During Lent, I sometimes find I spend six weeks waiting for the everything to start, then find there is so much happening all at once, that Holy Week passes in a blur and I’m at Easter before I’ve had chance to reflect on the story.
This year, I am using a Lenten Tree to meditate on the events of Holy Week. You can find resources to make your own here [click].
Over the weeks, we progress from Palm Sunday to the start of Good Friday, then in the final week, we consider Jesus’ perfect sacrifice of himself, ending with the glorious Easter Morn.
Will you journey with me though Lent?
Why do we do it? Why do we do this rubbish stuff? I love my daughters but so often I hear myself yelling at them in a most unloving way. I heartily believe in telling the truth, but to say I always live up to that would be a lie. The stuff I want to do I don’t do, and the stuff I don’t want to do, that is what I end up doing! Sounds familiar? Paul says the exact same thing in a couple of chapters. But why is it?
It’s that unpopular little word with I in the middle – sin.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, so this is a good time to be thinking about sin. The Bible has some helpful illustrations. It is missing the target, overstepping the boundary, falling short. But there are plenty of misconceptions about sin as well. Our passage today contains a very important text, verse 12, which has shaped the way that many of us think about ourselves and sin.
Romans 5:12 says Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all, in that all have sinned—
There is one tiny phrase that has caused countless arguments for many hundreds of years. I’m going to lay a bit of Greek on you here. Eph ho. Eph ho all have sinned. It could mean ‘in that’, ‘in whom’, ‘because’, ‘for that’, ‘since’, ‘inasmuchas’ or a whole load of things.
Now, before we go any further, let me say that greater minds than mine have been wrestling with this ever since Paul wrote it, and I do not claim a direct link to the mind of either God or Paul when he wrote his unhelpfully vague eph ho. This is the conclusion I have come to, but your mileage may vary, and that’s OK.
There are traditionally two options: ‘in whom’ (a person) and ‘in that’ (a thing).
Some folks (and we’re talking big names like Saint Augustine, Calvin and Luther) say it means ‘in whom’ or ‘in which man’, meaning Adam. The idea is that we are sinners because Adam sinned. We are somehow counted as present in Adam’s body when he disobeyed and we are guilty of his sin, passed down to all Adam’s descendants. The problem with this argument, apart from assuming a physical person called Adam from whom we are genetically descended, is that it goes against God saying that he won’t blame one person with another’s wrongdoing (Dt 24:16, Jer 31:30).
Unfortunately, Augustine’s view was very influential. He maintained that we inherit the guilt of Adam at birth and therefore infants must be baptised to wash away this ‘original (ie Adam’s) sin’. Many recoil from this ‘Hell-Fire and Damnation’ approach with a sense of monstrous injustice. ‘Why should I be condemned for something that someone else did? (Although just because something is unpopular or unfashionable does not make it incorrect.)
But ‘Eph ho all have sinned’ does not have to refer to Adam. Instead of ‘in whom’, it can mean ‘in that’ or ‘because of’, referring to the sin-death link (… and death came through sin …). Not ‘in whom (Adam) all have sinned’, but ‘because (of the sin-death link) all have sinned’. And that is why the death of Jesus is such a big deal. He was sinless, so he did not have to die. The sin-death link did not apply to him, so his undeserved death could be made as a payment for the debts we owe, the debt I owe, breaking the sin-death link formed by the first adam. (Note the small a.)
We don’t need to get too hung up on Adam as an actual person. Myself, I do not believe in a literal person called Adam (Genesis 1 to 3 were never intended to be a history book), but it’s not important. I’m going to hang some Hebrew on you now as well. Adam, although we use it as a proper noun, isn’t a person’s name in Hebrew. It means either ‘man’, the species (as in humankind), or ‘a man’ (an adult male).
It is very common in Hebrew literature to use one small part to stand for a larger whole. Think of ‘the arm of the Lord’ did such-and-such. It wasn’t just his arm, but the part stands for the whole. We do it too: ‘I like your wheels.’ Just the wheels? No, the whole car. The part stands for the whole. And so it is here. One adam, one man, one human rebels against God and finds that sin brings death. The part stands for the whole.
It is helpful at this point to distinguish between inherited guilt and inherited sinfulness:
Inherited guilt is the concept that when Adam disobeyed, we all became guilty of that same act. Inherited sinfulness is inheriting not Adam’s guilt for his disobedience but the propensity for each one of us to be disobedient. This is a more helpful meaning for original sin: not the very first sin, ie Adam’s noshing on a forbidden apple (and that was not the first act of disobedience anyway), but the sinfulness that springs up (has its origin) in each of us, without anyone having to teach us how.
Most Christian churches throughout the world today, and scholars from history right up to modern thinkers like Karl Barth follow this ‘soft’ fall. Barth said that the fall of Adam (meaning ’humanity’) is a parable of the decision made by us all to live in enmity with God. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is we can stop feeling utterly condemned because of inherited guilt of Adam’s sin. The bad news is that we need to take seriously our inbuilt sinfulness. God does not hold us accountable for the sins of others, (Eze 8:20), but for our own we will be called to account. (Rom 14:12, 2 Cor 5:10) The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, but the wages of sin is still death.
In Christ, we are freed from the bondage to sin and death.
Let us not sell ourselves back into slavery.
Romans 5:12-21 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Image: Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoy