I once heard Cardinal Ratzinger, later the Pope, say in a TV interview that original sin was central to Roman Catholicism. My problem is that I cannot find it in the Bible. What is more, if it were there, it would constitute massive problems for the Christian faith as I understand it, for it not only seems to involve major inconsistency in itself but also to be in blatant contradiction of other teaching which is certainly biblical.
Original Sin Unnecessary to Explain Present Universal Sin
So let me start this essay by saying that original sin, the traditional idea that we all sinned ‘in Adam’ (1* As Bengel a once highly respected Lutheran commentator put it: Omnes peccarunt, Adamo peccante or All sinned, when Adam sinned.), is redundant, totally unnecessary to explain why all men and women without exception are sinners (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). And the claim frequently made by evangelicals, who purportedly accept the authority of the Bible, that on account of original sin we are born sinful on the one hand and that it is an indispensable prerequisite of the atonement on the other seems to be based on received church dogma not on biblical doctrine.
Flesh and Law
As is generally recognized, mankind was not sinful at creation; he was created ‘good’ though certainly not perfect in holiness and righteousness as has been generally held (Gen. 1:31). At the start Adam and Eve, our original progenitors, knew neither good nor evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22). It was not until the commandment impinged on their (obviously developing) minds that they broke it and became transgressors (cf. John 8:34; James 2:10). As is affirmed elsewhere in Scripture, in Romans in particular, where there is no law there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; 5:13; 7:8). Apart from (the) law (knowledge), neither sin (Rom. 4:15; 7:8) nor righteousness exist (Rom. 6:16; 1 John 3:4). All the animals being unable by nature to apprehend the law are guiltless and since Adam and Eve were initially created flesh like them (1 Cor. 15:46), they too were innocent. Likewise, since all babies are born flesh and are totally ignorant at birth, they are in the nature of the case born both amoral and morally neutral like Adam and Eve (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f., cf. 8:4). Paul in particular makes the situation clear when in reference to himself he says he was once ‘alive’ and it was only when the commandment made its impact on his mind as one who was created in the image of God that he broke it and was constituted a sinner (Rom. 7:9f., cf. John 8:34).
Paul goes on in Romans 7 to indicate that mankind is quite unable to keep the law when it eventually and inevitably comes into collision with his flesh or unregenerate nature (Rom. 7:14). (2* The widespread received idea that Romans 7 refers to the Christian is clearly erroneous. It arises out of the logic of original sin which does not exist. See further my Interpreting Romans 7.) First, like Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:6), overwhelmed by his fleshly desires he gives way to temptation, breaks the commandment and earns its wages in death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). Even when he is older and, like the Psalmist (119:14, 111, etc.), loves the law, he simply lacks the power (Rom. 7:18; 8:8, cf. John 6:63) to resist completely his fleshly impulses, and it is not until he receives the Spirit through faith in Christ (Rom. 8:1-4) that he is able to triumph to some degree and become more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37).
It is a reasonable if not unchallengeable view that Paul’s theology in general centres on justification by faith (Rom. 1:16f.) since he is adamant that man cannot justify himself by keeping the law (Rom. 3:19f.; Gal. 2:16, etc.). Only one man in the entire history of the race has succeeded in offering unadulterated obedience to the satisfaction of God (Mt. 3:17, cf. 5:48), pleased his Father (Mt. 3:17) and has thus met the divine precondition of salvation (Gen. 2:17). That man is Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5), God’s own incarnate Son. He alone was without sin (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.) and only he was ever in a position to provide the ‘alien’ righteousness the rest of mankind needed for salvation (Lev. 18:5). Since the OT made it plain that only God could save (Isa. 45:22), so God’s mercy was exercised uniquely in Jesus his only Son as he always intended (Rom. 11:32; Acts 4:12; Phil. 2:9-11).
I conclude from this brief study of the flesh alone, apart from the role of the devil (cf. Heb. 2:14f.), that original sin as taught by the churches, their creeds and confessions is redundant. It is entirely unnecessary to account for universal human sin. The incontrovertible truth is that before God no flesh will boast (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Eph. 2:9, cf. John 6:63; Rom. 7:18; 8:8; Gal. 5:21) because flesh, or unregenerate humanity, is inherently incapable of keeping the law (Rom. 7:14).
The Children of Adam and Eve
As the children of Adam and Eve, our first parents, we are created in their image (Gen. 5:1-3) and inevitably, but not necessarily as the imputation or transmission of their sin implies, follow or recapitulate their pattern of behaviour when the commandment finally makes its impact on our developing minds. How do we know this? Paul as we have noted above certainly did this (Rom. 7:8-11) and so do the rest of us as both history and our own experience tell us. (3* Bruce in particular notes the implicit reference to Eve in Romans 7:11 but rejects it on the specious and clearly erroneous ground that mankind fell ‘in Adam’, p.142.) Even Jesus as the Son of Adam (Luke 3:38) began by recapitulation where Adam began, that is, at the beginning, for he too was created (born of woman who was dust, Ps. 103:14; 1 Cor. 15:47-49) knowing neither good nor evil (Isa. 7:15f.). Despite being human, that is, truly flesh (cf. John 1:14), since he did not know the law (commandment), he was initially innocent (neither sinful nor righteous) like all children (Dt. 1:39). He, however, uniquely remained so and thus became the second Adam.
The Virgin Birth
Since this is so, appeal to the Virgin Birth of Jesus in a forlorn attempt to shield him from the entail of original sin said to affect all mankind is plainly misguided. First, nowhere does Scripture link original sin and the Virgin Birth. If it did, we would be forced to explain the sinlessness or immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary herself. The fact is that if the latter were true, even she would be docetic, that is, disqualified as a genuine human being. In point of fact, it is ironic that the Virgin Birth is called in to sanctify Jesus when what it really signifies is that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14)! The Virgin Birth underlines the veracity of the incarnation, not of sanctification. Second, as Hebrews 2:14,17 indicate, Jesus was as truly man as the rest of us. The only difference between him and us was that he kept the law and never sinned (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.). So again we are forced to infer that we all like Adam and Eve by recapitulation begin at the beginning and we all with the exception of Jesus break the commandment when we are confronted by it. The supreme wonder of his life is that he succeeded in keeping the law in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). This furnishes conclusive proof of his divine pedigree and demonstrates beyond question that he was truly the Son of God.
It is essential to note at this point that Jesus is a prime, indeed the supreme, example of human recapitulation and perfection (maturation process) apart from which he could not have atoned for the sins of the whole world (Heb. 2; 1 John 2:2). He perfectly underwent the normal development of first Adamic or natural man according to the flesh: he was conceived, gestated, was born of woman, was circumcised, underwent a heathen experience like his forefathers in Egypt (Mt. 2:15), lived under the law as a son of the commandment and finally achieved what eludes all other sinful men and women, that is, eternal life at his baptism when he earned the approbation of his heavenly Father by keeping the law (Lev. 18:5; Mt. 3:17). From that point on he pioneered the regenerate life here on earth and, having atoned for our sins, paved our way into heaven itself (cf. John 3:13; Heb. 2:10). Once we ourselves are baptized by faith into his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-11), we recapitulate mutatis mutandis (making the necessary adjustments) in essence his ascension into the Father’s house (John 6:38-40,62; 14:2f.) and thus receive our inheritance along with him (Rom. 8:17).
The Physical Transmission of Sin (Catholic)
Catholics believe that Adam’s sin was transmitted to his posterity by what is known as ‘carnal concupiscence’ which renders them evil by birth. Needless to say, this is not only not taught in the Bible but also is positively disallowed, first, by Genesis 1:27f. (cf. Mt. 19:4-6; 1 Tim. 4:3; Heb. 13:4), and, secondly, by passages such as Ezekiel 18. Augustine’s obsession with sin arising partly from his own failure in his youth to control his sexual urges has contaminated church dogma till the present day. It has doubtless contributed to the celibacy of the Roman clergy which has wreaked so much havoc even in the 21st century. Again, it must be stressed that we all begin at the beginning and mutatis mutandis repeat the experience of Adam and Eve who were created innocent (pace Article 9 of the Church of England). The comparison between their original innocence and that of all children who are ignorant of law (Dt. 1:39, etc.) puts this beyond reasonable doubt. And the idea that (abstract) human nature in general after the so-called ‘fall’ from original righteousness is permanently vitiated is alien to the Scriptures. Like original sin itself, original righteousness is a figment of our forebears’ mistaken imaginations. The two stand or fall together, for without (the) law there can be neither sin nor righteousness (Rom. 6:16). (4* See my Concerning Original Righteousness, Some Arguments Against Original Sin, etc.)
The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Protestant)
When they do not (regrettably) appeal to the Catholic view regarding the Virgin Birth, Protestants contend for the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his descendants. This is clearly illegitimate and fallacious for a variety of reasons. The imputation of sin(s) to those who have not committed any is regarded as evil throughout the Bible. To begin with, we can appeal to references like Exodus 23:7, Job 34:17, Proverbs 17:15 and 1 Samuel 22:15, but the story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21, not to mention false charges made against Jesus in Luke 23, provides a more personal illustration of the point at issue. Again it needs to be pointed out that sin involves transgression of the law and where the law has not been broken as in the case of babies there is innocence. For reasons already given original sin as touted by church dogma is redundant. All human beings apart from Jesus fail to keep the law and hence are constituted sinners who like Adam come short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). No one who fails to obey completely will be able to boast before him. As Paul insists in Romans 11:32 (cf. Gal. 3:22), God has consigned all to sin under the law (Rom. 3:19) so as to be able to exercise mercy on all. But it must be stressed that he did not impute Adam’s sin to them or, first, Jesus himself would have been born sinful (5* Though Jesus enjoyed solidarity with all other humans as flesh, Heb. 2:14, he remained morally separate from them because he did not sin, Rom. 8:3, Heb. 2:15; 1 Pet. 2:22.) and, secondly, God’s own holiness and righteousness would have been compromised. The suggestion is clearly blasphemous.
It needs also to be emphasized at this point, however, that unlike Jesus who is the covenant head and representative of all who put their trust in him, Adam, with whom no covenant is made, is merely representative man according to the flesh in whose image we are all, including Jesus (Luke. 3:38), made (Gen. 5:1-3). In order for sin to be imputed, faith is as necessary as it is for the imputation of righteousness. Clearly Jesus himself freely exercised faith when our sins were imputed to him (2 Cor. 5:21). In light of this it must be strongly asserted that Romans 5:12-21 merely presents us with an analogy between the malign but unspecified legacy of the sin (cf. Ps. 51:5; Ex. 34:6f.) of Adam and the beneficial effects of the righteousness of Christ which accrue to all who have faith. The so-called ‘exact parallel’ provided by this passage implying a double imputation is a figment of the traditional imagination and quite wrongly attributed to Paul. (6* See my An Exact Parallel?) The great apostle would have been horrified at the suggestion that both he and we have Adam’s sin either imputed or transmitted to us and were thus relieved of all personal responsibility. We do well therefore to note the inclusive nature of his assertions in Ephesians 2:1-3 and Titus 3:3 where he affirms that we all including himself have gained our sinful nature not by the imputation of Adam’s sin but by personally and accountably sinning on our own part (Rom. 3:19) even if conditioned by Adam’s sin (cf. John 8:34; Rom. 6:16; 2 Pet. 2:19). And this confirms what was argued above with regard to Romans 7:9f.
The idea that parental sin beginning with Adam and Eve is the source of sin in all offspring is again without foundation. The OT itself makes it clear that children can no more inherit and be punished for the sin of their parents (Dt. 24:16, cf. Jer. 31:29f.) than they can be accounted righteous on the basis of their faith (Ezek. 18, cf. 14:14). Proxy faith and repentance simply cannot be supported from Scripture. We all either sin or attain to righteousness on our own account (Ex. 32:33; Ezek. 18, etc.). Jesus specifically denies that parental sin leads to punishment in the form of disability in John 9:3. And it is nowhere suggested that it accounts for Sarah’s barrenness or Moses’ speech defect, for example. For all that, it is undeniable that parents make a powerful impact on all their children (cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.). As Numbers 14:3,29-33 and Deuteronomy 1:39 indicate, since they are caught up in their situation, they undoubtedly suffer as a result. But that they are not punished is proved by the fact that they were permitted to enter the Promised Land. The exodus could not have occurred if the children had been sinful. If the latter were the case they would have died in the wilderness along with their parents. While there is no denying evidence of solidarity under the old covenant, there is also ample evidence of a moral and personal distinction between parent and child. Separation is also fundamental to Scripture. How otherwise could Jesus have become the second Adam? (7* See further my Solidarity and Separation.)
The Legacy of Racial Sin
Apart from our first parents, we are all, including Jesus, born into a sinful world. This would seem to be the point David is so graphically making in Psalm 51:5. Contrary to most traditional interpretation (which incidentally is denied by both the Jews and the Orthodox), David recognizes the impact of his mother’s sinfulness on himself but fails to suggest that he has himself inherited it. The obvious truth is that if Adam sinned in ideal circumstances without any moral legacy from the past, his descendants would be all the more likely to sin given that they had to deal with his. This is surely what Paul is signifying in Romans 5:12-21. The world we all now enter at birth is not merely difficult to contend with by nature (cf. Gen. 1:28) as Adam discovered once he was ousted from paradise, the womb of the race, but carries with it the added burden of the example and polluting influence of the sinful people who have preceded us (cf. Gen. 5:28f.; Prov. 24:30-34; Isa. 24:5f.; Heb. 2:2). Since Romans 5:12-21 informs us that all died, all must have personally earned the wages of death. In other words, this passage could not possibly teach the imputation of sin as has been traditionally claimed since (a) imputation does not pay wages (Rom. 4:1-8, cf. 6:23), (b) it requires faith to activate it; and (c) if imputation were involved even Jesus himself as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) would have been caught in its net. At this point, the Catholic dogma, though clearly false, makes more sense than the Protestant contention.
Death and Corruption
Traditionalists under the influence of Augustine of Hippo aver that the earth languishes under a curse of death and corruption on account of Adam’s original sin and they cite Romans 8:18-25 in an abortive attempt to prove their case (contrast Isa. 24:4-6). Nowhere else in Paul’s writings is there any suggestion of a cosmic curse on creation stemming from Adam’s sin. Rather in Acts 14:17, 17:27 and 1 Timothy 4:4 the apostle seems to undermine the very suggestion. Furthermore, it is deeply questionable whether he had Genesis 3:17-19 in mind when he wrote this passage in Romans as most commentators claim. (8* See e.g. Cranfield, p.413). Rather he is telling us that God of set purpose subjected the material world to futility because he had something better in mind for his adopted children. The following points at the very least must be made: first, in contrast with God himself (see e.g. Isa. 51:6,8) this world has a beginning, so it must have an end (Gen. 1:1; 8:22, etc.); second, it is visible, so it must be temporary (2 Cor. 4:18); third, since there are old and new covenants, so correspondingly there are two ages (Luke 20:34-36, etc.), and the first must give way to the second (cf. Heb. 10:9); fourth, creation was made ‘by hand’ (Gk cheiropoietos), a pejorative OT expression indicating intrinsic imperfection or defectiveness. In light of this we are compelled to conclude that death and corruption (decay) are natural, that is, they exist by divine decree. In contrast with his Father, even Jesus as flesh was mortal (he died even if on our behalf) and corruptible (he grew older, John 8:57, etc.). (9* See my Creation Corruptible By Nature.) In Romans 8:18-25, though sin is conspicuous by its absence, it is nonetheless traditionally postulated (as it is in John 3:1-7) on the basis of the false premise of original sin which destroys the synonymous parallelism between creation and creature the passage evidently displays. (10* See my Romans 8:18-25 In Brief and note Heb. 1:10-12.) Clearly, it is not necessary to account for universal corruption. If it is then asserted that Jesus did not experience corruption in the grave, it must be pointed out that as one who was not a sinner he ought not to have died but did so on our behalf. From this we conclude that neither death nor its consequent corruption had any claim on him (Acts 2:22f.). If it is then claimed that the Bible specifically tells us that death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23), it must be replied that this is true only in the case of those who are capable of earning wages by breaking the law. What traditional theology has failed to grasp is that (a) there is no covenant with creation which is doomed to destruction once its purpose or raison d’etre (Gen. 1; Isa. 45:18) has been achieved (Gen. 8:22; Heb. 12:27, etc.), and (b) that apart from law involving understanding (cf. Rom. 7:1,7) there is no promise of either life or death. Just as in the absence of law there is no sin, so there is no righteousness and promise of life (Rom. 4:15; 7:8-10). Hence Adam and Eve were created knowing neither good nor evil. From this we are forced to infer that animals and babies die naturally apart from (the) law and sin but rather from disease or disaster. So again I conclude that original sin is redundant.
As was implied by my opening paragraph, the traditional worldview of the church is permeated with original sin. But the idea that an originally perfect world inhabited by perfect human beings who were at once holy and righteous was marred by Adam’s sin and consequent curse is manifestly false. Genesis 1 depicts a ‘good’ or useful world, not a perfect one. As indicated in the preceding paragraph, God made the world, both creation and creature, ‘by hand’ (Gen. 2:7; Isa. 45:11f., etc.) and hence purposely subjected it to futility from the start (Rom. 8:20) quite irrespective of sin. The reason he did this was so that he could effect man’s escape into the world to come through Christ to the praise of his glory (cf. Eph. 1:3-14). This suggests of course not that God is the author of sin as tradition implies but that sin regarded as personal human failure was intrinsically part and parcel of the plan of salvation formed before the foundation of the earth (cf. Rom. 3:19f.; 4:16; 11:32; Gal. 3:22; Rev. 13:8). In this situation, if Christ has not been raised everything is inherently futile (1 Cor. 15:14,17-19). No wonder the apostle prayed that he might count all else as rubbish and know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3:10). In other words, the apparently universally held idea of a ‘fallen’ creation is not only false, it is ludicrous. It is a pity that the churches have to be taught the truth of the matter by (sometimes atheistic) modern scientists. The so-called war between the Bible and science is largely, if not entirely, a myth. It is erroneous church dogma, not biblical doctrine, which constitutes the principal problem. If there was a state of perfection at the beginning, there was nowhere to go. Since the church turned the Bible on its head, the only course open to it was to postulate degeneration and regeneration (or regress and progress) and certainly not evolution and the ascent of man. (11* Cf. Henry Drummond’s Ascent of Man (1894) and Dr. Bronowski’s book The Ascent of Man published by the BBC in 1973. It is important to remind ourselves, however, that the Bible teaches perfection (maturity) in both good, Phil. 3:12-14; Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28, and evil, Gen. 15:16; 1 Thes. 2:16.) By contrast there is a great deal of biblical teaching relating to perfection, teleology and maturation from scratch. Even Jesus as the second Adam had to be perfected (Heb. 7:28, etc.) by beginning and finishing the work his Father had given him to do in the flesh (John 17:4; 19:30; Rom. 8:3).
Another basic point to be made in this connection is that regeneration has been traditionally seen as the cure of original sin. Since this is so, Jesus himself who was sinless has been deemed as not being subject to it. But if John 3 teaches us anything it is that sin is not the problem but that our fleshly nature is. This being the case, Jesus, since he was flesh, had of necessity to be born again, that is, granted eternal life which as born of woman he clearly did not have. He succeeded in gaining it because he met its precondition which was righteousness, and this was attained by keeping the law (Lev. 18:5). If Jesus did not need regeneration which John 3:7, like transformation (1 Cor. 15:53), says is naturally necessary, he was as docetic as the ecclesiastical Christ has always been. (12* On this see my The Ecclesiastical Christ, Still Docetic.)
Order of Salvation
Perhaps worse still, since original sin rendered man incapable of any spiritual progress whatsoever, regeneration has been placed first in the order of salvation (ordo salutis). The problem here is that since no one prior to Jesus met the condition of life (cf. 1 K. 8:46; Eccl. 7:20, etc.), all were damned (including babies according to Augustine). But the NT, especially Hebrews 11 indicates that many in the OT were believers. Even John the Baptist, who Jesus pointedly tells us was the greatest born of woman (Mt. 11:11), was clearly a believer who failed to attain to the new birth (cf. Mt. 3:14). In this scenario, regeneration is just another name for election altogether unrelated to moral considerations (cf. Rom. 9:11). In the NT, however, people are called on to repent of their sins and to believe in Jesus and this involves an element of synergism and hence of responsibility (cf. Phil. 2:12; 3:12). When they do, they are born again of God (divine monergism) as those who are justified by faith. (If it is complained at this point that since Abraham was justified by faith he was therefore born again, I would point out that Paul referred to him as ‘ungodly’ (Rom. 4:5) on the one hand and that he, Abraham, lived before the outpouring of the Spirit consequent on the achievement of Jesus on the other. Note also Galatians 3.)
The dogma of original sin which we have inherited from our forefathers is a figment of their imagination. It does not exist but for all that its acceptance has seriously distorted our theology, our evangelism and especially our worldview involving the creation, fall and restoration schema. Since it is entirely unnecessary to account for universal sin and corruption, it is radically redundant, simply superfluous. The truth is that apart from our sinful forebears whom we have in common with Jesus (Mt. 1:1-5), we are all sinners because as flesh we cannot keep the law. As a consequence we all earn the wages of death. Furthermore, we are all subject to decay because as flesh we are the product of a naturally corruptible and temporal earth where sin is only an exacerbating factor (Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12). Abuse of fossil fuels may contribute to global warming as smoking may contribute to early human death, but even total avoidance will not ultimately change the situation (cf. Heb. 2:8). Thank God, however, that we are made in his image and are able to transcend both the death and corruption which characterize this world through faith in Christ who alone overcame even in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; 2 Tim. 1:10). (13* See my Death and Corruption, Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.) He fulfilled his Father’s condition of life (Lev. 18:5; John 3:3,5,7,16; 1 Cor. 15:53) and having done that died as an atonement for sin on our behalf (cf. Heb. 2:14f.) before personally rising from the dead and ascending. And this guarantees our own eventual resurrection and corporeal transformation (1 Cor. 15:50-53; 2 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 3:21) in the presence of the Lord of Glory (1 Cor. 2:8).
F.F.Bruce, Romans, 2nd ed., Leicester, 1985.
C.E.B.Cranfield, ICC Romans, Edinburgh, 1975.
On the redundancy of original sin, see further my essays on The Flesh, The Flesh A Slave.