12 Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned. 13 Although sin was in the world, since there was no Law, it wasn’t taken into account until the Law came. 14 But death ruled from Adam until Moses, even over those who didn’t sin in the same way Adam did– Adam was a type of the one who was coming.
15 But the free gift of Christ isn’t like Adam’s failure. If many people died through what one person did wrong, God’s grace is multiplied even more for many people with the gift– of the one person Jesus Christ– that comes through grace. 16 The gift isn’t like the consequences of one person’s sin. The judgment that came from one person’s sin led to punishment, but the free gift that came out of many failures led to the verdict of acquittal. 17 If death ruled because of one person’s failure, those who receive the multiplied grace and the gift of righteousness will even more certainly rule in life through the one person Jesus Christ.
18 So now the righteous requirements necessary for life are met for everyone through the righteous act of one person, just as judgment fell on everyone through the failure of one person. 19 Many people were made righteous through the obedience of one person, just as many people were made sinners through the disobedience of one person. (CEB)
Justification and Life for All
I remember when Kara came home from school and told Joy, “Mommy, someone said the “S” word today.” We were somewhat appalled but, since we weren’t quite sure what the “S” word meant to our kindergartener, we pressed her to tell us what the word was, even going so far as to assure her she would not get into trouble for saying it to us. Finally, her eyes got big and she lowered her chin and very quietly said, “stupid.”
It’s a very serious word for a kindergartener. We have one of those words in the church. It’s a serious “S” word that we don’t like to hear or talk about. And I’m going to go ahead and say it. “Sin.”
Since Lent is about repentance, it’s appropriate that we talk about what we’re repenting from on this first Sunday in the season. Admittedly, sin isn’t the most popular topic. In large part, I think that reticence or apprehension to talk about sin comes from the fact that it can feel like an invasion of privacy, especially when we start talking about our personal sins. We don’t want to talk about how or whom we’ve cheated. We don’t want to have the façade of our integrity eroded by revealing our lies. We don’t want it to get out that we’ve stolen. We’d be mortified by those things. We want to keep that stuff under the rug where no one can see. Sin can be embarrassing, uncomfortable, and we don’t often want to own up to it, let alone have to make meaningful amends.
For those of us who feel that way, we get a bit of a reprieve today. While it’s important that we confess our individual sins and seek forgiveness for them, what Paul addresses here is about sin as a human condition. It’s about how we are beleaguered, overwhelmed, inundated, surrounded, and tormented by sin and death to the point that we cannot escape. We’re as stuck as stuck can be. There’s no way to get around, climb out, escape through, or just plain hide. We live under the dominion of sin and death. This is the reality of the world. This is big-picture stuff that examines sin and the scope of Christ’s redemptive work.
Earlier in Romans, Paul declares, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23, CEB), and he repeats that theme in verse 5:12, saying, “everyone has sinned.” Most of us are self-aware enough to recognize that we’ve sinned here and there. What we often fail to recognize is the pervasiveness of sin. It runs deeper and wider than we imagine. It’s not about the little ways in which we sin so much as it is about the fact that we lean toward sin like it’s second nature. It’s easy for us, and we’re so used to it that it takes a pretty high dose of sin to make us flinch. As for death, no one has managed to escape it yet, unless you want to count Enoch and Elijah.
So, where does this pervasiveness of sin and death come from? If we’ve grown up in the church, we’ve probably heard the term original sin before. Original sin is both the first sin and the sin that lies at our origins. It was the disobedience of Adam and Eve: a disobedience that we, their children, repeat on a rather constant basis. The disobedience of Adam and Eve was somehow passed on to the entire human race in such a way that we have all become sinners. We all fail to obey God. We all turn away from God’s righteousness. Charles Wesley described it as a “bent to sinning” in his hymn, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (UM Hymnal 384). We just kind of lean that way, we bend toward sin like a planet bends toward a star, revolving around it as our center of gravity and never able to achieve escape velocity.
We have an ingrained disposition to resist and oppose God, to oppose the well-being of our neighbors, and to oppose our own well-being. In doing so—in turning against God, our neighbors, and ourselves, human beings live and act in destructive ways. We ruin everything from the earth and the air we breathe to other human lives, even of those we say we love. Sin is so incredibly insidious and destructive that we can even ruin our own lives in any number of ways.
Sin is something we do and, at the same time, a condition from which we suffer. Sin affects all of us as a collective disease. Understood this way, the problem of sin is much deeper than our individual transgressions of commission or omission—doing wrong or failing to do right. Because it lies at our very origins, sin is unavoidable. We are all trapped by sin and death. In essence, much as darkness is the absence of light, sin is the loss or lack of Good which keeps us from living fully as human beings.
We’ve all heard that phrase when someone messes up, Well, I’m only human, as though our humanity is an excuse for sin. Maybe we’ve even used it ourselves. I suppose, in one sense, it is since we can’t escape sin. But that’s not how Christian theology understands sin or human life. The only one who lived a perfect, fully human life was Jesus Christ. In fact, the only one who lived a truly human life was Jesus Christ. Sin prevents us from being fully human. Human life was not designed by God to live or thrive in sin. Sin is not what it means to be human because sin is opposed to God’s intention for us in creation. God made us, male and female, and called us, not just good but “supremely good” (Genesis 1:31).
The sin of Adam and Eve was the rejection of their own supreme goodness by disobeying the God who formed them from the dust of the ground in God’s own image and gave them dominion over all things. They were, essentially, second in command behind God. The sin of Adam and Eve was the choice to throw all of that away in a power grab to get more. We often ask why God allows evil to exist. The thing is, sin and death are not flaws in God or in God’s creation. Adam and Eve managed to mutilate and ruin the goodness of creation itself. Our very existence has been damaged in an unnatural way that was outside of God’s creative plan.
Sin is not what God had planned for us. Sin is what we chose and continue to choose. Because of sin, we dehumanize each other. We view those different from us as something less than us. In every possible way, sin leads to death. So, sin is something that we do, but it is also something from which we suffer. Sin and death hold sway over us in profound ways. Sin controls us. Death dominates us. We are enslaved to the power of sin in such a way that we keep going back to it. And we know that we keep going back to it.
Long after our baptism, sin remains. We even get comfortable with it. Those of us who are privileged learn to turn a blind eye to things that benefit us by harming others because we don’t want to give up our privileged state. Those of us who are oppressed can learn to hate the world—especially those pampered privileged folks and the power systems designed to keep the privileged on the top and the oppressed on the bottom—because we don’t see an out from our suffering and no one seems to care that we are suffering. The hold which sin has over every human life leads to the inevitable, tragic, but not wholly surprising condemnation by God who is holy.
What Paul is trying to get across in our text is that sin and death do not, ultimately, win the day and separate us from God’s holiness. As powerful a hold as sin and death have over us and all of creation, Jesus is God’s intrusion into the unnaturally corrupted creation that, at one time, God had declared to be good. In Jesus, God became human to show us how to be human. Jesus lived in order to teach us how to be righteous. Jesus died to redeem and save us from the all-pervasive diseases of sin and death. The beauty of God’s love for us is that, as much as sin messed everything up, God has acted toward us with a depth and breadth of love, mercy, and forgiveness that sin and its results are utterly destroyed.
In the same way that sin and death came through Adam and everyone became sinners as a result, so also the righteousness of Jesus Christ allows everyone to be justified and have life. Justification is somewhat more than being acquitted of the guilt of sin and declared to be in a right relationship with God. That’s how we normally define justification, theologically. The more is that through Christ, we become righteous by reclaiming the love and generosity of God which is found in Jesus and by which God created everything in the beginning. In Christ, we begin to reclaim the love God has for us—the love that created us—in our own lives.
Christ’s power and saving grace overcome the divisiveness and separation from God that sin forces upon us. Sin and death have dominion over fallen creation. But those who are in Christ live under the dominion of God’s grace. The thing is, whether we’re under the dominion of sin and death or the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we always live under the dominion of a force that is greater than we are. Through Christ, we are offered a choice. We can serve sin or we can serve Christ who sets us free and offers life that really is life.
God’s intention in sending Jesus to live, die, and rise for us is more than merely saving us from our individual sins. It’s meant to guide us to live lives outside of ourselves, lives that are generous and loving toward other sinners, welcoming and embracing of other sinners because we are all sinners. In Jesus Christ, we have this incredible, undeserved offer of a gift. As deep and unavoidable as our sin might be, Christ overwhelms its power. That’s the beauty of God’s love. God is on our side in this fight.
Even while living under grace, we’ll still mess up. We’ll still turn toward sin. But what Jesus came to tell us is that nothing can separate us from God’s love, even our own choices to give in to sin’s enticement. In Christ, God has broken sin’s power to hold us forever. We can, with God’s grace and help, become better people. Not to brag, or boast, or judge others because we think we’re better than they are. This isn’t self-help. We didn’t do this. The grace to turn away from sin comes from God, not some innate strength within ourselves.
God breaks the power of sin over us so we can love even more profoundly; so we can do the things Jesus teaches about in the Sermon on the Mount. Love your enemies. Pray for those who harass you. (Matthew 5:44). God breaks the power of sin over us so that we can live more fully as human beings who are made righteous by reflecting the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We may have been made sinners from our origins in the disobedience of our parents, Adam and Eve, but the Son of God’s obedience makes us righteous, not because we’re awesome, but because God’s love is deeper and broader and bigger and more overwhelming than sin and death could ever hope to be.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!