Understanding the First and Last Adam

The First Adam, the Image Bearer

Adam was the first image bearer, and that fact matters for what happened next. God placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it (Gen. 2:8, 15), he provided for him (Gen. 2:16), and he gave a prohibition about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Adam gave names to birds and beasts (Gen. 2:20), yet there was no suitable helpmate to be found among them. So the Lord made the woman from the man, both being image bearers who should faithfully reflect and represent the Lord (Gen. 2:21–25; see also Gen. 1:27).

Though God created the man first, the serpent went to the woman with his strategy of deception. And though the woman ate from the tree before her husband, the Lord called for the man and said, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:6, 9). Before exiling the couple from Eden, the Lord focused attention on the man: “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22). Then we’re told that “the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:23–24).

Short of Glory

Mitchell L. Chase

In this accessible book, Mitchell Chase identifies biblical themes found in Genesis 3, explaining why they are essential to understanding the biblical narrative and identifying why these themes are crucial for believers today. 

These observations from Genesis 2 and 3 together support the federal headship of Adam. The man was more than the first image bearer; he was the head of the human race. Given this headship, his responsibility carried with it the potential for profoundly devastating consequences. If Adam was sent out of Eden, we were sent out in him too. When Adam acted, he acted in our place. The impact of his decision, therefore, was far-reaching and ongoing. When Adam took and ate, we were in him taking and eating. His problem became our problem; his fall, our fall.

Subsequent Bible passages narrate our death in Adam. We see this because Adam and Eve’s descendants are born outside Eden, live outside Eden, and die outside Eden. The subsequent biblical storyline shows us, then, that what happened in the garden happened to us all. The apostle Paul wrote that “in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). In Adam. The way to make sense of Paul’s union language is that Adam was the federal head of humanity. We come into this world outside Eden and “in Adam.” Paul says that “by a man came death” (1 Cor. 15:21). We are born into a world of death and are on our way to death. All of this teaches us that when the Lord promised Adam that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17), “you” was referring to Adam and everyone in Adam.

What we need is a new federal head. If being “in Adam” brings condemnation and death, we need an agent of rescue and life. We need someone who can stand in our place and whose deeds can be reckoned to us. We need our humanity revived and our condition remedied. Who will heal our deep wounds and deliver us from the mire of our sin? We need a new Adam, a last Adam. If the first man failed, we need an Adam who will be faithful and whose faithfulness will impact the present and future of all who are united to him.

With the open hands of faith, we have received God’s gracious provision of rescue in his Son.

The Last Adam, the Man of Heaven

Paul says that Jesus is the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). Jesus is the “man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:48), and by grace we are born again in him and “shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). Jesus is our new head, the leader and champion of the new humanity. These assumptions about Adam and Jesus are what make sense of Paul’s reasoning in Romans 5:12–21. Paul taught that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). The “one man” was Adam, and his sin was the disobedience in the garden of Eden. When Paul said, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), he was faithfully reading and applying Genesis 2:17 to those whose spiritual head is Adam.

In Romans 5, Paul declares that the work of Christ has both remedied and surpassed the grievous nature of Adam’s sin. The gracious work of Jesus is in view when Paul says: “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Rom. 5:15). Adam’s trespass brought condemnation and death, but Jesus’s righteousness brought justification and life (Rom. 5:18).

This Christian Life

Truly God and truly man, Jesus was not a transgressor like the first Adam. Our hope is the perfect righteousness of Jesus, which is credited to us sinners, whose standing without it would be condemnation. The gospel is good news because it proclaims Christ’s substitutionary death, which flowed from his substitutionary life. Jesus lived the life we should have lived but couldn’t have lived. Theologians refer to Christ’s earthly obedience as his active obedience, which secures and demonstrates his role as our new federal head.

Union with Christ means we are no longer in Adam. We are now in Christ through faith. With the open hands of faith, we have received God’s gracious provision of rescue in his Son. The disciple’s whole life is the outgrowth of this new and inseverable union. We have been crucified with Christ and raised with Christ. Adam was “a type of the one who was to come” (Rom. 5:14), but their corresponding acts are contrasts. Adam broke God’s law, while Christ kept God’s law. And the new covenant that Christ established is a covenant that cannot be undermined, corrupted, or nullified. Life in the new covenant is life in Christ, and life in Christ means the tree of life is ours forever.

Discerning the covenantal frame for Adam’s actions is important for the doctrine of justification. As Adam’s actions impact all those in him, Christ’s actions impact all those in him. Because of the perfect obedience and substitutionary death of Christ, we can be assured of our standing with Christ, for we are as secure before God as is the Son himself. The covenant of works provides a helpful background for us to appreciate the surpassing glory and grace of the cross. Through his body and blood, a new covenant was formed. Christ was broken for our sake that our union with him might be unbreakable.

This article is adapted from Short of Glory: A Biblical and Theological Exploration of the Fall by Mitchell L. Chase.

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