In his well-acclaimed work, A Body of Divinity (only $5 at Solid Ground Christian Books!), which is formatted as a catechism (Q/A), Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) explains the nature of our relationship to our first parent, Adam; or perhaps better put, his relationship to us, his posterity, specifically in regard to our inheriting his (Adam’s) guilt. The topic of original sin – our inheriting a sinful nature from Adam’s Fall, as well as the guilt or condemnation of it – is a hot topic in our day, especially within the Southern Baptist Convention. For this reason, and for the purpose of edification in the truth of God’s word, I make available here Ussher’s comments on this most crucial point (note: I have modified the way in which Ussher’s Scriptural references were written, in order to conform to modern rendering):
What reason is there that all their Posterity should take part with them both in their Fall, and in the woeful effect thereof? It seemeth not to stand with the Justice of God to punish us for the sin that we never did.
Our first Parents were by God’s Appointment to stand or fall in that Trial; not as singular Persons only, but also as the Head and Root of all Mankind; representing the Persons of all that should descend from them by Natural Generation. And therefore for the understanding of the ground of our Participation with Adam’s Fall, two things must be considered.
First, That Adam was not a private Man in this Business, but sustained the Person of all Mankind, as he who had received Strength for himself and all his Posterity, and so lost the same for all. For Adam received the Promise of Life for himself and us, with this condition, if he had stood: But seeing he stood not, he lost the Promise of Life both from himself and from us. And as his Felicity should have been ours, if he had stood in it; so was his Transgression and Misery ours. So that as in the second Covenant, the Righteousness of the second Adam (CHRIST JESUS the Mediator) is reckoned to those that are begotten of him by spiritual Regeneration, (even those that believe in his Name) although they never did it: So in the Covenant, the sin of the first Adam (who herein sustained a common Person) is reckoned to all the Posterity that descend from him by Carnal Generation, because they were in him, and of him, and one with him, Rom. 5:15-19.
Second, That we all who are descended from Adam by Natural Generation, were in his Loins, and a part of him when he fell; and so by the Law of Propagation and Generation sinned in him, [Gen. 5:3] and in him deserved eternal Condemnation therefore. Even as two Nations are said to be in the Womb of Rebekah, Gen. 25:23; and Levi to have paid Tithes to Melchizedek in the Loins of Abraham, Heb. 7:9-10, who was not born some hundred Years after. Thus we see that by the Act of Generation in Leprous Parents, the Parents Leprosy is made the Children’s: And the slavish and villainous Estate of the Parents is communicated unto all their Offspring. For a Man being a Slave, his Progeny unto the hundred Generation, unless they be manumitted [released from slavery or servitude], shall be Slaves: And even so the natural Man, howsoever he thinketh himself free, yet in Truth he is sold under sin, and is the very Servant of Corruption, and in that State shall for ever remain, unless the Son make him free, John 8:33-34, 36; Rom. 6:17, 19-20; 7:14; 2 Pet. 2:19. We see also that great Personages rebelling against the King, do not only thereby hurt and disgrace themselves, but also stain their whole Blood, and lose their Honor and Inheritance from themselves and from their Children. For by our Law, a Man being attainted of High Treason, the attaint of Blood reacheth to his Posterity, and his children, as well as he, lose the Benefit of his Lands and Living for ever: Unless the King in favor restore them again, as God in Mercy hath done unto us. [SGCB, 2007. 126]
In summary, Adam did not act as a private individual, but as our representative or federal head. The same is true of Christ and His children (i.e. the elect). Further, there is the law of natural generation, and this is abundantly evident in the economy of the world.