Exposition of Romans 5:15–16 Through Jesus, grace multiplies to all

Most who read this study have never felt the terror of being caught in a hopeless trap. So, it is hard to imagine the depth of desperation involved. Thomas Howes knows, because he was held by FARC guerillas in the jungles of Colombia for over five years. Every day he wore a heavy chain which would be padlocked to a tree or some other object. Insects, heat, abuse, poor food, and boredom were his constant companions. No one was looking for him, and no one was coming.

On July 2, 2008, Howes and other hostages were taken to a FARC helicopter to be moved; they almost refused to board out of fear. Once they entered and took off, a brave group of disguised Columbian soldiers suddenly subdued the FARC guards and flew the stunned hostages to safety!

Jesus did the same thing for us, even if we never knew how hopelessly chained we were. His gracious gift made it possible for billions of people to be justified. But will they accept the rescue by faith?

(NET) Romans 5:15–16  But the gracious gift is not like the transgression. For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many! 16 And the gift is not like the one who sinned. For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures led to justification.

Romans 5:15 is arranged to emphasize the difference between the free gift from God and the willful rebellion begun by Adam. Douglas Moo says, “The first contrast is one of degree: the work of Christ, being a manifestation of grace, is greater in every way than that of Adam (verse 15).”[1]

Paul’s subtle literary artistry is apparent. In 5:14, where death and sin are emphasized, the name of Adam appears, but Jesus is referenced indirectly. In 5:15, where Paul emphasizes the gracious gift of God, Paul overtly uses the name of Jesus and references Adam indirectly.

(NET) Romans 5:15  But the gracious gift is not like the transgression. For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many!

Now that Moo has clarified certain general aspects of 5:15, we will dust off a few other items for clarity. “The one man” is a reference to Adam, whose transgression allowed the entry of sin into the world (5:12) and spread death to himself and all after him.

The gift meant by the phrase “the gracious gift” (5:15) is apparently “the free gift of righteousness” (5:17). So, Moo says the gift refers to “the righteous status and life conferred on ‘the many.’”[2]

Those affected by Adam, “the many” (Greek hoi polloi), is clearly a reference to all humankind. Moo represents one group who agree with that comprehensive scope but hesitate to apply the same meaning to the same Greek phrase when it relates to those affected by “the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ” (5:15b).[3] In other words, they say “the many” means all humanity in the first half of the sentence, but less than that in the second half.

What is the concern that drives them to reject a conclusion so compelling (“the many” equals humankind) which is also supported by the words “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18, ESV)? The concern goes by the name universalism, which means every human being will receive righteousness from God and ultimately go to heaven.

The Bible does not teach universalism. For example, in Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus taught about those “who will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). As for Paul, he was referring to a distinct group of people when he spoke of God’s wrath against human sin (Rom. 1:18-31). So, what is the resolution of this conflict of ideas?

Theologians come in all kinds, including some who say God saves all (i.e. universalism) and other theologians who say Paul contradicts himself. In the final analysis — and there has been extensive review — neither of these positions is worth further attention here.

How is the issue to be resolved? Does “the many” refer to all humankind or not? The solution comes in two steps. C.E.B. Cranfield quotes the reformer John Calvin’s remarks: “‘Many’ is put, not for a definite number, but for a large number, in that He sets himself over against all others. And this is its meaning also in Rom. 5:15, where Paul is not talking of a part of mankind but of the whole human race.”[4]  So, “the many” in Rom. 5:15 uniformly refers to the whole human race. That is the first step.

The second step is that we must account for the fact that the grace Christ brought came in the form of “the gracious gift” (5:15). Some accepted the gift by faith and some rejected it. Note carefully that it is “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness [who will] reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (5:17). Not all receive the gift of God because they do not want to “honor him as God or give thanks to him” (1:21). But we who trust in Christ are different; “we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (5:2).

So, we find that the offer of God’s grace is made to all humanity, but the acceptance of it is limited to those willing to respond by faith. Universalism fails due to unbelief. In terms of faith as a response to God’s gracious gift, Thomas Schreiner says, “The use of [the Greek verb lamban?, ‘to receive’ (Rom. 5:17)] in Paul confirms that the reception of what God has given is prominent.”[5]

(NET) Romans 5:16 And the gift is not like the one who sinned. For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures led to justification.

Paul continues the uneven comparison between Adam and Christ in 5:16. Adam sinned and ultimately brought condemnation for all, but the gracious gift through Christ overturned Adam’s sin and all other sins to bring about justification.

Cranfield ably says: “That one single misdeed should be answered by judgment, this is perfectly understandable: that the accumulated sins and guilt of all the ages should be answered by God’s free gift, this is the miracle of miracles, utterly beyond human comprehension.”[6]

Two men — two destinies

Adam is the head of a race of people; he is the head of all who are dominated by sin and subject to the penalty of spiritual death. Jesus is the head of another race; he leads all who have put their faith in him, experienced his rescue from their sins and expectantly wait for a day when their salvation will be complete.

1. How have you taken advantage of the gracious gift which came to you through faith in Jesus Christ?

2. You undoubtedly know someone still in chains, and they may not even know it! What might you do to help them?

 “When the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared,
5 he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7, NET)

Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 334.

[2] Moo, Romans, 335, footnote 96.

[3] Moo, Romans, 336-337.

[4] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 285, footnote 1.

[5] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 292.

[6] Cranfield, Romans, 286.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!