The Doctrine of Human Depravity: Its Imputation by Arthur W. Pink

By April 3, 2011 April 12th, 2016 Total Depravity

We are now to consider the bearing which Adam’s sin had upon his posterity, and the different effects which it entailed and produced — though the latter will come before us in another chapter (D.V.), wherein we shall treat more specifically with the consequences of the Fall. What we are here to examine particularly requires us to turn unto and look more closely at what was briefly alluded to in Part 2 of Its Origin, namely that in Eden Adam acted not simply as a private person, the results of whose conduct affected none but himself, but rather that he transacted as a public person, so that what he did directly concerned and judicially involved others. Adam was very much more than the father of the human race: he was also their legal agent, standing in their stead. His descendants were not only in him seminally as their natural head, but were in him also morally and legally as their moral and forensic head. In other words, by Divine constitution and covenant arrangement, Adam acted as the federal representative of all his children. By an act of His sovereign will, it pleased God to ordain that Adam’s relation to his natural seed should be like unto that which Christ sustained to His spiritual seed— the one acting on the behalf of many.

The whole human race was placed on probation in the person of its legal representative and covenant head. This is a truth of great importance, for it casts light not only upon much in Scripture, but upon human history, too. While Adam retained the approbation of God and remained in fellowship with Him, the whole of his constituency did likewise. Had he survived the appointed trial, had he faithfully and fitly discharged his responsibility, had he continued in obedience unto the Lord God, then his obedience had been reckoned to their account, and they had entered into and been fellow partakers of the reward bestowed on him. Contrariwise, if the head failed and fell, then all his members fell in and with him. If he disobeyed, then his disobedience was charged unto those whom he represented, and the frightful punishment pronounced upon him fell likewise on those on whose behalf he transacted. Justice required that the whole human race should be legally regarded and dealt with as sharing the guilt of its representative, and subjected to the same penalty as was inflicted upon him. In consequence of this arrangement, when Adam sinned, we sinned, and therefore, ‘by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation’ (Rom. 5:18).

Instead of placing each member of the human race on probation separately and successively, it pleased God to put the whole of them on formal trial once and for all in the person of their head. Probably it will make it easier for the reader to grasp the nature of Adam’s legal relation unto his descendants if we make use of a simple contrast and analogy, which have been employed by other writers on this subject. God did not treat with mankind as with a field of corn, where each stalk stands on its own individual root; but rather has He dealt with our race as with a tree—all the branches of which have one common root. While the root of a tree remains healthy and unharmed, the whole of it flourishes. But if an axe strikes at and severs the root, then the whole of the tree suffers and falls—not only the trunk, but all the branches, and even its smallest twigs wither and die. Thus it was in connection with the Eden tragedy. When Adam’s communion with his Maker was broken, all his posterity were alienated from His favour. This is no theory of human speculation, but a fact of Divine revelation: ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned’ (Rom. 5:12).

Adam, then, occupied a unique position. At his creation all his unborn children were germinally created in him. Not only so, but God entered into a solemn covenant with him in their name. The entire human family was represented by him and stood in him before the Lord. The future well-being of his progeny was suspended on his conduct. He was therefore placed on trial, to show whether he would promote the interests of his Creator, or refuse to be subject to His government. Some test must needs be given him in order for the exercise of his moral agency and the discharge of his responsibility. He was made to love and serve God, being richly endowed and fully capacitated thereunto. His supreme blessedness and continued happiness consisted in his so doing. In what follows we shall submit scriptural proof that Adam did transact on the behalf of his descendants, and so stood in their stead before the Divine Law that what he did was, in effect, what they did. Or, as Manton expressed it, ‘We saw the forbidden fruit with his eyes, gathered it with his hands, ate it with his mouth; that is, we were ruined by those things as though we had been there and consented to his acts.’

We propose to show, first, that Adam was the federal head of the race. Second, that he entered into a covenant with God on their behalf. Third, that the guilt of his original sin was Divinely imputed to his descendants. Concerning the first we shall confine ourselves unto two proof texts. ‘Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of Him that was to come’ (Rom. 5:14). That is truly an astonishing statement. Occurring in such a setting it is really startling and should at once arrest our attention. With what accuracy and propriety could it be said that the father of our fallen race foreshadowed the Lord Jesus? Adam, when tempted yielded and was overcome; Christ, when tempted resisted and overcame. The former was cursed by God, the latter was owned by Him as the One in whom He was well pleased. The one is the source of sin and corruption to all his posterity, but the other is a fount of holiness unto all His people. By Adam came condemnation, by Christ comes salvation. Thus they are as far apart as the poles. Wherein, then, was Adam a ‘figure’ of the coming Redeemer?

The Greek word for ‘figure’ in Romans 5:14, signifies ‘type,’ and in the scriptural sense of that term, a type consists of something very much more than a casual resemblance between two things or an incidental parallel between them. There is a designed likeness, the one being Divinely intended to shadow forth the other. From all eternity it was foreordained that the first man should prefigure the incarnate Son of God. Again we ask, In what particular respect? Certainly not in his conduct. Nor in his natural constitution, as consisting of sprit and soul and body, for in that matter all who lived before Christ was born might as properly be called figures of Him. The whole context makes it clear that it was in the official position which he occupied that Adam was a type of the Lord Jesus—as the federal head and legal representative of others. If Romans 5:12-19 be read attentively, it will be seen that all through it the fact which is there given the greatest prominence is that of the one acting on behalf of the many, the one affecting the destiny of the many. What the one did is made the legal ground of what befalls the many. As the disobedience and guilt of Adam entailed condemnation for all who were legally one with him, so the obedience and righteousness of Christ has secured the justification of all in whose place He served as Surety.

The other passage by which it may be proved that Adam sustained the relation of federal head to his posterity is 1 Corinthians 15:45-49. ‘And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul: the last Adam was made a quickening spirit . . . . The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from Heaven…. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.’ Here again, despite marked contrasts between the type and the Antitype, there is that which is common to both of them. A mundane origin had the one: the other’s was celestial. The former was but a man; the latter was ‘the Lord.’ The first Adam was made ‘a living soul,’ the last Adam is a Quickener of others. In the one ‘all die,’ in the other, ‘shall all be made alive’ (v. 22). But that which marked each alike was his representative character—he was the head of an appointed seed, communicating his distinctive ‘image’ to them. Adam is designated ‘the first man’ not simply because he was the first in order—like the first day of the week—but because he was the first to act as the legal representative of a race. Christ is called ‘the second man,’ though He lived so long afterward, because He was the second to sustain a federal relation to an appointed seed, and ‘the last Adam’ because there is to be no further covenant head.

We turn next to show that a covenant was entered into between the Lord God and Adam. Our first appeal is unto Genesis 2:16, 17, but before considering that passage let us remind the reader of the extreme brevity of the early chapters of Genesis, and that more is definitely implied by their contents than is distinctly expressed. Let us also point out what are the principal elements in a covenant. A covenant is a formal compact and mutual arrangement between two or more parties whereby they stand solemnly bound unto each other to perform the conditions contracted for. On the one side there is a stipulating of something to be done; on the other side a restipulation of some thing to be done or given in consideration thereof. There is also a penalty included in the terms of the agreement—some evil consequence which shall result unto the party who violates or fails to carry out his engagement. That penalty is added as a security. Where it is not expressly stated, it is implied by the promissory clause, just as the promise is to be necessarily inferred from a mention of the punishment therein (cf. Gen. 3 1:43-53; Matt. 26:14-16).

‘And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ (Gen. 2:16, 17). Here are all the constituent elements of a covenant. First, here are the contracting parties: the Lord God and man. Second, here is the condition defined and accepted. As the Creator and Governor of His creatures, it behooved God to exercise His authority; owing his being to Him, Adam was in duty bound to comply, and as a sinless and holy person he would heartily consent to the stipulation. Third, there was a penalty prescribed, which would be incurred if Adam failed to carry out his part of the compact. Fourth, there was by clear implication a promise made and reward assured—’do this, and thou shalt live’—to which Adam was entitled upon his rendering the obedience required. Where there is a stipulation and a restipulation between two parties, and a binding law pertaining to the same, there is a covenant (cf. Gen. 21:22-32).

Adam was placed not only under Divine Law, but under a Covenant of Works. The distinction is real and radical. A law requires obedience, and a punishment is threatened, in proportion to the nature of the offence, in case of disobedience. A subject is bound to obey the law, but he cannot be justly deprived of that which he has a natural right to, except in case of disobedience. On the other hand, while obedience to the law gives him a right to impunity, yet nothing more; whereas a covenant gives a person the right, upon his fulfilling the conditions thereof, to the reward or privilege stipulated therein. A king is not obliged to advance a loyal subject unto great honour; but if, as an act of favour, he has promised to elevate him upon his yielding obedience in some particular instance, then he would have a right to it—not as yielding obedience to a law, but as fulfilling the terms of a covenant. Thus Mephibosheth had a natural and legal right to his life and to the estate which had descended to him from his father, because he had lived peaceably and had not rebelled against David. But this did not entitle him to the special favour which the king conferred upon him, of sitting at his table continually (2 Samuel 9:13). That was the result of a covenant between David and Jonathan, in which David had promised to show kindness unto his house after him (1 Sam. 20:11-17, 42).

We consider that it should be obvious to the thoughtful reader that Adam had the promise of life upon his performing the condition agreed, for ‘in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ necessarily implied the converse—If thou eatest not thereof thou shalt surely live. Just as ‘thou shalt not steal’ inevitably requires ‘thou shalt act honestly and honourably,’ and as ‘rejoice in the Lord’ includes ‘murmur not against any of His dealings with thee.’ So according to the simplest laws of construction, the threatening of death as the consequence of eating affirmed the promise of life unto obedience. This is an essential feature of a covenant—a reward guaranteed upon the fulfillment of its terms. Let it also be duly noted that the threat denounced in Genesis 2:17, not only signified God’s intention to punish sin, but was also designed as a motive unto obedience, and therefore it included in it a promise of life upon man’s maintaining his integrity. Again, had Adam been given no such promise, then he had been without a well-grounded hope for the future, for the hope which makes us not ashamed is always grounded upon the Divine promise (Rom. 4:18-20). Finally, Romans 8:10 expressly states that the commandment was ‘to life’—adapted to and setting before its complier such a prospect.

A few words need to be said here upon the nature of that ‘life’ which was promised unto Adam. In his original state he was already possessed of spiritual life: what then did the reward consist of? Two different answers have been returned by the best of the theologians. First, that it was the ratifying of the life which he then had. Adam was placed on probation, and it was his response to the test that had been given him which would determine whether or not he remained in the favour of God, in communion with Him, and continued to enjoy his earthly heritage; whether they should be confirmed, and would then become the inalienable portion both of himself and his posterity. Such was the view long entertained by this writer. But of late we incline much more to the second alternative, namely that by the ‘life’ promised Adam we are to understand a yet higher degree of happiness than he then possessed, even heavenly blessedness. Those benefits which Christ came into the world to procure for His people, and which are assured to them by the Covenant of Grace, are, for substance, the same as those which man would have enjoyed had he not fallen. This we consider is clear from those prophetic words of Christ: ‘I restored that which I took not away’ (Psa. 69:4); and again, ‘The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19:10). He came to secure ‘eternal life’ (with all that that means), and therefore that had been man’s portion had he maintained his integrity.

The same may also be concluded from the nature of that ‘death’ denounced in Genesis 2:17. When God said, ‘In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,’ something far more dreadful than the loss of physical, or even spiritual life was involved, even the ‘second death,’ namely eternal punishment and suffering in the lake of fire. Contrariwise, the ‘life’ promised included more than physical immortality or even the confirmation of spiritual life, even everlasting life, or unclouded fellowship with God in Heaven forever. We also concur with many able expositors that Romans 8:3. 4, treats of the same thing ‘The law’ there looks back to that which was written on man’s heart at the beginning—of which the Sinaitic was but a transcript. The statement that the Law was ‘weak through the flesh’ alludes to the delectability of Adam. What the Law ‘could not do with such material was to produce an indefeasible righteousness. Therefore God, in His sovereign grace, sent His own incarnate Son, impeccable and immutable, to make full atonement for the guilt of His people and bring in an ‘everlasting righteousness’ (Dan. 9:24) for them. In a word, Christ performed that perfect obedience which the first man failed to render, and thereby obtained for all His seed the award of the fulfilled Law.

What has last been pointed out should remove any misconception that the view we have just propounded derogates in the slightest degree from the glory of the Saviour. Romans 8:3, 4, is treating of something far more essential and weighty than whether or not Christ, by His infinite merits, obtained for us something more than we lost in Adam: undoubtedly He did—our establishment in righteousness, our glorification, etc. Rather does that passage intimate what was the highest motive and ultimate end which God had before Him when He foresaw, foreordained and permitted our fall in Adam. Christ is the grand Centre of all the Divine counsels, and the magnifying of Him their principal design. Had God withheld Adam from sinning, all his race had been eternally happy. But in that case Adam had been their saviour and benefactor and all his seed had gloried in him, ascribing their everlasting felicity to his obedience. But such an honour was far too much for any finite creature to bear. Only the Lord from Heaven was worthy of it. Accordingly God designedly made the flesh of the first man ‘weak’ or mutable and suffered his defection, in order to make way for His laying our help ‘upon One that is mighty’ (Psa. 89:19), that we might owe our endless bliss unto Him! Moreover, that obedience which Christ rendered to the Law magnified it and made it infinitely more honourable than could the conformity to it of any mere creature.

Returning now to the scriptural evidence that God entered into a covenant with Adam. In Hosea 6:7, we read that God complained of Israel, ‘But they like men have transgressed the covenant, they have dealt treacherously against Me’ (margin)—the Hebrew word for ‘men’ there is Adam, as in Job 3 1:33. Adam, then, was placed under a covenant, the requirement or condition of which was his continued subjection unto God—whether or not the Divine will was sacred in his eyes. But he failed to love God with all his heart, held His high authority in contempt, disbelieved His holy veracity, deliberately and presumptuously defied Him. Thereby he ‘transgressed the covenant’ and ‘dealt treacherously’ with his Maker. In like manner did Israel, centuries later transgress the covenant which they entered into with the Lord at Sinai, preferring their own will and way, lusting after those false gods which He had forbidden under pain of death. Finally, let it be pointed out that the fact of Adam’s having stood as the covenant head of his race is conclusively demonstrated by the penal evils which come upon his children in consequence of his fall. From the dreadful curse entailed upon all his descendants, we are compelled to infer the covenant relationship which existed between him and them—for the Judge of all the earth, being righteous, will never punish where there is no crime. ‘In Adam all die,’ because in him all sinned

Having proved from Scripture that God constituted Adam the covenant head and federal representative of his race, we are now to failure has brought down upon us. It has been well said that, ‘Had we been present, had we and all the human race been brought into existence at once, and had God proposed to us that we should choose one who was to be our representative, that He might enter into covenant with him on our behalf—should not we, with one voice, have chosen our first parent for this responsible office? Should we not have said, ‘He is a perfect man and bears the image and likeness of God—if anyone is to stand for us, let it be this man Adam’? Since the angels which stood for themselves fell, why should we wish to stand for ourselves? And if it be reasonable that one stand for us, why should we complain when God has chosen the same person for this office that we should have chosen had we been in existence and capable of choosing ourselves?’ (G. S. Bishop).

Ere proceeding farther, let it be insisted upon that God is nowise to be blamed for Adam’s fall. After a thorough and extensive investigation Solomon declared, ‘This only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions’ (Eccl. 7:29). There the streams of human folly and iniquity are all traced back to their fountain-head of corruption. Man was created without irregularity or blemish; but he departed from his original rectitude. And why? Because he vainly supposed he could better himself ‘They,’ that is, Adam and Eve, at first, followed by their crazed descendants, ‘sought out many inventions.’ Significant and suggestive words! What are ‘inventions’ but devices to improve things? And what gives rise to such attempts but dissatisfaction with present conditions? Our first parents thought to find a superior way of happiness by kicking off their traces. Instead of being content with what their Maker had given and appointed them, they preferred their own will to God’s, their inventions rather than His institutions. They forsook their rest in the Lord and sought to improve their case. They promised themselves liberty, only to become the slaves of Satan.

The course taken by our first parents is that which has been followed ever since by all their children, as is intimated in the change from the singular number to the plural in Ecclesiastes 7:29. As indicated above, we do not (as most expositors) regard the prime reference in that passage as being to the ‘aprons of fig leaves’ which Adam and Eve sewed together, but rather to their original sin in being dissatisfied with the state in which God had placed them—vainly imagining to improve their lot by leaning unto their own understanding, following the desires of their hearts and responding to the evil solicitation of the serpent. Thus it has been, and still is, with their descendants. They have turned from the Creator to the creature for their comfort: having forsaken the Living Fountain, they engage themselves in hewing out ‘cisterns that can hold no water’ (Jer. 2:1 3)—preferring the ‘far country’ to the Father’s house. Their search after wisdom, their mad quest for pleasure, their pursuit of wealth and worldly honours, are but so many ‘inventions’ or attempts to better their lot, and proofs of a restless and dissatisfied heart! Had our first parents been content with the goodly heritage which their Maker assigned them, they would not have coveted that which He had prohibited. And today the remedy for covetousness is contentment—see Hebrews 13:5.

We therefore subscribe unhesitatingly to the dictum of Calvin, ‘It is clear that the misery of man must be ascribed wholly to himself, since he was favoured with rectitude by the Divine goodness, but has lapsed into vanity through his own folly.’ God expressly forbade Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He plainly warned him what would be the consequence of disobedience. Though He made man a mutable creature, yet not evil—Adam had ability to stand as well as to fall. He was fully capable of loving God as his chief good and of moving toward Him as his last end. There was light in his understanding to know the rule he was to conform unto. There was perfect harmony between his reason and his affections. It was therefore easier for him to continue in obedience to the precept than to swerve from it. Though man was created with defect, yet he was not determined by God influencing his will, by any positive act, to apostasy. God did not force him, but suffered him to act freely. He did not withdraw any grace from him, but left him to that power with which He invested him at his creation. Nor was God under any obligation to sustain him supernaturally or withhold him from sinning. God created Adam in a righteous state, but Adam deliberately cast himself and his posterity into a forlorn state.

Adam took things into his own hands, revolted from God, trampled His Law beneath his feet. It behooves us to consider well the relation between that foul deed and the universal miseries consequent thereon, for it supplies the clue to all the dark confusion which perplexes us within and without. It tells us why infants die, why they are estranged from God from the womb (Psa. 57:3), and why each of us is born into this world with a heart that is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. It is because Adam forfeited his Maker’s approbation and incurred His awful displeasure, with all the terrible effects thereof. In Adam we broke the Covenant of Works: we offended in his offence and transgressed in his transgression; and thereby departed from God’s favour and fell under His righteous curse. ‘Thus man apostatized, God was provoked, the Holy Spirit forsook His polluted temple, the unclean spirit took possession, the Divine image was defaced and Satan’s image imposed in its place’ (Thomas Scott). Through the sin of its head the race was ruined and fell into a state of most horrible moral leprosy. Ours is a fallen world: averse to God and holiness, iniquity abounding in it, death reigning over it, lust and crime characterizing it, suffering and misery filling it.

Accordingly it is written, ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned’ (Rom. 5:12). In the light of Genesis 3 that is surely a strange and startling statement, for that chapter makes it clear that Eve fell before Adam did! Why then is it not said, ‘by one woman,’ or at least ‘by one man and woman sin entered the world’? Because, as Thomas Goodwin long ago pointed out, ‘Moses tells us the history of Adam’s fall, and Paul explains the mystery and the consequences thereof’: in other words Romans 5 opens to us the significance and scope of the Eden tragedy. The opening word of verse 12 indicates that a logical proposition is there advanced, which is confirmed by the ‘as’ and ‘so.’ The reason why no notice is taken of Eve is that throughout what follows the Apostle is treating of the condemnation of all mankind, and not of the vitiation of human nature. That condemnation is due solely to our having revolted from God in the person of our legal representative, and since Adam alone sinned in that capacity no mention is made of Eve—headship always pertains to the man and not to the woman.

Before proceeding farther, let us say a few words upon the relation of this most important passage. In the preceding chapters Paul had dealt at length with the depravity and sinfulness of mankind (especially in 1:18-32; 3:10-20) and had declared that even Christians in their unregenerate days were ungodly, without strength—enemies to God (5:6, lO)—here he shows why they were so, Adam’s offence being the cause and source thereof. Second, he had refuted the proud but erroneous view of the Jews, who regarded themselves as holy because the seed of a holy father (2:17-3:9), and consequently they utterly lacked a true estimate of their desperate condition by nature and practice or a sense of their dire need of Divine grace—here the Apostle takes them back to a higher ancestor than Abraham, even Adam, who was equally the father of Jew and Gentile, both alike sharing his guilt and inheriting his curse. Third, Paul had presented the grand doctrine of justification by faith (3:21-31) and had illustrated the same by the cases of Abraham and David—here he shows Adam was a ‘figure’ of Christ (5:14), that the one sustained an analogous relation to his race as the other did to His seed, that each transacted as the one for the many, and that therefore the Gospel principle of imputation (Christ’s righteousness reckoned to the account of the believer) is no novelty, but identical with the one on which God acted from the beginning.

To proceed. Observe that it is not ‘through’ but ‘by one man.’ But exactly what is meant by ‘sin entered the world’? Three explanations are possible. First, sin as an act of disobedience: by one man’s rebellion against God began. But Genesis 3 shows otherwise: transgression of God’s law was initiated by Eve! Second, sin as a principle of depravity: by one man originated our sinful nature. This is the view generally taken. But it is equally untenable, for the corruption of our nature is as much by the mother as by the father. Moreover, if such were the force of ‘sin’ in the first clause, then the closing one would perforce read, ‘for that all are sinful.’ Furthermore verses 13 and 14 explain and furnish proof of what is asserted in verse 12, and it would be meaningless to say ‘a sinful nature is not imputed’ Finally, all through this passage ‘sin’ and ‘righteousness’ are contrasted, and righteousness here is judicial and not experiential, something reckoned to our account and not infused into us. ‘Righteousness’ in this passage signifies not a holy nature but conformity to the Law’s demands; and therefore ‘sin’ cannot be corruption of nature but rather the cause of our condemnation. Thus, third, by one man guilt entered into the world, exposing the race unto God’s wrath.

‘By one man sin entered’ Sin is here personified as an intruding enemy, coming as a solemn accuser as well as a hostile oppressor. It entered ‘the world,’ not the universe, for Satan had previously apostatized. ‘And death by sin,’ which is not to be limited to mere physical dissolution, but must be understood of the penal consequences of Adam’s offence. All through this -passage death is opposed unto ‘life,’ and life includes very much more than physical existence or even immortality of soul. When God told Adam, ‘In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,’ He signified, first, die spiritually, that is be alienated from the source of Divine life. Second, in due course, die physically: ‘thy body shall go to corruption and return to the dust. Third, die eternally, suffer ‘the second death’ (Rev. 20:14), be cast into the lake of fire, there to suffer forever, unless a miracle of grace redeems and delivers thee—of which there is no record anywhere in Holy Writ.

‘And so death passed upon all men’ because of their complicity in the one man’s sin. It is not that ‘death’ as a principle of evil gained admittance and polluted the nature of his offspring, but that the penal sentence of death was pronounced upon them. Having been charged with his transgression they must suffer the consequence of the same.

The Apostle’s design was to show the connection between the one man’s sin and the resultant misery of the many. By his disobedience all men were constituted sinners—guilty criminals before God—and therefore sharers of the sentence passed upon Adam. ‘In Adam all die’ (1 Cor. 15:22). Those words explain the ‘by man came death’ of the preceding verse, and show that all die by virtue of their relation to the covenant head of our race—die because of their legal union with him. Even physical death is far more than ‘nature’s debt,’ or the inevitable outcome of our frail constitution: it is a penal affliction, a part of sin’s ‘wages.’ We are subject to mortality because we were ‘in Adam’ by federal representation—we partake of his fallen nature because we are partners of his guilt and punishment. We are born into this world neither as innocent creatures nor to enter upon our probation: rather do we come into it as culprits condemned to death by the Divine Law.

Every man, woman and child is adjudged guilty before God. The ground of our condemnation is something outside of ourselves. Inward corruption and alienation from God are the consequences and not the cause of our condemnation. Antecedent to any personal act of ours (as such), we stand accursed by the Divine Law. Since ‘death’ came as the result of ‘sin,’ since it is the penal sentence upon it, that sentence cannot be passed upon any save those who are guilty. If, then, death was ‘passed upon all men,’ it must be because all are guilty, all participated legally in Adam’s offence. Clear and inevitable as is that inference, we are not left to draw it ourselves. The Apostle expressly states it in the next words: ‘for that all have sinned’—’for that’ or ‘because,’ in consequence of. Here then is the Divinely given reason why the death penalty is passed upon ‘all men’—because ‘all have sinned,’ or, as the margin and the R.V. more accurately render it, ‘in whom all sinned.’ The Apostle is not here saying that all men sinned personally, but representatively. The Greek verb ‘sinned’ is in the aorist tense, which always looks back to a past action which has terminated. The curse of the Law falls upon us, first, not because we are sinful, but because we were federally guilty when our covenant head sinned.

In Romans 5:12, the Apostle was not referring to the corrupting of man-kind. It is true that as a result of our first parents’ sin the springs of human nature were polluted; but this is not what Paul was writing of. Instead he went behind that, and dealt with the cause of which moral depravity is but one of the effects. A corrupt tree can indeed produce nothing but corrupt fruit, but why are we born with corrupt hearts? Such is more than a terrible calamity: it is a penal infliction visited upon us because of our prior criminality. Punishment presupposes guilt, and the punishment is given to all because all are guilty, and since God accounts all guilty, then they must be participants in Adams offence. Well did George Whitefield say, ‘I beg leave to express my surprise that any person of judgment should maintain human depravity, and not immediately discover its necessary connection with the imputation, and how impossible it is to secure the justice of God without having recourse to it; for certainly the corruption of human nature, so universal and inseparable, is one of the greatest punishments that could be inflicted upon the species…. Now if God has inflicted an evident punishment upon a race of men perfectly innocent, which had neither sinned personally nor yet by imputation; and thus while we imagine we honour the justice of God by renouncing imputation, we in fact pour the highest dishonour upon that sacred attribute.’

Death, penal death, has been passed upon all men because all sinned in Adam. That the ‘all have sinned’ cannot signify their own personal transgressions is clear: because the manifest design of Romans 5:12, is to show that Adam’s sin is the cause of death; because physical death (a part of sin’s wages) is far more extensive than personal transgression—as appears from so many dying in infancy; and because such an interpretation would destroy the analogy between Adam and the One of whom he was ‘the figure,’ and would lead unto this comparison: as men die because they sin personally, so all earn eternal life because they are personally righteous! Equally evident is it that ‘all have sinned’ cannot mean death comes upon men because they are depraved, for this too would clash with the scope of the whole passage: if our subjective sinfulness be the ground of our condemnation, then our subjective holiness (and not Christ’s merits) is the ground of our justification. It would also contradict the emphatic assertion of verse 18: ‘by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation.’ Thus we are obliged to understand the ‘all have sinned’ of verse 12 as meaning all sinned in Adam.

If the federal headship of Adam and the imputation of his sin unto all his posterity be repudiated, then what alternative is left us? Only that of the separate testing of each individual. If the race were not placed on probation in the first man, then each of his offspring must stand trial for himself. But the conditions of such a trial make success impossible, for each probationer would enter upon it in a state of spiritual death! The human family is either suffering for the sin of its head or it is suffering for nothing at all. ‘Man is born unto trouble,’ and from it there is no escape. What then is the explanation of the grim tragedy now being enacted on this earth? Every effect must have a previous cause. If we be not born under the condemnation of Adam’s offence, then why are we ‘by nature the children of wrath’ (Eph. 2:3)? ‘Now either man was tried and fell in Adam, or he has been condemned without trial. He is either under the curse (as it rests upon him from the beginning of his existence), for Adam’s guilt, or for no guilt at all. Judge which is more honouring to God: a doctrine which, although profoundly mysterious, represents Him as giving man an equitable and most favourable probation in his federal head, or that which makes God condemn him untried, even before he exists’ (R. L. Dabney).

We have carefully considered the solemn teaching of Romans 5:12, and we now propose to examine the verses which immediately follow, for they are not only of deep importance in connection with the present aspect of our subject, but their meaning is very little apprehended today, for they receive scarcely any notice either in the pulpit or the religious press. In Romans 5:13, 14, the Apostle takes no notice of our personal transgressions, but shows the effects of Adam ‘s sin. His design in these verses is to intimate that the universality of physical death can only be satisfactorily accounted for on the ground that it is a penal infliction because of the first man’s offence. The argument of verse 13 is as follows: the infliction of a penal evil presupposes the violation of a law, for death is the wages of sin. The violation of the Mosaic law does not account for the universality of death, because multitudes died before that law was given. As therefore death implies transgression, and the law of Moses explains not all of death’s victims, then it dearly and necessarily follows that the whole human race is subject to the penal consequence of the primitive law being transgressed by their first father.

‘For until the law sin was in the world.’ The opening ‘For’ imports that the Apostle is now about to furnish proof of the assertion made in verse 12. ‘The law’ here has reference to the Mosaic. ‘Sin,’ as all through this passage, signifies guilt or the judicial ground of condemnation, and not the corruption of human nature. ‘The world’ includes the entire race: all were accursed, and are so regarded and treated by the Judge of all the earth. Having stated in Romans 5:12 that all mankind participated in Adam’s original sin, and that in consequence all share in its punishment, Paul pauses to vindicate and amplify his assertion that ‘all sinned in’ Adam. The method he follows is by reasoning backward from effect to cause. The argument is somewhat involved and calls for close attention, yet there is no difficulty in following its course if we perceive that it moves back from death to sin, and from sin to law—the one, in each case, being necessarily implied by the other. Sin was in the world before the law of Moses was given, as was evident from the fact that death held universal sway from Eden to Sinai—witness the oft-repeated ‘and he died’ in Genesis 5. Thus far the argument is simple, but the next point is more difficult.

‘But sin is not imputed when there is no law’ (Romans 5:13). The meaning of this clause has been missed by many, through failing to follow the course of the Apostle’s reasoning. They have imagined it signifies that, though sin was in the world prior to Moses, yet it was not reckoned to the account of those who were guilty. Such an idea is not only erroneous but manifestly absurd. Where sin exists the Holy One must dean with it as sin. And He did so from earliest times, as the flood demonstrated. ‘Sin is not imputed when there is no law.’ Why? Because ‘sin’ or guilt is the correlative of ‘law.’ Sin or condemnation implies the law: one cannot be without the other—’sin is the transgression of the law’ (1 John 3:4). None is guilty where no law exists, for criminality presupposes the violation of a statute. Thus, for any to be adjudged guilty is the same thing as saying he has broken the law. This prepares us for verse 14, where proof is adduced that a law, given previous to Moses, had been violated, and consequently God dealt with sinners as sinners long before the time of Moses.

‘Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses.’ Though it be truth that there is no sin where there is no law, and that where there is no law transgressed there can be no death, yet it is a Divinely certified fact that death reigned during the first twenty-five centuries of human life. Therefore the conclusion is so self-evident that Paul leaves his readers to draw it—the human race must have transgressed an earlier law than the Mosaic. Thus verse 14 clinches the interpretation we have given of verses 12 and 13. Since men died prior to the Sinaitic transaction, there must be some other reason and ground for their exposure to death. Note well ‘death reigned’: it held undisputed and rightful sway. If then men were justly subject to its power, they must have been criminals. Death is far more than a calamity: it is a punishment, and that argues the breaking of a law. If men were punished with death from the beginning, then it inevitably follows that they were law transgressors from the beginning. Moreover, death furnished proof that sin was ‘imputed’—because men were guilty of Adam’s offence.

‘Even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression’ has reference unto those who in their own persons and conduct had never violated any law by which their exposure to death could be accounted for. The word ‘even’ here suggests a contrast. Generally speaking, death had reigned from Adam to Moses over all alike; but, to particularize, it did so even over a class who had not (in their own persons) sinned as Adam had. If we bear in mind that in verses 13 and 14 Paul is proving his assertion (at the end of verse 12) that death comes on all because of the first man’s sin, then his line of reasoning is easier to follow. The word ‘even’ here implies that there was a particular class who it appears ought to have been exempted from the dominion of sin, namely infants. Thus the death of infants supplied a conclusive proof of the doctrine here inculcated. Physical death is a penal infliction, and falling as it does on infants it must be because of Adam’s sin. On no other ground can their demise be accounted for. They furnish the climacteric demonstration that all sinned in Adam and suffer the penal consequences of his offence.

At the close of Romans 5:14 the Apostle stated that Adam was ‘the figure of Him that was to come’—he foreshadowed Christ as the federal Head and legal Representative of His people. In verses 15-17 it is pointed out that there were contrasts as well as resemblances between the first man and Christ. ‘But not as the offence, so also is the free gift’ (v. 15). The Fall differed radically from the restoration: though they are alike in their far-reaching effects they are quite unlike in the nature of those effects. ‘For if through the offence of one many be dead’—literally ‘many died,’ legally. The ‘many’ includes infants, and since they die because of the one man’s offence, that proves they are adjudged guilty of it, and therefore that God imputed it unto them, for He never punishes where there is no sin.

‘Much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many’ (v. 15). Here the first contrast is drawn—between justice and grace. The ‘much more’ does not mean numerically, for Christ cannot restore more than Adam ruined, and he encompassed the downfall of all his posterity. Nor does this ‘much more’ signify that grace is more abundant and efficacious than the offence in its effects—that is brought out in verse 20. No, it is employed argumentatively, as a logical inference and as a note of certainty. If God willed it that one man should ruin many, much more can we suppose it to be agreeable that His Son should rescue many. If many be suffering from the offence of Adam, much more should we expect that many will benefit from the merits of Christ. Thus it is not a ‘much more’ either of quantity or quality, but of assurance and certainty. If it were a meet arrangement in the Divine government that the principle of representation should operate though it entailed the curse, much more may we look for that principle to operate in producing blessing. If Scripture teaches the imputation of sin, we should not stumble when we find it affirming the imputation of righteousness. If God dealt in inflexible justice with the original sin, then, from all we know of Him, much more may we look for a display of the riches of His grace through Christ.

‘And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many of-fences unto justification’ (Rom. 5:16). Here the second contrast is drawn. Though there be a close resemblance between ruin and redemption, in that each was accomplished by the one man, yet there is a great difference between the scope of their respective effects. The destroying power of the former went not beyond the one sin of Adam, whereas the restoring power of the latter covers our countless iniquities. How vastly more extensive, then, is the reach of the ‘free gift’! Thus this verse explains itself—the second clause interpreting the first. The Divine sentence of condemnation fell upon the entire human family because of the single offence of their head, but believers are justified by Christ from many offences—’having forgiven you all trespasses’ (Col. 2:13). Christ does very much more than remove the guilt which came upon His people for the first man’s sin: He has also made full satisfaction or atonement for all their personal sins—who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity’ (Titus 2:14).

‘For the judgment was by one to condemnation.’ Each term requires to be carefully weighed. The word ‘judgment’ obviously signifies a judicial sentence—pronounced by God—and that judgment was ‘to condemnation’ and not, be it noted, to ‘corruption’ or vitiation of nature. The judgment ‘was by one’—not (here) by one man, but rather by one sin, for it is set over against the ‘many offences’ which we have personally committed. Thus it is expressly asserted that judgment came by Adam’s initial transgression, and if all be condemned for that sin then all must be accounted guilty of it, for the righteous Judge will not condemn the innocent. ‘But the free gift is of many offences unto justification’—where sin abounded grace did much more abound. The finished work of Christ not only provides for the cancellation of original sin, but acquits from the accumulated guilt of all our sins. Moreover, believers in Christ are not merely pardoned, ‘but justified’—exonerated, pronounced righteous by the Law. They are not only restored to their unfallen state, but given a title to enjoy the full reward of Christ’s obedience. As Adam’s posterity participate in his guilt, depravity, and death, so Christ’s seed receive through Him righteousness, holiness, and eternal life.

‘For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one (better, ‘by the offence of the one man death reigned’); much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5:17). Here is the third contrast-death and life, issuing from the two heads. Here again the central truth of the whole passage is reiterated: death comes on men not because their natures have been corrupted, nor because of their own personal transgression, but as a judicial sentence passed on account of Adam’s crime. It is here expressly said that death reigned ‘by (because of) the one man’s offence,’ and therefore everyone over whom death has dominion must be regarded as guilty. The word ‘reigned’ here is very impressive and emphatic: those who die are looked upon a~s death’s lawful subjects, for it is regarded as their king. In other words, death has a legal claim upon all men. The forceful language of Hebrews 2:14, 15 contains the same concept: ‘that through death He (Christ) might destroy him that had the power (authority) of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them,’ i.e., free death’s lawful prisoners. Note how this verse indirectly confirms Romans 5:14—death could have no dominion over infants unless they were charged with Adam s sin.

‘Much more they which receive abundance of grace,’ etc. The ‘much more’ of this verse emphasizes a different thought from that of verse 15. There it refers to God dealing with Adam and his posterity consistently with His own perfections: if God could righteously condemn all mankind because of the disobedience of their first parent, then much more could He justify the seed of Christ (Isa. 53:10) on the ground of the obedience of their Representative. But here the ‘much more’ has reference to the modus operandi of condemnation and justification. If death has come upon us as a judicial infliction for an offence in which we did not actively participate, then much more shall we share the reward of Christ’s righteousness which we voluntarily ‘receive’ by faith. There is a double thought conveyed by ‘the gift of righteousness,’ which it is important to observe, for most of the commentators have missed the second. First, it signifies that righteousness is entirely gratuitous, neither earned nor merited. Second, it implies that it is imputed, for a ‘gift’ is something which is transferred from one person to another. Not only pointless but senseless is the objection that if righteousness were transferred from Christ to us it would leave Him without any. Does God’s gift of life unto sinners leave Him without any life?

‘Shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.’ They who by faith receive the gift of His righteousness are not only saved from the consequences of the Fall, but are partakers of eternal life and made joint-heirs with Christ and sharers of His celestial glory. They who have been wholly under the power of death are not only completely freed from it and spiritually quickened, but as one with the King of kings they are made ‘kings unto God’ (Rev. 1:6). They are not reinstated in the earthly paradise, but shall be brought to honour and glory and immortality in Heaven—given title to a state of eternal and supernal blessedness. The careful student should have observed both a threefold comparison and a threefold contrast between the first and last Adams in verses 15-17. Both are sources of radical influence— ‘abounded unto many’ (v. 15); both are conveyors of a judicial sentence—condemnation, justification (v. 16); both introduce a sovereign regime—’death reigned,’ ‘reign in life’ (v. 17). But by Adam we lost, whereas in Christ we gain; we were charged with the one offence, but are cleared from many; we were the subjects of death, but are made co-heirs with Christ. By Adam we were ruined; by Christ we are more than restored. In Adam we occupied a position a little lower than the angels; in Christ we are instated far above all principality and power.

‘Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life’ (Rom. 5:18). In verse 12 only the first member of the contrast was given (vv. 13-17 interrupting the extension by a necessary parenthesis), but here the case is stated in full. Throughout the whole passage Paul contrasts a state of Divine wrath and Divine favour, and not the states of depravity and holiness. Here it is plainly asserted that all are condemned for Adam’s sin. Infants are therefore included, for they would not be punished if innocent—if Adam’s sin were not legally theirs. In precisely the same way all for whom Christ transacted as their covenant Head are justified by His merits being legally reckoned to their account. As something outside of ourselves is the judicial ground of our falling under the Divine curse, so something outside of ourselves is the judicial ground of our being under the blessing of God. The second half of this verse speaks not of something which is provided for all mankind, but that which God actually imputes to all believers (cf. 4:20-24).

‘For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous’ (v. 19). This goes farther than the preceding verse. There it was the causes of condemnation and justification which were stated; here it is their actual issue or results. From verse 11 onwards the Apostle has shown that God’s sentence is grounded upon the legally constituted unity of all with their covenant heads. By his breaking of the Divine Law, all who were federally one with the first Adam were made sinners, and all who were federally one with the last Adam are made righteous. The Greek word for ‘made’ (kathistemi) never signifies to effect any change to a person or thing, but means to ‘ordain, appoint,’ to ‘constitute’ legally or officially, as a reference to Matthew 24:45, 47; Luke 12:14; Acts 7:10, 27, clearly shows. Note well that it is not here said that Adam’s disobedience makes us unholy: Paul goes farther back and explains why such should follow, namely because we are first constituted sinners by imputation.

Romans 5:12-21, is one of the most important passages in the bible. In it the fundamental doctrine of federal representation is openly stated, and the fact of imputation is emphatically affirmed. Here is revealed the basic principle according to which God deals with men. Here we behold the old and the new races receiving from their respective heads. Here are set before us the two central figures and facts of all history—the first Adam and his disobedience, the last Adam and His obedience. Upon those two things the Apostle hammered again and again with almost monotonous repetition. Why such unusual reiteration? Because of the great doctrinal importance of what is here treated of; because the purity of the Gospel and the glory of Christ’s atonement turned thereon; because Paul was insisting upon that which is so repulsive to the proud heart of fallen man. Plain as is its language, this passage has been wrested and twisted to mean many things which it does not teach; and Socinians, Arminians and Universalists refuse to accept what is so plainly asserted.

Wherever this passage has been plainly expounded it has, in all generations encountered the fiercest opposition—not the least so from men professing to be Christians. The doctrine of imputation is as bitterly hated as those of unconditional election and eternal punishment. Those who teach it are accused of representing God as dealing unjustly. The only reply necessary is, What saith the Scriptures? As we have seen, Romans 5 declares that death has passed upon all men because all sinned in Adam (v. 12), that ‘through the offence of one many be dead’ (v. 15), that ‘the judgment was by one to condemnation’ (v. 16), that ‘by one man’s offence death reigned’ (v. 17), that ‘by one man’s offence judgment came upon all men to condemnation’ (v. 18), that ‘by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners’ (v. 19). ‘In Adam all die’ (1 Cor. 15:22). God deals with men on the principle of imputation. ‘The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’ (Exo. 20:5). The curse of Canaan fell on all his posterity (Gen. 9:25). The Egyptians perished for Pharaoh’s obduracy. His whole family died for Achan’s crime (Josh. 7:24). All Israel suffered for David’s sin (2 Samuel 24:15, 17). The leprosy visited upon Gehazi passed to ‘all his seed forever’ (2 Kings 5:27). The blood of all the prophets was exacted of the members of Christ’s generation (Luke 11:50).

If there be one word which fitly expresses what every man is by nature, it is ‘sinner.’ Waiving all theological systems, if we inquire what be the popular meaning of that term, the answer is, ‘one who has sinned’ or one who makes a practice of sinning. But such a definition comes far short of the scriptural import of that word. ‘By the disobedience of one many were made sinners.’ They are such, legally made so, neither because of what they have done personally nor by what they are in the habit of doing; but rather by the action of their first parent. It is quite true that it is the nature of sinners to sin, but according to the unmistakable testimony of Romans 5 we are all sinners antecedent to and independent of any personal transgressing of God’s Law. It was by the offence of Adam that we were legally constituted sinners. The universal reign of death is the proof of the universal power of sin, yet so far from representing death as the consequence of individual acts of disobedience, it is expressly insisted upon that death reigns over infants, who are incapable of acts of disobedience. Human probation ended with the original offence, and, in consequence, not only was human nature vitiated at its fountain-head, but all of Adam’s descendants fell under the curse of God, the guilt of his transgression being imputed to them.

No finite creature, and still less a fallen and depraved one, is capable of measuring or even understanding the justice of the infinite God. Yet this we may ask: Which appears to be more consonant to human conceptions of justice—that we should suffer through Adam because we were legally connected with him and he transacted in our name; or that we should suffer solely because we derive our nature from him by generation, though we had no part in or connection with his sin? In the former we can perceive the ground on which his guilt is charged to our account; but by the latter we can discover no ground or cause that any share of the fatal effects of Adam’s sin should be visited upon us. The latter alternative means that we are depraved and wretched without any sufficient reason, and in such an event our present condition is but a misfortune and in no wise criminal. Nor is God to be blamed: He made man upright, but man deliberately apostatized. Nor was God under any obligation to preserve man from falling. Finally, let it be remembered that our salvation depends upon the self-same principle and fact: if we were cursed and ruined by the first Adam’s disobedience, we are redeemed and blessed by the last man’s obedience.