of the overwhelming emphasis here on two representative, inclusive figures, I think the first and third interpretations are most justifiable.
Here’s Wright’s conclusion. What do you think of it? “Paul’s meaning must in any case be both that an entail of sinfulness has spread throughout the human race from its first beginnings and that each individual has contributed their own share to it. Paul offers no further clue as to how the first of these actually works or how the two interrelate” (527).