The Federal Headship of Adam and Christ by Jack Kettler
In this study, we will look at Adam, the first man and head of the fallen race of mankind. Then we will consider Christ Jesus, the head of the redeemed race of mankind. In theology, this is known as covenantal or specifically, federal headship. What exactly did Adam do by sinning? How did it influence mankind? What did Christ in His redemptive work accomplish as the head of His redeemed people?
As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, commentary evidence and confessional support for the purpose of glorifying God in how we live.
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
Definitions from two sources:
The position of Adam and Christ as heads of a people whom they represent, with Adam representing the whole human race in the fall, and Christ representing those who are united to him through faith, so that God judges the whole human race to be guilty sinners in Adam, and judges all believers to be righteous in Christ.. *
Federal Headship, in a broad sense, is the position that the male represents his descendants. In the case of Adam, he was the federal head of mankind in that he represented mankind in the fall. We were “in him,” in his seed. When he fell, we fell “in him.” Likewise, Jesus is our federal head in salvation. He represented his people on the cross. 1 Cor. 15:22 says, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” **
Scriptural passages that support the doctrine of federal headship:
The primary text is found in Romans 5:12-19. What does this passage say? This passage speaks about the fall, and of man’s guilt, caused by Adam for his descendants. Then in a striking parallel, the passage speaks of Christ’s redemption for His people. Christ and Adam are both federal heads.
“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. (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless 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. But not as the offense, so also is the free gift. For if through the offense of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. 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 offenses unto justification. For if by one man’s offense death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:12-19)
General Introductory Comments:
These passages teach the connection between Adam’s sin and the human race. Adam as the covenantal or federal head of the human family brought sin to his descendants. This is proved by the fact that death now reigns in the world. The apostle teaches that “all sinned,” or all were made or constituted sinners because of their real shared guilt in Adam’s sin. Bringing sin and death to the human race in which Adam was the first man is known as “original sin.”
As a result of Adam’s sin, we all come into the world with a fallen nature. Because of our sinful natures, we make sinful choices. This original sin, with which we are all born, manifests itself throughout our lives in actual sins which violate God’s law, both in sins of commission (active transgression of God’s law) and omission (lack of conformity to God’s law). In other words, we can say, in Adam, all have sinned and as a result, in Adam, all have died.
These passages also speak of Christ’s work for the many who will be made righteous. The parallels between Adam as a covenantal head and Christ as a covenantal or federal head are remarkable.
It will be helpful to get some additional commentary information on several key passages in regards to the doctrine of federal headship from the Romans selection in chapter five. The commentary entries will explore what Christ has done for the head of His people in contrast to Adam.
Romans 5:12 from Matthew Poole’s Commentary:
“From this verse to the end of the chapter, the apostle makes a large comparison between the first and Second Adam, which he joins to what he had said by the causal particle wherefore: q.d. Seeing things are as I have already said, it is evident, that what was lost by Adam is restored by Christ. This verse seems to be lame and imperfect; the reddition is wanting in the comparison; for unto this, as by one man sin entered into the world, there should be added, so by Christ, &c. But the reddition, or second part of the comparison, is suspended, by reason of a long parenthesis intervening to Romans 5:18, 19, where the apostle sets down both parts of the comparison.
By one man: viz. Adam.
Objection. Eve first sinned, 1 Timothy 2:14.
Answer. He is not showing the order how sin first entered into the world, but how it was propagated to mankind. Therefore he mentions the man, because he is the head of the woman, and the covenant was made with him: or, man may be used collectively, both for man and woman; as when God said: Let us make man, & c.
Sin; it is to be understood of our first parents’ actual sin, in eating the forbidden fruit; this alone was it that affected their posterity, and made them sinners, Romans 5:19.
Entered into the world; understand the inhabitants of the world; the thing containing, by a usual metonomy, is put for the thing contained.
And death by sin; as the due reward thereof.
Death here may be taken in its full latitude, for temporal, spiritual, and eternal death.
And so death passed upon all men; seized upon all, of all sorts, infants as well as others.
For that all have sinned; others read it thus, in which all have sinned, i.e. in which one man; and so it is a full proof that Adam was a public person, and that in him all his posterity sinned and fell. He was our representative, and we were all in him, as a town or county in a parliament man; and although we chose him not, yet God chose for us.
The words ef’ w are rendered in which, in other places, and the preposition epi is put for en; see Mark 2:4 Hebrews 9:10: and if our translation be retained, it is much to the same sense; for if such die as never committed any actual sin themselves, (as infants do), then it will follow that they sinned in this one man, in whose loins they were: as Levi is said to have paid tithes in Abraham’s loins, Hebrews 7:9.” (1)
Romans 5:15 from Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers:
(15) “Now comes the statement of the contrast which extends over the next five verses. The points of difference are thrown into relief by the points of resemblance. These may be, perhaps, best presented by the subjoined scheme:—
Persons of the action.
One man, Adam.
One Man, Christ.
One act of trespass.
One act of obedience.
Character of the action viewed in its relation to the Fall and Salvation of man.
The great initial trespass or breach of the law of God.
The great accomplished work of grace, or the gift of righteousness.
Persons affected by the action.
Proximate effect of the action.
Influx of many transgressions.
Clearing away of many transgressions.
Ulterior effect of the action.
The offence.—Perhaps rather, trespass, to bring out the latent antithesis to the obedience of Christ. (Ellicott.)
One . . . many.—Substitute throughout this passage, “the one,” “the many.” By “the many,” is meant “mankind generally,” “all men.” Dr. Lightfoot quotes Bentley on the importance of this change: “By this accurate version some hurtful mistakes about partial redemption and absolute reprobation had been happily prevented. Our English readers had then seen what several of the Fathers saw and testified, that the many, in an antithesis to the one, are equivalent to all in Romans 5:12, and comprehend the whole multitude, the entire species of mankind, exclusive only of the one.” “In other words,” Dr. Lightfoot adds, “the benefits of Christ’s obedience extend to all men potentially. It is only human self-will which places limits to its operation.”
Much more.—Because God is much more ready to exercise mercy and love than severity, to pardon than to punish.
The grace of God, and the gift by grace.—The grace of God is the moving cause, its result is the gift (of righteousness, Romans 5:17) imputed by His gracious act to the many.” (2)
Romans 5:15-19 from Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary:
5:15-19 “Through one man’s offence, all mankind are exposed to eternal condemnation. But the grace and mercy of God, and the free gift of righteousness and salvation, are through Jesus Christ, as man: yet the Lord from heaven has brought the multitude of believers into a more safe and exalted state than that from which they fell in Adam. This free gift did not place them anew in a state of trial, but fixed them in a state of justification, as Adam would have been placed, had he stood. Notwithstanding the differences, there is a striking similarity. As by the offence of one, sin and death prevailed to the condemnation of all men, so by the righteousness of one, grace prevailed to the justification of all related to Christ by faith. Through the grace of God, the gift by grace has abounded to many through Christ; yet multitudes choose to remain under the dominion of sin and death, rather than to apply for the blessings of the reign of grace. But Christ will in nowise cast out any who are willing to come to him.” (3)
Another biblical text that provides important information about federal headship is in Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. “ From the Pulpit Commentary:
Verse 22. – “As in Adam all die. All of us partake of Adam’s nature, and are therefore liable to the death which that nature incurred as the law and condition of its humanity. In Christ shall all be made alive? It is St. Paul’s invariable habit to isolate his immediate subject; to think and to treat of one topic at a time. He is not here thinking directly and immediately of the resurrection in general. In this verse, writing to Christians who are “in Christ,” he is only thinking and speaking of the resurrection of those who are “in Christ.” That any can be nominally “in Christ,” yet not really so, is a fact which is not at present under his cognizance; still less is he thinking of the world in general. In other words, he is here dealing with “the resurrection of life” alone, and not also with the “resurrection of judgment” (John 5:26-29). Still, as far as his words alone are concerned, it is so impossible to understand the phrase, “shall all be made alive,” of a resurrection to endless torments, that his language at least suggests the conclusion that “the principle which has come to actuality in Christ is of sufficient energy to quicken all men for the resurrection to the blessed life” (Baur, ‘Life of St. Paul,’ 2:219).” (4)
This headship principle is illustrated in the book of Numbers and book of Acts:
Achan’s sin was exposed in Numbers 32:23. God commanded that Achan and his entire family and all his belongings be destroyed for this sin that is Achan’s sin. In this example, Achan was acting as the covenantal or federal head of his posterity. Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16 is another example of this principle. Possibly, another instance in the New Testament is the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 5 lying and stealing from God’s representatives, the apostles.
John Gill, one of the great Puritan divines, provided an excellent overview of the federal headship of both Adam and Christ.
Selections from Of Christ as the Covenant Head of the Elect by John Gill:
5. “Christ, in the everlasting covenant, engaged in the name of his people, to obey and suffer in their stead; and accordingly he did both in time, as their Head and Representative. He obeyed the law, and fulfilled all righteousness, not as a single individual of human nature, and for himself, but as the federal Head of his people, as representing them; “That so the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us”, says the apostle, (Rom. 8:4) that is, in the elect of God, they being considered in Christ their Head, when he became the fulfilling End of the law for righteousness unto them; and so they were made, or accounted, the righteousness of God “in him” their Head, (Rom. 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21) in like manner as he in their name engaged to suffer for them; so in time he suffered in their room and stead, as their head and representative; insomuch that they may be truly said to suffer with him; they were all gathered together, recollected in one Head, “in Christ”, and sustained and represented by him when he hung upon the cross, and are said to be “crucified with” him (Eph. 1:10; Col. 2:12).
6. In consequence of Christ’s covenant engagements and performances, when he rose from the dead, he rose not as a private Person, but as a public Person, as the head and representative of all those for whom he obeyed and suffered; and therefore they are said to be quickened and raised together with him, as they were then also justified in him, when he himself, as their Head and Surety was (Eph. 2:5, 6; Col. 3:1; 1 Tim. 3:16). Yea, Christ is also gone to heaven, not only as the Forerunner of his people, but as their Head and Representative; he has taken possession of heaven in their name, appears in the presence of God for them, and represents them, as the high priest did the children of Israel, in the holy of holies; and hence they are said to be made to sit together in heavenly places “in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).
7. The federal headship of Christ, may be argued and concluded from Adam being a federal head and representative of all his natural offspring; in which he was “the figure of him that was to come”, that is, Christ; for it was in that chiefly, if not solely, that he was a figure of Christ; at least, that is the chief, if not the only thing the apostle has in view, (Rom. 5:14) as appears by his running the parallel between them, as heads and representatives of their respective offspring: Adam, through his fall, conveying sin and death to all his natural descendants; and Christ, through the free gift of himself, communicating grace, righteousness, and life to all his spiritual seed, the elect, the children his Father gave him: and hence these two are spoken of as the first and last Adam, and the first and second man; as if they were the only two men in the world, being the representatives of each of their seeds, which are included in them (1 Cor. 15:45, 47).
Now, as Christ stands in the relation of an Head to the elect, he has all things delivered into his hands; in honour to him, and in love both to him and them, and for their good; God has given him to be “Head over all things” to the church, (Matthew 11:27; John 3:35; Eph. 1:22) all persons and things are under his command, and at his dispose, to subserve his interest as Head of the church; even angels and men, good and bad, and all things in heaven and in earth; all power therein to protect and defend his people, and to provide for them; all fulness of grace, and the blessings of it to supply them; the government of the church, and of the world, is on his shoulders, who represents them; and therefore their persons, grace, and glory, must be safe in him; the covenant, and all its blessings and promises, are sure in him, the Head and Representative of his people in it.” (5)
Some additional information on federal headship from the respected Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:
“…In the latter half of Romans 5, Paul teaches that the entire human race is summarized in the two Adams. The first Adam was the federal head of the race under the covenant of works; the second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the federal head of all believers under the covenant of grace. Thus, as the sin of Adam was legally and effectively our sin, so the obedience of Christ is legally and effectively the righteousness of all believers. The federal relationship in which Adam stood to the race was the ground of the imputation of his guilt to them and the judicial cause of their condemnation. And the law that condemned them could not justify them unless an adequate reparation should be made for the wrong done, a reparation they were incapable of making because of the corruption they inherited from Adam as their natural and federal head. To provide their salvation, the needed reparation had to be made by another who was not of federal connection with Adam and therefore was free from the imputation of his guilt. Federal theology represents these requirements as being met in Christ, the second Adam, in whom a new race begins. God had entered into covenant with him, promising him the salvation of all believers as the reward of his obedience. But the obedience required of him as the federal head of his people was more than the mere equivalent of that required of Adam. His representative obedience must include a penal death. And thus his resurrection victory is also the victory of the new humanity that has its source in him….” (6)
The Westminster Confession of Faith is in harmony with other reformed confessions on the topic of headship. For example, see The London Baptist Confession 1689: – Chapter 6: Of the Fall of Man, Of Sin, And of the Punishment Thereof.
Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter VII on the federal headship of Adam and Christ:
Section I.—The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
Section II.—The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.
I. That God entered into a covenant with Adam in his state of innocence, appears from Gen. ii. 16, 17: “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.” Here, indeed, there is no express mention of a covenant; but we find all the essential requisites of a proper covenant. In this transaction there are two parties; the Lord God on the one hand, and man on the other. There is a condition expressly stated, in the positive precept respecting the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God was pleased to make the test of man’s obedience. There is a penalty subjoined: “In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” There is also a promise, not distinctly expressed, but implied in the threatening; for, if death was to be the consequence of disobedience, it clearly follows that life was to be the reward of obedience. That a promise of life was annexed to man’s obedience, may also be inferred from the description which Moses gives of the righteousness of the law: “The man that doeth these things shall live by them,” – Rom. x. 5; from our Lord’s answer to the young man who inquired what he should do to inherit eternal life: “It thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,”—Matt. xix. 17; and from the declaration of the apostle, that “the commandment was ordained to life.”—Rom. vii. to. We are, therefore, warranted to call the transaction between God and Adam a covenant. We may even allege, for the use of this term, the language of Scripture. In Hos. vi. 7 (margin), we read, “They, like Adam, have transgressed the covenant.” This necessarily implies that a covenant was made with Adam, and that he violated it.
II. That this covenant was made with Adam, not only for himself, but also for all his natural posterity, is a doctrine which has met with much opposition. It is denied by Pelagians and Socinians, who maintain that he acted for himself alone, and that the effects of his fall terminated upon himself. Arminians admit that the whole human race is injured by the first sin, but at the same time controvert the proposition, that Adam was their proper representative. This truth, however, may be easily established. The Scripture represents Adam as a figure or type of Christ,—Rom. v. 14; and wherein does the resemblance between them consist? Simply in this, that as Christ was a federal head, representing all his spiritual seed in the covenant of grace, so Adam was a federal head representing all his natural seed in the covenant of works. In 1 Cor. xv. 45, 47, the one is called the first Adam, the other, the last Adam; the one the first man, the other the second man. Now, Christ was not the second man in any other sense, but as being the federal head or representative of his seed; and, therefore, the first man must have sustained a similar character, as being the federal head or representative of all his natural posterity. The extension of the effects of Adam’s first sin to all his descendants, is another strong proof of his having represented them in the covenant made with him. That he has transmitted sin and death to all his posterity, is clearly taught in the 5th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans; and unless his public character, as a representative in the covenant, be admitted, no satisfactory reason can be assigned why we are affected by his first sin in a way that we are not affected by his subsequent transgressions, or the transgressions of our more immediate progenitors. We know that “the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father” (Ezek. xviii. 20); and had Adam been merely a private person, his sin could have affected us no more than that of our immediate parents. The conclusion is inevitable,—that in the covenant of works, our first parent not only acted for himself, but represented all his natural posterity.
For those who may be struggling with this teaching about federal headship. Consider the following question.
If you deny original sin and the federal headship of Adam, how can you maintain, Christ’s headship over His people? The parallels in Romans chapter five between Adam and Christ although opposites are inescapable.
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Matthew Poole, Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), p. 494.
2. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Romans, Vol.2, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 225.
3. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, (Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson), p. 1791.
4. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, 1 Corinthians, Vol. 19, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 487.
5. John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, (New York, New York, Andesite Press), pp. 343-344.
6. Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “Federal Theology” (Grand Rapids Michigan, Baker Book House, 1984), p. 413.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
And at: https://carm.org/
To see Scriptural proofs the Westminster Confession on the Ten Commandments and application go to:
Federal Headship on The Dividing Line with James White
An Objection against the Imputation of Adam’s Sin to his Posterity Web Page by Jonathan Edwards
Romans 5:12-21 – Adam, Christ, and Justification, Part 2 a Web Page by John Piper