How to Explain Covenantal Headship to Your Members
Covenantal headship, also known as federal headship, refers to a relationship in which an individual represents a larger group and the actions of the representative are imputed onto the larger group. This idea is central to Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12–21. In explaining covenantal headship to your members, it will be helpful to walk them through three closely related biblical truths: total depravity, the virgin birth, and substitutionary atonement.
We first come across the consequences of covenantal headship in the Bible in Genesis 3. As the federal head of mankind, Adam represented all of his posterity in the Garden of Eden. His obedience or disobedience to the command given to him by God would be credited to all who would descend from him. Therefore, when Adam sinned, all of Adam’s descendants “died through one man’s trespass” (Romans 5:15).
The principle of covenantal headship thus explains the doctrine of total depravity. Since all humans were “made sinners” (Romans 5:19) because of Adam’s sin, we’re not born tabula rasa but rather are “brought forth in iniquity” (Psalm 51:5). And because the wages of sin is death, Adam’s single act of disobedience condemned all of his descendants to physical, spiritual, and eternal death.
A second important biblical truth related to covenantal headship is Jesus’ virgin birth. Covenantal headship implies that no man born in Adam could ever be our Savior. “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” (Job 14:4) Any son of Adam would inherit Adam’s sin and would thus immediately be disqualified as Savior.
But because Jesus has no human father, he did not inherit the congenital depravity that’s plagued the rest of mankind. He was neither a sinner by nature—because he did not have a human father—nor was he a sinner by choice—because he was God incarnate. The virgin birth makes Jesus an exception to Adam’s covenantal headship and moreover makes him uniquely qualified to be our Savior.
The solution to our total depravity, however, is not simply the virgin birth. What’s required is a third doctrine related to covenantal headship: substitutionary atonement. Substitutionary atonement is the glorious truth that Jesus died in the place of sinners. On the cross, Jesus takes upon himself all of his people’s sin and in exchange gives them his perfect righteousness. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
In the same way that the first Adam represented all of his progeny, and all of his progeny were credited with his disobedience, Jesus, the second Adam, represents all of his people. Therefore, all of his people are credited with his perfect obedience. Whereas Adam’s sin brought death and condemnation for all men, Christ’s righteous life and substitutionary death for sinners brought eternal life for all of his people. This is the crux of Paul’s argument in Romans 5: “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 5:19). The covenantal headship of Christ is our only hope for salvation: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
However, even the clearest explanation of covenantal headship won’t be helpful for our members if it becomes a lofty idea with no practical relevance for the average Christian. As pastors, it’s our duty to explain theology in a way that leads our people to worship. So I’ll close with two precious implications of covenantal headship that have much practical value for every Christian.
First, if we believe that all of Adam’s descendants died in sin with him through his covenantal headship, the inevitable conclusion is that we, as dead sinners, could not have saved ourselves. We must affirm that we contribute nothing to our salvation except that we were spiritually dead, just as Lazarus contributed nothing to his raising except that he was physically dead. This understanding allows us to adopt a biblical, God-centric view of our salvation in which he receives all the glory. We must move away from decisionalism and toward the conviction that God himself has accomplished everything required to redeem his people.
Second, if we understand that all of Christ’s elect have received his perfect righteousness through his covenantal headship, then we must conclude that any righteousness we have before God is found in what Christ has done as our representative, not in what we have done through our efforts. A proper understanding of covenantal headship frees us from the Sisyphean task of attempting to earn God’s favor through our own works and allows us to rest in the favor that Christ has earned on our behalf.
Covenantal headship is a wonderful truth that has practical implications for every believer. May a proper understanding of our death in Adam and our life in Christ lead us all to worship God more!