My GD class was hinting around last week that there is a firm distinction between the terms “sin” and “transgression” when talking about Gen 3. Of course, Gen 3 makes no claim about the event, either way. And it seems to me that such terminological precision is not a feature of Paul’s original comparison of Christ and Adam in Rom 5:12-21. When Paul does make a distinction it is transgression, not sin, that is the stronger term.
So turning to Romans, we find that in Rom 5:12-21 alone, Paul uses no less than four different words to describe the Adam event:
v. 13: Adam’s transgression (parabasis)
vv. 15, 17, 18: trespass (paraptōma) of one man (AV = offense)
v. 16: one man’s sin (hamartanō) (a participle; AV = by one that sinned)
v. 19: one man’s disobedience (parakoē)
Now I haven’t stared at this for all that long, but it just doesn’t look like Paul is trying very hard to be precise. One thing that does strike me, however, is that three of the four terms used (transgression, trespass, and disobedience) all imply that Adam’s offense involved receiving and intentionally ignoring a divine injunction.
Looking more closely at Rom 5:12-14, we can see a simultaneous use of sin and transgression that will allow us to judge Paul’s thought when he chooses to make a distinction:
“Therefore, just as Sin entered the world through one man, and through Sin, Death, and so death spread to all human beings, with the [logical] result that all have sinned—
up to the time of the law, sin was in the world, even though sin is not accounted when there is no law;
yet Death held sway from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in a way similar to Adam’s transgression—who is a type of the one who was to come.”
Verse 12 is a piece of work. I have written the first references to “sin” and “death” with initial capitals to indicate that in these instances Paul is writing as if sin and death were personified. The references to sin and death which are not capitalized refer to personal, actual, sin and to the physical death of individuals.
So Sin came onto the world stage as a result of the Adam event and because Sin came, Death also came. To Paul, these two forces are tyrants who dominate human beings and mar human existence, but they are not invincible. God has broken their power through the resurrection of Jesus.
The next clause is always sticky – it’s got the [in]famous “Rom 5:12 eph ho,” (with the result that…) which is both difficult to translate and very important for comprehension. I’ve simply followed Joseph Fitzmyer, but you can certainly take your best shot. The point is probably that since Death came onstage, everyone has died. Because we know everyone has died, we can logically conclude that all have sinned.
(N.B. What is not being said is that there is a causal connection between death and sin. D(d)eath does not cause sin.)
Turning now to vv. 13-14, we find that Paul implicitly divides world history into two phases: from Adam to Moses, and from Moses to Christ. In the period from Adam to Moses, people sinned, but it was not charged to their account. There was no transgression (parabasis) because there was no law, in agreement with Rom 3:20 and 4:15.
Finally, in v. 14, Paul writes that Death “held sway” (lit., reigned), and that it exercised it’s baleful influence over those who had sinned (hamartano), despite that fact that they had not done what Adam did.
Here then, is the distinction between sin and transgression. Transgression (parabasis) is the formal aspect of an evil deed as a violation of a law, or precept. Adam had been given a precept which he disregarded, therefore, he transgressed. Those who lived from Adam to Moses did not do as Adam had done, because they did not violate a precept. Nevertheless, we know they sinned because we know they died.
And so we see that Paul is not all that concerned with terminological precision when he talks about the Adam event, but that he can distinguish between sin and transgression when he wishes to. When he does so, transgression seems to carry greater censure.