Some time ago a reader of this site, a new Calvinist, wrote to ask, “If a person is ‘a child of wrath’ from birth due to Adam’s sin and unable to choose God because of Adam’s sin, how is he responsible for his actions if he was born this way (and has no ability of his own to choose God)? … If Christ didn’t die for all men, yet all men were condemned for one sin (and by that sin, thereafter, unable to choose good), how is it just of God to condemn all men if they are ‘determined’ to be sinful by the action of Adam?”
This is one of those questions that could be answered in a few short lines, many sermons, or in a few great volumes. And it is probably best answered by someone far smarter than I am. But I will attempt it anyways, and hope to answer it satisfactorily, without going into laborious detail.
It is first important to understand that the Bible points us to a unity in the human race. Acts 17:26 tells us that “he [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” Some of the older translations read “he made from one blood every nation of mankind.” Thus all of us are descendants of the one man and we have inherited his humanity and his attributes. The blood of Adam is in all of our veins. But Adam has passed down more than flesh and blood; he has also passed down sin.
John Piper writes, “The problem with the human race is not most deeply that everybody does various kinds of sins—those sins are real, they are huge and they are enough to condemn us. Paul is very concerned about them. But the deepest problem is that behind all our depravity and all our guilt and all our sinning, there is a deep mysterious connection with Adam whose sin became our sin and whose judgment became our judgment” (“Adam, Christ, and Justification: Part I”).
Let’s now try to come to an understanding of how Adam’s sin affected the human race. This is one of the topics Paul addresses in Romans 5, a chapter that deals primarily with justification by faith. We will begin with verses 12 - 14 of that chapter. “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—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” This is something of an awkward construct, for Paul begins a thought in verse 12, and does not conclude it until verse 18. Verses 13 through 17 are parenthetical, yet still crucial to the argument he is building.
We learn from these verses that sin came into the world through one man, and we know this to be Adam. We learn also that death entered the world through sin and that death spread to all men because all men sinned. The meaning of these last words has been in dispute throughout the history of the church. Somehow we need to reconcile the fact that when Adam sinned, every human being also sinned, even though they were not yet in existence. From the moment of Adam’s sin, God regarded the human race as sinful. This is the meaning of verses 13 and 14, for Paul tells us that even before the Law was given, men still died. Thus before God gave the Law to Moses, men were already counted guilty by God on the basis of their forefather’s sin. This is further reinforced in verses 18 and 19 which read “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life 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.”
We see that Adam was more than the father of the human race, but was also the representative head of the human race—our federal head. God had determined this from before the time Adam sinned. Thus Adam’s actions directly affected us. Consider the metaphor of the President of a nation. When the President of the United States declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, every citizen of the nation was also at war with Japan. Acting as the head of all those whom he represented, the President made a decision that affected each one of them. It is, of course, an imperfect analogy, but sheds some light on how one man can represent others. Adam made the decision to wage war against God, and this affected every aspect of his being. It also affected all those whom he represented.
Just as our physical bodies are descended from Adam, the same is true with our souls. A child is not given a perfect, sinless soul at the moment of conception, but rather inherits an already sinful soul from his parents and ultimately, from Adam. So when we read in Genesis that Adam “fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” we know that Adam’s likeness included a sinful body and a sinful soul. Just as Adam had sinned in the whole man, both body and soul, so Seth inherited that sinful body and soul.
There is a term here we ought to define. To impute is to “attribute or credit to” or, said otherwise, “attribute (responsibility or fault) to a cause or source.” Adam, acting as our representative, sinned on our behalf and his sin was then imputed to us—held on our account. Hodge writes, “Such was the relation, natural and federal, between him [Adam] and his posterity, that his act was putatively their act. That is, it was the judicial ground or reason why death passed on all men. In other words, they were regarded and treated as sinners on account of his sin.” Thus Adam’s sin is regarded as our own. When Adam sinned, we sinned and are justifiably considered condemned in God’s eyes because of this sin.
Naturally, there are objections to this view. I will outline two responses we can make against these objections:
First, anyone who protests that this is unfair has already committed a multitude of sins, proving his own sinfulness. He has sinned because he is a sinner. God does not place an innocent man under Adam’s sin against his will. It is his own sins that will form the primary basis for his condemnation. Romans 2:6 tells us that God “will render to each one according to his works.” Similarly, Colossians 3:25 says, “…the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”
Second, if we deny that men can be declared guilty on the basis of one man’s sin, we will have difficulty accepting the parallel between Adam and Christ, who is called the Second Adam. “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Adam stood as the representative head of the human race and sinned, but God sent His Son to stand as the second representative head and through Him provided salvation. We are counted guilty through Adam’s sin, but Christ, standing as the representative head of all who would believe in Him, obeyed God and now God counts us as righteous. To return to the word “impute,” we can now have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, overcoming the sin of Adam.
Parenthetically, Wayne Grudem provides a third response, but seems to give it little credence. He suggests the view that any other human would also have sinned had he been in Adam’s place. However, the Bible does not explicitly state this and by Grudem’s own admission, “it does not seem to be a conclusive argument, for it assumes too much about what would or would not happen” (Systematic Theology, page 495).
So now we turn back to the original question of how it is that God can condemn all men on the basis of one man’s action. Or said otherwise, how can He hold our sins against us when we are so predisposed to sin that we are unable not to sin? As we have seen, Adam’s sin is our own as fully as it was his. This is just an unavoidable biblical reality. Yet this is not something we should regret or despise. Rather, we ought to embrace this, for if this is true, it is equally true that Christ stands as our representative and is able and willing to impute His righteousness to our account. There is nothing to be gained in objecting to the imputation of Adam’s guilt, but everything to be gained in accepting it. As G.I. Williamson says, “Explain it, or explain it not, as we may, it remains true. It is also a fact that there is no salvation for such sinners as we are, except by the word of Jesus Christ as the representative of His people” (The Shorter Catechism Volume 1). We cannot have one without the other.