Federal headship is a theological term used by some scholars to explain imputation—how Adam's sin impacted or infected the rest of the human race, and how Jesus' righteousness was made available to everyone who believes in the gospel. Federal headship is not clearly set out in the Bible, though the concept can be understood to be implied.
What is meant by federal headship? What is the concept of federal headship?
Federal headship says that Adam was the federal head, or representative, of humanity. Thus when he chose to sin, all of humanity would be considered guilty because he was our representative. Paul may have had such a concept in mind when he wrote, "Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:18–19).
Romans 5:12–14 says, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come." If "where there is no law there is no transgression" (Romans 4:15), how could Adam's offspring still be counted as sinful prior to the Mosaic Law? And, yet, they were. One theory is that Adam's sin was applied to all humanity because he was the representative—federal headship.
Federal headship is not explicitly stated in the Bible; it is an interpretive tool and not a biblical truth. We do know that death began with Adam's sin and that the origin of the separation between people and God can be traced back to Adam's fatal choice. God does not explain how the sin nature passes down through all of humanity, only that it does.
Federal headship is also used as a way to explain the imputation of Jesus' righteousness to sinners. Jesus is seen as the second Adam: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22). As Adam can be seen as a representative for all of humanity, Jesus is thought of as a representative for all who believe in Him and are then brought into right relationship with God (Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9). Again, federal headship is not explicitly taught in this matter, but is one way to understand the truth that Jesus' righteousness can be imputed to sinners due to His grace (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:8–9).
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