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About a week ago, I saw the status update of a friend on Whatsapp who believe that the Christian doctrine of original sin equals universalism. Universalism is the belief that Christ will save everyone and no one will be lost at the end of the day.
He argues that if everyone died in Adam, then everyone will live in Christ – which is universalism. He then concludes that the doctrine of original sim must not be correct.
Before I proceed, I would like to make a statement here. I have noticed that many of us have a warped approach to doing theology. Rather than going to the text and try to understand what it teaches (exegesis), we first define the theological propositions we are comfortable with and then avoid or mangle all the texts that contradict the propositions with which we are comfortable.
Put simply, rather than seeking to understand the text faithfully (and embrace it if it makes us uncomfortable), we prefer to define what makes us comfortable a priori and then ignore or misinterpret the texts that make us uncomfortable. Instead of subjecting our theology to the text, we subject the text to our theology.
At the end, we end up worshipping a God we have created in our image rather than the God who has revealed himself in his word. If you want a simple word for this, it is idolatry. We can worship our mental images of God as much as physical representations.
However, this is a topic for another day. Let us go back to the topic at hand.
Man’s Identity in Adam
As the first man, Adam holds a crucial place in the canon of scripture. He was created through the direct action of God (Genesis 2:4-7) unlike other men that exist through an indirect action of God – procreation. In the genealogy of Luke, he refers to Adam as the “son of God.” (Luke 3:28) Unlike other men who have a father, in a sense, God is the father of Adam.
Every man is a descendant of Adam (Psalms 45:2); we are his children (Joel 1:12). People who are unfaithful to the covenant God makes with them are acting like Adam (Hosea 6:7).
Paul, more than any other bible writer, helps us understand the important place Adam holds in human history. Paul makes the point repeatedly in his letters that the consequences of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3) transcends his lifetime. Put differently, the results of Adam’s disobedience goes beyond Adam to humanity.
To help us understand the historical role of the historical Adam, he often contrasts Adam with Christ.
Adam and Christ
In 1 Corinthians 15, the burden of Paul was to argue that there is a future resurrection of the saints. Some people in Corinth were arguing that there is no resurrection of the dead. Paul, in response to them, argues that there is an unbroken link between the resurrection of Christ (the firstfruits) and the resurrection of believers. If there is no resurrection of the dead, it means Christ was not raised (15:13). However, Christ had indeed been raised from the dead and he is the firstfruits of the resurrection of those who belong to him (15:20).
Paul goes on to put this death-resurrection antithesis in a more stark contrast. We understand from the foregoing that resurrection comes through Christ, now Paul explains where death came from and how it relates to resurrection.
In verse 21, Paul states in simple terms that death came through a man just as resurrection comes through a man. Paul is not using the word ‘man’ here to denote humanity. Rather, he is referring to a specific man. Death came through a specific man and resurrection comes through a specific man.
In the next verse, Paul tells us that the man through whom death came is Adam and the man through whom resurrection comes (made alive) is Christ.
If we ask Paul, “Why will those who belong to Christ rise again?” he will tell us it is because of Christ. If we go on to ask, “Why did these people die in the first place,” he will tell us it is because of Adam. The contrast here could not be clearer. Adam is the reason why people die just as Christ is the reason why people will be raised to life at the end of time.
To understand Paul’s teaching better, it is important to focus on his terminology. Paul uses the “in Christ” terminology a lot in his letters.
Our redemption from sin came in Christ (Romans 3:24). We are alive to God in Christ. (Romans 6:6) We have life in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30). The “in Christ” and “in him” passages are numerous.
These passages seek to emphasize our union with Christ – Christ is in us and we are in Christ. Paul insists that he was crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20) and that believers died with Christ (Romans 6:8). Writing to the members of the church in Colossae, he insists that they have died (Colossians 3:3). When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. (Romans 6:3). Paul goes on to say that, we were actually buried with Christ and we are raised with him into newness of life (6:4). In Colossians 3:1, he also affirms that we have been raised with Christ. When we rise on the last day, we rise in identification with the resurrection of Christ (6:5).
Paul’s point in all of these is that when Christ lived, died, and resurrected, we were in him. Even though we were not alive then, we were in him in a spiritual or mystical sense. He was our representative and every part of his life has significance for us. We participate in his life in a spiritual sense such that all that is his becomes ours – his death and resurrection become ours. To be in Christ is to be so identified and united with him as our representative such that we participate in every facet of his life and everything he won become ours.
Therefore, when Paul is using this language in reference to Adam, we must stop and reflect on what he is saying.
Here is Paul’s statement again: In Adam all die.
Paul is saying that human beings are so identified and united with Adam as our representative such that when he died, we all died with (in) him. In the same way that we were united with Christ as our representative even though we were not alive during his life, death, and resurrection, we were also united with Adam as our representative in his life and death.
It is crucial to note that Paul is not merely saying that Adam’s death resulted in our death. Rather, he is saying that we were spiritually included (united, identified) in Adam such that when Adam died, we died with him. Therefore, our experience of death today finds its root in the death of Adam (and our identification with him) six thousand years ago (give or take).
For those who are in Christ, their experience of salvation today finds its root in their identification with Christ about 2000 years ago. Similarly, for those who are in Adam (all humanity), our experience of death today finds its root in our identification with Adam thousands of years ago.
The Case of Melchizedek
This concept of identification and representation may sound strange to us but we see some glimpses of it in our daily experience.
When the striker of a soccer team scores a goal, in a sense, the team scores. Ronaldo may score the goal but it is Real Madrid’s goal. When the captain of the team choose a side of the coin, the team chooses. In a representative democracy, the actions of the representatives are the actions of the represented.
We see another example in 1 Samuel 17. David was the representative of the Israeli armies while Goliath represented the Philistines. When David won, Israel won.
The armies of Israel were represented, included, and united with David such that his victory was theirs. They won the battle in David. When a player scores the goal that won the match, all the players get medals (even those who never played).
We also find something close to this in Hebrews 7. The writer of Hebrews is trying to establish the fact that the priesthood of Christ is greater than the Levitical priesthood. Christ’s priesthood traces to Melchizedek while the priesthood of the Levitical priests traces back to Levi.
To make his point, the writer picks up an event that happened in Genesis 14. In that chapter, Abraham, returning from the conquest of Lot’s enemies, gave the tithe of the spoils to Melchizedek. The writer explains that the person who receives the tithe is greater than the one who gives it; therefore, Melchizedek is greater than Abraham. From there, he argued that Levi, who is a descendant of Abraham (Abraham – Isaac – Jacob – Levi) also gave the tithe to Melchizedek when Abraham gave it. If Levi gave tithe to Melchizedek (in Abraham), then Melchizedek is greater than Levi (the one who receives the tithe is greater).
If Melchizedek is greater than Levi and Christ is a “Melchizedekian” priest, then Christ is greater than the Levitical priests (who descended from Levi who paid tithe in Abraham to Melchizedek).
In Hebrews 7, we see another example of this idea of representation – where people who were not present are included and united in an event such that they share the consequences.
Sinners in Adam
In 1 Corinthians 15, we already see that when Adam died, he died as our representative; we (humanity) were included and united with him in that death. In the same vein, when Christ was raised from the dead, he resurrected as a representative of those who belong to him. Those who belong to Christ were included and united with him in his resurrection.
Paul takes this Adam-Christ dichotomy further in his epistle to the Romans.
In Chapter 5, Paul explains the consequences of our justification by faith. Because of our justification, we now have peace with God, hope of the glory to come, and joy in our sufferings (verses 1-5). In the next paragraph, Paul goes on to explain the depth of Christ’s love by emphasizing that he died for us when we were still powerless, ungodly, and sinners (verses 6-8).
The next paragraph explains that because of our present justification, we are free from God’s wrath. If God reconciled us to himself when we were his enemies, how much more will we be saved (from wrath) through his life. Therefore, we can rejoice in Christ through whom we have received this reconciliation (verses 9-11).
Why do we find ourselves in this state? Why are we powerless and ungodly sinners, and enemies of God? In the next section of Romans (verses 12-19), Paul gave us answers to these questions as he picks up the Adam-Christ contrast.
Death Came to All Men
In verse 12, we learn that sin entered this world through one man. Since death is the wages of sin, as sin entered, death entered as well. Sin and death entered through one man.
The second part of this verse is instructive. After explaining that sin and death came through one man, Paul said, “and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”
The NIV connects the first and second part of this verse with “in this way,” while the ESV, BBE, NET, and KJV reads “and so.” The ISV reads, “therefore.” It is clear that the conjunction here intends a causal relationship between the first part and the second. The Greek word is ‘houto.’ According to Thayer Definition, the word means “in this manner,” “thus,” and “so.” Strong’s Definition gives other synonyms including “in this way”, “after that”, “after (in) this manner”, “as”, “even (so)”, “for all that”, “like (-wise)”, “no more”, “on this fashion (-wise)”, “so (in like manner)”, “thus”, “what”.
The point of the previous paragraph is to establish that what Paul intends here is a cause and effect (causal) relationship.
Back to the text
What is the cause? Sin entering into the world through one man’s sin.
What is the effect? Death came to all men.
Notice that Paul did not say that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way (therefore, so, thus), all men sinned.”
Rather, Paul is saying that the cause of the death that came to all men is the sin of the one man.
In essence, Paul’s argument is that one man sinned and death came to all men.
To help us follow this transition from sin to death, Paul was quick to add that death is the consequence of sin. He will tell us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death but he quickly adds it here so that we understand his thoughts.
One man sinned (sin entered the world through one man) and death came upon all men. The reason why death is the direct effect is that the wages of sin is death (death through sin). The one man sinned and died and because of his sin, death came upon all men.
Paul goes on to add another causal language in this same verse.
To help us understand his thoughts, we can divide this verse into three parts:
A – Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death by sin
B- and in this way, death came to all men
C- because all sinned
Paul uses a causal language (houto) to link A and B such that A is the cause of B.
He uses another causal language to link B and C. In the NIV, ESV, ISV, BBE, and NET it reads “because.” In the KJV, it reads, “for.”
What is the cause? All sinned. What is the effect? Death came to all men.
What do we have here?
A is the cause of B and C is the cause of B.
A (Cause) ……………………………..B (Effect)……………………………….C (Cause)
B is in the middle and the two ideas in A and C are the cause of B.
The question is whether A and C are the same cause or they are two different causes of the same effect.
What does Paul mean when he said “all sinned” (past tense)?
According to Greek Scholar, A.T Robertson, “all sinned” is an aorist active indicative (Greek tense).
On the NT Greek Website, they explain this tense as follows: The aorist tense is a secondary tense, and accordingly, in the indicative mood it indicates past action.
When the aorist tense is in the indicative, it refers to a past action.
In A, Paul already told us that the sin of Adam (the one man) is the reason why death came to all men. Now, in C, he tells us that death came to all men because all men sinned. How did all men sinned in C when it was Adam that sinned in A?
Before we move forward, let us digress to what we learn from 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. In those two verses, we know that we were all in Adam when he died and because of our inclusion and union with Adam, we all die. Adam was our representative and when he died, we died.
However, if death is the wages of sin, we cannot participate in Adam’s death except we participated in his sin. If sin is the cause of Adam’s death, it makes sense that we participate in Adam’s death because we participated in his sin.
This is the point that Romans 5:12C is making. Death came upon all men because all men sinned. When Adam sinned in the garden, he sinned as our representative. We were included and united with Adam in that sin. All me sinned in C even though it was Adam that sinned in A because Adam was our representative.
Paul is bringing in C as a cause of B to help us grasp why A is the cause of B. Why will all men be under the sentence of death because of Adam’s sin? It is because when Adam sinned, we sinned in him and when he died, we died in him.
Our Sins or Adam’s Sins
Paul made a detour in verses 13 and 14 (and verses 15-17) before coming back to complete the Adam-Christ contrast in verse 18.
His aim in these intervening verses is to establish that we truly sinned in Adam and therefore are deserving of the death that came to all men.
Paul argues that before the law was given, sin was already in the world. If it is law that defines sin, how can there be sin in the world before there was any law since sin is not taken into account when there is no law?
If a law must exist before sin can be taken into account and death is the consequence of sin, why were people dying between Adam and Moses? Shouldn’t all the people within that timeframe be innocent and free from death?
Adam sinned against a law (Genesis 2:15-17) and the people from Moses onward sinned against a law. However, why did the people in between Adam and Moses died?
These people died because death came to all men because of Adam’s sin.
Verses 13 and 14 are further confirmation that Paul’s statement – all sinned- is not a reference to our individual sins (our daily sins) but our participation in the sin of our representative – Adam.
If “all sinned” in verse 12 is a reference to our individual sins (daily sins), then Paul would have destroyed his own argument in the next two verses. If this is a reference to individual sins then the people between Adam and Moses should not have died because they did not sin against God’s command like Adam and the people from Moses onward.
The death of these class of people makes sense (in the context of this passage) only if “all sinned” is a reference to our participation in Adam’s sins. When Adam sinned (A), we also participated in that sin because of our union and inclusion with Adam (C). Because of A and C, death came upon all men (B).
The Death of Infants
The fact that infants die is further confirmation that the ‘all sinned’ of verse 12 is a reference to our participation in Adam’s sin rather than our personal sins.
If humans die solely because of their personal sins then why do infants die? Infants have not committed any sin but they die. The death of infants only makes sense if they also participate in the sin of Adam, our representative. Infants die because they (like all of us) sinned in Adam and are under the same sentence of death.
The Effect of the One Man’s Sin
Paul takes a break from his thoughts in verse 12 to explain the relationship between law and sin. He will come back to complete the contrast in verses 18ff. However, he continues to develop his thoughts in verses 15-17.
In both paragraph (verses 15-17 and 18-19), he gave us clearer insights into the effect of the one man’s sin.
Notice these statements:
Verse 15 – If the many died by the trespass of the one man. When Adam sinned and died because of his sin, we died with him. Paul did not use a continuous tense (die) but a past tense (died). We died because of the trespass of one man.
Verse 16 – the judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation. The one sin of Adam was judged and that judgment is condemnation. Notice that the effects of Adam’s sin is not only temporal death. His sin brought condemnation (the opposite of justification).
Verse 17- for if by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man. The sin of Adam led to the reign of death over humanity.
Verse 18- just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men. I do not think there is any way that Paul could make it clearer. The one trespass of Adam resulted in condemnation (a legal term) for all men. No single man is excluded. Every single man is condemned because of Adam’s single trespass.
Verse 19 – just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners. The single disobedience of Adam made all of us sinners. When Adam sinned, his sin was imputed to all of us, making us sinners. We do not become sinners by our sinful actions; we were already made sinners by our identification with Adam. Every descendant of Adam is a sinner just by virtue of that fact.
Paul says unequivocally that the sin of Adam has far-reaching consequences beyond his lifetime. Because of his sin, all of his progenitors died, were made sinners, became condemned, and experience the reign of death.
The consequences of his sins are imparted to us because he was our representative. We were included and united with him in his sin.
Sinners who Sin: Original Corruption
We can divide the effects of Adam’s sin on us into two: original corruption and original guilt.
Original corruption means that we were all born with a corrupted human nature.
Consider some of these texts:
Psalms 51:5: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Psalms 58:3: Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies
Proverbs 22:15: Folly is bound up in the heart of a child
Genesis 6:5: The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time
Genesis 8:21: Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil continually.
Jeremiah 13:23: Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.
2 Timothy 2:25-26: Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
1 Corinthians 2:14: The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.
These sampling of verses show that we inherit a sinful human nature from Adam (because of his fall) which leads us to sin. We are sinners in Adam and then we sin. The corrupt human nature we inherit from Adam leads us to commit our own litany of sins. We sin because we are sinners and our sins are the confirmation of our inherent sinfulness.
We were not born inherently good and God seeking. There are no inherent God-seekers. Romans 3 is very clear that none of us is good and no one seeks after God.
Guilty Sinners: Original Guilt
However, the consequence of Adam’s sin is not limited to the corrupt human nature that leads us to sin. We also share in the guilt of Adam’s sin. Because Adam’s sin is imputed to us, the consequences of his sins – death and condemnation- are also imputed to us.
We saw this already in the verses above (1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5) but another passage corroborates this truth:
Ephesians 2:1-3: And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body[a] and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind
This passage in Ephesians is clear that all mankind are by nature children of wrath. We do not become children of wrath when we commit actual sins; we are children of wrath by the very human nature that we inhabit. The ISV reads, “by nature we were destined for wrath, just like everyone else.”
What about our sins?
Nothing here is meant to minimize our personal sins. We are responsible for our personal sins and God will judge us for those sins (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 for example).
We are guilty for our participation in Adam’s sins as well as our individual sins – it is a ‘both and,’ not an ‘either or.’
However, the point of these texts is to help us understand that our guiltiness before God is not limited to our personal sins; it goes farther to our participation in Adam’s disobedience.
No sinner in hell will be able to contend with God that he is in hell solely because of Adam’s sin. No! Every sinner in hell will be there because of both his sins and his participation in Adam’s sins.
No one will be able to claim that he is not free from sin; even if he can argue that he has never committed any sin (an impossible proposition), his participation in Adam’s sin makes him guilty.
Original Sin and Universalism
Paul only introduced this theological expose of the effects of Adam’s sin to contrast it with the salvation that Christ has brought.
However, we must notice that there are distinctions as well as similarities.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23
In verse 20, we learn that Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. In verse 21, we see that death came through one man and resurrection comes through one man. Verse 22 tells us that this is a contrast between Adam and Christ. We all die in Adam and we will all be made alive in Christ.
However, even though Paul did not introduce any qualification in the case of participation with Adam, he introduced a crucial qualification in the case of participation with Christ.
In verse 23, he emphasizes that it is those who belong to him (Christ) that will be raised to life when he comes. While all humanity are in Adam and participate in the consequences of his sin, not all humanity are in Christ. Only those who belong to Christ will live with him at his coming.
(N.B: Though the wicked will also rise (John 5:28-29), theirs is a resurrection to judgment and damnation and Paul does not have that resurrection in view in this chapter)
A further confirmation of this qualification is in verse 18 – those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Only those who fell asleep in Christ participate in the resurrection life that Christ has purchased.
Similarly, when we come to this section in Romans 5 we see similar qualifications in this contrast between Adam and Christ.
For example, in verse 17, it is those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness that will reign in life through Jesus Christ.
While every man is in Adam as soon as he is born, to be in Christ requires that a person receive God’s provision of grace or gift of righteousness. While our participation in Adam is automatic, our participation in Christ is not.
Faith as an instrument of Justification
There are two heads of humanity – Adam and Christ. Adam is the first man and Christ is the second man (1 Corinthians 15:47). Adam is the head of fallen creation and Christ is the head of the new creation. Adam is the representative of the old humanity and Christ is the representative of the new humanity.
The point of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 is that those who belong to the fallen creation and old humanity represented by Adam partake of the consequences of his disobedience. Because every human being partake of that old humanity and fallen creation (by birth), we are all in Adam. Because we are in Adam, we share his guilt and corruption.
Similarly, those who belong to the new creation and the new humanity represented by Christ partake of the consequences of his passive (death) and active (life) obedience. However, belonging to the new humanity and the new creation is not automatic. Only those who are in Christ are partakers of this new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
To be in Christ, there is need for faith. “But now a righteousness from God apart from the law has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22). “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (3:28)
When Paul affirmed his union with Christ in Galatians 2:20, he comments that he is living the new life of Christ because he lives by faith in the Son of God.
Romans 6 also teaches us that those who are in Christ (who share his death and resurrection) are those who have been baptized into him. (Verses 1-14) No one participates in union with Christ except those who are baptized into Christ Jesus. Again, participation in the life and death of Christ is not automatic.
Similarly, in Ephesians 2:1-10 we see that only those who have received God’s grace through faith are partakers of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
The Body of Christ
Bible writers illustrate the union of believers with Christ with the image of the head and the body (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, 6).
Christ did not claim the whole of humanity as his body; rather, the body of Christ is the church. Those who belong to Christ are the ones who have been called out of this world and into Christ. The church is the invisible, universal community of all who through faith received the gift of righteousness and justification (Romans 5:17-19).
All those who become the sons of God do so through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26).
Those who are God’s people are his chosen people, royal priesthood, and holy nation that he called out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9-10).
While all of humanity are automatically in Adam, only the redeemed people of God (the church) are in Christ.
The idea that the biblical doctrine of original sin leads to universalism shows a gross lack of understanding of what the scriptures teach on this subject.
There are distinctions in the contrast that Paul draws between Adam and Christ. All who are in Adam share in his sin and all who are in Christ share in his obedience. While every man born into this world share in Adam’s sin, only those who believe, and in believing belong to the church of Jesus Christ (invisible universal church), are in Christ. Only those who receive God’s gracious provision and gift of righteousness are in Christ. Therefore, while faith plays no part in union with Adam, it is fundamental in union with Christ.
Rather than teaching that all humanity will be saved, Paul teaches that all who are in Christ receive justification, righteousness, and eternal life because they participate in the death and resurrection of their representative.
God is saving (and will save) people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Revelation 4:9). He does this through the proclamation of the gospel (Revelation 10, 11). We proclaim the gospel exactly because no one is in Christ apart from faith in him. Union with Christ only comes through faith in Christ and faith comes through the proclamation of God’s word (Romans 10: 5-15). God will save an uncountable number of people (Revelation 7:9) but none of them will partake in his kingdom automatically; all those who partake of that kingdom do so through faith in Christ.
Adam as the first man holds a place of importance in Pauline theology. He was the first man, the representative of all humanity. Through his sin and disobedience, death came into the world. However, because he was a federal head (representative of the human race), we fell in him. In a spiritual sense, we were included and united with him when he sin and died.
His sin and death therefore have implications for every man. We sinned in him and because of that, we are born with a sinful and corrupt human nature (original corruption). Also, our participation in his sin makes us guilty, resulting in condemnation and death (original guilt).
In contrast, Christ is the second man, the representative of a new humanity. Through his obedience, righteousness, justification, and resurrection to eternal life has come. For those who are in Christ, they were included and united with him in his passive and active obedience. Therefore, they partake of his righteousness; they are justified and become partakers of eternal life. Unlike Adam, those who are in Christ are believers – they put their faith in his person and work- and belong to his body, the church. While every man belongs to the old humanity, only believers belong to the new humanity.
Therefore, salvation is not automatic. Salvation only comes when a man is united with Christ and that union only comes when they believe. Such faith is the work of God through the working of the Spirit within and the proclamation of the word of God without.
This is why the proclamation of the gospel should be the priority of the church. It is only through this proclamation (in conjunction with the inner work of the spirit) that people come to faith, union with Christ, justification, and eternal life.
May we be faithful to our commission