by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, May 6, 2011 at 10:01am

QUESTION: A friend of mine argues that babies are born in sin. She uses some specific Bible verses for this: Psalm 51:5, Romans 3:23, and Romans 5:12-19. She especially emphasizes Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned . . . .” Since it says “all,” she says it must include babies. Do these texts really teach that babies are born sinful?

ANSWER: I have written quite a bit on this. For Romans 5:12-19, see my commentary on Romans, published by College Press. See also my systematic theology, The Faith Once for All (also College Press), pp. 184-190. This text DOES say that “all” (vv. 12, 18) suffer death and condemnation as a result of Adam’s sin; that this includes babies is shown by v. 14 (“those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam,” i.e., no personal sins). However—and this is a huge “however”—those who see this text as teaching “original sin” miss its main point.

Paul’s point in this text (Rom. 5:12-19) is this: it doesn’t matter what consequences the entire human race is subjected to because of the one sin of Adam, because the one redemptive act of Christ (the cross) has in fact canceled, negated, nullified, and counteracted every one of those consequences. The main point is not on the power of Adam’s sin, but on the “much more” power (vv. 15, 17) of Christ’s cross. Whatever evils Adam’s sin would have brought upon every baby conceived in this world, have been rendered void by Jesus Christ. This applies to babies born before the cross as well as to those born after it. No baby has been born in original sin; every baby has in fact been born in what I call “original grace.” Babies come into existence in a redeemed state, wrapped in the cocoon of grace; and they remain there until they reach the age of accountability.

Here is how I explain it on p. 185 of The Faith Once for All: “In the final analysis it does not matter what content anyone feels compelled to pour into the concept of ‘original sin,’ because Paul’s main point is this: whatever the whole human race got (or would have got) from Adam has been completely canceled out for the whole human race by the gracious atoning work of Jesus Christ. Make the Adamic legacy as dire as you want: physical death, total depravity, genuine guilt and condemnation to hell. The whole point of the passage is that Christ’s ‘one act of righteousness’ (5:18) has completely intercepted, nullified, negated, canceled, and counteracted whatever was destined to be ours because of Adam. All the potential spiritual consequences of Adam’s sin are intercepted even before they can be applied. The only consequence that actually takes effect is physical death, and it is countered with the promise of resurrection to eternal life.”

Another text allegedly teaching that babies are born in sin is Psalm 51:5, where David says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Here is my explanation of this verse, also from The Faith Once for All (p. 181-182):

Is David here affirming that he was sinful as soon as he was conceived and born? Several comments are in order. First, there are other ways to understand the grammar of this verse. Strictly speaking, David does not apply the sin and iniquity to himself, contrary to the NIV, which says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” But he does not actually say, “I was sinful.” The prepositional phrases “in iniquity” and “in sin” are used to modify the act of being conceived and the act of being born. It is possible that the sin belongs to the mother. It has been pointed out that “in sin my mother conceived me” is grammatically parallel to “in drunkenness my husband beat me.” Another possibility is that the phrases “in iniquity” and “in sin” are meant to describe the pervasiveness of sin in the world into which David was born.

It must be granted, though, that the major theme of the Psalm is David’s repentance for his own sins, specifically the sins connected with his lust for Bathsheba. But if the focus in on David’s personal sins (vv. 1-4), and not on some kind of inherited sin, why does he refer to iniquity connected with his birth (v. 5)? Basically he does so in order to express and confess his awareness of the depth of sin in his heart and the seriousness of his sin with Bathsheba. He is humbling himself before God in figurative language, in the same way that Biblical writers sometimes refer to man as a worm (Ps 22:6; Job 17:14; 25:6; Isa 41:14). This is hyperbole, or exaggeration for emphasis. The same device is used in Ps 58:3, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth.” This is not an affirmation of original sin since it is not applied to all human beings; it is an exaggeration intended to insult the wicked and emphasize the depth of their perversity. So with Ps 51:5, which is meant to apply to the repentant David alone.

Even if we should grant that Ps 51:5 is meant to teach some form of universal original sin, it could not be used to support the Augustinian and Catholic versions of this doctrine. The most that could be drawn from it is partial depravity, as in semi-Pelagianism; it neither affirms nor implies total depravity and inherited guilt. [This concludes the citation from The Faith Once for All.]

Finally, what about the “all” in Romans 3:23? Since “all” have sinned, does this not include babies? No. Sometimes the Greek word “all” (pas) refers simply to all who are in a certain category, a category that is defined or limited by the very action attributed to the “all.” The “all” in Romans 3:23 is already defined in v. 22, which speaks of “all who believe.” I.e., Paul here is speaking only of those who are capable of believing; thus the “all” in v. 23 should likewise be taken thus: “all who are capable of sinning have sinned.”

This kind of contextual limitation of the word “all” is seen many times in the NT. E.g., Matt. 2:3 says that “all Jerusalem” was troubled. No one would think of applying this to babies; it clearly means, “All who were capable to understanding Herod’s mood were troubled.” In Matt. 10:22 Jesus tells his disciples that they “will be hated by all.” This clearly does not apply to babies, but only to those who are capable of hating. Matt. 12:23 (NIV) says that “all the people were astonished.” Again, this can apply only to those old enough to be capable of astonishment. Matt. 21:26 says that “all regard John as a prophet.” Babies cannot form such opinions. We are commanded to preach the gospel to “all creation” (Mark 16:15), i.e., “preach the gospel to all who are capable of understanding and receiving it.” No one would insist that Mark 16:15 means that the gospel must be preached to infants and small children.

Many other verses could be cited, e.g., John 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:10; Gal. 3:26; Eph. 4:13; Heb. 13:4; 1 Peter 5:5. In these verses the actions attributed to the “all” are things that only older people can do: believe in Jesus, be in mental agreement and unity, believe, attain unity in faith and knowledge, hold the marriage bed in honor, be humble toward one another. In all these verses, the subject again is “all,” but no one would insist that little children must be included therein. This is likewise the only rational way to understand Romans 3:23: “All who are capable of sin have sinned.” There is no intent to include babies in the “all.”

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  1. Why do babies die?

    Ezek. 18:20, “The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins.”

    So why do babies die?

    • Just as Christ is a unique representative of the human race, so was Adam. The Ezekiel passage cannot apply to Adam and his sin, which Romans 5 shows. But the question remains: if the original grace generated by the cross takes away all the results of Adam’s sin for all infants, this should include physical death. So why do babies still die? The bottom line is that original grace does indeed save all people from physical death that results from Adam’s sin, but it saves them not by preventing such death but by guaranteeing (redemptive) bodily resurrection in the end time for those babies and children who die before the age of accountability. (Once we commit personal sin, we lose that guarantee and must personally accept Christ as Savior in order for that promise to be reinstated.) In short, babies still die because of Adam’s sin, but that death is swallowed up in victory at Christ’s return (1 Cor. 15:54). The same is true of adults who become Christians: we are immediately saved from spiritual death, but not from physical death. However, we will indeed experience the redemption of our bodies at the second coming (Rom. 8:23). Salvation thus comes in two stages, as Paul teaches in Romans 6-8. In baptism we experience the resurrection of our dead souls (Rom. 6:1-11), then at the second coming we experience the resurrection of our bodies (Rom. 8:9-11). So it is with infants. They experience original grace for spiritual redemption at their very conception; then if they die before accountability they will experience the resurrection of their bodies in an adult form in the end.

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