A Pauline Universal Salvation? Universalism and Romans 5:18-19 (3)

A Pauline Universal Salvation? Universalism and Romans 5:18-19 (3)

Post Series
1—On 1 Corinthians 15:22
2—On Romans 5:18-19
3—On Philippians 2:10-11
4—On Colossians 1:20
5— Conclusion


In 1 Cor 15:20-23, we find early articulations of Paul’s Adam-Christ typology, and what has also come to be known as Adam Christology. Paul strengthens and extends these earlier thoughts here in Romans 5:12-21 by employing the same typological parallelism between Adam and Christ in order to argue his point.1

Traditionally, this passage has been understood as an attempt by Paul to establish a doctrine of Adam’s sin.2 Kreitzer believes Paul is (re)establishing the problem and solution he outlined in 1:18-4:25 by focusing on the acts of Adam and Christ, leading to a teaching on the theological category of so-called original sin.3 Similarly, contemporary exegetes emphasize the salvific nature of the passage, agreeing with Moo that “the main connection [with the previous course of Paul’s argument] is with the teaching of assurance of final salvation…The passage shows why those who have been justified and reconciled can be so certain that they will be saved from wrath and share in the ‘glory of God.’”4

Likewise, Fitzmyer contends this passage is a “description of the condition of the justified and reconciled Christian,” which Paul compares to the status of humanity pre-Christ.5 As he does with 1 Cor 15:22, Dunn revises and extends these conceptions of Rom 5:12-21 by broadening the comparison from believers to humanity as a whole and outlining an ‘epochal’ argumentation by Paul: “Paul presents the history of humanity as a drama in two parts—two epochs dominated by two figures, Adam the tragic hero, and Christ the redeemer hero.”6 Others, however, believe Paul specifically has the life of believers in mind, which they say is a more consistent reading of the passage in light of its place within ch. 5-8.

Witherington is a strong voice who argues that here Paul prepares the way for his conversations on Christian living in ch. 6-8.7 Adam and Christ are used in a way that communicates the reality that believers are no longer in Adam and no longer labor under his reign of sin, but instead are “in Christ” and experience the effects of his reign of grace in their lives.8 Likewise, Jewett maintains that the main theme of Rom 5:12-21 “is how Christ’s life defines the future destiny of believers just as Adam’s life defined the future of his descendants. The primary goal of the passage is not to set forth a doctrine of Adam’s sin, but to demonstrate the scope of the overflowing dominion of grace in the ‘life’ of all believers.”9

Like Witherington, Jewett maintains that Paul is addressing how significant the status “in Christ” is for the actual life of the believer in this world. Rather than simply continuing to address the solution (salvation in Christ) to the problem (sin in Adam) as Rom 1:18-4:25 does,10 some contend this pericope sits at the beginning of a new discursive that addresses the new life of the believer. This view seems to mirror many who place ch. 5 not with ch. 1-4, but with 6-8.11

Because this pericope introduces the section (ch. 5-8) that addresses the Christian life post-salvation—rather than ending the section (1:18-4:25) that addresses the human condition and solution, as commentators like Dunn contend12—Rom 5:18-19 cannot mean what Christian universalists say it means. Paul is not arguing for a universal salvation, but helps address the life of the believer—Jew and Gentile alike—in Christ in opposition to their formal life in Adam.

Christian universalists maintain there is a “clear universalistic thrust of Rom 5:18-19,” believing that “Paul was indeed referring to all human beings and did indeed claim that they would all be saved in the end.”13 Many argue that since all have sinned in Adam, all will be raised to life in Christ. They suggest Paul argues this in Romans 5:18-19 when he writes, “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”14

Moo reveals that a growing number of scholars believe that we must conclude Paul meant Christ’s act actually brought justification and life for everyone, just as Adam’s brought condemnation to all.15) MacDonald voices the consensus: “Adam’s sin brought condemnation and death to all people. Christ’s righteous act brings justification and eternal life to all people.”16 As all humans were condemned to die in Adam, so too are all humans now brought to justified, eternal life in Christ.

A. Hultgren, for instance, has suggested that this passage directly states a universal justification of humanity: while some are justified in this life by faith, others who do not accept God’s gift will still be justified at judgement.17 Thomas Johnson recently wrote, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation of all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. The theological basis for this claim is universal application of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He died and rose for all. All people have been put right with God through Jesus Christ.”18 Similarly, Cranfield seems to argue for the same position: “something has been accomplished by Christ which does not just concern believers but is as universal in its effect as the sin of Adam. The existence of Jesus Christ does not only determine the existence for believers: it is also the innermost secret of the life of every man.19) He goes on to argue that “It will be wise to take it thoroughly seriously as really meaning ‘all,’ to understand the implications to be that what Christ has done He has really done for all men,” though he admits the universal-esque clauses do not give final word on whether in the end all will actually share the universal salvation offered in Christ.20 Likewise, John Murray pointedly argues that ‘the many’ does indeed carry universal significance: “When Paul uses the expression ‘the many,’ he is not intending to delimit the denotation. The scope of ‘the many’ must be the same as the ‘all men’ of verses 12 and 18.”21 These exegetes form the beachhead of those who would argue a universal salvation in Paul’s words to the Romans, one that is countered by others who insist the opposite.

While Dunn places ch. 5 along with 1:18-4:25—thus, arguing that it furthers Paul’s arguments for the solution in Christ to the human problem in Adam—his typological argument represents the consensus among those who do not view 5:18-19 argues for universal salvation. In his own analysis of the typological significance of Adam and Christ, Dunn views Paul’s perspective as primarily eschatological: Paul “sees each epoch from the perspective of its end—according to v. 18, condemnation in the one case, acquittal in the other.”22 Moo agrees, arguing Paul teaches that all people stand in relation to one of two men: “Either one ‘belongs to’ Adam and is under sentence of death because of his sin, or disobedience, or one belongs to Christ and is assured of eternal life because of his ‘righteous’ act, or obedience.”23

As with 1 Cor 15:22, Adam is a type whose symbol acts as the head over all condemned humanity, while Christ is another type who is the head over the new, redeemed humanity. According to this Adam-Christ typological framework, Dunn and others argue that the first man Adam has introduced the original and present epoch: Adam’s rebellion against God determined the destiny of all.24 The other man, Christ, has introduced the ultimate, future epoch: Christ’s work is described as an antithesis to Adam’s, where Christ’s obedience “is the reversal of Adam’s disobedience.”25

Jewett describes how striking this parallel is: “The most striking feature of v. 18 is the exact parallelism between Adam’s damnation that came [“to all people”] and Christ’s redemption that comes [“to all people”].”26 He goes on to emphasize that this parallelism must mean the whole race, the whole family of mankind. Before attending to the precise nature of this second “all,” it should be noted how Paul is using the parallel between Adam and Christ to primarily explain the scope of the redemption of Christ. Fitzmyer attests to this scope in emphasizing that justification and new life comes for both Jew and Gentile, an extremely important contextual point that Jewett further expands upon.27

In contrast to Christian universalists who maintain the “all” language affirms a real Pauline universal salvation, Jewett argues that the context concerns whether all believers truly stand within its scope. He reveals that Paul is concerned with factions in Rome that are damning opposing groups because of non-conformity to Torah. Thus, ‘the many’ in the context of Roman congregational issues refers to believers with an emphasis on “all those who have accepted the gospel, both Jewish and Gentile in background, both ‘weak’ and ‘strong,’ without regard to the law.”28) Rather than promoting a universal salvation, then, Paul is entirely concerned with the status of all believers, that both Jews and Gentiles who are “in Christ” really are part of this new humanity. The scope of believers—Jew and Gentile alike—and their life in Christ is in mind here, not the salvation of all humanity.

Witherington provides an apt summary of Paul’s arguments in Rom 5:18-19: “The action of that one person has drastic effects on the many…those who belong to the race of Adam are under the power and reign of sin. The only way to escape this is to join another race of humanity—those who are in Christ.”29 As Paul emphasizes, if you really received “God’s abundant provision of grace,” (v. 17) then you have “justification” and “life” (v. 18) and you “will be made righteous” (v. 19). As Moo reveals “That ‘all’ does not always mean ‘every single human being’ is clear from many passages, it often being clearly limited in context (c.f., e.g., Rom 8:32; 12:17, 18; 14:2; 16:19).”30

The context of v. 17—with its particular wording emphasizing those who receive God’s “provision of grace” and “gift of righteous”—coupled with Paul’s stress on faith as the means by which a person achieves right standing with God in 1:18-4:25 makes it clear that only certain people are saved. That all people are in the epoch of Adamic condemnation is clear from 12-14; that all people are in the epoch of Christic salvation certainly is not, considering how ch. 5 functions within the letter in commenting on the life of believers post-salvation and how 5:12-21 functions to assure all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, of their status in Christ.

  1. Unfortunately, this examination cannot exhaustively probe Rom 5:12-23. A basic examination of the pericope will be given in order to understand the surrounding context of 5:18, so that one can understand what Paul is not saying in regards to our specific question of universal salvation. []
  2. This is the position of Luther in his Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1954) 93-92, as well as Calvin, Romans and Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1960), 111-120. []
  3. L. J. Kreitzer, “Adam and Christ,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 12. []
  4. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 316. []
  5. Joseph A Fitzmyer, Romans (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 405. []
  6. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 288. Moo, Romans, 315, also acknowledges the “epochal significance” of of Adam and Christ, which helps his arguments for the pericope. []
  7. Ben Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 141-142. []
  8. Witherington, Romans, 142. []
  9. Robert Jewett, Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 370. []
  10. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 35. []
  11. See Jewett, Romans, viii; Fitzmeyer, Romans, ix; Moo, Romans, v; Cranfield, Romans, xi. []
  12. See Dunn, Romans, vii who places ch.5 thematically along with 1:18-4:25. []
  13. Talbott, “Christ Victorius,” 21-22. []
  14. Romans 5:18-19. []
  15. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Commentary, 1996. []
  16. MacDonald, Evangelical Universalist, 80. []
  17. A. J. Hultgren, Christ and His Benefits: Christology and Redemption in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 54-55. []
  18. Johnson, “A Wideness in God’s Mercy: Universalism in the Bible,” 86. []
  19. Cranfield, Romans, 269. (emph. mine []
  20. Cranfield, Romans, 290. []
  21. John Murray, Epistle of Paul to the Romans (vol 1, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1960.) 192. []
  22. Dunn, Romans, 298. []
  23. Moo, Romans, 315. []
  24. Dunn, Romans, 296. []
  25. Dunn, Romans, 297. []
  26. Jewett, Romans, 385. []
  27. Fitzmyer, Romans, 421. []
  28. Jewett, Romans, 385. (emph. mine []
  29. Witherington, Romans, 150. []
  30. Moo, Romans, 344. []
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  • Nicolas

    Dear Jeremy,

    First, thank you for this well researched series, your reading goes beyond my own!
    But I'm coming at it from the other side, so l'll humbly offer a few more comments.

    Your very last paragraph mentions the "receiving" of God's gifts in v. 17. You use this as evidence that the whole context is about those who choose God, and that this means there must be others who do not choose God (and therefore go forward to never ending punishment?).

    I think it's well established now that the NT Greek term "to receive" God's gifts is in the passive sense of being the recipient of these gifts, rather than in the active sense "to take hold of". We "receive" God's gifts in the same sense that a boxer "receives" blows!

    Nevertheless, it's true to say that evangelical universalists still hold that each individual must indeed make a choice to accept Christ. We don't deny that. The only difference is that we believe
    a) death is not the end of God's mercy
    b) punishment is not the end of God's mercy
    c) that in the end, all souls will (hopefully, surely) throw themselves on the loving mercy of God, through Jesus Christ.

    You write: "Paul’s stress on faith as the means by which a person achieves right standing with God in 1:18-4:25 makes it clear that only certain people are saved." This must seem logical to you because you believe that death is the cut-off point, that beyond the moment of death God's love and mercy are no longer available.

    But I believe death, judgement, even punishment are not the end of God's loving mercy. So I can't see how "Paul’s stress on faith …. makes it clear that only certain people are saved."

    Yes, I guess there are a whole host of presuppositions needing to be discussed first !

    In Christian Friendship.

    • fred

      Hebrews 9:27 (NKJV)
      27 And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment,

  • Laura

    Good Morning! I woke up with Romans 5 on my heart and after reading verses 18,19 I wondered if perhaps the passage was suggesting that ALL people would be saved as the result of Christ's sacrifice. In seeking clarification on this issue – I came across your blog. After some prayer and multiple readings of this passage, I think the way I would understand these verses is this – all who are born of Adam are born into sin, but all who are born of Christ – are born into righteosness. How is one re-born? By the choice and power of an Almighty and sovereign God. R.C. Sproul recently addressed the concept of election on his Renewing Your Mind podcast – specifically the teaching on 10-14 would also shed light on this passage.

    Anyway – thanks for your thoughts. God used them to trigger and increased clarity of this passage!

  • dennis

    If universalism is not true then 99.9 % of mankind is lost.

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