Summary: Each of us is either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” That is why I have called my sermon Location. Location. Location. Where you are – what your location is – makes all the difference in the world, and, more than that, it makes all the difference in eternity.
James Montgomery Boice says that this is “possibly the most difficult [passage] in the Bible.” Great! Right? One thing’s for sure: Paul’s argument in these verses is dense and tight. One commentator begins by defining some of the terms in the text in hopes that that will help the reader in understanding what Paul is saying. You may be wondering whether it is worth the effort – whether it is worth trying to understand. I want to assure you that, not only is this “possible the most difficult [passage] in the Bible,” as Boice says it is, but it is also possibly the most important – or, certainly, one of the most important.
So, how do we approach it? How do we access what it has to say? Let’s begin this way. Let’s begin by noticing that these verses present us with a comparison and contrast between Adam, on the one hand, and Christ, who elsewhere is called “the last Adam,” on the other (1 Cor. 15:45). What we are being told is that all humankind is in union either with Adam or with Christ.
That is what Paul means when he says that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin” (Rom. 5:12). Adam is the “one man” Paul has in mind here, and it is our union with him that has led to death and condemnation.
Likewise, all believers are in union with Christ. That’s what Paul means when he says that “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (v. 19). This is the union that leads to life, and, in this case, Christ is the “one man.”
The fact is: Each of us is either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” That is why I have called my sermon Location. Location. Location. Where you are – what your location is – makes all the difference in the world, and, more than that, it makes all the difference in eternity. That’s why it’s important that you understand this passage. If you remain in Adam, your location will bring death and condemnation. If, on the other hand, you are found by God’s grace to be in Christ, your location will mean life and justification, or righteousness. Do you this unimportant – or irrelevant? I trust not.
So, let’s ask the question: How did it come to be the case that we were found in Adam? If we are to understand how we may be found in Christ, we must understand how it is that we are found in Adam.
Adam, as we said, is the “one man” spoken of in verse 12. “Sin came into the world through one man,” it says, “and death came through sin.” This “possibly most difficult [passage] in the Bible” starts with Adam and builds from there to show us two things: How, on the one hand, the union with the human race with Adam and the union of believers with Christ are similar. That’s one thing. The second thing is this: It is how, on the other hand, these two unions are different.
We have seen that our union with Adam and our union with Christ are different in that our union with Adam leads to death and condemnation and our union with Christ leads to life and salvation. But how are these two unions alike?
They are alike in this sense, that God appointed Adam to be the head – or representative – of what we might call the old humanity, and he appointed Christ, “the last Adam,” to be the head – or representative – of what we might call the new humanity. So, each of them – Adam and Christ – is a “stand in.”
Take Adam, if you will. Had he not sinned, he would have been judged righteous, and so would we. But because he did sin, he was condemned, and so are we.
This may seem unfair to you, but this is the way the vast majority of Christian scholars have thought about this and taught it through the years. So, the weight of scholarly opinion supports this understanding. But, even if don’t consult the scholars, we can see that we are accustomed to thinking this way in more familiar settings. For example, if you follow a certain team – the Dallas Cowboys, say – and your team wins, what do you say? You say – don’t’ you? – “We won!” And you feel elated, and life is good, and you can go on. If your team loses, however, what happens? You may curse the coach or the quarterback or the owner, even, but even then you will take the defeat to mean that somehow you yourself have lost. Why is that? It is because you are one with your team. You are identified with them. When they’re up, you’re up; when they’re down, you’re down. That’s union.