Protestant Christians who believe in original sin frequently contend that Romans 5:12-21 portrays an exact, if contrasting, parallel between the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to his people and the sin of Adam to his posterity (1* See especially D.M.Lloyd-Jones, Romans 5, pp.189,197,199, 204f.; and J.Murray, Romans, p.184; The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, pp.20,34,40. The views of both these men are constantly repeated by uncritical admirers such as R.B.Gaffin who refers to a “contrasting parallel” between Adam and Christ in an essay entitled “Atonement in the Pauline Corpus” in “The Glory of the Atonement”, ed. C.E.Hill and F.A. James, p.148. However, they cannot withstand serious scrutiny.
L.Berkhof also refers to the “perfect parallel” between Adam and Christ (p.214). It is interesting to note here that Berkhof assumes what needs to be proved. On the basis of this manifestly imperfect parallel he posits a covenant with Adam which Scripture fails to mention. What is more, he deems Adam to be the covenant head of all his posterity. Including Christ (Luke 3:38)?). Though this thesis is strongly asserted, it is seldom if ever questioned let alone substantiated. While freely acknowledging that Paul treats the two Adams in somewhat analogous fashion, I want to suggest in the following paragraphs that the exact parallel is a delusive figment of the imagination.
The presumption against imputed sin being on Paul’s agenda arises first from the fact that in 1:18-3:20,23 he deals with actual sin against law in some form. (It is worth noting verbs like doing, practising, working in ch. 2.) In 3:19 he claims that it is law precisely that holds all who have knowledge of it accountable, and renders justification by works impossible (3:20)
In line with this, in 2:1-16 Paul lays great stress on the fact that judgement is based on the works of the law (cf. 4:4). Since this is so, Augustine’s claim that unbaptised babies who die are damned as a result of Adam’s sin is clearly false and represents one of the great distortions of biblical teaching. For the traditional dogma of original sin undermines personal responsibility on the one hand and, contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, hands out condemnation apart from knowledge and works on the other (cf. Mt. 12:7).
In 3:23 and 3:25 Paul’s contention is that God has proved his righteousness by setting forth the death of Christ as an atonement for the actual sins of all believers past and present (cf. 1 John 2:2).
Then in Romans 4:8 the apostle calls attention to the non-imputation of actual sins through faith in Christ’s imputed righteousness. This is arguably the central theme of his entire letter (cf. 1:16f.). The implication is therefore that Paul’s concern throughout is with the actual sin of all human beings, Jew and Gentile alike (3:9,12, 19f.,23; 11:32).
In Romans 4:15 (cf. 5:13; 7:8) the apostle asserts unequivocally that where there is no law there is no sin. Sin imputed to babies that do not know the law (cf. 3:20; 7:1,7) is therefore eliminated from consideration.
So even at this point our inference must be that there is not the faintest suggestion that imputed sin is on his horizon. If it was and Adam’s sin was imputed to all his posterity, there would be two unavoidable consequences. First, Christ himself as a true son of Adam (Lu. 3:38; Heb. 2:17) would be implicated like the rest of his brethren and thus be disqualified from acting as their redeemer. Second, all would individually have to endure its penalty, and this the prophets implicitly deny (Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18:2, cf. Ex. 32:33). As Numbers 14:3,29-33 indicate, while children may suffer on account of their parents’ sins, they are by no means punished for them (cf. Dt. 24:16, etc.). This again deals a mortal blow to the Augustinian claim that babies are tarnished with and damned on account of the original sin of their forefather Adam.
So, on the assumption of the imputation of Adam’s sin, Christ would be disqualified on the one hand and rendered redundant on the other.
For the parallel to hold, a final point needs to be made. If Adam’s sin was imputed to all apart from faith, justice would require Christ’s righteousness to be imputed to all apart from faith. This would lead to universalism which the apostle, like the rest of the biblical writers, manifestly does not hold. In contrast, in 2 Corinthians 5:14f., where the ‘all’ is the same on both sides, the parallel holds good.
In light of these observations, not to mention others, the so-called exact parallel already looks deeply suspect. However, it needs to be scrutinised in its own right.
Paul’s Analogy in Romans 5:12-21
In verse 12 the apostle tells us that because all sinned, all died. Since in 6:23, however, he tells us that death is wages of sin, the sin must be actual, that is, a work that earned the wages of death. But if we assume a parallel, we are forced to conclude that since imputed sin pays wages in death, imputed righteousness pays wages in life. However, since Paul says that life, like the righteousness that leads to it (Rom. 5:21; 6:19,22), is a free gift (6:23, cf. 4:5), we are forced to infer that the assumed parallel is wrong.
In verses 13 and 14 Paul differentiates between sin before and sin under the law of Moses as he did in chapters 1-3, especially in 2:12-16. Apart from the fact that this indicates that he is referring to actual as opposed to imputed sin, it clearly torpedoes the so-called parallelism. For if Adam’s sin is imputed, it is the same in all cases and at all times without exception (that is, not just during the period between Adam and Moses), not different.
Next, the most superficial reading of verses 15-17 highlights the difference between the free gift (of righteousness) and the effect (of Adam’s sin). If Paul was pointing up a parallel, his very language, let alone his meaning, is inexplicable since, on the imputation theory, both are free gifts. Far from producing a parallel, Paul delineates the difference between the free gift of righteousness on the one hand and the effect of Adam’s sin on the other (cf. 6:16). Clearly in Paul’s mind whatever the effect of the latter (which he fails to elucidate), it was not the result of imputation, for sin is by definition a work to which wages in the form of death are due (Rom. 1:32; 4:4; 6:16,21,23, cf. 1 Cor. 3:8,14f.; 9:17; 2 Pet. 2:13,15).
Third, in verse 16 the apostle refers to the judgement and condemnation of sin which he had argued earlier in 2:1-16 were based on works. If imputation were true, the effects would be parallel, and both merit and demerit would be excluded. Clearly they are not, and unsurprisingly in verse 17 Paul distinguishes between the dominion of death, which is wages (cf. 5:12; 6:16,23), and the reign of righteousness and life which is a gift of grace.
Fourth, the same distinction is evident in verse 18, for condemnation, which as we have just seen is earned, is always based on works in Scripture (Mt. 16:27; 25:31ff.; Rom. 14:10; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12). Whatever Adam’s contribution was, it was no more imputed than that of parents in general (Dt. 24:16; Ps. 106:6; Isa. 65:7; Jer. 31:29f.; 32:18f.; Ezek. 18:2, etc.) even though they are evil (cf. Luke 11:13). As Job long before intimated, such condemnation far from being righteous (cf. Rom. 2:5) is patently unjust (21:19-21, cf. Abraham in Gen. 18:22-33). Regarding righteousness, Paul has already said that it was a free gift (v. 17) and certainly not wages.
Fifth, in verse 19 Paul contents himself by pointing up the different effects the respective actions of Adam and Jesus had on other people. Here at least there is a contrasting parallel. However, he conspicuously fails to indicate the nature of these effects (though see further below). This being the case, it is quite gratuitous to maintain that imputation is involved in both cases. Indeed, in view of what he has already said and of the fact that the imputation of sin to those who like Jesus are innocent is constantly reprobated in Scripture (cf. Ex. 23:7; Prov. 17:15), he has left no room for the inference that Adam’s sin is imputed.
In verse 20 Paul again implies that he is differentiating between sin apart from and sin under the law of Moses when he says that the law came in “to increase the trespass”. The implication here is that before he became a son of the commandment, the Jewish male though already circumcised was categorised with women who were uncircumcised and relatively ignorant of the law like the heathen. Historically and racially, of course, the children of Israel emanated from sinful heathenism. The law of Moses, which was given to them in the course of their history, was re-enacted or recapitulated in the individual. As in chapters 1-3, he is talking about actual as opposed to imputed sin. It is just as difficult to see how disobedience to the law could increase imputed sin as it is to see how obedience to it could increase Christ’s imputed righteousness. Since Adam’s sin was a clear infringement of law or commandment (Gen. 2:17) in contrast with Eve’s (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14), we can hardly fail to draw the conclusion that the law increased the liability of the Jews (Amos 3:2, cf. Rom. 3:9ff.; 5:20; 7:13) in comparison with that of the Gentiles who did not have the law. This is certainly what Jesus taught (Mt. 10:15; 11:20-24; 12:39-42; Luke 12:47f., cf. Ezek. 5:6f.; 16:47).
Seventh, Paul tells us in verse 21 that sin exercised dominion or reigned in death. But death is the wages, not the gift (imputation), of sin (cf. Rom. 4:1-8; 6:21,23). So the difference here is between the actual sin of all (v.12) paralleling or repeating Adam’s paradigmatic sin and the free gift of righteousness stemming from Christ’s keeping of the law and leading to life (6:22f.).
Eighth, all careful readers of the Bible know that the free gift of righteousness is voluntarily received by faith. On the imputation theory, we are forced to ask by what instrumentality the free gift of Adam’s sin is involuntarily received, especially by babies whose death is said to be the wages of imputed sin (even though that, according to Paul in 4:1-8, is a contradiction in terms). Again, we are forced to the conclusion that the apostle is differentiating between the free gift of righteousness which requires faith and the result or effect of Adam’s sin which does not. Whatever the latter was (and Paul fails to tell us), it did not and could not involve imputation which excludes death as wages (Rom. 4:4f.). In any case as we have already seen, Scripture denies that the child can be punished for the sins of the father (Dt. 24:16; Ps. 78:8; Jer. 31:29f.; Lam. 5:7,16; Ezek. 18:2, etc.). Furthermore, as was also intimated above, the injustice of this notion was clearly evident to Job (21:19-21, cf. 34:10-12). Time and again the OT calls attention to the sins of both fathers and sons (e.g. Neh. 1:6f.; 9:26-37; Ps. 106:6; Jer. 14:20; 16:10-12; Ezek. 20:18-21,30; Dan. 9:5,8-16, etc.). If at first sight Jeremiah 32:18 (cf. 31:29) suggests that the children are in fact being paid the wages of their parents’ sin, verse 19 makes it clear that all are rewarded according to their ways (cf. Rom. 2:6, etc.). So, the only conclusion we can reasonably draw from this is that Paul is telling us that the sin of Adam had a negative, even deleterious, effect on all his posterity (pace Pelagius) who were nonetheless personally guilty (contrast Num. 14:3,29-33). Whatever that effect was, and, given the Jewish emphasis on the solidarity of the individual with the community, it was probably the impact of parental or social influence, example, etc. (cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Jer. 8:14). But we can be sure that it could not have been the result of imputation, or even Jesus, as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38), would have been unavoidably caught in the net. And that Scripture simply will not allow. (While Jesus could resist the effect of his parents’ (including Joseph’s) shortcomings, he could not possibly have overcome the universal imputation of Adam’s sin to all his posterity! (2* Cf. Luke 2:41-52; Rom. 7:13ff. Moo comments that the law has the function of turning its addressees who transgress the known law of Moses into “their own Adam“ (p. 348). This is surely an odd comment to make if they have already putatively sinned in Adam!)
This leads to a further comment regarding the injustice of the notion of the imputation of Adam’s sin. If sin is imputed apart from faith (contrast Jesus who exercised faith in obedience to his Father’s will), it is in the eyes of the biblical writers fundamentally unjust as Exodus 23:7, 1 Sam. 22:15, 1 Kings 21 and Luke 23, for example, indicate. The wonder of the gospel is that God does not impute to believers the sins that they have actually committed (Rom. 4:8). Thus, we always read about our actual sins (Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 2:13; Rev. 1:5, etc.) and those of our parents which we repeat (e.g. Ps. 106:6; Acts 7:51-53), but never about sin imputed to us as a free gift.
The upshot of all this is that if Paul is pointing up a strict parallel rather than an general analogy in Romans 5:12-21, then just as justification is by faith so also is condemnation. The problem here is that according to Scripture, except in the sole case of Jesus who exercised faith, condemnation is by works and is therefore wages (see e.g. Romans 2:1-11; 4:1-5; 6:23). To clarify the issue still further, it needs to be insisted that if the free gift, or imputed righteousness, results in the free gift of life (Rom. 6:23), the free gift (or imputed sin) cannot result in the wages of death. If it can, the so-called parallelism evaporates and betrays itself as a figment of the imagination. If by way of rejoinder it is insisted that Jesus paid the penalty when sin was imputed to him, it must be replied that Jesus exercised faith and voluntarily undertook to die for his sheep as their substitute (John 10). On the other hand, if sin is imputed to infants apart from faith, then sin becomes a gift of creation involuntarily received like the colour of the skin. This implies, first, that God creates us evil, and, second, that we are not responsible for it but that God is. However, we regard it, the traditional dogma of original sin is blasphemous.
The only way of avoiding this problem would appear to be resort to realism, the notion that we all literally and actually sinned in Adam which Scripture fails to teach. It is interesting to note that Murray (2) who strongly advocates the imputation of Adam’s sin rejects realism but nonetheless argues for corporate solidarity in Adam (pp.35f.). He then attempts to deny the injustice implied by this by claiming that the latter is by divine institution maintaining that it is not valid to insist that vicarious sin can be imputed only when there is voluntary acceptance of such imputation (p.36). (One wonders what Abraham would have thought of this, cf. Gen. 18:23-33.) In saying this he opens up a veritable can of worms, for Scripture insists on the voluntariness (3* See Ex. 32:33; Ps. 78:8; Isa. 3:10f.; Ezek. 18:4,20; Acts 8:1; Rom. 1:32; 2:9f.; 1 Tim. 5:18; 2 John 11, etc. According to the Bible sin is based on law and knowledge as Genesis 2:17 and 3:1ff. make abundantly plain. For knowledge, see, for example, Abimelech (Gen. 20:4-6), Jonathon (1 Sam. 14:27), Ahimelech (1 Sam. 22:15), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:25), David (2 Sam. 3:26,28) and Absalom’s guests (2 Sam. 15:11 and the explicit teaching of Jesus (John 9:41; 15:22,24) and Paul (Rom. 1:18-3:20). For law, see especially Romans 2:12f.,18; 3:19f.; 4:15; 5:13; 7:1-13, etc. Sin apart from law and knowledge does not exist or the entire animal creation would be guilty. Only if it can exist apart from these, as in the transmission or imputation of sin apart from faith (which itself is based on knowledge), can it be regarded as involuntary.
According to Scripture, sin is transgression of law (James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17) and hence a work (see e.g. Rom. 3:20,27f.; 9:31f.; Gal. 3:10-12). Imputed sin excludes works (Rom. 4:1-8). It might usefully be added here that even Augustine wrote somewhat inconsistently: ”No-one is punished for natural evils, but for voluntary evils” (Needham, p.53). His effort to palm off an evil birth nature on us lacks substantiation. No wonder B.B.Warfield once remarked that Augustine was not a systematic theologian.) as opposed to the imposition of sin. Contrary to his assertion that “it is not difficult to see that the imputation of sin on the basis of Adam’s representative capacity could operate with unique and universal application” it must be pointed out, first, that there is no biblical evidence supporting Adam’s covenant headship and representative role, and, secondly, if there were, then Christ himself would be implicated and hence rendered incapable of voluntarily acting on our behalf. In stressing corporate solidarity Murray fails to see that there are numerous examples in both the Bible and experience when we suffer for our representatives’ actions but do not subscribe to them. There is a biblical doctrine of separation as well as one of solidarity (cf. Num. 16:22 and verse 24! Note also 14:3,29-35; 26:11,65; 27:3; Gen. 17:14; Dt. 1:39; 24:16; 2 Sam. 24:17, etc.). Jesus was uniquely separate not by birth (Luke 3:38; Heb. 2:17) but by virtue of his remaining sinless (John 8:46; 14:30; Rom. 8:3; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.) (4* If it is argued that Paul maintains in Romans 5 that Adam’s sin was in some way determinative, it may be replied that since he does not explain in what way, his argument must be an a fortiori one. If Adam sinned without any parental influence, how much more the rest of us who, made in his image (Gen. 5:1), had his (cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f., etc.). If Jesus successfully resisted all the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, surely he was also capable of resisting the evil influence of his parents (cf. Ps. 51:5; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 2:49; 11:13, etc.). On the other hand, if the imputation of sin apart from faith is true, then Jesus was also born a sinner (cf. Heb. 2:17)! The attempt to make him “a singular exception” (Whyte) since his was not an ”ordinary generation” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.16, an Augustinian idea that lacks Scriptural support) must be regarded as abortive. Jesus proved his paternal pedigree (ratified his divine ontology) by not sinning (Heb. 4:15). As a true son of Adam born knowing neither good nor evil (cf. Isa. 7:15f.) like the rest of us (Dt. 1:39), he successfully kept the law he was taught while everyone else failed (Rom. 8:3f.). The problem with all exception clauses is that they make Jesus other than man and hence patently different from his brethren in contrast with Hebrews 2:17. They thus render him not only incapable of meeting man’s need but also destroy his capacity to act as their representative (Heb. 2). In the mind of the author of Hebrews, exception means exclusion. If Jesus is different, he is docetic and not a true Son of Adam (Luke 3:38).). Where Adam and the rest of us failed, he, the second Adam, succeeded (John 8:46; Rom. 8:3). What devotees of the imputation of Adam’s sin fail to perceive is that if the sin of the first Adam was universally imputed to his posterity, there could never have been a second Adam capable of acting in his place! To overcome this problem Jesus would have had to begin de novo and avoid being part of Adam’s pedigree. But this would make him to all intents and purposes docetic, that is, different from all his brethren who were the posterity of Adam. This Scripture does not, indeed cannot, allow (cf. Luke 3:38; Heb. 2, etc.).
I conclude that those enamoured of parallelism in imputation are guilty of attempting to transform a general analogy into a virtual identity. The parallel between the imputed righteousness of Christ and the sin of Adam does not exist. It is a theological mare’s nest and as full of holes as Haggai’s bag (1:6). It has done and continues to do enormous damage to the Christian faith.
So, to sum up, we need to note that the exact if contrasting parallels which the Bible presents to us are: justification by faith (believers) and condemnation by faith (Jesus) on the one hand and justification by works (Jesus) and condemnation by works (disbelievers) on the other. These form the basis of the great exchange (2 Cor. 5:21). So far as imputation is concerned, it only occurs either as a result of faith (free gift, Rom. 4:3,5f.) or works (Rom. 4:4). Imputation apart from faith or works is regarded as evil throughout the Bible (1 Sam. 22:15; 1 K. 8:32; 21; Prov. 17:15, etc.). In light of this, babies who can neither believe nor work are out of the reckoning.
L.Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Edinburgh, 1959.
R.B.Gaffin in C.E.Hill and F.A. James eds., The Glory of the Atonement, Downers Grove, 2004.
D.M.Lloyd-Jones, Romans 5, London, 1971.
D.J.Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids, 1996.
John Murray, (1) The Epistle to the Romans, London, 1967.
(2) The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, Phillipsburg, 1979.
N.R.Needham, The Triumph of Grace, London, 2000.
A.Whyte, The Shorter Catechism, Edinburgh, repr. 1961.
Since writing the above I have read the very useful work, “Counted Righteous in Christ” by John Piper (Wheaton, 2002). He also regards Romans 5:12-21 as an exact parallel (see pp. 90ff.). It has to be said that Piper’s very considerable exegetical powers falter at this point. He simply assumes what needs to be proved, that is, that Paul is teaching the imputation of Adam’s sin. On the one hand, he fails to acknowledge the enormous difficulties that this notion encounters, not least that it involves Paul in self-contradiction, and, on the other, to produce convincing exegetical arguments in its support. For example, Sanday and Headlam long ago pointed out that the vital words “in Adam” do not appear in Romans 5, yet Piper quite gratuitously transfers their one and only appearance in 1 Corinthians 15:22 to Romans 5:12, completely ignoring the difference in subject matter. In their proper context they almost certainly mean “in the flesh” (cf. 15:45-49). Even Jesus died “in Adam” in this sense (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18)!
Without going into more detail, Piper gives his game away when he admits (pp.102f.) that our real sins are enough to condemn us. This in itself makes the imputation of Adam’s sin redundant. For all that, he proceeds to maintain that our deepest problem is our “mysterious connection with Adam” which he simply assumes involves imputation. In light of this, it must be asked why God should commit what according to the Bible itself is the wholly immoral and in the event unnecessary act of imputing sin to those (i.e. babies) who do not have them (cf. 1 Sam. 22:15; 1 K. 21; Luke 23)? (While it can be shown how God overcomes his own acknowledged “injustice” when he justifies the ungodly who believe, cf. Ex. 23:7; Prov. 18:5; 24:24, it cannot be shown how he deals with his patent injustice when he condemns the innocent, Christ apart, cf. Dt. 27:25; Job 34:17; Ps. 94:20f.; Prov. 17:15,26; Isa. 5:23b.) Surely it should be evident to all thinking people that if God never intended “flesh” to justify itself (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; 3:11), actual and voluntary sin in the flesh to which all are prone is enough to guarantee that only he himself can save his people (cf. Isa. 45:21-25). And this he has done by imputing our sin(s) to Christ who, in faith and commitment to his Father’s will, died on our behalf. This was central to the plan of salvation from before the foundation of the world (cf. Phil. 2:5-11; Rom. 11:32; Rev. 13:8).
By arguing for an exact parallel between the imputation of Adam’s sin and Christ’s righteousness Piper unwittingly saws the branch on which he is sitting. He clearly undermines the case for our being “Counted Righteous in Christ” and significantly diminishes, if he does not destroy, the impact of an otherwise valuable work. If we base our case for imputation on the imputation of Adam’s sin, the answer to the question posed by Piper’s subtitle: “Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness?” regrettably has to be yes! That is a tragedy but, in the event, one that can easily be avoided by recognising that the imputation of Adam’s sin is a delusion, a blasphemous lie in fact.
There are only two acts of imputation in Scripture – Apart from the imputation of actual sin of disbelievers, of course (cf. Rom. 4:8; 2 Cor. 5:19) – and both involve faith: first, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believing sinners, and, second, the imputation of our sins to our believing Saviour. Here we have an exact if contrasting parallel involving a great exchange (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18). To add another, the imputation of Adam’s sin apart from faith is to destroy any parallel that might otherwise exist. As the old adage has it, at this point two’s company, three’s a crowd!