The Justice of God’s Choice
“If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (v. 17).- Romans 5:15–17
Adam’s sin becomes our own by way of imputation, and because of that we are born guilty and deserving of death (Rom. 5:12–14). Many people find this idea highly objectionable, accusing the Lord of being unfair or unjust for condemning people for something they did not do themselves. Moreover, many object that the notion of our being found guilty for Adam’s sin violates the biblical principle that the son shall not be forced to pay for his father’s crimes, for is it not true that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18)?
These objections are worth serious consideration, and there are answers to them. First, it is helpful to realize that Paul certainly knew of such teachings from Ezekiel and the other prophets, but he had no problem fitting them with the notion of our being found guilty in Adam. Second, we must also understand that although the Bible often speaks of sin and guilt in individualistic terms, it also affirms that there can be guilt in a corporate sense. Joshua 7, for example, tells us the story of Achan, whose family was put to death because of his sins at Ai. Under special circumstances, one person can represent many for good or for ill.
In the case of Adam—both the first Adam and the last Adam—we find this principle of representation, or federalism, par excellence. Simply put, the Bible tells us that our relationship to Adam is unlike our relationship to any other human being. God appointed Adam to represent us in Eden and for us to share in the consequences of His acts. If we protest this, let us remember that this federal relationship was God’s perfect choice. In the United States, we elect representatives every few years, hoping that they will make the same choices we would make if we were in their shoes. Because we cannot make a perfect selection, we are often disappointed. But the Lord is not susceptible to such error. After all, He is the “only wise God” (Rom. 16:27). In choosing Adam, He chose someone who would do exactly what we would have done if we were actually in Eden. If we think otherwise, we sin by pridefully overestimating our own abilities and questioning God’s wisdom.
Should we protest Adam’s representation of us, we must also protest Christ’s representation of us. It is no more “fair” for us to receive the glorious free gift of salvation (5:15–17) because Jesus stood in for us than it is for us to be counted guilty because Adam stood in for us. Christ’s representation of us unto salvation and Adam’s representation of us unto condemnation go hand in hand. We cannot have one without the other.
We must take our standards for justice from what God says and not from our own arbitrary opinions. If God says something is just, it is just. Of course, the Lord is not arbitrary about this. Justice is grounded in His own eternal, unchanging character. But we only know this character by what He tells us. Believing God means taking Him at His Word, and our identification of what is good, holy, and just must match what He says is good, holy, and just.
Passages for Further Study