The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 4:15 that where there is no law there is no sin (cf. Rom. 5:13; 7:1-13; 1 Cor. 15:56, cf. Gal. 5:23). In saying this he clearly assumes that we sin only when we break the law (1 Sam. 15:24; James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17). The question is: Does this conform with normal Scripture usage? It is worth examining the issue, not least because tradition would have us believe that we are born sinners and so must have sinned in some sense before we were born.
First, there is no suggestion in the Bible that animals sin. The reason must be of course that since unlike man they are not made in the image of God, they do not know the law, and without law there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15). Admittedly they can be held accountable in the sense that stock are subject to destruction, but the reason for this is that they are dangerous, not sinful (Ex. 21:28). It is noticeable that when they are not properly restrained their owner who does know the law is responsible (21:29). In Hebrews 12:20 the point is made that even an animal that touches Mount Sinai is to be stoned to death. Why? The reason is apparently that flesh as such apart from sin cannot live with the holiness of God who is a consuming fire. This would seem to support the notion that all created (material) things give way before the presence of God (Rev. 20:11, cf. Gen. 16:13; 32:30; Isa. 33:14; 1 Cor. 3:12-15; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; Heb. 12:27; James 5:3; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.).
Adam and the One Commandment
In contrast with the animals mankind (Adam) is created in the potential (since it has to be acquired, Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18) but not the actual image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). In other words, he is subject to development and signs of the image of God are not evident at the start. As a race man is epitomized by Adam, the individual. The line between Adam as mankind and Adam as individual is somewhat difficult to draw since mutatis mutandis, or making the necessary adjustments, what is true of the one is true of the other. In accordance with divine intention, he develops and transcends his merely animal nature (flesh) when he achieves rationality and becomes capable like a child of receiving and understanding the commandment. Prior to this time he does not know the law on which moral standing is based and so is innocent, that is, neither righteous not sinful, neither good nor evil as the following references indicate (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22; Dt. 1:39; Rom. 7:1,7-11; Heb. 5:12-14, etc.). Though physically adult he lives morally innocent (1* The traditional notion of original righteousness is an absurdity. How could Adam be righteous if he did not know the law on the basis of which he could become either good or evil?) in the Garden of Eden which by parity of reasoning is the womb of mankind. When the commandment eventually makes its impact on his mind, he breaks it and forfeits the (eternal) life it promises. Thus he is cast out of the Garden as a baby is expelled from the womb to fend for himself in a new and harsh environment. Inevitably, after procreating offspring he finally dies having earned his wages in death (Gen. 5:1-5). (2* Procreation and death are both ‘the way of all the earth’, Gen. 19:31; 1 Kings 2:2. The former counteracts the latter, Luke 20:34-36.) Thus it is that in a temporal creation all the descendants of Adam, though born potentially capable of gaining the likeness of God (2 Cor. 3:18), begin as flesh and, like the rest of the animal creation, are subject to natural death apart from sin. However, as they develop and become capable of receiving the commandment they are promised (eternal) life on the condition that they keep it. In the event, all fail and so earn death as wages (Gen. 3:22-24; Rom. 5:12; 6:23). Otherwise expressed, all as one come short of the glory of God (cf. Rom. 3:23) promised to all who exercise dominion and keep the law (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 30:15-20; 32:47, etc.). It is therefore left to the second Adam alone to prove successful.
Once Adam, the first man according to the flesh, has established the pattern, all his descendants who are made in his image (Gen. 5:1-5) copy it and follow in his steps. Not unnaturally they react to the world as he did and under his influence (Rom 5:12). Though born ignorant as Adam himself was and therefore innocent (Dt. 1:39, cf. Rom. 9:11), they all die as a result of their own transgression (Gen. 5, cf. Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 6:23). Despite parental prohibition, usually in the form of a simple negative (Prov. 1:8; 4:1-9; 6:20), all children imitate or rather repeat their first parent’s sin and pay the penalty (pace Art. 9 of the C of E). As James says, it is necessary to break only one commandment to acquire a sinful nature (2:10, cf. John 8:34). A good example of this pattern of conduct is Paul, no less. He claims that he was (like an animal) born biologically ‘alive’ but that when the commandment eventually dawned on his consciousness, he broke it and so (eventually) died (Rom. 7:9f.). For him as for the rest of us his body of flesh was a body of death (Rom. 7:24).
The rest of the Bible rings the changes on this basic pattern established by Adam. Initial ignorance is followed by rational consciousness, knowledge (law), sin, loss of innocence and death (cf. Genesis 5). In Genesis 20 Abimelech provides an example of someone later in life illustrating this same pattern. In ignorance he takes Sarah, Abraham’s wife, into his harem. But when God warns him in a dream that he is infringing (the) law, Abimelech protests his innocence. God acknowledges his basic integrity but nonetheless warns him that death is sure to follow if he does not return Sarah to her husband.
Later in the OT, the pattern of sin and death is reinforced and still holds good. In 1 Samuel 14:24-46 we read of Saul issuing a foolish order to his men not to eat while they are on campaign. Jonathan, however, is blissfully ignorant of his father’s instruction and takes the opportunity to eat with beneficial effect. However, he is soon made aware that he has unwittingly transgressed his father’s command and become subject to the curse on any man who eats food that day. Like Abimelech before him, however, he has committed a ‘sin of ignorance’ and so is upheld by the rest of the Israelite army.
In 1 Samuel 22 in another incident when death is threatened, Ahimelech one of the priests of Nob asks Saul not to impute sin to him since he was unaware of any infringement of Saul’s commands (22:15). On this occasion, though Saul’s servants refuse to carry out his illegitimate execution order, Doeg the Edomite does it for them. However, the reader is left in no doubt of the innocence of the people of Nob who are culpably slaughtered. The true culprit is Saul himself who has knowingly transgressed the sixth commandment.
In 1 Samuel 25:25 Abigail, the wife of Nabal whose name apparently means ‘Fool’, claims that she was not aware of the request made by the young men sent by David. Clearly she herself is innocent of failure to provide hospitality and in the event prevents David himself from taking the law into his own hands and exacting vengeance (1 Sam. 25:26-35). Thus it is God himself who takes Nabal’s life and David is left conscience free, not having shed blood without adequate cause.
David of course is well known for his restraint regarding Saul who persecuted him unmercifully. He takes the view that the God who has promised him the kingdom will give it to him when the time is ripe and even when he has the opportunity to dispatch Saul he refrains from doing so. In 2 Samuel 3, however, we learn that Joab and Abishai have no such inhibitions and unbeknown to David (vv.26,28) they kill Abner because he had earlier killed their brother Asahel in the battle at Gibeon. Emphasis is placed on David’s ignorance of the dastardly deed (2:5) in 3:28 and 37 (cf. 39) and yet again in 1 Kings 2:32.
The Old Testament In General
Throughout the OT it is made clear that sin relates to law and constitutes its infraction (Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18). If the law is not transgressed, there is innocence. (This is not to deny of course that supporting, participating, encouraging and delighting in sin perpetrated by others is deemed to be sinful.) But precisely because man, even the heathen (e.g. Amos 1:3-2:3), knows the law in some sense, his failure to obey that law means he becomes a sinner. Confirmation of this is found in references like 1 Kings 8:46, Psalms 130:3 and 143:2. On the other hand, if he does not break the law, sin cannot legitimately be imputed to him. Thus the false charge laid against Naboth in 1 Kings 21 (cf. Luke 23) is regarded with abhorrence: it is a clear breach of the law laid down by Moses in Exodus 23:7. The view of good and evil first manifested in Genesis is supported by Proverbs 17:15 (cf. 1 K. 8:32, etc.) where we read that the justification of the wicked and the condemnation of the righteous are alike an abomination to the Lord. If this is so, two things become immediately clear: first, since Adam like a baby did not initially know the law, he could not possibly have been created righteous, and, second, since all his descendants follow in his steps and begin at the beginning in ignorance of the law and of good and evil, they cannot be sinners at birth. So, if we accept the authority of the OT we are forced to query the traditional “Christian” idea that we are born sinners. These inferences, needless to say, are supported by verses such as Exodus 32:33, which tell us that it is only the soul that (actually) sins dies, and Deuteronomy 1:39 which informs us unmistakably that babies that do not know the difference between good and evil are implicitly innocent (cf. 1 K. 3:7,9; Isa. 7:15f.).
The New Testament
It now behoves us to ask if the inferences just drawn hold in the NT. Bearing in mind that the Jews and even the Orthodox have always rejected the “Christian” idea of original sin that teaches us that we are guilty ‘in Adam’ (cf. Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22. Bengel gave this idea classical expression when he taught that all sinned implicitly in the sin of Adam, omnes peccarunt, Adamo peccante.) it is important to note that the NT itself lays heavy stress on the need for knowledge as the basis for guilt. To suggest what is known as the imputation of Adam’s sin would appear to be a false inference from Romans 5:12 where the crucial words ‘in Adam’ are conspicuously absent. And if it is argued that they do appear in 1 Corinthians 15:22 where Paul’s subject is the flesh and the body to come, it must be countered that their transference to Romans 5 is illegitimate and inevitably leads to a contradiction within the Bible itself. This can be demonstrated by reference to other teaching.
First, Jesus himself implies that where there is no knowledge or law, there can be no guilt. This cannot but imply that babies, like Adam and Eve at the beginning, are born innocent and potentially blessed (Mark 10:14). In John 9:41 Jesus tells the Pharisees that if they were blind, they would not have any sin and adds that precisely because they claim to be able to see their sin remains (cf. 8:24). Again in John 15:22 he tells his listeners that if he had not come and spoken to them, they would not be regarded as sinful, but in the circumstances they have no excuse for their sin. Then in verse 24 he reminds them of the unique works he has performed among them. Since these testify to his origin from the Father their rejection of him involves their rejection of his Father too (cf. 5:36-47). He then concludes that their attitude fulfils the teaching of the law that they hated him without a cause.
Next, Paul, having taught that the heathen are without excuse since they deliberately suppress truth evident in creation (Rom. 1:18-20), ignore the voice of conscience (2:15) and the standards that they themselves apply to others, points out as Amos had done many years before (3:2) that the Jews were the beneficiaries of the law (Rom. 2:17-3:2, cf. 9:4f.) about which they boasted. The problem here was as the apostle points out that circumcision that signifies law is valuable only if it is obeyed (2:25). Otherwise expressed, the greater the light, the greater the responsibility, which is what Jesus himself had taught in somewhat different words elsewhere (Luke 12:48). So while the Jews had an undeniable advantage in one sense, they also had a greater responsibility than the heathen whom they despised. Of course, it was on account of their deliberately self-induced blindness that, as Jesus had warned, the Jews finally lost the kingdom (Mt. 21:43) entrusted to them by God when he chose them from among the nations (Dt. 7:6; 14:2) to be a light and a blessing to them (Isa. 42:6; 49:6; Acts 13:47). The fact that their house or temple was left to them desolate testifies to the judgement God heaped on his own people (Mt. 23:38) who had failed to live up to their privileges and responsibilities.
The importance of knowledge as the basis of sin is taught elsewhere. On the cross Jesus asks God to forgive those who do not know what they are doing. This draws attention to a neglected feature of biblical teaching, that is, diminished responsibility on which we have already touched in differentiating between the Jews and the heathen. Throughout Scripture ignorance is seen as a mitigating factor in the apportionment of blame, and where ignorance is total, so is mitigation. This had been made plain by Moses in Deuteronomy 1:39 (cf. Num. 14:3,29-33) as we have already seen. Babies who like Adam and Eve at the beginning do not know the law are innocent, neither righteous nor evil. Recognition of this immediately calls in question traditional Augustinian teaching that we sin ‘in Adam’, and the idea that Adam’s sin is imputed to us apart from faith is clearly false. If not, then such imputation would as Paul himself indicates be non-meritorious (Rom. 4:1-8). If death is the wages of sin, death must be earned, not imputed. The same is true of life. If it is wages, the law must be kept. (Only Jesus proved capable of keeping the law so as to gain life, Lev. 18:5. According to Scripture even he did not, strictly speaking, earn it. God is indebted to no one, Rom. 11:35, cf. Luke 17:7-10. What Jesus as man did do was meet his Father’s gracious condition of life. With him his Father was well pleased, Mt. 3:17, etc.)
The need for knowledge to establish sin is underscored by 2 Peter 2:20-22 where we are told that if having escaped temporarily from the defilements of the world, we are again entangled in them, our last state is worse than the first. We are reduced to the level of animals from which we originally emerged. In this event, the apostle goes on to indicate that it would have been better that we had never known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment. Clearly knowledge of the commandment enhanced responsibility. It had done so in the case of Adam in contrast with Eve; it did so in the case of the Jews in contrast with the heathen (Amos 3:2). At this point we need to note that knowledge and commandment are virtually equated and that turning back involves rejection of the commandment. In other contexts this is like sinning against the light, and the author of Hebrews especially has strong words to say when this occurs (see Heb. 6:4-6 and 10:26-31). It might usefully be added that turning back is repeatedly condemned in Scripture for it almost always involves turning back from greater knowledge to lesser, from even minimal human light to animal darkness (2 Pet. 2:22, cf. Jude and note 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5, etc.). Thus the desire of the Israelites to go back to Egypt was strongly condemned. And when the Jews who had the law wanted to follow the nations later in their history, their reprehensibility was asserted in no uncertain terms (e.g. Ezek. 20:18- 39, cf. Lev. 18:1-5). Going back to Egypt was not just a question of returning to leeks and garlic (Num. 11:4f.) but to idolatry (Jos. 24; Ezek. 20,23, etc.). Not surprisingly idolatry was regarded as the worst of sins, sin against the light (cf. Ps. 106:20; 115; Jer. 2:11, etc.) and bound to provoke God’s jealousy since in his love and mercy his purpose was to save them.
In view of the evidence briefly alluded to above, I conclude that far from being born sinners we are born in total ignorance, knowing nothing. At this stage as flesh we are at one with the animals (cf. Gen. 6:17) which lack the image of God and by nature remain perpetually ignorant of (the) law which promises life. If this is the case, plain logic ought to tell us that mere (animal) flesh is at best only preserved by a general temporary covenant which it does not understand (Gen. 8:22). However, for children who survive like Noah and the heathen there is a limited degree of understanding on the basis of which faith in God and the stability of his creation can be exercised. It cannot go without notice that initially faith begins by recognition that God exists (Heb. 11:6) and from that point it matures as revelation increases till maturity is reached by faith in Christ. In other words, a proper appreciation of biblical covenant theology enables us to see that the progress of the race is reflected or encapsulated in the maturation of the individual. Expressed more succinctly, progressive revelation is matched by progressive maturation. As individuals we progress from animal, to heathen (Noah), to law (Moses) to grace (Christ, cf. Gal. 4:1-7). It is here of course that certain things are made clear that have traditionally been hidden. If we postulate as Augustine did original perfection, fall, curse and ultimate restoration on the basis of arbitrary election, we are blinded to biblical realities and our understanding of the big picture is distorted. On the level of the individual birth or original sin traditionally takes precedence. This is followed by infant baptism which according to Rome automatically (ex opere operato) conveys regeneration. This immediately puts the church in the driving seat and the priest becomes all powerful as the indispensable mediator of eternal life. The reality is wholly otherwise. Just as Adam was ‘born’ innocent so are all his offspring (Dt. 1:39, etc.). Thus mutatis mutandis when a degree of development occurs and knowledge of good and evil or law is attained, faith, which is impossible for animals that do not know the law, becomes possible for all humans who begin to take on the image of God. This teaches us two things: first, this has always been God’s intention and, second, it epitomizes diminished responsibility. This is no where better illustrated than in Hebrews 11 where perfection is achieved only in verses 39 and 40. In other words, Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation as opposed to Augustine’s original perfection, fall, curse and restoration is of the essence of the plan of salvation. Bluntly, uncritical commitment to tradition has nullified the word of God (Mark 7:13).
If this is the biblical picture it follows that Christian faith belongs to the spiritually mature not to infants. Jesus himself progressed from incarnation, through Egyptian heathenism (Mt. 2:15), Jewish law (Luke 2:40-52), (Christian) baptism (Mt. 3:13-17) to final ascension and return to heavenly glory. No wonder that they who through justification by faith have received the Spirit are regarded as more accountable than all others (Heb. 10:26-31). And if we have any queries regarding this, we have only to remember that Jesus as the second Adam recapitulated the experience of all his predecessors and then pioneered that of all who succeeded him, making him the Saviour of all. His atonement was both retrospective (Heb. 9:15) and prospective (Rom. 3:21-31; 1 John 2:2). And all who have faith are manifestly its beneficiaries. Christians have proved remarkably slow to appreciate the truth of John 3:16.
So, in sum, while it is true that where there is no law there is no transgression, it is also true that where there is law there is promise of life (Rom. 7:10; Gal. 3:12).* And since justification by faith precedes life in the order of salvation (Rom. 5:21), we can be sure that the plan of salvation will prove wonderfully successful (Heb. 11; Rev. 7:9). Jesus did not die in vain (Rom. 8:31-39).
* We do well to note that in the NT the all-important commandment is that we believe in Jesus (John 6:29; 1 John 3:23.)