Paul’s View of Sin and Romans 5:12-21

As part of the series of articles on Paul’s View of the Law in Romans (see the current article), I felt it worthwhile to explore specifically his view of sin, and the language (and images) he uses to express it. This is done especially with an eye toward understanding his description of sin in the famous passage in Romans 5:12-21, as well as gaining a better sense of how he defines the relationship between sin and the Law.

Paul’s use of  (amartia (hamartía)

The a(mart- (hamart-) word-group (vb a(marta/nw, hamartánœ) in Greek has the basic meaning “miss, fail to hit (the target)”, or, in a metaphorical sense, to “miss the way, fail to find”, generally, “go astray, err”. As such, its semantic range is similar to the corresponding words derived from the root afj (µ‰°) in Hebrew. The substantive a(ma/rthma (hamárt¢ma), rare in the New Testament, has the general meaning “error, mistake”, along with the more developed legal/moral sense of “offense, fault, guilt”. The related noun a(marti/a (hamartía), far more common, has a similar range of meaning, but often refers specifically to individual actions. All of this fits fairly well under the English word “sin”, in spite of its strong religious/moral connotation.

Paul uses the verb a(marta/nw in the basic sense of “committing an error, offense”, either against the Law (Torah) or generally against accepted moral standards—sexual immorality, drunkenness, etc. (1 Cor 6:18; 7:28, 36; 15:34)—as well as the more distinctly Christian idea of neglect/mistreatment of one’s fellow neighbor/believer (1 Cor 8:12; Eph 4:26). In Romans (Rom 2:12; 3:23; 5:12, 14, 16; 6:15), the verb is used, it would seem, in a more general/generic sense, though clearly violation of the Torah (in its ethical commands, 2:17-27) and the kind of idolatry/immorality associated with paganism (1:18-32) are in mind. The noun a(ma/rthma (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 6:18) refers to specific erroneous/offensive acts (“sins”), as does Paul’s use of the noun a(marti/a in the plural (Gal 1:4; 1 Cor 15:3, 17; Rom 7:5; Col 1:14; Eph 2:1).

However, the singular a(marti/a often carries a somewhat different meaning or significance for Paul in his letters—”sin” as a power, and one that is occasionally personified. Note the following:

    • the expression u(po\ [th\n] a(marti/an (“under sin”), where the preposition u(po/ (“under”) refers to human beings under the power and authority of sin (Gal 3:22; Rom 3:9; 7:14); the context of Gal 3-4 and Rom 6-7 indicates the idea of bondage or slavery to an overlord
    • human beings are said to act or function as slaves (or servants) to sin (as lord/master), cf. Rom 6:6-7, 13-14, 16-17, 20, 22; 7:25 (indeed, the entire context of 6:1-23; 7:14-25); note also Gal 2:17
    • sin is said actively to rule/reign (as king or lord)—cf. Rom 5:13-14, 21; 6:12, 14
    • sin otherwise is described as acting, with devious/hostile purpose, in Rom 5:12; 7:8ff
    • sin specifically is said to dwell (lit. “house, take up house”) in human beings, as a personal entity might (Rom 7:17, 20, cf. below)
    • sin is connected to the Law and death, both of which can also be described as (personified) powers (1 Cor 15:56; Rom 5:12-14ff; 6:21-23; 7:13ff; 8:2, and see also on the expression “the Law of sin” below)

In order to understand this particular aspect of Paul’s view of “sin” (a(marti/a), it is necessary, I believe, to consider something of the ancient worldview that informs this language and imagery.

The ancient religious/mythological background

Generally speaking, according to the ancient and traditional (polytheistic) worldview, the universe was filled with living and intelligent “powers” (i.e., “gods”), which governed and were manifest within the various forces and phenomena of nature. This extended even to human society and daily life, whether within the community, family or at the level of the individual. Clearly, the cycles of fertility, birth and death, the seasons and the harvest, etc, were seen as governed by “deities”, but equally so the things a person experiences day to day throughout his/her lifetime. To have, or to experience, good fortune (health, prosperity, success) meant that a person had (or possessed) a “god”; in Greek, the word eu)dai/mwn (rel. eu)daimoni/a, eu)daimone/w, etc), often translated blandly as “fortunate, happy, blessed”, literally means “(having) a good daimon [that is, a divine-power/deity]”; an especially gifted person was similarly thought to possess a daimon (“genius” in the literal sense of the word). By contrast, misfortune and disease, etc., were caused by the presence of evil powers, such as we see famously in the book of Job, as well as in the exorcism narratives in the Gospels and the book of Acts (note also 2 Cor 12:7).

Within the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, of course, these “divine powers” took on a different character and role, either understood as heavenly/celestial beings (“angels”) serving God’s rule over the universe, or as ‘fallen’ evil spirits acting within the confines of the world. It is the latter sense which dominated the thinking in early Christianity, especially where the world of nature and humankind was seen as existing in a state of corruption and evil. According to such a “dualistic” viewpoint, the quasi-divine “powers” (whether or not precisely synonymous with “demons”) were thought of in terms of beings or forces which were actively hostile and opposed to God. Paul appeared to have believed in the existence of such “powers” (Gal 4:8-9; 1 Cor 10:20; 15:24; Rom 8:38; Col 2:8, 15; Eph 1:21; 2:2; 6:12; cf. also 2 Thes 2:3-12), though he says relatively little about them specifically in his letters. He describes more clearly, especially in Romans and Galatians, the role played by three (personified) powers—Sin, Death, and the Law. Sin, in particular, is described in almost mythological terms—that is, by telling a story or tale (mythos) with Sin as a leading character who acts with purpose and intent. This is what Paul appears to be doing in Romans 5:12-21.

The context of Romans 5:12-21

Much of the difficulty with interpreting this famous passage, I believe, lies in a fundamental difference in worldview. Modern readers and commentators tend to view “sin” almost entirely in terms of individual misdeeds; Paul and other early Christians shared this basic understanding, but, along with it, retained the concept of sin as a quasi-divine force or power which was opposed to God. Such an idea is quite foreign to Western thinking, especially today; it is much easier for us to conceive of the Devil/Satan as an invisible (but real) being than it is to think of “sin” as a personification, moving and acting, holding people in servitude, and so forth.

On the surface, Romans 5:12-21 is framed as a (typological and synchronistic) contrast between Adam and Christ, yet it is interesting how little Adam actually appears in these verses—the principal actor (especially in vv. 12-14) is sin, along with his associate death. Note:

    • Sin enters (“comes into”, ei)se/rxomai ei)$) the world, and death enters along with (lit. “through”, dia/) him (v. 12)
    • Sin is in (h@n e)n) the world—dwelling, working and multiplying—though without his presence really being recognized by human beings (v. 13); people would not see Sin for who he/it was until the coming of the Law (Torah)
    • Sin reigns/rules as king (basileu/w), through his powerful associate and representative death, until the coming of the Law (i.e. of Moses), and then even more thereafter, until the coming of Christ (v. 14)

It is hard to say to what extent Paul is simply using figurative language here; he certainly understood sin as a real and genuine force or power, but at least two aspects of his illustrative argument here suggest that the language is primarily figurative:

    1. In verses 12-14, Paul is generally summarizing the narrative in Genesis 3 (focused on Adam), and extending it broadly to cover the entire period of human history up to the time of the Sinai Covenant (the Law/Torah), and beyond; he does something quite similar in Rom 7:7-12. In this respect, he effectively attributes to Sin actions and functions involving other characters—Adam, Eve, the Serpent, etc—in Genesis.
    2. In verses 15-17, in a story parallel to, and a reversal of, that in vv. 12-14, the “favor/grace of God” is effectively personified as the protagonist much like Sin in vv. 12-14. Grace works in the world, and through Christ, just as Sin worked in the world, affecting all human beings, ultimately ruling/reigning in life (as Sin ruled/reigned in death).

Paul does not explain exactly how Sin’s entry into the world (manifest in the first sin by Adam) spreads into/unto all human beings (v. 12). Historically, there are three primary ways this has been explained by commentators and theologians:

    • Biological/Generational—human beings transmit a “sinful nature” from parents to child, from one generation to the next; this is sometimes connected with the “traducian” theory that the human soul is transmitted biologically.
    • Imitative—the sinful parent effectively teaches the child to sin, from generation to generation.
    • Collective—all human beings sinned collectively in the first human being Adam (or pair, Adam/Eve)

All of these are rather far removed from Paul’s actual line of argument and illustration in Rom 5:12-21; a major problem, as indicated above, is that such theories almost completely ignore the primary context of the passage (esp. verses 12-14), which depicts sin as a (personified) power. I would interpret Paul’s expository logic as follows:

    • Adam’s disobedience provides the opportunity and opening for Sin (as a power) to enter into the world, that is, into the world/domain of human beings
    • Based also on the parallel discussion in Romans 7:7-25, Paul appears to have viewed Sin’s entry in two ways:
      (1) as an external force present and active in the world influencing and affecting human beings (i.e. “the world“), and
      (2) as an internal power dwelling within human beings, operating and influencing people specifically at the level of the “flesh” (sa/rc).
    • A major result and effect of human sin is death (that is, the fate of real physical death), pronounced as a judgment by God (according to the Genesis narrative). Death, too, is sometimes seen as an active force.
    • The “flesh” of human beings—covering both physical/biological and psychological aspects—already weak, and fatally weakened further by the presence and influence of both sin and death (often viewed as working together), is unable to resist the power of sin.
    • Sin effectively rules as king or lord, enslaving all human beings under its power and authority. Viewed figuratively, this means that human beings are unable to resist the impulse to sin (within) and sinful/wicked influences in the world (i.e. human society) around them.

A uniquely Pauline addition to this narrative is the role of the Law (no/mo$)—that is, the Law of God, but specifically as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah). This, of course, is the subject of the current series “Paul’s View of the Law” (cf. the article covering 5:12-21); his unusual and remarkable view of the Law may, thus far, be summarized here as:

    • Prior to the introduction of the Law (Torah), sin was present in the world, working and ruling over human beings, enslaving them; however, people were not able to recognize the true nature and presence of sin.
    • The primary purpose of the Law was to produce recognition and awareness (i.e. proper knowledge) of sin (Rom 3:20; 7:7, cf. also Gal 3:19). Paul seems to envision a connected/parallel dynamic at work for Gentiles who do not have the Torah, but who recognize comparable ethical and religious standards.
    • Paradoxically, however, the effect of this is to increase the presence and influence of sin, even to the point of bringing about death. Through the commands of the Law, sin is defined, esp. in relationship to God, but the presence (and increased awareness) of sin—especially as manifest in the “flesh”—means that human beings are not strong enough (i.e. not able) to fulfill the Law of God (as expressed in the Torah, and also in the human ‘conscience’ or “inner man”).
    • The result is that human beings are further in bondage, to the Law (“under the Law”), just as they are in bondage to sin (and death); Gentiles, in their own way, are similarly in bondage under the Law (cf. Gal 4:1-11). Paul, however, makes the point strongly that the Law is not the same as sin.
    • Through the person and work of Christ, the Law is fulfilled/completed for believers (who are thus “justified” before God), and is, in fact, brought to an end for those who are in Christ—freed from the Law, as we are freed from sin (and death).

The “Law of Sin”

These two key concepts—the Law and Sin—are combined in the expression “the Law of Sin” (o( no/mo$ th=$ a(marti/a$), which Paul uses in Rom 7:23, 25; 8:2. Throughout Galatians, the word no/mo$ (“law”) refers almost exclusively to the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah); similarly in Romans, however Paul does begin to use the term with a somewhat wider scope of meaning, beginning in chapter 3, but most notably here in chapter 7. In Romans 7:7, he starts with the Torah (the Decalogue), but by verse 22, he has shifted the meaning by introducing the expression “the Law of God” (o( no/mo$ tou= qeou=). This phrase seems to include the Law as expressed in the human soul (or “conscience”), i.e., the “inner man”; Paul had used it previously in 1 Cor 9:21, probably in the sense of the true Law, synonymous (for believers) with the “Law of Christ” (cf. also Gal 6:2).

In Rom 7:22-25, Paul juxtaposes “the Law of God” against “the Law of Sin (and Death)”, as two opposing forces at war within a human being—the mind/soul/conscience influenced by the former, and the “flesh” controlled by the latter. This clearly reflects the condition of human beings prior to coming to faith in Christ, though Paul describes a similar dynamic—the flesh warring against the Spirit (and vice versa)—for believers, in Gal 5:16-17ff.

A final example: 2 Corinthians 5:21

An interesting use of the word a(marti/a (in the singular) is found in 2 Cor 5:21, where Paul uses it twice, in connected phrases:

“the one [i.e. Christ] not knowing sin, he [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. for our sake], (so) that we might come to be the justice/righteousness of God in him”

It is a most striking juxtaposition: Christ comes to be (made) sin, and we come to be justice/righteousness in Christ. Paul appears to be playing on the various meanings and connotations of the word “sin” (a(marti/a), from a Jewish and Christian point of view. There are several possibilities for interpreting these two phrases:

1. to\n mh\ gno/nta a(marti/an, “the (one) not knowing sin”, in the sense that Jesus—

    • had no experience of sin, i.e. had not committed any such misdeed
    • was unfamiliar with sin’s reign, i.e. was not under its/his power and authority (for a similar idea, cf. John 14:30)
    • had no intimate contact with sin, i.e. its power was not dwelling in him

2. a(marti/an e)poi/hsen, “he made (to be) sin”, in the sense that Jesus—

    • was made into the form of (sinful) human “flesh” (Rom 8:3); the idea of incarnation, cf. Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7
    • was made like unto the (enslaving) power of sin, in order to conquer and destroy it (cf. Rom 8:2-3; Gal 3:13-14)
    • was made into a sin-offering; note the similar double meaning of afj in Hebrew, which can be used both for sin and the offering made on behalf of sin

Probably the first meaning in each case is to be preferred, but it is intriguing to consider the other possible associations, as one can find basis for them elsewhere in Paul’s thought.