Bible Studies/Romans 5:12-21


In the first verses of this passage it states that death came to all through adam but that since there was no law sin was not counted against men. So was sin the cause of death of these men who it wasnt accounted against or was it just sin entering the world that caused death?

Dear Peter,

That is an excellent question, and it goes to the heart of Paul's analysis of the human predicament in Romans. Paul does not explain directly in Romans 5 how sin caused death down through the generations of humanity; all he says is that "death spread through all human beings--because all of them sinned" (5:12).

I think that it is in Romans 8 that Paul finally supplies a clear and meaningful sense of the linkage between human sin and human mortality. There he says,

Rom. 8:18-23
In my opinion, our current sufferings can’t even be compared with the glory that’s about to be revealed to us. 19 Because the creation is really yearning for the children of God to be revealed. 20 After all, when the creation was subjected to human folly,  it certainly wasn’t because it wanted to be. No, God subjected it in hope— 21 that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay, into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, right up to this moment. 23 And not only that: those of us who have the first harvest  of the Spirit groan within ourselves too. We’re looking forward to our adoption, to the setting free  of our bodies.

Paul is saying that the entire life-system of the earth has been subjected to "decay" (i.e. mortality) not because it is sinful, but because of the sinfulness of human beings. The implication of this is that human beings, when they turn from God, become destructive to the living creation into which they've been created as interdependent members. Our potential for destructiveness is so powerful that even if God were simply to limit our own lives, we would turn the life power of the rest of the living world to destructiveness so rapidly that we would quickly destroy all life along with ourselves. So, says Paul, God had to put the limiting factor of mortality in place over the whole creation in order to protect us and the world itself from our destructiveness. That limiting factor will be able to be lifted when two things come about:

(1) the reclamation of repentant human beings from sin (i.e. destructiveness) by means of forgiveness, reconciliation, and training in righteousness (i.e. life-nurturing behavior) through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 8:1-17), and

(2) the removal of the stubbornly unrepentant from participation in the creation.

When there are no longer any destructive elements operating in the creation, then God will be able to implement God's original purpose for the creation (see Genesis 1)--that it will be fully and powerfully alive in communion with and managed by the fully and powerfully alive children of God. Thus the redemption of the whole life system will come about at the same time as the "setting free of our bodies" (from death) through resurrection, when Jesus comes in glory.

There is (for Paul) a potential explanation of the mechanism for sin leading to death in the (Old Testament) Law itself:

(1) The Law demands obedience, on pain of death
(2) Nobody keeps the Law
(3) Everyone is condemned to death.

He comes very close to making this argument in Rom. 1:16--3:20. But he realizes that this argument only makes sense in a Jewish context. Obviously human mortality is universal. It obviously preceded the giving of the Law ("from Adam to Moses," Rom. 5:14), and it obviously is the experience of all the human groups (Gentiles) outside of Israel. In fact, it applies when there is no revealed Law at all (Rom. 5:13). Why does mortality still apply even when there is no Law to prescribe death? Paul simply says, in this particular context, "all died because all sinned" (Rom. 5:12).

He does not in this particular place supply the "how," the logic, of why, Law or no Law, sin leads to death. This allows people to supply their own logic. For example,

(1) God cannot tolerate sin
(2) That which God cannot tolerate God kills
(3) Everyone sinned, ergo
(4) God kills everyone

The truth is that none of this--except (3) is stated in Romans. How about this logic instead?

(1) God loves all human beings and the creation as a whole, and God is thus motivated to protect all the beloved from harm (Ps. 145:8)
(2) Beings that turn from God become virulently destructive in the creation (e.g. Rom. 1:18-32)
(3) All human beings have turned from God and have become virulently destructive (Rom. 3:9-18), ergo
(4) God has to impose mortality upon human beings in order to protect the creation.

You will say, "Ah, but doesn't Rom. 6:23 imply the first logic, not the second!" In a word, No. Let's look at it, in context.

Rom. 6:20-23
20 After all, when you were slaves of sin...did you get anything out of those things—the things that you’re ashamed of now? The end result of them is death, right?  22 But now you’ve been freed from slavery to sin, and you’re serving God! And you have your results of growth into holiness. And the end result is going to be eternal life. 23 Because sin pays death as its wages, but the gift that God gives through Christ Jesus our Lord is eternal life.

This passage comes right in the middle of the context of Paul's metaphor of living in sin or living for God being pictured as who's your employer, who you are working for (6:12-23). It's an out-and-out breach of Paul's logic here to read Rom. 6:23 as saying, "If you work for sin as your boss, God will kill you." No, if you work for sin, sin will pay you wages, pay you with death. How and why? Because the exact nature of sin is to be destructive to the life God has given you and to the lives of your fellow beings, human and otherwise. For a pretty full development of this subject that deals with many key biblical passages such as Genesis 1-3, I recommend reading my essays at the Simple Gospel website.

To summarize, Paul does not explain how it comes to be that all of us are self-alienated from God and in need of reconciliation with God. For him the problem of universal human self-alienation from God is a starting point, a given, a foundational fact. He does not argue that it is caused by one thing or another. You can look in Romans 5 for an explanation to the effect that Adam sinned therefore we all got to be sinners, but you will not find it. It is not there. Paul does not explain exactly how or even if sin gets passed from Adam to the successive generations of human beings. The one linkage he makes explicitly is this: sin leads to death.  

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J. Webb Mealy


Qualified to answer questions about the New Testament, including ones that require expert knowledge of Greek, New Testament History, and New Testament Theology. Particular area of expertise is New Testament eschatology (teachings on the end of the world), the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel and epistles of John. Questions about English translations--how they are arrived at, whether they are accurate, and whether there are alternative possibilities. Textual criticism.


Have taught the Bible and New Testament to lay people for 20 years. Translator of the Spoken English New Testament (, author of After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgment in Revelation 20 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992). Senior Biblical Studies Editor, Sheffield Academic Press, 1990-1995.

Instructor, Seminary of the Street, Oakland, CA

See my online publication,, which gives an easy-to-understand but thorough introduction to the Christian Good News. See, home of the Spoken English New Testament, the most accurate available translation of the New Testament into natural contemporary English.

PhD, Biblical Studies, Sheffield, UK MA (Honors), Humanities, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY BA (Cum Laude), Religious Studies/New Testament, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA

Awards and Honors
Research Paper, "Tracing the Rise of Modalism in Rome," named best graduate paper of the year, Western Kentucky University, 1981

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