The Judicial Ground of Universal Depravity

Scripture clearly teaches the truth of total depravity, that is, that all men as they are born into the world are incapable of doing or willing that which is pleasing to God; they are all without exception turned aside into darkness and evil (cf. Gen. 6:5Ps. 14:2, 3Jer. 17:9Rom. 8:7,Eph. 2:1). However, this universal depravity of our race cannot be understood apart from our relationship to Adam. 

In our study of the doctrine of total depravity we must not only understand what the truth of total depravity means, but we must also understand why we are all “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). The old heresy of pelagianism gives a very superficial answer to the “why” of depravity and tells us that the miserable condition of our race is due only to bad example or an unsuitable environment. The solution to depravity, then, is to be found in “the power of positive thinking,” in social reform and rehabilitation, or in education. Over against all this, Scripture clearly teaches that the explanation and origin of depravity and sin is in Adam and in the twofold relationship he bears to us, his children. 

The first man Adam is both the first father and the representative head of the human race. In other words, he bears both an organic or natural (ancestral) relation to us, and a legal or judicial (federal) relation. In harmony with this twofold relationship between Adam and the race, it becomes clear that original sin also has two aspects; original pollution and original guilt. And finally, so does our salvation consist in two elements; justification and sanctification. Through justification we are delivered from the guilt of sin, and through sanctification from the pollution of sin. 

In order to understand all this we must remember first of all that total depravity is one aspect of the death with which God threatened Adam when He placed him in the Garden of Eden and commanded him concerning the trees that were in the Garden. All our infirmities, our physical death, and God’s curse are also part of that death that came upon Adam through his disobedience, but so is total depravity. Total depravity is spiritual death (Matt. 4:16Rom. 8:6Eph. 2:1Col. 2:18I John 3:14). 

Total depravity, therefore, is the punishment of sin. And it is a very fitting punishment. Adam conspired to steal God’s glory and refused to serve the purpose for which he was created. God had no use for such a rebel in His creation and punished him with death, thus driving him far from God and out of God’s creation into Hell. When Adam chose the service of Satan, God gave him exactly what he chose and made him the abject slave of “him who has the power of death” in order that in the service of Satan he might earn the “wages of sin” (Heb. 2:14Rom 6:23). All this is not so difficult to understand. 

What is more difficult to understand is the fact that this depravity or spiritual death as the punishment for sinis passed on to all of Adam’s descendants. This is what we call “original pollution.” Scripture teaches that Adam’s depravity and the pollution of his whole nature through sin is passed on to his children through his natural relation to them as father; “a corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring” (Canons III, IV, 2; cf. alsoGen. 5:3Job 14:4I Cor. 15:21, 22). But then the question immediately comes up, “For what are Adam’s children punished? How can it be that they inherit the punishment of sin?” 

Obviously, this punishment is not due to their own sin, since they are born totally depraved (Ps. 51:5). They are punished before they are guilty of any evil thought or word or deed. This is true because Adam is not only the father of the human race but also its legal representative. In fact, he is our legal representative in the very same way that our Lord Jesus Christ represents us in His suffering and death. Adam stood in our place in the first creation just as Christ stands in our place in the new creation. Adam represents us in such a way that his actions, including his sin, are imputed and charged to us. His sin is our sin, by imputation, and we are held responsible for it before God. Thus we are guilty in Adam (original guilt) and thus it is possible and necessary that we be punished with Adam. We are not, then, the innocent victims of Adam’s transgression; but from the moment Adam sinned to the time that we are conceived and born we stand as guilty sinners before the great Judge. Death is not a natural event which happens to all creatures, man and beast alike, but it is the execution of the: divine death sentence upon a guilty race. 

We might object to this God-ordained representative relationship between ourselves and Adam and complain that it is unfair, but that does not change what God has done. All our objections are in vain. And our complaints also fall by the way when we remember that “righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne” (Ps. 97:2). We cannot object, we may not complain, and we do not want to resist when we remember that this same representative relation in Christ is the ground of our salvation. 

This doctrine of original guilt and of Adam’s relation to the race as legal representative is not very clearly developed in our creeds. They speak more of “the propagation of a vicious nature” (Canons III, IV, 2), of our being “conceived and born in sin” (Heid. Cat, Lord’s Day III, 7), and of that “hereditary disease, wherewith infants are infected even in their mother’s womb” (Belg. Conf., XV). All this has to do with original pollution (depravity) and our natural relationship to Adam. Nevertheless, Scripture teaches clearly the truth of original guilt and its imputation through Adam’s legal position as head of the race. The two passages which are most important in this connection are Romans 5:12-19and I Corinthians 15:21, 22, 45

In I Corinthians 15:21 Paul makes the general statement that death came by man, and that in the same way the resurrection also comes by man. This general statement is further explained in verse 22 where he tells us that there were two men involved, Adam and Christ, and that “in Adam all die.” This does not only mean that Adam’s death was passed on to all his descendants, but it refers to the fact that in Paradise when Adam fell all his descendants also had the sentence of death passed upon them because they were legally represented “in” him. 

To understand this we must see what Paul means when he says that we are also in Christ. That we are in Christ means, first of all, that we are actually one with Him through faith. Faith makes us bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. But being in Christ also means that we are represented in Him. That is why, for example, Scripture can say in Ephesians 2:6 that God has raised us up and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. We are not yet actually and bodily in heavenly places, but in so far as we are represented in Christ and legally one with Him, so already we sit with Him in His kingdom and power and glory. And, therefore, as we are both legally and actually one in Christ, so also are we in Adam. He is legal head and father of the race. But it is especially because our legal relationship to Adam is exactly the same as our legal relationship to Christ that Christ can be called in verse 45 “the last Adam.” 

This same legal and representative relationship is taught in Romans 5:12-19. We ought to notice here that throughout this part of Romans 5 the Apostle is dealing with legal relationships, our legal relationship to Adam and also our legal relationship to Christ. This is evident from the choice of words. Paul speaks of the law in verse 13 and then goes on to speak of “imputation,” “transgression,” “offence,” “judgment,” “condemnation,” “justification,” and “righteousness,” all of which are legal terms. And Paul’s emphasis here in Romans 5, therefore, is not on our natural relationship to Adam, but on the fact that he was our legal representative, and that through our legal solidarity with him we are all accounted guilty before God. 

Thus, when Paul says in Romans 5:12 that “death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned,” he is not referring to the fact that we all sin after we are born into the world, but to the fact that Adam’s transgression is charged to us—we sinned in him. He makes that even clearer in Romans 5:14 when he says that “death reigned . . . even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” In many respects our sin is after the similitude of Adam’s, that is it is like Adam’s sin. Our sin is also rebellion against God and a refusal to serve Him. There is only one respect in which any man’s sin is not after the similitude of Adam’s and that is that no man has Adam’s free will to choose the good and reject the evil. We are in bondage to sin. Nevertheless, though we cannot choose between good and evil, yet death reigns also over us, because Adam as our representative chose for us. That is why Paul emphasizes in the chapter “one man” and “one offence” as the explanation of the universal reign of death. 

Closely connected, however, with this emphasis on “one man” is the comparison that Paul makes between Adam and Christ. In the same way, Paul says, that death reigned by the offence of one man, the free gift of grace is ours by the righteousness of one man (Rom. 5:15). And we know that the gift of righteousness is first of all ours legally through Christ as our representative (Rom. 5:8-10). Christ represents us in His suffering and death and resurrection and thereby obtains for us the right to righteousness and eternal life. That is the first part of our salvation—our justification. Only then does He actually make that righteousness ours and assure us of it in the work of sanctification. To deny our legal relation to Adam, then, is to deny the possibility of righteousness in Christ. They stand and fall together. 

And that is also the importance of all this for us. Paul’s purpose in Romans 5 is not to leave us in the pit of despair as we consider the death that has passed upon all men, but to lead us to Christ. We must see that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20). First we see our lost condition. Not only do we sin daily against the Most High, not only are we born corrupt and depraved, but before we are born we are counted as guilty and damn-worthy sinners in Adam. When we see that, then we understand how “much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many” (Rom. 5:15). Then and only then do “we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom we have received the atonement” (Rom. 5:11).