Twelfth Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

The Difference of One Man


Scripture reading: Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

Sermon text: Romans 5:12-21.

One man — barely out of his teens — commanded an outmanned military force that conquered an empire.

One man sought to make good on a claim to a throne, leading his vassals to invade and rule an island that would one day build the greatest empire known to humanity.

One woman forged the profession we know as nursing amidst the stench of the surgeons’ tents of the Crimean War.

One man led a small team of revolutionaries to overthrow a centuries-old dynasty and establish a regime that would threaten freedom around the world for 70 years.

One man schemed to regain his nation’s honor after World War I, killing over 20 million Soviets and 6 million Jews in the carnage that followed.

One man, believing we could win the Cold War, stood at the Berlin Wall and shouted a challenge that echoed around the world: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Alexander the Great. William the Conquerer. Florence Nightingale. Vladimir Lenin. Adolph Hitler. Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Never underestimate the power of one person to change the world.

We can read an almost countless number of examples where one person changed lives, built and destroyed nations, founded religions, and profoundly transformed the history of the world. I’m reminded of the saying on Slashdot: “Never underestimate the power of a small group to change the world. They’re the only things that have.” Most small groups started with one person with an idea.

Unfortunately, every person who has ever changed history faced one major issue. They all died. No one has yet escaped death.

The book of Genesis in the Old Testament tells the story of how death invaded our race.   The tragic tale of Genesis chapter 3 sets the stage for all the tragedy, triumph, betrayal, and failure of the rest of our history.

According to Genesis, Adam, the first man, brought death into the world by disobeying the only command God gave him. We’ve been dying ever since.

Lest we blame Adam for everything, we must ask ourselves whether any of us has managed to obey God’s commands perfectly. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we, too, deserve death. Disobedience incurs a penalty. In the case of disobeying God, the penalty is death.

One man, one sin, a broken relationship that led to death to all. Fortunately, last week’s passage from Romans chapter 5 ended with glorious news: “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” In today’s sermon passage, St. Paul gives us wonderful news: We have a way to life. Everyone who lives according to Adam finds death. Everyone who lives in Christ will find eternal life.

Today’s passage serves as the classic “bad news, good news” account. St. Paul had pointed out that when Christ died for us “while we were still sinners,” we have been “justified by His blood” and “saved by Him from the wrath of God.” Through Christ, “we have now received reconciliation” with God; our relationship is restored with our Creator.

How could only one man, Jesus, accomplish this? How could Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, restore us before God, “justify” us to stand before Him without fear of judgment?

St. Paul reminded his readers (including us) that one man had already changed humanity. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” God created one man, Adam, put him in a perfect garden to live, and gave him the perfect companion, Eve. Adam had only one command to obey: “Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Certainly, Adam could do this. Trees and plants filled the Garden, many with delicious fruit for the taking. God asked had asked Adam not to eat from one tree in the Garden of Eden. Guess what Genesis records as his first meal?

Death haunted Adam for the rest of his life. Adam lived through the murder of his son, Abel, by Cain, his oldest son; he outlived Eve; and he watched others die as well, always knowing his time would come.

Did Adam and his descendants try to find a way to escape death? We have an account that gives us a clue to this question. Humanity’s oldest epic, the Tale of Gilgamesh, ends with the story of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, journeying to the end of the earth to escape death. At the end, a snake eats the plant Gilgamesh had gathered that would grant him eternal life. Sound familiar?

Did anyone ever manage to elude death? We have only 1 record of a descendant of Adam managing to escape death. Genesis tells us that “Enoch walked with God” (Genesis 5:24). Otherwise, the record of every person in Genesis chapter 5 ends with the words, “and he died.”

In the midst of the death, the human race managed to build great civilizations. Every civilization understood the need for rules that would promote social harmony. Hammurabi, the king who built the first Babylonian Empire, composed a written law in c. 1792 B.C. (Hammurabi’s law used the death penalty far more than we’d like today.)

Unfortunately, practically every civilization lost the knowledge of God, their Creator. Sin remained a problem for all humanity, up to the time of Moses’ Law in c. 1446 B.C. “Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.” Even for those without a knowledge of God, “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” Some would say, “I didn’t eat something God prohibited, so why should I suffer like Adam?” Saying so missed the point; Adam had passed death to everyone, with no escape unless God provided one.

After this bad news, St. Paul brought the best news: “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”

One man, Adam, brought death. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, brought a gift that only God Himself could give. “The free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” Adam’s sin brought judgment; Jesus’ obedience brought our justification, the right to stand before God, knowing He will not condemn us.

“If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Death may have reigned until Easter, but Jesus reigns now! “One trespass” may have “led to condemnation for all men,” but “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Adam’s disobedience “made sinners” of us all, but by Jesus’ “obedience the many will be made righteous.”

How does this work? Can we say simply that Jesus erased Adam’s sin and its penalty? No, we can’t. Sin requires a penalty. I’m reminded of the line from the movie “National Treasure:” “Somebody’s gotta go to prison.” Jesus didn’t erase the penalty; instead, He assumed it for us. Jesus Himself suffered death to bring life to us.

And here we find a major difference between Adam and Jesus. Adam could not give his progeny a clear, perfect relationship with God; Jesus provides this relationship to those who are born again. Adam could pass on only death; Jesus passes on life. Just as all born of Adam will die, those born of Christ will live. We will still sin in this life; we will still suffer physical death. However, through our justification by Jesus, we will receive forgiveness of our sins and the assurance of everlasting life.

The Law demonstrated to everyone who tried to follow it that no one could defeat death through obedience to the Law. “Sin increased” when the Law came by showing people God’s expectations, but “grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What does this mean for us? Can we expect Jesus’ grace to restore us?

Adam’s sin may have brought death to humanity, but Jesus has defeated death, giving us the promise of eternal life. Even when we die in this life, we know that Jesus’ victory will result in our victory. Jesus’ resurrection, at this point in history, stands as an exception to the rule; one day, however, the resurrection will become the standard, as all who have ever died will rise again.

At the resurrection, those who have confessed Jesus as Lord will receive His grace, His undeserved merit. We will receive forgiveness instead of judgment, eternal life instead of eternal death. Jesus has justified us; He has freed us from the fear of eternal judgment. Those who have been born again in Jesus will live eternally in His life.

Until then, we have a reason to live in this life. One Person, Jesus Christ, made a difference in our lives. Each day, every Christian stands as one person in the lives of unbelievers around us. We are the “one person” who can make a difference in someone’s eternal life. People need to see us living as God commands, in worship, in witness, and in every part of our lives.

I believe this calls for more than most people think. God knows we’ll sin and make mistakes. Far too many Christians have tried to give the impression they live perfectly. The rest of the world doesn’t buy it. Rather, we should freely admit our failures and faults while reminding those who witness them that we can receive forgiveness through Jesus’ love and grace.

One person brought death; one Person brought life. One person in your life needs you to be the one person who can bring them the good news of the death, resurrection, and victory of the one Person — Jesus Christ — who can assure them of eternal life.