THE BAD NEWS OF FEDERAL HEADSHIP

History stands as witness to the tragic fact that the seemingly unimaginable is both possible and even habitual. It is possible for the church to lose the gospel. Core biblical truths can get eroded by incessant cultural pressures and buried under legal tendencies. Such is the case with the truth presented clearly in Romans 5:12–21. In these ten verses, Paul roots the great crisis of fallen man and the astounding cure of the gospel in the realities of federal headship and imputation. These concepts have been largely lost to American evangelicalism.

Sociologist Christian Smith has detailed with painful clarity the ways that Americans think of Christianity in internal, sentimental, and individualistic categories.1 Paul’s gospel, on the other hand, is a federal gospel—a gospel based on the principle of representation—in which the most significant realities are external, objective, and representative. Paul views both the human crisis and the gospel cure in corporate categories. The core human problem is that we are born “in Adam” and are recipients of the imputed guilt, inherited corruption, and inevitable devastation of his sin.2 The gospel solution is for us to be found in a second Adam and to receive the righteousness, holiness, and eternal life rooted in His obedience.

The first thing we need to know is that the “bad news” is far worse than most people imagine. Paul makes it clear that the great crisis of mankind is not merely that we sin individually but that we are corporately “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22) and are caught in the net of his sin, his condemnation, and his death. We have a classification problem, not just a moral condition. Our moral problem is the fruit and evidence of our fatal paternal problem. We are all born “in Adam” and subject to his crime, corruption, and condemnation.

Paul raises the universal reality of human death (Rom. 5:12, 14) as patent evidence of our corporate crisis. Everyone dies. In a cover article in Time magazine, Sheryl Sandberg, reflecting on the devastating loss of her forty-seven-year-old husband, Goldie, clarifies the human predicament: “Dying is not a technical glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature.”3

We all know this is true, but why is it true? Contra Disney, death is not a natural part of the “circle of life.” Contra Pelagius, death is not merely the result of individuals’ imitating Adam. Paul repeatedly points to Adam’s sin as the cause of universal death and condemnation:

  • Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man. (Rom. 5:12, emphasis added)
  • Many died through one man’s trespass. (v. 15, emphasis added)
  • The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation. (v. 16, emphasis added)
  • Because of one mans’ trespass, death reigned through that one man. (v. 17, emphasis added)
  • One trespass led to condemnation for all men. (v. 18, emphasis added)
  • By one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners. (v. 19, emphasis added)

In other words, you and I were born not merely with a corrupt nature (Ps. 51:5) “inclined towards all evil” 4 but with real, imputed (that is, put on our account) guilt before the law of God (Rom. 5:19), under the sentence of condemnation (vv. 16, 18) and consequent reign of death (v. 17).

This is the core crisis of humanity—we are born “in Adam.”

The catastrophic result of Adam’s failure as our federal head is succinctly captured in Romans 5:19: “By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” The verb translated as “made” means “appoint” (Titus 1:5). People are “made sinners” in the sense that God considers them to be such by regarding Adam’s act as, at the same time, their act.5

Doesn’t seem fair, does it? How can God hold us guilty because of Adam’s sin? German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg protests, saying, “It is impossible for me to be held jointly responsible as though I were a joint cause for an act that another did many generations ago and in a situation radically different from mine.”6

Well, besides the fact that our entire redemptive hope is anchored in the principle of representation and imputation,7 the fact is that this is the normal pattern of God’s dealings with the sons of men. He always communes with men according to covenant, and each historical covenant (Adamic, Abrahamic, Noahic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new) includes both the covenant head and all those who belong to him according to the terms of the covenant (e.g., Gen. 17:7; 1 Cor. 10:2). Federal headship is not an obscure wrinkle in Paul’s theology but a central theme in redemptive history.

This is the core crisis of humanity—we are born “in Adam,” and all the guilt, condemnation and death accomplished by his disobedience accrues, by covenantal solidarity, to us. In Adam’s fall, we all fell.

There are two immediate ramifications: (1) We can’t excuse our sin, as people commonly do, by appealing to our humanity. “I’m only human” is not a justification; it’s precisely the problem. (2) It brings to a screeching halt every attempt at trying to rescue ourselves by exerting moral effort. Moral improvement cannot alter the core problem of spiritual heredity and federal reality. A “moral” child of Adam is still a child of Adam.

NOTES:

  1. See Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers(Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005); Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011). ↩︎
  2. Westminster Shorter Catechism 18: “What is the sinfulness of that state into which man fell? The sinfulness of the state into which man fell includes the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the lack of the righteousness which he had at first, and the corruption every part of his nature, which is commonly called Original Sin; together with all actual sins which flow from it.” ↩︎
  3. Belinda Luscombe, “Life after Death,” Time, April 24, 2017, http://time.com/sheryl-sandberg-option-b/. ↩︎
  4. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3. ↩︎
  5. Moo, 358. ↩︎
  6. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 124. ↩︎
  7. See 2 Corinthians 5:21. ↩︎
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