Constituting Us Righteous
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”- Romans 5:18–19
In our study of the effects of Adam’s sin, we have been dealing with what theologians refer to as original sin, which is not “the first sin of Adam and Eve” but “the consequences for the human race of that first sin” (R.C. Sproul). The consequence of Adam’s sin is that we are born guilty. We die because we have been reckoned sinners in Adam, his sin having been imputed to our record because he represented us in Eden (Rom. 5:12–14). We are not sinners because we sin—we sin because we are sinners, people who are guilty before God from conception and who possess a dead nature wholly inclined to evil (Eph. 2:1–3).
Still, Adam’s sin is not the only reason we are condemned. We are guilty of personal sins as well, transgressions in which we alone participate. Born guilty, we compound our guilt by our sin. Thanks be to God, the last Adam remedies this situation. Adam’s sin and ours bring death, but the obedience of Christ brings life. His obedience parallels Adam’s disobedience in that both acts affect others, but “the free gift” of our salvation that results from His obedience is “not like the result of that one man’s sin” (Rom. 5:15–16a). The latter brings condemnation; the former brings justification. We can add to Adam’s disobedience and incur more legal guilt before the Lord, but we cannot add to Christ’s righteousness and incur more legal righteousness. We earn damnation and always deserve it; we cannot earn salvation, and we are never inherently worthy of it. Adam’s demerits are our due; Christ’s merits are gifts of grace for our eternal life and His eternal glory (vv. 16b–17).
Paul takes up the language of Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience in Romans 5:18–19, providing us a key text for the doctrine of justification. Paul says we are justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works (3:28), but to be more precise, we are not justified because we have faith. Instead, we are justified because we have Christ’s obedience. Faith is simply the means by which we are united to Christ and His obedience. Jesus’ “one act of righteousness leads to justification” and by His “obedience the many will be made righteous” (5:18–19). The Apostle doesn’t mean Christ did only one thing for our salvation; the one act of obedience is a way of saying one life of obedience while keeping the parallel with Adam’s sin. By this one life of obedience, the Lord creates or constitutes for us a righteous status. When God declares us righteous in our justification, He is not just making things up. His verdict is based on a righteousness that actually exists—the righteousness of Christ.
The parallels between the imputation of sin and righteousness demonstrate that it is erroneous to believe righteousness is a metaphysical reality that is infused into the believer. John Calvin writes, “The gift of righteousness is not a quality with which God endows us, as some absurdly explain it, but a gratuitous imputation of righteousness.” Righteousness is a legal status based on works, and sinners can only possess it if they are resting in the works of Christ alone.
Passages for Further Study