The Bible says, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). It was through Adam that sin entered the world. When Adam sinned, he immediately died spiritually—his relationship with God was broken—and he also began dying physically—his body began the process of growing old and dying. From that point on, every person born has inherited Adam’s sin nature and suffered the same consequences of spiritual and physical death.
We are born physically alive but spiritually dead. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Physical birth provides us with a sinful human nature; spiritual rebirth provides us with a new nature, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
It may not seem fair to be saddled with Adam’s sin nature, but it’s eminently consistent with other aspects of human propagation. We inherit some physical characteristics such as eye color from our parents, and we also inherit some of their spiritual characteristics. Why should the passing on of spiritual traits be any different from the transmission of physical traits? We may complain about having brown eyes when we wanted blue, but our eye color is simply a matter of genetics. In the same way, having a sin nature is a matter of “spiritual genetics”; it’s a natural part of life.
However, the Bible says we are sinners by deed as well as by nature. We are sinners twice over: we sin because we are sinners (Adam’s choice), and we are sinners because we sin (our choice). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are more than potential sinners; we are practicing sinners. “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away” (James 1:14). A driver sees the speed limit sign; he exceeds the limit; he gets a ticket. He can’t blame Adam for that.
“I did not eat the fruit.” True, but Scripture says that we, individually and as a human race, were all represented by Adam. “In Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). A diplomat speaking at the United Nations may do or say things that many of his countrymen disapprove of, but he is still the diplomat—he is the officially recognized representative of that country.
The theological principle of a man representing his descendants is called “federal headship.” Adam was the first created human being. He stood at the “head” of the human race. He was placed in the garden to act not only for himself but for all his progeny. Every person ever born was already “in Adam,” represented by him. The concept of federal headship is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture: “One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him” (Hebrews 7:9-10, ESV). Levi was born several centuries after Abraham lived, yet Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek “through Abraham.” Abraham was the federal head of the Jewish people, and his actions represented the future twelve tribes and the Levitical priesthood.
“I did not eat the fruit.” True, but all sin has consequences beyond the initial wrongdoing. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” John Donne famously wrote. This truth can be applied spiritually. David’s sin with Bathsheba affected David, of course, but it also had a ripple effect that affected Uriah, David’s unborn child, the rest of David’s family, the whole nation, and even Israel’s enemies (2 Samuel 12:9-14). Sin always has undesirable effects on those around us. The ripples of Adam’s momentous sin are still being felt.
“I did not eat the fruit.” True, you were not physically present in the actual Garden of Eden with the juice of forbidden fruit staining the corners of your guilty mouth. But the Bible seems to indicate that, if you had been there instead of Adam, you’d have done the same thing he did. The apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Whether or not we think it’s “fair” to have Adam’s sin imputed to us doesn’t really matter. God says that we have inherited Adam’s sinful nature, and who are we to argue with God? Besides, we are sinners in our own right. Our own sin probably makes Adam look like a puritan in comparison.
Here’s the good news: God loves sinners. In fact, He has acted to overcome our sin nature by sending Jesus to pay for our sins and offer us His righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus took the death that was our penalty upon Himself, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Note the words “in him.” We who were once in Adam can now be in Christ by faith. Christ is our new Head, and “in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).