The late Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The question is: what is the explanation of this astounding and awesome fact of universal death? How is the universal reign of death even before and apart from any actual and conscious transgression of the law to be explained?
To understand this question and its solution, we must remember another significant fact. Death is punishment. Death is not natural. It is not the inevitable and necessary end of all life, the normal termination of a normal process. According to Scripture, death is the punishment of sin. It is always the execution of a sentence, a divine death sentence. It is the manifestation of the wrath of God. This we have already seen in connection with the forbidden tree in Paradise. God said to man, “For the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” And die Adam did, not because that tree was a kind of poison but because God in His righteous judgment inflicted the death sentence on him. Thus it is always with death according to Scripture. “In thy wrath we pine and die,” the psalmist of Psalm 90 complains. “For the wages of sin is death,” the apostle tells us in Romans 6:23. The same apostle, in I Corinthians 15:56, in structs us: “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.” Also, “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). Death, therefore, is punishment. It is the clear manifestation of the fact that the Holy One is turned against us in holy and righteous wrath.
This can only mean that death reigns over all men because all men have sinned. Let us understand this clearly. Death is punishment. But there can be no punishment without guilt. Punishment without guilt would be the height of injustice, and God is just. Punishment implies guilt. Guilt is the liability to punishment. But there can be no guilt without a real transgression, a violation of the law. It follows, therefore, that there must needs be sin before there can be death. Hence, if, as the text says, all men die, this can only be because all have sinned.
But the question is: how have all men sinned? This is the question now, especially in the light of the fact that the text emphasizes that death reigned universally even when there was no law and even over those who had not sinned after the likeness of Adam’s transgression. Yet all have sinned. Otherwise the punishment of death could not come upon all. How, then, have they sinned? The answer is: they have all sinned even before they were born.
But how could all men have sinned even before they were born? The answer is: they all have sinned through and in the one man Adam. Through one man sin entered into the world, the world of man. That one man is the first man who ever was, the man who was not born, but created, namely, Adam. Death entered into the world because of sin. This is emphasized once more in the latter part of verse 12 when the apostle says: “And so death passed upon all men, for that (or ‘because’) all have sinned.”
Here, therefore, is the scriptural explanation of the universality of sin and death.
This explanation is not the humanistic and Pelagian explanation, which attempts to account for the dreadful, universal phenomenon of sin and death by the theory of the imitation of a bad example and the influence of an evil environment. This view is always individualistic. It always insists that sin is only in the deed, never a matter of the corruption of man’s very nature. Human nature is inherently good, and it always has the power to determine either for good or for evil, according to this theory. The will is free. There is no such thing as a bondage to sin. Adam’s nature did not become corrupt through that one act of breaking God’s commandment. He may have become weaker, and it may have become more difficult for him after that first sin to return to the way of obedience. But his nature did not become corrupt. Thus every child that is born is inherently good, born with a will that can choose freely either for good or for evil. The natural or moral character of a baby is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, on which one may write what he pleases, and on which the child himself writes as he grows up, covering it with the writing of good or evil. If you put the question, how it must be explained. that every man sins and that the writing on this blank slate invariably proves to be evil, the answer is: environment! They explain that, as soon as a child comes into the world, the language of sin is inscribed on that babe’s character. As the child grows up, it comes increasingly into contact with bad examples and evil influences. So it is that all men become disposed to sin and form evil habits. Hence, also, to improve men you must educate them and improve their surroundings and provide them with a good environment. To save mankind we must build a better world and apply ourselves to social improvement and to character building.
But notice that in the light of Scripture the Christian should have no part of this philosophy, neither in his view of sin and salvation, nor in his view of education and psychology. Sin and death are not to be explained thus, that every man has followed Adam’s bad example, and sinned, and died. This is exactly disproved by the statement in verse 14 that death passed upon all men, even upon those who had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.
Nor is the answer to the question how it is that we all sinned in the one man Adam to be found in our organic relation to Adam. Thus some attempt to explain it. Adam had the whole human race in ‘his loins. We were, therefore, actually in him, they say. Thus the whole human race sinned because they were organically in the first man, their father Adam. But this cannot possibly be the answer; and it is not the meaning of the text in Romans 5:12.
It is indeed true that we were organically in Adam. This is one important aspect of the relationship between Adam and the human race and between Adam’s fall and our sin. Adam was the father (or: the organic head) and root of the entire human race. Because of this relationship, the whole human race became corrupt through Adam’s corruption. This is always Scripture’s presentation of the reality of sin and death. Sin is not merely in the deed. The Bible insists that man himself, his nature, his mind and will, is corrupt, so that he is dead through trespasses and sins. The whole human nature is depraved, and every individual human being is born in sin. Man is really dead and has the wrath of God abiding in him, unless he is reborn through the Spirit of Christ and believes in the Son of God (John 3:36). The imagination. of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21). Again, the tree is known by its fruits. “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:16-18).
This is true of the individual sinner. It is also true of the race as a whole. The tree of the human race is corrupt and produces corrupt fruit. The stock is corrupt, and it inevitabIy produces a corrupt offspring. For, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one” (Job 14:4). So the psalmist complained, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).
This is the doctrine of inherited pollution. It means that the very seed of man is corrupt, that the act of generation by the father and of conception by the mother takes place in the sphere of sin, and that the nature of the child who is brought forth is depraved, totally depraved, unless. the divine wonder of regeneration intervenes,. , It means that this universal corruption of the human nature is to be traced to the one, first sin of Adam as its beginning. In Paradise not only the individual human nature of Adam, but the nature of the whole race was corrupted. This can only be because when God created Adam, He created an organism, the organism of the human race. Adam was the father, the root, the bearer of the nature of the entire race. For God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).
Nevertheless, this does not explain the universality of death. It does not explain, in this connection, how we all sinned before we were born in and through the one man Adam. For, in the first place, although our whole nature was organically in Adam, we were not in that sense personally and individually and actually present in Adam in Paradise, and we did not actually sin. Adam sinned the sin, not we.
In the second place, if this were the whole explanation, would not the universality of sin and death be a matter of injustice? Are we then not the innocent victims of Adam’s transgression? He sinned, and we all suffer and come into the world with a corrupt nature. Are men not to be pitied, then, for their deplorable state, rather than to be condemned? Moreover, in that case can we be held responsible for our actual sins and transgressions if we are born with a nature that is not able to keep God’s law and is inclined to all wickedness? We are, in that case, born with a corrupt nature, and we cannot help it. We never personally had the opportunity to choose for the good. We are victims of circumstances and are to be pitied instead of condemned for our misdeeds.
In the third place, this would lead to a contradiction of the thought of the text. For remember, that very spiritual corruption, that very depravity of our nature, is but an aspect of the death that came upon all men. But that death, including our spiritual death, the corruption of our nature, is itself punishment. It is on account of our guilt. It is the punishment of a sin which we all committed in and through the one man Adam.
How did we all sin and become guilty and liable to the punishment of death? The answer is: in and through the sin of the one man Adam in the legal sense.
How was this possible?
The answer is: because Adam was our head in a representative sense. He was not only organically the father of the race, the progenitor of the race, so that we all inherit our nature from him. But he was our representative head in the covenant, and we were legally in him.
God created the human race not only an organism with Adam as the root and first father, but He also created the race as a legal solidarity, a legal corporation, with Adam as the representative head. Adam was our legal head before God in His covenant. As such, he was legally representative of the entire human race. Hence, when Adam sinned and became guilty, the entire race, being in him legally, became guilty in and through that one sin. In that legal sense all sinned when Adam sinned. Death, death in all its implications, is the punishment of that sin. So death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.
This is the plain teaching of the passage we have been considering and the only possible explanation of it. Let us pay attention to the fact that throughout this passage, beginning with Romans 5:12, the apostle speaks legal language. This is why he can conclude, as he does, in that same legal terminology: “By the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation” (Rom. 5:18).
This is the doctrine of original guilt. It is based upon the truth that our relation to the first man Adam was such that he was our representative head, and acted as such in Paradise the First.
You and I cannot object to this doctrine that it is not fair, that we had nothing to say about Adam’s representation of us. In the first place, all of our objecting will not change the grim and hard reality of the hopelessness of our sin and death, our inherited pollution of nature and our original guilt. But, in the second place, this would be the height of sinful rebellion. For shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, “Why hast thou made me thus?” What if the Sovereign of heaven and earth designed and created the race as such a legal solidarity in its representative head, Adam? Shall we, puny creatures of the dust, and sinners besides, have the audacity to challenge His doings? Shall we not rather bow in the dust and cry out: “Sinners we are! sinners by nature! hopelessly lost sinners! such sinners that we could never deliver ourselves from the power of a universal sin and condemnation and death, in and under which we are born”?
Finally, do not overlook the fact that only thus can we understand that Christ is the only hope of His people, their sole comfort in life and in death. For do not overlook the last expression in this passage: “Adam was the figure (that is, the type) of him that was to come.” This does not mean that Adam was a type of Christ in every respect, but in a certain particular respect here, the respect that is under discussion in the entire passage. Hence, he was a type of Christ as Head, representative Head.
Adam was the head of a legal corporation, the human race. So Christ is the representative Head, not of all men, for then all men are necessarily justified and saved in Him, which is not true. But He is the representative Head of the church, of the elect, of all His own, whom the Father gave Him before the foundation of the world.
Adam sins for all, so that all have sinned when he sinned. Christ obeys for all the members of the corporation of which He is the Head, so that all have obeyed and are righteous before God when He obeyed. We do not die in the deepest sense because of our actual sins. We are born in death because we have sinned before we are born in Adam. Thus we can also understand that we do not live—thanks be to God—because of our actual good works. For then we could never live! But we are reborn and are alive unto good works because we have obeyed before we are so reborn in Christ Jesus our Lord.