Romans 5:17-18: The Gift of Righteousness

I have been having a great discussion about the definition of “grace” in the Bible. In the midst of it I ran across Romans 5:17-18 and was really touched by it.

I am pretty sure I have read those two verses at least 50 times.

I’m sure you know how those things are. You can read a Scripture all your life, and then one day it suddenly comes alive. The Scriptures are indeed an infinite treasure.

The passage says:

For if by the trespass of the one, death reigned through the one; so much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ. So then as through one trespass, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness, all men were justified to life. (WEB)

We all know about Romans 3. We all blame it on the fall. Sin and death work in us, passed on from Adam, who chose the lust of the flesh over the fellowship of God. We all are quick to claim “I’m just human” when we make a mistake or even when we rebel and sin.

But “even so” through one act of righteousness we can be made righteous. Just as the one act of unrighteousness of Adam cursed the sons of Adam, so if we follow in the steps of the last Adam, we can die to Adam and be part of the new man, the little Christ, the Christian, a younger brother of the Firstborn, our Lord Jesus.

If that is so, then just as we used to be human, inheriting the sin and death of Adam, we can be children of God, and what will work in us is righteousness toward life. As Paul put it, “The law of the Spirit of life in King Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).

It’s over folks. Follow Jesus into his death, rise again in him, and you can live by his life and growing righteousness. You can quit saying you’re just human, but you can say righteousness is working in you because of the unbelievable love that would have God not only calling us his children, but making us his children in the growing righteousness of his Son and our King, Jesus.

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14 Responses to Romans 5:17-18: The Gift of Righteousness

  1. Evan says:

    My observation: One act of trespass resulted in all being condemned. One act of righteousness resulted in all being justified.
    My question: Does all really mean ALL in both instances?
    The usual answer given is that all in the first clause in v.18 means all but in the second clause all cannot mean all – because all are not saved. However I find this answer to be problematic because it then contradicts v.17 – making the trespass greater than the gift. If all does not mean all in both instances then the transgression of the one for all practical purposes is greater than Jesus’ act of righteousness. The result is death came to all but justification only came to some. However v.18 states that justification came to ALL men.

    • Anna says:

      I think the point is that justification is offered to all men, whether or not they accept/respond to it. Offering the gift to all men makes the act greater than the condemnation.

      • Evan says:

        I don’t think just “offering” the gift makes the act greater than the condemnation. The grammatical structure of this passage is meant to show that the gift of Christ’s sacrifice is greater than Adam’s transgression. Since Adam’s trespass without exception resulted in death to all, the gift without exception, cannot result in anything less than justification and life to all. To only offer the gift as you put it, results in its acceptance by only some and its rejection by others. In that case, God’s grace is still insufficient to overcome Adam’s sin; the trespass is still greater than the sacrifice – which goes against the intent of the passage.

        • Anna says:

          Are you arguing that no one goes to hell? If so, is your argument/dilemma strictly a matter of trying to figure out correct interpretation, or is there also an emotional component behind the question?

          My sense of the passage (the whole of chapter 5, really) is that Paul is not playing a numbers game (except a little bit in v.16). When he speaks of the gift being greater than the trespass, I don’t think he’s thinking quantitatively, but qualitatively. To bring righteousness and life to a sinner is a more impressive thing than to bring death/condemnation to another. The gift is so much more than the transgression, because the gift overcomes the transgression. That any are saved at all, makes the gift greater.

          Judging especially by the context of v. 1-11, he is also emphasizing that the gift we receive as Christians extends beyond a neutral “being right in the eyes of the Lord” that the Jews looked for, towards a level of grace and “boasting in God” that exceeded the hope of the Jews. The Jews wanted to obey the Mosaic Law so that they could be right with God; Paul is saying that the gift of Christ is so great that it can overcome the death and condemnation that come from Adam’s sin, which the Law cannot do.

          I can throw some more technical possibilities at you, although I don’t have a particular sense that any of these are the “right” interpretation, per se.

          1) In the passage, Paul consistently uses the word “many” to refer to both death/condemnation and to grace/righteousness… except in verse 18. That is the only verse in which he switches to “all”. He may, then, have just been expressing his point more emphatically and poetically, without meaning “all” in a precise sense (for either death or life).

          2) Again, the switch to “all” in v 18 may have been a way of referring to mankind collectively rather than individually. This can be foreign to modern thinking, but Scripture often talks of God relating to peoples or our entire species as if the whole were one unit, instead of relating only to single individuals. In this sense, when Adam sinned, all mankind sinned (and thus was condemned), and likewise Jesus’s death and resurrection saved mankind as a whole.

          3) In a limited technical sense, the “all” of condemnation could be considered just as much “not really all” as the “all” of justification, since those who are justified are not condemned. Those who escape condemnation make the condemnation just as limited as the justification is limited by those who refuse it.

          • paulfpavao says:

            Scout’s honor: I did not read Anna’s response to Evan before posting mine, despite the fact that my conclusion was exactly the same and we both used the word “overcome.”

          • Evan says:

            We both agree that the point of Paul’s writing is to show how much greater Christ’s gift is compared to Adam’s trespass. Using your logic though, the gift is still greater than the trespass despite the fact that the gift only saves some whereas Adam’s transgression brings death to all.
            Paul’s parallelism compares two individuals who did something to or for the human race – Adam and Christ. Their actions extend to the whole human race. The article “the” inserted before “one” and “many” in verses 15 and 19, affirms and contrasts the direct effects of Adam’s and Christ’s sole actions upon the many. The act of one multiplied death to the many. The act of the other one multiplied life to the many. In verse 18 “all men” appears in each parallelism. Therefore “the many” and “all men,” when appearing on the Adamic side of the parallelism refer to the whole of mankind. By the same token how can one deny that the same terms appearing on the Christ side refer only to those who are actually saved? Your line of argumentation places no conditions on Adam’s side but places conditions on Christ’s side which is absent in the passage itself and has to read into the passage which I believe goes against its plain meaning.

            • paulfpavao says:

              Okay, I see what you’re saying. Interpreting this passage in the way you describe creates a fist full of problems. One of those is not far away, in v. 17. The righteousness of the One comes upon all in verse 18, but in verse 17 we’ve been told that it benefits only those who receive abundance of grace as well, and we know that not all the world has received abundance of grace.

              So let me propose an alternative.

              According to Titus 2:11, the grace of God that bring salvation has appeared to all men. Nonetheless, it only does good for those who receive its teaching. The grace that brings salvation teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live sensibly, godly, and righteously. Most people pay no attention to that grace (because it was Jesus who said few find the way of life). That is why Paul says “we” are saved by grace through faith. We were like others around us, but now grace has delivered us from all that (Eph. 2:1-8).

              So what I propose is that the gift of righteousness has come to all men, but not all men have received it. Can the gift of righteousness be other than the King himself, who is our righteousness? (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21). Yet it is only to those who received him that he gave authority to be the children of God (Jn. 1:12).

              • Evan says:

                The problem is that Titus 2:11 reads in other translations such the NASB – “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men. Or in the ESV – “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” My interlinear in the Greek reads – “For the grace of God saving to all.” So according to my understanding the verse means that God brings salvation to all men; not just that his grace appeared to all men.

                • paulfpavao says:

                  First, as an aside, there is nothing more dangerous than someone who does not speak Greek but has an interlinear. Word order has a lot of meaning in Greek, almost none in English. Since interlinears go word by word, English speakers get the subject, verb, and object wrong all the time when reading interlinears.

                  You’re off the hook because you appealed to the NASB and ESV for verification.

                  If I’m reading the Greek right, then what it says could be awkwardly, but accurately, rendered, “The grace of God, the grace saving all people, has appeared.” That’s why it could be rendered the various ways it is rendered. Grace appeared, and grace is described as the kind of grace that saves all men.

                  So … your point?

                  • Evan says:

                    My simple point is that your alternative proposal to qualify “all” by citing Titus 2:11 to support your view could just as easily be turned around to support my interpretation based on the different translations. That verse does not automatically lend credence to your view. In Rom 5 you seek to qualify “all” in the second clause concerning Christ’s gift which in my opinion nullifies Paul’s use of parallelism to show that Christ’s gift is greater. It is obvious that Adam’s transgression in the first clause is not qualified, so why qualify Christ’s sacrifice, especially if it is supposed to be greater – which is exactly Paul’s point. It does not make sense to me that “all” means every single person that has ever lived when it refers to our condition in Adam but does not mean every single person that has ever lived when it refers to our condition in Christ.
                    Since you offered a verse to support your position I’ll offer a verse to support mine. 1 Tim 4:10 states: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” Is God the savior of all men or only of believers? Does “especially” mean “only” or “including?” If a pastor says all children will receive a gift at Christmas, especially those who attend this church; does he mean that only the children attending his church receive gifts at Christmas? Of course not. He means all children receive Christmas gifts including the children at his church – not only those at his church. The question is did Paul employ this same logic when he penned this verse?
                    The word that Paul uses that we translate as “especially” is “malista.” Paul uses malista 8 other times in the NT in addition to 1 Tim 4:10. In every instance malista carries with it an inclusive sense not an exclusive sense. For example, in Gal 6:10 – “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially [malista] to those of the family of faith. It is obvious that Paul means INCLUDING or PARTICULARLY when he uses malista and is not saying that we should do good ONLY to those of the faith. Therefore, to claim that Paul refers to God being the savior of only believers in 1 Tim 4:10 goes against his usage of malista in every other instance. To do so is to argue from the exception rather than the rule which we know is a very weak argument so I submit that all does indeed mean all.

                    • paulfpavao says:

                      I’m not trying to qualify all. I’m trying to qualify saved. I think I figured out the right question to ask you.

                      So my ornery cuss of a (hypothetical) neighbor, who cheats on his wife, intimidates everyone who witnesses to him, lives for himself, etc. What good does it do him that God is his Savior or that salvation has come to him?

                      Question 2 is the same question, really. Given that Jesus’ righteousness comes to all men, do you call my hypothetical neighbor righteous or unrighteous?

                    • Evan says:

                      “I’m not trying to qualify all. I’m trying to qualify saved….”
                      I realize that but by your attempt to qualify saved, you in effect qualify all. I don’t think one cannot dichotomize the two. If you insist on doing so then Paul’s use of parallelism is destroyed. That is why I also cited 1 Tim 4:10 to shows that Paul’s use of all really does mean all, which by the way I would be interested in your response to that verse.
                      In terms of your “neighbor” he is still unrighteous as he has not yet been saved. My question though is will he eventually be saved and become righteous at some point in the future? That is why we are discussing whether all really means all.

                    • paulfpavao says:

                      Ah, okay. Well, you have two of my favorite theologians on your side: George MacDonald and Origen. I can’t go there, though. To interpret those passages your way–and their way–I’d have to believe the apostles failed to pass on that idea to the church, completely across the board. I suppose a really weak case could be made that Mark passed universalism on in Alexandria, but really, the idea is unknown until at least Clement, though I think the arguments for Clement are weak, too.

                      There’s something important to me about the feel of the New Testament, too. The feel is not universalism. If there were a passage talking about the good, the evil, and judgment which included a caveat or a “remember this in addition,” that would be one thing, but there’s not. There are statements like the ones we’re discussing, but I’m pretty satisfied with the thought that salvation has been brought to everyone, but not everyone has received it or benefitted from it.

                      Let me add. I hope you’re right. It is the will of God that all would come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). That’s Origen’s favorite defense of universalism, so he concludes that after death punishment is to bring repentance. I’m not too worried about getting that doctrine right, however, because it has no effect on what I’m going to tell someone in this age, which is to repent and believe that Jesus is the King of kings and Son of God.

        • paulfpavao says:

          I understand this reasoning, but if you’re saying Jesus’ death justifies everyone, you are going to have to have a lot more than some reasoning from one passage in Romans 5. “Everyone is justified” doesn’t have the strength to even get through Romans 6, which tells us that if we yield our members to sin, then we are back under the law of sin and death (v. 16).

          I would argue that since we who are buried with Jesus in baptism finds that the law of righteousness–the law of the Spirit of Life in King Jesus–overthrows the condemnation of Adam, then Jesus’ gift is greater because it triumphs over the other.

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