Jesus Christ: The Last Adam
The Bible teaches that Adam was the first human being, who was created by a special act of God from the dust of the ground. Through Adam’s disobedience death entered the world, affecting all humanity. In contrast, life comes through the obedience of the second and last Adam, Jesus Christ.
This essay focuses on the biblical portrait of Adam and his relation to Christ. First, I will consider what the OT says about Adam, including the covenant made with Adam. In the beginning God entered into a covenant with Adam promising him eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience. Adam is therefore best understood as a covenant head whose actions affect all those who are “in him.” Second, I will look at the NT witness of Adam, which is closely tied to the person and work of Christ. This is evident especially in the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s epistles. Like Adam, Jesus is also a covenant head. Unlike Adam, Jesus loved and obeyed God fully. Jesus’s representative obedience overcomes the disobedience of Adam and benefits all those who are united to Christ by faith. Third, I will consider some practical implications of the Bible’s teaching on Adam.
The Bible teaches that Adam was the first person in world history. Yet the historicity of Adam is widely debated and often denied, especially in light of the rise of evolutionary theories that teach the creation of humanity is the result of a long process of development. It is important to consider carefully what the Old and New Testaments say about Adam, and why it matters. Far from being simply an interesting piece of biblical trivia, the role of Adam in biblical history and in the accomplishment of redemption is epochally consequential.
Adam in the Old Testament
Genesis teaches that on the sixth day of creation, God created man and woman (Gen 1:26–27). This account is expanded in Genesis 2, where we are told that the Lord God created man from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7). This is a special act of creation; Adam is not described as coming from any kind of lower life form. Further, Adam is created as a male first, and the female Eve is created from his side later (Gen 2:21–23). This male-female order has been God’s design from the beginning (cf. Matt 19:4–6; 1Tim 2:13).
Adamic Covenant and Fall
Genesis also teaches that God entered into a covenant with Adam, which is often called the Covenant of Works (also known as the Covenant of Creation, the Covenant of Life, or the Covenant of Nature). This covenant has been debated, and many have objected to the term “Covenant of Works,” but understood rightly, it best reflects the biblical text. The Covenant of Works does not mean that Adam could work his way to God for he was a creature who owed God obedience by his existence. Instead, the Covenant of Works teaches that God freely entered into a covenant relationship with Adam, promising life on the condition of perfect obedience. Though the term covenant is not used in Genesis 1–3, the elements of a covenant are present (e.g., covenant members, stipulations, possibility of rewards or curses), and Hosea 6:7 most likely refers to this covenant with Adam.
In Genesis 2:16–17 Adam is given a probationary test: he is commanded not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest he die. This was no arbitrary command but was a summary command that tested Adam’s entire love for God. Adam was required to be fully obedient to God in every way. In the context of the covenant, love and obedience go hand in hand. Though it is not stated explicitly, the implication is that if Adam passed the probationary test, then he would inherit eternal life. Adam was created upright (Eccl 7:29), but he also had a goal in front of him: fullness of life. Adam tragically failed this test, and death resulted (Gen 2:17; 3:19). Even so, the Lord promised redemption by the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15).
Legacy in Old Testament
Adam is mentioned by name only occasionally in the rest of the OT, but everywhere it is assumed that God is the creator of all people, and the promise to the woman is worked out in many ways. Adam as a historical figure is reflected in the genealogies of Genesis 5:1–3 and 1 Chronicles 1:1, and these are affirmed in the NT (Luke 3:38; Jude 14). In addition to Hosea 6:7, Adam’s first sin is echoed in Joshua 7:21 and possibly in Job 31:33 and Isaiah 43:27.
Adam in the New Testament
The New Testament also speaks explicitly of Adam as the first human being. Jesus virginal conception breaks the pattern of natural birth that has been the norm since Adam, and places Jesus as the holy head of a new humanity (cf. Luke 1:31–35; 3:38). Adam is in one sense son of God (Gen 5:1–3); Jesus is Son of God in a more fundamental sense. This is exemplified in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus’s supernatural sonship is proclaimed in his baptism (Luke 3:22) and tested in the wilderness (Luke 4:1–13). Bridging the baptism and temptation account is the genealogy, which recounts the Adamic sonship of Christ (Luke 3:38). Similarly, Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that when Jesus obeys in the face of temptation, he does so as a new Adam who reverses the results of the curse. Whereas Adam’s sin led to disharmony and thorns, Jesus obeys in the wilderness and dwells peaceably with the wild animals (Mark 1:12–13).
Adamic elements abound in the Gospels. It is likely that Jesus’s favorite self-designation—“Son of Man”—derives from Daniel 7:13–14 where the kingdom of the Son of Man (drawing on Genesis 1–2; Psalm 8) is contrasted with the beastly, ungodly kingdoms. Adam was created with great dignity, to rule over God’s creation. The Son of Man is a new Adam, who reigns over a lasting kingdom. Jesus accomplishes salvation in Gospels as a representative man who overcomes the sin of the first man. Jesus binds the strong man by his obedience, freeing those who are in bondage to the devil, and offering forgiveness of sins (Matt 12:22–32; Mark 3:22–30).1
Jesus is also portrayed in Adamic terms in his death. In the Gospel of John Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd as King of the Jews, wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe. Pilate proclaims, “Behold the man” (John 19:5), echoing God’s words in reference to Adam in Genesis 3:22. This ironic episode again echoes the royal dimensions of Christ’s Adamic work. Though Jesus is condemned to die as a supposed messianic pretender, he rises to new life demonstrating sin had no claim on him. Unlike Adam, Jesus did not fail in his love for God; as the perfectly obedient God-man, Jesus rises from the dead and reigns over an everlasting kingdom. It is fitting that Mary mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener in John 20:15 (cf. 19:41)—just as the first Adam was tasked with obeying God in a garden, so Jesus emerges to new life in a garden.2
The church father Irenaeus captured the parallels between Adam and Christ poetically, not least with respect to his death and resurrection. Just as sin came into the world through sin occasioned by a tree, so Jesus overcomes sin by his obedience on a tree (i.e., on the cross).3 As death comes through Adam, life comes through Christ. This point is made even more explicit in Paul’s letters.
Acts and Paul’s Epistles
The Apostle Paul has much to say about Adam, especially in relation to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Two key texts are Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20–49. In Romans 5:12–21 Paul speaks of the sin of one man (Adam), which led to death and condemnation for all people (5:12, 18). In contrast to Adam’s representative disobedience is the representative obedience of Jesus, which leads to justification and life for all those who are in him (5:18–19). Adam is more than an illustration in this passage; here Paul speaks of historical and spiritual realities, as he explains the origins of sin and the realities of salvation from sin. Adam is the real head of humanity whose actions explain the universality of death and condemnation. Adam’s actions in history have to be overcome by the work of another man in history—Jesus Christ, who brings justification and life.
Paul speaks further about Adam in relation to Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 44–49. In this passage Paul again reveals his covenantal frameworks that envisions two heads of humanity: Adam and Christ. In 15:21 Paul states that through man comes death, so through man comes the resurrection of the dead. Paul speaks of two representative men in world history: the first man, Adam (15:45), and the last Adam, who is the second man—Jesus Christ (15:45, 47). One’s destiny hinges on one’s relationship to these two men (15:48–49), and this applies to all people in world history.4
Likewise, in Paul’s sermon at Athens in Acts 17 he speaks of God as the creator of all people, noting that from one man (Greek: ex henos, 17:26) God made every nation of mankind to live on the earth. This is most likely a reference to Adam, and Paul then teaches that all people are subject to this one man—the man Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead and is judge of all people (Acts 17:30–31).
Theologian Thomas Goodwin (1600–1680) memorably portrays Paul’s understanding of Adam and Christ as two covenant heads: Paul speaks of Adam and Christ as if there had never been anyone else in the world; for these two men have all other people hanging from their belts.5
- The God of Scripture is not the distant God of deism; he governs the world and relates to his creatures. He created Adam from the dust of the ground, and entered into a covenant with him, offering him a reward far beyond what Adam could ever deserve. When Adam sin God did not destroy the human race but intervened to save.
- The biblical teaching on Adam challenges us to believe the Scriptures. Many today doubt the plain biblical teaching on Adam. Any number of intricate, intellectual arguments can be mounted against the notion that Adam was the first human being. We must make a choice: will we believe the plain teaching of Scripture, even where it seems improbable or impossible? The clarity and truthfulness of Scripture is at stake.
- Further, if Scripture cannot be trusted where it speaks plainly of the historical figure Adam, then where else can Scripture not be trusted? If Adam is not historical, then Paul’s logic about the work of Christ in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 is wrong. The implications of this are massive. Is Paul not an inspired apostle? Can he not be trusted, not even on matters of salvation? If Paul believes that the representative work of Christ parallels the representative work of Adam, but Adam is not real, then how is it possible for the work of Christ to count for us? Would Paul have an answer to this?
- To deny the historicity of Adam means not only is Paul wrong, but also (at least) the authors of Genesis, 1 Chronicles, Luke, Acts, John, and Jude are wrong. We are not Scripture’s authority; Scripture is our authority. We dare not set ourselves up as judge over the writings of Paul or any other biblical author. We must believe in the Scriptures, even if it is out of accord with the spirit of our age.
- Christ’s work must be understood in representative, and Adamic terms. Christ’s obedience is the answer to Adam’s disobedience. Adam acted representatively as a covenant head. Jesus similarly acts as a covenant head, which means his actions are counted to others vicariously. “[T]here is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
- Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–8, esp. §§294–97 (2:564–76); §349 (3:224–28).
- Begg, Alistair and Sinclair B. Ferguson. Name Above All Names. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013.
- Crowe, Brandon D. The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.
- Crowe, Brandon D. “The Passive and Active Obedience of Jesus Christ: Recovering a Biblical Distinction.” Pages 437–64 in The Doctrine on which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective. Edited by Matthew Barrett. Wheaton: Crossway, 2019.
- Gaffin, Richard B, Jr. No Adam, No Gospel: Adam and the History of Redemption. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing; Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2015.
- Gibson, David. “The Story of Two Adams.” Ligonier.com
- Goodwin, Thomas. Christ Set Forth. In vol. 4 of The Works of Thomas Goodwin. Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1862.
- Against Heresies. In vol. 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. 1885–1887. 10 vols. Reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.
- On the Apostolic Preaching. Translated and edited by John Behr. Popular Patristics Series 17. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.
- Murray, John. The Imputation of Adam’s Sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959.
- Poythress, Vern S. Did Adam Exist? Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing; Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2014.
- Tipton, Lane G. “Adam and the Bible [1Cor 15:42–49],” Reformed Forum Theology Conference 2012.
- Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Translated by George Musgrave Giger. Edited by James T. Dennison, Jr. 3 vols. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992¬–97, esp. questions 8.1–6 (1:569–86); 9.9 (1:613–29). Latin version here.
- Waters, Guy Prentiss. “Theistic Evolution Is Incompatible with the Teachings of the New Testament.” Pages 879–926 in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. Edited by J. P. Moreland et al. Wheaton: Crossway, 2017.
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