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The Drama of Two Adams

This is the great exchange in this divine drama of the Two Adams: the righteousness of the Second Adam for the sins of Adam’s children. The unspeakable consequence of this great exchange is the justification of many ungodly ones and the condemnation of the Most Holy One to the most cruel punishment—the equivalent of eternal suffering in hell that the ungodly ones should have suffered.

Romans 5:12-21 (text); Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, 14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45
November 21, 2010

Fleeing the Garden of Eden by Gustave Dore

Fleeing the Garden of Eden by Gustave Dore

This may come as a surprise to you, but did you know that all representative types of government are based on covenant theology? And since covenant theology is the framework of all Scripture, doesn’t this mean that representation can be traced back to the Bible?

A federal government such as that of the the United States, Spain and Malaysia is covenantal. This system is based on an agreement or covenant between semi-autonomous states to form a federation with common goals, e.g., to unite different ethnic or language groups, to work together for mutual economic benefits, or to form a strong military alliance. In fact, the word “federal” is a transliteration of the Latin words foedus or foederus, which means covenant. Thus, covenant theology is also known as “federal theology.”

In Scripture, God’s covenant with man is not negotiated because, as the Sovereign Creator, he alone dictates the terms of the covenant. But while God is sovereign, he makes promises to man the creature and to all his creation. In return, man makes vows to obey the terms of the covenant.

All throughout the Bible —from Adam to Christ—this is how God relates to mankind. He chose to make a covenant with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Christ. In all these covenants, he chooses a covenant head who will represent his descendants. Adam and Noah both represented all human beings. Abraham represented his family and his children. Moses represented all Israel in the covenant assembly at Mount Sinai. David as king represented the kingdom of Israel, which God promised will be an everlasting kingdom. Lastly, Jesus represented all those who will come to faith in him as Lord and Savior.

A President or Prime Minister of a country represents all of his people in his actions. When President George Bush declared war on President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, all Americans were at war against all of Saddam’s military forces. When President Benigno Aquino signed an economic pact with the Japanese Prime Minister in which he promised to provide economic help to the Philippines through investments, all Filipinos and Japanese virtually signed the treaty.

This is the system of representation or covenantalism in Scripture. When the covenant head makes a promise to God, the children or the people he represents are also bound by that promise, such as when God made a covenant with Abraham, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7a). And just as God promised to Abraham, “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7b), his overarching everlasting covenant promise to his people is, “I will be your God and you shall be my people” (Jer 30:22). In all of God’s covenants, he promises his people blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. In return, the people make their covenant vow, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exod 24:7).

This covenantal relationship was established by God with mankind as early as with the first Adam in the Garden of Eden until all the Divine-Human covenants were fulfilled with the coming of Christ, the Second Adam. In our study today of Romans 5:12-21, the two Adams as representatives of their peoples and their relationship to God form the introductory and concluding acts of a great Divine Drama in redemptive history. Their actions changed the course of human history, with eternal consequences.

Paul begins our text, as in verse 1, with, “Therefore,” which means that he will now be explaining a previous statement. In verses 12-21, his focus is how is it that Adam’s one act of disobedience consigned all mankind to condemnation, and how Christ’s one act of righteousness brought justification to the people of God. He therefore anticipates objections by his readers against his proclamation, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us [the ungodly]” (Rom 5:8, 6). Paul knew that whoever reads this will be in disbelief to learn that one man’s sin could be credited to the whole world, and one righteous Man could serve as a sacrifice for many sinners. How could this be?

Two Covenants: Law and Grace

Paul begins in the Garden of Eden, where God gave a clear command to Adam; there was no ifs or buts or maybes or loopholes. The law given was, “Don’t do this and you shall die.” The reverse was implied, “Do this and you shall live.” This is why this covenant of creation is also called the covenant of works. The prophet Hosea, in his indictment of Israel’s disobedience, calls it as such, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant” (Hos 6:7).

There was no provision for grace, unlike today when, if a person committed a crime with “extenuating circumstances,” or in the state of “insanity,” he might get a lesser sentence or even be acquitted altogether. Or if a student fails to attain the minimum passing grade by only one to five points, he might get a “Conditional” grade, which means he can retake the final exam for a second chance.

God, on the other hand, did not give Adam a reprieve. There was no extenuating circumstance of the serpent tempting Eve and Eve tempting him to sin. While he was created by God righteous, holy and with true knowledge of God, and also able to maintain his perfect state, he willfully disobeyed God’s covenant. In the spiritual realm, he died right at that moment, his fellowship with God broken and his tenure in the Garden immediately terminated. But in the physical realm, he did get a most gracious reprieve, when God let him live 950 years after his fall into sin. But he died just the same.

Paul says that because of this one man Adam, sin came into the world, corrupting all mankind after him with his sinful nature. Because he is the federal or covenant head of mankind, when he sinned, he represented all human beings—all his descendants. This is why his sin is called original sin.

But it is often objected that this is unfair: How can I be counted as a sinner because of another man’s sin? Those who are not able to rationalize this concept usually fall into two false teachings. The first one was taught by a 4th century theologian named Pelagius, who in his finite mind could not accept this Scriptural teaching. So he taught that every person is born into this world without a sinful nature. Adam’s sin is only his own, and it did not have any effect on his descendants.

Pelagianism still infects the church today. All self-esteem and psychotherapeutic preachers who teach that man is basically good, able to pull himself with his own bootstraps, and exercise faith in himself, are Pelagians. When a book says, “Whoever you are… you have it in you to be secure,” “we can change the way we think,” and “You also possess the God-given free will to choose Christ or not,” it is advocating Pelagius’ false teaching. 1 When you hear Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen and Eddie Villanueva teach that it takes only a strong faith to prosper materially, it is Pelagianism.

Second, many evangelicals who accept original sin contradict their belief when they say it does not apply to babies. How can babies be sinful when they haven’t committed any sin? It is preposterous to say that babies are sinners before they have reached the “age of accountability.” But Scripture says that all mankind have Adam’s corrupted sinful nature. And because all possess this nature that Paul calls “flesh,” all are condemned to death, whether it is before birth, at birth, after 100 years, or even after 969 years, as Methuselah did. If babies are pure without sin in their mother’s womb, why is it that some unborn babies die? If they do not have a sinful nature, they are liable to death only after they commit their first sin, just as Adam was condemned to death only after the Fall. This is why the Psalmist tells us that he was “was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psa 51:5).

Thus, because of Adam’s violation of the covenant of works, the whole world was subjected to the bondage of sin and death. But Paul continues with some seemingly contradictory statements. Earlier, he says, “where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15), and now he repeats this idea, “for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses…” (Rom 5:13-14). If the law was not given until Mount Sinai, how can sin and its consequent penalty of death be present from Adam to Moses?

The key to understanding these words is to remember that Paul is not talking about chronological human history but redemptive history. From the time that Adam sinned, all mankind came under the curse of death. So when Paul says that “death reigned from Adam to Moses,” he is not referring to the period from Adam’s Fall to the lawgiving at Mount Sinai. He was instead referring to people who came under the curse of death through Adam’s disobedience and have no hope of being redeemed from the curse through the Law.

This point becomes clearer when he says that “sin is not counted where there is no law.” Those who are not under the Law are not counted as sinners and are not under the curse of death. Who are not under the Law? These are those who receive God’s grace in Christ, those who are under the covenant of grace. Immediately after Adam sinned, God inaugurated his eternal redemptive plan to save Adam and his progeny from sin and death. Starting in the Garden of Eden and continuing through all of the Old Testament history, God provided animal sacrifices to cover the shame and nakedness of their sin. In the fulness of time, he sent the once-for-all Sacrifice who would fulfill all the shadowy animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin.

All of the Old Testament saints came under the covenant of grace, because they believed in the promised Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the tempter. Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10). Moses “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb 11:26). David believed in God’s promise that he “will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body… and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:12-13). It was by grace through faith in the Federal Head of the covenant of grace that the curse of sin and death over them was broken.

It was Christ’s one act of perfect obedience in his life and death on the cross that brought forgiveness of sin and righteousness to God’s people. In his role as covenant head, his righteousness is being imputed or credited to all those who believe in him.

Two Acts: Disobedience and Obedience

We know that God’s creation was all “very good,” including the first Adam who was created in God’s image. He was created righteous, holy and with knowledge (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10). He was placed in a beautiful, verdant garden with all kinds of beautiful trees and plants from which he also picked all kinds of good fruits to eat. He had most of all Eve, who was his beautiful companion and helpmate, together with all kinds of animals.

But God wanted to confirm him in righteousness, placing him under probation by a covenant of works. And in spite of all these ample provisions, Adam still failed his probation by disobeying God’s command. From eternity, God knew Adam’s willful failure, and in his eternal redemptive plan, he ordained a Second Adam who would come to fulfill what the First Adam failed to accomplish.

Adam truly was a pattern or “a type of the one who was to come.” Like Christ, he was called “the son of God” (Luke 3:38), and was tested by God through the devil, although Christ’s temptation was much more severe—forty days in a barren wilderness, with nothing to eat, and no companions except wild beasts.

In verses 15-17, Paul makes a comparison between Adam and Christ. The first contrast is one man’s disobedience and the other Man’s obedience.

Both of them represented their people in their roles as covenant heads. All people belong to either one of these two covenant heads—either “in Adam” or “in Christ” (1 Cor 15:22). In Adam, all disobeyed God, and in Christ, all did obedience. Paul uses three synonyms—sin, trespass and transgression—in describing Adam’s disobedience. A trespass is a wrong step so as to lose footing, which Paul uses to mean “a violation of God’s moral standard.” Sin is “a departure from divine standards of uprightness.” Transgression is “an act of deviating from an established boundary.” 2 What is common in these three definitions? It is that disobedience is a violation of God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness, which Paul also calls a “[falling] short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

Notice in verse 18 that Paul uses another parallel-contrast: one trespass versus one act of righteousness. What was that one trespass? It is clear that this one trespass was Adam’s one act of disobedience in the Paradise of God. But the “one act of righteousness” is juxtaposed against “one trespass.” So he is referring to Christ’s willing sacrifice on the cross instead of his whole life of perfect obedience, as he says in Philippians 2:8, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Moreover, the two acts are also contrasted qualitatively from the lesser to the higher. Because of God’s abounding grace to many people, he gave Christ’s sacrificial act as a free gift to them (Rom 5:15). This is so different from Adam’s one act of disobedience through which many died. The verdict of condemnation on all mankind came after only one sin, while the verdict of justification was pronounced after innumerable sins by innumerable people throughout the ages after Adam. This free gift is truly God’s superabounding grace to man! No wonder Paul bursts into doxological praise in thinking about God’s free gift of grace and mercy in Christ to disobedient people:

For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:32-33)

And this gift is given to many throughout all the nations, to those who would place their faith in Christ. This Second Adam would be the free Gift himself, because he would be the Mediator of the New Covenant. He would be like Adam’s children in all things, tempted like us, suffer at the hands of men, but would not sin. Because unlike Adam, he would not inherit Adam’s sinful flesh. He would be God’s Son, being conceived by God’s Spirit. Born under the Law, by a human mother, he would fulfill all righteousness and obedience all the way to his death on the cross.

This is why Jesus always said that he came to fulfill the Law and to do the will of his Father who sent him (Matt 5:17; John 4:34; 6:38). As he agonized in the Garden before his death, he kept his obedience to the mission his Father assigned to him, saying, “not as I will, but as you will.” No one took his life away from him unwillingly, but like a Lamb at the slaughterhouse, willingly laid it down for our sake.

The disobedience of Adam and the obedience of Christ led to opposite results for the whole human race.

Two Judgments: Condemnation and Justification

Paul contrasts the consequences of the acts of Adam and Christ: disaster for Adam’s sin and the free gift of redemption from Christ’s righteousness. The first contrasting consequences are condemnation through Adam and justification through Christ.

God’s gracious gift to many in the obedience of Christ was so much more than the result of Adam’s one act of disobedience. Justification came after many trespasses while condemnation was brought down on all mankind after one trespass. All of Paul’s previous explanations from verses 12-17 are summarized in verse 18, where he begins again with the word “Therefore”: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”

As the head of the first covenant, the First Adam represented all mankind, without exception. The guilt of his sin resulted in the condemnation of “all men”—the whole world. Likewise, as the head of the second covenant, the Second Adam represented “all men”—those for whom he died—God’s elect. The two instances of “all men” here refer to distinctly different groups; they have to, or else Paul is teaching the error of universal salvation (cf 1 Cor 15:22). The whole human race was condemned, not because they committed a sin like Adam after they were born without sin, but by virtue of Adam’s transgression. All of God’s elect are justified, not because they follow Christ’s example of obedience, but by virtue of Christ’s obedience. This is called imputation—being counted as condemned or justified, or being credited with sin or righteousness.

Earlier in Chapter 4, Paul uses Abraham as an example of imputation of righteousness through faith, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (verse 3). But imputation is in both directions, our sin being counted to Christ, who knew no sin, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

This is the great exchange in this divine drama of the Two Adams: the righteousness of the Second Adam for the sins of Adam’s children. The unspeakable consequence of this great exchange is the justification of many ungodly ones and the condemnation of the Most Holy One to the most cruel punishment—the equivalent of eternal suffering in hell that the ungodly ones should have suffered.

Two Eternal Results: Death and Life

The second contrasting results from the Two Adams are eternal death in Adam and eternal life in Christ.

When Adam sinned, he was condemned to die. He did not die immediately, but spiritually, his intimate fellowship with God in the Garden was broken. His nature was changed from a righteous and holy creature to an unrighteous and unholy man. And all of the human race sinned with him, was guilty with him, and died with him. We are all dead in trespasses and sins, unable and unwilling to come to God because of our bondage to sin (Eph 2:1, 5; 4:18; Rom 3:10-12). The gospel of Christ is foolishness and an offense to our depraved minds (1 Cor 2:14).

Benjamin Franklin’s satirical proverb is true, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Death is certain for every living thing on this earth, unless Christ returns before it happens. From the moment of our conception, the process of dying starts. We can ignore it, sanitize it, call it “passing away” or “going to be with the Lord,” but for all of us, it brings almost inconsolable sorrow and gloom. Although our sins are not like that of Adam, we are still counted as sinners who are condemned to die.

Universal corruption, sickness, death, suffering and disasters are the hideous consequences of Adam’s one trespass. The whole creation groans under the curse of sin and death, waiting for its redemption (Rom 8:20-23). We long for the day when God himself “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4).

But Paul again points us to another great contrast. In Romans 5:15, the contrast is God’s abounding gift of Christ’s one sacrifice that is worth so much more than Adam’s one trespass. In verse 17, the contrast is how much more superior is the power and dominion of life through Christ over the reign of death in Adam. When Christ came after the old covenant of Law under Moses, he conquered both sin and death by his resurrection from the grave, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55)

Because he has conquered the reign of sin and death in those who are ungodly and dead in trespasses, Christ now reigns in righteousness in us, leading us to eternal life, “as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:20). Eternal life is so much more than just an indestructible, incorruptible body, but includes all the treasures and blessings of heaven. Through the obedience of Christ, we who were filthy, poor and wretched have now become clothed in pristine robes, “filthy” rich, and a delight to God. What abounding grace!


Friends, the divine-human drama of Two Adams is for your benefit. You are a sinner because the disobedience of the First Adam is counted to you. But by God’s abounding grace, he gives the free gift of the perfect obedience of Christ the Second Adam. And this free gift is given through faith in Christ which frees you from the tyranny of sin and death.

To those of you who have faith in Christ, may this abounding grace always bring you to awe, reverence and thankfulness before God! And because the righteousness of Christ has been credited to you, live as those who are godly and righteous before God.

To those of you who have not received this abounding grace, may it bring you to your knees so that Christ could bring you up to heaven by the free gift of his salvation from sin and death. And because it is only by faith in Christ that God will credit his righteousness to you, you can rest from striving to be self-righteous to earn the treasures of heaven. Amen.


  1. Beth Moore, So Long, Insecurity (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2010), back cover, 241-2.
  2. W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). trespass” (paraptoma), 770; “sin” (hamartia), 50; “transgression” (parabasis), 758.



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