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Adam and Christ: Federal Heads

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By large-hammer - Posted on 09 January 2003

by Marcus Booker
Federal doctrine, as taught for centuries by the most learned and distinguished among the Reformed, has traditionally held that Adam is the federal head over the so-designated "covenant of works" while Christ, for his part, heads the "covenant of grace." This view, while correctly acknowledging Adam and Christ as federal heads, fails to recognize Adam exclusively and specifically as a representative of the "first" or "old" covenant (a ceremonial, outward justification by the "works" of the law) and Christ himself head only of the "second" or "new" covenant (inward justification by "grace"). Federal doctrine, as taught for centuries by the most learned and distinguished among the Reformed, has traditionally held that Adam is the federal head over the so-designated "covenant of works" while Christ, for his part, heads the "covenant of grace." This view, while correctly acknowledging Adam and Christ as federal heads, fails to recognize Adam exclusively and specifically as a representative of the "first" or "old" covenant (a ceremonial, outward justification by the "works" of the law) and Christ himself head only of the "second" or "new" covenant (inward justification by "grace"). As currently understood, this doctrine needs to be revisited, reshaped, and placed in closer conformity with the Scriptures to which it is accountable. The writing below briefly outlines and explains the new direction in which the federal system is bound to go.

The confusion is that for the Reformed the "covenant of works," contrary to what one might naturally think, is not synonymous with the old covenant. Conversely, the "covenant of grace" is not synonymous with the new. These theological contructs are different entities altogether, as made evident by the claim that both the old and new covenants exhibit elements of the "covenant of grace." This theological contruct, as I will herein maintain, muddies the Scriptures considerably and detracts from the genuine bi-covenantal (works/grace) distinction prevalent in the text.

The exact origins and reasonings are difficult to pinpoint, but this error may have arisen from the confounding of eras with covenants. Such a misunderstanding may be summed up thus: Before Christ=old covenant; After Christ=new covenant.

From this reasoning, elements of Christ evident prior to the ratification of the new covenant in his blood (such as faith, circumcision of the heart, and the heavenly sanctuary) demonstrate that the old covenant proper contained an intermixture of both law and gospel. This view has several problems: 1. it does not recognize "the law" as synonymous with the old covenant and the "gospel" as synonymous with the new. 2. it attributes to "the law" what properly belongs to Christ, who was the substance behind the law. 3. it does not properly distinguish between a covenant and the time era in which a covenant is predominant. Upon these three problems I will expound no further for the time being.

Nevertheless, I will say that my point is not to deny the gospel and faith to the prophets and holy ones of former times--far from it. Rather, I affirm vigorously that many of them possessed a living and active faith, more so than many contemporaries. I simply deny that they derived their righteousness and faith from "the law" or "old covenant" as such (nor from the blood of that covenant, of bulls and goats). I affirm instead that their faith preceeded from the true substance behind the law, which is Christ alone.

With the aforementioned stated, I will now turn specifically to Adam and Christ and show how the two covenants are summed up in them.

Christ as Federal Head

Ephesians speaks of two estranged parties being formed into one "new man." This man, as the context demonstrates, is Christ, who put to death the enmity in the flesh. The two parties are Jews and Gentiles who are united together into this "new covenant." Paul here embodies the covenant itself in the personhood of Jesus. John likewise describes Jesus as "the word made flesh." This "word" is the covenant of God in a person; it is the law incarnate. It's as the Psalms say, "His word he gave unto Jacob, His law to Israel." Christ is the fulfillment of the law. The law is contained in him. His body is the temple. In this very context, John contrasts two covenants: "the law through Moses" and "the grace and truth through Jesus Christ." This "grace and truth" is a new law. And John, affirming that the law is contained in Jesus, states that Jesus is "full of grace and truth."

Adam as Federal Head

Adam too represents the covenant. From the account in Genesis (delivered unto Jacob as they received their law), it is evident that he is a representative figure for national Israel. In Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. Isaiah speaks similarly and explicitly of a creation of heavens and earth in proclaiming the establishment of a covenant. Also, Moses calls the "heavens and earth" to witness against Israel. [Note: Hosea suggests a covenant with Adam (sometimes translated generically as man)].

Moreover, Adam sees a glimpse of the holy days of the covenant. God makes the sun, moon, and stars for "signs, seasons, days, and years." He hereby establishes the days of observation, an integral part of the covenant. Paul, in writing the Galatians, calls them "days, months, seasons, and years," which the Galatians need not observe (released from the law as they were). Also, the sabbath is apparent in the Genesis account.

Furthermore, like Jabob's race, God blessed Adam and gave him a law, consisting of blessings and curses. The blessing was long life in the land (Eden). The curse was death and exile from the land.

And like Adam, Israel had made void the covenant. It is in this way that Adam is a figure for Israel. After Adam made void the covenant and is cast from his land, God clothes him in animal skins (which demonstrated grace and required a bloody sacrifice of another for the sake of a sinner).

Christ as national Israel

Christ too is a figure for national Israel, as a redeemed people (hence, "out of Egypt I called my son," Christ's 40 day temptation in the wilderness, "a kingdom, priests," "a people for his own possession," etc.).

He is the federal head, called the "new nature," "new creature," "new life," which causes the old to pass away.

Relationship between Adam and Christ

In Romans, Paul calls Adam a type of what was to come (a second Adam). Similarly, Paul, Hebrews, and much of the Scriptures speak in like manner of the law with respect to Christ (see Col 2 about the holy days being as shadow of what was to come). Again, Adam represents the law. Also, God made Adam in his image in much the same way as the law was the image or shadow of the heavenly originals in the new covenant. [Note: the God/man and spirit/flesh distinction is also used to contrast the two covenants and bears a relation to the Christ/Adam distinction]. Also, 1 Corinthians 15 makes the same first/second distinction that Hebrews characteristically employs in delineating between the two covenants. Yet Paul contrasts Adam and Christ as the "first man" and the "second man." He says, in Adam (i.e. under the law) all die but in Christ (i.e. under grace) all will be made alive. The broader context of 1 Cor 15 and the entire epistle and the vast body of Paul's writings, and the vast body of the Scriptures demonstrate that Paul employs the distinction between Adam and Christ to distinguish between and characterize the two covenants. The method is similar to related distinctions between Hagar and Sarah, Esau and Jacob, Sodom and Lot, and the flooded world and Noah. So, the Adam and Christ illustration is but one example of the many ways in which the Scriptures allegorize the two covenants.

Relation of Doctrine to Rest of the Scriptures

Of course, it is apparent to me that Christ and the apostles intended in their speech to constantly distinguish between the two covenants, in sundry ways. Indeed, the more that expositors recognize the vastness of this trend, the better equipped they will be to draw out the true meaning from the text. And this paradigm is destined to shape the nature of not only federal theology in the future but all systematics and subsystems as well. It is, as I am convinced, the current tip of reformation.

Marcus Booker

PretMan's picture

This concept is beginning to make more sense to me.


"covenant of works" = pre-Fall, "covenant of grace" = post-Fall


"covenant of works" = Old Covenant, "covenant of grace" = New Covenant


we are speaking of a much different framework from the traditional New Covenant Theology, Dispensationalist, or Baptist frameworks.

Rather than being "incompatible", the two covenants are perfectly compatible, with Christ at the forefront in both, and the Law merely being "changed" or "refracted" through him by the latter, with the Law having both a ceremonial and moral purpose /character (under the new Law of Christ). The one no longer has earthly application; the other does - but in a New Covenant sense. The "moral" aspects apply roughly the same way as in the Old, but does not function in a "Mosaic" capacity, AS SUCH.

Also, in both covenants, membership is visible, and non-elect individuals are apart of both.

One thing to add:

There is also a Time/Eternity dimension to the Adam/Christ "federal headship" issue.

Historically/Covenantally, the New Covenant, as an historical, earthly dispensation , has already arrived in its fulness, yet what about individual sanctification? What about the Definitive/Progressive/Final aspect of Justification in the lives of individual people?

What I am suggesting is that, post A.D.70, individual believers are reliving the Biblical Millennium in their own personal experience. They are being prepared for Heaven. IOW, Adam is still the federal head of sinners, and Christ is the federal head of saints, and the Old C. is in the process of "vanishing" in the new believer throughout the sanctification process, as the New C. is in the process of completely overtaking the Old. When this happens, Heaven arrives (at death).

From the perspctive of the Bible, heavenly time takes on a totally different nature and character from earthly, finite time. Time passes in Heaven like it does on earth, but Heaven is like a "gulf" of time that is seen as ONE EVENT frozen in time (the Parousia/Judgment/Resurrection).

Without this Time/Eternity or Earthly/Heavenly distinction inherent in the Federal Headship paradigm, the Trinity will be compromised, and Chalcedon Christology will suffer at the hands of heretics.

There is something more to this issue of Preterism than we realize, I believe.

God is Awesome...

Love in Christ,

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