Hamartiology

Federal and Natural Headship

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Most people balk when they are first confronted with the biblical teaching that all humans sinned in Adam. Their initial reflex seems to be, “How can God hold me accountable for something that Adam did?” This intuitive reaction to the doctrine of original sin is so consistent that it might just lead to the suspicion that most people are born Pelagians.

The two principal theories that attempt to answer this question are called federal headship and natural headship. To most people, the theories are hardly more comprehensible than the doctrine itself. Federal headship states that God sovereignly appointed Adam as the representative head of the human race, so that whatever obedience or disobedience Adam chose would be imputed to his posterity. Natural headship states that all of the human race was somehow in Adam, participating in his sin.

Most people can’t help thinking that federal headship is unfair. This supposed unfairness, however, evaporates pretty quickly once the theory is understood. Everybody understands that some people have to make choices for other people, and that sometimes these choices are matters of life and death. For example, small children are not allowed to decide for themselves whether they will receive an inoculation or other painful procedure. They do not have the maturity to make a wise choice. Parents are tasked to make the decision for the child, and a good parent will make the choice that mature persons would make for themselves if given the choice. Certainly Adam was in a better position to choose to obey God than any of his posterity. It makes sense that God would permit Adam to choose for all of his children. No evidence exists that any of Adam’s children would have made a better choice. In fact, none of them ever does.

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1 John 3:9 – Those “Born of God” Do Not Sin?

Reprinted with permission from Faith Pulpit, November/December ‘05

Four views that appeal to this verse

1. The works-righteousness view

This view teaches that one earns or keeps salvation by good works, and thus that the person who chooses to sin has forfeited any right to heaven. This view contradicts the Bible’s clear teaching on salvation as God’s gift through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), purchased for us not by our works but by the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross (Romans 3:24-25, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24).

2. The instantaneous sanctification/Wesleyan view

This view states that it is possible for a believer to have an experience following conversion in which the principle or root of sin is removed and replaced by love for God. 1 John 3:9 does not support this view but, rather, argues against a second work of grace by implying that one who sins has never been born of God.

3. The progressive sanctification/perseverance view

This view recognizes that believers occasionally sin but argues that, because they have been regenerated, it is impossible for believers to habitually practice sin. This view has much to commend it but is not entirely satisfactory upon consideration of a literal rendering of the verse (see Five Factors, 1. The text).

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