A Tale of Two Citizens

History revolves around two people: Adam and Jesus. Whereas Adam is the representative for all of humanity by birth, Jesus is the head of a new humanity through adoption. Paul sets up the individuals Adam and Christ as representative, corporate figures to show we’re all held accountable on behalf of someone. [1] None of us are the autonomous island we imagine. Every person is either still lost in Adam or, by God’s amazing grace, they are now found in Christ (the 2nd Adam). We are either citizens of this world’s kingdom through Adam or citizens of heaven through Christ (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49).

Part 1: In Adam

This obviously raises all kinds of questions, which is why Romans 5:12-21 is a daunting passage. Paul’s purpose in this analogy serves the greater, more ultimate purpose of highlighting the glorious work Christ accomplished for us. Just as through Adam we were made unrighteous, in Christ we are made righteous.  The act of the representative is accounted to all those represented.

While most cultures in history and still today have a greater emphasis on corporate responsibility than we do as Americans, we still recognize that there are many examples of how one person represents and affects an entire group.[2] If you’ve ever had “that parent” or “that family member” you know what I mean. A family is affected by the decisions of their leader, as is a tribe, a team, a community, and even a country.

“An analogy…would be congress. Your congressman acts as your representative. The decisions he makes, represent you. On a larger scale, the president is the representative of each in individual in the nation in many ways. For example, if the president declares war on a country, each individual in the United States is considered to be at war with that country—even though we didn’t personally make the declaration of war upon that country. We are considered at war simply by virtue of being a citizen of this country, and thereby having been represented by the president.”[3]

Support For this View

The view has been called the federal representation or the corporate solidarity view. It affirms that the sin mentioned in Romans 5:12d—“because all sinned”—must refer to such a union between humanity and Adam that when Adam sinned we (all men and women) are counted as having sinned in and with him. That key phrase seems to argue that we “all sinned” not in the here-and-now of our lives but in the historic sin of Adam himself.[4]

John Piper writes, “I think the context urges us to conclude that we all sinned in Adam, that his sin is imputed to us, and that universal human death and condemnation is God’s judgment and penalty on all of us because we were in some deep and mysterious way united to Adam and his sinning.”[5] Death spread to all “because all sinned” and that happened through our unity in Adam. Here are a few supporting reasons for this interpretation.

  1. In Rom. 5:12, the universal dominion of death is based upon the fact that all sinned, while in 5:15-19 it is also made clear that death’s dominance is based upon the sin of the one man Adam. These two declarations do not stand in contradiction but arise as a singular truth; they are equivalent in that they must be regarded as one event.[6] All sinned in and when Adam sinned.

“If, then, we are to read v. 12d in light of vv. 18-19…‘all sinned’ must be given some kind of ‘corporate’ meaning: ‘sinning’ not as voluntary acts of sin in ‘one’s own person,’ but sinning ‘in and with’ Adam…The point is rather that the sin here attributed to the ‘all’ is to be understood, in the light of vv. 12a-c and 15-19, as a sin that in some manner is identical to the sin committed by Adam. Paul can therefore say both ‘all die because all sin’ and ‘all die because Adam sinned’ with no hint of conflict because the sin of Adam is the sin of all. All people, therefore, stand condemned ‘in Adam,’ guilty by reason of the sin all committed ‘in him.’ It maintains the close connection between Adam’s sin and the condemnation of all that is required by vv. 15-19, a connection suggested also by I Cor. 15:22—‘in Adam all die.’”[7]

  • The unfinished comparison began in 5:12 is believed to be resumed and completed in 5:18-19. In this comparison, Paul plainly teaches that judgment came on all because of the sin of Adam. Since this is the completion of that which began in v. 12, it seems to be Paul’s own commentary as to what he meant in his statement “all sinned.” 
  • The whole force of this passage rests upon Paul’s usage of this analogy between Adam and Christ to illustrate how we are justified through Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. To take any other interpretation than that Adam represents us through our union with him and that his sin is imputed to us—which led to condemnation and death—undermines his analogy with Christ teaching the doctrine of justification through imputation of righteousness. John Piper helpfully unpacks the analogy by paraphrasing the section:

“Just as through one man sin and death entered the world and death spread to everybody because all sinned in Adam and his sin was imputed to them, so also through one man Jesus Christ, righteousness entered the world and life through righteousness, and life spread to all who are in Christ because his righteousness is imputed to them. The parallel Paul wants us to see and rejoice in is that
just as Adam’s sin is imputed to us because we were in him,
so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us because we are in him.”[8]

This is in line with the biblical drama that from Genesis 3 leaves us longing for a greater Adam, someone who can crush the head of Satan, rescue fallen humanity, and reverse the curse brought on through one man’s sin. Maybe Abraham can be that man. Nope. Is Moses that man? Nope. David? No way. Maybe corporate Israel can be the hope of the world. Nope. As the Bible unfolds the drama builds up to the coming of Christ who is the 2nd Adam, the seed of Abraham, the one greater than Moses, and the true Israel. He comes as man’s redeemer and creates a new humanity through union with him.

As bad as the “bad news” is for us in Adam, it’s no match for the good in the “good news” of the gospel in Christ.

Part 2: In Christ

Adam gave us sin, guilt, and condemnation. In our life, we’ve done nothing but dig the hole deeper by following his example. This is why the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is so important. It’s the doctrine capturing the simple but splendid reality that our only hope for righteousness stands outside of us—in Christ—but can be credited to us through union with him. We aren’t righteous, and won’t be this side of the grave, but Christ is righteous and we become righteous in him. Imputation is “the act in which God counts sinners to be righteousness through their faith in Christ on the basis of Christ’s perfect ‘blood and righteousness,’ specifically the righteousness that Christ accomplished by his perfect obedience in life and death.”[9]

Imputation tells us how justification takes place. God doesn’t declare us righteous apart from us actually being righteous, but we only become righteous through receiving the righteousness of Jesus Christ as our own. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Naked, come to thee for dress; Helpless look to thee for grace.”[10] We come naked, without adequate attire to get us into the banquet, but through the spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness, we garner an honored seat at the head table.

The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness

Paul purposefully painted the bleak picture of being lost in Adam (Rom. 5:12-21) so the gospel counterpart would shine more brightly. When we turn from our sin and place our faith in Jesus Christ we are united to him. Through this union we have “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3) and we receive all that Christ is and has to offer, including his righteousness. “You see that our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches.”[11]

Romans 5:12-21 draws out the parallels and differences between the two key figures of Adam and Jesus. Whereas Adam brought about sin leading to condemnation leading to death, Christ brings righteousness by which we’re justified and enjoy eternal life. Just as Adam’s sin is imputed or reckoned to all united to him so also the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to all those one with him.

This imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us means that we’re now clothed with his perfect righteousness so that when the Father looks at us we are accepted and loved. It’s not that God overlooks our sin but that he forgives our sin. This is “the great exchange” where our sin is imputed to Christ so that he bears our legal penalty and his righteousness is imputed to us so we get his legal reward (2 Cor. 5:21).

Forgiveness of sins isn’t enough. We also must have a righteousness acceptable to God. Forgiveness might get us to the place of “just as if I had never sinned” but imputation carries us to the standing of “as if I had obeyed.” And it is this obedience that gains the approving, affectionate, and accepting welcome of God we call justification. “We are invited to live our whole life under his benediction, his smile, his love.”[12]

This isn’t any sort of “legal fiction” where God declares something to be true that isn’t. It’s a legal transaction where he graciously gives and makes true what’s demanded, namely righteousness. In Christ, God provides what he requires. “Therefore, since God justifies us by the intercession of Christ, he absolves us not by the confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ.”[13]

We see this reaffirmed in Philippians 3:8-9 as Paul considered his own good works as worthless, counting them as nothing “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” There is a righteousness from the law that God demands, and every time we sin our conscience reminds us of both the requirements and our bankruptcy. And yet, the good news of the gospel is that by faith we have this righteousness the law demands, not in ourselves but in the law-keeping Christ.

The very thing that terrifies a sinner, God’s righteousness, becomes by grace the thing a sinner exults in as God’s righteousness is imputed to us through Christ.

Joy in the Good News

This is the solution given and hope offered in Romans 5:15-21. Though sin and death threaten to undo us, through Jesus Christ we overcome. In him justification is our verdict and grace is the new atmosphere we take each breath in. Through faith we’re united to the resurrected Lord and we can ride the coattails of his righteousness—through imputation—all the way to eternity.

To say it again in a slightly different way, if God has set up an individually autonomous world where we live and die on our own two feet than every person who’s sinned once has no hope. But, as bad as the bad news of solidarity in Adam is for our condemnation, there is greater news and a genuine hope because through solidarity in Christ by grace through faith we are justified. If there is no “in him” category for sinners united to their corporate head (Adam) than the Christian is left with no “in him” (Jesus) categories to rest on.

For a Christian, everything we are, everything we have, and everything we hope for is “in Christ.” Romans 5 (and 1 Corinthians 15) uses the truth of our lostness in Adam as the dark backdrop highlighting the glory and beauty of our redemption and life in Jesus.

This is great news. For all those in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation, only justification. We confess our sin and seek to forsake our sin but we rest in Jesus’ obedience to earn God’s eternal favor towards us. Imputation gives a rock-solid hope that when we wake up and when we fall to sleep—and every tick of the clock in-between—we can know God loves us and welcomes us.


[1] The gospel of Matthew also sets up a first Adam versus second Adam theology to demonstrate Jesus’ faithfulness where Adam failed. Notice for example, Matthew 4:1-11 where Jesus submits to the Father’s will and remains obedient in the face of the serpent’s temptation.

[2] Other biblical examples of this might be Abraham representing Israel, David and Goliath representing their respective nations, or the sin of Achan. For one explanation on the fairness of Adam representing humanity, see the video, “Is God justified in punishing us from Adam’s sin?” by R.C. Sproul.

[3] Matt Perman, “Born Guilty,”  <www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/8449/impute.html>

[4] This passage is primarily talking about imputed sin, not original sin. Whereas imputed sin primarily looks at our condemnation and death in Adam, original sin highlights our depravity and corruption linked to the fall of humanity in Adam. Some texts on our depravity through Adam that affects all humanity by nature are: Ps. 51:5; 58:3; Rom. 3:1-21; 6:23; I Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49; Eph. 2:1-3. For an article differentiating imputed sin and original sin, see “What is the Difference Between Original Sin and Imputed Sin?” this one by Matt Perman at desiringgod.or.

[5] John Piper, Counted Righteousness in Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002) 91.

[6] John R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994) 152.

[7] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 326-27.

[8] John Piper, Counted Righteousness in Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002) 93.

[9] John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 42.

[10] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages”.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), III.XI.23: 753-54.

[12] Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, Found in Him (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 140.

[13] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 728.

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