The Confessional Statement
Both condemnation and corruption for the entire human race followed upon the sin of Adam. These concepts are stated in these words in paragraphs 2 and 3 of chapter 6 of the Second London Confession. Many of the Scripture proofs accompanying this article will be used in the discussion below.
Our first parents, by this sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them whereby death came upon all: all becoming dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.
They being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free.
A Key Biblical Passage
How exactly does this sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden affect all the human beings of all times who have descended from him? The key text on this question is Romans 5:12, 18–19 (ESV):
 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned….  Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness led to justification for all men.  For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
In these verses Paul seems to suggest two effects the sin of Adam in the Garden has had on the first man’s progeny. The apostle first explains in vv. 12 and 18 that because all human beings in some sense sinned when Adam sinned, that first sin has brought guilt and condemnation to all people. Second, Paul claims that “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners,” by which he means that Adam through the first sin has brought corruption to the human race.
A Theological Digestion of Paul’s Discussion
Protestant theology thus teaches that the affect Adam’s first sin has on all his progeny is twofold: 1) it causes them from the moment of conception to be corrupt by nature; and 2) it causes them from the moment of conception to stand guilty before God as sinners. The first of these two effects means that from the moment of conception, every human being inherits from his or her parents a nature that is inherently inclined away from God and toward sin. This is precisely the understanding David seemed to have when he declared in Psalm 51:4 that, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” David did not mean that the sexual relations by which his parents conceived him were sinful; rather, he understood that even from conception his heart was corrupt. The prophet Jeremiah would in fact declare that the human heart by nature is so corrupt that it is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). All of us who have stood perplexed and shocked over our own capacity for sinfulness are able to relate to the words of David and Jeremiah.
The Apostle Paul calls this natural inclination of the human heart away from God and toward sin “the flesh” (e.g., Romans 7:18; Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 2:3; etc.), and many modern theologians employ the term “sin nature.” The corruption of heart all human beings inherit as an effect of the first sin in the Garden means that we lack the ability to do spiritual good, as the Apostle Paul makes so clear in is stinging indictment of humanity in Romans 3:10–18. Paul does not mean that a person living apart from Christ is unable to do any good in any sense at all, but what he does mean is that our human hearts by nature are so corrupt that we can never, apart from regeneration, willingly do any act at all for the summum bonum which is the glory of God. Those deeds that may appear good, and indeed are constructive for the well-being of human society at some inferior level, miss that pure measure of all true goodness, the conscious delight in and love for the infinitely glorious God. That has been smothered in the corruption of our hearts and manifests itself in none of our thoughts, affections, or actions prior to regeneration.
Fallen Humans are Corrupted in Heart
Thus far we have seen that because of the first sin of Adam in the Garden, all human beings are conceived in their mother’s wombs with a corruption of heart the Apostle Paul calls “the flesh.” Reformed theologians agree with other evangelicals that human beings receive this corruption of heart from their parents at the moment of conception.
Adam began to manifest such corruption of heart in his hiding from God (Genesis 3:10), with whom he formerly enjoyed company (Genesis 1:28; 2:8, 19, 22), his embarrassment about himself (3:10), when formerly he was unashamed (2:25), and his propensity to self-justification (3:12), when formerly none of his actions or thoughts needed explanation, for they had not failed to match the revealed good. This was the manifestation of the immediate application of the just threat, “In the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (2:17). Corruption had entered the experience of Adam and Eve. It had come to reside in the mind and affections of Adam and constituted the spiritual death that plagued David according to Psalm 51 and that has passed to all without exception, so that, as “dead in trespasses and sins,” we are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1, 3).
Fallen Humans are Under Condemnation
This corruption, however, was the result of Adam’s having entered into a state of condemnation by his disobedience. The condemnation brought on the corruption, not the corruption the condemnation, though it certainly is exacerbated by the flood of sins that flow from such soul-corruption. In arguing this precise point, Paul in Romans 5:12, 18 draws a connection between the first sin of Adam and the reality that all human beings stand before God guilty of sin even from the moment of conception. Paul plainly avers that Adam’s sin has “led to condemnation for all men.” In fact, no fewer than six times in Romans 5:12–21 does Paul assert in different ways that the one sin of Adam in the Garden has resulted in death and condemnation for all human beings (Romans 5:12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18). But how precisely is the sin of Adam in the Garden connected to all human beings? Put another way, how are we to understand the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:12 when he writes that when Adam sinned in the Garden, “all sinned”?
Realism and Representationalism
Realism or Natural Headship
Protestant theologians have suggested two theories to explain the apostolic assertion of Romans 5:12 that all human beings sinned in Adam. The Realistic View (also called the Natural Headship View) understands Paul in Romans 5:12 to mean that all human beings were physically present seminally in Adam at the time of his sin in the Garden of Eden, so that when Adam sinned, all human beings literally and physically sinned in him. Supporters of the Realistic View adduce Hebrews 7:9–10 in support. In that passage the Hebrews writer asserts that Levi paid tithes to the priest-king Melchizedek, even though Levi was not yet born, because “he was still in the loins of his ancestor [Abraham] when Melchizedek met him” (Hebrews 7:10, ESV).
This view is not entirely wrong. In light of the Hebrews 7 passage, the biblical synthesis that led the Confession’s framers to say, “all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath,” natural headship operates in a demonstrably “real” way among the fallen sons of Adam. It is not comprehensive enough, however, in itself, to provide a coherent foundation for other necessary parts of the doctrines of sin and redemption.
Representational or Federal Headship
Many Reformed theologians have recognized validity in some aspects of the Realistic View, but have seen the Representational view as the lead idea on these issues. They have historically found far more persuasive the Representative View. At his creation, Adam stood as the whole human race and every human descending from him “by ordinary generation” had interest in his spiritual obedience or failure to obey. For his righteousness they would have life; for his sin they would have death. In him, Adam, as representative head of the human race, God invested the spiritual status of the entire race in such a way that when Adam sinned the first sin, God counted that sin to be the sin of all human beings of all times. Put another way, we could say that as a function of Adam’s representative headship, God has imputed Adam’s first sin to all human beings, so that we are conceived in our mother’s wombs guilty of sin before God. It is not just that human beings incur guilt before God for the actual sins we commit; it is also the case that we stand guilty of sin before God from conception, because the Lord imputes Adam’s first sin to all of us his progeny.
In his commentary on Romans, B. H. Carroll articulates clearly this revealed truth. “Race responsibility rested on Adam alone,” he deduced; “it could not possibly have rested on Eve, because she was a descendant of Adam, just as much as we are.” Paul’s assertion, given by divine revelation in harmony with exegetical deduction from the Genesis narrative, is this, according to Carroll: “God created just one man, and in that man was the whole human race, including Eve.” That clearly involves the conclusion that Adam’s sin and my sin, though both violations of divine law, are different in two ways. “Adam didn’t have that inherited depravity. God made him upright. Whenever I commit a sin I don’t commit that sin from the standpoint of Adam, but I commit it on account of an evil nature inherited from Adam, and that sin is not after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” In light of that, a second distinction arises: “If I commit a sin, the race is not held responsible for my sin, because I am not the head of the race.” Consequently, “the race does not stand or fall in me.” (See Carroll on Romans 5:1–21.
Even some Christians object to this doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin by God to all of his progeny, likening it to the colonial American objection against “taxation without representation.” “Why should it be,” the objection goes, “that I should suffer because of the sin of Adam?” Theologians have generally offered at least the following three replies to this objection: First, everyone who objects to the doctrine of imputed sin has also committed actual sins for which he or she stands condemned by God (Romans 6:23). Second, God is a God of perfect justice, so when he created Adam as our representative head, Adam was our perfect representative, so that if we, as the perfect representative head, had been present in the Garden, we would have made the same choice to sin that Adam made. Third, if we object to God’s imputation of Adam’s sin to us, then should not Christians also object as unfair God’s imputation of our sins to Jesus at the cross and God’s imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to us in justification (2 Corinthians 5:21)?
Doctrinal and Experiential Advantages of Representationalism
Reformed theologians not only have sought to answer objections, but have offered strong arguments to support the Representative View, among which the most often mentioned are the following.
- If the Realistic View were correct, then why does God condemn human beings for Adam’s first sin alone? After all, human beings were in seminal union with their first parent when he sinned all the other sins of his life after eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden. The Representative View, on the other hand, understands the first sin as especially serious because it was the violation of the covenant of works between God and Adam as the representative head of the whole human race, and so that first sin brought condemnation for the whole human race that Adam’s subsequent sins could not bring.
- In 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45–49, the Apostle Paul sets up a contrast between Adam and Jesus Christ that indicates Jesus bears the same kind of relationship to the elect as Adam does to all humanity. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22, ESV). However, on this analogy the Realistic View founders, because the elect are of course not seminally present in Jesus. Jesus bears a representative headship relationship to Christians, in such a way that God imputes to believers the righteousness of Jesus in justification. If the Jesus-Adam analogy of 1 Corinthians 15 is to hold, then Adam must have borne a representative headship relationship to all humanity in such a way that God has imputed his first sin to all humanity.
- Romans 5:12–21, as we have already seen, is much to the same effect as 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45–49. In Romans 5 Paul again sets forth Adam as a type of Christ, and just as sin, condemnation, and death come through the “one trespass” of Adam, so righteousness, justification, and life come through the “one act of righteousness” of Jesus (Romans 5:18). Adam was the representative head of all humanity in the covenant of works, and Christ was the representative head of the elect in the covenant of grace. This analogy again breaks down under the Realistic View, but it accords rightly on the Representative View.
James Petigru Boyce, A Southern Baptist theologian who studied under Charles Hodge at Princeton and was the founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary gave a strong defense of the Representative view and summarized it in a point by point comparison on page 258 of his Abstract of Systematic Theology. His presentation was in side by side columns; below his correlations are presented in a narrative form.
In Adam Sin is imputed and in Christ Righteousness is imputed.
In Adam we are treated as though sinners, and in Christ we are treated as though righteous.
Our federal union with Adam does not make us personally sinners and in our federal union with Christ we are not regarded as actually meritoriously possessed of Christ’s righteousness
We are not regarded as actually guilty of Adam’s sin but only sinners representatively, so we have not performed actually Christ’s single course of perfect obedience but are righteous only representatively.
Though not personally sinners in Adam, yet born sinful, we naturally become actual sinners, and though not personally holy in Christ, yet we are born again unto holiness, and graciously become more and more holy until finally sanctified.
We are condemned to all the penalties of death because of Adam’s sin; We are released from penalty, and attain to spiritual life and immortality, because of Christ’s active and passive obedience.
We have voluntarily accepted the relation to Adam, and persevere in the life of sin inaugurated by him, and we voluntarily, though by God’s effectual grace, accept the relation to Christ, and persevere in the holy life into which he has brought us.
How matchless is the wisdom and lovingkindness of God in this arrangement! The entire scheme of redemption falls out according to covenant. The first is the eternal covenant of grace and redemption undertaken in the internal counsels of the all-wise eternal God. It is manifest then by covenantal arrangement among the sons of men. The entire race flowing from Adam is connected with him as the first man, the whole race. As our fall and spiritual death are bound up in his work, so our restoration by justification and new spiritual life are bound up in the work of the second man, the Lord from heaven. Had we not had this arrangement by covenant, each person would be his own Adam; each person would be held accountable for his fall and could not look to any covenantal arrangement, no representative, for his restoration. “You fell of yourself; now restore yourself,” would be the call. None could answer that call, for the verdict of death would hover over everyone who in fact did fall with only their own ability for restoration as a hope. That would be no hope at all, for the righteousness that merits eternal life would become an impossibility from the moment of the first sin. With no kinsman redeemer to justify and give us the Spirit, we also would be left to our corruption without a means to cure. But, as it stands by God’s wise arrangement, “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV).
Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, ch. 6, para. 3–5.
Berkhof, Louis, “The Transmission of Sin,” in Man’s Need and God’s Gift, Millard Ericskon ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1976.
Boyce, J. P. Abstract of Systematic Theology. Cape Coral Fl: Founders Press, 2006 (originally published 1887).
Carroll, B. H. An Interpretation of the English Bible. Grand Rpids: Baker Book House, 1973
Hoekema, Anthony A. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986.
Moo, Douglas, The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996.
Murray, John, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1959.
__________, The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965.