By Adam Hensley
What does it mean to be human? All religions and cultures have asked and answered this question, whether through explicit religious teaching or reflected in the laws, stories, ideologies or values embedded in the culture.
The Bible, however, does not point Christians to this world for the answer, but rather to the Triune God. Only in the Christian faith do we see true humanity by looking at our God. Uniquely, God in Christ redeems and renews humanity — Adam’s fallen race — by assuming it: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). To understand a Christian anthropology, our understanding of man, we look to God in Christ. He is the new Adam to whom the old Adam, and indeed the whole Old Testament (John 5:39), points.
Christians are at the same time saints and sinners. They are by nature children of Adam along with all human beings. But united with Christ through Baptism, they receive His righteousness and the calling of all God’s holy children. Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC, Baptism).
Discovering all the Bible teaches about who we are in Christ belongs to the lifelong task of listening to God’s Word and studying and praying the catechism. Here we will just consider the broader biblical picture of Christ as the new Adam and what it means for us.
St. Paul calls the first Adam a type — or pattern — of Christ (Rom. 5:14). The term “type” derives from the Greek word for the impression that a stamp or seal leaves behind in wax. Just as a waxen imprint bears the image of the stamp that produced it, Adam bears the stamp of Christ, the God-Man “who was to come” and who “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), since Christ is God incarnate.
Like all biblical types, Adam foreshadows Christ and is both like and unlike his greater successor, Jesus, just as a shadow both differs from and yet resembles the object that casts it.
Unlike Jesus, Adam fell into sin and rebellion against God, becoming the head of a corrupt and moribund human race under the judgment of death. The first dust-bound Adam brought the reign of sin and death to humanity by his primal disobedience. By contrast, Christ was perfectly righteous and obedient unto death and brought justifying grace (Rom. 5:12–14, 19; Phil. 2:8). Adam and his race live in darkness (Rom. 1:21; Isaiah 42:7), but no darkness exists in Christ in whom we see “the radiance of the glory of God” in human flesh (Heb. 1:3; see also 1 John 1:5).
A shadow still shows the outline of the object that casts it, however, and Adam shows the outline of the new Adam to come, who would be the head of the new humanity. Sin has totally corrupted human nature, but the essence of humanity as God’s creation is still good. Therefore, Christ assumed human flesh not to condemn it but to redeem it.
Adam also shows us the outline of Christ in positive ways. Adam and Christ are, in their own ways, God’s firstborn of humanity. St. Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy through numerous “son ofs” back to Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Luke tells us that Jesus — whom the locals supposed was Joseph’s son (Luke 3:23) — is the true and ultimate Son of God. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the true and only firstborn Son of the Father (John 1:14).
Just as Adam is the firstborn of many mortal sons and daughters who return to dust (Gen. 3:19), so Jesus is the firstborn of the resurrection, the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20–22, 48–49). The only begotten Son of God is the first of many “sons of God” to inherit the kingdom of God and receive a room in the Father’s house (John 14:1–4).
Furthermore, just as the first man received his wife from God in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:21–25), so the new Adam receives a Bride from God, His Father. Upon seeing his wife, Adam had said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and they were “one flesh” (Gen. 2:23–24). And as the Bible begins, so it ends: with a marriage. In Revelation, St. John records his vision of the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9) and sees “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).
In Ephesians 5, St. Paul plumbs this profound mystery further. The mysterious one-flesh union of Adam and Eve applies first to Christ and His Bride, the church (Eph. 5:32), whose marriage provides the pattern for the marriage of Christian men and women, not the other way around (Eph. 5:24–25, 28). The divine marriage is the stamp; Christian marriages are the imprint as Christian husbands and wives strive to live in their married vocations.
Moreover, since Christ unites His Bride to Himself, Adam’s original joyful response finds its ultimate fulfillment; bound to her divine husband, the church is “bone of [Christ’s] bone, flesh of [His] flesh.” Within this divine marriage, Christ is the head and His Bride is His Body for which He cares as His own Body (Eph. 5:23, 28–29). And what’s true for the Body goes for its members. Though having different callings (1 Cor. 12:12–31), each member is united with Christ through his or her baptismal union with Him.
As her faithful and loving husband, Christ cleanses and sanctifies the church through His holy Word and life-giving Sacraments (Eph. 5:26). This happens in the Divine Service, where the church’s ministers represent Christ, the Son of the Father and husband of the church, and absolve, publicly teach and preach, and bless and preside at the Lord’s Supper, the foretaste of the marriage feast to come. Just so, Christ strengthens His Bride’s members in “body and soul to life eternal” as they receive His salutary gifts.
To embrace our new, God-given humanity in Christ means that the old Adam in us — our corrupted, sinful human nature — must die, and Christ, the new Adam, lives in us instead. Christ has done this for us by assuming our human flesh, dying, rising and uniting us to Himself in Baptism. United with Christ, our new head, we belong to a new Body, the church, which He nurtures, gives His own divine life and sanctifies as we also await the resurrection of our individual bodies — just as Christ is risen from the dead.
This Christmastide, we again rejoice that “the only-begotten Son of God … came down from heaven … and was made man” (Nicene Creed) for us.
On my heart imprint Your image, Blessed Jesus, King of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures Never may Your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be: Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s foundation, And my glory and salvation! (LSB 422)
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness.