Therefore, as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned (Romans 5:12).
Christianity features many beliefs which prove very popular; many of them are accepted and perpetuated without much thought or consideration to what is said in the Scriptures. We do well to test the spirits and prove all things so that we may be able to do all things in good conscience by Jesus’ authority (Colossians 3:17, 1 John 4:1). One such belief, commonly held but rarely clarified, understands mankind’s condition in terms of “original sin.”
The historic doctrine of “original sin” (or “inherited sin”) insisted that all humanity inherited the full consequences of Adam’s transgression. In this view Adam’s sin maintains a transitive property: it is communicated to a child via the sexual procreative act of his or her parents. Therefore, a child is born in a condemned state; he or she must be baptized in order to be rid of the stain of “original sin.” This interpretation rests on a literalistic interpretation of Psalm 51:5, a particular understanding of Romans 5:12-21, and an understanding of sin as a “communicable” property.
There is no basis upon which to believe that sin maintains any properties that are communicable among persons. God did say He would visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children for generations in Exodus 20:5; and yet God also establishes through Ezekiel how it is the soul that sins which will die, that each person stands or falls before God based on their own transgressions, and not that of their fathers or children (Ezekiel 18:1-32). In order to harmonize the two we must recognize how children very often follow in the footsteps of their parents and thus are more likely to commit the same transgressions; one generation might well suffer consequences of such transgression in the flesh whereas previous generations did not. In the New Testament all discussions of condemnation based on sin are based on the commission of actual transgression as a freewill decision by the person him or herself as a free moral agent (cf. Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, etc.). Furthermore, the notion that each generation inherits Adam’s sin is neither stated nor even suggested by Paul in Romans 5:12-21: we can understand “passed unto all men” in ways which do not demand inheritance from a parent, as we shall see.
The strongest case for the argument is found in Psalm 51:5:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity / and in sin did my mother conceive me.
While many would like to suggest that David is speaking of only his mother’s iniquity and sin, the text does not allow for such a restriction in interpretation. David suggested in this verse that he was born in iniquity and sin: such absolutely represents what he felt at the time his sin with Bathsheba was uncovered (Psalm 51:1; cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-14). We can imagine times in our own lives when we might feel in a similar way, and David gave voice to such a sentiment in Psalm 51. Yet, while David certainly felt that way, was it actually accurate and true? Should we take him literally and seriously?
We must be careful about taking every sentiment in the Psalms literally and seriously; they are written to give voice to the people of God for not only their thoughts but also their feelings. God wanted His people to be able to express themselves before Him according to what they experienced even if that experience was not actually consistent with reality. For instance, in Psalm 44:23, the sons of Korah implore God to wake up and ask why He is asleep. Should we conclude from this verse that God sometimes is asleep and such is why He does not deliver His people? Absolutely not! Heman delivered a similar sentiment in Psalm 88:14-18: Heman certainly felt completely abandoned, but was that absolutely true? Not at all.
Jesus’ own testimony regarding children ought to be considered in this context.
In that hour came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them, and said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-4).
And they were bringing unto him little children, that he should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them.
But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said unto them, “Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”
And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them (Mark 10:13-16).
If David is to be taken literally and seriously in Psalm 51:5, and we are to believe that all are tainted from birth by original sin, then children in their natural state are unregenerate and condemned. And yet Jesus not only welcomes little children to Him but considers them as the moral exemplars of the Kingdom. One must become as a little child to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 18:3-4); the Kingdom of God belongs to little children (Mark 10:14). Metaphors and similes only work and prove effective when their source domain, that which is being used to explain reality, are consistent with the target domain, that which one is attempting to describe or explain. Therefore, why would Jesus use the example of little children to speak about humility and standing in the Kingdom if little children are not humble and do not have standing in the Kingdom? Jesus betrays no belief or understanding of children as inherently sinful and depraved on account of having inherited the sin of Adam.
The Scriptures provide no commendation for the historic doctrine of “original sin.” In such a view, babies, small children, and those without consciousness are seen as unregenerate, condemned to hell, and without hope unless baptized as infants (another practice not seen in the New Testament). Such a view has led to the total depravity of Augustinianism and Calvinism, an extreme view inconsistent with Matthew 5:46-47; it has also fed the extremism inherent in “faith only” and the suggestion that mankind has absolutely no role in his own salvation. The historic doctrine of “original sin” has also contributed significantly to the unhealthy perspectives about human sexuality in Western society: for generations many considered it inherently dirty and polluting, even in its proper context, hindering our society and culture from establishing a healthy perspective on sex.
Thankfully many whose churches and religious organizations formerly adhered to the full-throated historic doctrine of “original sin” have come to a more Biblical understanding of man’s condition in the world. The term “original sin” is still used by many of them, but by it they mean that humanity has inherited the consequences of Adam’s sin, recognizing that sin is not a transitive property among people.
While we would suggest that calling such “original sin” causes confusion in light of the historic doctrine by that name, the view is broadly consistent with Paul’s instruction in Romans 5:12-21 and Romans 8:18-25. In Romans 5:12-21 Paul seeks to demonstrate that Jesus’ one act of righteousness in dying on the cross for our sins is sufficient to atone for all the sins of mankind, and he does so by speaking of Jesus as the second Adam. The first Adam committed one transgression, and that one transgression led to the presence of sin and death in the world, and sin passed on to all men for all have sinned; Jesus, the second Adam, is able to atone for all the sin of the world by one act of righteousness since sin all derives from Adam’s one act. In Romans 8:18-25 Paul would add how the creation was subjected to corruption and futility and yearns for its redemption; this only makes sense in terms of Adam’s sin. In this way Paul is able to explain how people (and animals, and elements of the creation) who have not actively committed sin yet still suffer from sickness, pain, misery, and death: they are all subject to sin and death because sin and death are in the world even if they have not actively perpetuated sin through sinful behavior.
Humans, therefore, are not born into sin, but into a sinful environment. Sin has environmental consequences as much as personal ones (cf. Hosea 4:1-3); any definition of sin which speaks only to the behavior of people, transgressive commission or omission, does not fully account for Paul’s portrayal of sin in Romans 7:7-25. On account of Adam’s transgression sin is “in the world”; sin has corrupted the creation and human institutions and systems as assuredly as it has corrupted the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of conscious people.
To suggest the full depravity of mankind, as if man is sinful from birth, is extreme and inconsistent with the evidence found in Scripture. Yet to suggest that mankind is generally good and to weaken the force. influence, and consequences of the presence of sin in the creation is likewise extreme and inconsistent with the evidence found in Scripture. Man’s condition is dire and bleak indeed, even if not absolutely so. May we affirm the totality of what God has made known about man’s condition in the world and seek to find salvation in Jesus (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-7)!
Ethan R. Longhenry