How did Adam’s disobedience bring sin and death to all mankind? In this episode, Barry Cooper explains how God relates to all people through chosen representatives.
Let’s talk about federalism.
I’d like to begin by making the observation—and I promise this is relevant—that babies are fantastic. I highly recommend them. We had one recently (we still have her actually), and babies just have a wonderful way of making you smile even when you’re at your most curmudgeonly.
Now, admittedly, it’s not all hearts and flowers. They make a lot of mess, and they really don’t care. But so what? My wife and I realized early on that when they do that kind of thing, it’s nothing personal. It’s foolish to get annoyed about it, because they can’t not do it. It’s just what babies do.
Isn’t that what we’re like too? As sinners, we continually make a ton of mess. And apart from God’s grace, we can’t not sin, because we’re born with a sinful nature. So, shouldn’t God just say: “Well, that’s who they are. They don’t know any better. I’m not going to hold them responsible”?
R.C. Sproul puts the question like this: “If sin is basic to our nature, such that we can do nothing but sin, how can God judge us for sinning? That is a legitimate question and an obvious one in light of the doctrine of original sin, so we need to consider how our sin nature was transferred from Adam to his posterity.” (End quote)
It’s certainly true that we’ve “inherited” sin from Adam. Romans chapter 5 says that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men.” Thankfully, Paul doesn’t end there. He goes on to make the point that just as sin and death entered the world through one man, so grace and life enters the world through one man, too—the man Jesus Christ.
Now. many of us have no problem at all with the idea of Jesus’ goodness being given to us by faith, even though we’ve done nothing to deserve it. What we’re much less keen on is the idea that Adam’s badness has been given to us. How can this be?
One way of explaining it is called federalism.
Adam was the federal head of the human race, meaning that he represented us in a way somewhat analogous to how elected representatives in a federal republic like the United States represent the people. Such representatives make choices for their constituents by standing in the place of those constituents in the legislature and voting for or against a piece of legislation. The constituents bear the consequences of those choices for good or for ill.
In biblical federalism, not only do we bear the consequences of the representatives God chose for us, but we are also regarded as having done what our representative did. Adam was our representative, just as—later on in history—Jesus was our representative. Succeeding where our first representative failed, Jesus lived a perfect life on our behalf and took the punishment for sin on our behalf. So, if we’re united to Christ by faith, God counts us as perfectly righteous because our representative, Jesus Christ, is perfectly righteous.
Christ’s obedience becomes our obedience.
And in the same way, because he was our representative, when Adam fell, we fell too. His disobedience became our disobedience. That means we are held accountable for what he did because he was our representative.
“But hang on,” we might say. “Is that fair? I didn’t choose Adam as my representative.”
And this, as my American spouse would point out, is precisely why the American Revolution happened. People wanted the right to choose for themselves who would be representing them in the English Parliament.
(Incidentally, my wife has suggested that we celebrate Independence Day in the time-honored way: by first locking me out of the apartment, and then flushing all my teabags down the toilet. But I digress.)
The question is this: Is it unfair that Adam was chosen for us to be our representative?
No. Think of the One who did the choosing. God selected Adam as our representative, and as an all-seeing, all-knowing, and perfectly just being, His choice was perfect. He knew each of us in advance, before we were ever conceived or drew a breath, and because of that, when He chose Adam as our representative, He knew that Adam would not misrepresent us.
This is why Adam’s sin brought about the ruin of mankind as a whole. His action wasn’t at all out of character—whether we’re talking about his character or ours. If it had been us in the garden, subject to the same opportunity as Adam, the same temptation, we can be sure that we would have disobeyed just as he did.
That’s the concept of federalism. Adam as our just and accurate representative.
And our only hope, you and I, is if we now put our trust in the only other representative God has graciously chosen for mankind.
The first Adam was tested in the garden of Eden, and failed. The last Adam was tested in the garden of Gethsemane, and won. The first walked towards a tree to carry out the ultimate act of damning disobedience. The last did so to carry out the ultimate act of saving love.