Before the Council of Trent, Augustine, Chrysostom, and others had no problem elucidating ideas most clearly represented today by Reformed theologians. In Chapter 5, Paul fleshes out the idea of Original Sin in order to show that the “Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:21).
5:1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.
Paul appears to have made his point in the first four chapters of Romans: all men alike are under sin and the only way to be saved is to believe in Jesus Christ. Being that this is rather a simple matter of trust, we have peace with God.
Connecting with Rom 4:17 (“God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist”) verse 2 reiterates that it is by Jesus Christ we have obtained our faith. Our faith is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8). So, we have every reason to hope, because God has gone way out of His way to make us right before Him. He has paid our penalty, He has made us righteous by faith, and He by His grace inclined our hearts to Him so that we would be faithful.
Aquinas, seeing the transition in Paul’s letter, informs us as to where he’s headed next:
After showing the need for Christ’s grace, because without it neither the knowledge of the truth benefited the Gentiles nor circumcision and the Law benefited the Jews unto salvation, the Apostle now begins to extol the power of grace. Concerning this, he does two things. First, he shows what goods we obtain through grace; secondly, from what evils we are freed by it.
3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Not only do we exult in the glory of God because we are at peace with Him, thanks be to Jesus Christ, we exult in our tribulations. Why? They produce hope which does not disappoint thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
After giving Christians comfort that the love of God is evident in their hearts because they have hope in tribulation: he elaborates upon the reason for our hope, summarizing again the first four chapters.
While we were helpless, not seeking God (Rom 3:11) and unable to save ourselves by our own works, Christ died for us. The love God shows us in doing this is unparalleled, because no man would trade his life for someone who is wicked. Upon faith in Christ, man is justified by Christ’s blood, so that his salvation is sure because all of his sins have been paid for.
However, there is more than this. We are no longer going to die as a penalty for sin, because we are going to be saved by His life. This means because Christ lives, we live. There is a union. We exult in Christ because our union with Him saves us from ourselves.
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—
Therefore, or “in the same way,” those in union with Adam may expect death. Men are in union with Adam simply by being conceived as human beings. Through Adam, sin entered the world. Death is the punishment for sin, so he died. All men have subsequently died like Adam, so likewise they have all sinned.
13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
Paul reminds us of what is in Rom 1:19-20: the Jewish Law is not necessary to condemn man, because even without it man is sinful according to the law of nature. So, it isn’t simply that a man is held guilty for a sin he did not commit (for Adam committed his own sin), but it is useful to think that each man is held accountable for his own sinfulness.
Why? “The soul [הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ] who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity” (Ezek 18:20). Yet, this sinfulness has been inherited from Adam and all men are guilty of it (Rom 3:10).
How can men all die as a result of their own sin, but yet have this be the result of Adam’s sin? Augustine gives us a clue. He recounts a situation where a baptized infant later becomes sick, and the back-slidden parents force the child to take part in heathen ceremonies which would condemn the parents to Hell. This begs the question: if the baby needed baptism to forgive original sin as inherited by his father, wouldn’t the baby be liable for the sins of his parents subsequent to baptism?
No. Ezek 18:20 would not allow for this. Then, why does this baby need the baptism to be forgiven of original sin? Here, Augustine answers the question by making a distinction. The soul that sins dies. After the infant was conceived he had his own “soul.” Therefore, he is not imputed his parents sins. Yet, before he was born (existing in the loins of his father, see Heb 7:10) he was not a separate soul and thereby would have inherited the sin of his father. In this way, the infant is in need of baptism by default to deal with this inherited sin, but when conceived has his own soul and is no longer bearing the guilt of his father’s sins as if they were his own (such as in the heathen ceremony). In Augustine’s own words:
Both the soul of the father is mine, says the Lord, and the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins, it shall die; Ezekiel 18:4 but he does not sin on whose behalf his parents or any other one resort, without his knowledge, to the impiety of worshipping heathen deities. That bond of guilt which was to be cancelled by the grace of this sacrament he derived from Adam, for this reason, that at the time of Adam’s sin he was not yet a soul having a separate life, i.e. another soul regarding which it could be said, both the soul of the father is mine, and the soul of the son is mine.
Therefore now, when the man has a personal, separate existence, being thereby made distinct from his parents, he is not held responsible for that sin in another which is performed without his consent. In the former case, he derived guilt from another, because, at the time when the guilt which he has derived was incurred, he was one with the person from whom he derived it, and was in him. But one man does not derive guilt from another, when, through the fact that each has a separate life belonging to himself, the word may apply equally to both— The soul that sins, it shall die (Augustine, Letter 98, Chapter 1).
In short, Augustine teaches that because the whole human race was in Adam’s loins before they were born, and Adam in his soul sinned, then those in union with Adam by virtue of having once been in his loins share that sin by default. If you want to be real technical, the only person to have died of sin in which Adam’s own was not part of their account would have been Eve. All others, at one point originating in Adam’s loins, were not separate souls at that point and thereby are polluted specifically with the sin of Adam.
This may sound awfully unfeasible in a scientific sense, but it works Biblically. Being in the loins of someone else, not yet being a separate soul, is real enough that even “through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (Heb 7:9-10). In the same way through Adam, even us, who commit our own sins, committed the original sin, for we were still in the loins of our father Adam when he disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree. We would have also committed every sin our forefathers committed before we were conceived.
What kind of sin is in the “likeness of the offense of Adam?” Simply put, sin reigned and all died because even without breaking a Law revealed by God, because one dies by breaking the law of nature. The likeness of the offense of Adam is akin to the Law, because Adam knowingly broke a command directly and specifically revealed by God. This interpretation is consistent with what Paul has detailed thus far in the letter.
Another possible interpretation from Augustine is that those whose sins were not in the likeness of the offense of Adam is a reference to all of those who died merely as the result of original sin (i.e. babies). He writes:
Therefore death reigned from Adam unto Moses, in all who were not assisted by the grace of Christ, that in them the kingdom of death might be destroyed, even in those who had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, Romans 5:14 that is, who had not yet sinned of their own individual will, as Adam did, but had drawn from him original sin, who is the figure of him that was to come, Romans 5:14 because in him was constituted the form of condemnation to his future progeny, who should spring from him by natural descent (On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins and the Baptism of Infants, Book I, Chapter 13).
Aquinas elaborates the issue more succinctly:
But lest anyone suppose that they died on account of actual sins, he excludes this, when he says that it reigned even over those who did not sin by their own act, namely, children and the just who did not sin mortally, but did sin in the first man, as has been stated.
Chrysostom writes concerning the passage:
For if it is in sin that death has its origin, but when there is no law, sin is not imputed, how came death to prevail? From whence it is clear, that it was not this sin, the transgression, that is, of the Law, but that of Adam’s disobedience, which marred all things. Now what is the proof of this? The fact that even before the Law all died: for death reigned, he says, from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned.
While the preceding interpretation has been the dominant view of the Church for centuries, and for that reason alone should be deferred to, it does not speak to the role of the law of nature. What is the law that kills men that are not under the Law (i.e. gentiles) in the present? We already know the answer from Rom 1-2: the law of nature.
Did the law of nature not exist before the Law came so that Rom 5:14 is only a reference to original sin? This does not appear workable. For now, we will pass over this, as it is a tempest in a teapot and it will not radically affect our exegesis.
Last note on Rom 5:14: how is Adam a type of Christ? Well, in a sense he is a polar opposite. All men in union with him die. Contrariwise, all men in union with Christ will not die.
15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. 18 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.
Here, the polar opposites are being contrasted. The transgression kills many, the free gift saves many (the gift is free because it is not paid for by works.) Death comes from what one man did, while life likewise comes from what one man did.
19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
Many will be made righteous, because there are still men not yet born, who by virtue of having been in Adam’s loins, are destined to be rescued from the Adamic contagion by the obedience of the One. The union with Adam and Christ respectively in this verse is absolutely central.
Those in union with Adam are imputed Adam’s sin as if they were the one’s who actually committed the sin. They were not separate souls, so just as Levi sacrificed to Melchizedek in the loins of Abraham, in the same way all of us are guilty of the specific act of disobedience Adam committed.
The opposite of this are those who are in union with Christ, by virtue of having the Holy Spirit (which may also be called “the Spirit of Christ, Rom 8:9). Because they are in Christ, it was they too that have actually committed the act of obedience on the cross and subsequent resurrection. The believer then, when judged by works, will be judged according to Christ’s works. His sins are totally paid for on the cross and he is actually righteous in Christ, being credited with the righteousness of the crucifixion and the resurrection. This conclusion is unavoidable given the parallelism in verse 19. If we are made guilty with the specific sin of Adam by default, then those in Christ are made righteous by Christ’s specific works as if they themselves have actually done them.
20 The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Law came so that God is now the attributed even greater glory because He rescued us from even greater sin: “until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom 5:13). Therefore, man was not credited for as great a debt against God until the unveiling of the Mosaic Law made it exceedingly clear that man is exceedingly wicked. God’s grace is made greater now that Christ pays a much greater debt on our behalf. The more indebted to God we are, the more gracious He is when He forgives us through Christ.
So, while the debt of original sin is bad, and the law of nature is even worse, that debt has been increased by those who deliberately break the Mosaic Law. God’s grace is magnified increasingly as He rescues man from the debt incurred by sins that are the result of all of these.