Orthodox evangelicals claim to believe the Bible, but they also believe in original sin. In other words they accept the Augustinian idea that we inherit Adam’s sin. But does the Bible teach this? References like Jeremiah 31:29f. and Ezekiel 18, to go no further, cast doubt on this. Catholics stress ‘carnal concupiscence’ and the transmission of sin by birth. They contend that Jesus avoided inherited sin because Mary was a virgin and ‘lust’ was obviated. Protestants claim that Adam’s sin is imputed to all his offspring though just how is less than clear. Furthermore, they are not at all clear on how Jesus who was a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) avoided this imputation.
Protestants, who do not resort to the Virgin Birth as the means by which Jesus evaded original sin, sometimes imply that with Jesus God made a new beginning. This is impossible as reflection on Exodus 32 (cf. Num. 14:11-19; Dt. 9:26-28; 32:26f.) makes apparent. When testing his servant in the wilderness, God suggests to Moses that he (God) should make a new start with him (32:10). Moses immediately protests pointing out, first, the disastrous effect this will have on the Egyptians, and, secondly, the failure of God to keep the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (32:13). Needless to say, God “changed his mind” (32:14, NRSV). The lesson we learn here is that if the promise was to be kept, the Lord Jesus had to recapitulate the history of the race as the second Adam by going back to the very beginning (cf. Eph. 4:9f.). If he had not assumed what needed to be healed, as Gregory Nazianzen put it, he would have been a failure and sin would have defeated the plan of salvation outlined to Abraham. This, of course, is an intolerable view. The answer to problems relating to original sin lies elsewhere, as we shall see. God is the God of all who have faith (Heb. 11). (There is a sense in which God is our God from birth to death, arguably even before birth, Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15, but it is only from our conscious youth that we rely on him in faith, Ps. 22:9f.; 71:5-9,18).
The contention that we are all born sinners is widely if not universally held. But is it a reasonable proposition? Many arguments can be advanced against it as I have indicated in various articles on the subject (1* See for e.g. my Does Romans Teach Original Sin?, Some Arguments Against Original Sin, More Arguments on Original Sin, An Exact Parallel? , J.I.Packer on Original Sin). Here I want to deal specifically with the idea that we are sinners by birth.
Sin and Law
First, it must be pointed out that sin is defined by and founded on law (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 7:7f.), and since it involves active transgression of (the) law (1 Sam. 15:24; James 2:7-9; John 3:4; 5:17), it is a work that earns death as wages (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). (2* See my Law and Sin) Second, the Bible teaches that keeping the law leads to and is the precondition of life (Lev. 18:5). If these two statements are both true, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that everyone that comes into this world is morally neutral or innocent and is hence in a position to become either a sinner or a saint. For example, while the apostle Paul claims in Romans 7:9 that he himself was born ‘alive’, he makes it crystal clear in 7:9f. that he failed to remain so. Indeed, in the latter part of chapter 7 he complains that despite his best intentions, he could not keep the law. The inference from what he has to say about himself is that he was not born a sinner but rather sinned of his own volition. What happened to him happens to us all just as it had happened to our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Born without knowledge of law and hence of good and evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22; Dt. 1:39; 1 K. 3:7; Isa. 7:15f.; Heb. 5:12-14), we develop until we gradually gain rational consciousness. When this occurs we are enabled in contrast with mere animals to receive at least one parental commandment (cf. Prov. 1:8; 4:1ff.; 6:20-23), which is almost inevitably a negative one. (3* It is worthy of consideration that adults tend to say ‘no’ to a child as they do to a dog! Apparently tone of voice rather than understanding prompts a reaction in dogs.) At this point we proceed to break the commandment just as our parents all the way back to Adam did before us (cf. Ps. 106:6, etc.). And it is on account of this that, like Paul, we die. If this is the case, it is hardly surprising that Paul teaches in no uncertain terms that where there is no law there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15, cf. 5:13; 7:1-13). But this had been implied long before by Moses who maintained that, like Adam and Eve before them, children who do not know the law, and therefore good and evil, are born innocent (Dt. 1:39, cf. Rom. 9:11). This view of the matter is supported by the fact that while sinful Israelite parents failed to gain entry into the Promised Land, their implicitly sinless children, despite suffering on account of their parents’ disobedience (cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Rom. 5:12-21), succeeded in entering it (see Num. 14:3,29-35). No wonder Moses had said earlier that it was only the soul that sinned that would die (Ex. 32:33). (4* On Romans 5:12-21 see myThoughts on Romans 5:12-14)
Creeds and Confessions
Second, traditional theology as portrayed in creeds and confessions like The Westminster Confession of Faith and the 39 Articles of the Church of England lead us to believe that we all died ‘in Adam’ and hotly deny that imitation is involved (see espec. Art. 9). (5* ‘Imitation’ is perhaps an unfortunate word used by Pelagius and dismissed by Augustine. ‘Repetition’ would perhaps have led to better understanding. See my Imitation.) The problem here is that on the basis of a bad Latin translation, Augustine, who knew very little Greek, imported into Romans 5:12 this highly dubious notion which to this day is constantly palmed off on us by tradition. However, the question must be asked: Does it receive support elsewhere? Some would argue that it does and refer to verses like Galatians 2:15 and Ephesians 2:3 where Paul, superficially at least, appears to come to their aid.
In Galatians 2:15 the apostle talks of people like himself as being Jews ‘by nature’. (If the ‘by nature’ had been applied by Paul to the Gentile sinners to whom he refers, the argument would have been more difficult to refute.) But does this mean ‘by birth’ (e.g. NRSV, NIV)? The answer must be in the negative. The Bible itself makes it very clear that Jews as the children of Abraham were born uncircumcised (= without knowledge of law) human beings like all children and were hence, like Abraham before them, Gentiles before they were marked by circumcision and set apart as Jews. What is more, a boy did not become a son of the commandment until his bar mitzvah at age 13 (cf. Luke 2:41). Even the circumcised Jesus like his forebears had a heathen or Gentile experience in Egypt (Mt. 2:15). As Genesis 17 makes clear, boys were not circumcised until the eighth day and girls, who were often virtually classified with the heathen, not at all. An uncircumcised Jew is a contradiction in terms (Gen. 17). (On the difference between being a Roman citizen and a Jew by birth, see below.)
In the mind of most commentators, Ephesians 2:3, where Paul tells his readers that they are sinners ‘by nature’, supports the traditional dogma of original sin. But does it? The NIV translates ‘by nature’ correctly but implies that it means ‘by birth’ by referring to ‘the cravings of our sinful nature’, instead of our ‘flesh’, earlier in the verse. The problem is that the sins referred to in verses 1-3 (cf. v.5, cf. Col. 1:14; 2:13) seem to have been personally and accountably committed and are the reason why the Ephesians are by nature the children of wrath like the rest of mankind. (6* It is gratifying to see in the 2011 revision of the NIV, that ‘sinful nature’ has been replaced by ‘flesh’. However, an added note informs us that “the Greek word for flesh, sarx, refers to the sinful state of human beings.” In a sense it does, but the point Paul is making is missed, that is, that the flesh as such ‘lusts’ against the spirit and therefore needs to be controlled as it was by Jesus who alone succeeded in living a sinless life in the flesh, Rom. 8:3. In verse 5 the sins that lead to death are clearly personal works which are paid appropriate wages, Rom. 6:23. They are not the immediate result of Adam’s imputed sin.) In other words, will precedes and determines nature, hence the notion of the bondage of the will. (7* It is important to recognize here an important contrast: on the one hand the bondage of sin is the result of our free will which leads to death, on the other hand the bondage of decay is the result of the will of God which leads to an invisible hope of life and glory, Rom. 8:18-25, cf. 2 Cor. 5:5.) After all, both here and elsewhere Paul highlights personal sins inexcusably perpetrated (Rom. 1:18-3:20,25; 7:9f.; Eph. 2:1,5; 4:17-19; Col. 2:13, cf. 1 Pet. 2:24f.; 2 Pet. 1:9), not the abstract idea of one inherited sin which if imputed (Rom. 4:1-8) could not without contradiction earn the wages of death (Rom. 6:23). This view of the matter is supported by Jesus who says in John 8:34 that those who sin become the slaves of sin. Otherwise expressed, a sinful nature is acquired by breaking the law (e.g. Paul, Rom. 7:9f., cf. 6:16; Gen. 3:6; Num. 15:39; Isa. 53:6; 56:11; 57:17; 58:3,13; 66:3) just as a righteous nature is acquired by keeping the law (e.g. Jesus, Rom. 2:13; 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:7, etc.). The point is that since we are flesh we find sinning all too easy (Rom. 7:14; Gal. 5:16f.,19-21) but doing what is right virtually impossible without the aid of the Spirit (Job 4:17; 9:2; Rom. 2:13; Gal. 5:22-24). This is the essence of what Paul is saying in Romans 7 and 8.
Long before Paul, Jeremiah had asked, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also can you do good who are accustomed to do evil” (13:23, ESV). At first blush this is a clear instance of nature being acquired by birth, but this inference is somewhat precipitate. What Jeremiah is saying is that what his compatriots have become accustomed to is sinning and as a consequence they have acquired a sinful nature. In other words, he is saying exactly what Jesus said in John 8:34, that is, that those who sin become enslaved by sin (cf. Rom. 6:16) and are no more capable of escaping from this bondage than the Ethiopian is of changing the colour of his skin or the leopard its spots. On reflection this again is the essence of Paul’s complaint in Romans 7. In the weakness of his flesh (7:14) he had been deceived (7:11, cf. Gen. 3:6) and sin had gained a stranglehold on him that he could not break. Try though he would to keep the commandments that he had been taught and had learned to love like the Psalmist before him (Psalm 119:24, etc.), he failed (Rom. 7:12,15,22f., etc.). (7* See my Interpreting Romans 7.) A weak law (cf. Heb. 7:18) hardly enabled him to overcome his weak flesh (Rom. 7:14)!
Matthew 7:16-20 (cf. 1 Samuel 24:13; Jer. 31:29) is occasionally used in support of birth sin. Clearly, if we are born bad, we shall produce bad fruit by nature and can do no other. However, in Romans 1:26f. Paul argues that the Gentiles who are bearing bad fruit are doing so “contrary to nature” (Rom. 1:26, ESV) like thistles bearing figs. It is clear here that Paul expects the Gentiles to act according to their birth nature not contrary to it, and the mere fact that he highlights the penalty (wages) stemming from their aberrant behaviour (1:27) makes this incontrovertible. So when the conclusion is drawn that since we all sin, we must all have been born sinful, there is something wrong with the premises. The truth is that Jesus, like Paul, is not referring to babies who in the nature of the case have never sinned but to false prophets who have personally and wilfully committed sin and continue to do so (cf. Jer. 23; Ezek. 13). As Jeremiah, like Moses (Ex. 32:33), averred, they will die for their own sin (Jer. 31:30), not that of Adam though the latter’s impact on them is undeniable, pace Pelagius.
(The argument of homosexuals who claim they are born the way they are is in my view unassailable. However, their premise must be questioned and we must ask: Are they really born that way?)
So Paul argues that to act against our birth nature is sinful. If this is indeed the case, those who teach that our birth nature is sinful are compelled to conclude that when the Gentiles do by nature what the law requires (Rom. 2:14) they are acting sinfully. This is absurd. But it points up something else, that is, that the devotees of original or birth sin are false prophets. They are in the same league as the Pharisees (John 9:2,34).
In Acts 22:28 Paul claims he is a Roman citizen by birth unlike the tribune who had to purchase his citizenship with money. In view of this, it might well be argued that Jewishness was acquired by birth (cf. Gal. 2:15). It must be pointed out, however, that being a Jew by birth is different from being a Roman citizen by birth. In the Bible, Jewishness certainly depends on being set apart in the purpose of God (cf. Lev. 20:26) but this must also be ratified by human ceremony, namely circumcision which does not occur till the eighth day (Gen. 17). And as was pointed out above, it was not until adolescence that a circumcised boy became a son of the commandment and took responsibility for keeping the law himself. By contrast, Roman citizenship depended on a state law which operated literally from birth. It depended entirely on legal descent and could not be ignored as authorities like the tribune were only too aware (cf. Acts 16:37-39). So what needs to be considered here is the fact that it is impossible to be a sinner by birth. Why? Because at birth the law cannot be broken for the simple reason that there is no law (Rom. 4:15). A baby knows neither the law nor good and evil. Even Jesus as a true human being was at birth similarly ignorant (Isa. 7:15f.; Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11). He was neither righteous nor unrighteous but had to become the one or the other by reaction to the law as it dawned on his consciousness. If he was to be perfected, that is, achieve the perfection of his Father (Mt. 5:48) (8* Perfection or maturation is fundamental to human development as the letter to the Hebrews in particular makes clear.), he was to be so first under (the) law, then under the leading of the Spirit after his baptism as the acknowledged Son of God (Mt. 3:13-17; 19:21; Heb. 2:10; 7:28). Alternatively expressed, while he was under the law he had to keep the commandments flawlessly in order to inherit life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5). Then once he had gained life, he had to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15), that is, keep the standards etched in the Sermon on the Mount under the direction of the Spirit. We who are accounted righteous through faith in Christ have also received the Spirit (Gal. 3:2) and are called on to do the same (Mt. 5:1f.).
Deuteronomy 24:16 (cf. 2 K. 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18:4,20, etc.), lays it down that the son shall not be punished for the sins of the father but will die for his own sins. The Augustinian dogma of original sin, however, flies in the face of this. It teaches that we all die (are punished with death!) for Adam’s sin. The death of babies is held to be proof positive of this and thus baptism is erroneously applied. The false assumption is that all death results from sin. It manifestly does not as Hebrews 1:10-12, not to mention Romans 8:18-25 where sin does not figure, shows. (9* See, e.g., my Death Before Genesis 3, Romans 8:18-25, Death and Corruption.) In light of the evidence we are forced to ask whether we should believe Scripture or tradition. The biblical answer is unequivocal, as Jesus himself made clear in Mark 7:8, cf. v.3). In John 9:41 and 15:22,24, Jesus establishes beyond equivocation personal responsibility.
Since it has had such a profound influence on Christian thinking, it is necessary to take a quick look at Romans 5:12. Augustine famously based his view on the idea that we all sinned ‘in Adam’ though this is not in the text. Nygren claimed that “Paul’s main idea is entirely clear and beyond doubt: it was through one man, Adam, that all men are sinners and are subject to death” (quoted by Morris, p.230 n.49). True, but Paul fails to be specific as to how and why. In fact, he cannot be saying more than that we all fail to overcome the effects of Adam’s evil influence (cf. Ex. 20:5f.). After all, if Adam sinned without parental conditioning, how much more are his descendants likely to sin given his. As David said in Psalm 51:5, we are all born ‘in iniquities’, or, in view of our solidarity with the race, with a sinful pedigree (cf. Mt. 1:1-5). We must also consider that since we are made in Adam’s image (Gen. 5:1-3), we all tend to ‘imitate’ our parents as Pelagius maintained (pace Art. 9 of the C of E), though not necessarily (cf. Ezek. 18). This is important since if Paul’s stance was ‘Augustinian’, then even Jesus was born sinful. (10* See further my Thoughts on Romans 5:12-14; Does Romans Teach Original Sin?; Imitation , Solidarity and Separation, etc.)
The plain fact is that if Scripture teaches original sin, then the Bible contradicts itself. Throughout Scripture babies are regarded as innocent since they do not know the law (Dt. 1:39; 1 K. 3:7,9; Isa. 7:15f.; 8:4; Heb. 5:12-14). And Paul maintains that he himself was ‘alive’ until he broke the law (Rom. 7:9f.).
Psalm 51:5 and 58:3
These verses are well known and readily exploited by Christians to “prove” birth sin. In response I would point out, first, that it needs to be recognized that neither the Jews nor the Orthodox accept that they teach original sin as traditionally held by Christians in the West. Second, 51:5 is frequently mistranslated. For example, the NIV version reads: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” This is tendentious to say the least. Unless it is strictly accurate (which it certainly is not), it assumes what needs to be proved. By contrast, Green’s literal translation of the Hebrew reads: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (cf. ESV). Bagster’s literal translation of the LXX or Greek version reads, “For behold, I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me.” This puts a different complexion on the issue not least because it makes room for a different interpretation. After all, was not Jesus himself brought forth ‘in iniquities’ and was not his mother sinful like Rahab and Ruth before her (cf. Mt. 1:5)? Did he not come into a sinful world in which the impact of the sin of Adam and all his other progeny was all too evident and indeed provided the very reason for his coming? In view of his own sin, presumably with Bathsheba, is there any wonder that a deeply contrite David expressed himself in such vivid, arguably hyperbolic, language? This is especially true of Psalm 58:3 which may be compared with Job 31:18. Judging by what he says elsewhere David was deeply impressed by the way he had been made (Ps. 139:14) even though he was dust (Ps. 103:14, cf. 139:16). And it is precisely this aspect of first Adamic man that Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 15:47-49 rather than sin which he completely omits to mention.
2 Peter 2:12
The only place in Scripture known to me where death is directly related to birth is in 2 Peter 2:12 where we are explicitly informed that animals are born to be caught and killed (cf. Jude 10, Ps. 104:21). Whether they are eaten or not is beside the point: as flesh they are ultimately going nowhere. In 1 Corinthians 15:50 we are pointedly told that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven (cf. John 3:1-8). Why? Because as the product of a corruptible creation they are naturally corruptible (cf. Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12). All animal flesh is inescapably subject to decay but since man is made in the image of God he can hope for a heavenly body (2 Cor. 5:1) a body of glory (Phil. 3:21). It should be noted at this point that sin (except in men who conduct themselves like animals) is not on the horizon, not surprisingly since animal death was used by God for food (Ps. 104:21), to atone for old covenant sin and to herald the eventual sacrifice of Jesus’ flesh. All this points to the reality of creation’s natural corruption and destruction taught by Paul in Romans 8:18-25 (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7-5:10; Heb. 1:10-12). (11* See also my The Correspondence Between Romans 8:12-25 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10; Romans 8:18-25).
If all the offspring of Adam are born sinners, how did Jesus who also was a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) avoid being born likewise? As we have seen, at this point Catholics and some Protestants call in the Virgin Birth, but this has its own problems. If we believe in the imputation of Adam’s sin and Jesus was a genuine man (Heb. 2:17), it is difficult to find a reason for his sinlessness at birth. Denial of it seems to entail Docetism. On the other hand, if we accept the principle of native innocence (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.), his sinless life lived according to the dictates of the law becomes a reasonable, if a highly improbable, proposition (cf. Rom. 8:3). Though born innocent like Adam, nonetheless in contrast with Adam he simply did not sin (1 Pet. 2:22) but obeyed the law. Considering that everyone else like Adam broke the law in some way and proved incapable of doing otherwise (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; 3:11), this was the miracle that Scripture portrays it as. As man Jesus was unique in that he alone proved capable of living a sinless life in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). To put the issue bluntly, all that is necessary to explain human sin (cf. Rom. 7:14) is the inability of all flesh to keep the law (Rom. 3:20; 7:14; Gal. 2:16 Gk, cf. 2 Pet. 2:19) as even Job appeared to recognize (9:2; 15:14). Furthermore, it is all that is necessary to explain the fact that under the old covenant regeneration was never anything more than a promise (Dt. 29:4; 30:6, etc.). For until someone kept the law, eternal life was a chimera (Lev. 18:5). If this is so, birth sin is redundant even allowing, contrary to Pelagius, for the impact of Adam’s and indeed all parents’ sin (cf. Num. 14:33; Rom. 5:12-21).
At the end of the day we are forced by the evidence to deny that we are born sinners. If we were, God himself as our Creator would be chargeable. Rather, like father like son, we are born as Adam was created without knowledge of law or of good and evil (Dt. 1:39, etc.). According to the Bible, not least Jesus himself, where there is no law there is no transgression. This being the case, babies, like animals, are innocent and, like Paul, only cease to be so when they break the commandment. In view of this it is scarcely surprising that the Bible tells us that we sin in our youth, not our infancy (Gen. 8:21, cf. Jer. 3:24f.; 22:21; 32:30, etc.). Until we gain knowledge and hence accountability, we remain innocent flesh like the animals (cf. Gen. 6:17). Furthermore, babies die like them on account of the natural corruptibility of creation, irrespective of sin (Job 14:1f.; Ps. 49:12,20; Eccl. 3:18-20; Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12; James 1:10, etc.). (12* If Job and Jeremiah had thought they were sinners at conception and/or birth, I fancy they would have been less wishful of death in the womb, 3:11; 10:18; Jer. 20:14-18. After all, Augustine taught that all unbaptized babies went to hell!)
Assuming then that the findings of this brief study are valid, it is apparent, first, that original sin is alien to the Bible, and, second, that recapitulation is at the heart of the Christian faith. As (human) animals we all begin as unprofitable flesh (John 6:63; Rom. 7:18; 8:8). But when, as those created in the potential image of God we develop and gain knowledge, even though we sin we can nonetheless please God by exercising faith (Heb. 11:6). If Jesus was the second or last Adam, this must be so, for he had to assume what he intended to heal. He had to re-cover to perfection the ground that Adam and all his offspring had covered so unsuccessfully under (the) law. And because he succeeded, he was able in his love and grace to lay down his life for his friends and so blaze a trail into heaven itself. In this way he fulfilled the promise to Adam and hence to mankind in general outlined in Genesis 1:26-28, 2:16f., Psalm 8:4-6 and Hebrews 2:8-13. Truly is our Creator God a God of grace and redemption in Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.
L.L.Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids, 1988.