First, it should be realised that Romans 5:12 on which the dogma is based is flanked
by Romans 4:4-5 and by 6:23. It is vitally important to note what these verses actually say (as per the ESV).
First, Romans 4:4-5:
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Second, Romans 6:23:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul’s contention is then that death is the wages of sin which itself is work that is actually done against (the) law. In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that many Christians (e.g. D.M.Lloyd-Jones, Romans 5, London, 1971) argue that since babies, who it is universally admitted cannot actually sin on their own account, sometimes die, their death must be the result of Adam’s sin imputed to them.
This argument is fatally flawed. Why? Because Paul lays it down in Romans 4:4f. that gifts (imputation) and wages are mutually exclusive. Throughout Scripture wages are paid to deserving workers (1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Pet. 2:15, etc.). In other words, even if Adam’s sin were imputed, it could not involve the payment of wages, that is, death. To argue that it could is not simply to contradict Paul’s express statement but to suggest that the imputation or gift of Christ’s righteousness is also wages and involves merit. But Paul denies this (Rom. 6:23).
The argument may be alternatively expressed as follows: If actual sin earns the wages of death, imputed sin must lead to the free gift of death as in the case of Christ. Again we may argue that if imputed righteousness leads to the free gift of life (Rom. 6:23), then by parity of reasoning imputed sin must lead to the free gift of death. In other words, wages are necessarily excluded.
The plain unassailable truth is that imputation or gift rules out all forms of desert, both merit and demerit. Consequently, both righteousness and condemnation are excluded apart from faith which itself is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8; cf. Ezek. 14:14ff., etc.). Thus all babies, including Jesus himself, are born like Adam knowing neither good nor evil (Gen. 2:17; Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:3,29-33; Isa. 7:15f.; Heb. 5:13, etc.).
Parallelism (cf. A Question of Symmetry below)
This last point highlights the fallacy of an appeal to an exact parallel between the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and that of Adam’s sin (see Lloyd-Jones, pp.189,197,199,204f.; Murray, Romans, pp. 184,186, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, e.g. pp.20,34,40). Two points need to be made here. First, babies cannot exercise faith. This being so, they cannot receive Adam’s imputed sin as at a later stage they can Christ’s righteousness. Secondly, Paul, obviously well aware of this, distinguishes between the free gift of righteousness and the result or effect of Adam’s sin. So, this so-called parallel is far from exact. Indeed, the real parallel is not between the imputation of Adam’s sin and Christ’s righteousness to us but between the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us and the imputation of our sin to Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). Both of the latter involve faith. Our sin was imputed to Christ by faith (John 10:17f.), his righteousness is imputed to us by faith (Phil. 3:9). This is the great exchange. A third act of imputation is not only superfluous but deeply unbiblical and problematical (pace B.B.Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, p.263).
The argument at its simplest:
According to Paul, wages and imputation are mutually exclusive (Rom. 4:1-8). Therefore, even if it were true that Adam’s sin was imputed to babies, their death could not be the wages of sin (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). The reason for their death clearly lies elsewhere. The logic is irrefutable! What is more, it is in line with the crystal clear teaching of Scripture that the child cannot be punished for the sin of the father (Dt. 24:16, cf. Ex. 32:33; Num. 14:29-35; 26:11; 27:3; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18, etc.).
The Imputation of Sin to the Innocent
If sin is imputed, wages are excluded (Rom. 4:4f.); therefore its effect cannot be death (Rom. 6:23). (I deny, of course, that sin, like righteousness, can be imputed apart from faith. Throughout the Bible, to impute sin without just cause is evil (Ex. 23:7; Dt. 24:16; 1 Sam. 22:15; 1 Kings 8:32; 21:13; Prov. 17:15, cf. Jer. 23:17; Ezek. 13:19; Luke 23:4,14f.,22, 41,47; Acts 23:29; 25:11,25; 26:31; 28:18, etc.). This is yet another argument against the imputation of sin to babies who have done nothing (cf. Rom. 9:11; 2 Sam. 24:17). Again, if it were true, it would bring into suspicion the impartiality of God who always imputes sin to those who commit it (Rom. 2:6,11, etc.) unless it is covered (Rom. 4:7f.). In fact there is a blatant contrast between tradition and Scripture at this point. While traditionalists charge God with imputing sin to those (babies) who do not have it, Paul claims that in the event God does not impute sin to those (believers) who do have it (Rom. 4:7f.).
Yet another attempt at simplicity by means of a syllogism:
First premise: Sin is a work (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10; 5:19) which earns wages (Rom. 6:23).
Second premise: Imputation is a gift (Rom. 4:4f.).
Therefore, wages cannot be paid by means of or as a gift. The two are mutually exclusive. So, the idea that the imputation of Adam’s sin results in the death of babies is not only illogical but it involves a major confusion of categories.
In Romans 5:12 Paul says that as a result of sin all men died, so:
First premise: Sin which is a work is paid the wages of death (Rom. 6:23).
Second premise: Imputation excludes wages (Rom. 4:1-8).
Therefore in 5:12 Paul must be referring to actual sin which paid wages in death.
The upshot of this is that Murray’s “The Imputation of Adam’s Sin” is based on a glaring fallacy.
If the congenitally blind man is not guilty for not seeing (John 9:3, cf. v.41), then the congenitally ignorant cannot be blamed for not knowing. That knowledge (of law) is indispensable to guilt is made evident by such texts as Lev. 4:13f.,22f.,27f.; 5:3-5,17; 1 Sam. 19:4f.; 20:32; 22:15; 25:25; John 3:19-21; 9:41; 15:22,24; Rom. 3:19f.; 7:1-13. The plain teaching of Scripture is that babies, like Adam and Eve before they received the commandment (Gen. 2:17), know neither good nor evil. They are therefore innocent. There is, however, a difference in their situation as Paul makes clear in Romans 5:12. While Adam and Even had no parental moral inheritance, all their children, including us, have theirs! So while all children suffer to some extent from their parental inheritance of evil (or, if you like, from evil parents, cf. Luke 11:13 where, somewhat ironically, Jesus says they do good), they are not punished for it (Num. 14:3,29-35; 26:11; Dt. 24:16; Job 21:19-21; Ezek. 18, etc.). To impute the parents’ sin, or righteousness for that matter, to their children is manifestly contrary to Scripture, for it is the soul who actually sins who dies (Ex. 32:33; Ezek. 18:4, etc.) just as it is the soul who does righteousness who lives (Ezek. 18:5-9; 20:11; 1 John 3:7; Rom. 2:13; 10:5; Gal. 3:12).
If sin were imputed to us apart from faith, it would be a gift of nature like the colour of our skin. Apart from the fact that this does not imply guilt, liability or accountability, it does imply that God who creates us in the womb (Job 31:15; Jer. 1:5, etc.), creates us evil. But if he creates us with an evil nature he expects us to act according to that nature (Rom. 1:26f.). In this case, doing evil is good and obeying the law (2:14) is evil! Clearly the dogma of original sin leads to blasphemous absurdity. It is high time it was abandoned as being what it plainly is, an appalling error on the part of Augustine.
Murray in his “The Imputation of Adam’s Sin” makes the point (p.71) that in Scripture, both OT and NT, the notion of imputation is negative, i.e. actual sin is not imputed to believers, and he refers to Leviticus 17:4; Ps. 32:2; Romans 4:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:19. He rightly says that this implies that God does impute actual sin to disbelievers. What he does not say, however, is that the one and only occasion in Scripture when God imputes sin apart from works is when our sin is imputed to Christ by faith. As indicated above, the imputation of the sin of the father to the child is explicitly ruled out (see e.g. Num. 26:11; Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18, etc.). To merit wages the son has to imitate and/or repeat (John 8:41,44; Acts 7:51f.; Luke 6:23,26), approve (Luke 11:48; Acts 8:1; 22:20), applaud (Rom. 1:32), participate or be complicit in (Jud. 9:24; Prov. 29:24; 2 John 11) the sin of the father (Isa. 65:6f.; Jer. 7:26;16:10-12; 31:29f.; 32:18f.; Ezek. 20:18-21, etc.). If he separates himself as Jesus did, then he is not guilty (cf. Ezek. 18:14-17, etc.) and can only be accounted guilty by faith.
Since babies cannot work, i.e. transgress the commandment or law, they cannot commit sin which is a work (Rom. 4:4, cf. 9:11). By the same token they cannot be righteous.
Furthermore, they cannot be accounted righteous by faith (Rom. 4:5) since they cannot receive the promises on which faith is based. They are clearly morally innocent or neutral and, contrary to Augustine, cannot come into judgement, least of all condemnation (cf. Rom. 2:2-11). Again the reason for their death in some cases lies in the fact that like the earth from which they are taken, they are naturally corruptible (Rom. 8:18-25). It is God who in accordance with his purpose gives and extends life.
While human physical solidarity is beyond dispute (Heb. 2) since we are all born of woman (Job 31:15; Gal. 4:4, etc.), moral or spiritual solidarity is arrived at only by imitation or repetition. See refs. above and note Mt. 23:29-36; Luke 11:47f. Jesus obeyed Ezekiel 20:18 and Zech. 1:4. Unlike all his forebears (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 130:3; 143:2, cf. Mt. 1:1ff.), he did not sin (1 Pet. 2:22). For, unless he was sinless, he could not have been the second or last Adam, the unblemished Lamb of God.
If imputation is true, Jesus sinned as Adam sinned, indeed, ‘in Adam’. If, as is frequently though wrongly claimed, Adam’s sin is his children’s sin since he is their covenant head and representative, separation even for Jesus is impossible. He is necessarily implicated. It is not without reason that Scripture records no covenant with Adam. Biblical covenants, though sovereignly administered by God, are basically mutual or bilateral, but where there is no understanding, there can be no mutuality. A covenant with creation would therefore be unilateral, which is contradictory. See further below. See further my essay “Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?”
But if, on the supposition that imputation is true, Jesus cannot separate himself morally from Adam, we are forced to conclude either that Jesus was a sinner (which Scripture explicitly denies) or that the imputation of Adam’s sin is a lie (and this is indubitably the case).
First premise: Sin, like righteousness (Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7), is a work (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16; 3:10; 5:19, etc.) .
Second premise: Babies can’t work.
Therefore, babies cannot be judged by their works (Rom. 2:6). Since they know neither good nor evil, they are neither righteous nor wicked (cf. Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:29-35).
First premise: Wages are earned by work (Rom. 4:4; 1 Tim. 5:18).
Second premise: Babies can’t work.
Therefore they cannot earn the wages of death (Rom. 6:23).
First premise: Sin is breaking the law (James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17, etc.).
Second premise: Babies, like animals, do not know the law (Ps. 32:9, etc.).
Therefore they can neither keep it so as to be righteous (1 John 3:7) nor break it so as to be sinners.
A Question of Symmetry
All Reformed Protestants that I know freely acknowledge that the imputation of righteousness is a gift that is appropriated by faith. So it follows by parity of reasoning that the imputation of sin must be a gift appropriated by faith! But if faith is lacking, so is imputation. In the event, only Jesus, who did not personally sin, received our sin by faith (see espec. John 10:15,17f.).
The argument simply put:
Just as the imputation of righteousness, being a gift, excludes life as wages, so the imputation of sin excludes death as wages (cf. Rom. 4:1-8; 6:23).
In any case, if faith is required to appropriate righteousness, so it is required to appropriate sin. However, it is universally acknowledged that babies cannot exercise faith. Therefore, babies are neither sinful not righteous, neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39). The reason why babies die has nothing whatsoever to do with personal sin or righteousness.
The plain truth is that only Jesus received by faith the sin of his people and, though personally innocent, died on their behalf to pay the penalty of their actual sin.
Clearly symmetry is achieved at this point, and this being so we are forced to deduce that there are only two, not three, acts of imputation taught in Scripture involving a straight exchange (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).
The imputation of Adam’s sin to babies is clearly asymmetrical and must therefore be rejected. It falters (a) because babies cannot exercise faith to appropriate imputed sin as by universal consent imputed righteousness is appropriated, and (b) since imputed righteousness is a gift of grace which excludes wages, so must imputed sin exclude wages. In other words, the contention of many (e.g. D.M.Lloyd-Jones, Romans 5) that the death of babies proves original sin is a major, if elementary, error which must be unequivocally repudiated.
Babies that die do so not as a consequence of sin but as a result of their fleshly nature which is intrinsically corruptible (cf. John 1:13; Rom. 8:19-25; 2 Cor. 4:16-5:1). Like animals, as flesh (John 1:13) they form part of a naturally mortal creation (Heb. 1:10-12, etc.) which, lacking the promise of life (cf. Gen. 2:17; Rom. 7:9f.) not to mention the faith by which to appropriate it, they cannot transcend. (It should be noted that the first covenant is with Noah, a man of knowledge and faith. There is no mention of a covenant with Adam who initially did not know the law or the commandment.)
If life is not the wages of imputed righteousness (cf. Rom. 6:23), then death is not the wages of imputed sin.
Re Luke 17:7-10
Life is always a gift of grace (Rom. 6:23). Though it is promised on condition of righteousness (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.), even this condition is by grace since righteousness or obedience to God is the basic duty of a creature and so does not merit wages (Luke 17:7-10). In other words, even if we keep the law, God does not owe us life (cf. Rom. 11:35). He is not our debtor and we have no meritorious claim on him even if we keep the law flawlessly (cf. Gal. 3:21). Rather he graciously grants us life if the condition is fulfilled. And only Jesus fulfilled it, which makes him indispensable.
In contrast death is earned by breaking the law. It does merit wages since we have failed to meet our obligation.
So unless death is earned by breaking the law (cf. Rom. 5:12 and Paul’s assertion that “all (have) sinned”, cf. 3:23), death must be a gift. The problem with this is that if the gift is not appropriated by faith as in Jesus’ case, it remains in abeyance. The reason why innocent babies die is that they are part of a temporal and corruptible creation (1*) to whom God has not extended the promise of life (Gen. 2:17). Since they do not know the commandment, they have neither kept nor broken it and die naturally like the animals (cf. Ps. 49: Eccl. 3:18-20).
1* According to Paul, in a naturally corruptible cosmos, life and immortality (Gk. incorruption) did not make their appearance until Jesus abolished death (2 Tim. 1:10). In other words, he alone met the condition of life (Lev. 18:5). And it is he who was not the slave of sin who will give his brothers freedom (John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:11). Just as our righteousness depends on the righteousness of Jesus, so our regeneration depends on his. In other words, if Jesus who was flesh was not himself born again (John 3:1-7; 1 Cor. 15:50), he was in no position to grant us life (cf.Rom. 5:10). Apart from him, it is impossible for us to be born again since we cannot meet the condition of life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Neh. 9:29; Ezek. 20:11,13,21, etc.).