You must have faced the challenge from time to time, I suspect, of answering weighty questions that were put to you. As with most individuals, some of your responses were correct, but so often others were incorrect.
As a way, therefore, of enticing each reader to think outside their hallowed box about the apostolic explanations of salvation that are the centerpiece of Christian doctrines, I invite you to consider the following questions: Have you ever looked closely at New Testament accounts of what happened in heaven and on earth when Adam first sinned in the Garden of Eden? What spiritual and physical consequences resulted from the first transgression of God’s command, committed by the head of the human race?
As you ponder those questions, the word spiritual in the second one should be underlined because it functions in this conversation as a technical term. It refers to realities that belong exclusively to God’s realm.
Several answers to the two introductory questions are scattered throughout the New Testament. Even so, the foundation of our discussion includes a pair of disastrous universal consequences of the grave divine punishments Adam received when he disobeyed God’s Edenic command (Genesis 2:16, 17; 3:6). Because God cannot lie, one penalty was that Adam “surely” died (2:17). The other was that his nature changed: He was afraid, only because he was naked (3:10; cf. 2:25). The latter was explained in the historically reliable biblical creation story (3:10).
A legitimate inference we can draw from Adam’s admission is that his nakedness he was ashamed of terminated the peace between him and his Maker. This means that Adam became God’s enemy at the very beginning of time, a conclusion supported by the Genesis records of human history. These show that God’s voice scared the first man and caused him to hide from the Creator.
At the heart of this discussion is that those punishments negatively affected the entire human race in two ways: Eternal death spread to everyone, and they inherited Adam’s fallen (postlapsarian), or sinful, nature.
The biblical view is that those two catastrophic, universal effects also made people sinners, or God’s enemies (Romans 5:8, 10), separating the human race from Him. To be clear, God didn’t punish humanity for Adam’s first transgression. Instead, the total depravity he experienced from the sanctions inflicted upon him made everyone morally deficient, when compared to “the glory of God” (3:23).
However, to be sure that those assertions harmonize with orthodox New Testament teachings, we must look more closely at what the apostles wrote about the primordial divine retributions aimed at the first human being. That approach will give biblical authenticity to our conversation.
First, we must give careful attention to the intellectual craftsmanship Paul used to connect one of Adam’s divine punishments received in Eden to its effect on humanity:
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and [eternal] death by sin; and so [eternal] death passed upon all men, for [because of] that all have sinned (5:12).
The death twice mentioned in this verse is not temporary physical loss of life but eternal death, the same as being destroyed for the rest of eternity — permanent separation from God. We know this because the specific nature of this death is indicated by the antithetic parallel structure of a related Pauline passage: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (6:23).
In that form, the main contrasting and poetically parallel terms are sin and gift. The second pair of opposites is death and life. Interestingly, an important rule that governs this parallel system is similar to the golden rule of algebra: Whatever is done on one side of the equal sign must be done on the other.
In this instance, therefore, whatever condition sin has is intended to be attributed to “the gift of God,” and vice versa. So then, since sin has wages on one side, it means that “the gift of God” must be seen as having wages as well. And because “the gift of God” is not just physical life but eternal life, on the other side, then the wages of sin must be eternal death.
Holding to that understanding of the meanings indicated by its antithetic parallel structure, the following paraphrase of Romans 6:23 naturally emerges: “For the wages of sin is eternal death; but the wages of the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Equally significant, the words “passed upon” in the King James Version of this verse were replaced by “spread to” in at least nine influential versions of the Protestant Bible.* Thus, the New Testament confirmation that eternal death spread to everyone allows us to see this first penalty as destroying the prior harmonious relationship between the Creator and His creatures.
Furthermore, thinking theologically, Adam was representative man (evoking the Representative Principle or Principle of Representation) when he committed his first sin (Genesis 2:16, 17; 3:6). That is, God reckoned him as representing all human beings, since everyone’s seed was in his loins. On that basis, the entire human family stood condemned under the first divine penalty that was meted out to Adam, in Eden.
Various incidents and comments that highlight the Representative Principle appear throughout Scripture. For example, “For as in Adam all die . . . ” (1 Corinthians 15:22). This means that the entire human race died, vicariously, in the first man. And again: “Levi also, who receiveth tithes, payed tithes in Abraham. For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him” (Hebrews 7:9, 10).
Abraham represented Levi, who was not yet born when Abraham encountered the enigmatic Melchisedec. Thus, within the framework of the Principle of Representation, it would be accurate to say that Levi, while yet in Abraham’s loins, shared his father’s experiences.
Second, every daughter and son born of a woman acquired the fallen Adamic nature. We can say this based on Paul’s blunt reminder to believers in the Ephesian church, who, according to him, “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” — naturally hell bound (Ephesians 2:3).
In the broader system of apostolic thought, the terms perish (John 3:16), condemnation (Romans 5:16), and wrath (Ephesians 2:3) refer to eternal death or hell fire. Furthermore, that everyone possesses Adam’s sinful nature seems reasonable, since acquiring it was the inevitable outcome of a natural law Jesus set in motion during creation week (Genesis 1:24).
It follows, therefore, that all of fallen Adam’s descendants are after his kind: sinful. We know this because he sinned while in the Garden of Eden, and every human offspring exited the birth canal in the post-Edenic period. Given that set of facts, Therefore, it is correct to think that members of the human family were all born sinners. We did not become sinners when we first sinned, but we sinned because we were already sinners from the beginning.
In Psalm 51, King David confronts this physical reality in a moment of self-reflection: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5).
The biblical picture that has emerged so far is, from the day Adam first sinned, all people became hell-bound sinners on two counts: Eternal death spread to humanity and human beings inherited the postlapsarian Adamic nature. From the viewpoint of New Testament writers, therefore, every individual affected by those two conditions is classified as a sinner. Put differently, everyone’s standing before God is condemnation to hell fire because of those two charges.
This makes the reality that “all [men] have sinned” (Romans 3:23) the only bona fide starting point of orthodox Christian explanations of the New Testament gospel.
Up to this juncture in our discussion, all of the biblical statements and theological concepts paint a dark mural of humanity’s hopeless destitution, caused by separation from the Father. But is that all there is to the human story? Do the Scriptures provide updates concerning the ultimate destination of the race? Was the omnipotent God able to rescue humans who were born to die, eternally?
The apostles’ joyful answer to the third question is yes! Jehovah delivered humanity from hell. He initiated the redemption plan conceived in eternity, before the world was created: “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:9).
This verse becomes even clearer when we accept John’s revelation that the Father reckoned Christ as “the Lamb slain,” not only when He died on the cross but “from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).
The rapturous story is headlined in the New Testament by the apostle Paul’s explanations of important terms that help to clarify the redemption plan. The main ones are righteousness (Romans 1:17), reconciled (5:10), sin (7:7), law (8:3), justified (Galatians 2:16), saved (Ephesians 2:8), and grace (Titus 2:11).
The inspired concepts those terms are associated with are the primary building blocks of the Pauline theological schema. They also fit ideally within the New Testament motif of the divine rescue operation.
Paul of Tarsus was transformed into an efficient apostolic expositor of the gospel. He is also recognized as the most prolific New Testament writer, mainly because of the size of his literary output. He addressed his heaven-sent theological explanations of major Christian doctrines and pastoral instructions to newly formed congregations, like the group of Gentile believers living in Rome, as well as to saints living in six other first century cities: Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossi, and Thessalonica. Paul penned the same type of information to three followers of Christ who were gaining influence in the early church: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
Paul’s arguments were part of the immutable Christian message he proclaimed (the kerygma) from which the other apostles never deviated from. Those early church leaders were the very ones Christ included in His cabinet of disciples who accompanied Him during His earthly ministry.
Apostolic explanations of each of the seven terms mentioned earlier are clear that God’s only instrument for rescuing humanity from eternal death is not obedience to His laws, but atonement — Christ crucified. And because of that, any articulation of the essence of the apostles’ teachings about salvation is the gospel. Here is one such pronouncement that deserves attention: The gospel is the celebratory proclamation that the only basis on which those who are separated from God are reconciled to Him is Jesus’ death on the cross (see Acts 15:6-14).
After reading New Testament accounts of Paul’s labors among the Gentiles, one is left with little doubt that this devoutly Jewish man was wholly given over to the heavenly assignment to preach the gospel to Jews and non-Jews alike (Romans 1:16). The following admission underscores his singular focus on the divine assignment: “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Also, he considered Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross to be the nucleus, or life force, of the gospel.
This understanding is indispensable to achieving biblical literacy and identifying the rudiments of authentic Christianity. It also prevents us from accepting erroneous solutions for Adam’s separation from God in Eden, as well as the human family’s split from Him in Adam. Common examples of those types of false remedies are man’s obedience, law keeping, and good works. Converting those human actions into the Father’s cause of reconciliation is an idolatrous distortion of the gospel. In fact, it is “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6). God’s only grounds for reconciliation, justification, and salvation is Christ’s atonement, not human obedience.
Having made that clear, it should come as no surprise that New Testament writers have consistently emphasized the authentic function of human obedience or godly behavior in the Christian journey. That emphasis is an important component of the gospel. However, good works are fruit, not root! Effect, not cause!
Toward that end, the gospel repeatedly emphasizes that everyone who is reconciled to God “is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things [behavior included] are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17; see also Ephesians 2:10). This means that while human efforts play a vital role in the lives of the redeemed, God did not select them to be the cause of salvation. Instead, He gave that assignment to Christ’s death on the cross, alone (sola gratia, “by grace alone”).
Finally, consider one of the best word pictures of the gospel, painted by the disciple Jesus loved: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son [to die on the cross], that whosoever [is born of God, and so] believeth in him should not perish [die eternally], but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
As demonstrated throughout this discussion, John’s word picture was the consensus of the apostolic fraternity. They believed that all who “may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14) were reconciled to God, solely based on Jesus’ death on the cross. They also believe that, having been reconciled, all were enabled by the Holy Spirit to follow the Father’s preordained plan to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Thinking outside our hallowed box, we have more than answers for people: We have peace with God through our redemption in Christ.
* These Bible translations are Christian Standard Bible, English Standard Version, Legacy Standard Bible, New American Standard Bible (1995 and 2020), New English Translation, New King James Version, New Living Translation, and New Revised Standard Version.
Dr. Lennox Abrigo is a retired senior pastor of the Seventh-Day New Covenant Church. He is a native of Guyana, South America, and an internationally known Christian apologist. Lennox has authored several theological articles that appeared in the Bible Advocate and in Ministry Magazine, the Seventh-day Adventist International Academic Journal for pastors. Currently, he is founder and president of Second Temple Seminary, a Bible school ministry. Lennox and his wife, Pamela, have pastored congregations in Alexandria, VA, and Baltimore, MD. They were also senior pastor and co-pastor, respectively, of Seventh-Day New Covenant Church, which they founded in 2009. Lennox and Pamela are now retired from full-time pastoring and live in Huntsville, AL. They have five grown children and fourteen grandchildren.