The topics of "sin" and "sinners" are not particularly popular in most settings or seasons, but especially not at Christmas. My wife and I have the incredible privilege of leading a weekly, home discipling group of about thirty teenagers and college students. Two weeks before Christmas we considered the topic "Out of Place Ornaments." Using the illustration of how each family's Christmas tree may have ornaments that don't seem to fit, I referred to the family tree of Christ as presented in Matthew. I pointed out that the genealogy of Christ includes four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (Matthew 1:3-6). Then I explained that for Matthew to include women in the genealogy of royalty would have been unusual in itself, but even more bizarre was the fact that each of those women would have stood out in the genealogy because of negative connotations. Two of the four were linked to specific accounts of sordid sinful activity, another came from a background of prostitution, and three of the four were from outside the covenant family entirely. Each one had a dark cloud over her because of personal background, or heritage, or both. How odd and out of place — or so it would seem. Women some might have deemed as "out of place" in the Lord's family tree, God used specifically and wondrously to prepare the way for His Son's birth through a particular young virgin.
From there, I stressed to them that although He was entirely sinless (Hebrews 4:14-16), Jesus came from sinners (Matthew 1:1-17), to sinners (Luke 5:25-30; 19:5-7), for sinners (Luke 5:31-32; 19:10).1
The three months between Christmas and Easter bridge that gap between our churches' focus on Bethlehem and Golgotha, on the cradle and the cross. Each time we approach Good Friday and Easter Sunday, an excellent question for consideration is, "Just why did He come and die?" Not so much from the standpoint of His motivation — Paul, in Romans 5:8 declared, But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us! We recognize that His motivation was love.
The question for us is, "Why was it necessary for Christ to come and to die?" — which brings us back to the matter of sin. In his letter to the Romans, Paul addressed sin and deliverance extensively through the first eight chapters, but in 5:12, he stressed a critical and pivotal point when he stated, Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned. In this passage, Paul set forth the monumental crisis every human must face, and with which every person ultimately must contend. The Bible says much more about sin than what is contained in this passage, but we will confine this study primarily to this verse, because here we find a foundational answer to our question.
Romans 5:12 brings us face to face with the entrance, the essence, the effects, and the extent of sin.
The Entrance of Sin
Paul began this passage, sin entered the world through one man. From the context we know this man is Adam.
Most of us know the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden all too well. When God created Adam and Eve, He gave each a perfect body, a perfect home, a perfect diet, a perfect spouse, a perfect career assignment, and a perfect, loving relationship with the Almighty God of the universe — the One Who had given them life (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:18-25). The only restriction was identified in 2:16-17, where we find, And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die." This was a reasonable expectation from the One Who, in love, had lavished them with perfect provisions and a perfect existence on every level.
Yet, they were not satisfied with perfection — they wanted more.
In 3:1-6 we read of Eve's encounter with the serpent and her explanation of the prohibition and warning regarding the fruit. Scripture says, "No! You will not die," the serpent said to the woman. "In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (3:4-5). The following verses indicate that both she and Adam ate, and that part of their motivation was, it was desirable for obtaining wisdom (3:6).
Up to that point, the world had known no sin; but through Adam and Eve, on that fateful day at that dreadful instant, sin made its hideous entrance into our world — and it has afflicted and beleaguered Adam's descendents every moment since.
The Essence of Sin
So, what is the real essence of sin — what does it really boil down to? Some have suggested that Jesus died to take care of our "sin problem." From that terminology, the person in the pew could easily conclude that sin is basically the list of vices that trouble or harass us, and that Jesus died primarily to deliver us from lying, or from cheating on our spouses, or from various addictions. Some could further conclude that our greatest need is victory over these vices — because such things make us bad people, and of course we want to be good people — and that Jesus died to give us that victory.
But while it is true that the Lord provides victory over sinful activity, our need and our condition stretches far beyond merely conquering unwanted and destructive behavior patterns. A brief examination of the key word for sin in the passage, as well as corresponding words in the immediate context, demonstrates that the matter of sin goes past a particular behavior to the very core of the problem. Of course the synonyms and corollaries for sin extend far beyond these immediate verses to the whole book of Romans, the Gospels, all of the New Testament, and all of the Old Testament — but space restricts this consideration to three words in the immediate context.
When Paul stated that sin entered the world through one man, the word he used for "sin" was hamartia. This is the most common Greek word for "sin" in the New Testament, and the one used most often in this passage and the surrounding passages. In secular Greek usage it literally meant "to miss the mark."2 Now, if all we had as a reference was its ancient usage, we might conclude the problem is that man may have made a sincere attempt to hit the mark, but just didn't quite make it. An extension of the idea is that God requires perfection of us, and no matter how hard we try we just will not measure up, so Jesus died to bridge that gap between our imperfection and God's expectation.
However, in New Testament usage its meaning takes us to a much lower — and wholly unflattering — level. Vine pointed out that "this etymological meaning ['missing the mark'] is largely lost sight of in the NT. It is the most comprehensive term for moral obliquity."3 He goes on to point out that its use not only referred to a particular action but the "inward element producing acts" and that the seat of sin is in the will.4
In this sense, sin is not merely an action; it expresses the heart and attitude of the person who is acting — a heart that is defiant and hostile toward God.5 In John's use of the word, it is even identified with hatred toward the Father and the Son (15:18-25, especially 23-24).6
In Romans 5:14, Paul uses the word parabaseos, which is translated "transgression" in the HCSB. It conveys the idea of violating God's command.7 In 5:14 the reference is to Adam's specific violation of God's specific command regarding the fruit. Interestingly, Paul uses this same word in 1 Timothy 2:14 with reference to Eve's sin in the Garden. Concerning these verses, Gunther observed, "In all of these passages [including Genesis 3: 1-6] the original fact of human sin is presented as rebellion against God and His commandment."8
In Romans 5:15 Paul identified Adam's sin as a paraptoma; the HCSB translates it as "trespass." Bauder indicated that the picture behind the word, "emphasizes strongly the deliberate act" of sin against God, which in turn negatively impacts man's relationship with God.9 So Paul uses parabaseos in verse 14, indicating the violation of God's command, and paraptoma in 15 to signify the corresponding disruption in man's relationship with God.10
In these three words we see hostility toward God that is rooted in the heart, leading to defiance of and rebellion against His commands, resulting in a break in the relationship with Him. Earlier in Paul's letter to the Romans, he painted an appalling picture of sin when he identified specific illustrations of defiance, such as, evil, greed, and wickedness … envy, murder, disputes, deceit, and malice … gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful (Romans 1:29-32).
Later, he lamented the abysmal state of sinners, observing, they deceive with their tongues. Vipers' venom is under their lips. Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and wretchedness are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:13-18).
From these descriptions we can appreciate Paul's emphasis in Romans 5:9-10, where he indicates that sin places the sinner among the dreadful ranks of God's enemies, fully deserving of His wrath.
These passages plainly demonstrate that sin goes far beyond merely being trapped by a set of unfortunate, unpleasant, and undesirable behaviors, despite how much we might like to be — and attempt to become — free of them. Sin is a willful rebellion against, and defiance of, God and His commands.
But it is more. Paul's reference to Adam takes us back to the garden where Adam and Eve rebelled against God and His command. But look at the serpent's lure — he suggested that eating the fruit would make Adam and Eve like God — and they bought the lie. As Quell pointed out, "The root of sinful action is … exalting man to be lord and God in his own personal life."11 Sin is indeed defiance of and rebellion against God, but at its root is the desire and attempt to usurp God's position of ultimate authority, and to replace His with our own. Sin is indeed rebellion, but it is the quest for individual autonomy that drives rebellion — even more, the quest for absolute individual autonomy incites our rebellion against our Creator, our Sovereign, our God.
From these verses it becomes obvious that the heart of sin is the rejection of, and the corresponding rebellion against, God and His absolute authority, prompted by our incessant longing to usurp His authority and assert our own.
The Effects of Sin
Paul stated in Romans 5:12 that, sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin. In this passage, Paul indicated that the result of sin is death, which correlates with God's warning to Adam and Eve in the garden. The concept of death in this passage includes both physical and spiritual death, but the notion of spiritual death is expanded in 5:9 where Paul refers to God's wrath. The effect of becoming God's enemy is being subject to His wrath.
This may seem harsh, especially to those who would prefer to think of God only in terms of His love. Faulty logic would lead to the erroneous claim that a loving God would not have enemies and, certainly, would not pour out His wrath on His enemies. However, throughout Scripture God is identified as King, not just of Israel, but over all the earth. Similarly, Jesus is identified as the Messiah/King. Accordingly, we realize that rebellion against the King is a capital offense!
There is nothing contradictory in a King holding out wrath for those who would wage war against Him — especially when He Himself has paid the penalty for their rebellion, when He has offered a total pardon for their rebellion, and when they still refuse to repent of and turn from that rebellion.
The Extent of Sin
Romans 5:12 ends with Paul's conclusion, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned; thus sin extends to all men. The context of the verses following this passage demonstrates that all men sinned in Adam, but also that every man sins independent of Adam. Unfortunately time does not permit a treatment of "original sin" or corresponding implications,12 but Baptists have stated their convictions on this matter in "Article III. Man" of the Baptist Faith and Message, where we find:
"Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation."
The simple reality is that every person who has ever lived to the point of being "capable of moral action" has rejected and rebelled against God and His absolute authority. Every person.
So we find ourselves in a dilemma: following Adam's introduction of sin into the human race, everyone "capable of moral action" is guilty; not merely of having some undesirable and unpleasant vices that need to be cleaned up, but of rebelling against the King and attempting to usurp His authority. Although we know better, we attempt to replace His authority with our own. Therefore, each person stands before God fully deserving His judgment and corresponding wrath.
This is not merely a "sin problem," this is a crisis of unimaginable proportions — in fact it is THE ultimate crisis of all time for every person. This is why it was necessary for Jesus to come to Bethlehem and to die on Golgotha — it was because of our desperate condition brought about by our rejection of and rebellion against God. For that reason, the verses surrounding Romans 5:12 offer incredible hope, because they indicate that His death on that cruel cross paid the penalty for our rebellion and opened the door for reconciliation with the Father.
In the next issue of SBC LIFE we will consider further what Jesus accomplished for and in our salvation; but let us not trivialize, and thereby insult, His incarnation and crucifixion by suggesting that He came merely to assist us in traversing some moral bump in the road of our lives. It was because each of us has chosen to reject and rebel against God and His authority; each one of us has aspired to replace His rule with our own. As a result, each of us has positioned ourselves as an enemy of God, fully deserving the fullness of His wrath. Furthermore, in our presentation of the Gospel, we dare not communicate anything less.
But the good news — the GREAT news — is that in His love, He chose to provide the ultimate and permanent remedy through Christ's sacrifice on the cross. For this reason, I am personally ecstatic and eternally grateful for the truth mentioned at the outset, that Jesus, our Sinless Savior, came from sinners, to sinners, for sinners.
And for that reason, with Paul we can all shout in joyful celebration, To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:36).
1. Paul made the similar point in Romans 8:3-4: For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (emphasis supplied).
2. W. Gunther, "Sin," The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown editor, Volume 3, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1977), 577 (hereafter cited as DNTT) .
3. W.E. Vine, "SIN", Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Unabridged Version, (McLain: Macdonald Publishing Company), 1055.
5. Stahlin, "hamartano," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 1, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 295-296 (hereafter cited as TDNT).
6. Friberg, Friberg, and Miller, "hamartia," Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 45.
7. Gunther, Ibid, 583-585.
9. Bauder, DNTT, Ibid, 586.
10. Michaelis, TDNT, Vol VI, 172.
11. Quell, TDNT, Vol 1, 282.
12. For a comprehensive treatment of the subject consider C.E.B. Cranfield's comments on this passage in his commentary on Romans in the International Critical Commentary series, published by T&T Clark; and Douglas Moo's comments on this passage in his commentary on Romans in the New International Commentary series, published by Inter-Varsity Press.
John Revell is a member of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, interim discipling pastor at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and editor of SBC LIFE.