D.M.Lloyd-Jones and J.Murray on the Imputation of Adam’s Sin

The two most adamant and powerful contenders for the imputation of Adam’s sin in the twentieth century known to me were Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Professor John Murray. If one ignores his belief in original righteousness (Romans 5, p.194, cf. 191), an exact parallel between Adam and Christ (pp.189,197,199,204f.) and his denial of the moral neutrality of man at birth (pp.317f), one does not have to read many of Lloyd-Jones’ sermons to realise that his case rests entirely on the death of infants (see e.g. pp.203ff.,229,249,268). This renders him extremely vulnerable for two main reasons: first, his case collapses if another reason for the death of infants can be given; and, secondly, Murray, in contrast with Lloyd-Jones, apparently had serious doubts about a case built exclusively on infant mortality (Romans, pp.190f.).

So far as the first point is concerned, it is plain from the teaching of Scripture that when a baby is born it is ‘flesh’ (John 1:13, cf. 1 Cor. 15:46), and, like Adam at creation (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22), knows neither good nor evil (Deut. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f., cf. 8:4). It is hence morally neutral. If it dies without knowledge of (the) law it can neither transgress it so as to earn its wages nor keep it so as to receive its promise of life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Rom. 7:9f.). It must therefore succumb to the law of nature imposed on all creation, man and beast alike, by God himself (Ps. 49:12,20; Eccl. 3:18ff.; Rom. 8:19-25). As in the case of the congenitally blind man, sin is not involved (John 9:3, cf. Mt.19:12; Ex. 4:11; John 11:4). If, as Lloyd-Jones admits, a baby does not actually sin, i.e. commit an overt act of sin (p.203), then it can neither earn the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23) nor become subject to judgement (Rom. 2:6, etc.). Furthermore, to say that sin is imputed to it makes sin a free gift which in the nature of the case cannot be paid wages (Rom.4:1-8, cf. 6:23). If it can, then the parallel requires that we consider our imputed righteousness capable of earning wages as well! A baby’s lack of knowledge of the law on the one hand and its lack of faith on the other (required to make imputation possible) should have made it clear to all that babies are indeed morally neutral (Dt. 1:39; Num.14:31, etc.) and that sin plays no more part in their (natural) death than it does in that of sinless animals.

But Lloyd-Jones has an even greater difficulty to face. While he notes that a large number of infants died in the time between Adam and Moses (p.203), unlike Murray he fails to recognise that if infants are in fact in view, there is no obvious reason why Paul refers exclusively to this particular period for “the same holds true for infants in every period and no one period is a better example than another” (Murray, Romans, p.191n.). In the event, Murray himself fails abysmally to provide an answer. To be reduced to saying lamely that “the apostle is thinking of the universal reign of death and of the solidarity of the whole pace (sic) in this affliction” is hardly good enough. It is nothing more than a totally unsupported assertion of the kind of which he is guilty elsewhere (see e.g. his denial of the legitimacy of any attempt to interpret the Mosaic covenant in terms of the Adamic institution, Collected Writings 2, p.50). And when he adds that “The only sin that provides the explanation is the sin of Adam and the participation of all in that sin” (cf. p.187), he is saying no more than Lloyd-Jones. He has evidently got a rope of sand in his hands.

The plain truth is, of course, that Murray’s dissatisfaction with Lloyd-Jones’ position at the outset identifies a fatal flaw in the argument of both. For Paul’s reference to the period between Adam and Moses is meaningless on the assumption that he had infants in mind. In fact, it indicates beyond doubt that Paul is talking about actual sin in Romans 5:12 just as he was in 3:23 where the same Greek word is used.

That Murray is governed by dogma is further discovered by his earlier comment when he admits the validity of the Pelagian interpretation of verse 12 which could have been “stated admirably well in these terms” (p.182). And the reasons ‘factual, exegetical, and theological’ (pp.183f.) he adduces for rejecting it prove on examination quite inadequate. What he terms the ‘most conclusive refutation’, i.e. “the explicit and repeated affirmations of the context to the effect that condemnation and death reign over all because of the ONE SIN of the ONE MAN Adam” (p. 183) is not a refutation at all. Since Paul nowhere makes specific what the effect, apart from death (cf. 6:23), of this one sin is (cf. Moo, p.323), mere repetition, even ad infinitum, proves nothing, least of all imputation. There are, however, at least three things we need to bear in mind: first, we are all made in the image of Adam (Gen. 5:1-3, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-49); second, Adam and Eve established a pattern of sin which is imitated or repeated frequently throughout Scripture; third, all parents make an impact for good and/or evil on their children (Exodus 20:5f., 34:6f.; Numbers 14:18; Dt. 5:9f., cf. Gen. 22:17f.; 26:3-5 for blessing, and 1 K. 12:30; 13:33f.; 14:16; 15:30,34, etc., for curse). If that is true of us (cf. Rom. 14:7), how much more it must be true of Adam, the progenitor of the entire race. It might be usefully added that Adam’s solidarity or seminal identity with the race is comparable with that of Abraham with Israel. But just as there were two Israels one according to the flesh and another according to the promise (Rom. 2:28f.; 9:6f., etc.), so there were two Adams evincing both solidarity in nature (Heb. 2:14,17f.) and separation in conduct (Heb. 2:9), both similarity and contrast. If imputation were true, this would be impossible, since the second Adam would have been caught up willy-nilly in the sin of the first. As Pelagius, for all his serious error, correctly pointed out, imitation, or better repetition (which Murray, following Augustine, Needham, pp.49-51, predictably denies, CW 2, p.50) as opposed to generation (again Augustine), is of the essence of sin (pace Art. 9 of the C. of E. and note John 8:38ff. espec. v.44, cf. 1 John 3:8-10. See further a multiplicity of other texts in both Testaments like Jer. 3:25; Acts 7:51f.; 3 John 11, etc.).

So, in sum, we may say that: (a) infants, as deriving physically from a temporal material creation destined for extinction (Mt. 24:35; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.), die as a result of disease or disaster quite naturally; (b) imputation and wages are mutually exclusive categories (Rom.4:1-8); (c) only actual sin, which is a work involving transgression of the law, can deserve or earn the wages of death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 2:6; 6:23); (d) the so-called parallel between Christ and Adam in Romans 5:12-21 proves on examination to be far from exact and is in fact a contrast; (e) if the imputation of Christ’s righteousness requires faith as its instrumental means, then so does the imputation of Adam’s sin. Since, however, faith is lacking in the latter, it is clearly an error. The parallel simply does not hold. (1* It might usefully be added that Murray failed to recognise, even denied, CW 2, p.50, that the Adamic administration (commandment), which led to either blessing or curse, was a rudimentary or embryonic form of, and hence was paralleled by, the Mosaic covenant of law imposed apart from faith though rationally accepted, Ex. 24:3,7. The true precursor or parallel of the Christian covenant, which makes faith an absolute requirement, is that of Abraham, cf. e.g. Gal. 3:29; 4:21-31.)

The Augustinian dogma of original sin should be abandoned. It is false to the Bible and not surprisingly it is, according to Cardinal Ratzinger (on TV), central to the Roman Catholic faith. (Since I wrote this Cardinal R. has become Pope!)

Professor Murray’s views on the imputation of sin constitute a serious problem for his entire theology. Those who have read extensively through his works must be aware that (a) he denied the Adamic administration covenantal status (see CW 2, p.49); he adopted a one-covenant as opposed to a federal theology (see his The Covenant of Grace); and yet (c) he argued, as we have seen above, for a double imputation in his interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 (see both his Romans and his The Imputation of Adam’s Sin). But more must be said. In the latter work, Murray notes the following references to imputation in the Bible: Lev. 17:4: Psalm 32:2; Romans 4:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:19 (p.71). He rightly says that these are more specifically expressions of the non-imputation of actual sin. Yet, in obvious contrast, the view he is promoting is an expression of the actual imputation of non-existent sin (cf. Dt. 24:16; 1 Sam. 22:15; Ezek. 18, etc.). This being so, his case is clearly as vacuous as his conclusion that babies are born sinful is fatuous. In fact, his entire work is based on the unproved, indeed the unprovable, assumption that Paul has imputation in mind in Romans 5:12-21. If Paul is teaching imputation then he is involved in self-contradiction, since one of the foundations of his argument in Romans, relating to its basic theme (1:17), is that where there is no law there is no sin (e.g. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13; 7:8f., cf. 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 5:23). This is true even of the heathen (Rom. 2:12, etc.) though they lacked the law of Moses (cf. 5:13). And that children do not know (the) law is implied by the constant stress placed on teaching it to them (Dt. 4:9; Ps. 78:5f.; Isa. 28:9; Heb. 5:12f.).

Perhaps the most obvious flaw in Murray’s entire thesis is that the imputation of Adam’s sin depends for its validity not on exegesis but on federal theology! This arose in part out of Augustine’s dogma of original sin based on his Latin Bible with its erroneous translation of the Greek words ‘eph’ ho’ in Romans 5:12 (cf. Vulgate’s ‘in quo’) meaning ‘because’ not ‘in whom’, i.e. in Adam (cf. Needham, p.49 n.4). The truth, however, is that the words ‘in Adam’, which are crucial to the imputation theory, do not appear. (In 1 Corinthians 15:22 where Paul is dealing with the body and its resurrection they clearly refer to our physical nature, see espec. vv. 45-50, not our covenantal status. Note also the distinction between dying ‘in Adam’ which we all do, even Jesus (1 Pet. 3:18), and being dead in our trespasses, Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 2:13, cf. John 8:24). Thus having deprived himself of both exegetical (he admits, see above, that the Pelagian view is the natural one) and theological grounds (only a federal theology, if it were true, would support a double imputation) for his understanding of the passage in question, his imposition of the words ‘in Adam’ on the text is quite gratuitous. (2* This might seem to be a distortion of Murray’s position since in his commentary on Romans 5:12 he explicitly rejects the translation “in whom all sinned”, p.183. Nonetheless on p.186, he arrives precisely at that conclusion. Thus Needham, p.50, says that Murray’s position is virtually the same as Augustine’s. On pages 186f., Murray alludes to 1 Corinthians 15:22 and asserts that the only adequate explanation for the fact that “in Adam all die” is provided by Romans 5:12. This of course is formally correct, but it begs a serious question: What does Paul mean when he says that all die in Adam? In view of the rest of 1 Corinthians 15, especially vv.47-49, where, like Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, his concern is with nature not sin, we cannot but conclude that he intends us to draw the conclusion that we die as creatures (even babies) of flesh and blood like the rest of a temporal and corruptible creation, cf. e.g. Ps. 49; Rom. 8:18-25. Even Jesus died in the flesh, 1 Pet. 3:18, which is mortal by definition. It is worth adding at this point that in 1 Corinthians 15:21f., as in 15:50, we have an example of synonymous parallelism. In any case, there is not the slightest suggestion that when Paul uses the phrase ‘in Adam’ he has covenant (federal) theology in mind.) Murray is clearly governed more by dogma than exegesis. And further, it points up the unsystematic, incoherent and unbiblical nature of his entire theology as can be shown at point after point.

Lack of space prevents extensive elaboration of this here, so I will confine my attention briefly to the question of the order of salvation (ordo salutis). Since, following Augustine, Murray holds that we are born in sin and are sinful by nature (CW 2, p.58, etc.), he believes in true Augustinian fashion that only the new birth will put matters right. (3* Schreiner, cf. Moo, pp.323-328, rightly rejects imputation but somewhat enigmatically says that the reason all sin is that they enter the world spiritually dead because they are descendants of Adam, p.148. In reaction, two points must be made immediately: (1) Jesus was a son of Adam, and (2) there is an obvious sense in which all, including Jesus himself who knew neither good not evil, cf. Isa. 7:15f., are born spiritually ‘dead’! However, Schreiner fails to allude to Romans 7:9f., where Paul states that he was ‘alive’ until he broke the commandment. The reason why all sin, Jesus apart, 1 Pet. 2:22, is simply that in their fleshly weakness they commit sin, cf. John 8:34; Rom. 7:14, as God intended, Rom. 3:19f.; 11:32; 1 Cor. 1:29; Eph. 2:9, etc. The fact that Adam sinned guaranteed, pace Pelagius, see Murray, see Imputation, p.12, that all his descendants who were made in his image, Gen. 5:3; 1 Cor. 15:49a, and had to contend with his parental legacy of bad example and influence would do so unless they had the power to resist. None apart from Jesus, the stronger man, Mt. 12:29, had. Only he defeated sin in the flesh, Rom. 8:3. No wonder that Paul insists that no flesh will boast before God, Gal. 2:16; 3:22 – a comment which implies (a) that keeping the law is still a theoretical if not a practical possibility, and (b) that original sin is not on the horizon. If original sin were true, reference to boasting would be both superfluous and absurd.) This means that regeneration takes priority in the traditional order of salvation (see Redemption Accomplished and CW 2, espec. 194ff.; Romans, p.27 n.21).

Unfortunately, this is impossible since the indispensable prerequisite of regeneration or new (eternal) life is righteousness (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5 and many similar texts such as Rom. 5:17,18,21; 6:19,22). It is an incontrovertible biblical axiom that only the righteous will live whether by faith (Rom. 1:17) or by keeping the law (Mt. 19:17), a point re-iterated time and time again by the OT writers (e.g. Dt. 30:15-30; Pss. 15,24; Is. 1:19f.; 33:14ff.). Even Murray would admit that faith, being instrumental, comes before righteousness. This means then that despite his strong assertions to the contrary, faith, necessary for justification, precedes the new birth (Rom. 5:18,21) and establishes human responsibility, which has always been threatened by the unilateral and arbitrary acts of original sin and the priority of regeneration. (The manifest inconsistency of Murray’s thinking becomes all the more apparent when we read his comments on Romans 5:18 and 21. He tells us on page 202, cf. pp.209f., that “justification … is unto life and issues in life”.)

Since Murray was usually regarded as the very epitome of Reformed orthodoxy, the weakness inherent in his thinking begs big questions for all who claim to be Reformed. Once more it is evident that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was, as some to their credit realised, only a half-way house. It is now surely time that this was recognised, more widely acknowledged and something done to complete what was as far as it went a wonderful work of the Spirit of God. The inadequacies of the Puritans, admittedly under stress, need now to be made up to allow justification by faith to come into its own.


D.M.Lloyd-Jones, Romans 5, London, 1971.

D.J.Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids, 1996.

John Murray, Collected Writings 2, Edinburgh, 1977.

John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, Phillipsburg, 1979.

John Murray, The Covenant of Grace, London, 1954.

John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, London, 1961.

John Murray, Romans, London, 1967.

N.R.Needham, The Triumph of Grace, London, 2000.

T.R.Schreiner, Paul, Downers Grove, 2001.