Federal Headship (Romans 12:5-19)

The doctrine of justification is inseparably bound up with Federal Headship and provisional (conditional) forgiveness.  In fact, that is exactly what justification by faith really is.  It is justification (forgiveness) by faith (meeting the provisional or conditional requirement of faith).  Faith is the terms of the contract.  Forgiveness provisionally or conditionally requires Faith.  Forgiveness is not given to the descendants of Adam (our Federal Head) without meeting the terms (provisions, conditions) of that contract.

 The descendants of Adam could only be forgiven if they have a “faith like Abraham (or Adam)” (Rom. 4:3, 13-16) who believed the promise of a coming redeemer (Rom. 4:3, 13-16).  That is part of what we mean by “provisional forgiveness.”  The descendants of Adam (our Federal Head) have to get forgiveness the same way Adam got it (through faith in Christ).  Forgiveness (justification) was always and will always be “conditioned (or provisioned)” on the basis of faith in Christ

That is what Federal Headship is all about.  That is why Adam was provisionally forgiven based on his faith in the coming redeemer.  And because he was the federal head of us all, it means that we likewise cannot be forgiven without meeting the provisions (conditions) of that faith requirement.  We have to get forgiveness the same way Adam and Abraham did – by faith in the Coming One.  Thank God that He made that provision for us Gentiles who have a like-precious faith!  That is why the Federal Headship is so critical for our doctrine of salvation (soteriology).  Without it, we would have no hope of being saved like Adam and Abraham were.

There is another aspect to the phrase “provisional forgiveness.”  Not only is it conditional upon having a faith like our Federal Head Adam, but it is also “provisional” in the sense that it was temporary and typological until Christ came to fulfill it “once-for-all” by his physical death on the Cross.  Thus, it was provisional in two senses: (1) Conditional upon having a faith like Adam; and (2) Temporary and provisional until Christ provided the full and permanent sacrifice for our forgiveness.

The Death in the Garden and Provisional Forgiveness: 

God threatened comprehensive death “on the day Adam sinned.” When the animal died as a substitute for Adam, he derived at least two benefits from it:

  • (1) Longevity of Life: Adam did not die a penal death (capital punishment) on the day he sinned, but instead lived out the rest of his life and died a natural death 900 years later.
  • (2) Provisional Forgiveness: Adam received provisional forgiveness and a promise of once-for-all full and final redemption through one of his descendants, so that Adam left the garden in a provisionally forgiven condition.

The Effects on All Mankind from the Federal Headship of Adam

ALL of the benefits of the substitutionary death of that animal in the Garden, including both provisional forgiveness and the ability to live out the rest of their lives and die a natural death, apply to ALL of Adam’s descendants – that is what Federal Headship means.  It is clear that ALL of Adam’s descendants do not die on the very day they sin.  Even the non-believers are able to live out their full lives and die a natural death.  This is clear evidence that they possess the same benefit that Adam received when that animal died in his place.  Everyone received this benefit because they were descendants of Adam (our Federal Head).

The reason this matters is because the other benefit of that animal’s substitutionary death was provisional forgiveness.  If ALL of Adam’s descendants (under his federal headship) received ALL of the same benefits of that animal sacrifice that Adam received, then it means that ALL of them (including the non-elect) received provisional forgiveness as well.  They were entitled to ALL of the same benefits that Adam (their federal head) received.  And since Adam received provisional forgiveness, it means that ALL of his descendants received provisional forgiveness also, as long as they met all the same conditions that Adam did in order to receive those benefits. 

 Forgiveness: “Provisional” – not Universal, Unconditional or Permanent

Definitions to Keep in Mind:

• Provisional – contingent, conditional, provided that certain conditions are met, (only temporary and contingent)

 • Universal – not contingent upon or conditional upon any other factors (full and final and unconditional)

 • Full and Final Forgiveness to those who satisfy the conditions that were set for it.

 So, what was that provisional forgiveness?  It certainly was not the full and final forgiveness that only Christ could provide.  And the word “provisional” implies that there are certain conditions to be met in order to receive that kind of forgiveness.  This implies that all people would still have to go to Sheol and wait until the arrival of Christ to receive their full and final forgiveness and go to heaven.  At the coming of Christ everyone in Sheol were raised out of Sheol-Hades and were judged according to their deeds.  Those who met the conditions of forgiveness would receive their reward.  The rest would go away into everlasting punishment.

 So there is a very significant difference between provisional forgiveness (through the animal sacrificial system) versus full and final “once-for-all forgiveness” (through Christ alone).  Evidently all of Adam’s descendants received provisional forgiveness, the same as Adam, but it was “provisional,” meaning that it was conditional upon their faith in the promises of redemption through the Coming One (just like Adam believed).  So it was NOT an unconditional forgiveness (i.e., universal reconciliation).  Nor was it a forever forgiveness.  It was only provisional and temporary until the Judgment Day, at which time it would be determined whether they met the conditions (had faith like Adam did).

So we see that the substitutionary death of that animal has a direct relationship to the Federal Headship of Adam, especially in regard to how the benefits of that animal death apply to ALL of his descendants.  All of the benefits (including provisional forgiveness) must apply to ALL of Adam’s descendants, they cannot be split up, otherwise the Federal Headship is broken (which would fatally contradict Apostle Paul). 

Summary of Federal Headship:

Jesus Christ is our Federal Head, just like Adam was (Rom. 5:12-19).  Christ made permanent what the sacrificial system only temporarily (provisionally) provided.

Looking back to the garden where God instituted the animal sacrificial system, it is important to understand that there are two distinct benefits involved in that garden animal death: (1) Escape from PENAL death on the day they sinned; and (2) Forgiveness of sins on the conditional basis of faith.

 We need to distinguish between those two different benefits of that garden animal sacrifice, as well as how those benefits were applied to Adam’s descendants under his Federal Headship:

  • (1) All humans descended from Adam (Federal Headship) automatically got the escape from penal death, regardless of whether they believed and offered sacrifices, or not.  That was an unconditional benefit to all of Adam’s descendants. Whatever the Federal Head got, all those in Adam received it also.
  • (2) But even though the forgiveness of sins was available to all of Adam’s descendants through his Federal Headship, it had conditions attached to it.  The sacrifices had to be offered in faith, or there was no forgiveness (“without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6)).  Every descendant of Adam (our Federal Head) who offered sacrifices in faith like Adam was forgiven.  And all of those sacrifices were temporary and provisional and pointed straight to Christ who fulfilled it “once for all” (1 Pet. 3:18; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 2:16-18; Col. 1:21-22).

 So, we see there is a difference between the unconditional benefits (escape from penal death) versus the conditional benefits (forgiveness of sins).

 The Mosaic sacrificial system had the same temporary value as the pattern introduced by God in the garden when he slayed those animals on Adam and Eve’s behalf.  Those sacrifices still only provided temporary (provisional) forgiveness if they were offered in faith like Adam had.  They all pointed to Christ who fulfilled the temporary purpose of those sacrifices by providing permanent forgiveness of sins to all who believe in faith through his once-for-all literal blood and physical body death on the Cross.


See also related “Topic Studies & Terms”:

Death (Biblical Definitions)

Penal Death (Capital Punishment Death)

Law of Sin and Death


For a more in-depth study see the related full “Study Series”:

Study Series 3 What Happened in the Garden