The Salvation of Adam

This is one of my favorite quotes from the writings of the Church Fathers.

It comes from Irenaeus of Lyon’s discussion of the question of whether Adam is saved:

. . . inasmuch as humanity is saved, it is fitting that he who was created the original human should be saved. For it is too absurd to maintain that he who was so deeply injured by the enemy, and was the first to suffer captivity, was not rescued by Him who conquered the enemy, but that his children were — those whom he had begotten in the same captivity. Neither would the enemy appear to be as yet conquered, if the old spoils remained with him. ~ Against All Heresies, Book 3, Chap. 23, Para. 2 .

This is one of my favorite quotes because it is radically different from what you usually hear modern, American, evangelical preachers of the gospel say.

I think most of us, if asked, wouldn’t know how to answer the question “is Adam saved?” But to Irenaeus it is a no-brainer. He says “it’s absurd to think that Jesus would save the human race and not save the father of the human race!”

How many contemporary preachers do you know who begin their gospel thinking on the premise that the human race has been saved in Jesus? No too many, I think.

Is Irenaeus, then, a universalist? No – he understands that all humanity has been adopted into the life of the Trinity and saved from the devil, but that doesn’t mean that all humanity believes this truth about themselves. In our distinction we can still choose to believe the enemy’s lie that we are his captives, even when the truth is that Jesus has rescued us all.

But the starting point of the gospel – in the Bible and in this quote from Irenaeus – is not what we believe about ourselves but rather what is actually true about us. And what is actually true is this: we have all been adopted and rescued in the humanity of Jesus.

Thank you Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit!

~ Jonathan Stepp

9 comments so far

  1. Ted Johnston on

    Thanks for this excellent post Jonathan. I appreciate the clarity with which you present a subject that is often misunderstood.

    Your post got me thinking. All humanity, before the incarnation of the Son of God, was “in Adam” (the first Adam), and thus subject to all that this means. This was true of all people, whether they knew it (or believed it) or not. This was a universal, objective truth.

    And now, via the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God (the second Adam), the same humanity that was “in” the first Adam, has is now “in” the second. This is true of people whether they know it or not, or believe it or not. But as you note, to not believe it is to remain in darkness with all the horrific consequences there of.

  2. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Ted – well said as usual. It makes me wonder about how our modern theology got to the point where we are all sure that everyone went down in Adam but not sure that everyone went up in Christ. We’ve basically been saying that Adam is more powerful than Christ, but Irenaeus clearly saw it the other way around!

  3. John Geerlings on

    Hi Jonathan
    An excellent post of our true reality!
    I am convinced that the first Adam is relieved that all the weight of human salvation has been accepted and worked out by the last Adam, including his own.

    It opens the door for further discussion on “sin nature” (did Jesus take care of this in view of new creation of all humanity in Him?), “indwelled sin” what is this and how is this still in us but not us anymore? And “flesh” (the battle between the spirit and the flesh, is it possible that this has more to do with the last point as I live in my own self independent sufficiency?). I have my belief and thoughts but would appreciate your comments?

  4. Pastor Jonathan on

    Hi John,
    Thanks for reading and commenting! I always appreciate your thoughts.
    My thinking about sin in the light of Christ and Adam is pretty simplistic, and maybe it needs to be more sophisticated, but so far I haven’t felt a need to try to sort it out beyond this: humanity fell into sin in Adam. In Christ we have been raised up out of sin. We don’t yet experience the fullness of this deliverance because we haven’t yet experienced our own resurrection. We will stop sinning when we are resurrected but in the mean time we continue to struggle. In the midst of that struggle we rest in the knowledge that we are included in Jesus’ sinlessness and one day will experience that sinless life fully.
    I know the Bible uses the terms “flesh” and “spirit” to speak of the struggle and that many theologies use phrases like “sin nature” and “indwelled sin” to talk about this issue, but to be honest I just haven’t gotten very far in defining or using such terms.
    Hopefully this is somewhat helpful, sorry I can’t wax more eloquent on the subject!

  5. Jerome on

    Pastor Jonathan, I’m pretty simplistic too, so all I can say is….WOO-HOO!!!!!!!

  6. Virgil on

    Thank you for your blogs on Irenaeus’ views of salvation. I’m stumped, however by your distinction between the reality of our adoption and our belief in that reality. If I read you correctly, you’re saying that, in Christ, we are all justified by His work (which makes perfect sense), but we can still choose not to believe that we are justified. That makes sense, too, but what is the consequence of not believing what is actually true? To me, it would only be that one would not experience the present blessings of the truth. But, the truth would remain. If I am cured of cancer, I remain cured, even if I refuse to believe it. I’m having a hard time not seeing universalism as the necessary result of Irenaeus’ salvation view. If all mankind is adopted by Jesus’ work, then all mankind is adopted. It may take time for all of us to believe it, but having gone to all the trouble to save mankind, would our Father then close the door on our individual opportunities to believe it?

    Not trying to start an endless debate; just trying to understand how Irenaeus could not be a universalist.

  7. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks for your comments, Virgil, and I agree with everything you’re saying. I agree that our Father would never close the door on our individual opportunities to believe in our redemption. I also think Irenaeus would agree with that. Perhaps the first question we have to ask is “what do we mean when we say ‘universalism'”? If we mean that everyone is redeemed in Christ and the Father will never close the door for people to believe this truth about themselves then Irenaeus was a universalist. But many modern Christians don’t use the word in that way. They use the word to refer to the belief that everyone will go to heaven, regardless of what they believe, and that there is no hell. In that use of the word Irenaeus was not a universalist. Irenaeus believed in hell and he thought that hell was the result of refusing to believe the truth about your redemption in Christ.
    I think this leads us to the next question: “what is hell?” It is not a place where the Father closes the door on the opportunity to believe in redemption and locks up unbelievers so he can torture them for eternity. Hell is the state of misery we experience when we refuse to believe the truth that we are already redeemed in Christ. Therefore, anyone can leave at anytime – now or a million years from now – if they choose to do so. As C.S. Lewis said, “the door to hell is locked from the inside.”
    And that leads to a final question: “will everyone eventually choose to leave hell?” I think this is a question we don’t know the answer to. We hope that eventually everyone – even Satan – will believe the truth that they are loved and included in God’s life and that hell will eventually be completely depopulated. But since we can’t know this for certain we can’t dogmatically call ourselves “universalists” in the popular sense of the word (i.e., the idea that there is no hell) and neither can we call Irenaeus a universalist in the popular sense of the word because Irenaeus never dogmatically states that he believes everyone will eventually believe the truth about their redemption in Christ.

    • Virgil on

      Thank you for your prompt reply. As a long-time student of George MacDonald (who heavily influenced Lewis) my understanding of the word “universalist” is not the “popular sense” that you mention. I firmly believe in hell, but like MacDonald, I believe that hell belongs to God for his purposes, which are redemptive, not retributive. It’s a shame that “universalism” has so many different meanings to different people, However, in my experience, the “popular sense” that you mention is typically not used by universalists themselves. Rather, it is typically used by those who would refute universalism.

      Thanks again. I appreciate your analysis of Irenaeus. I wonder how he would have reacted to Clement and Origen’s “apokatastasis” doctrine — the restoration of all things and people.

      • Pastor Jonathan on

        I completely agree, Virgil – hell is redemptive, not retributive, and it is a shame that the word “universalism” has been defined by its opponents to mean something non Christ-centered.

        As far as I know, Irenaeus never used the word apokatastasis but I believe that his understanding of atonement fits very well with the way that word was used by Clement and Origen. I think Irenaeus would have agreed with many of their conclusions.

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