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How shall we define “original sin”? The term has been used in any one of three ways: (1) to refer to the “original” original sin, i.e., the first sin of Adam; (2) to refer to “inherited” sin, i.e., that corruption of nature and guilt with which all are born; and (3) the causal relationship, if any, between Adam’s sin and our sin. Calvin focused his definition on (2). In the Institutes (II:1.8) he writes:

“Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’ [Gal. 5:19].”

In this study we will be touching on all three elements.

A.        A Study of Romans 5:12-21

The key text for our study of original sin is Romans 5:12-21. A central point to keep in mind in studying this passage is that Paul's thought is distinctly corporate in nature. Moo explains:

"All people, Paul teaches, stand in relationship to one of two men, whose actions determine the eternal destiny of all who belong to them. Either one 'belongs to' Adam and is under sentence of death because of his sin (disobedience), or one belongs to Christ and is assured of eternal life because of His 'righteous' act (obedience). The actions of Adam and Christ, then, are similar in having epochal significance. But they are not equal in power, for Christ's act is able completely to overcome the effects of Adam's. Anyone who 'receives the gift' that God offers in Christ finds security and joy in knowing that the reign of death has been completely and finally overcome by the reign of grace, righteousness, and eternal life (cf. vv. 17,21)" (326).

There are 5 phrases in v. 12 that call for comment.

(1)            "through one man" - Adam was a historical figure. He had a mind, body, a spirit just as we do. He lived in space-time history just as we do, in a geographical location no less than you or I. Cf. 1 Tim. 2:13-15; Mt. 19:4; Mk. 10:6; 1 Cor. 15.

(2)            "sin entered into the world" - Lit., sin invaded the world. This does not mean Adam was the first sinner; Eve was. It does not mean that sin began its existence at that time in the Garden of Eden. Paul says sin entered, not that it began to be. Sin already existed as a result of Satan's rebellion. This text speaks of sin's inaugural entry into the world of humanity. Sin, therefore, is portrayed as an intruder. It was not a constituent element in the original creation.

(3)            "and death through sin" - See Gen. 2:17; Ezek. 18:4; Rom. 6:23; Js. 1:15. Sin is the cause of death. Thus, death is a penal evil; it is punishment. Death was not inevitable for Adam and Eve. It was the punishment for rebellion.

Death in Scripture is three-fold: (a) Spiritual death (the alienation of the soul from God and the subsequent spiritual corruption of the whole person; cf. Eph. 2:1-2); (b) Physical death; and (c) the Second death (which is the perpetuation of spiritual death into eternity; eternal separation and alienation from God; cf. Rev. 2,20). The remedy for spiritual death is regeneration or the new birth. The remedy for physical death is the bodily resurrection. There is no remedy for the second death. It is irremedial, irrevocable, and eternal.

(4)            "so death spread to all men" - Adam's sin and its consequences did not stop with him. Physical death as a penal sanction is universal. But why do all die? The answer is "because all sinned" . . .

(5)            "because all sinned" - This difficult statement has been interpreted in a number of different ways. We will focus on the major views.

First, is the doctrine of Pelagianism. According to this view the only reason people die is because they themselves personally sin. It is true, of course, that we die because we sin. But this view argues that the only link or connection between Adam's sin and us is that he set a bad example which we have unwisely followed. We each individually re-enact Adam's transgression in our own experience. Referring to Paul's statement in Romans 5:12, Pelagius insisted that

"It is said we sinned in Adam, not because sin is innate, but because it comes from imitation [emphasis mine]" (cited by Augustine in De Natura et gratia, c.x.).

Consequently, all men come into being in the exact condition as was Adam before the fall. Pelagius believed each soul is created immediately by God and thus cannot come into the world contaminated or corrupted by the sin of Adam. The doctrine of transmitted sin (tradux peccati) or original sin (peccatum originis), says Pelagius, is blasphemous:

"They are insane who teach that the sin of Adam comes upon us by propagation" (Commen. on Romans 7:8).

"A sin propagated by generation is totally contrary to the catholic faith. Sin is not born with man, but is committed afterwards by man. It is not the fault of nature, but of free will" [emphasis mine] (De Pec. Orig. 6).

"It can in no way be conceded that God, who pardons a man's own sins, may impute to him the sins of another" (cited by Aug. from Pelagius' commentary on Romans).

Thus, according to Pelagius, an infant is not born in sin nor does it possess any innate moral characteristics. Such are obtained only by the exercise of the will and the habits that develop from it. In other words, we are “socialized” to sin or “conditioned” to sin because of continual exposure to a family and society that are themselves sinful for the same reasons. Again:

"We have implanted in us by God a possibility for acting in both directions. It resembles, as I may say, a root which is most abundant in its produce of fruit. It yields and produces diversely according to man's will; and is capable, at the cultivator's own choice, of either shedding a beautiful bloom of virtues, or of bristling with the thorny thicket of vices. . . . But that we really do a good thing, or speak a good word, or think a good thought, proceeds from our own selves. . . . Nothing good, and nothing evil, on account of which we are deemed either laudable or blameworthy, is born with us, but is done by us: for we are born not fully developed, but with a capacity for either conduct; we are formed naturally without either virtue or vice; and previous to the action of our own proper will, the only thing in man is what God has formed in him" (cited by Aug. in De Peccato Originis, c.xiii).

There are several objections to this view. a) It is historically and experientially false: not all die because they voluntarily sin (e.g., infants). b) In vv. 15-19 Paul says 6 times that only one sin, the sin of Adam, is the cause of death. c) If all die because they are guilty of actual transgression, then they die because they sinned like Adam did. But v. 14 says some did not sin that way. d) This interpretation would destroy the analogy or parallel that Paul draws between Adam and Jesus in vv. 15-21. If this view were correct, Paul would be saying that since all men die personally because they sin personally so also men become righteous personally because they personally obey. But the point of these verses is that just as we died because of the sin of one, so also we live because of the obedience of one. e) Finally, "this interpretation fails to explain why it is that, as Paul makes clear, everyone does, in fact, sin. Surely there must be something inherent in being human that causes everyone, without exception, to decide to worship idols rather than the true God (cf. 1:22-23)" (Moo, 335).

Second, there is the doctrine called Realism which asserts that “human nature” existed in its unindividualized unity in Adam. This organic, physiological solidarity of the race in its natural head, according to which the human nature of the latter is numerically and specifically one with that of the former, is the ground on which the guilt of Adam is imputed to his posterity.

The best defense of “realism” as a theory of original sin is provided by William G. T. Shedd, DogmaticTheology, 2:3-257. For a critical assessment of this view, see G. C. Berkouwer, Sin, transl. Philip C. Holtrop (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), pp. 436-48; and George P. Hutchinson, Problem of Original Sin, pp. 36-59.

In other words, this view asserts that all of humanity were present in Adam naturally, biologically, physically, seminally. It is from Adam and Eve that all have descended; thus it may be said that we were all in his loins (much in the same way that Levi, being in Abraham’s loins, paid tithes to Melchizedek – Heb. 7:10). Thus, when Adam sinned, you were really present, being in Adam, and thus you participated in his transgression. When he partook of the fruit, you partook of the fruit. Augustine advocated this view based on his reading of 5:12 in the Latin translation of the NT. According to the latter, the final phrase of v. 12 is rendered, “in whom (a reference to Adam the “one man” of 12a) all sinned,” not “because all sinned.” Augustine:

"God, the author of nature, but not of sin, created man upright, but he having through his own will become depraved and condemned, propagated depraved and condemned offspring. For we were all in that one man, since we were all that one man who lapsed into sin through that woman who was made from him, previous to transgression. The particular form in which we were to live as individuals had not been created and assigned to us man by man, but that seminal nature was in existence from which we were to be propagated."

And again,

"All men at that time sinned in Adam, since in his nature all men were as yet that one man" (City of God, XIII,xiv).

Thus, according to Augustine, all men really and actually sinned when Adam sinned, not as individual persons but as participants in the generic human nature which existed in Adam. Infants, therefore, because they participated in the common human nature present in Adam, are born guilty of his (their?) sin subject to corruption of nature to which it gives rise.

Contrary to Pelagius, Augustine argued that Adam's nature and that of all his posterity became subject to corruption and evil principles. The penalty pronounced on him (Adam) was pronounced on them; the corruption of his nature became the corruption of their nature. Thus, in Adam the whole human race became "a mass of perdition" (massa damnata). Therefore, sin is universally present in all, not by way of imitation (Pelagius) but by way of generation.

There are also problems with this view. a) How can we act before we exist? In other words, how can we personally and individually sin before we are individual persons? b) If this view were correct, would we not also be guilty of all Adam's subsequent sins? c) Again, it is the sin of one man, not of all men in Adam, that accounts for death. d) Realism says that all die because all really sinned in Adam, but this again destroys the parallel in vv. 15-21. Surely it cannot be said that all live because all personally obeyed. We were not physically or seminally in Christ when he obeyed. The point of vv. 15-21 is that just as men are justified for a righteousness not their own, so also are they condemned for a sin not personally their own. Paul's point is that death came by one man so that life might come by one man. e) As for the appeal to Heb. 7:9-10, observe that if this were taken literally “all actions of all progenitors would have to be ascribed to each of their descendants, which is nearly absurd” [Henri Blocher, Original Sin, 115])

Third, there is the doctrine known as Federalism or Covenant representation. This view does not deny the reality of a seminal or realistic union of the species in Adam. Neither does it deny that the sinful disposition is transmitted from Adam to his posterity by means of natural propagation. However, advocates of what is called the “representative” or “federal headship” doctrine do deny that this natural solidarity is sufficient to explain the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity. The representative view insists that by divine appointment, in addition to being the natural head of the species, Adam was constituted the covenant head of his posterity. Therefore, the ground on which the guilt of the first sin is imputed to the species is that divinely ordained representative principle on the basis of which the species is reckoned to have stood its probation in Adam (see Berkouwer, Sin, pp. 449-65).

Thus the issue between these two schools of thought is not the existence of a seminal, or natural, union. Both acknowledge the validity of that notion.  The point of dispute, rather, is this:

“Was Adam a person in whom human nature existed as an entity, a specific and numerically one entity (that is, all the individuals who come from Adam are specifically one [belong to the same species], and at one time in Adam they were numerically one, but now by propagation have become individualized into a multitude of persons), or was Adam by divine ordination a representative person who stood the probation for his posterity? (Johnson, “Romans 5:12,” p. 309).

The view of covenant headship points to v. 12 Paul where says all die because all sinned. But in vv. 15-19 Paul says all die because Adam sinned. In both statements Paul is saying the same thing. But how can it be that the sin of one man, Adam, is also the sin of all men? The answer is that there is some kind of union or solidarity between Adam and us. It can't simply be a physical or natural union, as the realists contend. It must be a legal or representative union, i.e, a covenant union. God entered into covenant with Adam as representative head of the human race. God dealt with Adam as with all his posterity.

Thus, we became guilty of Adam's sin and suffer its penalty, not because we personally committed a sin like Adam's sin, as the Pelagians argue, nor because we sinned in Adam as our physical or biological root, but because Adam served in the capacity as covenant head of the human race. Similarly, we become righteous because of Christ's obedience, and experience the life it brings, not because we personally obeyed, but because our covenant head, Jesus, obeyed. Read 1 Cor. 15:21ff.

A related issue concerns the nature or mode of the imputation of Adam’s sin. This dispute is predicated upon a distinction, not always acknowledged by Calvinists as valid, between imputed sin and inherent sin, or between original sin as guilt and original sin as corruption.  According to the view called “immediate” or “antecedent” imputation, the guilt of Adam’s transgression is directly imputed to his posterity prior to their individuated existence as persons. This immediate imputation of guilt thus logically precedes and is the cause of inherent sin or corruption of nature.

Reformed theologians have not always agreed on what this imputation entails. Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970], 2:149-256) defines imputed sin as consisting simply of the obligation to satisfy justice, i.e., the exposure to punishment on account of Adam’s sin (the reatus poenae). John Murray (Imputation), in contrast to Hodge, argues that the reatus poenae, or obligation to satisfy justice, may be imputed only on the grounds of a logically antecedent culpa or demeritum. He concludes his response to Hodge by noting that “Reformed and Lutheran theologians [historically] did not conceive of the reatus of Adam’s sin as imputed to posterity apart from the culpa of the same sin. And this is simply to say that the relation of posterity to the sin of Adam could not be construed or defined merely in terms of the obligation to satisfy justice (reatus poenae) but must also include, as the antecedent and ground of that reatus, involvement in the culpa of Adam’s transgression” (p. 84).

The doctrine of “mediate” or “consequent” imputation likewise distinguished between the two elements of original sin, but unlike immediate imputation reverses their causal relationship.  The guilt of Adam’s sin is alleged to be mediated through that corruption of nature inherited from him.  Thus whereas the former doctrine insists that the imputation of Adam’s sin precedes corruption of nature and is reckoned to be its cause, the latter doctrine maintains that the imputation of Adam’s sin follows hereditary depravity and is its effect.

Two men, two deeds, two destinies. Adam ruined us. Christ renewed us. As we are condemned for the sin of the first Adam, we are justified for the obedience of the last Adam. This is why Adam is called the type of Christ in v. 14. According to this view, God has not dealt with men as with a field of corn, each standing for himself, or as pebbles of sand on the shore, each person isolated and independent of all others. Rather he has dealt with men as with a tree, all the branches sharing a common root. While the root remains healthy, the branches remain healthy. When the axe cuts and severs the root, all die.

The principal objection to this view is what appears to be the injustice of it. To hold all of the human race eternally accountable for the sin of one of its members seems morally inconceivable.

We turn next to vv. 13-14 where Paul's point is to demonstrate that personal death is not always the result of personal sin. He has in mind that period in OT history stretching from Adam to the Mosaic Law. During this period people certainly sinned. But in the absence of law, their sin was not imputed to them (v. 13). Nevertheless, they died. But why did they die, if God did not impute their sins against them? The answer would seem to be: they died because of the sin of another, someone who had indeed violated a divinely revealed law. That other person, of course, would be Adam.

Moreover, says Paul, death reigned even over those who did not sin like Adam did. In other words, there is a class of people who never sinned voluntarily and personally like Adam did, like the majority of the people during this period did, but they still died! Whom does he have in mind? Infants, most likely. But if infants don't sin voluntarily and personally, why do they die? If death comes only as a penalty for sin, why do infants, who commit no sin, still die? It must be because of the sin of another. It must be that those who die in infancy, before they commit conscious, personal sin, die because of the sin of their representative head, Adam.

The parallels and ethical contrasts in vv. 15-21 between Adam and Jesus are crucial to Paul’s argument.

v. 15 - the offence of one brought death; the obedience of one brought the free gift of grace;

v. 16 - one sinned, bringing condemnation; one obeyed, bringing justification;

v. 17 - through one offence death reigns; through one act of obedience life reigns;

v. 18 - the offence of one brings judgment; the righteousness of one brings justification;

v. 19 - by virtue of one man's disobedience men are made sinners; by virtue of one man's obedience men are made righteous;

v. 21 - through Adam sin reigned unto death; through Christ righteousness reigns unto life.

Before objecting to the doctrine of covenant or representative headship, remember this: only if Adam represents you in the Garden can Jesus represent you on Golgotha. It was on the cross that Jesus served as your representative head: his obedience to the law, his righteousness, his suffering the penalty of the law, were all the acts of a covenant head acting in the stead and on behalf of his people. If Adam stood for you in the garden, Christ may also hang for you on the cross.

If you insist on standing your own probation before God, instead of submitting to the covenant representation of Adam, you must also stand on your own in regard to righteousness. And how do you think you will fare? In other words, if you fall individually and by your own doing, it would appear you must be saved individually and by your own doing.

One final comment regarding v. 18. Adam's act has brought condemnation to all men. Must we not also conclude, as this verse seems to assert, that Christ's act has brought justification and life for all men? In other words, does this verse teach the doctrine of salvific universalism? Moo's answer is helpful:

"Paul's point is not so much that the groups affected by Christ and Adam, respectively, are coextensive, but that Christ affects those who are His just as certainly as Adam does those who are his. When we ask who belongs to, or is 'in', Adam and Christ, respectively, Paul makes his answer clear: every person, without exception, is 'in Adam' (cf. vv. 12d-14); but only those who 'receive the gift' (v. 17; 'those who believe,' according to Rom. 1:16-5:11) are 'in Christ.' That pas [all] does not always mean 'every single human being' is clear from many passages; it is often clearly limited in context (e.g., Rom. 8:32; 12:17,18; 14:2; 16:19), so this suggestion has no linguistic barrier. In the present verse, the scope of ["all men"] in the two parts of the verse is distinguished in the context. Paul makes it clear, both by his silence and by the logic of vv. 12-14, that there is no limitation whatsoever on the number of those who are involved in Adam's sin. The deliberate wording of v. 17, along with the persistent stress on faith as the means of achieving righteousness in 1:16-4:25, makes equally clear that only certain people derive the benefits from Christ's act of righteousness" (357).

B.        An Alternative Interpretation of Romans 5:12-14

One of the principal issues in the interpretation of Romans 5 is Paul’s statement that “death spread to all men eph’ ho pantes hemarton” (5:12b), which I translated earlier as “because all sinned.” On this reading, Paul’s point would be that all men die because when Adam sinned they were reckoned by God to have sinned in him, their representative head.

An alternative reading has recently been proposed by Tom Schreiner, first in his commentary on Romans (Baker, 1998) and now in his Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001). Schreiner contends that we should translate this enigmatic phrase as “upon the basis of which”. The words eph’ ho forge “a logical connection between two propositions,” those propositions being the entrance into the world of “death” because of Adam’s sin and the consequent sin of all men. Schreiner’s point is that the sinning of all people is a consequence or result of that death which entered the world through Adam. He writes:

“As a result of Adam’s sin death entered the world and engulfed all people; all people enter the world alienated from God and spiritually dead by virtue of Adam’s sin. By virtue of entering the world in the state of death (i.e., separated from God), all human beings sin. . . . Our alienation and separation from God are due to Adam’s sin, and thus we sin as a result of being born into the world separated from God’s life” (Romans, 275-6).

Paul’s point is not that we sinned when Adam sinned, whether “seminally” or by virtue of his representative role, as a result of which we died spiritually. Rather, Adam’s sin brought spiritual death into the world, as a result of which death we sinned personally. The objection to this view is that Paul often argues that death is the result of sin whereas Schreiner is arguing here that sin is the result of death. The resolution of this problem, notes Schreiner, is not difficult:

“We should not opt for an either-or answer here. Paul does indeed claim that people die because of sin, but he also insists that they sin because they are dead (i.e., separated from God [and he points particularly to Eph. 2:1-3 as proof of this]). All human beings enter the world alienated from God, and as a result of this alienation they sin. It is also true that they will experience eschatological death if they sin” (Romans, 276-77).

If Schreiner is correct, what is the meaning of vv. 13-14? Contrary to the view explained earlier, Paul is not suggesting that people between Adam and Moses died solely because of Adam’s sin and not because of their own personal rebellion. Romans 2:12 makes this clear, for there Paul asserts that “those who sin without the law perish without the law.” Schreiner explains:

“It would be inconsistent for Paul to assert in Romans 2:12 that Gentiles without the law perish because they transgress the unwritten law and then to say in Romans 5:13-14 that sin is not charged to the account of those without the Mosaic law. Moreover, Paul was well aware of the early chapters of Genesis in which the world was destroyed by a flood and those building the tower of Babel were judged. Such punishments would be indefensible if judgment was only valid after the law of Moses was disseminated. The judgment of the flood generation and Babel fits with the Pauline principle that those who sin without the law will perish without the law (Rom. 2:12)” (Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 147).

What, then, does Paul mean in 5:13 when he says that “sin is not imputed when there is no law”? He does not mean that people aren’t punished for their personal sin simply because the law of Moses had not yet been given. His point is simply that sin committed before the Mosaic law is not technically reckoned as sin. In other words, “there was not a technical register of sin; sin was present, just like heat and cold are present whether we have a thermometer or not. But one could not, in a sense, measure sin before the giving of the law” (Paul, 148). It’s true that people between Adam and Moses didn’t sin like Adam did in that they did not violate a revealed commandment. But this doesn’t mean they weren’t held accountable by God for their actions. It simply means their sin couldn’t be measured as sin without the violation of written commandments.

Paul’s point, then, is that death reigns or exercises its power over people even if no explicit and divinely encoded law exists, for even in the absence of the law sin is still sin and will be punished. Once that written law is revealed the seriousness of sin increases “in the sense that the sin is now more defiant and rebellious in character” (Romans, 279; cf. Paul’s statement to this effect in Rom. 7:7-11).

Two observations are in order, neither of which is a critique of Schreiner. First, if Schreiner is correct, the sinful plight of the human race is still traceable to Adam and his sin. Whether we die spiritually because we are reckoned to have sinned in Adam or we sin personally because of the spiritual death that came from Adam’s sin, the fact remains that it is “by the transgression of the one [Adam] [that] the many died” (5:15). Second, if Schreiner is correct, he has provided a helpful way of understanding Romans 5:12-14, but not one that is any more successful than the earlier view in addressing the ethical dilemma of how the human race can find itself sinful, not ultimately because of personal, conscious sin, but because of the sin of another, Adam.