A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 5:18-21. d).
The scope of the work of Christ.
The parallel between Adam and Christ, on which we have been reflecting, has led a number of students to conclude that Paul is teaching ‘universalism’, namely that the life won by Christ will be as universal as the death caused by Adam. Is this so? According to verse 18, one trespass brought condemnation *for all men*, while one act of righteousness brought justification *for all men*. Similarly, according to verse 19, through one man’s disobedience *the many* were constituted sinners, while through one man’s obedience *the many* will be constituted righteous. With these verses it is natural to associate Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians: ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22). For example, Professor Cranfield comments (although on another verse): ‘Something has been accomplished by Christ which is as universal in its effectiveness as was the sin of the first man. Paul is no longer speaking just about the church: his vision now includes the whole of humanity.’
One of the arguments which universalists use is that (as in verses 18-19 quoted above) the expressions ‘the many’ and ‘all men’ appear to be synonymous and therefore interchangeable. In an often quoted article on *polloi* (‘many’) in TDNT, Joachim Jeremias shows that in Greek writing *polloi* is ‘exclusive’, referring to the many or the majority as opposed to all, whereas in Hebrew and Jewish Greek literature *polloi* is ‘inclusive’, meaning ‘the many who cannot be counted’. ‘the great multitude’, indeed ‘all’. He draws special attention to Isaiah 52:13-53:12, where ‘many’ or ‘the many’ occurs five times, apparently meaning ‘all’. He also points out that the expression *the many died* in verse 15 means the same as *death came to all men* in verse 12. Professor Jeremias’ case is not conclusive, however. As he himself concedes, *hoi polloi* could mean ‘a very large number’ in contrast to ‘one’, rather than ‘all’ as opposed to only ‘some’.
We certainly have no liberty to insist that the word ‘all’ is invariably absolute and can never admit any qualification, for Scripture itself often uses it relatively of all within a certain category or context, or from a particular perspective. For example, on the day of Pentecost the statement that God poured out his Spirit ‘on all people’ (Acts 2:17) does not mean every single human being in the world, but people of all categories, of all nations, ages and social strata, and of both sexes. When Luke later declares that ‘all…who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord’ through Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:10), he evidently means representatives from every part of the province.
So in Romans 5 the ‘all men’ who are affected by the work of Christ cannot refer to absolutely everybody, for a number of reasons. First, the two communities of people related to Adam and Christ are related to them in different ways. We are ‘in Adam’ by birth, but ‘in Christ’ only by new birth and by faith. So, although the phrase in a related passage, ‘as in Adam all die’, means literally everybody without exception, the ‘all’ who are in Christ are made alive are identified as ‘those who belong to him’ (1 Cor. 15:22f.). Secondly, this is made clear in Romans 5:17, where those who *reign in life* through Christ are not everybody, but ‘those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace’. Thirdly, Paul emphasizes throughout Romans that justification is ‘by faith’ (e.g. 1:16f.; 3:21ff.; 4:1ff.); therefore not all people are justified, irrespective of whether they believe or not. Fourthly, Romans also contains solemn warnings that on the last day God’s wrath will be poured out (2:5, 8), and that those who persist in their sinful self-seeking will perish (2:12). This cumulative evidence makes it difficult, if not impossible, to interpret Paul’s ‘all’ as ‘everybody without exception’ and to believe in universal salvation.
Nevertheless, Romans 5:12-21 gives us solid grounds for confidence that a very large number will be saved and that the scope of Christ’s redeeming work, although not universal, will be extremely extensive. There are three indications of this in the language Paul uses in the text.
First. he employs *kingdom language*. Five times the verb *basileuo* occurs, meaning to reign as *basileus* (king), to wield kingly rule, to exercise authority. Three times it is used of the reign of sin and death (14, 17, 21), and twice of God’s people reigning in life through Christ and of grace reigning unto life. This cannot be taken to teach that both reigns will involve a universal jurisdiction, since all kings in history have ruled over particular kingdoms with limited territories. Nevertheless, Paul’s use of the same metaphorical language in relation to both kingdoms surely implies that the reign of life will be substantially comparable to the reign of death, and the reign of grace to the reign of sin.
But the work of Christ is not merely equivalent to the work of Adam. It is more appropriate to contrast than to compare them. Hence secondly the *superlative language* which Paul presses into service, especially the verbs *perisseuo*, to ‘abound’, ‘exist in abundance’, ‘surpass’ or ‘overflow’, and *hyperperisseuo*, to ‘exist in even greater abundance’. Bishop Lightfoot commented on the latter: ‘St. Paul is not satisfied with *perisseuein*; he doubles the superlative.’ These are the words Paul uses in regard to God’s grace and gift (15, 17), adding that where sin increased, grace superabounded (20). Whether he is picturing the ample provision of the harvest, or the abundance of rain, or the overflowing of a river, we must give full weight to his words. What is clear is that he uses them of Christ’s work alone; it would have been wholly inappropriate to apply them to the work of Adam. Although Adam’s disobedience led to universal sin and death, there has been a lavish extravagance about the grace of Christ, in both quality and quantity, which was entirely absent from Adam and all his works. ‘There is nothing parsimonious about grace,’ writes Dr. Lloyd-Jones. For ‘grace is superlative generosity.
Tomorrow: Romans 5:18-21. d). The scope of the work of Christ (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.