Are we sinners because we sin, or do we sin because we are sinners? We sin because we are sinners. As the old rhyme has it, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Or, as Paul puts it, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Rom. 5:12) And, lest you conclude that “because all sinned” refers to the sins we’ve all committed, Paul continues, “many died through one man’s trespass … For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation …” (Rom 5:15, 16) Adam was our representative. We are implicated in his actions. He stood in the garden innocent. He could disobey and fall under sin’s curse, or he could obey and become righteous. To grasp the full work of the gospel, it is important to make the distinction between fallen, innocent, and righteous. Jesus does not make us innocent. He makes us righteous. And to understand how that is, we need to explore Jesus as second Adam.
Second and Last Adam
In 1 Cor. 15:47, we read, “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.” (1 Cor 15:47 ESV) Adam and Jesus are being contrasted. One, Adam, is described as the first man, which is, of course, apropos. But Jesus is called the “second man”. It is clear that many, many men lived and died before Jesus came. So, how is it that he is second? Before we answer that, let’s consider 1 Cor. 15:45, just two verses earlier, where Paul wrote, “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Cor 15:45 ESV) Here, we find that these two are described a little differently. Adam is still called the first man. But Jesus is called the “last Adam.” I have a cousin named Adam, so clearly this isn’t referring to the last person bearing that name. If we take into account Rom. 5:14, we’ll get a sense of what is meant by “Adam” here. The first Adam was a type of the second Adam, Jesus Christ. There was a pattern in place. Both men would serve as representatives. What we find in these two verses from 1 Corinthians is that Jesus is the second man and the last Adam. If one and the same person is both second and last, there are only two!
There are only two representatives. Everyone descending from Adam by natural generation are born sinful, because Adam represented them in his fall. This is why the Psalmist said, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5 NIV) He was not reflecting on the conditions of his conception, but on the fact that he was descended from Adam. We “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind,” because we were implicated in Adam’s transgression (Eph 2:3 ESV).
But Jesus is also a representative. His actions also had an echo. Paul explains in Romans 5:12-21:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 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. 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5:12–21 ESV)
Judgment followed one trespass (Adam’s) and brought condemnation. But the free gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. One trespass led to condemnation for all men. But one act of righteousness (Jesus’) leads to justification and life for all men. Clearly this latter “all” does not mean ‘all without exception’, since he goes on to say, “by the one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” But the key thing to pick up on is the representation in view. Adam was a representative. All men, descending from him by ordinary generation, are represented by him, and therefore born guilty. We sin because we inherited the nature of a sinner. But Jesus is also a representative. Many, all who embrace the gospel through repentance and faith, are represented by him. His obedience is given to these just as truly as Adam’s sin was passed along to them.
And that is critical to understand. Jesus did not merely take our sins upon himself and pay the penalty that we deserved. He did that, to be sure. But there was a double transfer.
Our sins were transferred to him. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:24 ESV) “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 ESV) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal 3:13 ESV). But his righteousness was transferred to us. He does not bring us back to the garden, innocent, where we might go to the right or to the left. All of his righteousness is given to us, so that we stand before God, not innocent, but righteous. And we have that righteousness already, as we are seated with him now (Eph. 2:6).
Our whole lives are spent striving to live up to this wonderful truth, that we’ve been declared righteous in God’s sight, only for the righteousness of Jesus Christ applied to our account. We strive to be what we are. We strive to live a life worthy of the calling we’ve received. But our striving is in response to the grace we’ve been shown. It contributes nothing to that grace, or it wouldn’t be grace.