Traditionally much is made of human solidarity or seminal identity in sin. The contention, following Augustine of Hippo, is that we all sinned ‘in Adam’ or in the words of Bengel: when Adam sinned, so did everyone else (Adamo peccante omnes peccarunt). The question this prompts is: Does the Bible teach this? The mere fact that the words ‘in Adam’ are missing from Romans 5:12 renders it suspect. (1* It is generally agreed that Augustine, who knew little Greek, misinterpreted the words ‘eph’ ho’ which mean ‘because’ in this verse. His ‘in quo’, that is, ‘in whom’ or ‘in Adam’, which appears in the Vulgate, is erroneous.)
Since Augustine’s day Catholics have based their view of solidarity in sin on physical transmission; Protestants on imputation. Catholics contend that the Virgin Birth obviated ‘carnal concupiscence’ or sinful lust when Jesus was born. But their assumption that sin can be transferred is undermined by the Scriptural teaching that the son cannot be punished for the sins of the father (Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18, etc.). Protestants are less sure of themselves than Catholics. Apart from the Virgin Birth they offer no adequate reason for the non-imputation of sin to Jesus. They simply suppose that it is impossible. It is. But to imply that with Jesus God made a new beginning is only acceptable if we recognize that it was a different sort of beginning from that God suggested to Moses when testing him in the wilderness (Ex. 32:10; Num 14:12; Dt. 9:27-29). If the plan of salvation was to be universally effective, the atonement had to be retro-active as well as prospective (cf. 1 John 2:2) and so cover all who exercise faith throughout the history of the human race (cf. Heb. 11). To say this, however, requires that Jesus had to assume what needed to be healed (Gregory Nazianzen, cf. Heb. 2). In other words, he had to live a complete or perfect human life beginning at the beginning and recapitulating man’s minority before pioneering his majority or maturity. This is precisely what Scripture presents him as doing. He became our moral and generic exemplar, the perfect(ed) man (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28).
The plain truth is that sin, like righteousness, cannot be imputed apart from faith. As babies none of us, even Jesus himself, have faith and the knowledge on which to base it (cf. Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.). This observation makes it obvious that the imputation of Adam’s sin taught by the Reformed in particular is false. If righteousness is imputed by faith, then clearly so is sin. If this is indeed the case, then it follows as surely as night follows day that the only instance in the Bible of imputed sin occurs when the voluntary sins of men are imputed by faith to Jesus, thereby enabling him to bear their punishment voluntarily and vicariously (1 Pet. 2:24, cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).
Solidarity in the Flesh
No matter what, it is indisputable that Paul teaches the solidarity and universality in sin in Romans 5:12. In view of this the question must be posed: How is this solidarity achieved? How is it that Paul can say that all have sinned (Rom. 5:12) and that all have come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23)? The answer must be that all who die have committed actual wage-earning sins; they have one and all broken the law. However, it must be quickly added that only those who know the law can commit sin, for the apostle tells us that apart from the law there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15). (Note how in Nehemiah 8:3,7f.,12 the reading of the law is addressed to those who could understand.) So what about those who do not know the law, babies, for example? On occasion, they die (e.g. Job 3:16). The answer is that they die as a consequence of their solidarity with the entire animal world. Bluntly, they are flesh and like fleshly animals they die as such (Ps. 49:12,20; Eccl. 3:18-21). It is necessary here to stress the solidarity of all human beings without exception as flesh (cf. John 3:6a). While Jesus may have been unique in that he did not sin (1 Pet. 2:22, etc.), he was nonetheless one with all his fellows as born of woman (Gal. 4:4, cf. Heb. 2:14). He underwent a genuine incarnation.
The Wages and Sting of Death
It may be argued at this point that the Bible teaches that death is the wages of sin (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23; 7:10) and is not native to man. Paul seems to underscore this when he says that the sting of death is sin. But he goes on to assert that the power of sin is the law (1 Cor. 15:56). This is fundamentally important because it underlines the fact that where there is no law there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; 7:8, cf. 9f.). Here we have to remember that only men and women who are created in the image of God and have gained knowledge of the law are capable of breaking it. From this we are compelled to conclude by sheer force of logic that when death occurs apart from the law, sin is not involved. In light of the evidence, our inference must be that the material creation as such, and especially the flesh which derives from it, is destructible and corruptible by nature. God made it that way. And this Paul and the author of Hebrews surely teach in Romans 8:18-25 and Hebrews 1:10-12, to go no further. (2* See my Romans 8:18-25.)
The dogma of original sin leads us to believe that we are all born sinners. Unfortunately for this view, as I have already hinted there was one glaring exception – Jesus. He is unmistakably portrayed as sinless. (3* According to Bock there are seven confessions of his innocence in Luke 23 alone, p.1864.) So unless original sin, indeed sin of any kind, can be legitimately attributed to Jesus, the church dogma is founded on a quagmire. The problem is that Jesus cannot simultaneously be one with all the sinful sons of Adam and sinless (cf. Heb. 2:17). Yet the Bible makes it clear beyond dispute that he was. So, how do we solve this conundrum?
1. Docetism may be proposed. Jesus appeared to be a man but in reality was not so. This would appear to offer a solution to our problem. It fails, however, because from the beginning life was conditionally promised to man (Gen. 2:17), not to a representative who only appeared to be a man.
2. Jesus must be accepted as an exception. However, if he was an exception, he would be disqualified (cf. John 3:3,5). (4* L.Berkhof, truer to his word than he realized, claimed that Jesus’ statement regarding regeneration in John 3:3 was absolute and left no room for exceptions, p.472. The reason why Jesus was no exception at this point, pace Augustine, was that, as we have seen above, he enjoyed fleshly solidarity with all his fellows! And flesh which is naturally corruptible cannot be glorified and go to heaven, cf. 1 Cor. 15:50.) As in Docetism, he would not be a true man. In effect, his sacrifice would be no better than the animal sacrifices of the OT he replaced. What is more, his exception would involve blemish and therefore be unacceptable.
3. The Augustinian dogma of original sin is in fact false.
4. If this is so and all children who are born knowing neither the law nor good nor evil are innocent (Dt. 1:39, etc.), irrespective of the impact of their parents (Ex. 20:5f., etc.) including Adam (Rom. 5:12-21), they are in a position to keep the commandment/law as Adam and Eve were before them. The problem here is that like them they lack the ability to keep the law (Rom. 3:19f.; Gal. 2:16, cf. 2 Pet. 2:19, etc.). The world, the flesh and the devil prove too strong. But Jesus, the second Adam, conquered even though he was genuinely flesh (Rom. 8:3) and, along with all his fellows, a son of the first Adam (Luke 3:38). This being so, we are compelled to conclude that the dogma of original sin is untrue.
The evidence then forces us to infer that while Jesus shared human nature with all humans experiencing solidarity and seminal identity with them as flesh (Heb. 2:14), he did not share their sinful nature. Why not? The simple answer is that he proved himself capable of keeping the law and so did not sin (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22). In this he remained both separate and unique. By contrast, all his fellows without exception, though born innocent like Adam and Eve before them, broke the law and earned wages in death (1 K. 8:46; Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:56, cf. Rom. 7:9f.).
So, by living a sinless life from infancy to manhood, Jesus underlined both his solidarity with and his separation from ordinary men and women (cf. Heb. 7:26). He was thus able to serve as their Saviour. It is necessary to add, however, that while solidarity in sin is true in general, it is not necessarily so in specific sins. The Bible makes this evident on numerous occasions. For example, it was vital for those who delivered a good report on the Promised Land to be recognized as separate from the rest. The same is true regarding Korah’s rebellion recorded in Numbers 16. Had the whole congregation perished on account of the sins of the rebels (cf. 16:22), the very plan of salvation would have foundered. So while solidarity must be stressed, so must separation.
The Sins of the Fathers
Though children are frequently urged not to repeat the sins of their fathers (Zech. 1:4, etc.), they usually do, yet, as Ezekiel 18 indicates, not necessarily. On the other hand, if original sin is true, they have no choice and they are all without exception tarnished by Adam’s sin. But as we have seen, this is impossible. The imputation of sin to the innocent is regarded as evil throughout the Bible (1 K. 21; Prov. 17:15, etc.). By contrast, imitation is a pervasive Scriptural theme. (4* See my Imitation.) For all that, it is vital to be aware that Scripture constantly distinguishes between the sins of the fathers and of the children (e.g. Num. 26:11; 27:3). This suggests that what is known as generational benediction and malediction (cf. Ex. 20:5f.), though real enough, excludes the punishment (Dt. 24:16) as opposed to the suffering of the innocent (cf. Num. 14:33). Thus, in Psalm 106:6, ESV, we read: “Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedness.” Numerous other references are to the same effect: Leviticus 26:39f.; 2 K. 17:41; Neh. 1:6; Isa. 65:7; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezekiel 18; 20:18,21,24,27-30; Daniel 9:8,11,16, and so forth. While Jeremiah 32:18 might suggest indiscriminate solidarity, this illusion is quickly dispelled by the very next verse where individual accountability is affirmed (cf. Jer. 31:29f.). (David explicitly separates himself from his people in 2 Sam. 24:17, cf. Num. 16:22.)
So I conclude that the Bible teaches solidarity in sin to the extent that all who attain to knowledge of (the) law fail to obey it and so pay the penalty (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). All come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and are the slaves of sin of their own volition (John 8:34) even if social and especially parental pressure is great. As those who are disobedient like Paul (Rom. 7:10) we are all by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:2f.). But we are not born so (cf. Rom. 7:9a), since at that time we have no knowledge of the law or of good and evil apart from which there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15, etc.). Native depravity is manifestly contrary to Scripture (5* Ps. 58:3, cf. 51:5, like Job 31:18, is clearly hyperbolic.) and rules out of court meritorious generational recompense for the innocent. Children are inevitably caught up in the circumstances of their parents whether for good or evil. However, as James 2:10 indicates, confirming the words of Jesus in John 8:34, only one sin is necessary to enslave us (cf. Adam) and hence to determine our nature as sinful from our youth (Gen. 8:21; Rom. 7:9f.). Unless we can keep the commandments to perfection, we all need a saviour, and the only Saviour is Jesus.
It must finally be added here that the nature of our salvation involves family solidarity since God is our Father (John 1:13) and Jesus our elder brother. Just as Jesus by his incarnation experienced solidarity with us in flesh (Heb. 2:14a), so we by faith enjoy solidarity with him in spirit (Heb. 2:10-13, cf. John 3:3-8), for he is the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29). By contrast, deliberate separation from Christ means family solidarity with the devil who is the father of sin and death (John 8:44; Heb. 2:14b).
Once we recognize that solidarity does not necessarily nullify separation but that both can be true, other matters become clear. There is a troublesome tendency in traditional theology to universalize or generalize the particular and to stress solidarity to the detriment of separation. Just as Adam’s particular sin is accredited and extended to all his offspring despite the obvious innocence of Jesus who like the rest of us as a baby knew neither the law not good and evil (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.), so is his curse. However, the Bible tells us that all particular (separate) sins result in punishment or curse (Heb. 2:2) unless they are forgiven (e.g. Eph. 1:7, etc.). But if babies have not sinned, though they may suffer to some extent the consequences of and inherit the conditions engineered by their sinful parents, as already indicated they cannot be punished for them. If this is not the case, then no one would have reached the Promised Land since all would have been sinners subject to death (cf. Dt. 1:31; Num. 14:31). In light of this alone we are forced to call in question other aspects of traditional theology and cast doubt on the so-called cosmic curse resulting from Adam’s “Fall”. (Genesis 3:17-19 reflects the difference between the garden of Eden, the womb of the race, and the harsh world outside where man as he develops is called to exercise his dominion. As a sinner this proves as impossible for Adam to do successfully as it did for Cain and those who followed him. The problem is in man not the land which is naturally recalcitrant and subject to corruption, cf. Hag. 1:6; Mic. 6:12ff.; 7:13. When it is properly worked it yields its increase, Lev. 26:3-13; Dt. 28: 1-14; when it is not, it is cursed, Lev. 26:14-43 and Dt. 28:15-68 passim.) At this point we do well to remind ourselves not only that both peoples and individuals differ (cf. Gen. 18:25) but so do lands. If Adam’s sin led to a universal curse of corruption, how did it come about that Lot “saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar” (Gen. 13:10, cf. Jud. 18:7,9f.)? How could there ever have been a promised land which was exceedingly good despite its defilement by the Canaanites (Num. 13:27; 14:7; Dt. 1:25)? Again, how could Paul claim that “everything created by God is good” (1 Tim. 4:4)? If traditional Augustinian thinking is true, ought he not to have said that everything is cursed? (Cf. Heb. 1:10-12 and see further my Romans 8:18-25).
We are remiss as readers of Genesis 19 if we do not to realize that the particular curse on Sodom and Gomorrah which is used symbolically throughout Scripture is not generalized or universalized till the end of the world (Luke 17:28f.). In other words, the idea that creation was initially perfect but was subjected to a universal curse of corruption (solidarity) because our first parents sinned (particularity) is nonsense and involves a gross misreading of the Bible’s teaching. As “made by hand” creation including man (Isa. 45:11f.) was divinely subjected to corruption (decay). Even the sinless Jesus himself was susceptible to it and, in contrast with his Father (Ps. 102:27), he noticeably aged (John 8:57). From the start he intended returning to the glory he had left with his people in train (cf. John 17:5,24). In other words, like Paul he was plainly conscious of the “invisible hope” (Rom. 8:24f.) involved in creation’s subjection to corruption which lay ahead of him (Heb. 12:2).
In Deuteronomy 29 we are given an explicit illustration of the particular (separation) distinguished from the general (solidarity). First, the individual is differentiated from the community and threatened with curse (29:20, cf. Num. 16:22). Second, the land itself is threatened with a repetition or re-enactment of the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah (29:23) if the community imitates, tolerates or concurs with the idolatry of the individual. In this case, both moist and dry will be swept away (29:19), for the sun shines and the rain falls on good and evil alike (Mt. 5:45). Perhaps even more to the point, the other nations which are obviously not affected will ask why the land has been devastated (29:24). The answer is not that the people are being punished for the sin of Adam but for their own wilful abandonment of the covenant of the Lord. All this underscores repetition and imitation which is nullified by indiscriminate appeal to solidarity (pace Art. 9 of the C of E). Traditional Augustinian theology frequently generalizes when it should particularize.
At the end of the day the traditional creation-fall-restoration schema beloved of Reformed theology is false. Creation was never perfect, the ‘fall’ was personal though apart from Jesus universally repeated Rom. 3:23; 5:12), and restoration under the new covenant is spiritual not physical (John 3:1-8; 1 Cor. 15:50). Tradition fails to distinguish between the general and the particular. While Adam’s impact may have been universal (Rom. 5:12-21) it did not negate personal accountability. Hence Adam died for his own sin, and we die for our own (Ex. 32:33; Dt. 29:18-20; Ezek. 18:4,20). Having said this we must be ready to acknowledge (pace Pelagius) that our sin like Adam’s has a deleterious effect on others and the environment if it is repeated. Where it is not, as in Jesus’ case, the world, the flesh and the devil are overcome (Heb. 2:9, etc.). But while death is conquered, corruption (decay) is not so. Even Jesus could not prevent black hair turning white (Mt. 5:36, cf. John 8:57). Since the latter is by divine decree (Rom. 8:20), Jesus had to escape to glory by transformation at his ascension (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10). Whether dead or alive we do the same (1 Cor. 15:50-53).
See further my articles on original sin and especially my Are We Sinners by Birth?, Death and Corruption.
Note 1 Chron. 21:17 and 2 Tim. 2:20f. re separation.
L.Berkhof, Systematic Theology, repr. London, 1959.
D.L.Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, Grand Rapids, 2002.