The opening rhyme of the New England Primer‘s alphabet might well be considered objectionable today. Not only was memorization expected of students, but the rhyme refers to sin and guilt, almost unmentionable concepts in our day. Although the focus of Romans 5:12-21 is very positive (Paul talks about super-abounding grace), there is also some grim news about sin. One man (Paul is referring to Adam) sinned, and in him all of us sinned.
Even in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, the connection between Adam and his descendants is emphasized:
“’You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve’ said Aslan. ‘And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor in earth. Be content.’” (C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, pp. 211-212).
Lewis reflects important Biblical points. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, an image in which we share. That elevates the poorest beggar to a position of dignity and honor. But the sin of our first parents affects all of us as well, to our shame.
Paul’s emphasis in Romans 5, however, is a bit different from that of Lewis. Paul is not making the point that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, though that is true, and thus share bad, as well as noble, family traits. Rather, the one sin of the one man (Adam’s act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden) is counted to, or imputed to, all of his descendants who come from him by the ordinary process of generation. In Adam’s sin, we all sinned, according to Paul.
Adam acted as the representative of the human race, and, as the Primer correctly reflects, in Adam’s fall we all sinned. “That’s not fair,” you might object. I didn’t ask Adam to be my representative–I didn’t vote for him. Two responses: First, if this is the way God set it up, it is right because of who he is. God, not our sense of propriety, is the standard of right and wrong. Second, if you object to the principle of Adam representing his descendants, look out. Paul is going to go on in the chapter to point out that life, life now and for eternity, comes, not because of who we are. We are sinners, deserving judgment. But a second man, the God-man, Jesus Christ, died and rose in the place of sinners. He, like Adam, is the representative of his people. If you reject the first, logically you ought to oppose the second. But, as we will see shortly, in Christ’s one act of obedience God’s grace super-abounds to us sinners. And that is the good news we need to hear!