Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Exercises in Right Division (Romans 5:18)

The Verse: "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." (Romans 5:18)

The Common Assertion:  Romans 5:18 makes reference to "all men," a phrase that quite literally means "the entirety of the human race"- not some subset thereof.  If "all men" means "the entire human race" in the first part of that verse, then there is no basis for asserting that it means anything other than "the entire human race" in the second part of that verse.

The Resolution:  To address this all-too-common assertion we will break it down into the two false premises upon which it is based:
  • FALSE PREMISE 1:  "All men" must mean "the entire human race."  
  • FALSE PREMISE 2:  A word or phrase cannot be used in a different way within the same verse or context.
FALSE PREMISE 1: If we examine how the term "all" is employed in the scriptures, we find that it VERY OFTEN designs a group of people that is less than "all of humanity." Therefore the assertion that "all men" must mean "the entire human race" is false. Consider these three scriptural examples:
  • "And ye shall be hated of ALL MEN for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved." (Matthew 10:22) Here "all men" does not include believers, because believers are noted as those who love the brethren (I John 3:14).
  • "And when they had found him, they said unto him, ALL MEN seek for thee." (Mark 1:37) Here "all men" has respect to a great many in Judea at that time, but it does not include the inhabitants of North and South America who knew precisely nothing of the man Christ Jesus as it relates to his incarnate, earthly ministry.
  • "So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people: for ALL MEN glorified God for that which was done." (Acts 4:21) Clearly the entire human race did not glorify God for what had been done, given that the rulers, elders, and scribes in this self-same text were issuing orders to cease and desist from the performance of any further miracles (Acts 4:5,18), not to mention the vast majority of the human race who had absolutely no knowledge of these events whatsoever.  
Examples could be multiplied, but these three are sufficient to demonstrate that "all men" does not always mean the entire human race. Having establishing that, those who are interested in developing a proper understanding of the word of God should revisit any passage they have interpreted in keeping with this flawed premise. By my observation, this is among the more common interpretive errors practiced among Christians today. As a result the corrective potential of this observation is difficult to overestimate.  

FALSE PREMISE 2: The notion that a word or phrase cannot be used in a different way within the same verse or context in the scriptures is dispelled by the following observations:
  • First, there is absolutely no reason to assert that when a term is used once in a sentence that it must therefore be used in the exact same fashion everywhere else it appears in that sentence. "Let the DEAD bury their DEAD." (Matthew 8:22) In this verse we have the same word appearing two times in the same sentence with two different meanings.
  • Second, when interpreting Romans 5:18 one must be careful to recognize the representative offices of each man - Adam who represented all of humanity (Romans 3:10-18, 5:12), and Christ who represents a subset of humanity (John 10:11,26) often referred to as "my sheep" (John 10:28), "his people" (Matthew 1:21), and "his elect" (Matthew 24:31).  
  • Third, the Lord Jesus Christ taught that hell was real and that it would have human occupancy  (Matthew 25:41, Luke 16:23). It is therefore readily evident that the statement "the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life" cannot mean that "all men" are eternally justified, for if they were there would remain no legitimate basis for their condemnation in hell.

So it is not only possible that "all men" has two different meanings in reference to two entirely different groups (those represented in Adam, and those represented in Christ), it is a matter of unavoidable systematic necessity if we are to uphold the Lord's assertion that the scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).

It follows that to rightly divide Romans 5:18, we must regard each occurrence of "all men" as a reference to "all those represented" - which in the former case is all those in Adam (all of humanity), and in the latter case is all those in Christ (a subset of humanity).  

The Theological Implications

  • In order to achieve right division, one must resist the urge to interpret passages on the basis of "plain meaningism" which often leads to a short-sighted and logically inconsistent interpretation.  
  • For a text to be rightly divided it must be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with its immediate context (line upon line) as well as with broader precepts established elsewhere in scripture (precept upon precept).
  • Erroneous interpretations often "overstate" the position they are seeking to establish. In the case of Romans 5:18, if "all men" constitutes all of humanity, then this establishes far more than a universally potential salvation, because if all men are justified then it is certain that "all men" shall also be eternally saved, which flatly contradicts statements made elsewhere in scripture (Matthew 25:41).  

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