- Story Patterns
Who is this story about? A boy is raised in his uncle’s household, but, upon discovering that he has access to an awesome supernatural power, leaves his home under the watchful eye of a benevolent mentor. Some time later he watches on helplessly as his mentor is killed before his eyes, but eventually our hero steps forward to defeat the evil Lord who is seeking ultimate power – and who has no nose. Who is this story about?
If you answered Harry Potter, you’re correct. But if you answered Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins, you’re also correct! Each of their stories – and no doubt many others – follow a recognisable pattern. Because I described the pattern, you can see how each of these three stories – despite their vastly different details – share very significant elements. They are three different stories, yet in some sense they are also one story.
These three stories, however, don’t follow patterns that match our lives. I grew up with both my parents, and I have never drawn the attention of an evil nose-less sorcerer. In Romans 5:12-21, however, Paul gives us two stories that describe the common patterns of every human life.
- Adam’s Story
The first of these is the story of Adam. Paul does not retell Adam’s story in any detail, but describes its basic pattern: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin…” (Rom 5:12a). Adam sinned, and therefore Adam died. The second half of this verse then applies this pattern to the rest of humanity: “in this way death spread to all people, because all sinned.”
It may be a very short (and perhaps not very interesting) story, but this pattern of sin leading to death unifies all of humanity under Adam. Every person who has ever lived has lived according to this pattern. They have sinned (Rom 3:10) and they have died.
In many cases, however, there has been a third element to the story beyond Sin and Death. It applies first to Adam, and then especially to one group of Adam’s descendants, the Israelites: They received a command from God. In Adam’s case, the command was short and simple: “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17). (Note that, contrary to every children’s bible I’ve read, it was only Adam who received this command from God. Eve wasn’t there – she wasn’t created until five verses later!) But because Adam had this explicit command, his sin becomes visible. God’s command revealed Adam’s sin so that both Adam and the reader of Genesis can see it. Likewise, the Israelites received commands from God when they gathered around Mount Sinai after the Exodus, and the rest of the Old Testament records their consistent failure to obey those commands.
God’s commands therefore revealed sin, but did not cause sin. We see this especially between Adam and the Law-giving at Sinai as people keep doing evil (cf. Rom 5:13-14). For example, it may surprise you to realise that Noah’s generation never disobeyed God’s word. They couldn’t. They had no word from God to disobey! Nevertheless, God watched both their outward behaviour and their inward thoughts, and God knew (even if he didn’t reveal it to humanity at that time) that “every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5)
The pattern of life of people under Adam is therefore that they sin, and then face the judgment of death. Sometimes people’s sin is revealed to them through a divine command (which the people break), but even when it isn’t, their sin is real and God’s judgment is just.
- Christ’s Story
Romans 5 does not leave us with only Adam’s story, however, but puts forward a second human story – that of Christ. Christ and Adam are alike in that they each generate a new pattern of human life, but they are unalike in that those patterns are utterly different. Whereas Adam disobeyed, Christ obeyed (Rom 5:19). Whereas Adam was condemned, Christ was justified (Rom 5:16). Whereas Adam’s story ends in death, Christ’s story continues into eternal life (5:17, 21).
But just as Romans 5:12 puts forward Adam’s story as a pattern for the rest of humanity, Romans 5:15-21 puts forward Christ’s story as a pattern for everyone who is in Christ. Paul’s point in Romans 5:12-21 is not to teach us about the men Adam and Christ, but to teach us about ourselves. Adam and Christ each represent a pattern of human life and every one of us will live out one story or the other.
a. Starting the New Pattern
Every person initially lives according to Adam’s pattern, but the way we change stories, and begin to follow Christ’s pattern instead, is seen most clearly in 5:16:
And the gift is not like the one man’s sin, because from one sin came the judgment, resulting in condemnation, but from many trespasses came the gift, resulting in justification.
This verse begins with a contrast between “the gift” and “the one man’s sin” (that is, Adam’s sin). Each is then placed in its own sequence of events. There is a starting point (“from” something), a divine action, and a result (“resulting in …”). But when you look at the way Paul contrasts these two parts, something curious emerges. The two things being contrasted – the gift and the sin – are in different places in the sequence.
Adam: from one sin à God judges à resulting in condemnation
Christ: from many trespasses à God gives a gift à resulting in justification
Adam’s one sin is the beginning of his story, followed by the event of judgment and the result of condemnation. The “gift” on the other hand, is not the beginning of a story, but is the divine action in the middle. Both stories start with sin. In fact, Christ’s story starts with lots more sin than Adam’s does! If we judged the stories from their starting points, we might expect Christ’s story to be an even greater tragedy than Adam’s. But the real difference between these two stories is in God’s action.
Adam’s sin is met with God’s judgment. When Adam ate the fruit that God commanded him not to eat, God confronted him with his law-breaking. If we live out Adam’s story, we too will ultimately be confronted with the evidence of our sin, and we too will be condemned.
But the story of humanity in Christ is different. The divine action is not judgment, but a gift. The person who is in Christ will not face God’s judgment to determine whether they live or die. Judgment (at least this type of judgment) simply isn’t part of the Christian story. We receive salvation as a “gift”, and therefore our “many trespasses” (5:16) are ultimately irrelevant to our status before God. We receive life only through God’s generosity to us. But because salvific judgment has completely dropped out of the Christian story, we not only begin this new life through a gift, but we continue in this new life through the same gift. There is no judgment, and therefore “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The Christian life begins through grace alone and continues through grace alone.
b. Living the New Pattern
Having received the gift, however, we expect to see the recipients live according to this new pattern. Ongoing sin may not determine the Christian’s final destiny, but sin belongs to the old, Adamic pattern of life. Therefore, as Christians, we seek to live out the new pattern of Christ’s story (see esp. Rom 6:1-4) even as the details of out stories are vastly different to his.
The Bible teaches a great deal about this new pattern, but in the context of Romans 5-8, one aspect is particularly prominent: Suffering. If the pattern of Adam’s story was sin, judgment and death, then the pattern of Christ’s story is a life of suffering and self-denial now, with resurrection to come. Christ’s life of itinerant preaching and his execution on a cross were neither easy or comfortable; lives that follow his pattern will not be easy or comfortable either.
But just as Christ was raised from the dead, we will also be raised. And therefore we can endure the sufferings of this world – especially the sufferings that come from following Christ –confident that on the last day we will be raised to eternal life to share in Christ’s glory. The present suffering of the Christian life is never pleasant, but it is by far the better story because it alone leads to life.
Therefore, we can follow the pattern of Adam’s story – Sin leading to death – or the pattern of Christ’s story – present suffering on the path to resurrection, eternal life, and glory. In Romans 5, Paul teaches us that these are the only two ways a person may live.
(All quotations are from the CSB)
Chris Conyers lectures in New Testament at Moore College.