Mentioning federalism to many Christians today would probably cause them to scratch their heads in vague remembrance of a political party in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century United States that they learned about in high school or college history classes. The theological meaning of federalism, however, is even less well known. Yet it is difficult-perhaps impossible-to understand the doctrine of salvation as disclosed in the Bible apart from a basic grasp of federalism. In simple terms, federalism theologically defined is one’s acting on behalf or in place of another. It is almost always contractual or covenantal, in that it entails a legal bond between the one acting and those for whom he acts. In both of these ways theological federalism is similar to political federalism, an arrangement under which states or smaller political entities cede authority to a more centralized form of government or individual to act on their behalf. Federalism as a Biblical phenomenon is common in Scripture.
Soteriologically, federalism is employed in several crucially significant ways in Scripture.
Adamic federalism. Perhaps the locus classicus of soteriological federalism in Scripture is disclosed in Romans 5:12-21 in which the representative actions of Adam and Christ (the second Adam) are contrasted. By Adam’s “disobedience many [individuals] were made sinners” (v. 19); Adam’s posterity were accounted sinners because Adam as their “federal” representative acted on their behalf. Some historically and today suggest Adam’s act was not federal but that it merely transmitted the propensity of sin to his posterity. In other words, Adam’s sin somehow communicated to humanity the inclination to sin, but not its guilt. In plainer words, men sin because Adam transmitted to them his sinful nature, but they are guilty only for their own sins: Adam’s sins did not transmit guilt. The problem with that view is that in v. 18 Paul states that “by the offence of [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation.” According to Paul, not only the sinful nature but also the guilt of sin was transmitted (“imputed”) to Adam’s seed, all of humanity. The culpability of humanity on account of Adam’s transgression cannot be understood apart from federalism. Humanity in general and individuals in particular are held accountable for and are guilty of sin in that they participated in Adam, their federal head, who acted for them.
Over the last two centuries especially, this Adamic aspect of federalism has come under fire, and more recently it has become quite unpopular. The usual argument against it, sentimental and ethical rather than Scriptural, is that it is simply unfair and unjust for God to hold an individual accountable for someone else’s sin. This argument accords well with the temperament of modern times in which democracy and the rights of the individual have increasingly vanquished feudal and more aristocratic views of society. One must remember, nonetheless, that for the Christian, justice and fairness are not abstract concepts to which we may assign arbitrary meanings; they exist in terms of the nature of God. Justice and fairness defined in terms in the nature of God is not difficult for many believers to affirm in other contexts. For example, almost all orthodox believers resist the recent abandonment of the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell on the part of some evangelicals who insist that God would be unjust and cruel to penalize sinners eternally in hell for temporal acts (sins). Orthodox believers correctly respond that since God determines what is just and that acts of sin are so reprehensible that they deserve eternal punishment, eternal damnation in hell is perfectly just, even if we do not always understand its rationale. Yet one could-and should-employ the same line of reasoning in the case of Adam’s federal headship. A sovereign God of heaven who created and knows humanity exhaustively chose Adam, a single individual, to serve a probation and act on behalf of mankind. He sinned; and because of his solidarity with mankind in acting for them, plunged the race into guilt for sin.
Christological federalism-Christ’s righteousness. A second aspect of soteriological federalism revealed in Romans 5 is that of Christ in his action on the behalf of the same humanity to which the guilt of Adam’s sin had already been imputed. Just as by Adam’s “offence” mankind suffered death and “condemnation,” so because of Christ’s “righteousness” and “obedience” (vv. 18, 19), “justification” “came upon all men” (v. 18). That is, just as we who were in solidarity with Adam were declared guilty because of Adam’s sins, so we who are in solidarity with Christ were declared righteous on account of his righteous obedience. Paul proceeds to reveal that Christ’s action for us in which we participated with him occurred at his death (6:3). Indeed, not only did we die with Christ; we also rose victorious with him (v. 4).
At this juncture it will perhaps be wise to point out that federalism is foundationally judicial. Because it is contractual or covenantal, it partakes of legality. For instance, just as individuals may bear the guilt of someone else’s (Adam’s) sin even though they may have committed no actual sin, so also they may be declared righteous on account of someone else’s (Christ’s) righteousness, even though they may never have committed a righteous act. Of course, the Bible informs us that all men have in fact committed sin (1 Jn. 1:10), just as they can perform “righteous”-though in no sense meritorious-deeds ( Ac. 10:1-4). But these acts of sin and righteousness have no direct bearing on the judicial principle of federalism.
It is imperative to recognize this distinction. Roman Catholicism has traditionally taught that Christ’s righteousness (“justification”) is infused into individuals rather than imputed to them. Thus, when individuals perform good works and righteous acts they are really helping to “justify themselves” before God. Alert Christians recognize that this is a violation not only of the teaching of Romans 5 but also Scriptures which teach that salvation is due to God’s grace and not man’s works (e.g., Eph. 2:8-10). However, many of these same Christians inconsistently hold that it is not exclusively on the basis of Adam’s active disobedience that humanity stands guilty before God. This inconsistency can produce an extremely thorny problem. If mankind stands guilty before God not on account of Adam’s sin but on account of its own, it follows that believers may be declared righteous not on account of Christ’s righteousness but on account of their own. An understanding and affirmation of federalism avoids this perilous inconsistency; for according to federalism, men sin (experimentally) because they are sinners (judicially), just as they perform righteous acts (experimentally) because they are righteous (judicially). In Scripture, the experimental always is grounded in and springs from-and never engenders or influences-the judicial.
When Paul declared that all humanity was in solidarity with Adam in his transgression, was he in setting forth the federal relationship between Christ and mankind thereby teaching that all humanity is actually justified by Christ’s righteousness? Not at all. Verse 18 is a classic example of how the word “all” can have two very different meanings, even in the same verse! The qualification clearly implied in these expressions is “all men” to whom the particular act pertains. Just as the first “all men” does not refer to the man Christ Jesus, but to all else, so the second, “all men” does not pertain to humanity without qualification, but to those who believe in Christ (10:9).
Christological federalism-Humanity’s sinfulness. In another way Christ’s death employed salvific federalism. The Scriptures describe Christ’s death as a substitutionary punishment on behalf of unsaved men (1 Pet. 2:24 et al.). In his first epistle Peter claims (3:18) that Christ died, “the just for the unjust,” for the purpose of reconciling estranged sinners to God. In other words, God imputed our trespasses to Christ, and then subjected Christ to the penalty those sins required (Rom. 6:23). Paul asserts that God “made [Christ] to be sin for us, who [Christ] knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21) the second part of this verse refers to the righteousness credited to sinners because of Christ’s righteous act that was mentioned above and in Romans 5. The first part of the verse, however, refers to Christ’s acting on our behalf in bearing our sins and their penalty.
Again, the judicial character of this transaction is obvious. When Paul insisted that Christ was “made sin” for us, he certainly was not claiming that Christ practiced sin. Christ was declared and treated as sinful, since he was suffering the penalty of sinful individuals. Judicialism is the heart of federalism. To deny or blur the distinction between judicialism and experimentalism is to deny federalism just as we say that Christ was judicially though never experimentally a sinner, so we understand that sinners are judicially, though never experimentally righteous prior to their performing good works whose very source is the judicial righteousness of Christ.
Familial federalism. A fourth dimension of soteriological federalism is that by which the parent acts for the child. The soteriological aspect of familial federalism is the child’s participation in the covenant relationship with God because of his parent’s relationship with God. This is manifested most clearly in the Bible. God established his covenant to be to Abraham “a God” not only to Abraham himself but also to his seed (Gen. 17:7). God promised that if Abraham would fulfill circumcision as the term of the covenant, God would be a God not only to Him but also to his descendants. Isaac, for instance, was brought into a covenantal relationship with God because of the faithfulness of his father Abraham. Paul argues at length in his epistle to the Galatians in chapter 3 that the Mosaic law did nothing to nullify the promise given to Abraham, and that since Abraham’s true seed is Christ, we who are united to Christ by faith are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs [of the covenant, v. 17] according to the promise” (v. 29). And one aspect of the promise given to Abraham was that God would be a God to His seed; therefore, as surely as Abraham claimed the covenantal promises God regarding his seed, we Christian parents can too. As federal heads, we act on behalf of our children.
To this the early church history bears unambiguous testimony. The apostle Peter declared at Pentecost that the promise of salvation applied not only to the hearers and those “afar off” (Gentiles), but also to their “children” (Ac. 2:39). If the hearers would place faith in and submit themselves to Christ, they could have assurance that their children would one day be converted. Both Lydia and “her household” (Ac. 16:15) and the Philippian jailer and “all his” (Ac. 16:33) were baptized and united to God’s covenant as a result of the parent’s faith. Paul argues that one reason believers with unbelieving spouses should attempt to preserve the marriage is that the children are covenantly “holy” instead of “unclean” (1 Cor. 7:14). The parent’s faith sanctifies the child.
Familial federalism, however, is emphatically not a substitute for regeneration. Personal belief is a requisite to salvation (Rom. 10:9), and children must exercise that belief. Biblical federalism in the family, however, provides assurance that children of believing parents who lay hold of the promises of God and Christ for their children and obey the terms of the Scriptures can be assured of the children’s salvation (Gen.17:7; Pr. 23:14). In plainer terms, each child of godly parents must exercise faith, but the affirmation of and perseverance in the covenant assures that belief. This is federalism: the parent chooses God on behalf of his entire household (Josh. 24:15).
Interestingly enough, those who argue against familial federalism in theory frequently affirm it in practice. Almost all converted parents refer to their family as “a Christian family” and require their children to submit to the commandments of God in the Bible. In practice they certainly do not believe that every child should be free to “act on his own” in matters of religion. Whether they know it or not, they recognize Biblical federalism-one person acts on behalf on another.
Familial federalism has its negative aspects as well. Entire families are subject to God’s temporal judgment because of the sin of the parents-usually the father (Ex. 20:5; Josh. 7:24-26). It is a fearful thought that the father’s sin and apostasy may incur God’s judgment not only on him but also on his entire family, since he is their federal representative.
Federalism extends to additional spheres in the relationships of family, church, and government.
Marital federalism. God required a man to marry his widowed sister-in-law if she had not given her deceased husband any children (Dt. 25:5-9). The brother remaining alive was to act on behalf of his dead brother so that the latter may retain a seed by his name. This is Biblical federalism.
Ecclesiastical federalism. Ecclesiastical federalism is a significant feature of Scripture. The Biblical procedure for the selection of elders is appointment by existing elders, and not by democratic choice (Titus 1:5). Though the church may select special representatives for specific tasks (Ac. 6:1-7; 2 Cor. 8:19), Scripture provides no validation for the common practice of democratically selecting elders and bishops. We must make a distinction between democratic representation (by which congregations democratically elect representatives) and federalistically chosen occupations (by which bishops and elders [possibly teachers] are appointed by legitimate Christian leaders and fulfill their obligation to the church). When Titus ordained elders in every city, he federalistically acted on behalf of other believers.
Socio-political federalism. Social, political, and governmental federalism is so obvious it scarcely need be demonstrated. Because David’s political record was characterized overall by godliness, God promised the idolatrous Solomon that he would not utterly rend the kingdom from him but would reserve a single tribe “for David my servant’s sake” (1 Kin. 11:9-13). Solomon escaped utter obliteration of his kingly posterity because his father had acted in a godly fashion before him. David acted sinfully on behalf of Israel in 2 Samuel 24, and thousands of Jews died as a result. When political and governmental leaders act, they act not merely for themselves but on behalf of others. Because in Scripture no leader in Israel (or any other nation for that matter) was democratically chosen (except for Saul, perhaps), federalist obligation rather than democratic representation largely shaped God’s dealings with His people. Interestingly, the obverse of this representation occurs. Followers acted on behalf of their leader, who suffered as a result of their disobedience (Dt. 1:37).
Federalism is a divinely appointed scheme for dealing with mankind. It is unpopular today because of the influence of the democratic ideal and the belief that every individual has a right to make up his mind for himself, and be either rewarded for his own merit or punished for his own error, and no one else’s. A society holding this ideal finds it difficult to accept the substitutionary atonement of Christ as well as the condemnation of humanity on account of Adam’s sin. But whether society accepts federalism, the Bible teaches it; and in the end, that is all that really matters.