Potentially justified? Paul, Wolter, universalism and Romans 5:18
“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” (NRSV)Michael Wolter, in commenting on this verse in Der Brief an die Römer (Teilband 1), 356, notes the universal perspective of Paul’s language, and speaks of how it characterises God’s justifying activity. What precisely is that characterisation?
„Sie enthält das Potential zur Rechtfertigung aller Menschen“ (356)
The logic clearly wants to take seriously i) the need for human faith (see Wolter, 357-58). But presumably lurking behind is also a concern to honour ii) other Pauline texts such as Galatians 5:21 (certain actors “will not inherit the kingdom of God”), and iii) the “receiving” spoken of in 5:17 (λαμβάνοντες).
I nevertheless see some problems with this reading.
It follows from his claim that there are two groups which are necessarily ordered according to size, or rather population: All are under condemnation (Group A), but God graciously justifies those who actualise the potential, by having faith in Jesus Christ (Group B). In other words, Group A is larger than Group B.
To rehearse a well-known point, however, from 5:15 onwards, the good stuff (gift, Christ, grace etc.) is contrasted with the bad stuff (Adam, condemnation, trespass etc.). And as Karl Barth noted: this contrast involves “no equilibrium … one may not say: as the trespass, so also is the free gift”. To use contemporary idiom, the gift is way more awesome than the trespass! (Or, to use German contemporary idiom: “Der gute Stoff ist sowas von übelst viel geiler als das abgewrackte Zeug”. If Barth were alive today, friends, just maybe that’s what he would say.)
But if the condemnation is certain, not potential, how can one speak of that which is only potential in terms of “grace abounding all the more” (Rom 5:20)? If it isn’t about the size of the groups, then one will be forced to emphasise another distinguishing aspect of Group B, in order to make it clear that grace super abounds.
Is that distinguishing aspect--necessary in order to make the contrast Paul generates in 5:15ff sensible--forthcoming? Of course, one may offer philosophical justifications (so Anselm, for example), but is it exegetically obvious? Perhaps one could focus on the nature of the act, or the identity of the actor? But does Paul’s argument do this?
Let us not forget that a straightforward reading of this verse is not to isolate it from the rest of a clearly eschatologically dualist Paul. After all, Paul writes in this letter:
- “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; the are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:22-24 NRSV – see Jens Adam on this verse, and how “all” functions);
- “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32 NRSV).
The only point I want to make here is that Paul does not write here that “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness potentially leads to justification and life for all”