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Romans 5:12-19

We’ve not been trained to read Romans well in the Protestant tradition. This unfortunate circumstance makes passages like this difficult to fit into what we’ve traditionally held to be the main argument of Romans. For many, the central idea of Romans is justification by faith, or salvation by grace, but what we ultimately mean is that we are saved by a choice. The image that accompanies this is of a long line of individuals, capable of making the one important decision in life: to accept the deal God has made with humanity through Christ in the form of faith or to reject it in the form of unbelief. This line of individuals comes at last to God sitting behind an accounting desk with a ledger to see who made the deal and who didn’t. But that traditional image—a stoic, static God waiting on people to make a deal or not, cannot account for the dramatic picture Paul paints in this passage.

The dominant image here is not God the keeper of accounts, but rather an image of two realms, two kingdoms, and the story of a king who has staged a non-violent unhostile takeover of an enemy kingdom in order to secure its release from slavery, oppression and decay. This is not to say that traditional approaches to Romans that focus on justification or salvation decisions are in error. The Romans Road, for instance, is not wrong per se, but its cherrypicking strategy presents a truncated view of Paul’s argument through the entire letter that cannot possibly take in Paul’s expansive, comprehensive, and cosmic vision of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. The preacher’s task this week is to begin to unspool that grand, golden thread so that the congregation can see themselves as participants in that larger story.

The main question of this passage is “who rules as king?” Indeed, this is the main issue throughout much of Paul’s letter, as he begins the letter by introducing Jesus as both the son of David and “the Son of God,” both titles of royalty (Rom 1:3-4; see Psalm 2). Paul’s gospel is that Jesus rules as king (Rom 10:9-13), but the drama of the gospel is that this was not always the case. The translation of verses 14 and 21 in chapter 5 are obscured a bit by the NRSV and NIV in that the word used for what Sin and Death do is “to rule as king” (ebasileusen). This means that Sin and Death are not merely conceptual entities, but active, personified agents, ruling roughshod over God’s creation in destructive ways. They are, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa calls them, anti-God powers.

Life in the Kingdom of Sin and Death is full of broken bonds: between God and humans, among human relationships, and between humans and the rest of creation. It is a kingdom of devastation, a kingdom of ash, a world imprisoned in disobedience, subjected to futility, and in bondage to decay (Rom 11:32; 8:20-21). Think of it like the Upside Down in Netflix’s Stranger Things, everything is a dark, deformed, and malignant version of itself. It’s fitting then, that we hear this text on the first Sunday in Lent, with the words of Ash Wednesday still ringing in our ears: “Dust you are, and to dust you will return.” Lent begins there, but Lent is the journey we make from the kingdom of dust and ash to the kingdom of resurrection, so it is appropriate that we begin here on the first Sunday of Lent with the viral spread of the rumor of good news that a king has secured our liberation from the kingdom of ash to the kingdom of resurrection. With this framework of two kingdoms in mind, how do we hear the rest of this passage?

The reign of King Death was unleashed into the world by a representative human. Through Adam, the fundamental brokenness of Sin and Death came into the world, spreading like a disease to all humanity (v 12). For Paul, sin is not merely an action or set of actions, it’s the larger condition all humanity is enslaved by. Sinful and deathly actions flow from our participation in the kingdom of Sin and Death. Paul has established up to this point in the letter that absolutely all of humanity is under the power of Sin and Death and resides under the condemnation of God’s anger at injustice (Paul’s use of dikaios can be rendered both as “righteousness” and “justice”). Sin and Death reign as king and their kingdom e