Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. – Romans 5:12-14 ESV
As he continues to defend the doctrine of justification by faith, Paul uses an interesting comparison, contrasting the sin of Adam and the sacrificial death of Jesus. It was through Adam’s one act of unrighteousness that sin came into the world. While Eve was the first one to give in to the temptation of Satan and take the forbidden fruit, Adam was standing by her side and fully complicit and compliant. As the God-ordained head of his household, he was responsible to keep God’s commands and protect his family. It was to Adam that God had given the command regarding the tree. Eve had not yet been created. The book of Genesis records, “And the Lord commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16-17 ESV). In the very next verse God decides to make woman. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Genesis 2:18 ESV). So Adam was responsible for communication God’s command to Eve and ensuring that she adhered to it. But he failed. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her” (Genesis 3:6 ESV).
The result of Adam’s actions was death. Not immediate physical death, but spiritual death – separation from God. They became alienated and separated from God. They immediately experienced shame, attempting to cover their nakedness with leaves. They hid from God. And then they came under the punishment of God, as He brought on them curses related to their disobedience. God curse for Adam involved a life of labor accompanied by futility, ending in death. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 ESV). Rather than enjoying the fruit of the trees provided by God in the garden, they were cast from the garden and left to provide for themselves through hard work and effort. And their lives would end in death. Which is why Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12 ESV). It was Adam’s sin (original sin) that brought death into the world. Paul is comparing the one act of Adam and its result with the one act of Jesus and its subsequent outcome. He contrasts Adam’s disobedience with Jesus’ obedience. The first brought death. The second brought life. Adam’s action brought separation from God. Jesus’ action brought reconciliation.
But Paul’s main point in these verses is that men had been dying (suffering the penalty for their sins) long before the law had been given to Moses – “for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law” (Romans 5:13 ESV). Mankind not only inherited death as a result of Adam’s disobedience, they inherited his sin nature. But their death was due to Adam’s sin, not their own. From God’s perspective, they sinned “in” Adam. The penalty for his sin was passed down to his descendants. So Paul states, “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam” (Romans 5:14 ESV). Long before the law was given, men were sinning. They may not have sinned in the same way that Adam had, but they still faced the same penalty: death. They still experienced spiritual separation from God. Why? Because Adam “was a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14 ESV).
Long before God gave the law to Moses, men died. All men knew death was inevitable. They just didn’t know why they had to die. They were unclear as to what death was and what purpose it existed. It was to be feared. It was to be avoided at all costs. But when God gave the law, it revealed the righteousness that God demanded of mankind. It provided a non-negotiable list of God’s requirements for what was necessary to escape the penalty of death. Man’s sin nature made it impossible for him to keep God’s law. So before the law was given, man sinned, in ignorance. After the law, man sinned, knowing, like Adam, exactly what God had commanded, but disobeying it anyway. But Paul will continue to built on this comparison, illustrating that God provided a way out. “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT). That is the gospel of God that Paul has been talking about. Adam’s disobedience brought death. Jesus’ obedience brought life. Death reigned, but God declared an end to sin’s control over us. Martin Luther summarizes Paul’s contrast quite succinctly.
Christ has become a Dispenser of righteousness to those who are of Him, though they have not earned any righteousness; for through the Cross He has secured (righteousness) for all men. The figure of Adam’s transgression is in us, for we die just as through we had sinned as he did. The figure of Christ is in us, for we live just as though we had fulfilled all righteousness as He did. – Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans