As I write this, the topic of the week around my house has been federal headship. In rough summary, that is this Christian doctrine:
According to this understanding, as humanity’s federal head Adam brought the entire human race into sin, misery, and death due to his disobedience. Christ, in his perfect obedience to God the Father, earned eternal life and blessedness for all his people.
It’s a thought that first takes root on a personal, concrete level: When Christ died, I died. It identifies us with His death on the cross, but it’s more than an abstract declaration. It has real and genuine effects.
In my case, it brought a bohemian wanderer to fidelity and constancy, an anchorless soul from the upsets of an arbitrary world to the bedrock of final peace. I can name real, concrete transformations in my life.
This leads us to use the Scriptures to reason outward from the immediate evidence, found in comparing conversion accounts against the language of the Bible, toward this: I know I became a saved sinner, and I know it was by choosing to believe in Christ. But how did I become a sinner in the first place?
May I See Your Identification, Please
Federal headship is controversial on two counts. It claims that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all are made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22) Without getting into a wrangle over who goes to heaven or how, there’s an antecedent to the idea that God saves us, and it holds controversy. First, the reference to Adam. Second, the reference to “in Adam.”
The first concern is obvious: The doctrine’s plainest sense suggests a real, historical Adam, which leads many North Americans, though not most of the rest of the world, to flip out completely over the intellectual value of young-earth creationism. This is a concern we try to address regularly at Westman Bible Conference. (In 2009 audio, see Dr. Emil Silvestru’s sessions; in 2010 audio, see Mr. Calvin Smith.) We do so knowing it’s a topic that has only indirect proofs–the beginnings of our universe, our planet and our race are neither observable nor repeatable, and we can’t know–but yet it has direct bearing on the nature of man and the gospel.
The second concern is prepositional in nature. The very small word “in” has particular consequences, depending on how it’s understood.
In human terms, federal headship refers to being part of a nation under a leading body, such as a Parliament, or person, such as a queen. Being a citizen is a legal status that’s conferred.
But in Scripture, the idea of sin and salvation is more than merely legal (and so is the concept of nationality and nations, it’s a matter of birth and family kinship, but that’s another story for another time). To be “in Adam” or “in Christ” is not only a reckoning on a ledger of accounts.
The Ground of Condemnation
In the biblical reading, there are two grounds by which we face condemnation. One is the personal offenses we commit against God; the other is by a very real, more than legal identification with Adam, who chose rebellion against God. Or to put it another way: When Adam chose, I chose.
This is even more offensive to our self-determinist pride than the claim that sin exists. The common cry is, “even if it were true, I wasn’t there. How is it in any way sensible to lay that on the rest of us?”
I wasn’t there.
I didn’t see it.
Don’t lay it on me.
That’s not my problem.
It’s probably not true anyway.
The Nature of the Human Race
Meanwhile, significant forces march on in unceasing attempts to regulate and manufacture a unified human coherence. Israel cried out for a king in the Old Testament: a federal head. We cry out for Empire, or social legislation, for an empowered proletariat, or a Constitution, or the claim of exceptionalism and the right to intervene in the world’s affairs, or even a world federation. At the local level, we exclaim on behalf of “inclusiveness” in an attempt to embrace self and other, beyond and through our own brokenness.
Some part of us recognizes that humanity is made for unity.
The Ground of Unity
Yet, if the idea of federal headship is true, we are already in unity. We are seen by God, and we act as a people, in unity, from the foundation of our race to the last.
When Adam chose, I chose, just as if I had been there. This is a greater, higher concept of real and effectual human unity than anything secular or religious forces can synthesize. Yet the very thing we were created for–essential unity as a race–becomes the ground of our rejection of God, a ground we gladly maintain on a personal level.
We are unified in rejection of this notion of a God who creates and then judges, a God who does not affirm our dire nor our petty crimes, our pride and self-exaltation. The impulse toward unity remains with us, though we can’t see or comprehend how pervasive it is.
The Ground of Choice
Thus we have a God who is all-powerful, yet doesn’t violate the human will. A God who is all-gracious, yet not all go to heaven–regardless of whether we see the ground of condemnation as individualist choice or federal choice, or the combined force of both. The biblical Christian cannot deny these three things: God is omnipotent, individual human choices exist, and not all people trust in Christ.
But we also have a God of love who calls out to humanity and provides a second choice.
“I permitted Myself to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I permitted Myself to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ To a nation which did not call on My name.” (Isaiah 65:1)
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8)
But what does it say? “ The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. (Rom. 10:8-10)
So it is that Christ said very accurately, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” The great unity of humankind, which was created in the beginning and so fractured by sin that we cannot even see it in our fallen state, is restored in Christ. Do you want human unity? You have it already–of one kind or another.
World Unity, False Unity, True Unity
Utopianism would gladly tell us unity is destroyed, or never was, and must be built with or without the consent of the many, for the good of humanity. After all, there are those who know what’s good and right, for they are good and right (see the Law of Whedon on this). We want peace to fit how we conceive of our shattered humanity. So we clothe our villainy.
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. (Eph. 2:13-16)
What we do not want–what we dare not face, for a dark, dark man looks back from that mirror–is a true unity, where humanity is one body, in some mysterious sense one being, with many persons. Better to fabricate a lie that allows us to ignore human nature.
I wasn’t there.
I didn’t see it.
Don’t lay it on me.
I’m good enough on my own.