I have already written an article about birth sin. (1* See Are We Sinners by Birth?). Here I ask virtually the same question from a different perspective: Are we born innocent?
Adam and Eve
It is universally agreed that Adam and Eve, our first parents who as individuals epitomised mankind, were created innocent, knowing neither good nor evil. (2* According to the Bible, if you know nothing, you are innocent. See e.g. 2 Sam. 15:11b; Rom. 4:15.) This is made apparent by such references as Genesis 2:17, 3:5 and 3:22. It was not until they gained understanding and learned the commandment that they broke it and thereby established their moral nature. First Eve sinned when, deceived by the devil, she gave way to her (illegal) fleshy lusts (Gen. 3:1-6). Next, somewhat in contrast Adam, who connived at and participated in Eve’s sin (Gen. 3:7), deliberately broke the commandment he had received directly from God. Thus they both in their different ways became transgressors (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14) and set a pattern which their posterity proceeded to follow. While the heathen Gentiles who did not have the law were deceived like Eve (Rom. 1:24-32; Eph. 4:17-19), the Jews, after enduring heathen bondage in Egypt where they worshipped false gods (Ezek. 20:7, cf. Jos. 24:2,14), like Adam received the law (Dt. 4:8; 33:4; Ps. 147:19f.) only almost immediately to break it and worship a golden calf (Ex. 32).
So, procreated in the image of Adam and Eve (Gen. 5:1-3, cf. 1:27), we all begin at the beginning but do not share their moral nature until we transgress the commandment like them (pace Art.9 of the C of E.).
The Heathen Gentiles and Sin
Nothing in Scripture could hardly be made plainer than the sinful nature of man in his minority. Even those relatively ignorant of biblical teaching in general are aware of Paul’s depiction of the Gentiles in Romans 1. But the portrayal of man in his infancy in Genesis 4-6 is every bit as graphic. So the question must inevitably be asked: Were early humans born innocent? The answer is affirmative or positive for at least two basic reasons: first, if they were not, then God himself would be guilty of creating them morally either good or evil which is denied (cf. Gen. 3:5,22), and, second, they are said to be procreated in the same image as Adam (Gen. 5:1-3) who as we have already seen was created innocent. How then do we explain their later sinfulness? The answer must be that children who are frail flesh born of woman when tested by the commandment (Ex. 20:20; Dt. 13:3) are prone to repeat the sin(s) of their parents, all the more so under their influence. So, just as Eve then Adam sinned when they learned the commandment in their different ways, so did their immediate posterity. In this way the pattern of sin that affected all children transgenerationally was established, for all in due course become law-breakers (cf. Rom. 3:19f.). Thus they all became personally liable and, with the exception of Noah and his family to whom grace is shown, were condemned to extinction in the flood.
The Jews and Sin
The Jews who were the children of Abraham began life as heathen in Egypt and as a race, having worshipped idols (Ezek. 20:7), they were born sinful (Isa. 48:8). But does this fact require us to believe that they were born sinful individually? Not at all, for what applied to the heathen in general applied to them. Though they were the chosen race or elect people who had the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2), they were always aware that they became personally sinful when they all broke the law. The fact is that though they were affected and influenced by others especially their parents (Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Num. 14:18), their sins were their own and were condemned as such (cf. Ex. 32:33). This is constantly made plain in various ways.
First, explicit statements are made: 1 Kings 8:46, Psalm 130:3, 143:2, Ezra 9:7, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Daniel 9:5,15, Malachi 3:2, etc.
Second, the sins of parents and children are plainly and frequently distinguished (e.g. Ps. 106:6; Isa. 65:7; Ezek. 18; 20:18; Dan. 9:8; Acts 7:51-53.).
Third, it is also explicitly stated that, like Adam and Eve at creation, little children have no knowledge of good or evil (Dt. 1:39, cf. Num. 14:29-31; 1 K. 3:7,9; Isa. 7:14f. 8:4; Heb. 5:13).
Fourth, ignorance is highly relevant since where there is no law (or knowledge) there is neither sin nor guilt (Rom. 4:15, etc.). This is made apparent both throughout life and throughout the Bible as the ignorance proving the innocence of the following makes apparent: Pharaoh (Gen. 12:17-20), Abimelech (Gen. 20), Jonathan (1 Sam. 14:27), Ahimelech (1 Sam. 22:15), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:25), David (2 Sam. 3:26-39).
Fifth, it is explicitly asserted that the child cannot be punished for the sins of the father (Dt. 24:16). (3* He/she can and does often suffer because of them, Ex. 20:5. It should be remembered, however, that he can profit from imitating their good behaviour, Ex. 20:6; Luke 11:13; John 8:39.) The implication of this is clearly that we all sin and/or believe on our own account and are responsible for it.
Sixth, Numbers 16:22 (cf. 2 Sam. 24:17) poses the question: If one man sins, will God be angry with the whole congregation? The answer is a definite negative provided the rest of the congregation dissociates itself from the perpetrators (cf. Num. 16:21,45,48-50). It is here that the distinction between solidarity and separation is made. The Bible makes it apparent that we inherit our fleshly constitution from Adam by necessity and divine design (Gen. 5:1-3). Solidarity at this point is unavoidable. To be human at all, that is, born of woman, we must be flesh as Jesus was. But having said this we must be aware that we can be separate morally, and it is imperative that we are (2 Cor. 6:17). Fortunately for us, Jesus was (Heb. 2:14-17; 4:15).
Seventh, the OT distinguishes between unintentional and deliberate sin just as it differentiates between the sins of Eve and Adam and the heathen and the Jew. The prophet Amos pinpoints the difference in 3:2 where he apportions greater blame to the Jew who had the written law and the heathen who did not (cf. Rom. 2). Though the expression ‘diminished responsibility’ as such does not appear, its essence certainly does. What is more, the same point is made in the NT by Jesus himself (Luke 12:47f.). Needless to say, while babies who know nothing are considered innocent (Dt. 1:39) and children who know little are mildly responsible (1 K. 3:7,9, cf. Heb. 5:13), the mature who know much are most accountable (Heb. 5:14, cf. 6:4-6; 10:28-31).
In the NT Jesus makes his own stance very clear. He blesses little children (Mark 10:16) in their implied innocence as his Father God had done at creation (Gen. 1:28; 9:1). Then he clearly appreciates the play of older children even if this does not point to complete innocence despite some interpretations of Matthew 18:1-6. On the other hand so far as adults are concerned, to them he attributes initial innocence like that of our first parents by pointing out that we all become sinners, that is, gain a sinful nature by sinning just as they did (John 8:34). In light of this we can be sure that he does not regard babies as born sinners (cf. Gen. 8:21). In John 8 Jesus distinguishes between two types of children of Abraham and blames those who persecute him as being like their true or moral father, the devil. In John 9:41 he tells the Jews that if they were blind, they would not be guilty but since they claim to be able to see (or know), they are so. Again, in 15:22 he indicates that since he had provided them with knowledge, they were no longer innocent (cf. 2 Sam. 15:11) and there was now no excuse for their sin (cf. Rom. 1:20,32-2:1). Then in John 15:24f., in view of the unique works he performed in their midst, their reaction of hate for both him and his Father without a cause clearly rendered them guilty.
Paul in particular makes his position clear and roundly declares three times in Romans alone that where there is no law, there is no sin or transgression (Rom. 4:15; 5:13; 7:8). For all that, Paul has frequently in church history been regarded as providing the main support for the dogma of original sin. In fact, however, it has long been recognized that Augustine’s understanding of Romans 5:12, which he maintained taught that we all sinned ‘in Adam’ (cf. Vulgate’s Latin ‘in quo’), actually teaches personal sin (cf. Rom. 3:23). This of course is Paul’s clear implication in Romans 3:19f., which sums up all he has maintained from 1:18, not to mention 6:21, 7:5 and Galatians 2:16, 3:10, for example. The force of this cannot be evaded by maintaining that all humans born after the giving of the commandment were liable, for he carefully confines his comments to those who are knowingly under the law (Rom. 3:19; 7:1,7).
Even in 3:20 as in 1:20,32 and 2:1 he links law with knowledge and, this being so, babies and animals are excluded. Thus when he avers in 7:9f. that he himself was once alive apart from the law, the inference we are forced to draw is that this was when he was an innocent baby before he had come to knowledge and been made aware of the commandment (cf. Ps. 78:5-8). But once it came, as it does to all human beings who achieve rationality, he broke it, and like Adam and Eve before him (note the deception of verse 11), he became a sinner by nature. (4* Note the ‘we all’ in Ephesians 2:3, cf. Tit. 3:3.)
I conclude then that Paul, far from believing in either original righteousness or original sin, believed in infant innocence. In fact, he virtually tells us so (Rom. 6:16, cf. 4:15; Prov. 10:16; 11:19).
1 Peter 2:22 indicates that Peter firmly believed that Jesus neither broke the law like Adam nor yielded to deceit like Eve (though cf. John 1:47). In light of this we are compelled to conclude that he accepted that the Saviour was innocent from birth like all who are born of woman (Dt. 1:39, cf. Rom. 9:11). This being so, he had no reason whatsoever to resort to the Virgin Birth to decontaminate Jesus and separate him from all others who were supposedly born guilty ‘in Adam’. (5* See further my The Redundancy Of Original Sin) In fact, Jesus was born of the perishable seed of his mother (cf. Gen. 3:15) and through her of Adam (cf. Luke 3:38; 1 Pet. 1:23-25) and had to be born again like the rest of us (John 1:13; 3:1-8) not on account of sin but on account of his fleshly nature, which even in his case could not enter heaven (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50). (6* Neither as flesh nor as (natural) spirit can the natural man enter heaven and the presence of God who is a consuming fire. He needs to be both born again spiritually and transformed corporeally. Only in this way can he be glorified. Note the Greek dei in John 3:7 and 1 Cor. 15:53 which refers to a necessity not an imperative.)
2 Peter 2:19 interestingly endorses Paul’s conclusion in Romans 6:16. Freedom is the result of obedience to law not slavery to sinful corruption. The point is that both states are acquired not stamped on us fatalistically at birth. And though we all in our fleshly weakness sin, because of the grace of God in Christ the way is always open for us to repent and to separate ourselves from the futile ways inherited from our forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18f., cf. 1:14; 4:2). Peter in no way suggests that our own sins are anything but responsible acts against the law (e.g. Acts 2:38).
James 1:14f. also provides further support for infant innocence. Testing and/or temptation in this world are inevitable since they are the will of God. Though God himself does not tempt us, he certainly tests us by the law (Ex. 15:25; 20:20; Dt. 8:2,16, etc.) which babies do not have. His interest is our perfection or maturation (cf. James 1:4), specifically our sonship and the achievement of the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) who by fulfilling the law in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14) became the exact or complete image of God (Heb. 1:3). When our own test is complete, we receive the crown of life (James 1:12, cf. Job 23:10). In the next chapter James implies that we begin our pilgrimage innocent but become sinful by sinning. At this point he endorses Jesus’ comment in John 8:34 indicating that only one transgression establishes our condition as sinful (James 2:10) as it did in Adam’s case. (7* It is worth noting that Jesus successfully challenged the Jews with regard to his own case, John 8:46. From this, we unavoidably infer that he maintained his innocence from birth by keeping the commandment/law. This being so, his Virgin Birth was irrelevant to his sinless innocence. It related exclusively to his incarnation.)
The Rest of Scripture
Hebrews teaches us about diminished responsibility which again suggests infant innocence. In 3:13 the author refers to deceitfulness of sin recalling the experience of Eve during the infancy of the race (cf. 5:13). Chapter 6 highlights the work of the Holy Spirit, and this reminds us that the sin against the Spirit is more blameworthy than sin against Christ himself (Mt. 12:31f.). Hebrews 10:28 also distinguishes between sin against the law and sin against the Spirit and warns of its more terrifying consequences. Clearly under the influence of the Spirit humans are at their most accountable since it is the Spirit who gives them light (cf. Job 32:8; 38:36, James 1:5, etc.). At this point ignorance, which as we saw above is usually a mitigating factor in Scripture, is out of the reckoning. By contrast, infants who like animals have neither light nor law, are not responsible and so remain innocent. If they die, it is not because they sin but because they fall prey to the naturally corruptible creation from which they have derived. (8* See further my The Corruptibility Of Creation; Creation Corruptible By Nature)
In 1 John 3:4 sin is defined as lawlessness which suggests not ignorance as in babies but deliberate disregard of the law and by implication a denial of one’s status as a human being made in the image of God. In 5:17 all wrongdoing is recognized as sin committed by those who have knowledge.
Since they are completely lacking in knowledge, babies, like animals, can neither be tempted nor exercise faith. In the Garden of Eden, the womb of the race, knowledge was only acquired at the end. Thus when the commandment came and our first parents broke it, they lost their innocence. But with the acquisition of knowledge faith became possible as the promise of Genesis 3:15 indicates. While there is no evidence that either Adam or Eve in their extreme immaturity exercised it, their early adult posterity like Abel and Enoch, in contrast with Cain and Lamech, did (cf. Heb. 11:4f.). The implication is that man in his infancy is in general almost entirely dominated by his flesh (Gen. 6:5-13), and it cannot be less than significant that in his day (generation) Noah, who separated himself, does not intercede for his contemporaries. On the other hand, that there is good and evil in all societies is assumed by Abraham who interceded even for Sodom (Gen. 18). (9* See further my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?)
Sin in Jude and the book of Revelation
Just as the author of Hebrews was deeply concerned to persuade his readers not to go backwards by returning to Judaism and the law, so Jude’s object like that of 2 Peter is to deter rational humans from going back to their fleshly and animal origins. In other words, the implication is that babyhood must be outgrown and transcended. To use Paul’s term we must become men (mature) in our understanding (1 Cor. 14:20, cf. Heb. 6:1, etc.). Just as Jesus developed or evolved from human babyhood to attain the exact or complete image of God (Heb. 1:3, i.e. total maturity), so must we aim at attaining his image and likeness (Rom. 8:29). In its various ways (I assume its recapitulatory interpretation) the book of Revelation portrays the journey of mankind from its origins in the earthly Garden of Eden to the heavenly one (Rev. 22). The story is not simply one of our pilgrimage from ground to glory but of innocence to maturity, of basic imperfection to total perfection (cf. 1 Cor. 13:10-13).
All the evidence mustered here renders birth sin impossible. (10* Only the Pharisees seem to entertain the idea which Jesus promptly rejects, John 9:2f., but even they in 9:34 appear to think more in terms of an illegitimate birth.) If it were true, it would scuttle the plan of salvation. Otherwise expressed, original sin is alien to the Bible both logically and in fact. No wonder the Jews along with the Orthodox have always rejected it.
So, do we inherit sin? No matter whether we consider transmission (Catholics) or imputation (Protestants), the answer must be a firm negative. But, as Psalm 51:5 implies, we inherit sinful forebears just as Jesus did (Mt. 1:1-16)! Despite his sinful ancestry, as a baby he was personally innocent and consequently, on the assumption that he was genuinely human, all others must be so too. If not, he is divided from the rest of humanity (cf. Ex. 32; Dt. 9); he is different in kind and not fully human. This is catastrophic for theology and the Christian faith in general. The truth is that he differed from us in only one respect: though tempted (Heb. 4:15), he kept the law and did not sin (1 Pet. 2:22). He thus met the precondition of life (Lev. 18:5) and, by dying on our behalf (cf. Heb. 2:17), he opened the door of heaven for the rest of us who believe in him.
Food for thought:
There are references to baby Christians in Scripture (1 Cor. 3:1f.; 1 Pet. 2:2, cf. Heb. 6:1) but none to Christian babies and hence to original sin and infant baptism!