The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Steve McKinion's Christian Theology II class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
How exactly human beings’ guilt relates to Adam’s guilt is a question of no small theological import, and it has unsurprisingly been the topic of much theological discussion—not to say debate—over the past many hundreds of years. The central passage is Romans 5:12–14:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
The basic historic, orthodox1 views of this position may be summarized as follows:
- All humans are guilty of Adam’s sin because they were in his loins when he sinned, and so have not only been contaminated with his sinful nature but also actively sinned when he sinned, and so are guilty and under judgment of death from their very conception—a position most famously and forcefully articulated by Augustine.
- All humans are born guilty of Adam’s sin because he acted as the federal head of the human race and so we are imputed guilty in him, just as when we partipate in the humanity of the new federal head of humanity—Jesus Christ—his righteousness is imputed to us. In this view, humans are born subject to the punishment of sin (including death) because all of us are counted guilty in Adam, just as we experience the blessings of holiness when in Christ because we are counted righteous in him (the historic Reformed view).
- All humans are born innocent of Adam’s guilt, but by dint of descent from him have the same corrupted sinful nature he did, and therefore all do sin and incur guilt before a holy God. Furthermore, as Adam’s descendants, all are born separated from God and therefore mortal. In this view, humans are born innocent of guilt but inevitably sin because of their fallen humanity and die because of their separation from God. This is the view articulated by the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
The most basic logic of the passage seems to run most closely in line with this last articulation. Paul argues that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”. While Augustine and the Reformers both took this latter phrase to mean “all sinned in Adam” it must be recognized that the idea that all sinned “in Adam” is foreign to the text. Indeed, the sentence that follows immediately on the heels of this first declaration suggest that it is individuals’ sins committed in their own lives, and not Adam’s sin, that is in view here. Otherwise, the distinction between the sins that some committed before the law came and the sins that others committed after the law came makes little sense. So likewise does the distinction between Adam’s sin and that of those who followed him, even those whose sin was not like his.
The most significant textual challenge to this understanding comes in Paul’s statement that “death spread to all men because all sinned”—a statement that is hard to reconcile with the notion of the lack of conscious sin in infants or the mentally handicapped. Certainly many humans die in infancy, and indeed many die in utero long before the cognitive ability to make any choice whatsoever has developed. Thus, there is at least some sense in which Paul’s argument entails the death of human beings who have not yet come under condemnation for their own sin because of Adam’s sin.
None of the views outlined above resolve this tension perfectly. The Augustinian view seems overly bound up in Augustine’s views on sexual intercourse as the means of the transmission of sin to human nature. The federal headship view places more emphasis on the idea of imputation than this passage seems to support, but deals forthrightly with the issue of death in the lives of those who have committed no sins. The idea that humans are born innocent of specific guilt but subject to a sin nature that leads inevitably to sin seems to do justice to the basic flow of Paul’s argument, but struggles with the application of death to those who have not sinned.
Integrating the latter two options seems the best solution. People die because Adam corrupted human nature, and all participate in his corrupted human nature—a nature separated from the fellowship with God essential to human immortality—unless united to a different human nature. People are guilty for their own sins, not for Adam’s, but they die because they share Adam’s basic nature, which came out of his guilt. In due time, they themselves sin they earn the death in which they already shared by dint of their broken humanity. Even this solution, it must be admitted, remains somewhat messier than we might like, but it is to be preferred as best dealing with all the evidence before us.
I leave aside non-orthodox positions such as the Pelagian view that people are born able to live perfectly righteous lives, with uncorrupted natures, which runs against the clear teaching of Scripture that all sin and moreover that all inevitably sin because of the fallenness of our humanity.↩