In this article, we will examine the teaching of the federal headship of both Adam and Christ as taught in Romans 5:12-21. In this article, which is co-written with my friend Caroline, our goal is to demonstrate the parallels between the effects of Adam’s imputed sin and the effects of Christ’s imputed righteousness. Verses 12-21 will demonstrate a major contrast between the reign of death which is introduced by the sin of Adam, and the reign of life introduced by the atoning work of Christ. Many have referred to this passage as the teaching of, “The federal headship of Adam” and “The federal headship of Christ.”
One might ask, what does “federal headship” actually mean? Federal headship creates a concept of representation of imputation. Simply put, it is one person acting on behalf of another. In this text, we see Adam is the representative of those who are enslaved to sin and death. On the other hand, we see Christ is the representative of those who are made free to serve God in righteousness. The question of “Who is my federal head?” must be answered by all those who read Paul in order for them to understand what or who they are enslaved to.
The Origin of Sin in the World
In verse 12, Paul presents the obvious reality that sin had entered into the world. He pinpoints the origin of this sin back to the first man that God created, Adam. Since Adam lived thousands of years before the readers of Paul’s day, why is sin still prevalent in the world? Paul answers this in the latter half of verse 12 by saying, “…and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” The evidence from this passage that Adam acted as our representative is that we all imitate him in sin.
The ultimate end of sin is death, and the reason all have died spiritually, and will die physically is because all have sinned. Paul said it this way in Romans 6:23a, “For the wages of sin is death.” In verse 15, Paul clarifies, “many die through one man’s trespass.” He also states in verse 19, “For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” We, as sons and daughters of Adam, were born under the curse of death and transfer of the sin nature due to fall in Genesis 3.
One may think, “This is not fair! Why should I be responsible for the sins of someone I’ve never met?” Though this seems “unfair” in the eyes of men, it truly demonstrates the severity and impact of sin. This was taught to the people of God from the start. In Exodus 34:7b, God said, “Who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
We see examples of this in the Old Testament with the grandsons of Saul being killed for his sin against the Gibeonites in 2 Samuel 21:1-14. Sin always affects the innocent. People can choose their sin, but they cannot choose the extent of their consequences. The finality of all sin is death. Therefore, everyone will die; because all have sinned willingly and with delight in their fallen nature. Though this seems depressing to consider, it makes the federal headship of Christ that much more amazing (which we will get to shortly).
What About Those Who Sinned Before the Law?
Paul explains the significance of those who sinned before Moses, who did not have the law, yet, death reigned over them as well. How is this possible one may ask? The answer was already established in Romans 1 and 2. Man is guilty due to his rejection of creation that expresses the invisible attributes and divine nature of God that were seen clearly “Ever since the creation of the world (Romans 1:20).” Also, God has placed His law on the heart and conscience of men bearing witness of the conflicting thoughts of men that accuse or excuse them (Romans 2:15). Sin has left a trail of death from Adam until this very day because we all sin just like our father Adam.
Children Inheriting the Sinful Traits of the Parents
Let’s take a step back and be honest for a minute. All of us ended up in the same predicament as Adam and Eve. Those who would deny original sin must answer the question, “How is that every human end up under the same reign of death as Adam and Eve?”
One may suggest that we all sinned by choice of our independent free will; and that no one is to blame for this but ourselves. Though God holds us all accountable for our own sin, do we not see it as ironic that all of us ended up committing sin the same way Adam did? It is clear that we all have the same tendency and appeal to sin that began at birth. In fact, the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 58:3, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.”
I have two children. I cannot think of one time in my seven years (and counting) of parenting where I had to teach my children to do wrong. On the other hand, I cannot count the number of times I have had to instruct and correct both of them on how to do right. If parents are honest with themselves, they can see their own sinful traits come out in their own children! Our children bear witness of the reality that they inherited our sin nature following the original trail of sin to our father Adam.
Adam, a Type of Christ
It should be noted that Adam is called a “type of the one to come” in our passage (Romans 5:14). The word “type” is the word τύπος in Greek and it means a copied image or pattern. It can be used in relation to a pattern of behavior. In this text, fallen men have the pattern of sinful behavior, but Adam was leaving a pattern of a future descendent that would come and change the “pattern” of death. This was promised to Eve in Genesis 3:15 immediately after the fall.
As Adam would impute sin and death down to all of his descendants, Christ would also would impute righteousness and life to His. There are 6 parallels that Paul laid out for us between the two federal heads from verses 12-21. My primary purpose was to focus on Adam’s federal headship, but Caroline will focus on the redemptive federal headship of Christ in the following section. Here is the chart of the parallels in the text:
The Origin of True Righteousness
In the second half of this article, I’ll pick up where Stephen left off and cover Romans 5:18-21, which contrasts Jesus with Adam, and reveals Him as our perfect representative. Stephen explained earlier that because of Adam, every human being that has ever lived or will ever live inherited a sin nature and because of that, we all sin. The 1689 London Baptist Confession1 explains why: “From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.” We sin because we like to, and we like to sin because we have a sin nature. That is what Paul means when he says that through one man’s disobedience, many were made sinful.
But through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, many were made righteous. In verse 19, we see the Gospel in its full beauty, resplendent through and through with the glory of God in all His persons. In the same way that Adam represented a group of people, Christ did too. Through His obedience, many guilty people are set free from the slavery to sin that we inherited from Adam’s disobedience. Adam destroyed us, but Christ restored us. Adam brought death, and Christ, the true and better Adam, brought life. Adam’s legacy was condemnation, but Jesus’ was justification.
The Purpose of the Law
God gave us the law not to make us sin, because God does not cause sin, but to hold up a mirror and show us our sin. Paul compares the law to a tutor in Galatians 3:24, by which he means that the law was meant to teach us who we are as fallen sons and daughters of Adam, unable to stop sinning on our own. No one could keep the whole law, and according to James 2:10, whoever fails to keep one part of the law may as well have broken all of it. The exacting holiness required by God is legions beyond the capability of any human fallen in Adam.
The law was more than a list of foods the Israelites couldn’t eat. It demonstrated God’s character through emphasizing purity, cleanliness, and separation, and in the Israelite’s inability to keep it, they were in a better position to see that they could not achieve purity, cleanliness, or separation. It made the filth of our fallen nature manifest to us, so it would be easier for us to understand that we were the opposite of everything God required. In this sense, the law increased the trespass.
Jesus, the Perfect Example of Righteous Headship
Jesus was the only human who didn’t have a sin nature and the only human who ever kept the law perfectly. Because of this, He alone deserved to be spared from God’s wrath. But he obeyed the Father and submitted Himself to death on a cross, made of wood that He had created. And in His act of obedience, He has thrown open the doors of heaven to all who come to Him through faith.
But what could any of this possibly mean to the lay Christian who is not a theologian or pastor? As it turns out, a lot. I’m a lay Christian and for well over a year, I struggled with assurance of salvation. It was gut-wrenching and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I will never forget the long evenings I spent in my bedroom of my college apartment, crying over my sin, certain that Christ would want nothing to do with me. I would wince each time I was reminded that someday I would die and presumably be cast justly into hell.
The Influence of the Puritan Theologians
It was also during that season that I became interested in the Puritans, and that was where the Lord gave me some answers. Puritan theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, and Richard Baxter are rightfully considered giants of the faith. Their reverence for God, faith in Christ, and delight in God are a legacy of incalculable value. But it surprised me to learn that the average Puritan layman was a little shakier. In fact, some Puritan ministers reported that they couldn’t get anyone in their churches to partake in the Lord’s supper because they were all sure that they were unsaved and afraid to eat and drink condemnation on themselves. In other words, I was not alone.
And this meant that the Puritan ministers were particularly sensitive to people like me. I read a Puritan poem2 which expressed the concept of Christ’s sufficiency in providing salvation for His people, and this was how the Lord gave me peace that Jesus is strong enough to save me. Our salvation is achieved because one Man was obedient when I was not and in His one act of obedience to the Father, His death on the cross, the Father’s wrath toward me is satisfied. Christ’s headship means that it doesn’t matter how bad I am, because “though my sins rise to heaven [His] merits soar above them.” Because He is my High Priest and intercedes to the Father for me, and because He is perfectly worthy, my own unworthiness doesn’t matter anymore.
So for me, this idea of Christ as the one Mediator for many, has brought me tremendous peace. Although it is my joy to obey Him through mortifying my sin as much as possible, I no longer respond to my failures by sobbing my eyes out for several hours, because I know that Jesus has already taken the punishment I deserve. For this, I love Him and rejoice in Him.
Finally, I will take this opportunity to remind the reader that through faith, you can join us who are being freed from our sin natures through the atoning work of Jesus, who gave His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 10:28). Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
The Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 6, paragraph 4 https://www.arbca.com/1689-confession
The Valley of Vision: a collection of Puritan prayers and devotionals, edited by Arthur Bennett. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975. Print.