Concerning Original Righteousness

Of all the dogmas that have come down to us from our spiritual forebears none has involved more misunderstanding and wreaked more havoc, at least in its ramifications and implications, than the notion that Adam and Eve were created perfect, holy and righteous to exercise lordship in a perfect creation. Today in the twenty-first century, though we still hear much of original sin, comparatively little is heard of the concomitant idea of original righteousness. Many who upheld it even in my younger days seem to have quietly ceased to refer to it, though it appears regularly in reprints of older theological works.

The Historical Background

It was Augustine of Hippo who foisted it on the church of his day, and it has stayed with us for nearly 1600 years. It must be remembered, however, that Augustine was converted against a background of paganism, of Manicheism in particular, though his mother, Monica, was a Christian. His understanding of the Bible was extremely limited at the start of his ecclesiastical career but he studied hard.

Augustine believed that God had created man (Adam) upright, good and free (Seeberg 1,341). This being so, it was man’s delight as well as his duty to serve God and to subject his body to his soul (Rist, 101f.,110,112). He had the capacity to persevere in good and the exercise of his free will. Further, he was able not to sin (posse non peccare) though not unable to sin (non posse peccare). Ultimately, however, his pride proved his undoing (Seeberg,1,342, Rist, 102). This is associated with the ‘triple concupiscence’ referred to in 1 John 2:16 where concupiscence comes to mean for Augustine not merely lust but weakness.

So it was from the ‘high estate’ (Milton) of original righteousness that man in Adam fell. Whereas before he was able to decide between good and evil, he now had to contend with ignorance, difficulty and weakness. He lost his free will and could no longer perform any good act. He had a divided self or ‘shattered identity’, feared death yet was liable to temptation and unable to control his disobedient, especially his sexual, members (Rist, pp.130ff.). The result of all this was that man’s nature was now ‘significantly irrational and hence unintelligible’ (Rist, p. 138). In a word human nature, not simply the nature of Adam which was passed on to all his children, had undergone a serious change for the worse. Man was ‘socially’ and ‘genetically’ damaged (Rist, p. 326) and mortally wounded.

Based firmly on this platform and harbouring great admiration for Augustine, it is not surprising that the Reformers, though taking great strides away from medieval Catholicism in certain areas, fell well short of escaping his tentacles. They believed in the words of Mastricht that “original righteousness was conferred on Adam not as a private but a public person” and would therefore have been transmitted to posterity. In the event, however, since like begets like (cf. John 3:6), it was original sin that was passed on resulting in the disturbing loss of free will (see Heppe, pp.240f., cf. Seeberg, p.342). (1* Cf. the later federal theology and the idea that Adam was the covenant head and representative of all humanity.) Though they distinguished between righteousness as substance (God) and accident (man), the Reformers, conditioned as they were by Augustine’s views, clearly drew false conclusions from the biblical data which must now be briefly examined.

The Biblical Data

First, righteousness inheres in God alone: he is not only righteous in himself (Dt. 32:4; Ps. 119:137; Jer. 12:1; Dan. 9:7; Isa. 45:21) but is righteous in all that he does (Gen. 18:25; Ps. 92:15; Isa. 5:16; Dan. 7:14,16). Since he himself is characterized by his holiness and righteousness, he requires man who is created in his image to be like him (Gen. 17:1; Lev. 19:2; Dt. 16:20; 18:13; 2 Chron. 19:7, etc.). But since at the start man knows neither the law nor good and evil, God’s image is purely potential. In other words, it has to be acquired by obedience (cf. Rom. 6:16), which is the implication of Genesis 2 and 3.

This is where Augustine, followed by the medieval church and later still by the Reformers, went so profoundly wrong. He assumed that righteousness was part of Adam’s nature by creation, but this is impossible. The mere fact that it is intimated in Genesis 2:17, 3:5 and 3:22 that Adam and Eve, originally knowing neither good nor evil, had no, least of all ethical, understanding whatsoever should have suggested that they were morally neutral like babies (cf. Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.; Heb. 5:12-14). And it was only when they transgressed the commandment that the situation changed. To say this is to highlight the role of law in Scripture, and it must now be briefly examined.

The Law

First, on the basis of his understanding of the OT Paul lays it down that where there is no law there is no sin (4:15; 5:13; 7:7-12). John implies the same but expresses himself somewhat differently when he defines sin as lawlessness or as transgression of the law (1 John 3:4; 5:17, cf. James 2:9-11). Secondly, and equally importantly, righteousness is only acquired when the law is obeyed (Dt. 6:25; Ps. 24:3-5; Ezek. 18:5-9; Rom. 6:16). This point is brought out in a much misunderstood contention of James (see 2:21,24,25) but stated explicitly by John (1 John 3:7, cf. v.10 and 2:29).

The whole issue is perhaps most easily clarified by reference to the life of Jesus, the man, who was also born like all babies knowing neither good nor evil (cf. Isa. 7:15f.). Even he had to acquire righteousness by his obedience. Whereas the first Adam, and all his posterity likewise (1 K. 8:46, etc.), broke the commandment, Jesus, the second or last Adam, kept the whole written law of Moses and received the approval of his Father by so doing (Mt. 3:17). His reception of the Spirit at his baptism makes it crystal clear that he had kept the law to his Father’s satisfaction and was granted eternal life in accordance with the original promise to Adam (Gen. 2:17). That obedience was the precondition of life is expressed most succinctly in Leviticus 18:5, and not surprisingly the essence of this verse re-appears repeatedly throughout Scripture (e.g. Neh. 9:29; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Rom. 10:5, etc.). For all that he was considered righteous in OT terms (cf. Paul in Philippians 3:6 though note in his case Romans 7:7), he recognized that he was required as the true Son of his Father to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) in order to achieve the perfection or completeness of his Father (Mt. 5:48; Acts 10:38; Heb. 2:10, etc.). Thus he became obedient to death (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8f.) thereby totally fulfilling his Father’s will (Heb. 10:7; John 17:4; 19:30) by laying down his life for his sheep (John 10:17f.). It is then and not a moment before his resurrection and ascension (note Acts 2:22-24) that he is acclaimed as the Holy and Righteous One in a definitive sense (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; 1 John 2:1), implying his equality with the Father. This had of course been obliquely referred to by the devil in Genesis 3:5 (cf. Isa. 45:21,23; Phil. 2:9-11). In John 17:5,24, having to all intents and purposes finished his work, Jesus himself reclaims the glory that he had relinquished during his incarnation. And for Paul he was declared to be Son of God in power, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 1:4).

In light of all this, it is plain that the role of law alone in Scripture precludes the possibility that ‘flesh’ could be righteous by creation (cf. Rom. 7:18; 8:8). If this was true of the incarnate Jesus who was ‘born of woman’ (cf. Job 15:14), how much more of ordinary men like dusty Adam whose origin resembled that of maggots and worms (Job 25:4-6). On reflection, it is quite ironical, astonishing in fact, that many Christians have believed that the flesh is evil (cf. NIV and its constant rendering of sarx (flesh) as ‘sinful nature’ though corrected in the 2011 edition) yet have nonetheless attributed righteousness to him who was the very epitome of the flesh (cf. Gen. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:45-49). It is all the more amazing when on consideration we see that the only moral quality that Adam is given in Scripture is his sinfulness, not because he was made that way but because the only record we have of him is as one who broke the law (commandment). Certainly he fell far short of the kind of good that Augustine attributed to him.

Scripture is unequivocally clear on this matter. Jesus, the second Adam, was the only man in all history who successfully kept the law, and on the basis of his obedience was pronounced righteous.

Some may protest at this point and insist that Jesus as the Son of God must have been ontologically righteous. That, however, would be to confuse his humanity with his divinity and to stray into docetism. Once the word became man (flesh) he had to play the role of the second Adam, justify himself by the works of the law or fail in the attempt as his predecessor had done. This is why it can be said that he had to keep the law on his own account. Failure would only have disqualified him from ever acting as Adam’s necessary replacement and our substitute. This point becomes clear when we consider what is said in Ezekiel 14:14,20 where we read that Noah, Daniel and Job could only have delivered themselves by their righteousness by faith (cf. Moses in Exodus 32:32f. and note Paul in Romans 9:3). In contrast with them, however, Jesus kept the law but in so doing, as was indicated above, was regenerated in accordance with the divine promise recorded most notably in Leviticus 18:5 and thus enabled to die on his brothers’ behalf (Eph. 2:10; Heb. 2:10-13).

Human Development

The Reformers (and regrettably the sons of the only half-completed Reformation) as they somewhat uncritically followed Augustine and the medieval church, made another inference which is not merely radically unbiblical but also flies in the face of human experience, that is they saw man essentially as a flat uniformity and not as a creature inherently subject to development or evolution (cf. Berkhof on Schleiermacher, ST, p.203). Otherwise expressed, they failed to reckon with the fact that Adam was representative man according to the flesh and an individual in his own right (though certainly not its covenant head). As the former, he was only in his infancy, initially a fetus gestating in the womb (Eden) in fact. As the latter, while he may have been physically mature he was spiritually very primitive indeed. Thus the Reformers and many of their successors tried to argue back from texts like Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 and draw the clearly erroneous conclusion that since regenerate man’s image is that of God, then Adam’s was originally like it. (2* See e.g. Hodge on Ephesians 4:24, p.267.) But this is to fly in the face of the evidence and to reflect complete theological or anthropological disorientation. It confuses the beginning with the end. It is in fact an attempt to fetch back the age of gold which in fact never existed.

The truth is, judging by Genesis 3:5, that the devil, fully aware that Adam was created in God’s image, also recognized that that image was only embryonic or potential and as such had the capacity to develop under the law and fully achieve God’s likeness. This he was intent on preventing, of nipping in the bud. (3* Had that image been already perfect as Augustine taught, it is difficult to see what the devil could have done.) So in accordance with his God-given nature, man had to mature and achieve righteousness first by keeping the commandment and eventually the whole law of Moses. Then having met its precondition he would, like Jesus at his baptism, have received the Spirit and been granted eternal life (Lev. 18:5, etc.). However, even after gaining righteousness under the law of Moses, Jesus was subjected to temptation in what was clearly the devil’s bid to prevent him from attaining to perfection (cf. Mt. 16:22f.). This reminds us that Jesus’ perfection involved the redemption of mankind (cf. John 19:30). (4* Note also the devil’s emphasis on Jesus’ status as the Son of God in the temptations recorded in Matthew 4:1-11. From this we learn that it was essential for the function of Jesus (what he did) to match his ontology (who he was). The process was completed of course when Jesus finally completed his exodus, Luke 9:31,51, and ascended to regain his former glory, John 17:5,24.)

Protestant Doctrine

Since the Reformation Protestant apologetics has made a good deal of Adam’s original righteousness. When Charles Hodge claimed: “It is plain from these passages (Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10) that knowledge, righteousness and holiness are elements of the image of God in which man was originally created” (ST,2, p.101, Ephesians, p.267, cf. Berkhof, ST, pp.202f.), and “What is asserted of Adam is that, as he came from the hands of his Maker, his mind was imbued with this spiritual or divine knowledge”, and again “… it is plain that the Protestant doctrine concerning the image of God and the original righteousness in which and with which Adam was created includes not only his rational nature, but also knowledge, righteousness, and holiness” (ibid. p.102), it is obvious that his Augustinian view of the Bible and of man himself was seriously astray. After all, Genesis itself makes it clear beyond reasonable dispute that Adam as created, like a baby lacking all knowledge and understanding, knew neither good nor evil. (5* Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 15:46 that flesh comes before spirit. The implication of this is that Adam as created out of the ground like the animals was himself first a human animal, that is merely flesh, who eventually developed understanding under the Spirit of God. Like a baby the first command he understood was no!)

Tragically, however, the Reformers, like their medieval forebears, drew from this false notion of Adam’s original righteousness the inference that when Adam sinned he fell from some ‘high estate’ (Milton) that he had previously occupied. But this is manifestly not the case. If Adam fell at all he fell not from the perfect righteousness that characterizes the full-grown or mature man (cf. Jesus, and note e.g. Eph. 4:13-15) but from the state of virtual innocence that a baby enjoys (cf. Isa. 7:15f.; 8:4; Rom. 9:11), which is questionably a fall at all. Having once transgressed, however, Adam became as Jesus intimated in John 8:34, the slave of sin (cf. Rom. 6:16-19). The trend he began was imitated or better repeated (pace Art. 9 of the C of E) and continued, not inherited, by his descendants when ‘all flesh’ corrupted its way on the earth (6:11f.) and was only arrested by the intervention of God in the time of Noah, though even he was a sinner.

Another point must be made. The Bible insists that Adam’s nature was essentially ‘flesh’ (1 Cor. 15:42-50, cf. Heb. 2:14). This being the case, when Jesus says that the flesh is unprofitable (John 6:63, cf. Rom. 7:18; 8:8), he thereby implicitly denies that there is any moral good in Adam. He was no more capable of producing acceptable fruit for God (cf. Heb. 11:6) than a worm or a maggot whose basic nature he shared (Job 25:5f.).

But the Bible has another way of emphasizing the unprofitability of the earthly side of man who lacks inherent value in relation to God, his Creator (cf. Job 22:2f.; 35:7). There is the question of status to consider. Man (Adam) begins life as an earthly creature knowing neither good nor evil and is entirely dependent on God for his support (cf. Num. 11:12). Later, he is carried about by God as a parent carries a child (Ex. 19:4; Ezek. 16; Isa. 63:9; Hos. 11:3f.). In this condition he is but a slave (Gal. 4:1) as Israel in his minority was in Egypt. Once, however, he comes within the jurisdiction and under the instruction of the law, he is no longer a slave (child) but a servant (cf. Lev. 25:42,46,55; 26:13). But even servants lack intrinsic value and produce no good that is worthy of note. By definition, slaves and servants are quite incapable of doing meritorious good. After all, their role is simply to do as they are told (Luke 7:8). Jesus underlines the point when he says in Luke 17:7-10 that a servant, far from putting his master in his debt (cf. Rom. 11:35), is under an obligation to do all that he is commanded to do, and at best falls short even of that (cf. Rom. 3:23; Heb. 9:15). So it becomes perfectly plain that Jesus himself was the peerless servant who alone did his Father’s will and was thus confirmed and acknowledged as his true Son at his baptism (Mt. 3:17, cf. 17:25f.). And it is only as adopted sons that we who believe in him who is our elder brother (Heb. 2:10-13, cf. Luke 15:25-32*) can serve God acceptably (Eph. 2:10; 4:24; Tit. 2:14).

Mention of the word ‘son’ highlights yet another point, for even sons serve their fathers and seek to imitate them, not merely their written instructions but their very characters and nature (cf. Heb. 1:3). Thus Jesus at his baptism undertakes to fulfil all righteousness and achieve perfection as the true Son of his Father, the OT Servant par excellence (Mt. 3:15; John 4:34; 8:29, cf. Mt. 19:21) and in this he is pre-eminently successful despite all the opposition the devil can muster (John 5:19; 14:31; 15:10b). So he finished his course (Luke 13:32) in complete submission to his Father’s will (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 3:6a; 5:8; 10:9f.), and on his exaltation he is pronounced the Holy and Righteous One (Acts 3:14, etc.).

As far as we are concerned, the essence of Jesus’ work as the regenerate Son is that he died to save us as the most famous text in the Bible indicates – John 3:16 (cf. 1 John 4:9; Rom. 5:2,8-10). But the point to be noted is that this work constituted Jesus’ fruit bearing as a Son (John 12:24; 6:37-40, 44-51). It was the kind of work that was inherently impossible for a servant under the law who was in the nature of the case pre-occupied with the task of justifying himself (Lev. 18:5). Rather it involved the voluntary self-offering (John10:17f.) of one who already had eternal life and had already gained entry into the Father’s house (John 8:35f.; cf. Eph. 2:6; Heb. 3:6). No one else was capable of or qualified to accomplish the task. For, if Jesus had not been born again and had died under the law as a Son of the Commandment, he would have been classified as a sinner.

All this prompts the question of our own status before God. Have we Gentiles not only been slaves rather than (Jewish) servants (note how the servant category is missing from the pagan Galatians in 4:1-7) and eminently unprofitable ones at that (Eph. 2:1-3)? Was not the story of our pre-conversion days one of short coming, sin and rebellion? Can we claim righteousness on the basis of works? Manifestly not. But as believers in Christ for us the situation has changed. For just as he was accepted as a son, the Son in fact, at his baptism (Mark 1:11), so were we at ours assuming we were responsible believers (Acts 2:38; 10:44-48; Rom. 8:12-16; Gal. 3:26f.). And Jesus teaches in a manner scarcely able to be misunderstood that, having already been justified through faith in him, provided that we abide in him as he did in his Father, then we can bear fruit too as true sons and daughters (John 15). If we are under any illusions in this respect, it is worth noting that Paul teaches the same thing (Rom. 7:4, cf. 6:13b; Gal. 2:19; Tit. 2:11-14).

Now sons, as we all well know, are not always as obedient as they should be (cf. Luke 15:11-32) and some of their works, if not actually evil, are done with the wrong motive. Yet while as Paul suggests these works will be found wanting on Judgement Day (1 Cor. 3:12-15), their demerit does not affect their standing as true sons. This, of course, brings us back to Jesus’ stress on our keeping his commandments and abiding in him (John 14:15), for perfection is still our aim (Mt. 5:48; 19:21). Of this Paul was well aware as he strove for mastery over his body and the completion of his course in a life full of incident and suffering (Phil. 3:12-16; Acts 20:24). And as he approached the finish, he was confident that, having kept the faith, there was laid up for him the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, would award him at the end. Furthermore, as a good pastor of souls, he was able to assure his readers that they too, as they continued their pilgrimage, could look for a similar reward (2 Tim. 4:6-8).


On the assumption that what has been said above is in essence correct, there are certain fundamental lessons to be learnt from it:

(1) Man as created (or procreated) does not know the law and hence neither good nor evil. He is therefore innocent or morally neutral.

(2) To become either sinful or righteous he, including even Jesus, the last Adam, must either break (James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17) or keep the law (Dt. 6:25; Eph. 2:1-3; 1 John 3:7; James 2:8, 21-26). So when Paul says that where there is no law there is no transgression, he implies by the same token that there is no righteousness either (Rom. 6:16). Since there was no law or commandment in evidence at Adam’s creation (cf. Rom. 9:11), the notion of his original righteousness must be rejected.

(3) Since, according to Scripture, righteousness, holiness and perfection is always something to be attained by man, to posit it in Adam’s case is to suggest that he had arrived before he set out!

(4) Since Adam was clearly not originally righteous, it follows that he never ‘fell’ in the traditional sense of that term (cf. Rev. 2:5). Original sin then is as much a myth as original righteousness and could not possibly be transmitted to his descendants (Ex. 32:33; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 14:14-20; 18).

(5) All men and women, with the single exception of Jesus, are incapable of achieving righteousness by performing the works of the law (Gal. 2:16, etc.). A righteousness imputed by faith is therefore indispensable for life (cf. Lev. 18:5 and Rom. 3:21-28).

(6) According to the Bible man is inherently subject to development, maturation, growth, evolution, completion. Perfection or maturity in sin and/or righteousness cannot be stamped or superimposed on us as a supernatural gift, infused in us or conveyed to us by means of a mechanically operating sacrament as Catholics maintain.

(7) It is fatal to follow uncritically the teaching of great men no matter how exalted their reputation. Augustine’s errors have kept the church in relative adolescence for 1600 years, and it is now time for it to come of age.

* The parable of the Prodigal Son or at least the Elder Brother has surely been widely misunderstood. If it was designed to show the love of the Father, then it succeeds admirably. The apparent reluctance of the older noticeably obedient son points up the awesomeness of the victory Jesus achieved in the flesh. See further my essay Re-Instating The Elder Son.



L.Berkhof, Systematic Theology, London, 1959.

C.Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols, London, 1960.

J.Rist, Augustine, Cambridge, 1994.

R.Seeberg, The History of Doctrine, Grand Rapids, 1977.

H.Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids, 1950.