Exposition of Romans 5:17: One man has done it all

What kind of legacy do you want to leave? How would you like it for people to say about you “death reigned through that one man”? Surely no one even wants to think about having that role.

But one man could rightly hear those words: Adam. It is fair to say that no man ever had more and did less with it than Adam. Adolf Hitler killed fewer than he did.

But God had an answer for Adam and all the harm he did. The answer was Jesus — one man above all others!

(ESV) Romans 5:17  For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

In some ways Romans 5:17 acts as a summary of this section of Romans. Paul is contrasting Adam and Christ, and C.E.B Cranfield notes the limits of this comparison: “The one real point of likeness between Christ and Adam [is] the fact of one man’s action being determinative of the existence of the many.”[1] Adam affects all related to him by infecting them with sin and death; Jesus affects all related to him — by faith! — by giving them the free gift of righteousness and an abundance of grace.

Note carefully the two uses of the verb “reign” (Greek basileu?). Death reigned through Adam, because of his sinful act. But notice who reigns in the contrasting clause: those who “receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.” That was unexpected! What would have been expected was for life to reign, but God had a better idea.

Adam sinned and caused the unraveling of humanity made in God’s image. As Genesis 1:27–28 demonstrate, humanity was designed to rule on earth under God. But Adam’s sin led to the rule of sin and death instead. Through Jesus, believing people are restored to reign as was originally intended. So, we find that death reigned over us through Adam, but we reign in life through Jesus Christ.

Douglas Moo draws attention to a qualification: “The reign of life  is experienced through choice and personal decision; it is for those who ‘receive’ the gift. The importance of this qualification can hardly be overemphasized.”[2]

Paul uses the future tense “will … reign” to describe the effect of believing in Christ. While this may be a reference to the Age To Come, the interpretive structure of salvation history leads me to think it begins with our salvation (“already”) and reaches full development when we are finally with Christ in the Age To Come (“not yet”). If you have no idea what I am talking about, read the material on salvation history in the Introduction.  :-)

Your legacy

We all start out like Adam; we are spreaders of sin and death. But God graciously gives us the chance to take advantage of what the man from heaven, Jesus, did. If we give Jesus our allegiance, we can become spreaders of his life.

1. What events or influences in your life moved you toward spreading death like Adam? Which ones still present problems for you?

2. What events or influences in your life moved you toward spreading life like Christ? What would it take for you to become more effective in doing so?

God gave you a chance to make a living legacy. Even if you have chosen life through faith in Christ, you still have a chance to expand your legacy by helping others find him. What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

Copyright 2012 by Barry Applewhite. Materials originally prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 287.

[2] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996)  340.

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