Some years ago I skimmed rapidly through the Bible and produced a substantial list of references to imitation, following and walking, and so forth, in a very short time.
Imitation in the OT
Even a cursory examination will reveal that imitation is a prime feature of the OT. In Leviticus 11:44f. and 19:2, for example, we are told to be holy as God is holy. This admonition is repeated in the NT (1 Pet. 1:15f.). Having come out of heathen Egypt where they had been involved in the worship of false gods (cf. Jos. 24:2,14,23), the children of Israel had a constant tendency to relapse and were warned not to imitate the nations (Lev. 18:3,24, cf. 2 K. 16:3). However, the Israelites proved to be inveterate sinners (1 Sam. 8:8; Ps. 106:6; Jer. 3:25) and were prompted in part by the desire to be like the nations to appoint a king (1 Sam. 8:5,20, Saul). On account of their sin they were frequently punished (Isa. 63:10). Like the Canaanites before them, they were eventually cast out of the Promised Land and sent into exile on account of their sin (see espec. Jeremiah).
Imitation in the NT
In the NT the imitation of Christ is part of the fabric of the gospel, yet this is frequently forgotten except perhaps on the moral level (1 Pet. 2:21, cf. Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). While Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48, cf. 19:21), Paul urges us to imitate God (Eph. 5:1), Christ (Eph. 5:2) and even himself (1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Thes. 1:6). John reminds his readers that their goal is to be like God and that all who have hope in him must purify themselves just as he is pure (1 John 3:2f.). Thus he counsels us to imitate good and not evil (3 John 11). To all intents and purposes Jesus does the same when he accuses the Jews as the physical descendants of Abraham of imitating the devil rather than Abraham himself in John 8:39-59.
The evidence for imitation is extensive, but my point has been made.
Imitation of the Fathers
The children of Israel were specifically warned not to imitate the behaviour of their errant fathers as texts like 2 Chronicles 30:7f., Jeremiah 7:25f., Ezekiel 20:18-31, Zechariah 1:4 and Acts 7:51-53 indicate. In the NT pagan converts are reminded that they have been ransomed from the futile ways inherited from their forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18, cf. Eph. 4:17). Clearly the implication is that they were not to return to them. Going back rather than forward is always regarded as being reprehensible in the Bible (cf. Jer. 7:24, and see further my No Going Back). In light of this, it is somewhat surprising to read Article 9 of the Church of England which begins as follows:
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness ….
Apart from noting in passing the fact that initially Adam did not know the commandment and therefore could not have been righteous by keeping it (cf. Rom. 2:13; 6:16; 1 John 3:7), in view of the extensive teaching of Scripture on imitation, we are bound to query the idea that the Pelagians were talking “vainly” when they insisted that we all follow or imitate Adam, our first father. Indeed, we may go further and state that Augustine’s teaching on original sin, involving transmission (Catholics) or imputation (Protestants) rather than imitation, insofar as it is based on Romans 5:12, is demonstrably false. Of course, this sweeping assertion demands substantiation.
So, first, we need to note that this verse fails to support the view that we sin “in Adam” as has been traditionally held. The idea classically summed up in the words of Bengel: omnes peccarunt Adamo peccante (all sinned when Adam sinned) is manifestly mistaken since if it were true, Jesus himself as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) would have been born a sinner. Little wonder therefore that Sanday and Headlam, who quote Bengel (p.134), also acknowledge that the Jews (not to mention the Orthodox) did not accept the dogma in question and cite the Jewish Christian scholar Edersheim (p.137) as follows: “So far as their opinions can be gathered from their writings the great doctrines of Original sin and the sinfulness of our whole nature, were not held by the ancient Rabbis” (Life and Times, 1,165).
Second, even John Murray, the author of “The Imputation of Adam’s Sin” and a major commentary on Romans conceded that the Pelagian view was “compatible” with and could have been stated “admirably well” in the terms used by the apostle (see Romans, p.182). Of course, while denying the translation “in whom all sinned” (Augustine), Murray also strenuously, but I would argue somewhat speciously, denied that Paul was referring to actual sins. However, the application of a little logic can demonstrate conclusively that Romans 5:12 must refer to sins actually committed and not to sin imputed. I offer the following syllogism:
In Romans 4:1-8, intent on showing that sinners like Abraham and David were justified by grace through faith (Gen. 15:6) and not by the works of the law, Paul argues that since righteousness is reckoned or imputed by faith, it is a gift which in the nature of the case excludes works and wages.
In Romans 6:23 the apostle leaves his readers in no doubt at all when he states categorically that in contrast with the free gift of eternal life the wages of sin, which involves by definition transgression of the law apart from which sin does not exist (Rom. 4:15; 7:8f., cf. Gen. 2:17; James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17), is death.
So when he tells us in Romans 5:12 that all died because all sinned we have no option but to conclude that he is referring to actual sin because it is only actual sin involving transgression of the law which pays wages in death.
To express this syllogism more concisely:
First premise: In Romans 4:1-8 the gift (imputation) of righteousness by faith excludes wages.
Second premise: In Romans 6:23 sin earns the wages of death.
Conclusion: Therefore, in Romans 5:12 since all who sin die, their sin must be actual wage-earning sin.
If this is true, then Article 9, like chapter 6 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, is seriously astray. The plain truth is that at this point, if not at others, Pelagius was right. In their famous dispute it would appear that Augustine misunderstood Pelagius who used the word ‘imitate’ which Augustine on the specious plea that many had not even heard of Adam maintained was impossible (see Needham, pp.49f.). Perhaps if Pelagius had used the word ‘repeat’ or ‘recapitulate’, his point would have been clearer. But Augustine’s powerful and pervasive influence swept away all ideas of recapitulation which Irenaeus had preached before his day. And though it would appear to be integral to Scripture, it does not usually merit even a mention in modern theological dictionaries. (See my I Believe in Recapitulation)
The plain truth is that there are only two acts of imputation in the entire Bible: the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers and the imputation of the sin of believers to Christ. Faith is involved in both instances: while on the one hand we receive justification by faith, on the other hand Jesus received and bore our condemnation by faith. In other words, there was a straight exchange as the apostle indicates in 2 Corinthians 5:21. A third act involving the imputation (Protestants) or transmission (Catholics) of Adam’s sin to us so that even in our infant innocence (cf. Dt. 1:39, etc.) we are considered sinners who are liable to death is not only superfluous but deeply erroneous. Jesus died for sins actually committed (Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 1:14; 2:13; 1 Pet. 3:18; 2 Pet. 1:9, etc.) not for sin in the abstract. If the latter were true, then so would universalism be true. Furthermore, it is vital for us to recognize that the imputation of sins to those who do not have them is regarded as evil throughout the Bible. We have only to consider Abimelech (Gen. 20, cf. 18:25), Jonathan (1 Sam. 14:24ff.), Ahimelech (1 Sam. 22:15), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:25), David (1 K. 2:32), Naboth (1 K. 21) and Jesus (Luke 23) to go no further to realize that to impute sins to those who have not committed any is itself sinful. How much more so, then, to babies who know neither the law nor good and evil (Dt. 1:39). In Romans 9:11 Paul’s argument regarding election depends for its efficacy on the moral neutrality of Esau and Jacob in the womb. In any case, while the child caught up in the situation engineered by his father may suffer (Num. 14:33), he cannot be punished for his father’s sins (Dt. 24:16). If this is not so, how did the children of the sinful fathers who died in the wilderness arrive at the Promised Land (cf. Dt. 1:39; Num. 14)?
So when we ask what Paul meant when he clearly implied in Romans 5:12ff. that Adam had an impact (noticeably unspecified) on his offspring, we should reject with alacrity notions of transmission and imputation without further ado. Clearly what the apostle meant is that all parents have an influence for good (cf. Luke 11:13) or evil (cf. Ex. 20: 5f.; 34:6f.) on their offspring, but this is something that even Jesus had to deal with. In other words, whatever it is, it comes short of being fatalistically deterministic as Ezekiel 18 clearly implies. A son does not have to follow in his father’s sinful footsteps as he would if sin was transmitted or imputed. While solidarity is important in Scripture, it does not destroy individuality and prevent separation (cf. Num. 16:22; 1 Chr. 21:17; Jer. 32:18f.).
(There is, of course, a good deal more to be said on the issue of original sin, but since I have dealt at some length with the issue elsewhere, there is little point in going over the same ground again. I would simply direct readers to my articles on original sin. They include An Exact Parallel?, J.I.Packer on Original Sin, D.M.Lloyd-Jones and J.Murray on the Imputation of Adam’s Sin, Straightforward Arguments against the Imputation of Adam’s Sin to his Posterity, Short Arguments Against Original Sin in Romans, Thoughts on Romans 5:12-14, Thoughts on Sin in Romans, etc.)
D.M.Lloyd-Jones along with J. Murray was one of the most powerful contenders for original sin in the twentieth century (see espec. his sermons on Romans 5 and on Ephesians 2). For all that, it is not a little interesting to note that while in one of his posthumously published works, “The Gospel in Genesis”, he could write that “we all sinned with him and we all fell with him” (p.26), he could also say “each of us in our turn repeats what was done at the beginning, and we go on repeating it” (p.62). On p. 80 he says, “For the astounding fact is that every one of us repeats the action of Adam and Eve”. Whether or not the truth regarding the issue was slowly dawning on Lloyd-Jones’ mind I do not know, but what is clear is that if we all repeat Adam’s sin (that is break the commandment in some sense) the imputation of his sin is rendered redundant. In other words, as Scripture emphasizes, we all sin for ourselves, on our own account, and are therefore held responsible (Rom. 3:19, cf. 2:12; John 8:34). On the other hand, we cannot be held accountable for Adam’s sin, least of all die on account of it (cf. Dt. 24:16, etc.). As God said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book” (Ex. 32:33). Or again, it is the soul who sins who dies (Ezek. 18:4,20) not the son who does not repeat his father’s iniquity (Ezek. 18:17). Clearly Jesus did not sin as Adam sinned (cf. 1 Pet. 2:22), therefore he did not die on his own account but for us (1 Pet. 3:18). The imputation (and/or transmission) of sin is an Augustinian fabrication supported and maintained only by ecclesiastical tradition. It is quite alien to the Bible and should be abandoned with rigour and dispatch.
(NOTE: On the paradigmatic nature of Adam’s sin see, for example, Craigie, Ezekiel, p. 208; Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, p.24; Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p.91; Chris Wright, Ezekiel, p.245.)
D.M.Lloyd-Jones, Romans 5, London, 1971.
D.M.Lloyd-Jones, Ephesians 2, London, 19 ?
D.M.Lloyd-Jones, The Gospel in Genesis, Wheaton, 2009.
J.Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, repr. Phillipsburg, 1979.
J.Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, London, 1967.
N.R.Needham, The Triumph of Grace, London, 2000.
Sanday and Headlam, ICC on The Epistle to the Romans, 5th ed. Edinburgh, 1902.