Posted On September 17, 2019

Adam’s Offense and Christ’s Righteousness — Digging Into Romans 5:18

by | Sep 17, 2019 | Theology

In my previous post concerning the imputed active obedience of Christ, I made note of a grammatical issue in Romans 5:18 that went beyond the scope of that particular post.

Many Bible versions state something to the effect of “one righteous act” instead of “one man’s righteous act,” which would tend the reader towards believing that this is referring narrowly to Jesus’ death on the cross. Besides the grammatical arguments that go beyond the scope of this book, consider the phrase “we will be saved by His life” in the immediate context of Romans 5:10. How does that work if what saves us is solely Jesus’ death?

In this article, I’d like to go deeper into these arguments. In the eyes of some, the doctrine of the imputed active obedience of Christ may actually hinge upon this verse. Thus, I believe it may be more important than we generally realize that we get this one right.

Why the Controversy?

Within Romans 5:18, the translational dispute is between forms of “one trespass” versus “one man’s trespass” and “one righteous act” versus “one man’s righteous act.”

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men,
so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
(ESV)
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all,
so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
(NRSV)
So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men,
even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.
(NASB)
Therefore, just as one man’s transgression brought condemnation for all men,
so also one man’s righteous act brought justification and life for all men.
(Mounce Reverse Interlinear New Testament)
So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone,
so also through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone.
(CSB)
Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation,
even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.
(NKJV)

In the Greek, this is primarily a translational dispute. The primary phrase in question looks like this in Greek with transliteration and interlinear English:

οὕτως καὶ δι᾿ ἑνὸς  δικαιώματος
houtōs kai di’ henos dikaiōmatos
thus also through one righteousness

The grammatical issue is the gender of the term henos (one). By spelling alone, this form of “one” could either be neuter or masculine. Dikaiōmatos is indisputably neuter. If henos is neuter, then “one” modifies “righteousness,” and the correct answer is closer to “one righteous act.” But if henos is masculine, then “one” cannot modify the neuter “righteousness.” “One” then must refer to Christ. We would then fairly translate that “one Man’s righteous act.”

Less critically, this grammar situation also applies to whether to translate “one trespass” or “one man’s trespass” with respect to Adam. The phrases are grammatically parallel. Pretty much no one takes henos to change genders inside verse 18.

There’s one more complication here in the difficulty of translation: the word “act” appears nowhere in the Greek but is simply understood. We would be prudent not to limit our understanding of what this righteousness is to a single act in a single point in time. The KJV does well not to limit the English translation to sound too much like the referents must be single points in time.

Rom 5.18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

"Stop clubbing, baby seals" meme

There was no punctuation in the original New Testament manuscripts, but you get the idea.

Theological Implications

Some take henos to be neuter (“one trespass,” “one righteous act”) and conclude that “one righteous act” is specifically Christ’s passive obedience on the cross. The type of dispensationalism that has historically come from Dallas Seminary generally denies the imputed active obedience of Christ. This manifests in at least two modern-day, Dallas Seminary-connected materials, the relevant NET Bible study note and the Bible Knowledge Commentary. In the latter, John A. Witmer writes:

The “one righteous act” (lit. Gr.) was Christ’s death on the cross. One trespass (Adam’s sin) is contrasted with one righteous act (Christ’s sacrifice). The result of Adam’s sin (everyone under God’s condemnation) is contrasted with the result of Christ’s work (justification offered to all). One brought death; the other brings life. [emphasis added]

On the other hand, if henos is masculine (“one man’s trespass,” “one man’s righteous act”), then the emphasis is on one disobedient man (Adam) and one obedient Man (Christ). The emphasis of “one” thus is not the oneness of the acts (eating the forbidden fruit and submitting to death by crucifixion) but on federal headship.

To summarize:

  • A neuter “one” emphasizes Adam’s and Christ’s respective acts.
  • A masculine “one” emphasizes Adam’s and Christ’s respective federal headships.  

Arguments

In this section, I’ll first argue that henos is Romans 5:18 is masculine simply by the preceding context of Romans 5:18. But then I’m going to get weird with understanding the term for “righteous,” dikaiōma. I have not found any commentators who take both of these positions together.

“Ones” in Prior Context Refer to Adam and Christ

It is widely recognized that two parenthetical statements exist between the end of verse 12 and the beginning of verse 18. If we connect these together in the Mounce translation, we find:

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all have sinned —.

18 Therefore, just as one man’s transgression brought condemnation for all men, so also one man’s righteous act brought justification and life for all men.

Further examination of the parenthetical statements of vv. 13–17 reveals that each usage of “one” is referring either to Adam or to Christ. This consistency of usage makes the most sense when reading verse 17 directly to verse 18.

17 For if by the transgression of the one man death reigned through that one, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore, just as one man’s transgression brought condemnation for all men, so also one man’s righteous act brought justification and life for all men.

It would be strange after so many usages of henos referring to Adam and Christ for Paul to then take henos and refer to a trespass and an act of obedience without making this distinction much clearer in his grammar. Without a clearer mandate to take verse 18 as “one trespass” and “one act of righteousness,” we should take henos as we were before in vv. 12–17.

“Righteousness” Elsewhere in Romans is Not a Single Act

We noted earlier that the grammar of Romans 5:18 does not require a single act of righteousness. Rather, the term “act” is supplied in English translations as an aid. Simply translating “one righteousness” (if henos is neuter) is just awkward.

This word for righteousness, dikaiōma, appears elsewhere in Romans. Again, I’m using the Mounce Reverse Interlinear New Testament just for ease of highlighting.

Rom 1.32 Though they understand the righteous requirement of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only continue to do them but also to heartily approve of others who practice them.

Rom 2.26 Therefore if the uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?

Rom 5.16 And the gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin; for the judgment following the one transgression led to condemnation, but the free gift following the many transgressions led to justification.

Rom 5.18 Therefore, just as one man’s transgression brought condemnation for all men, so also one man’s righteous act brought justification and life for all men.

Rom 8.4 so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Ironically, I’m actually arguing against Robert H. Mounce’s position on this issue in his New American Commentary volume on Romans, but I think I have good ground here. In three other places in Romans, Paul uses dikaiōma to refer to the righteous requirement of the law. We do have a shift of meanings in 5:16 to be sure, and the term translated “justification” in 5:18 is dikaiōsis, which is most definitely related but not the same.

In light of the uses in 1:32, 2:26, and 8:4, could we take dikaiōma in Romans 5:16 to mean not a single righteous act at all but the righteousness of Christ’s entire life? This indeed is the argument of Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown:

But better, as we judge: “As through one offense it [came] upon all men to condemnation; even so through one righteousness [it came] upon all men to justification of life” — (So BEZA, GROTIUS, FERME, MEYER, DE WETTE, ALFORD, Revised Version ). In this case, the apostle, resuming the statement of Romans 5:12, expresses it in a more concentrated and vivid form — suggested no doubt by the expression in Romans 5:16, “through one offense,” representing Christ’s whole work, considered as the ground of our justification, as “ONE RIGHTEOUSNESS.” (Some would render the peculiar word here employed, “one righteous act” [ALFORD, etc.]; understanding by it Christ’s death as the one redeeming act which reversed the one undoing act of Adam. But this is to limit the apostle’s idea too much; for as the same word is properly rendered “righteousness” in Romans 8:4, where it means “the righteousness of the law as fulfilled by us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,” so here it denotes Christ’s whole “obedience unto death,” considered as the one meritorious ground of the reversal of the condemnation which came by Adam.

But as long as I’m taking henos to be masculine, I can’t take JFB at face value here, as even they — in going so far as to translate “one righteousness” — must take henos as neuter. Again, “righteousness” is neuter, and Adam and Christ are masculine. I’m arguing against my own henos-is-masculine position if I leave this here. Can these be resolved?

An Alternate Translation and Defense

With both of these understandings in mind, allow me to put forward a translation of Romans 5:18 that combines these two positions:

So then, as through one man’s offense there resulted condemnation to all men,
so also through one man’s righteousness there resulted for all men justification leading to life.

KJV translators: take a bow. I think you nailed this one.

If you recall the King James translation quoted earlier, you might find that my translation here is really close. I’ve basically taken the KJV understanding of the highlighted phrases and then used the NASB’s “there resulted” phrasing, which I find to be a superior way of handling the lack of verbs in the Greek.

Indeed, this may appear to violate the parallel structure of Paul’s writing here. It would be convenient to translate “one man’s offense” to something like “one man’s unrighteousness,” but the word for “offense” here doesn’t allow that.

Alternatively, one could translate “one man’s righteous life” in the second half, but I didn’t want to get too dynamic with the initial translation. Does the parallel structure mandate that we read a single righteous act? I do not believe so. Moreover, a heightened understanding of Christ work over Adam’s work makes all kinds of theological sense because Christ accomplished more — MUCH MORE — than Adam. 

We get this very truth from the surrounding context.

Rom 5.17 For if by the transgression of the one man death reigned through that one, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ.

Rom 5.20 Now the law came in so that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace increased all the more,

We should not allow a parallel grammatical structure, as great and fun as linguistics can be, to cause us to diminish the work of Christ! The work of Christ is MUCH MORE.

giant tree growth

Photo: Brandon Green on Unsplash

And If I’m Wrong?

While I was researching and even while beginning to construct this post, I started to have this hard feeling that maybe I’ve been chasing a wild goose. After all, what if henos really is neuter, and we actually do confine the acts in Romans 5:18 to short points in time? We then still have to deal with verse 19.

18 Therefore, as one transgression led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (ESV)

I had previously approached this question concerned that the imputed active obedience of Christ was really at stake based on this one seemingly obscure, often disputed, not terribly well commented upon, hard to explain grammatical issue. As it turns out, even if I’m completely wrong about verse 18, verse 19 is abundantly clear about active obedience. Really, so is the rest of Scripture.

Scripture is amazing like that. It really does defend itself like a lion.

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4 Comments

  1. George Alvarado

    Love the linguistics and the conclusion here. Great work!

    Reply
  2. Michael Coughlin

    One thing I find interesting about all this is how often the Bible speaks of God’s law as “one.” So even though there are many laws and precepts and rules, etc…it is still viewed as one whole. So to fulfill all righteousness, although we views that as many discrete acts, from the perspective of God it is simply a single “act,” (in a sense).

    I loved this article. I found it to be really interesting and presented humbly. E.G. Psalm 19:8, Psalm 119:98

    Reply
  3. Michael

    I am as concerned with accuracy – particularly when it comes to its impact on doctrine and theology – but as I read through this, and even went back and read the preceding post and am still stuck with a question that I think was skirted and/or downplayed:

    I understand your purpose in building a case for ACTIVE obedience of Christ – but how does the “one act” vs “act of one man” diminish Christ’s active obedience? He played down His life willingly and WHEN He purposed. Just as the condemnation of on sin (that of Adam) brings condemnation to all – we still willingly sin earning out own condemnation with or without Adam’s sin. It’s still willful and active.

    I thin the grammatical argument you are trying to make, while interesting and of some importance, is also a form of grasping at gnats that are not even an issue.

    Reply
    • Garrett O’Hara

      Hi Michael,

      Thank you for your comment. I admit that I don’t understand everything in it, but I can try to address the “one righteous act” aspect. As addressed in this post, “one righteous act” is variously seen as Christ’s passive obedience in the crucifixion. Some within classic dispensationalism will take this so far as to say that only Christ’s righteousness as God is imputed to us rather than also His obedience. I don’t believe active obedience falls if Romans 5:18 is rightly understood to be “one righteous act” or even if that act is submission to the crucifixion, but I believe what Scripture conveys here is much richer and, pardon the pun, “much more.” 🙂

      Reply

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