Does Romans Teach Original Sin?

The intention here is to demonstrate that it is unnecessary to appeal to anything outside the letter to the Romans to show that Paul’s thinking excludes the very possibility of the Augustinian dogma of original sin, that is, that when Adam sinned we all sinned ’in him’ (Needham, pp.43-49, cf. Hodge 2, pp. 227ff., Murray, etc.).


First, Romans 5:12 is supposed to provide the classic foundation of this dogma. It needs to be recognised, however, that when Augustine first formulated it he was relying on a Latin translation which read ‘in quo’, meaning ‘in whom’ (i.e. ‘in Adam’) instead of ‘in that’, ‘inasmuch as’ or ‘because’. (The latter is nowadays almost universally accepted as the meaning of the Greek, Needham pp.49f.; Moo, pp.321f.) Though many deny it, Augustine’s error constituted a serious exegetical fallacy on which much of (Western) theology has been built. Inevitably, it has done enormous harm to the church’s understanding and practice of the gospel, given us a false worldview and radically perverted the teaching of Paul himself. In fact, the words ‘in Adam’, in contrast with the 164 NT references (according to V. Roberts in Life’s Big Questions, p. 54) to ‘in Christ’, do not appear in Romans, though they have often been unwarrantably provided. (They occur only in 1 Corinthians 15:22 which echoes verse 21 with which it is in synonymous parallelism. The context is Paul’s discussion of the resurrection of the body, and his assertion that we die ‘in Adam’ expresses the truism that we, like Jesus, die in the flesh which was Adamic man’s chief characteristic, 1 Cor. 15:45-49, cf. 1 Pet. 3:18, etc.)

During my reading of the major commentaries on Romans over the last 45 years or so, I have failed to come across a single case convincingly establishing the dogma in question on an exegetical basis. This is hardly surprising since, as I shall now seek to show, it is in open conflict with other assertions made by Paul in the letter to the Romans itself.

Paul’s Arguments in Romans

Actual Sin

First, we must ask why, if we all sinned ‘in Adam’, Paul did not say so at the start. The truth is, however, that given the overall length of the epistle Paul takes considerable pains especially in 1:18-3:20,23 to establish the fact that all human beings, Jesus apart (8:3), commit actual sins (cf. Ps. 130:3; 143:2). And he underlines this basic point by alleging that all who are under law, apart from which sin does not exist (Rom. 4:15, etc.), are thereby held accountable to God (3:19, cf. James 2:10). In Romans 4 he is intent on indicating that even Abraham, the father of Israel, was an ungodly sinner (v.5) who needed to be justified by faith like the rest of us for whose “trespasses” Christ was put to death (v.25, cf. 5:8). If original sin were true and we were all born sinners, the universal commission of sin would from one point of view be axiomatic and from another irrelevant since we all, including Jesus who was also a son of Adam (Luke 3:38), would be acting according to nature, as indeed we are expected to do (cf. 1:26f.). In other words, if I am born a tiger, I am bound to behave like a tiger, and, by parity of reasoning, if I am born a sinner, I am bound to conduct myself like a sinner. So, given original sin, for Paul to spend an inordinate amount of time and space listing and categorising actual sins is on the face of it a somewhat strange and meaningless procedure. On the other hand, on the assumption that Paul does not teach the imputation of Adam’s sin, we should be predisposed to believe that when he says in 5:12 that “all (have) sinned” (cf. 3:23) he means that all have actually sinned. This is made absolutely certain by the fact that the wages of death are paid and, as we shall see below, imputation, being a free gift, does not pay wages.

The Law and Sin

Next, like Scripture in general, Paul clearly regards law as foundational of sin. Why otherwise does he devote so much attention to it? In fact, he goes so far as to assert three times that where there is no law there is no sin (4:15; 5:13; 7:8). This explicit evidence receives further support in 7:1-6 where the apostle argues that the legal relationship binding a married couple together ceases to exist when the husband dies (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39). In this situation, his widow is at liberty to remarry free of guilt since death has abolished the law respecting her first marriage. We are therefore forced to the conclusion that where there is no law there is no adultery. It is ruled out of court. Thus Paul concludes that we who have died to the law are also free of guilt, and “married” to Christ we are led by the Spirit (v.6).

The Law Gives Sin Its Opportunity

Expanding on this, in Romans 7:7ff. the apostle, with his eye on the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, tells his Roman readers that sin does not come into existence until the law (or commandment) gives it its opportunity (vv.8,11). Only then does it spring to life (cf. vv.9f.). Prior to that time it lies dead (v.8). Paul highlights his teaching with reference to his own early life, which clearly recapitulated the experience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Like them he was ‘alive’ until the commandment was given (presumably through his parents). It came promising life (cf. Ex. 20:12) but in the event, through the weakness of the flesh (cf. 8:3), it produced death.

Knowledge and Sin

It may be responded at this point that since the time of Moses all children are born ‘under law’ (cf. Gal. 4:4f.) and are therefore under an obligation to keep it. Paul appears to agree for he says that the law speaks to those who are under it (3:19). However, he makes it evident in 7:1,7 that to be under it is to know it and understand it. It follows from this that all who lack understanding, like animals, or babies who need to be taught it as they gain the ability to learn (1*), are not under law (2*). This is exactly what we would expect, since in chapters 1-3 he has already referred extensively to the sins of the heathen who did not have the law of Moses but were nonetheless a law to themselves (2:14, cf. 5:13).

No Excuse

From all this it is clear that those whom Paul claims to be without excuse and subject to judgement are people, both Gentiles and Jews, who have knowledge of law in some sense (1:20f.; 2:1-16). As 2:6 in particular indicates, all will be judged according to (the) law by their works (cf. 3:20).

Sin a Work

For Paul, in Romans as elsewhere, sin is a work, something that is actually done (2:13; 3:28; 9:31f., cf. 1:18-3:20,23,25,28, etc.). This being the case, sin is beyond the capacity of babies. They cannot work, so they cannot commit sin or be condemned for it (though Augustine said they could!). In their case, judgement is out of the question (Rom. 2:1-11; 4:4; 6:16,23). Lacking the law and the ability to exercise faith, they are susceptible neither to condemnation nor to justification. In other words, like Adam in his innocence, until they learn the law they can neither know nor do good or evil (Rom. 7:1,7,9; 9:11).

Gift and Wages

In Romans 4:1-8, Paul produces an even more devastating argument completely nullifying the claim that he teaches original sin. Here he distinguishes between imputation (free gift) and works. As we have just seen, works are paid wages, even death (1:32; 6:21,23). So Paul tells his readers that the worker is paid his due (4:4) (3*). On the other hand, the one who does not work cannot be paid wages, and what is free whether in the form of imputed righteousness which leads to life (5:21) or imputed sin which leads to death as in Jesus’ case clearly excludes wages. This is further implied by the apostle’s argument in Romans 5:12ff. where he distinguishes between the free gift of righteousness and the result or effect of Adam’s sin (vv.15-17). Admittedly, at this point Paul does not explain the nature of the effect (4*), but that it is not imputed sin is logically impossible to dispute. To insist that it is involves equating wages with gift and thereby undermining Paul’s whole point. What is more, if there is “an exact parallel” of imputation in Romans 5:12-21, as is often claimed, then Paul is making a distinction without a difference.

Strictly speaking, all that we need to ask of those who support the notion of the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his posterity is, How can imputed sin pay wages? (Or, we might ask what is basically the same question, How can imputed righteousness pay wages?, cf. 6:23.) The plain fact is, on the assumption that he is a consistent thinker and is not contradicting himself, Paul in Romans 4:1-5 precludes the very possibility that he teaches the imputation of Adam’s sin in Romans 5:12-21 or elsewhere. In blunt terms, the dogma of the imputation of Adam’s sin is based on a glaring fallacy.

Imputation and Its Instrumental Means

There is no question that Paul teaches imputed righteousness by means of faith in Romans (e.g. 1:16f.; 3:21f.;10:4). But if it is assumed, or rather presumed, that sin is imputed as it was to Christ (cf. 3:25f.) (5*), one is forced to ask by what means, especially since it is universally agreed that babies are as incapable of exercising faith as they are of performing works. Paul implies, however, as we ought to expect, that sins are imputed only to those who commit them (4:8; 11:27). So once more babies are out of the reckoning.

Sin and Death

It is basic to Paul’s teaching in Romans that actual sin, which is a work, merits or earns death. This is first asserted in 1:32, implied throughout 2:1-13, re-asserted in 6:16,21 and 23; 7:5,9-11,13, implied 7:24, asserted in 8:2, and implied again in 8:6f.,10,13. In light of this, we have no option but to assume that 5:12-21 is consistent with this teaching. The attempt to maintain that 5:12 implies sin “in Adam” is undermined, first, by the fact that Paul has already argued at length that the sins of the heathen, who were without the law of Moses, were different from that of Adam. The latter, in contrast with Eve (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14), was given a specific commandment (Gen. 2:17) which made him the type of the second Adam who kept the entire written law. Secondly, in 4:1-8 Paul flatly denies that imputation or gift merits wages.

Romans 7:9-10

Far from suggesting that he himself was the victim of original sin, Paul says that he was once alive apart from the law. In this he resembled Adam and Eve in the Garden. They too were alive until they broke the commandment, albeit in different ways. Thus Paul implies that he himself as a child was first deceived like Eve (7:11), then sinned deliberately like Adam who had received the commandment directly from God (7:13).

Babies and Death

It may be complained at this stage that since Paul insists that death is the wages of sin and babies die, then babies must reap the wages of sin which is death. In light of what has been written above, this argument is patently fallacious. It ignores the connection between sin and law on the one hand and Paul’s insistence that all have to (actually) sin (Rom. 3:23; 5:12) in order to reap its wages (4:4; 6:23) in judgement (2:6). The reason why babies, who have not offended against the law, die is implied in Romans 1:23; 2:7,10; 7:9f. and 8:18-25. The fact is that while babies who are ignorant of the law cannot sin against it and so earn its wages neither can they receive its promise of life (7:10). So in a world given by nature (creation) to futility (Rom. 8:20), they die like created things in general of age, disease or disaster all of which are, normally speaking, devoid of moral implications. Sinless grass, trees and animals die, so why not sinless babies? After all, being flesh (earth) and not spirit (heaven), they are naturally mortal (1:23; 6:12, cf. 8:13) like the rest of the temporal creation.

To sum up, let me say that I have tried to let the letter to the Romans speak for itself. By a judicious use of logic and reference to other parts of the Bible including Paul’s other writings I could have presented an even more devastating case. However, it seems to me that the evidence presented above makes it plain beyond reasonable doubt that Romans not only does not teach original sin but cannot do so. Any commentator who claims to be able to make a case for it on exegetical grounds simply advertises the fact that he has abysmally failed to follow Paul’s thought.

In conclusion, it must be stated categorically that the imputation of Adam’s sin is based on a glaring error of logic. According to Paul, wages and free gift are mutually exclusive. If death is wages, it cannot be Adam’s free gift. In any case, as Paul makes plain in 1:18-3:20, all who know the law break it (cf. 3:23) and are hence constituted sinners, as God always intended (11:32).

What about the effect of Adam’s sin which Pelagius denied? Clearly it only exacerbated his posterity’s situation. If like him as flesh they could not keep the law (cf. 3:20), how much less could they under his baneful influence as a sinful parent (cf. Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Ps. 106:6, etc.). On the other hand, Scripture makes it plain that they could not be punished for his sin (Dt. 24:16, etc.).

1* Cf. Ps. 32:9; Job 35:11; Dt. 1:39; Ps. 78:5f.; Isa. 7:15f.; 8:4; 28:9; Heb. 5:12f.

2* The commandment, like the law of Moses, is transgenerational. Just as Adam was taught the commandment by God, his heavenly parent, so children are taught it by their parents (cf. Ex. 20:12; Dt. 4:9, etc.). It has rightly been said that the first thing a child understands is the word ‘no’.

3* Throughout the Bible wages are paid for work done. It is worth noting some of the references other than those in Romans: Gen. 2:17, cf. 3:17; Ex. 32:33; 1 Sam. 15:24; 2 Sam. 12:5,9,13f.; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18:4,20; 29:19f.; 1 Cor. 3:8,12-15; 9:17; Gal. 6:7; 1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Pet. 2:13,15. It is emphasised in Ezekiel that Nebuchadnezzar, who is God’s servant (Jer. 27:6) is paid wages for the work that he does (29:19f.). The question at issue in Luke 23, for example, is what has been done (4,15,22,41). It is also worthy of note that to impute sin to someone who has done nothing is evil (1 Sam. 22:15; 1 K. 21, etc.). On the other hand, the good news and wonder of the grace of God is that he does not impute sins actually committed to those who repent and put their trust in him (Rom. 4:8; 2 Cor. 5:19).

4* However, on the basis of teaching like Ex. 20:5; Num. 14:18; Jeremiah 9:13f.; 11:16; 14:20; 31:29f.; 32:18f.; Ezekiel 18, etc., we can safely guess. Compare Moo, p. 328.

5* This logically excludes children! Sin cannot be imputed both to Christ and to babies without bringing into question the former and his ability to bear it.


C.Hodge, Systematic Theology 2, repr. London, 1960.

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

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

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

Additional Note

A syllogism:
First premise: Sin, which is a work, pays the wages of death (Rom. 6:23).
Second premise: Imputation excludes wages (Rom. 4:1-8).
Therefore, since Romans 5:12 says all sinned and earned the wages of death, imputation is ruled out of court.

In view of this, we are forced to conclude that John Murray’s book “The Imputation of Adam’s Sin”, like his exegesis of Romans 5:12-21, is based on a blatant fallacy.

Note further how Paul links law and works (Rom. 2:13; 3:27f.; 9:32, cf. Gal. 2:16, etc.) and hence wages and death (Rom. 2:12; 5:12,14; 5:21; 6:21,23, cf. John 1:17).