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The Doctrine of Original Sin

➤❘        The Doctrine of Original Sin    

Part 3

In Part 2 we looked at how most Christians understand the doctrine of original sin. I introduced one of the theological problems this view creates – how does Jesus get off the hook if he is a lineal descendant of Adam and the son of David “according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3)? We need to provide a solution for the majority view of original sin, but before we do, we need to look at what Romans 5:12 actually says about the effect of Adam’s sin.

More on the Mainstream View

The mainstream view of original sin says that when Adam sinned, his guilt before Godwas transmitted to all humans, making every human guilty before God as soon as they were conceived in the womb.

To elaborate, the traditional view teaches that Adam sinned, became guilty before God, and his guilt was transmitted to all humans thereafter. This is the "representative" view (Adam represented all humanity and his guilt is transferred to all humans), also known as the "federal headship" view. The big problem with this, of course, is that Jesus was a son of Adam, and fully human, so how does he get off the hook without denying his full humanity? As Part 2 noted, theologians invent answers to this—answers that have no scriptural merit. But they are put forth because of the need to get Jesus off the hook.

Augustine saw this problem very clearly. In response, he came up with a different view of original sin and Adam’s failure, something theologians call "seminal headship." This was the idea that all humans were actually present in Adam ("in Adam's loins" so to speak), and so we all "sinned in Adam" when he sinned. We participated in his sin in a real sense (an act of our will) and became guilty before God before we were born.

Seminal headship has three enemies: (1) logic (it makes little sense); (2) it requires that persons pre-exist before they are born – something nowhere affirmed in Scripture; and (3) in modern terms, it requires the unscientific notion that full human persons somehow reside in males (we know where babies come from, but Augustine didn’t know the science). The idea that all of humanity as persons were present in Adam is absolutely false, and so Augustine's view gets us nowhere, though he astutely saw the problem with the federal view.

To rabbit-trail a bit, on the issue of personhood, I recommend a terrific little book that argues for personhood (and hence pro-life) purely on the basis of science and philosophical logic: Embryo (see below). The authors lay out the science of what happens from the moment of fertilization (and even before).

The View from the Biblical Text

I don’t think either federal or seminal headship captures the point of Romans 5:12. I don’t believe Romans 5:12 teaches that Adam's guilt was transmitted to humanity as a result of his sin. But, on the other hand, I affirm (since it’s so clear in so many places in the New Testament): (1) that no one can get to heaven by any merit of their own; (2) that all humans need a Savior (who is Jesus); (3) that there is no other way of salvation; and (4) that humans "cannot not sin" (every human, if given the chance at life, will sin at some point). So how does this work?

Let's take a look again at Romans 5:12. I’ll use the ESV and juxtapose it with the Greek text. Here’s my challenge: Are you going to base your theology on what the text actually says, or what you've been told to see in it?

(ESV): 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.

Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ διʼ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν, ἐφʼ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον·

What does the Scripture say?

"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man"

  • Adam's was the first sin; pretty easy to see that
"and death through sin"
  • What did Adam's sin bring? Death. Also easy to see.
"and so death spread to all men"
  • Now here’s the kicker: Does the text say "so that Adam’s guilt” spread to all humankind? NO, it does not. The only thing that the text says spread to all humankind was death. It's quite clear and explicit. To say "guilt" was what spread to all humanity is to import that idea into the text. That’s eisegesis.
"because [or, so that / with the result that] that all sinned"
  • Here's an important element. The issue is how to translate the Greek preposition relative pronoun (ἐφʼ ᾧ). English translations typically render these two items with the conjunction “because.” While it’s not necessary to take “because” as causative, that translation choice gives the feel that all humans inherit the effect of Adam’s sin “because” they sinned. That’s a translation Augustine would like—it makes it sound like all humans were “in Adam”—something impossible.
  • There are other options for translating this Greek phrase—options that avoid the problem of the seminal headship idea and that make sense of what Romans 5:12 actually says spread to all humans (death). One could translate the phrase “so that” or “with the result that,” which gives us a more normative thought: what Adam did had a result.
  • We already know one result of Adam’s sin—death spread to all humans. But the end of the verse (if we translate the Greek phrase a “resultative”) would inform us that another result was that all humans sin or have sinned. That leads us to my viewpoint.
The Doctrine of Original Sin: A Different Perspective

In the context of the above, I propose the following:

  1. Romans 5:12 teaches that Adam sinned, and he became guilty before God. His guilt was his own, not ours. It wasn't his guilt that was transferred to all humans.
  2. Scripture is clear that Adam sinned, and that something happened to the rest of humanity born from that point on, but that something is not the transmission of guilt before God. If it was, then Jesus was guilty before God since he is fully human and in Adam's line.
  3. What passed to all of humanity as a result of Adam's sin was mortality / death. That is what the text of Romans 5:12 says. This means that humanity lost immortality.
  4. The above is consistent with the Genesis story, that humans were driven from the presence of God in an ideal "heaven meets earth" environment. They were on their own. Left to their own, as imperfect (less than the perfect God) non-divine mortals, the result is that all humans, born from that point on, were born into those conditions. If humans are allowed to live a normal life span, this means that all humans will sin and incur guilt before God. No human "cannot not sin." This means sin would be universal and inevitable for all humans who get to live some measure of a lifespan where they can choose to rebel against God (i.e., sin).
  5. All humans, therefore, need a Savior. They do not inherit eternal life on their own merit.
  6. All of this in turn is the answer to the Jesus dilemma sketched in Part 2. Yes, Jesus inherited the result of Adam's fall. He was mortal in his incarnation. He could(and obviously did) die, like any other human, barring divine intervention (like Elijah and Enoch). But Jesus didn't inherit guilt from Adam because that isn't the point of Romans 5:12. Though he was truly human and descended from Adam, Jesus did not sin because he was God. Jesus’ sinlessness does not requiring fudging on the incarnation and his descent from Adam. There is no dilemma if one adopts the view of Romans 5:12 proposed here.
All this has some important ramifications. It means there are humans who never sin and who never become guilty before God, though mortal. Who am I talking about with the plural? Aborted babies, still born babies, spontaneously aborted humans after conception, the severely retarded, etc. They never incur guilt before God because they never sinned. These unfortunates are the subject of Part 4. They are with the Lord, not because I want them to be, but because of what Romans 5:12 actually means.

➤❘    The Doctrine of Original Sin  


Gerald Bray, “Original Sin in Patristic Thought,” Churchman108:1 (1994): 37-47

Edward T. Oakes, “Original Sin: A Disputation,” First Things87 (1998): l6-24

What do you think?
We have all sinned and deserve God’s judgment. God, the Father, sent His only Son to satisfy that judgment for those who believe in Him. Jesus, the creator and eternal Son of God, who lived a sinless life, loves us so much that He died for our sins, taking the punishment that we deserve, was buried, and rose from the dead according to the Bible. If you truly believe and trust this in your heart, receiving Jesus alone as your Savior, declaring, "Jesus is Lord," you will be saved from judgment and spend eternity with God in heaven.

What is your response?

Yes, I want to follow Jesus

I am a follower of Jesus

I still have questions

How can I know God

When you die, why should God let you into heaven?

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