By Patrick Michael Murphy

The concept of Original Sin has long been a vital part of Christian Orthodoxy, yet is being challenged and redefined by many in the Church today. Some are beginning to question the validity of the traditional Evangelical understanding of the doctrine asking questions of its legitimacy in its current understanding. Most particularly, the doctrine of imputation is being questioned. This is quit understandable. In fact, I would venture to guess that the concepts housed in this doctrine can seem to produce a vital assault on our conscious, rendering any concept of divine justice impotent.

Let us back up a bit . . .

Perhaps John Calvin defines Original Sin most concisely as “The deprivation of a nature formerly good and pure.” More specifically, from a Reformed Evangelical perspective, it refers to the fall of humanity from its original state of innocence and purity to a state of corruption and guilt (distinguished later). It is the cause of man’s translation from a state of unbroken communion before God to one of spiritual death and condemnation.

The term “Original Sin” is not found in Scripture; Saint Augustine coined it in the 4th century. The primary passage used to defend the doctrine of Original Sin is Romans 5:12-21. Most specifically, Romans 5:12 gives us the most explicit reference to this concept: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” The “one man” is Adam. The “all men” is all of Adam’s posterity—the entire human race.

J.I. Packer clears up a possible misconception and further defines Original Sin:

The assertion of original sin means not that sin belongs to human nature as God made it (God made mankind upright, Ecclesiastes 7:29), nor that sin is involved in the processes of reproduction and birth (the uncleanness connected with menstruation, semen, and childbirth inLeviticus 12 and 15 was typical and ceremonial only, not moral and real), but that . . . sinfulness marks everyone from birth . . . it derives to us in a real . . . mysterious way from Adam, our first representative before God.

This concept is not only hard to understand, but, as I alluded to earlier, it is also quite disturbing. From the perspective of traditional Evangelicalism as it finds its roots in Augustine, the west has believed that humanity is condemned for Adam’s sin. To state that we are condemned for the sin of another is not only offensive and unfair, but in the mind of most it is also ludicrous. It is because of this that Pascal (who accepted the doctrine) wrote the following:

Without doubt, nothing is more shocking to our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has implicated in its guilt men so far from the original sin that they seem incapable of sharing it. This flow of guilt does not seem merely impossible to us, but indeed most unjust. What could be more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than the eternal damnation of a child, incapable of will, for an act in which he seems to have so little part that it was actually committed 6,000 years before he existed? Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine . . .

It certainly does seem unfair for us to be blamed for the sin of another. My daughter used to commit various misdemeanors such as messing up the living room. She would find solace in her younger sister, who was not yet able to speak and defend herself. She would blame her for the mess that she had made, which, of course, was not right. Unfortunately, she got away with it many times before we caught on. Because of this, her sister was punished for crimes she did not commit. Is it the same with Adam and humanity? Are we being punished for a sin that we had nothing to do with?

Death, Paul says, is passed down to us from Adam. But there is more to it than that. As Bob Pyne puts it, “We have no problem affirming that all people die, but what did Paul mean when he linked death to sin?” Furthermore, physical death is not the only consequence of Adam’s sin that we inherit.Romans 5:18 states that the transgression of Adam resulted in our condemnation. So then, we are not only destined to die physically because of Adam’s sin, but we are also condemned to eternal death.

Was the sin of Adam transferred to us? If so, how? Are we condemned for the sin of another? Are Pascal’s concerns valid?

Let’s get some basic terminology down so that we can surf this wave with more balance.

Proposed three types of sin:

Personal Sin: Sins committed by the individual. All people have personal sin (Romans 3:231 John 1:10)

Inherited Sin: The physical and spiritual corruption which produces a bent and inclination toward sin and a natural enmity toward God (Eph. 2:3John 8:44Jer. 13:23Ps. 51:5). This sin is mediated (inherited) directly from our parents.

Imputed Sin: God’s immediate declaration of guilt to every individual for the sin of Adam.  This sin is “imputed” (or credited) to all people as if they had committed the sin.

Here is a chart (!) that illustrates these three:

Notice, imputed sin or guilt is directly from Adam (the big guy). Inherited sin begins with Adam but is transmitted by our corrupted nature we inherit directly from our parents. Personal sin is connected only to the individual.

Here is another way to put it. When we are born, we are born with a tremendous deficit in our bank account (imputed sin). This deficit is shared by all humanity. It is called “Adam Account.” Since we are humans, we have no other representation. Whatever was Adam’s (man’s) is our as we are human. Not only this, but we have a terrible spending habit from birth (inherited sin). We have an inclination to spend money. It is in our blood! So, whatever debt we shared with all of mankind in imputed sin, can only be made worse through inherited sin. Finally, personal sin is the actualization of our spending habit in the real world. It is where opportunity births and our negative balance is extended.

Catholics and Protestants believe in all three types of sin, while Eastern Orthodox strongly reject any idea of imputed guilt.

Short History of Original Sin

Pelagius vs. St. Augustine

The first time any substantial discussion arose concerning this issue was at the time of Augustine (354-430). Augustine held that man is unable to do any good because man is inherently depraved. Augustine believed that all men are born with a predisposition to sin. This is what led him to his strong promotion of the necessity of predestination. “Give what thou command,” said Augustine, “and command what thou wilt.”

At this time, believing Augustine’s position to be unfair and extreme, a British monk named Pelagius (c. 354- after 418) denied that sin was passed on from Adam to the human race. According to Pelagius, we inherit Adam’s sin neither by imputation of guilt nor by nature. The only effect that Adam had on the human race is the example he set. Pelagius believed that all men are born neutral, in a like manner to Adam, with no predisposition to evil. Pelagius was eventually condemned by two African councils in 416 and by the council of Ephesus in 431 which affirmed both inherited and imputed sin. All major orthodox tratitions of Christianity reject Pelagianism, including Eastern Orthodoxy. In spite of his condemnation, the Pelagian doctrine of sin, I believe, is still prominent in the Church today. It seems to be the “default” position of sin in our culture.


The federal view of humanity’s relationship to Adam proposes that Adam was selected by God to be humanity’s federal representative. This view was articulated most precisely by Cocceius (1603-1669) and has become the standard belief of Reformed theology. As Achan’s family was held responsible for his sin (Joshua 7:16-26), so it is with Adam’s family. By this view, the “all sinned” of Romans 5:12 would not be taken literally. As one writer puts it, “No one but Adam actually committed that first sin, but since Adam represented all people, God viewed all as involved and thus condemned. The reason that Adam’s sin is imputed to his posterity according to the federalist is because God imputes the guilt of Adam, whom He chose to represent mankind, to mankind.”

Romans 5:12-21

Some have said, if Romans 5:12-21 were never penned, the doctrine of imputation would not be an issue. While I don’t agree, I do think that Romans 5 represents the clearest and most theologically precise argument for the necessity of imputation. Here is the passage for reference.

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The way in which one interprets this passage will determine which of the options presented thus far, if any, is adopted. The context of the passage has Paul explaining the believer’s position in Christ by comparing it to our former position in Adam. The subject of the section is not the transgression, but the free gift (v. 15). Paul uses the analogy of Adam’s sin and compares it to the free gift of Christ’s righteousness.

The meaning of the phrase, “because all sinned” in verse 12 (NAS) is the initial and primary subject of debate. What is the meaning of “all sinned”? Most commentators would argue that it is very difficult to interpret the “all sinned” as an act of personal choice (contra Pelagius). Why? Because of the force of the verb tense; it is likely a historic aorist (past tense referring back to the sin of Adam). If the Pelagian interpretation were correct, the present tense would have been a much better choice for Paul in this context. Then it would naturally read, “Because all sin.” Then we could answer the question “Why are all people condemned?” with “Because all people sin.” But this is not the case here in Romans. The force of the verb has caused every translation that I know, except the NJB (a Catholic translation), to translate this passage “all sinned” with the implied referent to the being Adam’s sin. Therefore, we are connected with the past sin of Adam.

If this is correct, what Paul is saying is that when Adam sinned, we all sinned. As Leon Morris has it, “The aorist [tense] points to one act, the act of Adam; we would expect the present or the imperfect [tense] if the Apostle were thinking of the continuing sins of all people.”

It should be noted that the historic aorist is used in Romans 2:23 in a similar but not identical way and is translated “all have sinned.” Notice there that the context only leaves room for the past tense referent to be the sin of the individual. This is brought up so that you can understand how the context ofRomans 5:12 plays a determining role.

Verse 12 attempts to begin the comparison of Adam with Christ but Paul then feels inclined to break off on one of his all-too-common parenthetical statements in verses 13-14 to defend his statement “because all sinned.” This is important because Paul’s understanding of what “all sinned” means is wrapped up in his defense which follows. Verse 13 begins with the conjunction “for” (gar). This links it with the previous statement, “because all sinned.” It is as if someone got the impression that Paul was stating that all people sin and, therefore, all people die as a consequence of their own sin. At this point (v. 13), Paul says that before the Law, there was sin. But people did not die on account of these personal sins, because they were not imputed as sin (”but sin is not imputed when there is no law” v. 13). Then the objection may be “How do you explain that all people still died before the law?” Paul is saying that the reason people died before they commit an act of sin is because they are suffering the consequences of a sin already committed. They died not for personal sin, but for imputed sin. This sin was the sin of Adam. All people die because of the one sin of Adam. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that all people die? Physical death is the first and most visible evidence of our identification with the condemnation of Adam.

With death being introduced through the avenue of Adam’s sin, we need to understand what death means. This death is most certainly to be seen as both spiritual and physical considering Pauline theology (Eph. 2:2ff). Therefore, the condemnation to which all suffer as a result in our participation in Adam’s sin is both spiritual and physical with the spiritual being evidenced by the physical (v. 13).

Lest you think I am saying too much with regards to the subject, let us press on and see how the context will provide further evidence that Paul is speaking about imputed sin or guilt. Paul returns to his comparison to expound further. This comparison is between two things:

1. The effects of Adam’s sin
2. The effects of Christ’s righteousness

Whatever one does with Christ’s righteousness, one must do with Adam’s sin. Do not miss this. There can be nothing more important for this current subject and the exegesis of this passage. If the parallel breaks down, so does Paul’ argument. Let us take a look at this comparison.

Through Adams Sin | Through Christ’s Righteousness
Judgment (16) Free gift (16)
Condemnation (16) Justification (16)
Death Reigned (17) Life Reigned (17)
One Transgression=Condemnation of all (18) One Act of Righteousness=Justification of all (18)
Adam’s disobedience=many were made sinners (19) Christ’s obedience=many were made righteous (19)

The comparison is unmistakable. Again, whatever we do to inherit the free gift is the same thing we did to inherit judgment (v. 16). This is the force of the “just as” (hosper) in v. 12. Whatever we do to receive justification is the same thing we did to receive condemnation (v. 16). The effects of the “one act of righteousness” are brought about by the same means as the “condemnation of all men” (v. 18). The way in which believers are made righteous is analogous to the way all mankind was made sinners (v. 19). In order to answer the question as to how it is that “all sinned” and all were condemned in Adam, we must answer the question as to how Christ’s righteousness is applied to us to the end that we are justified by that righteousness.

If we were to adopt the view as held by Pelagius, that Adam’s sin has no effect upon us whatsoever and that only his example has given us trouble, this means that Christ’s righteousness has no effect upon us either. He simply came to set the example. But this is not what the text teaches. It states that the many were made sinners and that the many were made righteous. The effect of these two men’s acts goes far beyond that of an example.

Paul is attempting to explain our relationship to Christ’s righteousness by comparing it to the imputation of Adam’s sin to us. This relationship, in my opinion, is best seen in the federal headship view of imputation. As Doug Moo puts it, “Throughout this whole passage what Adam did and what Christ did are steadily held over against each other. Now salvation in Christ does not mean that we merit salvation by living good lives; rather, what Christ has done is significant. Just so, death in Adam does not mean that we are being punished for our own evil deeds; it is what Adam has done that is significant.”

Adam, as our chosen federal head, has represented us and passed on sin and all of its consequences. Christ, as the second Adam, represents those who believe and passes on righteousness along with all its benefits. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us without any participation of our own, just as Adam’s sin is imputed to us without our consent.

Here is what this looks like:

This has gone quit long enough. Next I will attempt to show how the imputation of Adam’s sin, far from being unfair, sets up up for the greatest act of righteousness the world has ever known.

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