That’s Not Fair!

  • Nathan Schneider

There’s a certain temptation on all our parts toward a certain level of anxiety over what’s going on around us. As a Christian, I observe daily the issues going on in society, in politics, and in the church at large, and I am troubled by the moral and theological trajectories I see. I don’t think I stand alone in this, either, and if we were to go back and count the number of posts written by myself and others here on the Christ and Culture Blog, I’m sure a good majority of them would reflect this concern. There’s a pastoral duty I have to observe the culture, analyze it thoughtfully in view of a biblical worldview, and instruct the body on how we should understand what’s going on in light of the conflicting realities presented by the competing worldviews.

However, there’s also a time to step back from the doom-and-gloom cultural analysis and bring some encouragement and some accountability to each of us. The life of the Christian is not always “us against the world.” Sometimes, it’s “us against ourselves.” Granted, even that angle can be driven by cultural and worldview “seepage” into our minds, which is why we need to take a step back and not only recognize how bad the culture has become (and will continue until the Lord returns), but even more so, ask ourselves, “How has that culture influenced me in how I think and live, even in ways I find difficult to perceive?”

One of the perennial attitudes that Christians have been tempted to have, which I believe is influenced by an overly individualized western (and particularly, American) society, is a wrongheaded conception of “fairness.” Now, when we define that term in the general, it simply means “the quality of treating people equally or in a way that is right or reasonable.” We could couple that term with the word “equity,” which refers to fairness or justice in the way people are treated. These terms have begun to surface more regularly in light of the social justice movement, and have often been wrongly equated with the concept of “equality,” but that’s a whole other discussion.

In fact, the accusation of “unfairness” on God’s part goes back quite a ways and involves several biblical truths, but I would say one of the central doctrines of Scripture which often comes into the crosshairs is the doctrine of federal headship. Simply put, federal headship asserts that Adam stood before God as the representative head of all humanity. Thus, “when Adam sinned, he represented all people; therefore, his sin is reckoned to his descendants” (MacArthur and Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine, 464).

Now, as you can imagine, that assertion doesn’t sit well with people. It might not sit well with you. After all, neither you nor I were present in the garden. As far as the biblical evidence is concerned, there were only two human beings present. Our sense of individual justice, enshrined so clearly in the United States Constitution and the respective system of justice of our nation, seems to rub against the notion that a person could be held guilty for something they did not individually participate in. In fact, the debate raging in our nation over social justice versus individual justice stems from a decided political shift away from individual justice and towards a group-form of justice which holds people guilty for being associated with a particular social group and class, whether or not they are individually responsible for the actions that group committed. However, it should be recognized very clearly that the concept of social justice is not the same as federal headship.

When we stop and simply consider the biblical data, it’s quite clear that everyone who is alive comes into this world already under condemnation. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:3 that “we were by nature children of wrath,” and then adds by way of extension, “like the rest of mankind.” The very phrase “by nature” is indicative of our status, referring to the idea of origin or descent. Harold Hoehner comments on this, “We were, because of our ancestors, children of wrath. It is the natural endowment or condition inherited from our ancestors, particularly from Adam…that brings wrath” (Hoehner, Ephesians, 323).

We get an even better understanding of this federal (i.e., representative) relationship when we consider Paul’s lengthy but significant discussion of the issue in Romans 5:12-21. In verse 12, Paul asserts, “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…” Now, there’s more Paul’s going to say, but it should be pretty obvious that there was a single source through which sin and death entered the world, and every person has been affected by this. “All have sinned,” Paul says, “and fall short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). But lest one think that Paul is simply thinking of individual and personal sin—that death simply spread because people sinned out of the bad example given to them by Adam and that death spread as a result of personal sin—Paul goes on to say in verse 18 that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men.” So really, what Paul is saying here is exactly what he asserts in succinct form in 1 Corinthians 15:22, when he says, “For as in Adam all die…”

So how can all humanity who come from the one man Adam be held guilty for his sin? How is this “fair”? Well, it all has to do with the idea of imputation. To “impute” means to legally reckon or forensically transfer one person’s sin or righteousness to another. In the case of Adam, federal headship teaches that Adam stood as the legal representative for the entire human race. His disobedience, then, was imputed—legally reckoned and forensically transferred—to his descendants. Thus, they did not have to be physically present or actively involved in Adam’s sin in order to be considered guilty. Their guilt—our guilt—is based on Adam’s rebellion. Our first father was a rebel. As children of Adam, we then are considered by God to all be rebels.

Once again, that biblical teaching—clearly revealed in the Bible—is the source of consternation among many. How can this be fair and just? Well, one answer we can give is what the prophet Isaiah said concerning God’s offer of abundant grace and mercy for sinners: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares Yahweh. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9). That is to say, whatever we formulate in terms of “fairness” on a human level cannot be used as a way of judging the transcendent justice of God.

But really, when we think hard about this, we can’t escape the fact that this was not just an acceptable plan, but was actually an “eminently benevolent” plan, as one person has described it. It was the most benevolent act God could have done. Because, as S. Lewis Johnson has said, “And the result, by virtue of what Adam has done, is that God had to inflict upon Adam the penalties of the broken Covenant, but by virtue of that plan, it was possible for God to deal with men by another mediator; the last Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

You see, in our immediate, knee-jerk response to the idea of Adam somehow representing us in his sin, we forget that there’s another half of the equation. Just consider the rest of the passage of Romans 5:12-21—

12 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.

To put it another way, federal headship is a divinely balanced spiritual equation. Sin, condemnation, and death through one man on one side of the equal sign; grace, righteousness, and life through another man on the right side of the equal sign. Or, as Paul succinctly puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” A balanced spiritual equation. It’s that equation that makes the great exchange of the gospel possible:

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 Corinthians 5:21)

So in reality, there’s more to the issue than simply the guilt of humanity in Adam. If we reject God’s plan in how he chose to deal with us through the headship of Adam, then we must necessarily also reject God’s plan to deal with us through the headship of Christ, who came to deal with the guilt incurred and imputed to us from Adam. If it’s too much for God to consider us guilty for Adam’s sin, then it’s also too much for God to consider us righteous for Christ’s obedience. As S. Lewis Johnson again notes,

“So without representation in the fall in the Garden of Eden, the safety of the race would always be contingent forever; some standing longer than others perhaps…. And if we cannot sin in another; that is, if it’s against the will of God for us to sin in Adam, then how can we be redeemed by another? And so the principle of representation is at the heart of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and God in his marvelous wisdom has set men in the Garden of Eden representatively, and through his infinite planning, he determines to redeem the people of God by the same principle of representation, the Lord Jesus standing as the head of the people of God…. You know, I can see as I think about this, that this is a marvelous manifestation of the wisdom and grace of our great God, and so I thank God for the fact, as the apostle says it, “There is therefore now, no condemnation to those who are in Christ.” That’s what “in Christ” means. We are in him who is our federal head, and God has in his wonderful grace, made it possible for men who fell in Adam to have the life that is the life indeed.” (S. Lewis Johnson)

God’s thoughts are, indeed, not our thoughts, and his ways are, indeed, much higher than our own. And thank the Lord for that, lest we each be required to stand alone with no one to represent us before the Judge of all men.