We should not pit this legal analogy for the human story against the relational, which is just as important; both are integral to a covenantal account. The Holy Spirit is the divine witness, who pronounces God’s blessing on creation and makes us true witnesses to God and his works. But there is a false witness, Satan, who in the garden first misinterprets God’s Word and then denies it (Gen. 3:1–5). He succeeds in getting Adam and Eve to doubt God’s Word and attempt to go behind it to discover something hidden about God himself. In this way, we submitted God and his ways to our sovereign judgment. God, however, arrived in the garden in true and righteous judgment, and the ensuing covenant trial, with its curses and promises, is echoed in every subplot of the Bible. And Adam’s new role as covenant transgressor and false witness bears on his relation to all humanity and the rest of creation as well as to God.
As the representative head of humanity, Adam stood in total personal righteousness, in loving fellowship with God, and with the Sabbath held out to him. After the fall, we retain a natural nostalgia for God (which we twist into idolatry) as well as a yearning to attain the consummation (twisted into self-will and oppression). In short, the human race in Adam is now the false prophet who misrepresents God’s Word, the false priest who corrupts God’s sanctuary, and the false king who exercises cruel tyranny.
Every person is now born estranged from the good Father; unwilling to be a faithful son, humanity became a slave of sin and death. The features of a covenant are clearly delineated in Genesis 1–3: a historical prologue (chaps. 1–2), stipulations (2:16–17), sanctions (2:17, over which Eve and Satan argue, 3:1–5), and judgment for transgression (3:8–19). The Tree of Life was the prize waiting for faithfulness, securing participation in God’s own Sabbath rest. Further, the terms that form the basis of an entirely new covenantal state of affairs are announced in Genesis 3:21–24. Adam’s covenantal role entailed his representation of all humanity and all creation (Gen. 3:17–18; Rom. 5:12–21; 8:20). This original covenant of creation may be defended by appeal to non-Christian as well as Christian sources. Even ancient pagan cultures grounded their laws in a narrative of original creation that was universally normative. Judaism grounds human moral solidarity in an original creational covenant with Adam. Islam affirms certain laws that are binding on all people because of a common Adamic origin. Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our own conscience—all testify to an indelible conviction of moral accountability before a holy God for how we treat each other.
The Christian notion of a creational covenant did not arise because of a Western emphasis on legal categories; Irenaeus and John of Damascus in the East affirm an Adamic covenant, as Augustine did in the West. The beginnings of developed Reformed covenant or federal theology can easily be seen among the Reformers. All of these advocates of a creational covenant with Adam appealed to its biblical basis, not only the obvious covenantal elements in Genesis and the strong parallels between Adam and Christ but also specific passages that refer to Adam’s covenant-breaking (e.g., Hos. 6:7; Job 31:33). Israel’s national existence is in many ways a recapitulation of the creational covenant of the law of love for God and neighbor and is also crucial to understanding the biblical testimony to this covenant of works (and its distinction from the new covenant of grace, e.g., Galatians 3–4).
The creational covenant is rooted in law and love, not in grace. Again, grace presupposes fault and sin, and creation’s original integrity included neither. Against Roman Catholicism, the Reformers taught that before the fall humanity had no need of any “superadded grace” (do-num super-add-i-tum) that would keep an inherent bent toward sin and corruption from erupting beyond control. We did not fall because God removed his grace and we followed our original propensity toward sin; we fell because, against the integrity of original righteousness, we freely rebelled against God’s love. The terms of the covenant of creation cannot be, and were not, simply set aside. But owing to God’s amazing grace, they have been fulfilled in place of the elect by his incarnate Son.
The doctrine of original sin describes our collective human guilt and corruption in Adam. No doctrine is more significant for biblical anthropology, yet none has been more relentlessly criticized. The doctrine arises from two principle biblical sources: (1) the covenantal shape of all God’s dealings with humanity and (2) the specific narrative of the fall from original integrity. The concept of solidarity or representative headship—human solidarity in Adam, Israel’s solidarity in Abraham and Moses, the elect’s solidarity in Christ—is basic to the biblical worldview. It is crucial for Christian theology to affirm the historical veracity of Adam and his representative sin. While there are metaphysical or ontological consequences to Adam’s transgression of the covenant (corruption and death), the basis of these and the essence of sin itself is legal and ethical (1 Cor. 15:56)—that is, just like our commission in the image of God, original sin is to be understood in covenantal terms. In highly developed nations today, amid Pelagian and individualistic presuppositions, it is incomprehensible that each and every person could be held responsible for participation in collective guilt (not just its consequences) on the basis of one person’s own transgression. But it is basic to biblical faith that we are guilty not only for Adam’s sin but as sinners in Adam.
Fundamentalism tends to reduce sin to evil personal behaviors; liberalism tends to reduce it to evil social structures. But sin is far deeper than either account. It is a condition—we sin because we are sinners, not vice versa. We are victims and perpetrators of sin; every sinner is also sinned against, both in interpersonal and broader social contexts. Scripture will not let us contrast “us” with “them” when it comes to sin but declares that all are under sin (Rom. 3:9–12). When reduced to the merely interpersonal dimension, sin becomes negative behaviors or failure to live up to personal or cultural expectations. When the divine-human dimension is considered primary, sin becomes guilt and condemnation before a holy and righteous Lord with whom we have broken covenant. Such divergent definitions of sin thus lead to radically different views of redemption.
Two helpful distinctions are necessary to account for both humanity’s universal sinfulness and corruption and its remaining goodness and abilities. The distinction between righteousness before God and before others—While Scripture (and experience) credits unbelievers with a certain goodness, justice, and wisdom in human affairs, it is the righteousness of God’s own character that is the standard by which all will be judged. The distinction between natural and moral ability—Humans possess a natural ability to obey God’s commands but lack the moral ability to love God and neighbor in accord with God’s righteous character; our human capacities and abilities were not lost in the fall but twisted and deformed in unrighteousness.
“Total depravity” does not mean that we are incapable of any justice or good before others; rather, it means that there is no aspect of our humanity that is left unfallen, from which we might make a beginning of justice and goodness before God. The soul, mind, and heart, as much as the body, are corrupt. Yet the fact that we can turn to God but will not manifests and reinforces our guilt (John 8:44; Rom. 1:18–2:16).