This is part-two of our four-part series on Original Sin and the imputation of Adam’s sin onto the human race.
In part-one of our series we discussed the theological reasons and the importance for this study. Theologically, Adam serves as a foreshadowing, a “type” of Christ in the Scriptures. Therefore, theologically speaking for the typology to be coherent and remain intact, and in order for Christ’s righteousness to be imputed to believers as they have no righteousness of their own (Phil 3:9; Ro 5:14, 18-19; 1 Cor 1:30), Adam’s sin must be imputed to sinners otherwise the typology is flawed. Just as Adam’s sin is imputed to sinners, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all those who believe and trust in Him for their salvation.1 Against Pelagius, who taught that man could by shear will choose to sin or not to sin, Paul’s teaching counters that of Pelagius. Paul speaks of Adam as a historical person and affirms the corporate solidarity that is taught in the Scriptures which is so very important for believers with the rise of individualism in the world today.
In part-two, we will discuss the literary traditions supporting Paul’s teaching and the theological views held in the church concerning the imputation of sin.
There are a number of biblical references supporting the transmission or imputation of Adam’s sin nature on to the rest of humanity. Job 14:4 is unclear in modern translations which state, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” Although the meaning of the text is unclear in the ESV, in the Latin, according to Henri Blocher, the meaning of the text is made clear, “Who can make pure what was conceived of impure seed?”2 The implication of which is to say that Adam’s seed or genes were corrupted by sin and it has been passed down from him to his descendants. Moreover, David’s psalms continue this thought with his own self understanding of being born into the world as a sinner. In Psalm 51:5 he writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” To set aside any misinterpretations, according to Blocher, “no one today follows the Augustine viewing of the procreative act as sinful per se (in our fallen condition) … [and] those who would charge the Psalmist’s mother with a specific sin, such as adultery or promiscuity, are on no surer ground.”3 As such, it is clear that David’s self-understanding was that he was born with the imputed sin of Adam in him. Another biblical text implying the imputation of sin nature is found in the prophetic rebuke of Ezekiel 16:44, “’Behold, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you: ‘Like mother, like daughter.’” As such, the Bible is clear about the sinfulness of parents being passed down and transmitted to one’s offspring.
The teaching found in the Bible concerning the imputation of sin does not stop with the cannon of Scripture, for the universality of the imputation of Adam’s sin is evident in the writing of Philo of Alexandria who lived around the years of 20 B.C. until A.D. 50. Regarding the transmission of sin nature, Philo becomes a predecessor to the Augustinian thought of the universality of man’s sinful condition and the imputation of Adam’s sin to his progenitors. According to Blocher, “Philo frequently used cognates of the Greek word ‘nature’ (Physis) to stress the impregnation of evil; he stigmatized the ‘adulterous nature’ and spoke of the ‘innate [or, co-natural] evils of our race’, and of ‘sinning innate [or, co-natural] in everyone who is born.”4 Blocher goes further by stating “even earlier, the apocryphal book of Wisdom refers to the Canaanites’ malice as implanted in them and part of their nature.”4 Along these lines, Wisdom of Solomon 12:10 states:
But judging them little by little you gave them an opportunity to repent, though you were not unaware that their origin was evil and their wickedness inborn, and that their way of thinking would never change. For they were an accursed race from the beginning, and it was not through fear of anyone that you left them unpunished for their sins.5Wisdom 12:10-11
Other apocryphal texts supporting the concept of the imputation of sin nature from Adam to his descendants are found in 2 Esdras, which lays the blame for man’s sinful conditions squarely on the shoulders of Adam. 2 Esdras 4:30 states, “For a grain of evil seed was sown in Adam’s heart from the beginning, and how much ungodliness it has produced until now—and will produce until the time of threshing comes!”6 Additionally, 2 Baruch 23:4 explicitly expresses Adam as the one who introduced sin and death into the world. “when Adam sinned and death was decreed against those who should be born, then the multitude of those who should be born was numbered, and for that number a place was prepared where the living might dwell and the dead might be guarded.”7
With the preceding Old Testament and Apocryphal texts as a backdrop, it becomes much clearer how the New Testament writer’s thoughts were informed regarding the imputation of human sin nature. Thus, when the Apostle John records the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee, Nicodemus, and the requirements for man’s entrance into God’s Kingdom, it is understood that the innate sinful nature of man must change prior to man becoming part of God’s eternal Kingdom. As such, man must be “born again,” and the sinfully “dead” man must be changed and brought to life (Jn. 3:3). Further, Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn. 3:6) Without the constitution of man being changed one cannot enter into the kingdom of God. With this in view, when Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome, he had a long and well documented basis grounded in the traditions of Judaism which informed his views of the entrance and imputation of sin and death from Adam to his progenitors.
The doctrine of the imputation of sin is not explicitly stated in its traditional form within the pages of Scripture, however, as we have seen above, there is evidence of its inference throughout biblical and extrabiblical sources. It is, however, generally agreed according to Parker, that “Augustine (building upon the work of some of his Western predecessors) was the first to formulate it in the context of his controversy with Pelagius whose views provoked a turning point in the…discussion of the subject.”8
Evangelical Christians today may think it strange for there to be an argument around the issue of infant baptism; however, the spark that set to flame the dispute between Pelagius and Augustine was the implications of how original sin relates to infant baptism. Historians tell us that although Pelagius and Augustine most likely never met, the debate was carried on between the two parties in their “theological treatises.”9 The remarkable thing about the dispute, according to Roger Olson, is that while “Pelagius thought the debate was mainly about free will; Augustine thought it was about the grace of God in salvation.”10
Prior to the fourth century, baptism had many meanings, but was largely thought of in terms of a rite of entrance into the church, and the church up to that time had made it common practice to baptize both adults and infants. However, around the time of Pelagius and Augustine’s debate, around A.D. 409-410,11 baptism had begun to take on the meaning of the forgiveness of sins. As such, if baptism were simply associated with Christian conversion and a rite of passage into the church there would be no implication between infant baptism and Pelagius’ teaching. However, with the understanding of baptism being associated with the forgiveness of sin, the question was raised of whether newborn infants were born in sin.
Pelagius, and his growing number of followers, asserted that all human beings were born with the same sinless constitution as Adam prior to his fall into sin, and “he denied any inborn condition of corruption such that a person could not exercise one’s will to obey God,” states Roger Olson.12 Moreover, Pelagius taught that sin did not exist in a person until the person reached an age of accountability, and this became the straw that broke the camel’s back that spurred the debate between Pelagius and Augustine. Augustine responded to Pelagius’ assertions by asking “Why is it that infants were baptized at all if they have no sin?”13 When faced with the challenge of infants being born with sin, Pelagius attempted to diffuse the tension by asserting that there was a distinction between adult baptism and the baptism of infants, however, this raised even more questions. Pelagius, because he believed the “strongly deterministic emphasis of Augustine’s teaching undercut a Christian’s sense of moral responsibility,” writes Parker, asserted that adult sin was a “consequence only of their imitation of the sins of Adam.”14
Unfortunately, most of the writings of Pelagius have been lost or transmitted under other names.15 The following are the statements charged against Pelagius from Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian Writings:
Adam was created mortal, and would have died whether he had sinned or not sinned; that Adam’s sin injured only himself and not the human race; that the law no less than the gospel leads us to the kingdom; that there were sinless men previous to the coming of Christ; that new-born infants are in the same condition as Adam was before the fall; that the whole human race does not, on the one hand, die through Adam’s death or transgression, nor, on the other hand, does the whole human race rise again through the resurrection of Christ.16St. Augustine
While reviewing such charges held against Pelagius it is easy to see that the issue at stake was the more about the salvific work of Christ and the grace of God than it was about infant baptism. As such, the impact the doctrine of original sin is highlighted for us. Further, the differences between Pelagius and Augustine become clearer as well as Pelagius maintained a position of human free will, while on the other hand, Augustine saw Pelagius’ teaching regarding original sin as a threat to the doctrine of the grace of God.
John Calvin’s views as they relate to original sin are highly biblical as they are based primarily on a literal reading of Paul in Romans 5:12-19, and according to Erickson, Calvin “imputes both a corrupted nature and guilt…through one person’s sin [Adam] all became sinners.”17 John Murray, concerning Calvin’s view of original sin writes, “According to Calvin the original sin which is conveyed by natural generation is itself, intrinsically, radical depravity.”18 For example, Calvin states in his commentary on Romans 5:12-14:
But to sin in this case, is to become corrupt and vicious; for the natural depravity which we bring from our mother’s womb, though it brings not forth immediately its own fruits, is yet sin before God, and deserves his vengeance: and this is that sin which they call original. For as Adam at his creation had received for us as well as for himself the gifts of God’s favour, so by falling away from the Lord, he in himself corrupted, vitiated, depraved, and ruined our nature; for having been divested of God’s likeness, he could not have generated seed but what was like himself. Hence we have all sinned; for we are all imbued with natural corruption, and so are become sinful and wicked.19John Calvin
According to Calvin, sin is innate in man at birth for Adam’s sin nature has been imputed from Adam to all of his descendants. Calvin sees Adam’s sin as a “corruption,” which “vitiated” the nature of all of his future descendants. Whereas Pelagius failed to recognize any imputation of sin or guilt onto Adam’s descendants, Calvin, on the other hand, sees a definite connection between Adam’s sin and all of his future descendants and the imputation of Adam’s sin nature onto future humanity.20
Regarding Pelagius’ failure to recognize the imputation of Adam’s sin onto future humanity Calvin writes:
Frivolous then was the gloss, by which formerly the Pelagians endeavoured to elude the words of Paul, and held, that sin descended by imitation from Adam to the whole human race; for Christ would in this case become only the exemplar and not the cause of righteousness. Besides, we may easily conclude, that he speaks not here of actual sin; for if everyone for himself contracted guilt, why did Paul form a comparison between Adam and Christ? It then follows that our innate and hereditary depravity is what is here referred to.21John Calvin
From Calvin’s comments above, we see that he viewed Pelagius’ view as an affront to the very salvific work of Christ on the cross and Christ’s imputed righteousness in his work of justification.
Augustine’s primary objective, in his writings refuting Pelagius’ teaching, was to preserve infant baptism in the church because of his understanding of its association with the forgiveness of sin. It was a long-standing traditional understanding in the Christian church that people were sinful and born with sin. As such, he viewed baptism, and especially infant baptism, as a function of the church. Augustine’s views regarding the sinful condition of humanity were informed by Paul’s writing to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Additionally, Romans chapter 5 was pivotal in shaping Augustine’s views, especially with regards to the transmission of Adam’s sin to all his descendants after him including newborn infants.
Augustine persistently maintained that Adam’s sin had become intrinsic to the innate nature of all human beings, and that its root was in Adam as its originator. This becomes evident through the words he chose while referring to Adam and the transmission of Adam’s sin. Blocher writes, “Augustine preferred ‘original’ to ‘natural’ as a qualifying term in order to stipulate that universal sinfulness had a historical beginning and cause.”22 This, at the least, shows that Augustine was intent about maintaining his position that sin was passed down from Adam to his descendants. However, Augustine went further in expressing his views regarding the innate sin nature in human beings. His views become evident through his remarks regarding Romans 8:10, “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin…” Augustine writes, ”How ought we, or can we, understand by the statement, “The body is dead because of sin,” anything else than that the body is dead as the desert of sin, unless indeed we try to pervert or wrest the plainest sense of Scripture to our own arbitrary will?”23 Thus, Augustine rejected the concept of death simply due to each man’s sin, but rather saw the imputation of Adam’s sin on to his descendants as the basis for the apostle’s acknowledgement “the body is dead” (Rom. 8:10). Tertullian had argued earlier that sin is inherited from the parent of the child; however, Augustine did not agree with Tertullian’s teaching and maintained that sin of man is a “mark of our fallen nature from Adam.”24Roger Olson writes, “According to Augustine, Adam’s condition before the fall made it “possible not to sin.” After the fall Adam and all of us with him fell into the condition making it “not possible not to sin.” Only the Holy Spirit can restore us to the condition where it is possible not to sin.”25 Augustine, arguing that original sin exists in all people at birth states:
But if the apostle had wished to assert that sin entered into the world, not by natural descent, but by imitation, he would have mentioned as the first offender, not Adam indeed, but the devil, of whom it is written, that “he sinneth from the beginning.26St. Augustine
Based on Augustine’s statement, we conclude first, that he thoroughly rejected Pelagius’ and Tertullian’s views of man’s imitation of Adam’s sin, and he also refused to give credit for man’s sin to any form of demonic or Satanic influences. For he appears to be adamant that the source of man’s sin nature is found in the imputation of Adam’s sin onto his descendants.
- Imputation is the act of reckoning a legal debit or credit to an account. “In Leviticus 17:4, the guilt of bloodshed is reckoned to the guilty man’s account. Second Samuel 19:19 describes a penitent Shimei throwing himself on the mercy of King David, begging him not to “count” his sin against him. In Psalm 32:2, David considers a person blessed if the Lord does not impute his own iniquity against him. Although the notion of punitive imputation is present in the Old Testament, it is most fully expressed in the New Testament writings of Paul. Every person has original sin imputed to their account since everyone has inherited sin and guilt from Adam (Romans 5:12–19). According to Protestant Christians, all people are declared guilty and condemned as sinners because they were somehow involved in Adam’s rebellion. In exchange for the human sins that have been imputed to Jesus’ account, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to the accounts all who believe in Him as Savior. In Protestant theology, this act is called justification; it is accomplished by God’s grace and is not based on any goodness or worthiness of the believer (Rom 3:24; Titus 3:7). Abraham likewise received righteousness in Genesis 15:6 (see Rom 4:3–5), becoming a prototype for those who follow Jesus (Rom 4:22–25; Gal 3:6–7). Christians are said to become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). The believer’s conduct is not made instantly righteous in reality, but their account is credited with the righteousness of Christ; they are “declared righteous” (“justified”; see Romans 3:28). Protestant justification teaches that the righteousness of God is instantaneously imputed to the believer’s account when they convert (emphasis on being declared righteous). Jeffrey E. Miller, “Imputation,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 27.
- Ibid., 27.
- Ibid., 25.
- Robert Henry Charles, ed., Apocrypha of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2004): 554, Wis. 12:10-11.
- The Apocrypha: King James Version (Bellingham: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995), 2 Esdras 4:30.
- Robert Henry Charles, ed., Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2004), 495: 2 Baruch 23:4.
- Parker, Original Sin, 52.
- Pelagius, Letter to Demetrias VIII. Roger E. Olson, God in Dispute: “Conversations” Among Great Christian Thinkers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 90.
- Olson, 91.
- After Pelagius and his supporter Celestius left Italy for Africa, in A.D. 409-410, Celestius was accused by Paulinus of Milan of denying the transmission of Adam’s sin to his descendants. He was later condemned in A.D. 411 by the Council at Carthage and then left Africa and went on to reside in Ephesus. Both Pelagius and Celestius were later condemned by the African bishops at Carthage and Milevis in 416 and the Pope, Innocent I, was convinced to excommunicate both of them from the church. “Pelagianism,” in F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1257.
- Olson, 91.
- Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 244.
- Parker, Original Sin, 52.
- Cross and Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1257.
- Augustine of Hippo, “A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, 193.
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 577–578.
- Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, 17.
- John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 200–201.
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 577.
- John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 201.
- Blocher, Original Sin, 18.
- Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, 17.
- Olson, God in Dispute, 90.
- Ibid., 91.
- Augustine, “A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins…” vol. 5, 18.