Natural Consequences (4): Death and Natural Union


In this post I will examine the idea that death is a natural consequence of sin and argue that this implies that union with Adam is natural, not just covenantal.

On the standard Augustinian read of Romans 5:12, all men die because all sinned in Adam.  All men sinned when Adam sinned, and consequently all men have the guilt of sin.  And God must punish this guilt with death.  A more modern translation that reflects a vaguely Augustinian perspective says that “death spread to all because all have sinned” (NRSV) without specifying when or how they sinned.  Death here is still a consequence of having actively done a sinful action.  Whether it is intended to be understood as punishment or not is another question.

The Reformed undestanding of union with Christ is supposed to explain passages such as Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 that talk about how “in Adam” all men who have union with Adam are condemned, they die, and they are made sinners, and those who are “in Christ” have justification, life, and the resurrection of the righteous.  The Reformed understanding of union with Christ is that “in Christ” is covenantal.  What this amounts to on the Reformed view of covenant is that there is an extrinsic legal relation that exists between God and human beings, where human beings are regarded as righteous (God has a certain disposition of thought/will toward them) and human beings regard God as rigtheous (they consider him to be faithful, and consequently trust in Him).  This extrinsic legal relation is paralleled in the case of Adam.  Adam has covenantal union with all men who are not in Christ.  This legal relation means that God has a negative disposition toward you (of not reckoning you righteous), just as you have a negative disposition toward God (of not trusting him).  Adam’s sin is imputed to you (and how this is construed can vary–there is mediate, immediate, etc. imputation).

Because being “in Adam” is an extrinsic legal relation, every consequence of being “in Adam” is the consequence of an extrinsic legal relation.  The death that men die is a result of this extrinsic legal relation.  It makes the most sense, then, to see human death as a punishment for human guilt.  It is not a disease that we inherit through a natural or biological relationship to those who have gone before us; it is a result of having Adam’s sin/guilt imputed to us, and God punishing us for that guilt.

On the patrisic view, union with Christ and union with Adam are natural.¹  The foundational way that we are united to Adam is by sharing a common humanity with him; and the foundational way we are united with Christ is by sharing a common humanity with Christ.  Death is seen as a natural consequence of sin.  It is a disease that has become intrinsic to human nature through sin.  Death is not passed on based on the imputation of guilt and God’s need to punish us for the guilt of Adam’s sin.  For Chrysostom and other early Fathers, Romans 5:12 was read as follows: “Therefore just as sin entered the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all men, on the basis of which all have sinned”.²  What this means is that death is inherited through natural union with Adam, and results in our sinning.  “Death” here designates not just physical severing of the soul from the body, but corruption in general, including disordered passions, thoughts, and other natural activities.  In this way, it parallels the word “life” in Romans 5, which is probably not referring to just physical life (after all, on the Reformed read, many people will receive physical life at the resurrection who do not have union with Christ) but rather includes moral well-being too.

An issue that arises for the Reformed view of union with Adam and union with Christ is this: it seems that Paul thinks that Adam’s sin led to our subsequent inherited physical death and inherited spiritual corruption/death as a natural consequence–not that we die because God is punishing us for the guilt of Adam’s sin.   Whereas the Reformed thologian wants to see an idea of punishment for the guilt of Adam’s sin resulting in our death, this seems to be absent throughout.  It is not because we are covenantally “in Adam” and so have his legal status that we die.  Notice that in verses 13-14 of chapter 5 it implies that people died even apart from having sin imputed to them.  This implies that there was some kind of non-legal condition that resulted in the death of human beings; for without the imputation of guilt (whether for Adam’s sin, or for their own personal sins) the people between Adam and Moses would not have been punishable.

One might argue that because Paul says in 6:23 that the wages of sin is death, that this implies that God punishes our sins (or inherited guilt?) with death.  Let’s examine the context.  In Romans 6:16, Paul asks “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”  In verse 21 he asks “So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you are now ashamed?  The end of those things is death.”  Both of these verses seem to be saying that sin is a thing that we are enslaved to, and that results in our death.  Death is a natural consequence of sin.

What about verse 23?  Some people seem to think that this is saying that God pays us with death as the wage we get if we sin.  But contextually, this doesn’t seem to work.  Paul is talking about sin as a power, as a slave-driver.  Sin is a master that you can be enslaved to.  Notice the consistent refrain in almost every single verse (6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22) that sin is the thing that enslaves us.  What then does “the wages of sin” mean?  It means “the thing that sin pays you”, not “the punishment God gives you for sinning”.  Behind the metaphor of slavery seems to be the fundamental idea that sin naturally leads to death.  God is not the intermediary between sin and death who connects the two by imputing sin and then punishing people for it.  “The wages of sin is death” means that sin is an evil master that pays us the wage of death for our obedience to it.³

What does this imply about union with Adam?  To recapitulate, there are three kinds of death–inherited physical death, inherited spiritual corruption, and spiritual death that results from our personal sins.  All 3 have been argued to be natural consequences of sin.  It seems implausible to say that union with Adam is entirely extrinsic and legal if the physical death that we inherit from Adam (Romans 5:12-14) is a natural consequence of Adam’s ancestral sin.  And if the spiritual death that we inherit from Adam as a result of his ancestral sin is not a punishment or a result of punishment, but rather a natural consequence of inheriting corrupt tendencies to sin, then the union between us and Adam seems to be natural.  And there is no analogy for the idea of “physical death as a punishment for the guilt of sin” that we can see in the personal spiritual death that people experience as a result of their own sinful actions.  For in Romans 6 it seems that whatever spiritual death we personally cause and don’t just inherit is also a natural consequence of sin.

To summarize: union with Adam seems to be natural, because death is an inevitable consequence of sin, not a punishment for the guilt of sin that we have through Adam being our covenant-head.  Death is like a disease that we inherit from our parents.  But disease are transferred through biological union.  Consequently union with Adam is natural, not just covenantal.

This discovery may have implications for how we view union with Christ and justification.  I explore this in my post “Justification and Natural Union with Christ“.

¹ There is a personal element too, but it is based on the prior natural union.

² Modern evangelical proponents of this view include: Thomas Schreiner in his commentary Romans and Brian Vickers’ Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness. I can provide more exact citations if asked.

³ This is Schreiner’s view of the meaning too.


3 Responses to “Natural Consequences (4): Death and Natural Union”

  1. Justification (1): Justification and Union with Christ « The Well of Questions Says:

    […] post I will build off of the assumption (argued for in my post on natural consequences titled “Death and Natural Union”) that Pauline language of “in Adam” and “in Christ” includes natural […]

  2. David Says:


    “Consequently union with Adam is natural, not just covenantal.”

    When you say not “just” covenantal, are you implying that it is both?

  3. MG Says:

    I’m not 100% sure that I would agree in the case of Adam; I still have to study that more. But in the case of Christ, yes. But that doesn’t mean that I hold to the Reformed view of what a covenant is.

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