In our first post, we considered the bad news of federal headship, that we are fallen “in Adam” and under God’s curse because of Adam’s failure. The primary reason Paul wants us to grasp the covenantal solidarity we have with Adam as our federal head is that Adam “was a type of the one who was to come” (Rom. 5:14). Charles Hodge writes: “As Adam was the head and representative of his race, whose destiny depended on his conduct, so Christ is the head and representative of his people. As the sin of Adam was the reason for our condemnation, the righteousness of Christ is the reason for our justification.”1
All the riches of God’s grace flow, necessarily and freely, through the channel of “one man Jesus Christ” and his “one act of righteousness” (Rom. 5:15–19). The perfect motives, thoughts, words, and deeds of Christ, crowned by His obedient death (Phil. 2:8), together constitute the free gift of grace that overwhelmingly pays the deadly wage of Adam’s sin. “For 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” (Rom. 5:17).
His “act” is the irrevocable ground of our justification, and its reward is life. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (v. 18). By His obedience, “the many will be made righteous” (v. 19; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). Those who were “made sinners” by virtue of Adam’s sin are constituted and appointed as righteous by virtue of Christ’s obedience. Faith in Christ solves our personal “sin” problem, but importantly, it does so by radically solving our “parent problem,” our “in Adam problem.” “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17, emphasis added). All the saving blessings of God to us are rooted in the external, objective, representative glory of Christ and His obedience.
These categories of federal representation and imputation are critical for a proper understanding and experience of the Christian life. All the favor of God and the riches of grace are sealed to us through our union with our righteous Lord and the imputation of His obedience to us. Streams of gospel comfort flow from the fountain of federal headship.
The Gospel Comfort of Federal Headship
A grasp of the federal nature of our crisis in Adam will bring our incessant legalist tendencies to a screeching halt. If we think of our problem primarily as a personal, private failure to keep God’s law, our pride (and the devil) will encourage us to try harder and do better. But once we understand that we are on the wrong side of the divine law and subject to condemnation not only for our own sin but because of Adam’s sin, all hope in self-effort is lost. No matter how hard we try to “do better,” we can’t change our spiritual lineage any more than we can change our physical ancestry. No amount of moral effort can remove us from Adam’s curse. We simply cannot, by any means, rescue ourselves. We are entirely dependent upon what only God can do—rescue us from all the devastation of Adam’s fall by giving us a new federal head with all the grace and righteousness and life that comes from His obedient work.
This is the “good news” of the gospel. What neither the law nor we could do, “God has done . . . by sending his own Son” (Rom. 8:3, emphasis added).
A grasp of the federal foundation of our salvation does wonders for the assurance of a struggling Christian. If we conceive of our problem primarily in personal, moral terms—even though we may believe that God in Christ has set us free, the fact is that we won’t feel free—particularly when we sin. The gospel won’t feel like a radical deliverance. As long as our gaze is fixed inward, we will struggle to find joy in the presence of ongoing weakness and sin.
But if both our problem and our deliverance are by means of external representation and imputation, then our confidence has sure ground on which to stand. Just as the most critical realities of our lives were once determined by Adam, now they are determined by Christ. We have been set free from the law of sin and death because we are no longer in Adam. No longer under condemnation but justified. No longer dead but alive. The obedience of Christ has been imputed to us and, on that sure basis, God declares us righteous. In place of death there is eternal and everlasting life. No matter how weak our faith or how stained our moral record, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). We have been born again to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3). “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Praise God, it’s all true. Let us rest our Christian comfort and joy on the rock of the external, federal gospel that Paul preached.
- Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (1835; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1989), 162. ↩︎