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The Doctrine of Original Sin

➤❘        The Doctrine of Original Sin    

Part 2

We finished Part 1 of our discussion about the doctrine of original sin with the misuse of Romans 5:12 by young-earth creationists to argue against the possibility of any death (especially animals) before the Fall. This in turn is used to argue against the fossil record / any view of creation that argues for a very ancient earth.

In this installment, we’ll continue on with a more serious way Adam’s sin in Romans 5:12 gets misunderstood.

Romans 5:12 and How Most Christians Understand the Doctrine of Original Sin

Let's get started with a quotation from the well-known evangelical theologian Millard Erickson:

All of us, apparently without exception, are sinners. By this we mean not merely that all of us sin, but that we all have a depraved or corrupted nature which so inclines us toward sin that it is virtually inevitable. How can this be? What is the basis of this amazing fact? Must not some common factor be at work in all of us? It is as if some antecedent or a priori factor in life leads to universal sinning and universal depravity. But what is this common factor that is often referred to as original sin? Whence is it derived, and how is it transmitted or communicated?

We find the answer in Romans 5: "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-" (v. 12). This thought is repeated in several different ways in the succeeding verses: "For if the many died by the trespass of the one man" (v. 15); "The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation" (v. 16); "For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man" (v. 17); "Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men" (v. 18); "For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners" (v. 19). Paul sees some sort of causal connection between what Adam did and the sinfulness of all people throughout all time. But just what is the nature of this influence exerted by Adam upon all humans, and by what means does it operate? (Erickson, Christian Theology, 648).

And elsewhere Erickson says:

The approach that sees Adam's connection with us in terms of a federal headship is generally related to the creationist view of the origin of the soul. This is the view that humans receive their physical nature by inheritance from their parents, but that the soul is specially created by God for each individual and united with the body at birth (or some other suitable moment). Thus, we were not present psychologically or spiritually in any of our ancestors, including Adam. Adam, however, was our representative. God ordained that Adam should act not only on his own behalf, but also on our behalf, so that the consequences of his actions have been passed on to his descendants as well. Adam was on probation for all of us as it were; and because Adam sinned, all of us are treated as guilty and corrupted . . . The other major approach sees Adam's connection with us in terms of a natural (or realistic) headship. This approach is related to the traducianist view of the origin of the soul, according to which we receive our souls by transmission from our parents, just as we do our physical natures. So we were present in germinal or seminal form in our ancestors; in a very real sense, we were there in Adam. His action was not merely that of one isolated individual, but of the entire human race. Although we were not there individually, we were nonetheless there. The human race sinned as a whole. Thus, there is nothing unfair or improper about our receiving a corrupted nature and guilt from Adam, for we are receiving the just results of our sin. This is the view of Augustine. (Erickson, Christian Theology, 651-652).

The key thoughts to fix in your mind at this point are that 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. I don’t think that’s the point of Romans 5:12. In fact, that perspective creates some thorny theological problems.

What About Jesus?

My question for Erickson (and the mainstream view in general) starts this way: If all humans since Adam inherited Adam's guilt (however that happens), then why does Jesus get off the hook? He is 100% human in biblical theology. His genealogy goes straight back to Adam (see Luke 3:23-38; esp. v. 38). Why isn’t the mainstream view consistent when it comes to the descendant of Adam we know as Jesus of Nazareth?

Now, I know what the standard answers are. "Oh, Jesus was God, so he didn't have original sin." This avoids the question; it doesn't answer it. Jesus was also 100% human. To deny that is to deny the incarnation—it wouldn't be a real or actual incarnation then.

How about, "Jesus was virgin born, and we all know that sin is transmitted through the male. After all, Jesus is compared to Adam in Romans 5, not Eve." This is also evasive and poorly conceived. I would hope it's clear that all women are also sinners. Mary was a woman, and she was the mother of Jesus. She had a human father who was a sinner. There is no verse in the Bible that says sin is transmitted through only males. (If you’re Catholic you’re thinking that isn’t true. Interestingly, this original-sin-and-Jesus problem is why Roman Catholicism invented the doctrine of Mary’s own sinlessness—something the New Testament never teaches nor claims).

And then there’s the idea that Mary was just a receptacle for Jesus. God just inserted the human material that would be Jesus into Mary’s womb. We could reply as moderns that this would mean Jesus’ DNA was manufactured, that he wasn’t the child of either Joseph or Mary. But this means Paul was in error in Romans 1:3, where he says that Jesus was the descendant of David according to the flesh.It also makes the genealogies a lie. Nope, that isn’t going to work, either.

The problem is straightforward: We either embrace the full humanity of Jesus as it’s presented in the New Testament or we don't. If we don’t, some New Testament statements about Jesus are errors. It’s pretty bad when we need to say the New Testament is wrong to prop up a doctrine!

We need to realize that the full humanity of Jesus—laid out so clearly and repeatedly in the New Testament—isn’t a theological problem. What’s causing theological discomfort here is the way so much of the Church has understand Romans 5:12 and allowed that misunderstanding to define original sin.

An Argument for Universalism?

The short answer is because the mainstream doesn’t want it to. But to be honest, few who hold the mainstream view have ever realizes that their view of Adam’s sin and the transmission of guilt to all humans is a good foundation for arguing that the resurrection of the second Adam (Jesus) brings salvation to all(i.e., universalism). Romans 5:18 lays out the parallel pretty well:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

Put another way, why is it that the mainstream view wants to defend the idea of all humans being infected by the sin of the first Adam, but then turns around to make qualifications about the universal transmission of sacrifice of the second Adam? Theologians like Mark Rapinchuk (below), have taken note of how logical such a reading would be. (Rapinchuk is not a universalist, and his article provides his take on the consistency of the “all” language. As other parts in the series will indicate, I go a different direction because I reject the mainstream view of Romans 5:12 and original sin).

You may not have reflected on these things before, but these problems are serious and stem from the traditional view of Romans 5:12 articulated by Erickson (and countless others). And we haven’t even gotten to the fate of the unborn and those who cannot believe. We’ll get to that problem in a bit. Right now we need to address the “transmission of guilt” problem and the solution in regard to Jesus. I do indeed have a solution, one that (pardon the pun) isn’t original to me. I've nuanced it a bit. It’s surprisingly straightforward, but requires dumping the traditional mainstream approach.

➤❘    The Doctrine of Original Sin  


Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Baker Academic, 1998)

Mark Rapinchuk, "Universal sin and salvation in Romans 5: 12-21," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42.3 (1999): 427-441

John Murray, The Imputation of Adam's Sin (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1959); a well-known articulation of the mainstream view

Richard Bell, “Romans 5:18-19 and Universal Salvation,” New Testament Studies48 (2002): 417-432

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?

If you died, why should God let you into heaven?

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