Thoughts on Sin in Romans

Paul shows that both Gentiles (1:18ff.) and Jews (2:1ff.) have broken the law in some sense and are without excuse (1:20; 2:1, etc.). Thus he concludes that all are under the power of sin (3:9).

We need to note that he quotes extensively from the OT regarding the Jews (3:10ff.) clearly assuming that sin is defined as transgression of known law (cf. Gen. 2:17; Jos. 7:11; 1 Sam. 15:24; Neh. 1:6f.; 9:16,26,29; Dan. 9:5,11; Mt. 15:3f.; John 15:22,24; Rom. 1:21,32; 2:1f.,12,27; 3:19f.; Heb. 2:2; 9:15; Jas. 2:9-11; 4:17; 2 Pet. 2:20f.; 1 John 3:4; 5:17, etc.).

The law promised life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Rom. 2:13; 10:5) but brought in death (Rom. 7:9f., cf. Dt. 30:15-20). Why? Because it was not kept (Rom. 9:31, cf. John 7:19). All, apart from Jesus (John 8:46; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22), have sinned (Rom. 2:12; 3:9,23; 5:12; Acts 15:10).

Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, was an ‘ungodly’ sinner and had nothing to boast about before God (4:2,5).

While Romans 5:12-21 is regarded as the locus classicus of original sin, it fails lamentably to substantiate it.

First, it is universally agreed that Augustine mistranslated this verse (see e.g. N.R.Needham, The Triumph of Grace, pp.49f.,n.4. Even John Murray admits that linguistically the “Pelagian” view is justified, Romans, p. 182).

Next, Paul specifically links sin with law and/or knowledge (vv.13f., cf. 1:19-22,25,28,32; 2:1f.,12-14; 3:19f.; 4:15; 5:13; 7:1-11, etc., cf. 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 5:23).

Third, in verse 14 Paul refers to the heathen who lived before Moses and says that their sin differed from that of Adam (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14). But if Adam’s sin is universally imputed to all without exception, that is, both Gentile and Jew, all sin ‘in Adam’ in the same way and there is no difference. Imputed sin therefore is a flat contradiction of what Paul says. If “all sinned” (or “have sinned”, see e.g. NRSV) does not mean all actually sinned (cf. 3:23) either apart from or under the law (cf. 2:12), Paul’s discussion is pointless. Furthermore, it raises questions as to why he spent so much time cataloguing and differentiating between the actual sins of both Gentiles and Jews at the beginning of his letter.

Fourth, the latter phrase ‘in Adam’ is significantly missing from the Romans 5, though it has frequently been read in to it. If it is replied that it appears in 1 Corinthians 15:21f., we need to recognise that there the subject is different, and, in view of vv. 45ff., it can hardly be denied that Paul is there differentiating between the natural and the spiritual man apart from sin which is NOT mentioned. The only reasonable inference from this is that as natural or fleshly creatures, who are by definition weak and/or rebellious (Rom. 8:7f.), we all sin when confronted by the law. And this is precisely what Paul asserts in Romans 7:14 which sums up the issue in a nutshell. So while Paul says we die in Adam (1 Cor. 15:21f.), which in the light of vv.45-49 must mean “in the flesh”, he significantly does not say that we are dead in him but in our own sins (Rom. 4:25; Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 1:21; 2:13, cf. John 8:24).

Fifth, in Romans 4:15 (cf. 5:13; 7:8) Paul tells us that where there is no law there is no transgression or violation. In other words, it is impossible to violate a non-existent law (cf. Rom. 7:1-3,8f.; Gal. 5:23). It might be countered that the law already exists when a baby is born. While that may be true, babies, like Adam and Eve in the Garden and the rest of the animal creation (Ps. 32:8f.; 73:22; Job 39:17, cf. 18:3 and Prov. 30:2; Eccl. 3:19f.; Isa. 31:3), have no knowledge or understanding of the law (cf. Rom. 3:20) and need to be taught it (Dt. 4:9;6:7; Ps. 78:5-8,etc.) as Adam did (Gen. 2:17). (Note Lev. chs. 4 & 5 where the law may be transgressed unwittingly. It is only when this is recognised or ‘known’ (see 4:13f.,22f.,27f.; 5:3-5,17) that there can be any semblance of guilt and atonement made.) Apart from it, they know neither good nor evil (Gen. 2:17, cf. Dt. 1:39; 1 K. 3:7; Rom. 3:20; 7:7) *. Thus it comes as no surprise to us that Paul says that the law speaks (only) to those who are under the law (Rom. 3:19; 7:1,7, cf. Jas. 4:17). If a boy under the age of 13 prior to his bar mitzvah did not take personal responsibility for keeping the law, how much less a baby who knows nothing! According to the Bible, total or natural, but not culpable, ignorance of law points to total innocence (Rom. 1:20; 2:1, cf. John 15:22,24). Apart from (the) law sin does not and cannot exist, as in the animal world where there is no understanding (Ps. 32:9)!

Sixth, in verses 5:15-17 Paul differentiates explicitly and unmistakably between the free gift of righteousness and the effect of Adam’s sin. If imputation is true, why does he do this? The fact is that imputed sin is a free gift too and this being so all difference is obliterated! We are thus led inexorably to the conclusion that those who posit a parallel between righteousness and sin are in direct conflict with Paul himself (see e.g. Murray, pp.184,186). The plain truth is that the loudly proclaimed parallel does not exist. It is entirely in the imagination of those who slavishly and uncritically follow Augustine (cf. Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, pp. 6 passim).

Seventh, this conclusion is reinforced when we note the fact that righteousness is imputed by faith. By what instrumentality, it must be asked, is sin imputed? Since it is universally agreed that babies lack faith, it is out of the reckoning. So once more the parallel proves to be a chimera.

Eighth, since imputed righteousness is a free gift, it is devoid of merit. So, if sin is imputed, it also is a free gift and by parity of reasoning is devoid of demerit. It cannot therefore be argued that imputed sin is the cause of infant death. If death is wages, it must be earned (6:23, cf. 2 Sam. 12:5); but imputation excludes wages (4:1-8). So if infants die, it cannot be on account of sin inherited from Adam. So Lloyd-Jones’ argument in his exposition of Romans 5 lies in tatters.

Next, if the imputation of sin holds for all Adam’s progeny, then Jesus is necessarily implicated (Luke 3:38). If not, then he is different from all the rest of his brethren. Apart from the horrendous theological implications of this, the author of Hebrews explicitly and Paul implicitly disallow the notion (Heb. 2:11,17f.; 4:15; Rom. 8:3).
What then differentiates Jesus from the rest of us on the human level? The answer is clear and irrefutable. It is not his flesh or physicality, since he too was a son of Adam and hence subject to temptation, but his obedience or keeping of the law (Mt. 3:17; Rom. 5:18f.), something that proved beyond the capacity of the rest of us (Rom. 3:20; 9:31f.; Gal. 2:16, etc.). Peter spells this out in the simplest of terms: “he committed no sin” (1 Pet. 2:22, cf. John 8:34). And as Paul was well aware, this could be said of no one else (Rom. 8:3). In this Jesus was absolutely unique, and on this uniqueness depends our salvation (see espec. Heb. 2).

So, since Jesus did not break the law, he was not a sinner; and, since he kept it, he was constituted righteous (Dt. 6:17f.,25; 12:25,28; 1 John 3:7, etc.). Thus, in contrast with the first Adam and all the rest of his offspring, he received the promised eternal life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Mt. 3:17; 19:17, cf. Ps. 21:1-7) so abjectly forfeited by the first Adam.

It is important to draw attention to the fact that Paul talks of reconciliation in Romans 5. What does the word mean? At the very least it points to restoration of fellowship. But if the imputation of Adam’s sin is true, there was never a time when there was even a semblance of fellowship. Rather, as is sometimes actually claimed, we have always been the objects of God’s wrath (WCF, 6:6; Art. 1X of the C of E). How then can reconciliation or restoration of fellowship take place? Surely, as Jesus makes clear when he blesses children (Mark 10:16, cf. Gen. 1:28; 5:2), there is a time in our lives when, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we are not hostile to God our Creator and are like Paul ‘alive’ (Rom. 7:9). It is only actual sin that disrupts that fellowship (7:10,cf. Isa. 59:2) minimal or principial though it may be.** As Isaiah affirms, we all like sheep have gone astray (53:6; 65:2; Rom. 3:12, cf. Eccl. 7:29). So yet again I conclude that original sin implies either a denial that God is our Creator or that he created us evil, which is tantamount to blasphemy. The truth is that the God who was present in Eden is still present and active in the womb (Gen. 30:2; Job 31:15; Jer. 1:5, etc.).

This point receives further support from an examination of Romans 1:26f. Here Paul contrasts the natural or legitimate with the unnatural or illegitimate passions (pathe) and plainly expects the former to operate in a legitimate manner. But on the assumption of original sin, the passions, like the flesh (cf. Hodge, ST 2, p.242; Murray, CW 2, p.185), are necessarily evil at the outset (cf. Murray, Romans, p.245) and cannot operate legitimately as Augustine’s view of sex made abundantly clear (see e.g. Rist, pp. 321ff.). Thus Paul’s distinction between the natural and unnatural passions is rendered vacuous like his distinction between the free gift and the effect in Romans 5:12-21.

In light of all this we are forced to the conclusion that sin and righteousness always relate to law in Scripture. Without law neither exists as in the animal world (cf. Ps. 32:9; Isa. 31:3, cf. James 3:3). Thus we necessarily infer that until law is apprehended and broken, babies, knowing neither good nor evil (cf. Dt. 1:39: Isa. 7:15f.), are as innocent as Adam and Eve before they received the commandment *** (cf. Rom. 9:11). This being so, the dogmas of both original sin and original righteousness are at best redundant, at worst dangerous perversions of biblical doctrine.

In 11:32 (cf. Rom. 3:19f.; Gal. 3:22) Paul claims that God has imprisoned us all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to us. Apart from the fact that disobedience implies transgression of known law (see e.g. Jos. 7:11; 1 Sam. 15:24; Neh. 1:6f.; 9:29; Dan. 9:5,11) for which we certainly need forgiveness, how can mercy be exercised towards those who are sinful by birth? (It might equally be questioned how we can repent for original sin or any other natural endowment. Pace B.B.Warfield, pp.278ff. who manifestly struggles unsuccessfully with this problem.) It suggests that God is seeking to repair or rectify what he should not have done in the first place. Clearly the blame is his, not ours. We had no more choice in the matter than we had in deciding who we should be or the colour of our skin (Dt. 32:8; Acts 17:26). Once more it is necessary to conclude that sin in Romans and elsewhere is related directly to law (knowledge and understanding) and our failure to keep it.

Commentators (e.g. Walton, p.171) sometimes practically deny the moral implication of the reference to good and evil and urge that what is meant is “discerning or discriminating wisdom.” Given the context this interpretation is surely far too vague and general, for among other things (cf. 2 Sam. 19:35) wisdom necessarily involves moral discernment as perhaps its basic ingredient? While it may find support in 1 K. 3:9 and Heb. 5:14, for example, it seems to me that there is real danger here of failing to appreciate how Scripture handles the issue. The truth is that Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22) and children (Dt. 1:39) who are without commandment or law are morally innocent, totally naïve, and need the law in order to give them a standard by which they may learn to discriminate (cf. e.g. Ps. 78:5-8; 105:45, etc.) and ultimately make them wise and discerning people (Dt. 4:6; 28:1,10,12f.; 29:9; Job 28:28; Heb. 5:14). It was primarily the law that set the Israelites apart from all other peoples and enabled Jesus, who obeyed it, to grow in wisdom and understanding (Luke 2:52).

* In light of this, I regard Wenham’s denial (p.63) that moral discernment, that is, knowing the difference between right and wrong, is involved as far too cavalier. And his assertion that “it is absurd to suppose that man was not always expected to exercise moral discretion” is somewhat mystifying since where there is no law there is neither sin nor righteousness. In other words, such discretion can only be exercised in a given context like that of Genesis 2 and 3, not in a vacuum. (Some, like the Puritans, argue that the law was written on the heart at creation. This is manifestly not the case, Dt. 1:39, etc.) Surely this was the very reason for the giving of the commandment and later the law. Indeed, it was the commandment precisely which provided Adam and children in general with the opportunity to exercise discriminating (moral) wisdom. As Paul argues so powerfully in Romans 7, where there is no law there is neither promise of (eternal) life nor sin, neither good nor evil, as in the animal world. To exclude the moral element is surely to misunderstand the role of law in providing standards which lead to discriminating wisdom and finally to mature understanding (1 Cor. 14:20; Heb. 5:14).

I conclude then with Kidner (p.63) that the knowledge of good and evil must include moral discrimination (1 K. 3:9; Is. 7:15), that is, ethical experience which is prompted by the commandment. What was intended, as Atkinson implies, was knowledge of God by participation through the obedience of faith (1:5; 16:26). In the event, Adam sought rather knowledge by detachment based on human autonomy (p.67). In the words of Hamilton “the knowledge of good and evil means the ability and power to determine what is good and what is evil. Of course, this is God’s prerogative alone. He has never delegated moral autonomy to any of his creatures…. Anytime a person believes he can decide for himself what is right and wrong, he becomes a god. He has usurped the divine prerogative” (Baker Commentary on the Bible, pp.13f.).

We must never forget that the Jews were a distinct or separate people and what made them separate above all was the law (cf. Dt. 4:6,8,32ff.; Ps. 147:19f.).

** Romans 7:9 clearly refers not to the tenth commandment as in v. 7 but to the original commandment given to Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:17) and hence to all children usually by their parents (pace Moo, pp.437f.). The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 highlights what Scripture teaches, i.e. that the son is one (‘alive’) with his father till he sins against him and deserts ‘Eden’, cf. v.17. Note espec. vv. 24,32

*** If it is asked why babies sometimes die, the answer is the same as if we ask why animals die. Not knowing the law they are innocent, i.e. neither good (righteous) nor evil (sinful) (Dt. 1:39, cf. Ps. 32:9). But since they are flesh (John 1:13, cf. Isa. 31:3) they are as naturally corruptible and mortal as the earth from which they are taken (cf. Rom. 1:23; Ps. 102: 25-27). If creation has a beginning (Gen. 1:1), it must have an end (both a terminus and a goal, cf. Rev. 21:1-4).


D.Atkinson, BST Genesis 1-11, Leicester, 1990.

Baker Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids, 1989.

C.Hodge, Systematic Theology 2, repr. London, 1960.

D.Kidner, Genesis, London, 1967.

D.M.Lloyd-Jones, Romans 5, Edinburgh, 1971.

J.Murray, Collected Writings 2, Edinburgh, 1977.

J.Murray, Romans, London, 1967.

J.Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, repr. Phillipsburg, 1979.

D.J.Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids. 1996.

N.R.Needham, The Triumph of Grace, London, 2000.

J.H.Walton, Genesis NIVAC, Grand Rapids, 2001.

B.B.Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings 1, Nutley, 1970.

G.J. Wenham, WBC Genesis 1-15, Waco, 1987.