The Letter to the Romans
The Consequences of Choice: Romans 5:12-19
In Romans 5:12, Paul says that sin entered the world through the choice of one man, namely Adam, and as a result all human beings became subject to death. The consequence of Adam’s choice was that all human beings were born enslaved to the powers of sin and death. Now it is important to notice that Paul does not say that humanity was created evil in the beginning, nor that he was created with some kind of evil nature. Rather, sin entered the world as some kind of alien power to enslave humanity and place us under the sentence of death. Humanity as created by God is something good, not evil. Sin is a distortion or misuse of something good by turning that good, namely ourselves as human vessels, to purposes which are contrary to God’s highest and best for us. Thus, sin is a power separate from ourselves as human vessels which misuses us for its own wicked ends. In describing sin as entering the world, Paul portrays sin as a demonic power that somehow enters
into us and takes us over, though not apart from humanity’s choice. In Romans chapter seven, sin is a power which indwells us and operates in our bodily members in much the same way that a demon might indwell and possess a person, controlling their actions.
But what is sin, exactly? Many of us have heard preachers talk of an indwelling sin principle or nature, but none of them explained exactly what they meant by such a principle or nature. Now a nature is a driving or motivating force within a person that determines the character of their actions, whether good or evil. To speak of a sin nature or principle, therefore, is to say that there is some-thing within our humanity that drives us to rebel against God’s will, much as we have drives to eat, drink and repro-duce. This understanding of ourselves sounds quite irrational: what is that principle, anyway? It must not be identified with our humanity as a whole or a part of it, because our humanity is good as God created it. Sin distorts or misuses our humanity, but is not identical with it. What then is this alien invader? The sin "principle" is not some "thing" inside us, but rather is the lie that we are self-operating selves with the power to control our own destinies. Through that lie, Satan operates us as his vessels. John says that the one who sins is "of the devil," that is, has the devil as his spiritual source (I John 3:8). How does a lie operate as a spiritual principle? If we believe a lie, that lie becomes a reality for us, even if it has no reality in itself, since that lie has consequences for our future choices and behavior. When we believe Satan’s lie of independent self, we buy into Satan’s version of reality, which then fundamentally controls the decisions and plans that we make, since we make decisions based on our perception of the way things are. All decisions are rational deductions based upon our perception of reality. If our perception is off, then all decisions made from that perception will be off. Satan’s lie of independent self has fundamentally skewed our perception of reality. We think we are self-operating selves, but in fact we are not. Even while believing the lie, we are being operated by Satan.
So sin as the Bible explains it, consists of two elements: a principle, which is the lie of independent self, and a power which operates us through that principle, namely the devil himself. This means that we can never separate sin from Satan, as if sin were some kind of independently evil human nature. There is no such thing. Humans do not operate themselves but are always operated by a power greater than themselves (I John 4:4; Eph. 2:2; Gal. 2:20).
Adam’s Choice and the Consequences
Now Adam’s choice to sin had serious consequences for the rest of humanity: namely that all human beings became subject to death and eternal condemnation. It may seem unfair to us that sin and death should enter the world through one man. Why should we have to suffer the consequences of one man’s choice? Don’t we get a choice in the matter? Why should we be punished with the death penalty as a consequence for an action we did not choose to commit? And so we gripe and complain that God is unfair. After all, we never chose to be born, let alone be born into a state of condemnation before God. The real question we must ask is why God chose for one person’s sin, namely Adam’s, to have such far-reaching con-sequences for every human being who has ever lived and will ever live.
Our Effect on Others
When God created us, he made us morally free persons in His own image (Gen. 1:26-27). He gave to Adam and Eve the capacity to choose whether or not they would obey Him or obey Satan and so join themselves spiritually to a power which would then operate them from within. An essential aspect of that moral freedom is that our choices and actions have consequences for our-selves and for others. In other words, the choices we make affect others. We only need to think of the effect our behavior has upon our own children to know this is true. I am sure we can all remember instances where our parents spoke particularly harsh words to us, or perhaps they even neglected or abandoned us. On the other hand, if we are parents, I’m sure we can think of instances where we have done the same kinds of things to our own children. Being persons in the image of God means that we are morally free, and also that our choices affect others.
Why must this be true? Why did God arrange matters so that our actions could have such devastating consequences for our children, let alone other human beings around us? We must remember, however,’that our choices can also have consequences which affect others for their ultimate good as well. The reason that our choices have consequences for others is that God created us to be social beings, just as He himself is a social being, since He is a Trinity. Being per-sons in the image of God means not only that we have freedom as God has freedom, but also that we are social beings with the capacity to have an effect on others. In other words, God created us with the capacity to love, to have an effect for good on others. God could have created us without the ability to relate to and affect others, but then we would not be persons and would not possess moral freedom. After all, free choice that has no consequences for ourselves or others is meaningless. The point of making choices at all is to cause some kind of change. So any choice that does not produce some kind of effect or consequence is ineffectual and inconsequential. The degree to which we can affect others for their good is also the degree to which we can affect others for evil. Being persons with moral freedom means that our choices have consequences for others.
God could not have created morally free human beings with the capacity to love who did not also have the capacity to have an effect for evil on others. Because we are persons, morally free social beings as God is a morally free social being, our choices have consequences for others. So when God created Adam, it was inevitable that Adam’s choice would affect all of us. If we object that God is unfair, then we must also realize that we are in effect saying that we would rather be non-persons without the ability to choose at all, without the capacity to love. For love is meaningless unless it is morally free and unless it can have an effect on others. The privilege and honor of being persons entails awesome responsibilities, not the least of which is our responsibility for our fellow human being. If we say that is unfair, that God has caused Adam’s choice to have such consequences, we are saying that God’s gift of free choice to humanity is unfair. What we are really saying is Cain’s age-old complaint: "Am I my brother’s keeper?" (Gen. 4:9). In other words, to get angry with God for making us the way we are is an evasion of responsibility as persons to use our moral freedom in a way that benefits others. Instead of complaining about the choice that Adam made and its con-sequences for us, we ought to be making choices in our own lives that reverse those consequences for others.
I have spoken about our capacity to love, a capacity which directly equals our capacity to harm others, that is, to sin. We must be careful about how we define love, however, since the world defines love as a feeling of emotional self-gratification that one experiences in a romantic relationship. Love is not a feeling, but rather the expression of ultimate concern for another, the desire for their highest and best. But while humans beings have the capacity to love, they lack, on the one hand, the wisdom to know what is best for others and, on the other hand, the power to operate themselves to effect or bring about what is best for others. For that reason John says that God is Love (I John 4:8). Only God is love, because He one possesses the perfect wisdom to know what is best for everyone, and only He has the sovereign power to carry those intentions out. Thus only God can truly love another. Any love that we express is either less than an expression of ultimate concern for another, in which case it is less than real love, or else it is an expression of divine love flowing through us to the other person for their good. So our capacity for loving another is not a self-operated capacity, but a capacity which is operated by the spirit which indwells us. The capacity to love is essential to our being persons, but we only express the ultimate concern of love when we are operated by the one ultimate Person in the universe who is able to have such concern (see Romans 5:5). Our personhood is only created to be the vessel of His Ultimate personhood.
Death: The Perfect Consequence
Now Adam’s choice to sin had the serious consequence of death for all humanity. Perhaps we are wondering why God made death the consequence for sin. Death serves as a perfect con-sequence because it confronts us with the fact of our powerlessness over our lives, that we do not control ourselves, that we are not self-operating selves. If we are not dissatisfied with our behavior and our inability to control it, at least we are faced with the fact that we cannot control the destiny which faces every human being who has ever lived: we will die. Death forces us to look at our powerlessness over life, and to turn to the One who is all power and who can raise us from the dead. If death is our greatest consequence for sin, it can also be our greatest opportunity to express faith in the One who raises from the dead.
But how can Paul say that as a result of one man’s sin, death came to all men? Isn’t that unfair?!! Absolutely not! Paul says that death comes to all men not merely because Adam sinned but because we all have sinned. It is for out own sins that the sentence of death is pronounced against us. But if I am born with a spiritual hook-up to Satan, isn’t it inevitable that I will sin? How is it that God can condemn me as a sinner when I couldn’t even choose whether or not I would rebel against God? But that is not so. In fact, each of us from the very beginning have had glimmers of moral consciousness, knowing at a rudimentary level the difference between right and wrong and have willfully chosen what is wrong. Even at age two we willfully chose to rebel against our parents, knowing that we were doing wrong. In this way we have ratified Adam’s choice as our own choice, thus sealing our pact with the devil. We were born with a hook-up to Satan, but that hook-up was sealed by our own choice. By Adam’s choice sin gained entry into the world; by our own choice sin gained possession over our own lives.
In verses 13 and 14, Paul deals with the objection that many people have lived who have not had knowledge of God’s law: How can they be held accountable, since sin is not taken into account where there is no law? But sin was already in the world even when there was no law. Although humanity did not have specific commands from God against which sin could manifest its rebellious character, nevertheless that rebellion or Satanic lie of independence manifested itself clearly, as we see happened before the flood (Gen. 6:1-4) and at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11). Thus the absence of law or the absence of knowledge about God’s moral will for humanity does not mean that people cannot be held accountable. And so death reigned from the time of Adam until the time of Moses, even though people in that time did not sin by breaking an explicit command from God as Adam did.
The Consequences of Christ’s Obedience
Now Paul says that Adam was a type or pattern of the one to come, namely Jesus Christ himself. Both of these men made choices and acted in a certain manner that had far-reaching consequences for the rest of humanity. Verses fifteen through nineteen essentially make one point. Just as Adam’s choice to sin resulted in death and condemnation for all man, so Jesus’ choice to obey God to the point of death resulted in life for all men. Unless God had set it up that one person’s actions could have consequences for all humanity, Christ could not have died for us. His death on the cross would have no effect on lost sinners and he could not have saved us. But because God created us as social beings whose choices and actions have effects on and consequences for others, that means not only that Adam’s choice led to death for all humanity, but that Christ’s obedience led to eternal life for those who believe.
In verse 15 Paul makes the point that the gift of God to humanity through Christ is not like Adam’s sin. The correspondence between the two is not one of exact similarity or parallel, but rather that of opposites. The negative consequences of Adam’s choice to sin are to be contrasted with the positive consequences of Christ’s choice to obey God. Judgment for all men followed the sin of one man, whereas God’s grace followed the sins of many human beings resulting in justification and freedom from fear of God’s judgment. In fact, the results of Adam’s choice can hardly be compared to the consequences of Jesus’ choice to obey God. If as a result of Adam’s choice to sin death reigned over us and all humanity, how much more will we reign in life as a result of Christ’s choice to obey to the point of death. Christ’s death does not merely reverse the consequences of Adam’s choice as if Christ’s obedience were merely the exact opposite of Adam’s disobedience. The salvation and eternal life that Christ brought through his obedience are so much greater than the con-sequences of Adam’s disobedience. that they can hardly be compared. Now if Christ’s choice to be obedient to the point of death had such profound con-sequences for all humanity, then it is also true that our choice to lay down our lives will have positive consequences for others we do not even know, as we reproduce the death of Christ in our own lives, "filling up in our flesh what was lacking with regard to the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body the church" (Col. 1:24). For it was through the disobedience of one man that the whole world became sinners, and through one man that many became righteous (Rom. 5:19).
The choice that we make, to obey God by not believing Satan’s lie of self-operating self has consequences not only for us, but for all those around us. God, in making persons in His image, made us morally free social beings with the capacity to affect others by our choices. He had to make us this way, or we would be unable to be the kind of vessels through whom He could express His perfect love. A pebble dropped in a pond creates ripples that spread outward to affect the whole pond, and so our choices have consequences for people we may never know. Perhaps our choice into unbelief may mean a person never gets to hear the truth of the gospel from us, because we were too busy indulging in self-pity to focus our life on others. Like Adam and Christ, our every choice has eternal and far-reaching consequences, not only for us, but also for those around us.