Romans 5:15-19 Universal Atonement?

I would like to respond here to a recent debate I had with a friend of mine concerning the following quote:

“[The sin of the world] resulted from a contingent historical action whose negative effects came to propagate themselves through the entire human race and all creation. However, God intervenes in Christ in such a way as to reverse these effects, a reversal that is at least in principle as universal as the effects themselves. That is to say, the act of salvation is somehow parallel to the origin of the problem it is trying to solve. I propose that for this to make sense, both the problem and the solution must be using some shared ontological “infrastructure.” Most fundamentally, human beings must be irreducibly related to one another and to all of creation. As a direct consequence of this interrelatedness, it is possible for an agent at a particular nodal point to have cascading effects, whether positive or negative, that touch on the entirety of the created reality.” –Adam Kotsko, The Politics of Redemption (New York, NY: T&T Clark International, 2010), 4-5.

The Biblical texts preceding this quote are from Romans 5:15-19 and 8:19-23 (NRSV). I would like to take up Rom. 5:15-19 in which debate around Paul’s assertion that “the free gift is not like the trespass” puts in question Kotsko’s proposal that “the act of salvation is somehow parallel to the origin of the problem it is trying to solve.” I would like to show how Kotsko’s proposal makes sense by investigating what the dissimilarity between the free gift and the trespass is.

Rom. 5:15-19  begins with the assertion that “the free gift is not like the trespass.” Paul then goes on to say how many died through the trespass, and that the free gift abounded for many. Therefore, one might think that the difference between the gift and the trespass is an ontological-infrastructural difference so that although the sin of Adam was propagated through all of creation, Christ’s gift of atonement does not have the same universal effect (because it is not like the trespass).  However, the use of many for both the trespass and the gift undercuts this.  The dissimilarity must be somewhere else then. I would suggest it is in vs. 16. Here Paul repeats that “the free gift is not like the effect of one mans sin.” But then immediately clarifies that by telling us what the dissimilarity is: “for the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.” Here is the difference. Then, in case we are still confused, vs. 18 again affirms the universality of vs. 15: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” So, the dissimilarity is one of the kind of effect (condemnation/ justification) rather than the pervasiveness of the effect.

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5 comments on “Romans 5:15-19 Universal Atonement?

  1. The conclusion doesn’t seem to favor universalism. It only does if the gift of life crosses the perso/ nature distinction or if person and nature are the same things. A universality of eternal existence doesn’t imply a universality of ever well existence.

    • Kampen says:

      I don’t know what you mean by person/nature distinction, but if you mean a distinction between humans and the-rest-of-creation then I would say they are “the same thing”. That is, universal atonement, for all existence, is a transformation of all of creation – the restoration of the land, the peace between the lion and the lamb, etc.. There is plenty of imagery suggesting that the gift of life crosses this person/nature distinction – if that is what you mean. A universal atonement whose effect is justification/righteousness does imply “a universality of ever well existence”. Revelation makes it pretty clear that the new city is better than the old one.

  2. Here is a primary case of the person nature distinction. Jesus is one as to person and two as to nature. Here’s another. God is one as to nature and three as to person.

    The hidden assumption between Reformed and Universalists writers is a conflation of person and nature in Romans 5. so either it is all persons or some persons with a different nature. But if the vindication of life to all is at the level of nature along the lines of the general resurrection, this doesn’t imply a blissful eternal existence for all, just an eternal existence. Hence the distinction between ever being and ever well being.

    As for Revelation, surely the new city is better than the old one and yet some are external to it.

  3. Theophilus says:

    I see all the components of four-point Calvinism here – total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, predestination – which actually lead very coherently to universalism. Where I get stuck is with the idea of irresistible grace. Some people clearly resist God’s regeneration, and the language of eschatological judgment is too frequent, especially in the Gospels, for me to ignore. But perhaps rather than irresistible grace I could live with a non-eternal judgment and inevitable acceptance of grace. Just some tangential thoughts related to what you’re saying, which I think is good.

  4. Emerson Fast says:

    Hey Mel,

    I’m wagering that the “friend” you are speaking of above is me (based on our Facebook dialogue and its remarkable “parallels” in kind and effect to this post, haha). If not, you did pose a suggestion much “like” the above one to me, so I have some thoughts.

    You are on to something beautiful in your distinction between “kind of effect (condemnation/ justification)” as opposed to “the pervasiveness of the effect.”

    However, I’m not sure if this distinction (important as it is on its own two feet) rescues Kotsko’s argument. It seems that he is not concerned to show the similarity between the pervasiveness of sin and that of Christ’s righteousness. Rather, he wishes to demonstrate a “shared ontological infrastructure,” a similarity presupposed in all of humanity that makes both condemnation and salvation possible. In other words, for Kotsko the possibility of the universal spread of Christ’s righteousness is a human possibility. Christ depends on an “shared ontological infrastructure” to do His work of pervading and effecting. I would prefer to keep silent about the ontology of the first man, because it is at a clear disconnect with the historical man we know and confront today.

    We need to keep in mind that, for Paul, neither death nor life finds its possibility or its presupposition in “shared ontology,” but in the “single ontology,” if you will, of Adam, and later of Christ. Death and life “REIGN THROUGH” each of these men, in all of their singularity. We need seek no higher ground, no higher possibility than the fact that Adam is the father of all the living and is thus “Son of God” and “ruler” (the first term from the gospel of Luke, the second from Genesis) and that Christ is God incarnate. The possibility of sin is thus sustained in the reign of one, and the possibility of righteousness in the reign of the other. To point the respective shame and glory to the ilk and the recipients is quite foreign to Paul (and please don’t take that as a statement removing the responsibility of each person for his/her own sin….it is only that no one but Adam has the possibility to bring about a “Fall,” and no one but Christ a “Salvation”).

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