This page is dedicated to Bible Questions and Answers. At this point, all questions are presented to and answered by Dr. Jack Cottrell, retired professor at Cincinnati Christian University, Cincinnati, Ohio.
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).