Original Sin?

by Mark M. Mattison


The Issues

Psalm 51:5; 58:3

Romans 5:12-21

Corporate Sin?

Conditional Guilt?

Imputed Sin?

Spiritual Death?

Adam's Sin and Death in Jewish Theology

The Condemnation: Physical Death



In outlining his gospel message to the Romans, Paul goes to great lengths to describe how universal, how damning, and how powerful is human sin. Gentiles and Jews alike are "under sin," (Rom. 3:9, NIV), i.e., under the power of sin, apart from Christ. Closely bound up with "sin" in Romans is "death," the consequence of sin. With these facts few would argue. The very heart of the gospel message is that both Gentiles and Jews are delivered from our deserved judgment of wrath by repenting and clinging to the fact that Christ died for our sins and rose again (Rom. 5:9,10; 10:9-13).

Understand that the goal of this article is not to question these fundamental truths. The goal rather is to question certain interpretations of these truths. That humankind is entangled in a web of sin and death, a web which can be undone only in Christ crucified, is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the nature of this predicament. Many Christians potentially undermine the justice of God, and personal responsibility for sin, by suggesting that the sin for which God holds us accountable is not our own. Usually this doctrine goes by the unscriptural name of "original sin."


The Issues

What is "original sin"? Apparently it is a corrupt moral nature received from our first human parents, Adam and Eve. One of the Latin Church Fathers who worked out this doctrine was Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430). According to Augustine, all of humankind, existing in seminal form in Adam, participated in Adam's first sin in the garden (Gen. 3). Adam fell from a state of perfect holiness and immortality into a state of moral corruption, and his free will became enslaved to his sinful nature. All of Adam's descendants, having sinned "in Adam," are born in a state of "original sin." Augustine thus opposed the teaching of a contemporary named Pelagius, that Adam's sin affected humankind only insofar as it was a bad example. On the contrary, Augustine taught, we are born already bearing the guilt for Adam's sin, fully deserving of God's punishment.This teaching was buttressed by the Protestant Reformer John Calvin (A.D. 1509-1564).

Subsequent to Calvin, another interpretation of "original sin" was articulated by means of "covenant theology" or "Federal theology."1 According to this theory, Adam sinned as the Federal head or legal representative of humankind. When Adam broke God's covenant in the garden, his sin was legally "imputed" to all his descendants. Usually this theory is taught in conjunction with the Augustinian theory. Humanity is then said to be guilty of Adam's sin both by heredity and by legal imputation. In other words, each individual is born in an actual state of sin, guilty of sin, or both. This sin in turn is inherited from the first man Adam physically, "legally," or both.

Not all theologians have agreed with this teaching. One of the most notable is Charles Grandison Finney (A.D. 1792-1875), the noted evangelist of the Second Great Awakening in the United States. Finney carefully distinguished between "physical" depravity and "moral" depravity. He argued that every human person is born with a depraved physical nature, but not with a depraved moral nature. To confuse the two would absolve individuals of personal responsibility for their own sins. It would also complicate the Scriptural definition of sin as "moral transgression." In other words, if sin is simply wrongdoing, then it is not an ontological state of existence into which a person can be born. Hence Finney denied the doctrine of "original sin."

Also at issue is the question of humankind's free will, or capacity to choose good as well as evil. Augustine affirmed free will, but stripped it of all appreciable meaning by denying that fallen humankind has the ability to choose freely what is good. Individuals are certainly free to believe in Christ, for example, but are unable to do so unless God chooses supernaturally to enable them. This qualification so greatly restricts the meaning of "free will" that it is unclear whether the term is appropriate at all in this context (cf. Calvin, Inst., II.2.8). Hence the earliest Christian theologians, who argued for free will, knew nothing of the crippling "original sin" (cf. Justin Martyr, Dial. 88; Theophilus, ad Autol. 2.27; Tatian, or. 7).

So these are the issues as articulated by the theologians of the church. Is humankind truly free? Is each individual responsible for his or her own sins only, or is each individual born guilty of Adam's sin also? Did King David and Paul the Apostle teach that all of humanity is saddled with Adam's "original sin"?


Psalm 51:5; 58:3

These verses are most commonly cited to support the doctrine that each individual person is actually born in a state of sin. In Psalm 51:5 King David writes, "Surely I was sinful at my birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." In Psalm 58:3 he writes, "Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies."

Are these verses quite literal? At first blush they would seem to settle the question. But some scholars, like Finney, question whether these poetic lines ought to be interpreted in a very literal way. For example, children are not born "speaking" from the womb, much less speaking lies.

Consider other verses in the poetic literature that describe a very different side of human nature. This same King David, again addressing God, writes: "Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother's breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother's womb you have been my God" (Psa. 22:9,10; cf. 71:5,6). Similarly, the godly Job proclaims that he has taken care of orphans and widows "from my birth" (Job 31:17,18). These verses are rightly understood as poetic exaggerations. No one cites them to prove a doctrine of "original holiness" or "original righteousness." Why, then, should Psalm 51:5 and 58:3 be cited to prove "original sin"?

What do these poetic verses convey? Doubtless they express the wonderful heights to which their authors' souls soared, on the one hand, and the tragic depths to which they experienced sin, on the other. In each case they used the strongest possible language to express the joy, or the despair, of their innermost being. When delighting in the law of the Lord, the inspired poets felt as if they had been righteous from birth; but when grieving over the tragedy of sin, they felt as if they, or their enemies, had always been sinful, even from birth. But these types of poetic expression fall far short of proving that each person is born bearing the guilt for Adam's first sin.


Romans 5:12-21

More germane to our question is Romans 5:12-21, where Paul traces sin and death to Adam's original transgression. This is also the primary passage on which the doctrine of "original sin" was built. Augustine and his contemporaries relied on the Latin version of Romans 5:12, which states that "By one man sin entered the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for in him all men sinned." However, as we will see below, "in him" is far from an accurate translation of the Greek.


Corporate Sin?

Far from identifying all humanity with Adam at this point, Paul goes to great lengths to distinguish between the two. He writes of "one man" and "all men" (v. 12); "the many" and "the one man" (v. 15); "one man's sin," "the one man," "that one man," and "all men" (vv. 16-18); and "the one man" and "the many" (v. 19). As commentator James D.G. Dunn writes:

What comes to expression here is not some concept of "corporate personality" or cosmic Man or theology of Adam as Everyman. However much Paul wants to stress the universality of the effects of Adam's sin (vv 13-14, 18-19), the fact remains that he begins with (v 12) and maintains throughout (vv 15-19) a distinction between "one" and "all"/ "the many." The link between the "one" and the "all" is not explained, but the distinction is clear: the "one" is not the "all," and the "all" are not simply subsumed within the "one."2

In addition, verse 14 of this passage is fatal to the Augustinian reading. There Paul clearly writes of "those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam" (NIV). This fact flies in the face of the doctrine that all Adam's descendants committed his sin, either seminally or legally. Paul clearly writes here that some did not sin after the fashion of Adam.

That there was "an original sin" is clear. Paul clearly writes that "sin entered the world through one man" (v. 12). But that this sin was passed to Adam's descendants is not supported in this passage. Why, then, do all of Adam's descendants fall under judgment and condemnation as a result of his sin (vv. 16,18)? Is humankind nevertheless saddled with the guilt for Adam's sin, even though we have not committed it?


Conditional Guilt?

Some Arminians argue, on the basis of verse 18, that the condemnation is conditional upon our choosing to follow the pattern of Adam. The argument runs something like this. In the second half of verse 18, Paul writes that "the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men" (NIV, emphasis mine). Unless he was a "universalist," Paul did not actually mean that all people will be saved; he meant rather that all people "in Christ" will be saved. All who have freely chosen to accept Christ are justified because of his one action. Thus, the first half of the verse must bear a similarly restricted meaning: "the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men" (NIV), that is, all who have chosen the sinful way of Adam rather than the righteous way of Christ. Thus the condemnation is conditional on our free choice to follow Adam.

However, this reading is highly unlikely. True, not all are born again "in Christ." However, the reverse is not true. All people live and die "in Adam" (1 Cor. 15:22). Not all people are "born again" spiritually, but all people are born physically. The two ideas are not strictly parallel. Paul's point remains: All humanity stands under condemnation because Adam sinned. Worse, in the next verse, verse 19, Paul writes that "through the disobedience of the one the many were made sinners."


Imputed Sin?

The question is: How? Is the sin of Adam "imputed," as it were, to our spiritual "account" before God? That also is unlikely. Sin is not an abstract property to be "imputed" from one person to another (cf. Ezek. 18:20). On the contrary, the Scriptures very clearly define sin as lawlessness: "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4, NIV, emphasis mine). Commenting on Romans 5:19, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer writes:

The vb. hemarton should not be understood as "have sinned collectively" or as "have sinned in Adam," because they would be additions to Paul's text. The vb. refers to personal, actual sins of individual human beings, as Pauline usage elsewhere suggests (2:12; 3:23; 5:14,16; 1 Cor. 6:18; 7:28, 36; 8:12; 15:34), as the context demands (vv 16, 20), and as Greek Fathers understood it.3

That Adam's disobedience "made" his descendants into "sinners" is clear. However, the verse does not in the least explain how or in what way this happened. The explanation must be found elsewhere. Most likely, the solution hinges on 5:12 and the meaning of "death."


Spiritual Death?

As mentioned above, the reading "in him all men sinned" is a highly unlikely translation of the Greek eph ho. Most scholars prefer to read the phrase as equivalent to a conjunction, "Since, because, inasmuch as."4 Most Bible translations reflect this bias. The NIV, for example, reads: "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" (5:12). This translation certainly puts far more emphasis on the sins of individuals; as death gained dominion over Adam, so it gains dominion over all others who also sin. But what sort of death did Paul have in mind?

One strong possibility is what some Christians call "spiritual death." God warned Adam in the garden, "you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die" (Gen. 2:17, NIV). However, Adam did not literally die the day he disobeyed God. Some have taken this to mean that he died spiritually, meaning that he died to God and became enslaved to sin. Is this what Paul had in mind?

That would certainly fit the context of Romans 5:12-21. "Romans 6-8," writes Kel Good, "which immediately follows this discussion, deals exclusively with being dead in sin, or being dead to sin by faith in God through the power of the Holy Spirit."5

Scripture often uses the word "death" as a metaphor, or at least as a prolepsis, to describe the spiritual quality of unregenerate life in this age. In Ephesians 2:1, Paul wrote: "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins" (NIV, emphasis mine).

This metaphor cannot be pressed so far as to imply that unregenerate humankind is totally unable to respond to God, however. We might note that in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, the father describes his wayward child as "dead" and "lost" (Luke 15:24), even though the son of his own volition came to his senses and returned to his father (vv. 17-20).

What would the idea of "spiritual death" contribute to Romans 5:12-21? If this is what Paul had in mind, then his meaning would be this: Adam "died" spiritually when he sinned. In this way sin and (spiritual) death first entered the world. Then, each of his descendants also sinned and "died" spiritually, as did Adam. This interpretation certainly makes sense in verse 12. However, it fails to explain other features of the passage. It fails to explain, for example, how "the many were made sinners" (NIV) through Adam's disobedience (5:19). In addition, the idea of "spiritual death" here does not mesh with Paul's own writing about Adam elsewhere or with his contemporary Jewish context. Perhaps some consideration of that Jewish context will help to shed some light on this passage.


Adam's Sin and Death in Jewish Theology

Jewish writings current in and around Paul's day do address the question of sin and death. The Wisdom of Sirach, for example, traces death to Eve's first sin: "Sin began with a woman, and because of her we all die" (25:24). Mortality and death are a given in the human realm (17:1-3; 41:1-4). Nevertheless, the capacity of humankind to freely choose God and life are affirmed (15:15-17).

Fourth Ezra traces physical death to God's punishment of Adam, and indicates that all of his descendants sinned as Adam did (3:7-10, 20-22). Similarly, in 7:46-49, "Ezra" proclaims that though it was Adam who sinned, the calamity was not his alone, but his descendants' as well. On the other hand, "Ezra" is immediately corrected by God's angel, who states that each person is able to choose life and receive salvation (7:57-61).

According to 2 Baruch, Adam not only lost paradise (4:3); his transgression also "brought death and cut off the years of those who were born from him" (17:4). Similarly, 23:4 states that "when Adam sinned and death was decreed against those who were to be born, the multitude of those who would be born was numbered." And according to 56:6:

For when he transgressed, untimely death came into being, mourning was mentioned, affliction was prepared, illness was created, labor accomplished, pride began to come into existence, the realm of death began to ask to be renewed with blood, the conception of children came about, the passion of the parents was produced, the loftiness of men was humiliated, and goodness vanished.

Nevertheless, 18:2 implies that people have a choice to follow Adam: "But many whom he [Moses] illuminated took from the darkness of Adam and did not rejoice in the light of the lamp." Physical death became a reality after Adam's transgression, but humankind's capacity to live correctly, apparently, had not been removed.

Finally, in 54:14-19 we read that although physical death is the common plight of everyone, nevertheless personal judgment depends upon our own choices:

And those who do not love your Law are justly perishing. And the torment of judgment will fall upon those who have not subjected themselves to your power. For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. And further, each of them has chosen for himself the coming glory. For truly, the one who believes will receive reward.

But now, turn yourselves to destruction, you unrigheous ones who are living now, for you will be visited suddenly, since you have once rejected the understanding of the Most High. For his works have not taught you, nor has the artful work of his creation which has existed always persuaded you. Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam (54:14-19, emphasis mine).

In summary, God's judgment following Adam's transgression resulted in physical death - what we might consider "the first death" - for all of Adam's descendants. Nevertheless, each of his descendants retains the ability to respond to God's offer of life and live according to His ways. Eternal punishment for sin depends on individuals alone, who become, as it were, their "own Adam" when they disobey God.


The Condemnation: Physical Death

The Jewish view, that physical death is the result of Adam's transgression, meshes nicely with Paul's language in 1 Corinthians 15, a text which we may consider an "interpretative key" for Romans 5:12-21. In 1 Corinthians 15:21-23, Paul writes:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him (NIV).

Paul's meaning here would seem beyond dispute. He certainly does not have "spiritual death" in mind here. Nor does he have "eternal death" in mind. The "death" of which he writes is the physical (first) death which is reversed in "the resurrection of the dead" through Christ. Let's consider how this "physical death" interpretation fits Romans 5:12-21.

First, it helps to explain the "condemnation" described in verses 16 and 18. There Paul writes that "The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation" and "the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men" (NIV). The effects of this condemnation are reversed in Christ. What was this "condemnation" if not Adam's separation from the source of life, "the tree of life" (Gen. 2:9)?

There is no indication in Genesis 1-3 that Adam was created immortal. The burden of proof for this point rests with those who teach he was, since we cannot prove a negative. If anything, the certainty of Adam's physical death (Gen. 3:19,23) seems tied to the fact not that his "nature" was transformed, but that he was separated from the one resource that would enable him to stave off physical death. The death of his descendants was then assured, since this resource was henceforth denied to humankind (3:24). Like Adam, we also are born mortal; but without access to "the tree of life" we are doomed to physical death, a death that can be undone only in the Christ who is life. The best way to read Romans 5:12-21 is with the condemnation of physical death in view.

How, then, is this condemnation tied to our sinfulness (v. 19)? If this interpretation of "condemnation" is correct, then a death which comes to all "because all sinned" can hardly be physical death, since that condemnation comes anyway regardless of our behavior (vv. 14,16,18). But there is another way to render the eph ho of 5:12: "With the result that" or "so that." In which case the verse reads:

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men with the result that all sinned.

We may interpret this to mean that the physical death which entered the world after Adam's sin culminated ultimately in the sin of all individuals. To say that "through the disobedience of the one the many were made sinners" (NIV), therefore, is to say that "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men with the result that all sinned."6

In what way does the reality and certainty of physical death and decay precipitate human sin? Paul's anthropology may help to explain this idea. Describing Paul's use of the word "flesh," for instance, James Dunn writes:

Translations like "unspiritual nature" and "sinful nature" give a misleading and falsely dualistic overtone to Paul's usage. Flesh for Paul was neither unspiritual nor sinful. The term simply indicated and characterized the weakness of a humanity constituted as flesh and always vulnerable to the manipulation of its desires and needs as flesh.7

Similarly, H. Wheeler Robinson writes:

The one positive contribution which the theology of Judaism may be held to make, towards filling up the lacuna in Paul's statements, is the doctrine of the yezer hara, the evil impulse common to the race with Adam. But this was held to have been in Adam prior to his fall...(cf. 4 Ezra iii.26). Paul does not anywhere reproduce this doctrine, but he has his own characteristic equivalent for it in the psychology of Rom. vii., which would apply to Adam as well as to the apostle himself. In the light of this latter passage, which makes every man the Adam of his own soul, without reference to any corrupting influence within man's nature other than his fleshly weakness, we do not seem to be justified in ascribing to Paul in Rom. v. 12-21 any further idea of the direct influence of Adam's act upon racial sin than belongs externally to the example and unique place in history of that act. The fountain of the ever-deepening stream of actual evil within human nature is the corruptibility (rather than the corruption) of the flesh - a corruptibility which we share with Adam by nature (cf. I Cor. xv. 45), quite apart from the historic act which first revealed it. Such thoughts as these may well have lain in the background of Paul's mind.8

This understanding of human mortality and weakness would seem sufficient to explain Paul's language. To attribute condemnation to an inborn, depraved morality is unjustified. Indeed, moral responsibility implies the capacity to recognize the difference between good and evil, which Scripture clearly denies the youngest of infants (Deut. 1:39; Isa. 7:15,16). That infants are born in a sinful state or even guilty of someone else's sin is foreign to Paul's thought in Romans 5:12-21, which is all about the the affliction of physical death and its reversal through Christ (cp. 1 Cor. 15:21-23).



What are the ramifications of this view of sin? Not only is the fundamental freedom of the human will unequivocally affirmed, but personal responsibility for sin, as well as the justice of God, are also affirmed. We are born with limitations and weaknesses, true; but they are not of such a nature as to prevent us from making our own moral choices and suffering the consequences of our own personal sin. As it is, humankind universally has "given in" to the weakness of "the flesh" and turned from God. Indeed, Scripture frequently asserts that all humankind has "strayed" from God (cf. Isa. 53:6; 1 Pet. 2:25). "Owning up" to our personal shortcomings and sins, however, we have the opportunity to respond to God's gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ who reverses the effects of sin and death. And that's the whole point of the gospel.



1Cf. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1939, rep. 1984, pp. 211,212.

2 James D.G. Dunn, Romans (WBC 38, Dallas: Word, 1988), vol. 1, pp. 272, 273.

3Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, Romans (AB 33; New York: Doubleday), 1993, p. 417.

4Fitzmeyer, p. 415.

5Kel Good, Death Came to All Men Because All Sinned, available at Revival Theology Resources.

6If physical death is in view in 5:12-21, what about "death" in chapter 6? It would seem that there Paul builds on the idea of physical death (5:12-21; 6:9,10) to establish a precedent for metaphorically dying "with Christ" (6:3-5,8) and dying "to sin" (6:2,6,7,11-14). Lastly, he writes of a death which is the consequence of personal sin (6:16,23) - most likely, eternal death or "the second death." Indeed, if 5:12 does not read that "death came to all men because all sinned," there is no reason to consider it as parallel to 6:23.

7James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1998, p. 70.

8H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark), 3rd ed., 1926, pp. 120,121.

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