First, there is general agreement among evangelicals at the moment (2006) that the best commentaries on Romans are those of Moo and Schreiner. The standard view among Protestants is that Adam’s sin was imputed to all his descendants, but Moo admits that Paul does not make explicit “how the sin of one man, Adam, has resulted in death for all” (except Jesus) (pp.323,328 n.61, cf. Murray, p.71).
Second, according to Scripture sin is defined as transgression of (the covenant of) law or commandment (Dt. 17:2; Jos. 7:11; 1 Sam. 15:24; Neh. 1:6f.; 9:26,29f.,34; Dan. 9:5,10f.; Jas. 2:9-11; 4:17; 1 John 3:4; . 5:17, etc.). This of course was implied in Genesis 2:17. Paul elaborates on this in Romans. First, he says that where there is no law there is no sin (4:15, cf. 5:13), and then proceeds to draw the conclusion that sin depends on law for its very existence (note 7:1-13. I would argue that this is what he is saying in 7:5, but this verse really needs separate treatment since modern translations suggest that the law ‘arouses’ sin, though this is certainly not in the Greek text.). This view would appear to be confirmed by 1 Corinthians 15:56 where he tells us that the law is the power of sin. And again in Galatians 5:23 he pointedly avers that the fruits of the Spirit are legitimate since there is no law against them!
When I was at university I remember one lecturer in philosophy telling us that it was a philosophical principle that where there is no knowledge (or law), there is no guilt. The same holds true in the Bible. Jesus tells us in John 9:41, 15:22 and 24 that if he had not spoken to and performed his works before those who opposed him, they would not be sinful. But in view of his words and actions they had no excuse (cf. 9:41). In Romans 1:18-32 Paul says the rejection of truth and knowledge by the heathen left them without excuse too (v.20, cf. 2:1). Since partial, as opposed to culpable, ignorance is always a mitigating factor in Scripture (see e.g. Mt. 11:20-24; Lu. 12:48, etc.), the total ignorance of babies implies total mitigation. While the term ‘diminished responsibility’ does not appear in the Bible, the concept certainly does. Again I conclude that sin is impossible where there is no law.
Third, in confirmation of all this we might note that at the beginning Adam and Eve knew neither good nor evil. It was only after they had been given the commandment and broken it that their state of innocence and ‘life’ became one of sinfulness and death. And it was on that account that they were ejected from the Garden of Eden and by implication excluded from heaven (Gen. 3:22-24). In other words, they became subject to death both physically and spiritually. From that point on they were dependent on the divine promise of Genesis 3:15. Justification is always by faith. Even though Jesus himself kept the law, it is quite plain that as a true son of Abraham he lived by faith (cf. Rom. 3:31).
Fourth, the experience of Adam and Eve is clearly paradigmatic in that it is true of all human beings in their childhood as texts like Deuteronomy 1:39, Numbers 14:3,29-35, 1 Kings 3:7, Isaiah 7:15f. and Hebrews 5:12-14 indicate (cf. also Ezek. 28:13-15). We are all born knowing neither good nor evil. Then like Adam and Eve we break the commandments of our parents. (Only one is referred to in Genesis, i.e. 2:17, but, as James was later to indicate, one is enough, 2:10, cf. Gal. 5:3.) Later, like the Jews who were uniquely under the law of Moses (Dt. 4:32-40; Ps. 147:19f.), we are subjected to extended teaching at (Sunday) school, for example (cf. Ps. 78:5-8). Eventually we experience the call of the gospel and achieve maturity in Christ. This is essentially the picture painted by Paul in Galatians 3:23-4:7. But as he makes clear in Galatians 3:22 (cf. Rom. 11:32), it is the law which promises life that consigns us to sin since we can’t keep it (Rom 3:19f.). In effect, he has already said the same in 2:16 where he states that no man (no flesh) will be justified by the works of the law (cf. 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 3:10f.).
Scripture also makes it evident that Jesus was a true human being and to that extent he was flesh (Heb. 2, etc.). If we accept Isaiah 7:15f. as a reference to him, he too as a baby knew neither good nor evil since he did not know (the) law. But in order to become righteous and gain life he had to keep not only his parents’ commandments (cf. Luke 2:51) but the entire law (cf. Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7). And it was only after he had received the approval of his heavenly Father under the law that he received the Spirit and eternal life (Mt. 3:13-17). How was it then that he who was flesh succeeded in keeping the law in the flesh (Rom. 8:3, cf. Heb. 2; James 3:2)? There can be only one answer: he was the Son of God. He fulfilled the prophecies of the OT which indicated that God himself would save his people (see e.g. Isa. 45:22f.; 59:16, etc.), and he clearly did this in Christ who was the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2).
It might be pointed out at this juncture that while small children or little ones are apparently regarded as innocent in Scripture (see refs. above), it is noticeable that we are said to sin in our youth (Gen. 8:21; Job 13:26; Ps. 25:7, cf. Eph. 2:3; 4:14; 2 Tim. 2:22; Tit. 3:3 and Jer. 3:25, 31:19 and 32:20 re Israel). It is quite obvious that Psalm 58:3, like Job 31:18, involves hyperbole, since babies can’t speak lies. Arguably the same holds of Psalm 51:5 where the rest of the Psalm implies personal responsibility. In any case, unless David’s mother was sinless, as RC’s say Mary was, his mother certainly did conceive him in sin. Only a highly questionable translation like that of the NIV and of the NRSV (contrast RSV, ESV) suggests that David himself was born sinful. (It is interesting to note that Jesus refers to evil parents giving good gifts to their children, Luke 11:13.) The implication is, of course, that children receive both good and evil from all their forebears, cf. Abraham in Gen. 26:3-5, who was also evil, ungodly according to Paul in Rom. 4:5. If Deuteronomy 24:16, etc. is true and neither sin nor righteousness can be inherited, the inheritance of children is evil parents! And this has always been the case since Adam and Eve who alone were without a parental moral inheritance. There is a hint of this in Hebrews 12:9.)
Sixth, again according to Scripture death is the wages of sin (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). So if babies die, it cannot be because of sin since it is universally admitted that they haven’t committed any. If we say that the sin of Adam is imputed to them (Rom. 5:12), we have to remember that imputation excludes wages (Rom. 4:1-5). On the other hand, if we say with Romans Catholics that sin is transmitted, it is difficult to see how Jesus avoided it even if “carnal concupiscence” was not involved. The RC solution is to sanctify Mary with the unbiblical dogma of the immaculate conception, i.e. she was born sinless. But if that is so, we have to ask how she managed this. In other words, we are caught up in a process of infinite regress, which is both absurd and contradictory, since if we follow its logic to its conclusion, we are left with a sinless Eve!
Seventh, the Bible says time and time again that it is the soul that sins that dies (Ex. 32:33; Ezek. 18, etc.), again implying that death is the wages of sin. Even the heathen Pilate was concerned to know what Jesus had actually DONE to deserve death (see Luke 23:4,14f.,22 and note 40f.,47,51). There are many references in Scripture, especially in 1 & 2 Samuel and Acts, indicating that death has to be deserved. It is the result or wages of what is actually done (cf. 1 Tim. 5:18).
Following on from this, judgement throughout Scripture is always on the basis of works (Job 34:11; Ps. 62:12; Ezel. 7:3,8f.,27; Rom. 2:2-11; 2 Cor. 5:10, etc.). The problem here is that babies are incapable of works and imputed sin is by definition not a work (Rom. 4:1-5) which can earn wages (cf. Rom. 6:23). So the only conclusion we can safely draw is that they won’t come into judgement, let alone be damned for sinning “in Adam” as Augustine maintained.
Scripture also lays it down that the son cannot be punished for the sins of the father (Dt. 24:16; 2 K. 14:6; 2 Chr. 25:4) as was implied by Dt. 1:39 and Numbers 14:3,29-35, etc. referred to above. But traditionalists maintain that babies die because they sinned “in Adam”!
I have yet to read exegesis of verses like Romans 5:12 or Psalm 51:5 which convincingly demonstrates that original sin is propounded by the Bible. The plain truth is that the church, though not the Jews or the Orthodox, inherited Augustine’s false understanding of Romans 5:12, based on an inadequate Latin text and canonised it. It is high time that the dogma was seen for what it is and rejected once and for all.
Finally, it is sometimes claimed that there is no other way of accounting for universal sinfulness if original sin is rejected. This is an astonishing claim, for, first, original sin cannot account for the sin of Adam and Eve, and, second, their sin, being prototypical and paradigmatic, accounts for its repetition in all their offspring who are made in their image (Gen. 5:1-3, cf. Isa. 24:2 and like mother like daughter, and implicitly like father like son, Ezek. 16:44. I am not unaware, and certainly not seeking to deny, as Pelagius did, that in Romans 5:12ff. Paul is saying more is involved than mere repetition. But so did Isaiah 65:6f. and Jeremiah 14:20; 16:10-12; 32:18f.). And this is precisely what the NT writers imply. Among a wealth of material I would refer simply to one verse, Romans 7:14. Paul, having already stated that there was a time when like Adam (1* Moo (pp.437ff.) disputes this but in my judgement without conviction. He claims that Paul is referring to the tenth commandment (as he certainly is in verse 7). His assertion that Paul was relatively alive (!) until he became responsible for keeping the law of Moses is belied by his repeated contention that all, including Paul, having sinned in Adam are dead in him (pp.326,364,394, etc.). I humbly suggest that unlike faith, life is not relative. One is, in the final analysis, either alive or dead. According to Scripture, we die not in Adam’s sin but in our own (Ezek. 33:8-10; John 8:24; Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 2:13). (If it is argued that we die “in Adam”, 1 Cor. 15:22, it needs to be pointed out that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is dealing with the composition of the body. The conclusion then must be that we die, as even Jesus did (1 Pet. 3:18), in our naturally corruptible Adamic flesh, not in Adam’s sin.)) he was alive (v.9), says here in verse 14 that his sin stemmed from his carnal (2* The Greek word here (sarkinos) means composed of, not characterised by flesh (sarkikos)) or fleshly nature. Apart from the machinations of the devil, it did this in the case of Adam and Eve (see espec. Gen. 3:6, cf. James 1:14f.) and it does so in all other cases (Eph. 2:1-3, etc.). Clearly, as Jeremiah long ago pointed out, we, who are flesh, don’t need help to sin (4:22, cf. Rom. 3:12). As I noted above God never intended fleshly man to justify himself by the works of the law (which would be self-salvation or auto-soterism). Though the theoretical possibility is there (Mt. 19:17-21), the practical capability is lacking in all but Jesus. He alone, though weak in the flesh himself (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4), condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). He alone proved strong enough (cf. Mt. 12:29) to defeat the world (John 16:33), the flesh (John 8:46; 1 Pet. 2:22) and the devil (Mt. 4:1-11, cf. Heb. 2; 4:15). For those who are flesh original sin is redundant, so why should God compromise his holiness by imputing Adam’s sin to them? Further, this raises the question of how Jesus avoided such putative imputation especially in view of Hebrews 2 (cf. 4:15) where his humanity (cf. Luke 3:38) is so strongly stressed. As far as I know, no satisfactory answer to this has yet been offered.
D.J.Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids, 1996.
J.Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, repr. Phillipsburg. 1979.
T.R.Schreiner, Romans, Grand Rapids, 1998.