by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 7:08pm

QUESTION: Are we human beings born sinners? What effect, if any, did the sin of Adam and Eve have on all their offspring? Did it affect our ability to choose whether or not to sin?

ANSWER: This question is about the doctrine of original sin, which in one form or another is held by a large portion of Christendom. This doctrine says that Adam’s sin did indeed affect all of his descendants in serious ways. As early as the third century Christian writers began to teach that, because of Adam’s sin, all babies are born with a partial depravity. This would in fact make it a lot easier to sin and a lot harder to obey God. In the late fourth century and early fifth century, Augustine developed a full-blown concept of original sin, with two parts. One is the idea that all babies inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin and are thus born condemned to hell. The second is that all babies are born in the spiritual state of total depravity, i.e., the bondage of the will. This means that no one is able not to sin, and no one is able to turn to God in faith and repentance for salvation.

In modern times there are several variations of these views. Roman Catholics generally hold to inherited guilt and partial depravity. Wesleyans hold to no inherited guilt but partial depravity. Calvinists and Lutherans hold to Augustine’s view, i.e., both inherited guilt and total depravity. The Restoration Movement has generally held either to no inherited guilt but a partial depravity (e.g., Alexander Campbell), or to no inherited spiritual effects at all (a form of Pelagianism).

The Biblical text that is most relevant for this doctrine is Romans 5:12-19. The question is this: does this passage teach a doctrine of original sin? The answer is that it does. We cannot read vv. 15-19 without concluding that Adam’s sin in some sense has indeed brought all the classical elements of original sin upon all his descendants. Though some think that the consequences of Adam’s sin can be limited to physical death for all men, the language Paul uses is stronger than that. One might argue that these verses 15 and 17 refer to physical death only, but the language in vv. 16, 18, 19 cannot be so limited. Verse 16 says that “the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation,” and v. 18 says that “through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men.” The word for “condemnation” here is the same word used in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In this latter verse we rightly think of condemnation as eternal death in hell. I believe that is the meaning in 5:16, 18. Also, 5:19 says that “through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” “Made sinners” most likely refers to some kind of depravity, either partial or total. Such would indeed affect our ability to choose whether or not to sin.

However we interpret these horrible effects, we cannot deny that Adam’s sin did in some sense bring all of them upon the whole human race! We cannot simply ignore this teaching.

Are we left, then, with a doctrine of original sin? The answer is NO! All views of original sin assume that the consequences of Adam’s sin named here by Paul are actually applied to all human beings. In my judgment this is a serious mistake. In fact, I believe that all views of original sin miss the whole point of Romans 5:12-19. The main point of this text is not “what we got from Adam,” but what we have all received from Jesus Christ! Paul’s point here is this: WHATEVER came (or would have come) upon all infants as the result of Adam’s sin, HAS BEEN PREVENTED from coming upon all infants as the result of the saving work of Christ! This means that every infant ever conceived has experienced the consequences of the saving work of Jesus on the cross. Every infant has already been the recipient of Christ’s redeeming grace. Every infant is actually born redeemed. Thus, instead of being born in a state of ORIGINAL SIN, we are all actually born in a state of ORIGINAL GRACE. (This is similar to but not identical with the Wesleyan idea of prevenient grace.)

According to Romans 5:15-19, the consequences of Adam’s sin (however interpreted) are completely canceled out for the whole human race (and have been since the beginning, with Adam’s children) by Christ’s “one act of righteousness” (5:18), i.e., his atoning death on the cross. Although through Adam’s sin “the many died,” this was counteracted by “the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ” (5:15). Whereas from Adam we received judgment and condemnation, Christ’s free gift “brought justification” (5:16, ESV). Although through Adam “death reigned,” the “abundance of grace” and the “gift of righteousness” enable us to “reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (5:18). Yes, through Adam’s disobedience “the many were made sinners,” but “through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (5:19).

Some think that these counteracting blessings from Christ are available to all and are potentially applied to all, but will actually be given only to those who believe and obey the gospel. But this misses the whole point. The terrible consequences of Adam’s one sin are what are potentially applied to all; the blessings resulting from Christ’s one act of righteousness have actually been applied to all descendants of Adam in fact, even from the time when sin began.

The point of the passage is that Christ has in fact canceled or intercepted all the consequences of Adam’s sin for all human beings—and much more (vv. 15, 17). (The “much more” refers to the cancellation of the effects of personal sins for those who later become personal believers.) I.e., if Adam has done all of this, has not Christ done much more? This gives us assurance that our trust in Jesus and his death on the cross will not be in vain. Only if we see the cross as in fact canceling all the consequences of Adam’s sin can we have such confidence. Only this view does justice to the parallel between Adam and Christ; the remedy must be at least as extensive as the malady. The Calvinist view, which says that what Christ did applies only to the elect, and the “potential” view (common in the Restoration Movement), which says that what Christ did applies only to those who personally believe in him, both violate or nullify this parallel—and with it the basis for our assurance.

The bottom line is that, were it not for Christ, thanks to Adam all babies would have been born in original sin: sinful, guilty, and condemned. But instead, because of Christ, all babies are in fact born in a state of original grace: pure, free, and innocent. This grace is applied to all babies, not just to the “elect” and not just to children born of Christian parents. It is applied automatically and universally. (This does not result in universal salvation, since original grace applies only to the results of Adam’s sin, not to the results of our personal sins committed after the age of accountability begins.)

We should note that original grace applies to physical death not by preventing it, but by guaranteeing a redemptive bodily resurrection for all, including babies and children who die before reaching the age of accountability and before committing personal sin. However, anyone who becomes old enough to become a sinner through personal sin loses the redemption status enjoyed via original grace, including the promise of redemptive resurrection.

Because of original grace, the only things we have to be concerned about are the consequences of our personal sins, or sins committed “in the likeness of the offense of Adam” (5:14). Thanks be to God, Christ’s saving work can remove these, too. It removes the results of Adam’s sin, and “much more” (5:15, 17). For personal sins, he gives us personal grace, but only through our personal choice.

Thus the four stages of sin and grace through which we as Christians will pass are as follows: (1) potential original sin, derived from Adam, which is canceled by (2) actual original grace, derived from Christ, which is canceled by (3) personal sin, which is canceled by (4) personal grace, which is the main subject of my book, Set Free: What the Bible Says About Grace, from which much of this essay was taken (see pp. 323-328).

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ARE WE BORN SINNERS? — 21 Comments

  1. But the justification of God is a GIFT (v.15, 16, 17). A gift can be either received or rejected. Can a baby receive or reject a gift ? I wonder how many babies were saved in the flood or from Sodom and Gommorrah ? Thanks for your insight.

  2. There are two things that Paul applies to Christ that is not true of us in Adam: I will emphasise number one only.
    1. When Paul refers to the obedience of Christ which justifies us, he calls it a “gift”; he uses that phrase. You’ll find that in verses 15, 16, and 17. The word “gift” [which means it’s free] he applies towards Christ, but never towards Adam.
    Now this is very important. Because a gift can never be enjoyed until you receive it.
    What is true of us in Adam is not a gift. It belongs to us by native right. We are by creation, we are by nature, we are by native right belonging to Adam. That’s where we belong. Our lawful right is Adam. Therefore, it is not a gift, it is a native right.
    But we are not naturally in Christ. That’s a gift. You can reject or receive that gift. Can babies receive that gift ?
    I wonder how many babies were saved in the flood or from Sodom & Gomorrah. Just a thought, but thanks for your insight.

    • I agree with what you are saying about what we receive from Christ. What you are saying about Adam, though, needs some qualification. Some things that we possess by nature come from Adam, i.e., things having to do with our humanness, such as free will. But in Romans 5, the things Paul declares we got from Adam (such as death) are not ours “by nature” or “by native right.” Though we would not call them “gifts,” they are nonetheless IMPUTED to us or bestowed upon us as things we do not have by nature. Your main point about what we get from Christ remains sound, though, even if there is not a clear contrast with how we get things from Adam.

  3. Your style is really unique compared to other folks I have read stuff from.
    Many thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this page.

  4. Thank you for a wonderful article. I have been using your commentary on Romans to teach an adult Sunday school class at my church and was hoping I could ask you some questions about your view on Original Grace. As I understand this view, whatever effects Adam’s sin had on humanity (i.e. depravity—partial or total, physical death, guilt, etc.) were totally undone by Jesus’s death on the cross. Babies are born innocent and without any spiritual deformities inherited from Adam (i.e. tendency to sin, disordered desires, etc.). As a result, people are held accountable only for their personal sins that occur after they reach the age of accountability. My questions are as follows: When a person reaches the age of the accountability is he essentially in the same state Adam was in before he sinned? Is there a difference in that Adam was in this state without any special grace from God but the rest of humanity can only be in this state when reaching the age of accountability because of a special act of grace? How is this view similar or different from Pelagius’ view? And if we do have original grace and are similar to Adam prior to the fall when we reach the age of accountability, how do we explain the universality of sin? Is the tendency to sin simply a brute fact about human nature? Finally, if Adam’s sin does not actually affect the rest of humanity, does this undermine a basic argument that Paul is making in Romans 5? That is, if Paul is arguing that we can know that Jesus’s death can have a positive spiritual effect for all of humanity because Jesus is greater than Adam, and Adam’s sin had a spiritual effect on all of humanity, then how can Paul use the premise, “Adam’s sin had a spiritual effect on all of humanity” in this argument if Jesus’s death made it such that Adam’s sin never actually had a spiritual effect on all of humanity? Would it be that Adam had the potential to affect all of humanity through his sin but Jesus, being greater than Adam, not only has the potential but actually affected all of humanity through his sacrifice? Thank you for your thoughts on this topic and for your years of service to the Christian community through your scholarship.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful request. If a large enough segment of time opens up for me, I will try to provide some answers.

  5. Hello Jack,

    I am currently an associate pastor in another church body, and your explanation may well have kept me in the Restoration Movement had I happened upon it in my early days of theological exploration. Thank you for the above. You have given me much to think on.

    Many blessings,

  6. I have a question you said that “because of Christ, all babies are in fact born in a state of original grace: pure, free, and innocent. This grace is applied to all babies, not just to the “elect” and not just to children born of Christian parents. It is applied automatically and universally.” why God commanded king Saul to kill all amalakite including INFANT: 1 Sam:15:3 “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'”…Where the ORIGINAL GRACE of God to all Amalakite baby? thanks

    • Two things. (1) Original grace as applied to the Amalekite babies (as to all babies) means that the condemnation that WOULD have come upon them as the result of Adam’s sin was removed by the redemptive act of Christ. This means that these babies were not sent to hell when they were killed. They were living in a cocoon of grace, thanks to Jesus Christ. See Romans 5:16, 18. (2) Though the babies did suffer a terrible physical death as the result of Adam’s sin, they died with the promise that they would be raised from the dead in new, mature, redeemed bodies at the second coming of Jesus. This is because of original grace. See Romans 5:17. In conclusion, original grace does not prevent bad things from happening to our bodies in this life, but it guarantees that no eternal consequences will be applied to anyone as the result of Adam’s sin.

  7. Thanks – this is clear. I do have a question, though, about the concept/existence of natural law which all may have (the conscience?). Rom. 1:18-20; Rom. 2:13-15. Clearly, Cain sinned before the Law was given, Gen. 4:5-7; Rom. 5:12-14, but was it imputed to him? If not, then why would people have wanted to kill Cain and would would this have been just (i.e., not a sin)? God punished Cain, which implies law breaking. Gen. 4:10-12. Jesus seemed to refer to natural law derived from the very fact that God had created man and woman when answering the Pharisees. Mt. 19:4-9. I’m pretty sure that this cannot be answered in 20 words or less (but if you can, that’ll be terrific – and amazing!), but would appreciate your thoughts on this. Thanks in advance!

    • Wayne, this is not really a problem. God’s law was built into creation from the beginning, long before sin was introduced. The general moral law was written on the hearts of Adam and Eve and all their offspring, by virtue of their/our being created in the image of God. Also, we can infer from Genesis 3:8 that God (in a theophany) was accustomed to engaging Adam and Eve in sessions of fellowship and teaching. (We infer this from the fact that they recognized the sound of God’s approaching them, which implies that he had approached them like this before.) Cain indeed sinned “before the Law was given”–if you mean the Law of Moses. But he already had access to the law against murder–written on his heart (Rom. 2:14-15), so he was “without excuse” (cf. Rom. 1:20). For an abbreviated list of these “natural laws,” see Romans 1:26-32. See my commentary on Romans on this.

  8. Hi Dr. Cottrell,

    I would like to add a brief comment regarding a common “proof text” from Romans regarding the depravity of man and get your opinion.

    Often Calvinists and others who hold to the idea of total inherited depravity point to Romans 3:9-18. Often, they quote from the ESV in which the translators, in an attempt to provide clarity, added the word, Jews” to the text. Here’s how the ESV phrases it:

    “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,”

    Regardless of the translation used, Calvinists assume that Paul is speaking of total depravity of all individuals. I don’t think he was referring to total depravity. let alone inherited depravity. Nor is he referring specifically to individuals.

    I believe the ESV has incorrectly identified those to whom Paul was writing. Paul most often identifies himself with this mainly Gentile readership in this letter, and often refers to the Jews in the third person. Clearly the previous context suggests that as well. So, it makes little sense that he would now switch to speaking of the Jews in first person and the Gentiles in third. In addition, when you read verses 9-18, we see Paul quoting scripture speaking of the depravity specifically of the Gentiles.

    Even more telling is the fact that these scriptures (mainly Psalms, but also Isaiah) refer to the Jews as righteous, innocent, helpless, victims, upright in heart, repentant, people who love His name, etc… If the ESV is correct in their identification as Jews, it makes no sense that Paul would make the statement that the the Jews are just as depraved as the Gentiles, and then quote from scripture painting the Jews in an entirely different light.

    My point here is that I believe that Paul’s mention of depravity, which is never referred to as inherited, is a depravity specifically of the Gentiles, and not the Jews. Paul’s purpose is to keep the Gentiles aware of their own depravity lest then think they earned their salvation and status before God because they were less sinful than the Jews.

    So, what that means is that Paul’s purpose in writing this is not to demonstrate that all people are inherently totally depraved, but merely to remind the Gentiles that they did not, in any way, earn their righteousness. I believe this reading is supported by Paul’s subsequent comments in :19-31, and that

    1. all have sinned (both people groups)
    2. all have been justified (both people groups…not individuals of course)
    3. there is no distinction (between both people groups)
    4. their true source of righteousness is God through faith in Christ
    5. therefore there is no reason to boast because they earned nothing.

    Thoughts? I confess I haven’t read your comments on chapter three in your commentary. Maybe you have already addressed that. At any rate, I thought I would mention this because so often people turn to chapter three as well as chapter 5 to “prove” total inherited depravity, and I really think it’s a very bad proof text for that.

    • I agree that this text does not affirm or teach total depravity, and I agree that it does not suggest that the sinfulness here attributed to all human beings is somehow derived from Adam. His main point is to affirm that all individuals have indeed sinned (as summed up in 3:23), and therefore–his MAIN point–no human being will be justified by the law system, i.e., by how well he or she obeys their law code.

  9. Thank you for this excellent interpretation of Romans 5:12-19 and your focus being on what Christ has done to bring about the reconciliation spoken of in 5:1-11. This passage is without question about Christ fixing what mankind has done, and the focus should be on Him. But, in light of what I feel is a lot of wrong interpretations in verses 12-14, I’d like to add my interpretation as to Adam’s contribution in all of this, and I’d appreciate your thoughts on it. As you know and have identified, there are various and sometimes conflicting interpretations on just exactly Adam “imputed” to all mankind. As I see it, there are basically three common interpretations. One is, of course, sin. Another variant of that would is a sinful nature. A third, as you also identified is physical death (expulsion from the garden and consequently no longer any access to the Tree of Life). I call these perspectives: the inherited sin perspective, the inherited sinfulness perspective, and the inherited consequence perspective. In my opinion, none of these views fit the general context in Romans very well. Nor do I think they are well supported by what is written regarding Adam’s original sin in Genesis (other than the inherited consequence perspective), and I think that a fourth perspective warrants some consideration. I call it the inherited discernment perspective.

    We saw Paul speak of a general knowledge of God in Romans 1:18-20, causing all mankind to be without excuse. Paul doesn’t elaborate, but it’s clear that it is something that all men possess. More specifically, in Romans 2:12-16 we read that the Jews have a law by which they will be judged, but judgment isn’t limited to the Jews because even the Gentiles will be judged. Why? Because God has written a law on their hearts. Some would call this the law of the conscience. I will explain in a bit, but I think Adam was responsible for giving us this law. Then in Romans 3:19-20, we see Paul support his comments in chapter 2 that all will be judged by the law. Then in 4:15, Paul explains that the law is required for judgment. Where there is no law, there is no wrath. Why? I would suggest that because God is a fair judge, He would not judge anyone who cannot discern between right and wrong. Ignorance is an excuse. The problem is that, as Paul previously mentioned, no on is ignorant. Again, I believe that is because of Adam. Then we read in 5:13 that sin is not imputed when there is no law. Again, Paul is supporting his statement that the law is required for judgment. We read this again in 7:1-13. Clearly Paul is trying to link one’s capability of being judged to possession of the law (whether from Moses or on our hearts) But certainly 5:12-14 suggests that Adam contributed something to all mankind causing them to sin and consequently suffer mortality. My view is that Adam did not give us his sin, nor his sinfulness. Instead he gave us the law (the ability to discern between right and wrong). We do not read in the original sin account of Adam passing on sin to mankind or his sinfulness. But, what we do read is that at the time of the original sin, Adam gained discernment. He broke God’s commandment (a law) and immediately felt shame. I believe that when he ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (a tree aptly named), he gained exactly what the tree produces. You are what you eat, and unfortunately for all of mankind, it is because of Adam we gained this discernment and can not use ignorance as an excuse. Anyway, a lot more I could say on this, but I think this interpretation fits very well in 5:12-14. Sin and death were not in this world until Adam introduced it? Why? We didn’t have discernment. People died before the law was given to Moses. Why? Because all people had the law on their hearts because Adam passed on discernment from the fruit he ate to all mankind. How did death spread to all mankind? Was it Adam’s sin? No, Paul says it is because all sinned? Paul’s point here is that since sin and death cannot exist without the law, and since we know sin and death existed before the law was given to Moses, people must have been judged by the law that Adam introduced to all humanity.

    So much more I could say, but I’ve got to get back to work. Maybe I’m all wrong about this but I thought I’d throw that out for comments. Anyway, I appreciate your comments. You’re absolutely right. This section is about Christ cancelling what was done…initially by Adam, but also personally by all of his progeny. The focal point is not Adam, but Christ!

    • I totally disagree that Adam had anything to do with the origin of the law written on the hearts of all human beings. This is the result of our being created in the image of God (Eph. 4:21-24; Col. 3:9-11). This on-the-heart law code would be on every heart whether or not Adam sinned.

      • Thank you for your reply and comments.

        You raised a good point that I believe is appropriate regarding the question posed, “Are We Born Sinners?”. If we are born totally inherently depraved with no good inclinations as some would say, then how in the world are we made in God’s image? It’s difficult for me to imagine that a totally depraved man with all inclinations being against God’s will, has been made in the image of God. But, a person born with the ability to discern and choose between right and wrong…that I see as being compatible with one being created in God’s image.

        Thanks again for your reply and comments. As always, I enjoy reading your posts and find great benefit in doing so.

  10. Great article, thank you. It is difficult for me to fathom the idea of original sin as put forth by so many, especially after reading Ezekiel 18-19. “The soul who sins as the soul who shall die.” Thank you for the clarification!

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