(Though I have already written fairly extensively on original sin elsewhere, in view of the fact that the nefarious dogma is still so widely accepted in 2012, I feel under an obligation to add further comment to other articles that appear on this website. Having just read Bridges and Bevington on The Great Exchange, I refer to it in the main partly for the convenience of the reader as well as myself, and partly because it provides standard Reformed doctrine and is likely to be quite widely read. It is a pity that what is in essence a fine book on its primary subject should be so marred by its stance on original sin.)
It is not as well known as it ought to be that the Jews, like the Orthodox, do not accept the so-called Christian doctrine of original sin (1* See e.g. Edersheim, p.165 as referred to by Sanday and Headlam, p.137.). While the OT frequently acknowledges that all men sin (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 130:3; Eccl. 7:20, etc.), it nonetheless quite unmistakably individualizes them (Neh. 9:2; Ps. 106:6; Dan. 9:16, ESV, etc.) by pointedly distinguishing between fathers and sons (cf. Dt. 24:16; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18). In light of this we are virtually forced to infer that when Paul says in Romans 5:12 (cf. 3:23) that all (have) sinned, he is not thinking of our sinful solidarity ‘in Adam’ as Augustine taught (2* Omnes peccarunt, Adamo peccante, all sinned when Adam sinned, as Bengel put it. See Sanday and Headlam, p134.) but of the fact that all who know the law fail to keep it for their own part (Rom. 7:1,7, cf. John 9:41; 15:22,24). He confirms this inference when he says that all in contrast with Jesus (cf. Rom. 8:3) prove incapable of keeping the law when it is revealed to them (Rom. 3:19f.; Gal. 2:16), which surely makes the dogma of original sin unnecessary and therefore redundant. Though it was always the preceptive will of God that men should be obedient for their own good (Dt. 30:20; 32:46f., etc.), it was clearly his decretive will that they should fail and thus turn to him for salvation through faith in Jesus (cf. Isa. 45:22-25; Rom. 9:30-10:4). But this is an entirely different kettle of fish from attributing sin to them before they actually sin.
What Christians fail to realize is that apart from exegetical considerations the theology of the OT not to mention the NT frequently militates against the notion of original sin as taught in the Augustinian tradition. Otherwise expressed, important events occur which necessarily exclude the idea of death being the wages of original sin. (3* In Protestant theology original sin involves the imputation of Adam’s sin. On the assumption that it exists at all, it can no more pay the wages of death than imputed righteousness can pay the wages of life, Rom. 4:4. Since imputation involves free gift, wages are excluded. No one properly understanding justification by faith can possibly pretend that what Luther called an ‘alien’ righteousness constitutes wages. By the same token, he cannot possibly regard his condemnation ‘in Adam’ as wages.) A prime example is provided by the exodus from Egypt.
In Numbers 14 the sinfulness of the fathers is sharply contrasted with the innocence of their children just as it is in significant verses like Deuteronomy 1:39. The former who have seen the glory and signs performed by God in Egypt and in the wilderness, have tested him, disobeyed and despised him are told in no uncertain terms that they will not see the land he swore to give to their ancestors (vv. 22f.). They are clearly held responsible for their own actions and, having rejected the evidence given to them, are left without excuse (cf. John 15:24; 10:25,32,37f.; 14:11; Rom. 1:19f.; 2:1). As a consequence of their sins they will all be paid wages (Rom. 6:23) and will die in the wilderness (v.29). On the other hand, the latter, who the fathers claimed would become booty, will, despite suffering as shepherds for forty years (v.33), nonetheless be brought in (v.31). That they eventually arrived safely in the Promised Land is a fact of history which points indisputably to their innocence at birth. They were not punished for the sins of their fathers (Dt. 24:16). It should be carefully noted, however, that they in their turn were in danger of repeating the sins of their fathers when they attained the age of accountability (cf. Num. 32:14f.) and were frequently warned against it (Jer. 35:15; Zech. 1:4, etc.).
The conclusion we are compelled to draw from this is that all human beings, though certainly affected by the sins of their parents (v.33, cf. Ex. 20:5; 32:33; Rom. 5:12-21), sin for themselves. Despite this, it is patently obvious that the church has argued along the same lines as the sinful parents in Numbers 14 and repeated their error. Believing that Adam’s sin has been either transmitted (Catholics) or imputed (Protestants), it has assumed that children along with their fathers are tarnished with sin from birth and even conception and cannot possibly enter the heavenly Promised Land. To remedy the situation it has developed the dogma of infant baptism involving the regeneration of babies apart from righteousness by faith which is its necessary precondition (Lev. 18:5, etc.). But as we saw above when referring to Psalm 106:6, etc., the sins of the fathers are not transferred to the children who are responsible only for their own sins. In other words, contrary to the denial expressed in Article 9 of the Church of England the sins of the fathers are only punished in the children when they are repeated by them (cf. Jer. 31:29f.). The same teaching is evident in chapters like Ezekiel 18 where again the sins of fathers are differentiated from those of sons and cannot be credited to them.
In light of the evidence provided by the exodus, not to mention the fact that the imputation of sin cannot pay wages in death (Rom. 4:4), we are bound to consider that the so-called Pelagian interpretation of Romans 5:12 is correct. Augustine’s theology and his exegesis were both wrong, and his exclusive obsession with sin in Adam was a major error that contaminated so much of his thinking and as a consequence infected church dogma over which he continues to preside to this day (2012).
Sin and Righteousness
Historically, Christian tradition has failed to recognize the importance of the role of (the) law in the achievement of both sin and righteousness (cf. Rom. 6:16; 2 Pet. 2:19-21). It can hardly escape notice that Adam began his career like a baby or an animal in blissful ignorance (cf. Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22). Initially he knew neither the law, as encapsulated in a single commandment, nor good and evil, and so lived in a state of moral innocence. It was only when he had developed sufficient understanding that he was given the commandment promising life (Gen. 2:17). When he failed to keep it, he earned the wages of death. The truth of this is brought out especially by Paul in Romans 7:9f. where the apostle claims to have undergone the same experience. Here he says that he was born ‘alive’, and it was not until he learned and broke the commandment that he ‘died’. In fact, in Romans, one of Paul’s main platforms is the impossibility of sin apart from knowledge of (the) the law. He underlines this in Romans 4:15 and 7:1-13 in particular. But if law is necessary for sin to exist and is its power (1 Cor. 15:56). (4* Cf. Rom. 7:5 which, sadly, is usually mistranslated. In the Greek there is no word for ‘aroused’, ESV etc., and not with out reason, for Paul is here simply confirming and underlining what he is saying throughout 7:1-13, that is, that sin is ‘through the law’. In other words, the law is foundational of sin. By definition sin is transgression of the law and apart from it sin does not exist, 1 Sam. 15:24; 1 Cor. 15:56; James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4, etc.) the same must be true with regard to righteousness. With the implicit teaching of Genesis and the more explicit teaching of Deuteronomy 6:25 and 24:13 in mind Paul maintains that it is only by obeying the commandment or law that righteousness can be achieved (Rom. 6:16).
Since like Adam and Eve in whose image we are created (Gen. 5:1-3) we are all prone to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil we have no trouble becoming sinful (cf. Jer. 4:22; Rom. 1-3), we might well convince ourselves that we can just as easily keep the law and gain righteousness. This, however, is far from being the case. As Paul teaches elsewhere, for those who are flesh the law proves not to be the power of righteousness but of sin (1 Cor. 15:56, cf. Rom. 7:14; 2 Cor. 3). As a consequence, we all come under its sway (Rom. 6) and, since sin is paid the wages of death, we find ourselves in desperate need of righteousness from another source. That source is Christ who alone of all men that ever lived kept the law (Rom. 8:3), gained righteousness and so both met and provided the precondition of life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). Having qualified himself (as man) by his own obedience, he then in the words of Peter suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18).
What does this teach us? Surely that Romans 5:12-21 does not provide the frequently claimed exact parallel between Adam and Christ. (On this, see my An Exact Parallel?) Whatever impact Adam as the natural father of the race had on his progeny, it could not possibly involve the imputation of his sin for the simple reason that faith in him was not only lacking but impossible. It is a biblical axiom that sin cannot be legitimately imputed to the innocent, to those who have not committed any (Ex. 23:7; 1 Sam. 22:15; 1 K. 21; Prov. 17:15; Luke 23:4, etc.). If this is true, the very idea of original sin is excluded. No wonder, for if it were true, even Jesus, whose human father through his mother was Adam, no less (Luke 3:38), would have been born sinful! The plain fact is that the idea of the imputation of sin is Augustinian not biblical. Of course, it may immediately be countered that our sin was imputed to Jesus. It was indeed (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21), but the Bible makes it clear beyond reasonable dispute that he received it willingly by faith. Otherwise expressed, he gave himself freely, in love (Gal. 2:20) not compulsion, to atone for our sins. He bought us at the price of his own blood (1 Pet. 1:18f.) voluntarily shed (John 10:17f.) on our behalf.
Traditional theology usually makes much of the fact that in contrast with Jesus whose conception was immaculate, we ordinary mortals are born with sinful natures. (5* See e.g. Bridges and Bevington, p.167. These authors’ reference to ‘immaculate conception’ is dangerously confusing since, historically speaking, it applies (wrongly) to Mary.) The assumption behind this is that as the offspring of Adam we are sinful not merely at birth but even at conception (6* B & B, pp.19f.) Verses like Genesis 5:1-3, 8:21 and Psalm 51:5 are appealed to but on close examination prove exegetically unconvincing. But my point here is that their relevance and validity are undermined by other teaching of Scripture. For a start, it is clear from the evidence of Genesis that Adam began life in ignorance of the law and was innocent. The same is true of his posterity (cf. Rom. 9:11). We have already seen that Paul in effect claims in Romans 7:9f. to have repeated Adam’s experience and was ‘alive’ until that commandment dawned on his developing consciousness. When it did, like Adam (pace Art. 9 of the C of E) he broke it and earned the wages of sin which is death.
Moral Nature Determined by Actual Sin or Obedience
The truth is that our moral nature is determined not by birth when we are innocent and ignorant (Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11), which if it were true would surely impugn the righteousness and holiness of God our Creator and make him the author of sin, but by our reaction to the commandment when we eventually receive it. This is surely implied by Jesus who states in John 8:34 that it is the man (or woman) who sins, that is, commits actual sin like Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:1-6; 1 Tim. 2:13) who is the slave of sin (cf. Jer. 13:23; 2 Pet. 2:19-21). Paul takes the same stance in Ephesians 2:1-3 (cf. Tit. 3:3-7) where he clearly places personal will, that is, actual sin before nature.
What the Bible in fact teaches is the truth of recapitulation which was taught by the father of theology, Irenaeus, but lost to view in the theology of Augustine who eclipsed him. As the offspring of Adam we all begin where he began, that is, morally innocent or neutral, and this would appear to be the point of verses like Deuteronomy 1:39 and so forth. What is more, only on the basis of it could Jesus become the second Adam who began where Adam began but in contrast with him achieved perfection (cf. Eph. 4:9f.). Only by recapitulation could he live a fully human life and die for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
Sins Not Sin
If this is in fact the case, it is less than surprising that Paul and other writers constantly talk in terms of our sins (e.g. Rom. 1:18-32), of our being dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13) and of Jesus dying for our sins rather than for sin in the abstract (e.g. Heb. 1:3, cf. 1 Pet. 3:18). In other words, Jesus died for our personally perpetrated sins not for our sinful nature acquired by birth from Adam. There is not the faintest suggestion in Scripture that Jesus who, according to Bridges and Bevington on account of his immaculate conception did not have a sinful nature (p.167), died for our sin in Adam (p.202). Indeed, to suggest that he did is deeply problematic theologically. For a start, it depicts Jesus as dying for what he did not himself assume, that is, a sinful human nature (cf. Heb. 2:17). (7* Cf. Gregory Nazianzen on whom see e.g. H.Cunliffe-Jones, p.126.) He was voluntarily made sin (2 Cor. 5:21) but was neither a sinner by nature (birth) nor by personal commission of sins (1 Pet. 2:22). He died for our actual sins not for our sinful nature acquired by imputation or transmission. After all, if the latter were true he himself would have been implicated since he necessarily shared our birth nature. If this is denied, he was docetic and not a true human being at all. The fact is that sin imputed putatively at birth apart from faith would clearly be a gift of nature like the colour of our skin and hence incapable of redemption (8* On page 202, B & B gratuitously inform us that we are redeemed from every transgression of God’s law, from both original and personal sin. Just how we can be redeemed from what has been freely imputed to us by God himself is more than a little difficult to understand! They say, however, that original sin was imputed to us by Adam (!), an astonishing thesis with numerous intolerable implications!), forgiveness (contrast Col. 1:14) or being repented of (9* Pace B.B.Warfield, pp.278-282. Warfield though undeniably a great theologian was surely in error at this point. On page 278, he defines original sin, first, as Adam’s personal sin made ours by an external act of imputation, and, secondly, as “our own inborn depravity, common to us and the whole race of man.” Again, on page 279, he says that original sin is “not merely adherent but also inherent sin, not merely the sinful act of Adam imputed to us, but also the sinful state of our own souls conveyed to us by the just judgment of God”! Regarding repentance he says that all sin must be repented of that it may be forgiven and proceeds to argue that original sin falls within its parameters. This is highly debatable. Here, however, I confine myself to saying with Roger Nicole: “No one can repent of sin except the one who committed it. Christ … did not and could not repent in our place”, p.451, and observing that if we can repent of imputed sin we can derive personal glory from imputed righteousness. Warfield himself would, I am sure, have promptly repudiated the latter suggestion. If so, in consistency he ought to have repudiated the former.) not least because not having committed it we cannot be held responsible for it. How can we be redeemed from what is freely given to us and has become an attribute of our nature like the colour of our skin? (10* On page 220, B & B actually go so far as to argue full in the face of Hebrews 2:17 that Jesus and the rest of us differ in birth nature. While we are compelled (sic) to sin, Jesus remains innocent. I submit that this is far from what the Bible teaches. For a start it delivers a mortal blow at the incarnation. According to my Bible we all as the offspring of Adam share the same nature as flesh.) It is God’s doing, not ours. According to Paul, however, it is personal transgression of the law that makes us accountable (Rom. 3:19f.). On the other hand, if we are sinners by birth, we are under an obligation to act in accordance with nature and failure to do so is reprehensible (Rom. 1:26f.). At this point we enter the realm of absurdity.
Restoration of Fellowship
Writers frequently maintain that our redemption by Christ restores our fellowship with God. In the words of B & B: “Atonement allows for restoration of the previously disrupted fellowship” (p.23). But this is an implicit denial of the original sin and the sinful birth nature that they contend for. Why? Because apart from the fact that it makes God himself open to the charges of creating us evil and of illegitimately imputing sin to the innocent, if we are sinful even at conception there is never any fellowship to restore. In contrast, the Genesis story makes it crystal clear that mankind (Adam) enjoyed a relationship with God at the beginning, and from this we must infer that since we are all created as his offspring we too in our infancy enjoy what might be called an embryonic relationship with him as his creatures. This continues until it is broken as it was in Paul’s case (Rom. 7:9f.). The same inference may be drawn from the story of the Prodigal Son who voluntarily left his father’s house into which he was born. In light of this, the traditional attempt to lump all together in seminal identity and solidarity in sinful Adam thereby implicitly denying individual separation is false to the Bible. After all, Jesus, though a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) provides us with a clear instance of separation since he remained innocent all his earthly life. In any case, the Bible itself addresses this issue in Number 16:22 by posing the question: “Shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” In view of what follows in verse 45, that is, the separation of the implicitly innocent congregation from those who sinned and died, the answer is clear (cf. Num. 26:11; 27:3; 2 Sam. 24:17, and Caleb and Joshua at a later stage). Thus the principle propounded in the Lord’s assertion to Moses in Exodus 32:33 that the one who sins will be blotted out of his book is upheld. Along with human solidarity there is a scriptural doctrine of individual separation. (11* See further my article on Solidarity and Separation.) Thank God that this is so, since Jesus though a true human being born of woman separated himself not by birth but by not sinning (1 Pet. 2:22). (12* As indicated above, writers like B & B sadly even go so far as to argue that Jesus’ very nature was different from that of the rest of humanity, p.220, ignoring the biblical insistence that Jesus was truly a son of Adam through his mother, Luke 3:38, cf. Gen. 5:1-3, and in fact the second or last Adam. They thus draw the conclusion that on account of the imputation of Adam’s sin we are ‘compelled’ to sin. All else apart this is surely implicit blasphemy.)
The fact is that restoration of fellowship, or reconciliation which is a major NT doctrine, only makes sense if as God’s children by creation we are initially by nature in the Father’s house. It is personal sin that alienates us as it did Adam and Eve from Eden, the womb of the race. In our mother’s womb like Paul (Rom. 7:9, cf. 9:11) we still have access to the tree of life and regain it when we enter heaven through faith in Jesus (Rev. 22:2).
Union with Christ
According to the NT as believers we die in union with Christ since he acted on our behalf. By faith his death becomes ours. Since this is so, we are baptized into his death and crucified with him (Rom. 6:1-14; Gal. 5:24). Thus in him as our federal (covenant) head and representative received by faith we die to the law and to sin. But can it be said that we die in union with Adam? Did he act on our behalf? Do we exercise faith in him and become linked with him covenantally? A negative response is required for two basic reasons: on the one hand as babies we cannot exercise faith and on the other God made no covenant with Adam. Certainly Paul uses the words “die in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22) once only, but what does he mean? As the first Adam was clearly representative man according to the flesh and we are all, including Jesus, ‘in Adam’ in the sense that we are made in his image (Gen. 5:1-3), we all die as such. But this does not imply that he sinned for us any more than any other father sinned on his son’s behalf (cf. Ezek 18, etc.). Such an idea is the invention of men not a teaching of the Bible which implicitly denies it when it informs us that we cannot be punished for the sins of our fathers (Dt. 24:16; 2 K.14:6, cf. Ex. 32:33; Num. 27:3).
Once more I conclude that original sin is radically false and needs to be repudiated with rigour and dispatch. Verses like Psalm 51:5 relatively unremarkable among the Jews is in Christian exegesis made to dance to the devil’s tune. It thus distorts our entire theology and sacramental practice. Little wonder that Christians remain so hopelessly divided on the one hand and find the Jews an enigma on the other.
J.Bridges & Bob Bevington, The Great Exchange, Wheaton, 2007.
Sandy and Headlam, ICC on The Epistle to the Romans, fifth ed., 1902.
R.Nicole in The Glory of the Atonement, ed. C.Hill & F.James III, Downers Grove, 2004.
B.B.Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings ed. Meeter, Nutley, 1970.