Sin, as a transgression of God’s law, places humanity in a state of guilt, a liability to God’s judgment. The guilt of Adam, as humanity’s federal (covenantal) head, is credited to his posterity, and only the obedience of Christ, as the last Adam, can remove this guilt.


The original covenant God made with Adam in the garden carried with it both stipulations (the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and sanctions (the warning of death in the case of disobedience). Adam’s decision to reject the word of God brought both himself and his posterity into a state of guilt before God. As the covenantal head of all humanity, Adam’s guilt is imputed, or credited, to his posterity. Human sin resulted in divine judgment and placed humanity in need of divine grace. Under the old covenant, God provided a provisional means of removing the guilt of sin through the sacrificial system, but the ultimate removal of guilt was accomplished in the new covenant by the obedience of Christ. Believers can have assurance even in this life that no condemnation exists for those who are united to Christ. On the day of judgment believers will be formally vindicated by the righteousness of Christ, but those who are outside of Christ will pay the eternal punishment due to their guilt.

Guilt in the Garden

Theologians often debate whether the arrangement between God and the original human pair, Adam and Eve, constitutes a covenant. Though the word is not used, it seems that all of the elements of a covenant are present: the two parties enter into a solemn agreement with one another, the divine Lord makes provision for his servants, he stipulates what their obligations are (the creation mandate to rule over the earth and the prohibition against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and he places upon them particular sanctions for disobedience (certain death) and for obedience (the implicit promise of the tree of life). Reformed theologians have spoken about this original relationship with humanity as the covenant of creation, with Adam as the federal (that is, covenantal) head of the human race. Even if some do not wish to use the language of covenant to describe this arrangement, it is certainly true that Adam’s sin affects all his posterity. Just as Adam was created in the image of God, so also his offspring, Seth, was begotten after his own image and likeness (Gen 5:3). And the consequence of Adam’s sin, the punishment of death, is spread throughout Adam’s lineage (note the repeated refrain in Gen 5: “and he died”). Sin brings about the corruption of humanity’s moral constitution: sin is now crouching at the door, desiring to rule over us (Gen 4:7). Sin also introduces alienation to humanity’s relationships: their relationship with God, their relationship with one another, their relationship to the earth, and even their relationship to themselves. But even more foundational than this moral corruption and relational alienation is the reality of sin’s guilt: sin is fundamentally the transgression of God’s command, and therefore, its most fundamental consequence is liability to the judgment of God. “For in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

The sentence of death that results from human disobedience is both physical and spiritual. Although Adam did not die immediately after his primal sin, the physical corruption that would lead to his death began that day. His life would thereafter be marked by physical toil, only ending in his return to the dust from which he was formed (Gen 3:19). Further, Adam’s spiritual separation from God, his spiritual death, was given poignant expression when Adam hid himself from the presence of the Lord (3:8). From this moment on, Adam and his posterity become guilty before the holy justice of God and stand in need of divine mercy in order to be reconciled to him. This mercy is highlighted in the cryptic promise contained in the curse of the serpent, the so-called proto-evangelium, the first promise of the gospel: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (3:15). Although Adam and Eve had covered themselves with fig leaves (3:7), God himself provides a covering for them in the form of animal skins, implying that the death of another—the death of a substitute—must be the means of atoning for humanity’s guilt (3:21).

Original Guilt

But what is the relationship between the guilt that Adam incurred due to his first sin and the guilt that comes to his posterity? In answer to this question, Christian theologians have debated the precise mechanics of the doctrine of original sin—the reality that humans are sinful from their origin, from their very conception (Psa 51:5). In the fifth century, the British priest Pelagius suggested that humans are conceived in innocence and only become guilty by imitating the sins of others, but this position has been recognized as heretical by all branches of Christian theology. Eastern theologians have typically argued that humans are born in a state of moral corruption, a kind of moral sickness in need of healing, but that we only incur guilt by our personal sins. Western theologians, on the other hand, have maintained that original sin involves both guilt and corruption, but they have debated how this sin is transmitted to Adam’s posterity.

In an ingenious proposal, Augustine of Hippo suggested that the entire human race was actually present in Adam in seed form, such that when Adam sinned his posterity really sinned in him. Humanity was thus constituted as a united whole in Adam (in his loins, as it were; cf. Heb 7:10), and the guilt and corruption of Adam were therefore spread to his posterity by natural generation. This view is sometimes referred to as realism (because all humanity really sinned in Adam) or as seminal presence (because all humanity was present in Adam in seed form).

The main rival to this understanding of original sin is found in the Reformed tradition which conceives of the transmission of sin in terms of federal headship. In this understanding, Adam was constituted by God as the covenantal representative of the entire human race such that the consequences of Adam’s fateful decision are imputed, or credited, to his posterity. This view better comports with the witness of the Bible as a whole, treating sin not as a private decision but as a public reality. The notion of corporate solidarity is a prominent theme throughout the Scriptures. For example, the sin of Achan was held against all of Israel (Josh 7) and the sins of the kings often brought judgment upon the entire nation. In the New Testament, Paul seems to understand the sin of Adam in these covenantal terms as well. The guilt of sin reigned even over those who lived between Adam and the giving of the law through Moses, that is, even over those who had not been given a specially revealed commandment from God (Rom 5:12–14). Why? Because sin and death (the guilt incurred by sin) spread from Adam as humanity’s representative. The parallel Paul draws between Adam as the type and Christ as the fulfillment, or anti-type, makes this truth even more evident. Just as Adam’s disobedience brings condemnation and death to all who are covenantally united to him by natural generation, so also Christ’s obedience brings righteousness and life to all who are covenantally united to him by faith (Rom 5:18–21). Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 15:21–22: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The story of humanity is a tale of two Adams, a tale of two covenantal representatives: we are born in the first Adam, in whom we are accounted guilty and incur the sanction of death; and we must be born again into the last Adam, in whom we are accounted righteous and receive the gift of resurrection life.

The Removal of Guilt

From the garden on, God continued to show mercy to his guilty image bearers. As we have seen, God provided the first sacrifice for sin by making skins to cloth Adam and Eve’s nakedness, and he promised that a redeemer would come from the offspring of the woman. In the law of Moses especially, God made provision for the sacrificial system in order to repair the breach created by human guilt. One of those sacrifices was explicitly labeled a “guilt offering,” but all the Levitical sacrifices take on this atoning character. The instructions given for the burnt offering are especially instructive (Lev 1). The offeror was to bring his sacrifice to the entrance of the tabernacle, lay his hand on the head of the offering (symbolically enacting the transfer of guilt to the animal), and kill the animal before the presence of the Lord. The priests were then to burn the animal as a whole burnt offering, with the smoke of the sacrifice ascending to God as a “pleasing aroma,” indicating that God was pleased to accept the offering as a substitute for the one bringing the offering. The sacrifices of the Day of Atonement also had this guilt-removing character, with a bull, a ram, and a goat sacrificed as a sin offering and the scapegoat driven into the wilderness (Lev 16). Thus, the Old Testament sacrificial system brought about the removal of sin’s guilt and presence from the people of Israel.

But the Old Testament also anticipates the reality that these sacrifices, while provisionally accepted by God, were not the final solution to the problem of human guilt. The pangs of guilt still afflicted the people of God. The Psalter and the prophetic writings frequently demonstrate that the sacrifice that pleases God is not one of animals only but the sacrifice of the heart: a life of obedience, thanksgiving, and praise. The mysterious Servant of the Lord figure in Isaiah even hints that it will be a human who will be vicariously given as a sin offering to remove the transgression and iniquity of God’s people (Isa 53).

This Old Testament anticipation, then, leads us to the New Testament fulfillment in Christ. Christ’s whole embodied human life is offered up to God as a sacrifice (Heb 10:1–10), but his death especially deals with the problem of human guilt. Though his accusers could find no guilt in him (John 19:6), Christ died in the place of guilty sinners, dramatically represented by Barabbas’s release and Jesus’ crucifixion instead (Matt 27:15–23). Among the many rich New Testament metaphors for his death, Christ’s atoning work is described as a propitiation, or satisfaction, of God’s justice due to guilty sinners (Rom 3:25; 1Jn 2:2; 4:10). Christ’s death is the fulfillment of all that was typified in the Old Testament sacrificial system. The singular sacrifice of Christ accomplished what the blood of bulls and goats could never do: it took away the guilt of sin, cleansing and sanctifying God’s people (Heb 1:11–14). Believers in Christ, therefore, experience the removal of guilt even now in this life. Though they continue to battle the flesh, there is no condemnation for those who are united Christ because Christ himself condemned sin in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:1–3). On the last day, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, believers will be formally vindicated by the work of Christ and saved by him from the wrath of God (Rom 5:9). Guilt began in the garden but will be finally eradicated in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Further Reading

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