This study will look at the teaching Paul gives when he describes Jesus as the last Adam, who reversed the work of the first Adam. It will also look at the doctrine of original sin which states that people do not become sinners by performing sinful acts, but are born into a sinful state as descendants of Adam.
In Paul’s understanding, all men who are not in union with Christ are sinners, whether they are Jew or Gentile. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). This sinful state is traced back to Adam and the fall of mankind (Gen 3). Adam and Christ are presented by Paul as the heads of two contrasting groups of humanity, in which Adam represents all of fallen mankind, while Christ represents all of redeemed mankind. Although Paul only makes a limited number of references to Adam, this contrast with Christ lies at the heart of his theology. For Paul, redemption is being transferred between two realms of existence, salvation from being “in Adam”, to being “in Christ”.
The two main passages where the work of Adam is contrasted with that of Christ are in his letters to the Corinthians and Romans (1 Cor 15, Rom 5). The background for both of these passages are the creation and fall narratives (Gen 2-3), where Adam was the first created human being. The description of Jesus as the last Adam is unique to Paul’s writing (1 Cor 15:45,47).
Adam as a historical figure
In the places in the NT where Adam is mentioned, he is consistently considered to be a historical person. Jude describes Enoch as being the seventh generation from Adam (Jude 14), which matches the genealogies in Genesis (Gen 5), and Luke includes him in his genealogy of Jesus (Lk 3:38). It would be difficult to bring a consistent argument that Adam should be considered as a mythical figure, while others in the genealogy were historical figures. We would be left with the impossibility of determining at what stage in the genealogy did Luke change from mythical figures to historical persons.
Paul describes Adam as a “type” of Christ (Rom 5:14). A type was a person, object or event in the OT which was real to the people at the time, but one which in some way prefigured the person or work of Christ. To be a true type, it is necessary for it to be something that was real in history, otherwise it becomes merely a symbol. If Adam was only a mythical figure, it would severely weaken the contrast and analogy made with the truly historical person of Christ.
The name “Adam” in the OT is the Hebrew word for “man”. In the OT, the context needs to be considered when determining whether it is referring to mankind in general, or Adam in particular. But in Paul’s writing, Adam becomes representative of all mankind, as all of unredeemed humanity are identified with him. In this way Adam is all of mankind, as the meaning of his name suggests.
1 Corinthians 15
In this chapter, Paul addresses the doubts that some in the Corinthian church had about the future resurrection of the believers. For Paul, this is the same as doubting the reality of the physical resurrection of Jesus, as Jesus was the first-fruits of those to be raised. He uses the contrast between Adam and Christ at two places in his discussion (15:20-22, 15:44-49). In both places the analogy is strongly eschatological, contrasting Adam and his fall with the final work of Christ of the bodily resurrection of believers at the consummation of the kingdom.
In the first passage he describes Christ as the first-fruits of those who have are raised (15:20-22). Both death and resurrection came through a human being, death through Adam and resurrection through Christ. All those who are in Adam will die, and all those who are in Christ will be raised. Death was the penalty for the first sin, for disobeying God’s command, and eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). This death would include both spiritual and physical death. Adam’s sin brought disaster not only on himself, but on all his descendants. Paul repeatedly states that death and resurrection came through a man. This implies that Christ was just as much as man as Adam was, thus affirming the truth of the incarnation of Jesus. It was right that if sin came in through a man that redemption also came through a man.
The two Adams act as the head of two groups of humanity. Just as Adam’s sin brought great consequences of evil on the rest of mankind, so the work of Christ brought even greater consequences of good to all those to believe in him. Adam was the physical ancestor of the whole human race, while Christ was the spiritual ancestor of all those who have come into spiritual union with him through faith.
We should note that these verses do not mean that Paul is teaching universalism, that in the end every human being will be saved. Instead we need to define what it means to be “in Adam” or “in Christ”. All human beings are “in Adam” through natural physical birth. Genetically, all of humanity is descended from Adam, so they inherit his sinful state. However people only can become “in Christ” by new birth, being born of the Spirit, or born again (Jn 3:7). It is only those who are “in Christ” that will be eschatologically raised into eternal life.
In the second passage he contrasts the first and last Adam (15:44-49). Adam was a physical man, a man of dust, created from the earth to become a living being (Gen 2:7), who is contrasted with the man of heaven. We humans bear the image of the man of dust (Adam) because we are part of God’s physical creation and are descendants of Adam. By contrast, Christ is the spiritual man, who became a life-giving spirit, and was raised into a spiritual body as the man of heaven. Christ is now present with his church in the presence of the Holy Spirit, through whom we can be regenerated as a new creation. The great hope for the believer is that if we are in Christ we will bear his image as the man of heaven. We should note that the aspect of the work of Jesus as being a life-giving spirit cannot be parallelled in the life of Adam. The benefits brought by Jesus are far greater than the negative effects of the actions of Adam, thus stretching the analogy between Adam and Christ.
We should note that Paul never specifically describes Jesus as the “second Adam”, instead he uses terms such as “the second man” (15:47), or the “last Adam” (15:45). The term “last Adam” would show that there are no further heads of humanity to be expected in the future, implying that the work of Jesus was final and complete.
Romans chapter five comes as an important section in Paul’s argument in the Book of Romans. By this point in the book, he has shown that all people, whether Jew or Gentile, deserve the wrath of God. Then he shows that God has provided a way of salvation through grace, not through the law. In the second part of chapter five, he explains how the work of one man, Jesus Christ, was sufficient to deal with the problem of sin. The sin that was brought into the world by the one man (Adam) has been dealt with by the one man (Jesus). Jesus could take the place of Adam to become the last Adam only because he was able to reverse the effects of Adam’s fall, and become the founder of a new humanity. Jesus was abundantly more able to overcome the effects of Adam’s sin. The reign of sin and death has been completely overcome and replaced by the reign of grace, righteousness and eternal life (5:17,21). Paul’s intention in this passage is to show that the power of Christ is far more than sufficient to undo the work of Adam. He begins by assuming general knowledge of the universal effects of Adam’s sin.
This passage has been extremely influential in the development of Christian theology, as it gives an explanation of the origin of sin, and how it was dealt with. Paul looks back to Adam to explain how sin and death entered the world and the hopeless condition of mankind that resulted from the fall. He contrasts the actions of Adam and Christ, who are seen as the heads of two families. Adam’s disobedience resulted in sin and death for all his descendants, who are the whole of humanity. By contrast, Christ’s obedient act of righteousness resulted in righteousness and life for all those who put their faith in him. All the bad things that happened as a result of Adam’s disobedient action are far more than compensated for through the selfless act of Jesus. Each negative aspect of Adam’s action was countered by a positive action of Jesus. Adam was disobedient, while Jesus was obedient; Adam’s act led to condemnation, while Jesus’ act led to justification; and finally Adam’s disobedience led to death, while the obedience of Jesus led to life. Sin and its evil effects were far more than surpassed by the free gift of God’s grace made available through Christ. Christ has far more power to save than Adam had power to ruin. This is emphasised by Paul’s use of the phrase “much more surely” (5:15,17), and verbs such as “abounded” (5:15) to describe the work of Christ.
Adam is described as a “type” of Christ (5:14), the only character in the OT who is explicitly described in this way. Adam, as the first man, is the counterpart of Christ, who is the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45). Thus, Christ has similarities with Adam, but is also contrasted with him. Both are heads of humanity, whose actions affected all those in union with them, but Christ totally reversed the work of the first Adam.
In this passage Paul explains how sin and death entered the world, but gives no explanation of how it is transmitted down the generations. Paul affirms that Adam was initially responsible for introducing sin into the world, but he also holds each individual responsible for the presence of sin in our lives. This is a paradox, in which both universal and personal guilt have to be held in tension. The paradox is seen in when Paul states that sin and death came through one man, and death spread to all because all have sinned (5:12), and that the many were made sinners through Adam’s disobedience (5:19).
Transmission of Adam’s fall in other Jewish writings
The concept of the sin of Adam and death being transmitted to all his descendants is also found in various Jewish writings in the Apocrypha. The Wisdom of Solomon was written about 100 BC, and has similarities with Proverbs. This notes that mankind was created immortal, but death entered the world at the beginning and is passed down to all: “For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devils’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24). The Book of 2 Esdras, which was written around AD 100, is an apocalypse which claims to be by the Old Testament person of Ezra. The writer also blames Adam for the current sinful state of mankind: “O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants.” (2 Esdras 7:118). Ben Sirach, the writer of Ecclesiasticus, about 180 BC, blamed Eve for bringing sin into the world: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” (Ecclesiasticus 25:24).
The Book of 2 Baruch, also known as the Apocalypse of Baruch was probably written later in the first century, but claimed it was by the Baruch, who was Jeremiah’s secretary in the sixth century BC. It is classified as one of the pseudepigrapha, the false writings, which were not included in the twelve books of the apocrypha. In this there is similar teaching about the sin of Adam as found in Paul’s writing:
“For though Adam first sinned
And brought untimely death upon all,
Yet of those who were born from him
Each one of them has prepared for his own soul torment to come,
And again each one of them has chosen for himself glories to come.” (2 Baruch 24:15)
“Adam is therefore not the cause, save only of his own soul,
But each of us has been the Adam of his own soul.” (2 Baruch 24:15)
These writings would indicate that Paul’s understanding of the transmission of the sin of Adam to all of mankind was also found in wider Jewish thought. However, Paul develops this concept to a far deeper level, and uniquely sees it being reversed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The concept of corporate solidarity
Both these passages in Paul’s letters show the great contrast between being “in Adam” or “in Christ”. Each individual human being is to be identified with either Adam or Christ, in union with either one or the other. This is a concept known as “corporate solidarity”, or “corporate personality”. This was a familiar concept in the Old Testament, as the identification of every individual as part of a group, normally the head of that group. The Hebrew way of thinking, like that in many modern eastern cultures, was more corporate, in contrast to the western individualistic way of thinking. This makes the idea of corporate solidarity difficult to understand, as it can appear to be unjust or unfair to western minds.
In the OT we see that the actions of an individual had an effect on the whole group. For example, the Israelites under Joshua were unable to capture the city of Ai because of the sin of Achan (Josh 7:25). The disobedience of one individual caused defeat for the whole nation. Jesus held the current generation of Pharisees guilty and responsible for their actions of their ancestors who had shed the blood of the righteous (Mt 23:35-36). This solidarity is particularly the case with the actions of the head of the group. The way God dealt with the group depended on the actions of their head. In a positive manner, even after the sinfulness of Solomon, God continued to keep his covenant with the nation of Judah because of the faithfulness of David (1 Kg 11:34). God defended the city of Jerusalem from the Assyrians for his own sake and for the sake of his servant David, even three hundred years after his death (2 Kg 19:34). Conversely, in a negative way, God sent famine on the land for three years because Saul had broken the covenant made with the Gibeonites several hundred years earlier (2 Sam 21:1-6, Josh 9:15).
In the passages in Romans and Corinthians, both Adam and Christ as described as being the head of two contrasting groups of humanity. All people are in union with either Adam or Christ as their head. The sinful action of Adam affected not only himself, but the whole of humanity descended from him, and the righteous act of Christ is transmitted to all those who put their faith in him. Natural people are described as being “in Adam”, and redeemed people are “in Christ”. Adam is the head and representative of the old race, and Christ is the head and representative of the new eschatological humanity. Those in Adam are in bondage to sin and death, while those in Christ are enjoying the new age of the Spirit, which is characterised by freedom and life. People do not become sinners merely by performing sinful acts, but are born sinners in Adam. This is known as the doctrine of “original sin”.
As just noted, this doctrine states that all human beings are born as sinners, inheriting the sinful state from Adam, because of his act of rebellion against God in Genesis 3. This means that people are not born innocent. Instead, a sinful nature is passed down the generations, starting from Adam, and passing to all his descendants. This explains why Paul could say that,“by nature we are children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). All of humanity deserves God’s wrath, and this can only be removed through receiving forgiveness through Jesus, because he took God’s wrath on himself on the cross.
The debate over original sin
In the western church, the doctrine of original sin was consistently taught. There was less emphasis on it in the eastern church. One of the first to teach it was Ambrose, who said that all Adam’s descendants enter the world tainted by sin, so “Adam perished and in him we all perished.” (Latourette, page 177). Ambrose was followed by Tertullian and Cyprian, but the person who developed the doctrine, and most vigorously taught it, was Augustine. This was probably partly based from his own experience of receiving the grace of God after his sinful earlier life. He taught that Adam made a deliberate choice to sin and rebel against God’s will, pridefully placing himself at the centre to do his own will. The sin of Adam led to a degradation to a lower level of being, which is passed on to all his descendants. All have a tendency to sin and guilt before God, which we can only be rescued from by the grace of God through Jesus, who was born without sin, lived a sinless life, and died in our place. Augustine also used the doctrine of original sin to support the baptism of infants, claiming that baptism would remove the taint of original sin, which had been inherited from Adam.
Original sin was denied by Pelagius, leading to a vigorous debate and argument between him and Augustine, and causing lasting divisions in the church. Pelagius was a British monk, probably originally from Ireland. When he came to Rome around AD 400, he was shocked at the low moral behaviour he observed there. He reacted against the teaching of Augustine, which tended to emphasise God’s work in salvation, and which to Pelagius appeared to deny man’s free will. Pelagius believed that although most men were bad, they could improve themselves if they exercised their free will and made the effort. He taught that sin was following the example of Adam, rather than inheriting his sinful state, thus denying the doctrine of original sin. All that was required for people to improve themselves was faith and personal effort, claiming that the grace of God was expressed through natural human qualities.
The teaching of Pelagius was spread aggressively by one of this followers called Celestius, who was a lawyer, also from Ireland, who became a monk. He taught that Adam was created mortal, and would have died even if he had never sinned, thus denying that death was the consequence of sin. Adam’s sin only affected himself, and was not transmitted to the rest of the human race. People were born innocent and sinless, like Adam was before his fall, so unbaptised infants would have eternal life. He even claimed that the people could attain entry to heaven by keeping the law, so people in the OT could live sinless lives.
Augustine stood strongly against the teaching of Pelagius, as he saw it made God’s grace unnecessary and undermined the whole message of salvation. Pelagianism was finally condemned by the Catholic church, but the argument between divine sovereignty and man’s free-will continued through the history of the church with greater or lesser intensity, and still continues today.
The comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ lies at the heart of Paul’s theology, and is at the centre of the Christian Gospel. This is also the basis of the doctrine of original sin, that all mankind is born “in Adam”, and share his sin and condemnation, which can only be avoided by responding by faith in the gospel of grace, and becoming “in Christ”. However, the doctrine of original sin has been, and still remains, a controversial subject in the church.
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